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Ask The GMs: When Undead Go Stale, Part 3

Having been delayed 8 hours by a massive spam attack last night (650+ spam in 6 hours – but the effectiveness of my response is clear, only 17 spam made it through my protections while writing this article), it’s back to business. The fact that this is appearing rather less than 8 hours after it was due is the result of three factors: (1) I had most of the article fairly well mapped out in my head already; (2) I always try to leave myself margin when working out how much I can get done – about 4 hours worth of margin, in fact; and (3) I’ve cut a few corners – hopefully in places where they won’t show!

Ask the gamemasters

This article is intended to wrap up a comprehensive answer to the questions, both direct and implied, by Jesse Joseph. In part one, I reiterated the basic advice I would offer to anyone in his situation, and looked at ways to make low-level undead more respectable opponents. In part two, I looked at the broader issues implied by the very existence of undead in a campaign. This time I look at Jesse’s question in its most general form, and then wrap things up with a few links to related articles here at Campaign Mastery. Just to refresh recollections, let’s start by reminding readers of the question.

Jesse wrote,

“Hey, I’m running an undead campaign of sorts and I need a strong end point villain. I know the obvious like a powerful vampire or Orcus, but I’m hitting a bit of a wall in finalizing it all. I know its a bit of a simple question but I would like some advice from another DM.

So far I’ve introduced vampires as a sort of higher evil in the game, also the characters released a powerful necromancer into the already polluted world.”

In its broadest possible form, this question could be rephrased, “My campaign is coming to an end and I need to figure out an ending. I don’t even know who the major villain is going to be.”

So, that’s today’s agenda.

End-game ingredient list

Let’s assume that you have a list of the unresolved questions that have emerged in the course of the campaign and all the unsatisfied PC goals, or can generate one. These could be “what’s Villain X really after?” or “what’s the meaning of Y” or it might even be that almost everything has been resolved already.

Wait, what if almost everything has been resolved already?

Just because everything looks resolved to the players and PCs doesn’t mean that it actually has been resolved. If you find yourself in this situation, go back over the past history of the campaign, looking for anything involving the player’s “favorite opposition” – the enemy that they had the most fun overcoming. What you want is any appearance in which (1) either the villain or a third party could have deceived the party into thinking that the situation was resolved when it actually wasn’t. and (2) where a plausible reason can be devised for why this deception did not become apparent on any subsequent encounter.

That might yield multiple choices, not a bad thing. If you do get more than one to choose from, pick the one that most completely changes the context of the subsequent encounters, especially if this results in the villain secretly having a different objective to the one he appeared to have, and which the PCs appeared to frustrate.

Here’s a recipe – well, a list of ingredients – that a really epic finish should contain.

  1. More of the same
  2. At least one MAJOR plot twist
  3. A revelation
  4. Meaning to (almost) everything that’s happened
  5. A Betrayal
  6. Higher stakes than ever before
  7. Life-or-sudden-death danger
  8. A moral inversion or challenge
  9. Imminent Total Failure
  10. One last chance at victory

To some extent, these can be reordered as necessary. Some can occur more than once. Above all, you want the end-of-campaign adventure to have an epic quality to it. The locations should be more spectacular, the scenes more wondrous, the magic more arcane, the violence more bloodthirsty – everything should be turned up to eleven!

Let’s run through these in detail:

1. More of the same

You want this final adventure to feel like it’s part of the campaign to date – so whatever you have been doing, you need to keep doing. This also makes a nice low-key beginning to the adventure. The difference is that where you would normally have begun to wrap the adventure up any other time, you instead ramp things up.

2. At least one MAJOR plot twist

This is very migratable within the sequence. Some major piece of the foundations of the PCs understanding of the world around them needs to vanish from underfoot at some point.

3. A Revelation

Another item that can occur anywhere in the plot sequence. This can be packaged with the plot twist, or it can be something more low-key, but the PCs need to learn something important about the game world and everything that they have experienced so far that they didn’t suspect.

4. Meaning to (almost) everything that’s happened

Ideally, the big finish should lend new significance and meaning to everything that’s happened in the past of the campaign. This is part and parcel of making the campaign feel like it’s coming to an end, and is often overlooked.

5. A Betrayal

This could be one of the Villain’s Henchmen betraying him for his own gain, or because he’s learned what his master is really up to, or it could be an ally of the PCs who either becomes a pawn of the villain or is revealed as always having been in the service of the villain. It can be tempting to have this ally be revealed as the major villain, but that’s much harder to pull off effectively. Not saying that it can’t be done, but nine times out of ten this stretches credibility too far.

Inverting a trope can also count.

6. Higher stakes than ever before

This is an integral part of the “epic” quality that I mentioned. It’s not necessary to have everything the PCs care about hanging in the balance, but the more that the outcome is critical to the PCs, the better.

7. Life-or-sudden-death danger

If this really is the big finish of the campaign, it’s time to take the kid gloves off – at least to some extent. If a PC falls along the way, who cares? Well, you do, and the player does – and I’ll get to that in a separate sidebar in a moment. Look at the big finish as a blockbuster disaster movie, in which – from time to time, and at regular intervals – someone (a PC or favorite NPC) has to give their lives to propel the rest of the party one step closer to success.

Wait, if I kill one or more PCs, what happens to their players?

It’s not as though they can roll up a new character and resume play next week/next adventure, after all. There are all sorts of solutions, but the bottom line is this: you need a way for dead characters to continue to contribute to the success of the mission. Ideally, a different solution for each dead PC. And, unless you can predict with complete certainty which PC will meet their demise, you need a plan that can cover that complication. There are two alternative general solutions:

  1. Link each PC with a dedicated means of continuing to contribute if he or she should perish, and simply pull out the ones that you need when you need them.
  2. Link each incident which could result in a PC death with a means by which any PC killed can continue to contribute.

There are all sorts of possibilities. Here are just a few:

  • The PCs ghost refuses to abandon his colleagues until the crisis is resolved.
  • A short side-quest provides access to a one-off means of resurrecting the PC – at least temporarily.
  • Recast the death as something that is inevitable but can be deferred temporarily.
  • The PC may have been ‘killed’ in such a way that they are supposed to join the PCs enemies, but he is able to resist – for now.
  • A magic item may have the hitherto-unsuspected quality of acting as a soul jar.
  • A God – or a Devil – may offer a bargain for the (temporary) restoration of the PC to life, one that is low enough that the PCs can and will pay it, but high enough that the PCs will not be all that happy about it.
  • A supposed enemy will appear, reveal themselves as a hidden (and perhaps reluctant) ally – “at least under these circumstances” – and restore the character to life. Or perhaps the PCs will have to go to them.
  • Whoever transports the dead to the afterlife might be bribable to delay ‘collection’.

A lot depends on the primary contribution that the character makes to the party. If it’s physical, they need to retain a physical body of some sort; if it’s intellectual, or spellcasting, you have more flexibility. The other consideration is what will be needed to keep the player happy. You need to tick both boxes with your solution.

With this ‘back door’ in place, you can kill off PCs with relative impunity – and nothing signals a raising of the stakes more quickly.

8. A moral inversion or challenge

Someone needs to have a change of heart, and/or there needs to be a significant moral challenge for the PCs to overcome.

Save the life of an enemy, or give them greater power? Cause intense short-term misery to safeguard a prosperous future? Make some fundamental change in the world with uncertain consequences? Permanently weaken the forces of Good in order to prevent total victory of the forces of Evil? Kill 1/3 of the world’s population to save the other 2/3 – with the certainty that friends and family will be amongst the 1/3? Is it better to elevate an evil man to the throne, or to tear the nation apart in a civil war?

Note that the “someone” can’t be a PC unless they are (and perhaps always have been) an agency of an enemy – even if they didn’t know it. This works best if you have an enemy who always seems to know what the PCs are up to, a capability that has never been definitively explained (or that has been explained, but the explanation was either an error or a deception).

9. Imminent Total Failure

For a big finale, I always like to make it look like the PCs are going to win – perhaps at a price – only to jerk the rug from under their confidence at the last possible second, perhaps through the enemy doing something desperate, something so dangerous that they would never have contemplated it – until it became their only hope of victory, or of a pyrrhic victory, or of exacting revenge for their defeat. The PCs think they are winning – and suddenly you raise the stakes again and tell them (metaphorically) that the game is going an extra innings.

10. One last chance at victory

Just as it looks like all hope is lost (refer 9), there needs to appear one final chance at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. What’s more, if you have been exceptionally ‘harsh’ in your treatment of the PCs through the early part of the adventure, making them earn every inch of progress, you can now shade things just a little in their favor – just enough to ensure a last-possible-second victory, despite the opposition and the hand you have dealt them. If you have ramped up the bad guy enough in (9), they won’t even suspect.

Remember, your ultimate goal is for everyone to have fun! Losing that final battle would suck, but so would being railroaded to success.

You can even pull out the Pyrrhic Victory 13th-hour solution – let the bad guy win, discover that the sweetness of the victory doesn’t last, and travel back in time to help the PCs defeat his younger self at the 59th second of the 59th minute of the eleventh hour! But don’t do this every time.

If the PCs fall at the final hurdle, it’s often better form to pencil in, at some future point, a sequel campaign in which another opportunity will arise. But this time, you will have an end-game target in mind, and that will make a big difference, trust me!

Omitting Ingredients

Can you still devise a blockbuster finish without including all these ingredients? Sure. But every item that you leave out makes those that remain more important to get right.

Take a look back at the suggestions I actually made to Jesse by email, reproduced in part 1. How many of these boxes were ticked by my end-of-campaign proposal?

  1. Is there More of the same? Yes – there is still lots of running around fighting undead.
  2. Is there At least one MAJOR plot twist? None yet. But there is plenty of scope for one.
  3. Is there A revelation? Yes. Both where the villain’s base is, and the revelation of what his true goals are, would qualify.
  4. Is there Meaning to (almost) everything that’s happened? Yes – that’s one of the big selling points of the proposal.
  5. Is there A Betrayal?Yes, probably. The Trope inversion could count, but there’s plenty of scope for more concrete examples in the course of the wars and blood feuds proposed. Also, every PC that gets killed adds directly to the villain’s power.
  6. Is there Higher stakes than ever before? Yes – this isn’t about a single undead getting uppity, this is a full-scale subversion of both life and death, something that could ultimately threaten the Gods themselves.
  7. Is there Life-or-sudden-death danger? Yes, indisputably.
  8. Is there A moral inversion or challenge?Not at this point. You could insert one – Sacrificing the Goddess Of Life to end the menace, for example, or doing a deal with a Deity Of Death. There’s no indication of what the PCs might have to do in order to overcome the menace, yet.
  9. Is there Imminent Total Failure? Maybe. – it depends on what the PCs think is going on and how the Revelation of the truth about the Big Bad is handled.
  10. Is there One last chance at victory? None written in – yet – but the plot exists only in conceptual form.

That’s six yes, one Maybe, and scope for each of the remaining three.

Mapping Plot Threads to Requirements

So, the first step is to map the dangling plot threads that you listed earlier to the list of requirements. There doesn’t have to be a one-to-one correlation; you could have a dangling plot thread that will lead to an encounter that will tick the box. For example, you might have two seemingly-unrelated villains – discovering that one was a hidden ally trying to build the PCs up to the point where they could oppose the real Villain in the course of one last encounter with that Villain, or that one of the two Villains is secretly an ally of the first and always has been, for example. Or having the PCs need to turn one Villain into a reluctant Ally in order to deal with the other. Or any of several other possibilities.

Unticked Boxes

If you have any of the ten Requirements unfulfilled, you have to make a decision: you can either create something to bring about the item in question or you can forgo that item off the list. In the event that you choose option #1 of those two, you now need to create the game element in question. That leads to a second choice: you can either establish the campaign element ahead of time, or you can have it appear as a Revelation in the course of the final adventure. Which you choose will depend on the campaign element that you create, and whether or not you can think of a second plotline involving it, and whether or not there will be sufficient separation between that second plotline and the start of the big finish.

Don’t neglect the possibility that the second plotline could be what triggers the big finish, either.

Outline the plot

Once you know the specific constituents that you have to work with, it’s time to outline the plot. This essentially consists of four stages for each: (1) Something that will happen, (2) the significance of that something, (3) how the PCs will discover it, and (4) what they are expected to be able to do about it. Note that there’s no “how the PCs are going to do whatever they are expected to be able to do” – that’s up to them. Only if the PCs clearly don’t have whatever abilities or resources that they will need to have a shot at doing what the GM wants them to be able to do about the situation do you have to worry about it, and that’s dealt with separately in a later step of the process.

Complicate the plot with the other dangling plot threads

This is reasonably self-explanatory. But one point requires further amplification: for each other Villain you have out there, you need to answer two questions: (1) Is there any way that they could discover what the main Villain is up to? and (2) What will they do about it if they do learn of it?

Another critical question at this point is about the Major Villain’s capabilities. Does He have everything that he needs, in knowledge, power, and resources, to set his end-of-campaign-plot into motion? If not, can he obtain them from one of the other villains of the campaign – by guile, force, bribery, subterfuge, betrayal, or by any other means?

Create and insert any additional resources required by the PCs

Next, it’s time to revisit that question that was deferred in “outline the plot”. You have the same questions to answer, and the same answers to consider, as were listed in “Unticked Boxes”.

Dispose of any unused dangling plot threads before the big finish starts. Unless you’re saving them.

If you want to leave dangling plot threads for a possible sequel campaign, that’s fine, but if you don’t, then you want to get these out of the way before the big finish. In particular, if anything is likely to interfere with your planned big finish, get rid of it in advance.

Remaining Campaign Structure

The structure of the remaining campaign is now fairly self-evident.

  • The Pre-finish phase, in which unwanted dangling plot threads are resolved, and both Villain and PCs are acquiring the resources the GM wants them to have during the big finish.
  • The Opening Gambit, which appears to be just another adventure, a day in the lives of the PCs just like any other.
  • The Trigger, which sets the final adventure into full motion. This could be a revelation on the part of the PCs (learning what the Villain is really up to), it could be the Villain obtaining the final resource that he needs, it could even be the Villain setting out to acquire the final resource that he needs, or putting his plan into motion because it’s time-critical without having secured everything that he needs. The content will largely depend on the personality of the Villain.
  • The Big Finish.

That’s all there is to it, really.

One final piece of advice: Just as it’s never too early to start planning for the big finish of your campaign, it is also never too late. But a good “big finish” happens by accident very, very rarely. Have one or more ideas for what it might be and keep them in your back pocket at all times.

Further Reading

There have been a few other articles about undead (and scary stuff) here at Campaign Mastery.

There have also been several articles on Big Finish Adventures and other Anniversary/Special adventures.

Finally, there are a number of miscellaneous articles that are relevant to the subjects discussed in these three parts.

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Ask The GMs: When Undead Go Stale, Part 2

We’re part-way through a comprehensive answer to the question, both direct and implied, by Jesse Joseph. Last time out, I repeated the basic advice I would offer to anyone in his situation, and looked at ways to make low-level undead more respectable opponents so that GMs weren’t forced to use Undead Royalty just to have an opponent who could carry the plot. Today I’m going to look at two of the broader subjects implied by Jesse’s question. Just to refresh recollections, let’s start by refreshing memories of the question.
Ask the gamemasters

Jesse wrote,

“Hey, I’m running an undead campaign of sorts and I need a strong end point villain. I know the obvious like a powerful vampire or Orcus, but I’m hitting a bit of a wall in finalizing it all. I know its a bit of a simple question but I would like some advice from another DM.

So far I’ve introduced vampires as a sort of higher evil in the game, also the characters released a powerful necromancer into the already polluted world.”

Here’s the agenda for this 3-part article:

  1. The Immediate Answer
  2. General Principles: Making Undead Scarier – without going too far
  3. General Question: The Implications of Undead
  4. General Question: Where do Undead come from?
  5. The Generalized Question: Tying dangling threads together
  6. Further Reading

Items one and two were ticked off in part one of this article. Part two – which you are reading right now – will tackle items three and four. That leaves items five and six for part three.

General Question: The Implications of Undead

The very existence of Undead in a campaign carries deep theological and philosophical implications for a campaign. While it’s not necessary under most circumstances to delve into those issues, it’s always useful (and a boon to internal consistency, which greatly enhances verisimilitude) to do so, and becomes far more important when Undead are central to the campaign, simply because those deep questions are therefore also going to be central to the campaign.

I’ve divided the issues into two related general questions – the first looking at them generally, and the second looking specifically at the general question of the origins of Undead and what they imply.


There is obviously something, some qualitative difference, that distinguishes living things from non-living things. In an existence without Undead, this something is obviously the thing that animates the living, enabling them to move around and do things, to grow, and to reproduce. Introducing Undead into the mix separates the ‘animation’ part of this something from the rest.


What survives into Undeath? One of the clearest distinctions between Royal Undead and Lesser Undead is that the higher Undead retain the mind and personality of the original person. If this is accepted as a functional distinction, it clearly places Ghosts in the “Royal” category, and possibly related forms of Undead; if this is merely a trait of some forms of undead that happen to include Royal Undead, we establish a spectrum – Lesser Undead without Minds and Personalities, Greater Undead with, and Royal Undead with.

This question relates to the relationship between types of Undead, whether one type can become another, and to how Undead should be roleplayed by the GM.

You can even argue that all undead retain the mind and personality of the original person – that is certainly the case in Piers Anthony’s ” Xanth,” for example. The expression of personality is then clearly simply a matter of making the appropriate substitutions in the Hierarchy Of Needs of the Undead.

This line of thought led to the creation of the Golden Empire in my Fumanor campaign – an Empire of Undeath, in which the economic, military and social implications of an Empire of Undead were/are explored. (In brief: Undead don’t need to eat, don’t need to sleep, and don’t grow tired. Overrun an enemy and the enemy’s dead become new recruits – lesser forms of citizen, to be sure, but that can change. Undeath is a form of immortality, and so the society has evolved in such a way that the living lead lives of abject luxury, supported by dozens or hundreds of undead servants, then repaying the state that has provided this largess with eons of service. While no one needs to work, civil service while living demonstrates a level of support to the state that is rewarded by “ascension” to a higher form of undeath at the moment of Death.

Economically, I worked out that one Undead is worth about 10 mortals in terms of economic productivity, about 3 mortals in terms of combat effectiveness (six if the enemy fear Undead, which is (supposed to be) most living things). Not having Children is viewed as anti-social; increasing the population base eventually increases the number of tireless Undead workers, so large families – ten, twelve, fourteen are normal. This is practical because children receive unconditional support from the state, incurring a life-debt that is to be repaid in their Undead Years; work during the Living Years permits a reduction in this Life Debt.

Once a Life-debt is repaid, the living citizen can begin amassing credits toward the costs to society of making you a Noble Undead when the time comes. Education and skills acquired in life are preserved in Undeath, so Education is provided by the state, divided into two branches: Basic and Practical costs more Life-debt (on the premise that practical knowledge will enable the student to earn and hence repay life-debt), but for those with the right aptitude, Higher Education is viewed as contributing to society during Life, and pays off existing Life-debts. There’s a lot more, but I’m just hitting the high points here, as it’s a bit of a side issue.

It was also this concept that led me to the principles espoused in Alien In Innovation: Creating Original Non-human Species in 2014, and to those enunciated in Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans three years earlier.

The very fact that some forms of Undead retain the mind and personality that the person had in life makes it obvious that this is another aspect of living that is divorced from the essential difference between Living and Non-Living. (This is a useful point because it also permits the natural evolution of Sentient Magic Items as a concept).


Death is clearly a process, and one that goes a long way beyond simply ceasing to live. This is obvious because the process can be interrupted, resulting in an Undead. This process is very hard to study in real life, because it’s very hard to interrogate anyone who has experienced it; but Undead in games imply the capacity not only to breach the veil, it usually takes place in games in which the Gods themselves are capable of bi-directional communication with mortals.

How much the Gods have revealed and how much of that doctrine is truthful is another open question that the GM of an undeath-centric campaign needs to answer for themselves. You don’t need to get too specific, but certainly you need to answer that question in broad terms – together with the implied question of ‘why’ if there is any deception involved. Again, this can be as simple as keeping dangerous knowledge out of the hands of “children” (i,e. Mortals), or it can be to preserve their own monopoly on power, or it might be that the knowledge leaves one open to corruption and heresy, or it might be in the nature of a rule to teach the value of rules (the “Forbidden Fruit” justification).

These begin to define, or redefine, the relationship between Gods and Mortals.

It is even possible, from simple logic and information built into most game systems which incorporate Undead, to outline at least some of the broad stages in the Death Process.

  1. Physical Death – in some cases, with luck and skill, the person can be resuscitated, but the window is small.
  2. The ‘difference’ between Living and Dead separate from the physical being. At this point, self-aware Undead can be created.
  3. The identity, personality, and mind separate from the body and attach themselves to the ‘difference’ (we know this because communication with those in the Afterlife is possible using various spells and spiritualist techniques, and the spirit retains the personality, memories, and self-identification of the original. At this point, ‘mindless’ Undead can be created. They may or may retain some or all of the knowledge acquired while living – even if it’s just enough to walk and articulate “Braaaains”!
  4. The ‘difference’ and identity commence their transition to the afterlife. The body is now just a shell. The capacity for the body to be transformed into some form of mindless undead persists for a period of time that may or may not be linked to the duration of that transition process, but eventually the ‘clock’ runs out.

There could be quite a lot more to the process, but those steps, in that order, have to take place to make sense of the things we already know. Steps 2 and 3 are combined if all undead retail their identity and awareness.

It can be even more complex than is implied; for example, the experiences and personality might leave a physical ‘imprint’ like a mould, enabling the deceased person to be both within the afterlife and reanimated as an Undead at the same time. There are no wrong answers so long as the basics listed above are observed – and you can even change those, if you want; it just means changing other elements of the game world. Remove the various ‘talk with the dead’ spells, for example, and you can have the personality/mind simply evaporate unless extraordinary measures are taken, adding additional complications to the creation of Royal Undead.

Constituents Of Life

So far, then, we have two or three separate constituents to the living thing, plus the physical body. Learned Skills, education, and Personality; The Animating Principle; and the magical ‘something’. You could argue that these in combination comprise what we call the ‘soul’, or you could define the ‘soul’ as that something – and noting that this is all fictional theology! It’s my understanding that the latter is the more conventionally-accepted real-life Western theology – and that the separation between the components is how that theology reconciles scriptures with the discoveries of modern medicine – but I could be wrong!

There is a great deal of similarity between this view and that of the Ancient Egyptians, who also defined the soul as the difference between life and death, and divided the soul into three parts that had to be dealt with separately for the soul to be at rest in the Afterlife. was essentially the personality; Ka was the ‘vital spark’ that permitted animation of the body, amongst other things; and Akh, which was the Mental ability or Mind or Conscience (it’s meaning changed a number of times over the history of Ancient Egypt). The Death Process involved the reunion of the Bâ and Ka with the Akh in the afterlife. You can read more about this at the Wikipedia article on the Ancient Egyptian concept of the soul.

Applicability to Other Races & Species

It’s a very useful concept to the GM, because it permits the substitution of other constituents, making races and selected species spiritually unique, explaining various natural abilities (and, perhaps, limitations).

I first applied this concept to explain those creatures who were inherently magical, like Golems. It then occurred to me that creatures like Dragons (who can fly magically) could also fit. The more I thought about it, the more useful the concept became.

Let’s hit a few high points from a few short minutes of rumination:


Plants, in most fantasy games, and trees in particular, have inherent similarities and differences to Animals/Creatures. Tolkien introduced the concept of Elves running around “waking up the trees”, and of Huorns and Ents – the latter of which morphed into the Treants of D&D. This was also the origin of the concept of “Elvish Forests” being inherently different to those of other forests, a staple of the fantasy genre.

Treants and Ents have all the attributes of standard “souled beings”, though they something in place of the magical Something, barring them from the Afterlife.

“Awakened Trees” have minds, and at least some learned skills (languages, for example), but (generally) lack the animating principle – they don’t walk around naturally – though they have the capacity for it, and can be imbued with it, enabling them to attack, or even to travel relatively slowly, especially under the direction of Treants, Elves, or Druids.

In the Fumanor Campaigns, I made the Treants more humanoid, an artificial species crafted by Elvish magic, and renamed them Verdonne, enabling me to make “Treants” a little more treelike and use them as the “Animated Trees”. You can read more about the Verdonne in Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 3, if you want to develop them for use in your own campaigns.

Another idea that I came up with specifically for the Fumanor: One Faith campaign that GMs might find useful was that of basing a tree’s personality profile on external appearance. Oaks, with their broad arms, are matronly and mothering; Birch trees are vain, Spruce are excitable, and so on. One variety that especially attracted bird life and which was often found in the company of other trees – I forget which one it was – was an inveterate gossip, incapable of keeping a secret. Vines – some of which can be very tree-like when mature – were classified as a ‘cousin’ of trees, and inordinately curious, unable to resist poking metaphoric noses into every nook and cranny, and (generally) too busy asking questions to answer any.

I also had ‘unawakened trees’ as being less self-aware but still with a spark of sentience; an Elf or Druid could speak with one, relay messages from one tree to another, and so on. A Druid could use any plant as a spy, with degrees of awareness limited to the size of the plant.

I once read somewhere that Trees are especially sensitive to certain changes in the environment, to the point where the health of a tree can be used diagnostically. And, of course, there are the infamous experiments which were claimed to prove that plants react to other plants being in distress of various sorts – Cleve Backster’s theory of Primary Perception, which may have been busted by Mythbusters in 2006, but which might still be valid to whatever extent you want in a fantasy game. It’s not a great leap to put those two things together, conceptually, to suggest that Trees have some sort of “Environmental Affinity” or “Environmental Awareness” that most other species lack. This, in turn, might be a manifestation of whatever Trees have in place of ‘humanoid souls’ – call it ‘The Gaia Principle’.


It seems obvious that the various inhabitants of the Elemental Planes, commonly referred to generically as Elementals, would have the appropriate form of “Elemental Force” as a substitute for the “Vital force”.


Elves themselves are an interesting race, unlike any others in many editions of D&D, unable to be resurrected, and immune to various things. It is simple to link these facts together (if they apply in your campaign) and explain them by having something else in place of the essential component of “Life” that permits mortals to become Undead.

Dragons, Beholders, Abberations in general?

Some creatures are considered inherently Magical, enabling them to exist and function despite logic and rationality suggesting otherwise. The obvious implication is that they have raw magical energy in place of the ‘something’. But, if you go down this route, it would take undead dragons back off the list – unless you do something special to create them, of course. Like harvesting mortal souls until you have enough to imbue ‘life’ into a Draco-Lich – or any other form of Undead Dragon that you wanted to create, from a GMing perspective!

General Comments

You don’t have to go down this metaphysical pathway if you don’t want to. It’s a theory, and one that can explain a lot – but to what extent it is true, and which species and races it applies to, is entirely up to you.

Nor does this really look too deeply into the possibilities of replacing one of the other constituents of life with some substitute. I’ll leave that possibility to the creative juices of each reader, because I have to move on!


The concepts of Undead and an Afterlife of some kind are fairly difficult to separate (it can be done, but it’s a lot of work). The general concept of Undead is that something that would normally progress to the Afterlife is intercepted somehow and stuffed back into the body from whence it came, or into some other body. The “Process” of death is interfered with, in other words, to create or become Undead, and that inherently raises the issue of what would happen without that intervention.

Definitions of Perfection

Most Afterworlds are an idealized environment of some kind where everything is “perfect”. But Perfection is in the eye of the beholder – the Norse Valhalla is very different to the Christian afterlife in concept. It’s entirely plausible, even reasonable, that in a fantasy environment such as that of a D&D campaign, each society or each race has its own variation of “the afterlife”.

This can be a key into unlocking elements of the general personalities of the those races, just as it can be an expression of those general personalities as defined in the relevant sourcebooks. Formicas, for example, are an ant-like species. If aspects of their lives are modeled on those of real insects, they will have both wars with other colonies and civil wars, as explained in this post at Quora: Do ants ever go to war?

Their view of an afterlife might well be one in which the All-Queen, Matriarch of all Queens, rules, and all Formicas reside in the Great Nest in perfect harmony, with food and water aplenty. It’s conceivable that Formicas are uncomfortable unless surrounded by their fellow Formicas, and that the Great Nest is one in which no Formian is ever alone because there are too many residents for that. Crowding of that sort would drive humans nuts and certainly not be their idea of heaven, but for a Formian, it might be, well, Heavenly!

Orcish “Heaven” might be more like Valhalla, but with tribes led by the different Gods engaged in perpetual conflict – with Feasting and Females afterwards. Or, if the Orcs are more ‘liberal’ and expect the Women to serve on the front lines and be judged like any other Orc, the Feast might be followed by pairing up – a mate for every Orc, regardless of gender.

Use what is known about a races’ society to decide on the nature of their afterlife, then use that concept of the afterlife to shed further light on their society, theology, religious practices, morality and cultures, then use those refinements to further tweak and enhance the afterlife.

Judgment, Denial & Refusal

It’s very rare for an Afterlife to be open to just anyone. There are exceptions, especially amongst Eastern religions in which one’s stay in that afterlife is only temporary (unless one achieves the perfect state of Nirvana). In almost all cases, the dead face some form of judgment. In some cases, the spirits travel or are taken to a place of judgment that is distinct and separate from the afterlife itself, while in others, the judgment transpires at the gates to the afterlife. The latter always seemed cruel to me – letting someone get to see the ultimate reward and then taking it away from them – but that’s a personal impression.

Judgment implies that some are denied entry into the afterlife, and that means that some determination has to be made within the Social Cosmology created by the GM for what happens to those who don’t make the cut. Or is that an answer to the second subject of the day?

At the same time, the mythology of ghosts suggests that someone who is unwilling to accept their fate or is unwilling to accept while ever they have ‘unfinished business’ can and will refuse the afterlife. The people of Joraldon (discussed in The Ultimate Weapon, part 5 of the Spell Storage Solutions series, were killed by a plague so quickly that they didn’t even know what had happened to them – they simply ‘woke up’ the next day and went about their ‘lives’ as usual. This was inspired by some “real-life” ghost stories that I read many decades ago, except that in those stories, the deceased spent most of their time trying to find out exactly what had happened to them, or searching for family members who passed on centuries/decades earlier, according to the reports I read/saw.

….Hmmm… A ghost who attacks anyone who suggests they aren’t alive for saying such “cruel and hateful mis-truths”… not a bad idea for an encounter!…


Everywhere needs someplace to be – which might seem to be a tautology, but it makes perfect sense when you have individuals with the capability of traveling to that someplace, wherever it is. Just as a combination of the concepts of Adventuring and other Planes of existence implies the existence of means of exploring those Planes, so the existence of those means of traveling the Planes implies that somewhere amongst them will be found the Location of the Afterlife.

Unless you want to work the Afterlife as an Earth-Two from the Silver Age of DC Comics, of course – the Afterlife is all around us, our world made perfect in every way, separated from our own by nothing more than a blink and the limits of our perceptions.


So how do dead spirits find their way to it? Either they have to be guided, or they have to wander until they find it on their own, or the process of dying itself thrusts them into it, or there has to be some sort of connection that can be followed. All of the above have been proposed by different groups at some point in the history of human theology, and more besides! On top of the real ones, it’s possible to dream up more – an “all roads lead to Rome” concept married to the notion of a mountain that must be climbed because heaven is at the summit, with a pass so narrow that the living cannot fit through it, for example.

Most of what I’ve read about the subject in terms of fantasy gaming (especially D&D) is based on reported experiences of Astral Projection, but these often felt ‘tacked on’ and not fully integrated with the metaphysics contained elsewhere. The implication was that when you Astrally Traveled, you were entering the “pathway to the afterlife”, possible only because you were leaving your body behind, but that you were bound to that body by a tenuous silver thread which you could follow to return ‘home’ again. At the moment of death, you were thrust into that Astral environment and the silver thread cut.

Thankfully, 3.x did away with this confusion, separating death from the concept of Astral Travel, but replaced it with new confusion by not providing anything in its place. But that simply means that the field has been cleared for each GM to come up with his or her own decisions in this respect.


Transition is rarely considered to be instantaneous; it is usually depicted as taking hours or days, most commonly three days. It is routine in fantasy gaming for the duration of this passage to be linked to the potential for resurrecting the dead – or reanimating them as Undead. What the ‘Spirit’ experiences en route is something that is rarely discussed in fantasy literature, let alone anywhere else. It’s something that I knew I was going to have to dig into in my Rings Of Time campaign, but that campaign came to a premature end following the death of one of the two players, so I never got around to it.

Since various sections of the remainder of this article deal with the subject, we’ll be exploring it for the first time together!

Escorts & Guardians

By far the most common mythological construct or device for getting the dead to the afterlife or to their final judgment is for there to be some sort of escort or guardian. If all they had to do was guide the spirit, that would be a fairly dull sort of experience; that’s something that I had to grapple with when creating Cyrene, the deity central to Assassin’s Amulet. For those who may be interested, you can read about those struggles in The Creation Of A Deity: The Origins Of Cyrene and get an extremely truncated version of the outcome from Cyrene Revealed: an excerpt from Assassin’s Amulet. The Deity in the Assassin’s Amulet pantheon responsible for escorting the dead is Thanastis, the God of Death.

Things get a little more interesting (from the point of view of a mortal seeking to visit the afterlife prior to his death) if the escort also serves as a Guardian, because that implies that the shade is vulnerable while in transit – dangers that the Guardian needs to protect the soul from, and that such independent travelers may encounter.


So what sort of dangers might there be?


The newly-dead who aren’t satisfied that their lives have run their course could easily be manipulable by Demonic temptations. Or, if not swayed, it might be that Demons could enslave the soul, consume it, or both – a larder on metaphysical legs that earns its own keep with hard labor.


The same obviously goes for Demons, who tend to be more naturally manipulative and less prone to whimsical violence for its own sake. It’s sometimes said that Devils should never do anything without reasons lined up neatly in a row!


Necromancers fuel their magic with souls, frequently killing those who current posses those souls in order to gain access to them. How much more convenient would it be to be able to gather a number of souls who have passed naturally? At the very least, if the body falls into the hands of a Necromancer, the soul could be sucked back into the body in the process of reanimating it as an Undead.


Other creatures might well be able to feed off souls. If there is a ‘food resource’ or something that can be used as one, inevitably something will arise to take advantage of it – which might be the origin of Demons, or it might indicate that there is something else out there.

‘Environmental’ Dangers?

There could be all sorts of ‘Environmental’ dangers to be skirted – anything from a Reef Of Lost Souls which entraps the shade to brushes with the positive or negative planes of energy.

Put all these potential dangers together and you get a gamut that needs to be run. If the ability of the Guardian to protect the shade is dependent on the virtue of the life led, a ‘natural selection’ takes place in which those who have died unworthy of Paradise fall victim to some danger along the way. Perhaps, en route to the shade’s final rest, the Guardian has to revisit with them the key moments of their life, in terms of their virtue; this would mean that each individual would have a slightly different path to follow, and no two shades would experience exactly the same dangers.


I’ve mentioned Necromancy already, but clearly the nature of Life and of the Soul is intimately connected to the Darkest Practice. Although I’ve never seen the notion written into any game mechanics, in fiction, the most necromantically-desirable souls are always those who fit the extremes – the darkest and the most virtuous. This would largely be a function of the good/evil axis of the alignment of the shade, and could be a nice piece of color to drop into a campaign.

Why Create Undead?

One particular question that needs to be addressed by the GM is why Necromancers create Undead in the first place. A servant of limited capabilities but of guaranteed loyalty? Learning the craft of doing so in order to preserve their own lives when the time comes? Both of those are entirely acceptable answers, but they are by no means the only ones. There is also the “pure research” answer, which those using it would consider amoral at worst. Clerics who seek to better understand the processes of death and life and the minds of the Gods would also come under this umbrella.

Wrapping Up

That naturally segues into the next subject, but before we get there, I want to reiterate one final point, the one with which I opened this discussion. Take a look back at the breadth of topics that became entangled with the very existence of Undeath in the preceding analysis – Philosophy, Cosmology, Theology, The nature of the soul, Medicine, Fantasy Biology, Dragons, Abberations, Plants, Elves, Elementals, Races, Magic, Economics, Politics, Sociology, Divinity, Morality, Devils, Demons, and more besides. The very existence within of undead within a campaign has implications in all of these areas, and more; between direct implications and flow-on effects, I doubt there’s very much in a campaign that isn’t affected, one way or another. All of those are “in play” the moment the first Zombie shuffles out of a graveyard.

General Question: Where do Undead come from?

In the course of the previous discussion, I presented a list of the stages of the process by which Death occurs. That list glossed very lightly over the question that I have just placed squarely under the spotlight.

There isn’t a great deal of information in most rulebooks devoted to the question. A snippet here and there – a little under the descriptions of various forms of undead, some information in published game modules (much of it relating to editions other than whichever one you are currently playing), perhaps a little under Flesh Golems, and no doubt some within appropriate character classes.

Librus Mortus (WOTC) actually does a great job of discussing aspects of the situation, while Undead (AEG) covers the question in much less depth but touches on aspects of the question that Librus Mortus doesn’t. (Amazon has affordable, even cheap, copies of both through the links offered).

In the absence of official canon, there’s a lot of room to grow your own answers, and these can have profound effects on a campaign. This is demonstrated by a synopsis of the concepts behind another of my campaigns, The Tree Of Life.

When DnDNext was in its playtesting phase, I reasoned that most playtesting would focus on one-off adventures to test the fundamentals; I deliberately created a campaign for my playtesting to test the cumulative impact of the rules over many game sessions and adventures. The core concept was that heaven was full, and the only way for someone to enter it was to “bump” someone else, who reappeared in the campaign setting “wearing” whatever was left of their body, restored to life, in the condition they were in when they met their demise. Of course, most had died for good reason – throats cut or whatever – and immediately died again. Others, who had led a less virtuous life, returned as ‘spontaneous undead.’

The more recently you had died, the closer to the ‘edge’ of the afterlife you were, and the more likely to be ‘pushed out’. The more virtuously you had led your life, the greater the momentum with which you reached the afterlife, propelling you closer to the center.

Loved ones and deceased family members were reviving. Widows suddenly had two husbands eying each other. Criminals found their dead victims returning to testify against them. Executed criminals were back to their old tricks. Murder cases collapsed because the victim stood up and walked away. Several past rulers showed up to argue over who was the rightful King, leading to civil war.

But it wasn’t just people. You couldn’t consume a meal without the risk that it would revive in an hour or two, vanishing straight out of your stomach. Fruit trees could be picked clean only for the fruit to reappear. Trees could not be felled. Furniture and walls and structural timbers were vanishing from buildings and reappearing as the trees that they used to be. Dangerous animals that had been cleared from ‘civilized’ areas began to reappear. Starvation and social unrest was rife, and the more people died (from whatever cause), the worse the problems became. Howling mobs, terrified beyond rational thought, roamed the streets and burned indiscriminately. Many felt that the situation entitled them to kill for the slightest offense against their person, because the death was only temporary.

On top of all that, Devils and Demons were running amok, and the Gods had stopped responding to any Prayer above 3rd level (because, of course, that was as far as the spell-book of the playtest went, at least at first, but that won’t wash as an in-game explanation)!

The campaign came to an end with the close of playtesting, with the PCs – all formerly deceased individuals from different historical and social periods, now transformed into unexpected contemporaries – only just getting to grips with what was happening and never discovering the cause.

That cause: population growth had outstripped the growth capacity of Heaven. This in turn had jammed the metaphysical “machinery” that performed the process of death, which froze the ‘living’ embodiments of those metaphysical functions, the Gods. Only those gifts that were bestowed automatically without Divine Approval worked. And the reason for the original problem: the chief villain of the campaign, a Necromancer, had been ‘inspired’ by a top-level Devil (I hadn’t yet decided which) to create a way to siphon off the growth of Heaven for his own purposes, not realizing that he was being tricked into (literally) breaking loose all of Hell, and paving the way for that Devil Lord to assume primacy over the others. Once undisputed Lord of the Nine Hells, he would release the Siphon, and things would more-or-less return to normal, just as they did after a riot, or after a flood.

There was more to it of course, but those are the relevant details.

As you can see, in an undead-centric campaign, the question of where Undead come from is of critical importance.

Other Solutions

There are lots of alternative answers that can be – and in some cases, have been – formulated. Perhaps the process of creating an undead is similar to splitting the atom – some of the energy is liberated for the creator’s use. Perhaps the soul leaves a “mould” that can be filled with an intercepted soul – that won’t quite fit, causing the ‘imperfections’ in the resulting undead, and (again) making the excess available for use by a Necromancer. Perhaps Undead are merely a vehicle for a sentient plague. Perhaps Necromancers and Higher Undead can harvest part of the “soul energy” of undead that they have created for their own purposes – a harvest that, like blood in the living, will naturally regrow.

If you find yourself in Jesse’s situation, and haven’t addressed this issue, you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back. While it’s still possible to devise an entirely satisfactory end-of-campaign plotline that gathers all the threads of the campaign together and ties them in a nice bow – as I demonstrated in the first part of this response – it will (usually) be a lot more work than it needs to be.

Which, in the concluding part of this three-part article, will be the focus of attention – how to take a bunch of disconnected plot threads that have already been played and merge them into a mighty rope.

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Ask The GMs: When Undead Go Stale, Part 1

There is something about “undead” that tantalize GMs and players. Maybe it’s because their very existence in a game world hints at fundamental questions about what life is. Every GM will, sooner or later, run an undead-dominant campaign or adventure arc.

So it’s kind of a pain that so many of them suck in so many games. Most are weak, easily splattered by Clerics and Paladins, and they never seem to live up to the promise hinted at.

Today’s question in Ask The GMs focuses on Undead at the immediate and superficial level, but the deeper and more general question is how to take a campaign that’s been running for a while without a plan and gather the threads together to tie the whole thing together into a dramatic and spectacular campaign wrap.

I’m tackling this question without the assistance of my usual coterie. There’s a lot to get through, so let’s get started.

Ask the gamemasters

Jesse Joseph wrote,

“Hey, I’m running an undead campaign of sorts and I need a strong end point villain. I know the obvious like a powerful vampire or Orcus, but I’m hitting a bit of a wall in finalizing it all. I know its a bit of a simple question but I would like some advice from another DM.

So far I’ve introduced vampires as a sort of higher evil in the game, also the characters released a powerful necromancer into the already polluted world.”

There was an obvious immediacy to Jesse’s need for advice, so I dropped a reply by email as soon as I received his question. As I explained last time, I no longer have access to the email exchange itself, so I can’t say definitively, but I have a vague recollection of a reply saying that it was exactly what he needed – which may be my memory making a narcissistic distortion of the reality. Certainly, I didn’t receive a response asking for clarification, expansion, or steering the question in a different direction – if I had, that would have been preserved, with response, for use in writing this article (I have one of those cases coming up).

So I have to assume that even if the advice offered didn’t satisfy Jesse’s immediate needs, it at least sparked the necessary thought process for him to fill in the blank space on his own.

Here’s the agenda for this article:

  1. The Immediate Answer
  2. General Principles: Making Undead Scarier – without going too far
  3. General Question: The Implications of Undead
  4. General Question: Where do Undead come from?
  5. The Generalized Question: Tying dangling threads together
  6. Further Reading

There’s no way that I can get all that done in a single response. In fact, It’s going to take three – items 1 & 2, items 3 & 4, and items 4 & 5 in each respective post.

The Immediate Answer

This is the reply that I sent to Jesse:

We have a bit of a backlog built up on Ask-The-GMs at the moment due to other projects taking more time than expected, so it might be some time before a full answer makes its way onto the site. In the meantime, here are some preliminary thoughts:

  1. There’s a big difference between an end-of-plot-arc villain and an end-of-campaign villain. If you want the first, take an NPC who the characters already know and trust and have him be the big bad villain – possibly for the noblest of motives.
  2. But I get the impression you’re talking about the uber-villain about whom the whole campaign has been revolving all this time (but no-one’s figured that out until now). Once this bad guy is taken down, it changes the campaign setting so much that it ends the current campaign; anything that follows is a sequel campaign (even if it has the same characters).

I would start by inverting tropes. You’ve been hitting them with undead, especially vampires, who feed on life; invert that to create a character who secretly lives on death. Every time one of his undead minions kills someone, he consumes the part of the spirit that normally ascends into an afterlife, leaving only the pseudo-undead shells running around and causing more mayhem. Why pseudo-undead? Because they don’t necessarily suffer the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of real undead (though they may have thought that they did and have been behaving accordingly – until now).

What’s more, every time a cleric turns such undead or they are destroyed by positive energy, the undead are essentially being pumped full of artificial life and then killed – which also feeds the power of Mr Nasty Britches.

What’s his master plan? Well, the more death the better, at least in his book – so he’d be trying to set up perpetual warfare between nations, blood feuds, and the like. He’d be trying to unleash terrible plagues – and note that his undead would be immune to those. Oh, and when he’s soaked up enough power, he might try and kill the God(dess) of Life.

How would this plan manifest? Treat everything that’s happened in the campaign so far as skirmishes and the positioning of forces in key positions, and perhaps the occasional piece of misdirection. The *real* campaign starts *now*.

The PCs arrive at a major city, to find it being ravaged by a plague that’s come out of nowhere. They have to make hard choices, condemning innocent people to death, sealing off those parts of the city that are affected and waiting for everyone in there to die – mothers, children. They notice people trying to smuggle valuables and people out of the affected regions, and go to confront them. To their surprise, they are vampires – even though it’s the middle of the day.

That sets the tone, and gives the PCs the clue that can eventually lead them to the real enemy. Until they get there, just keep doing what you’ve been doing – but set things in the daylight instead of at night, and keep plagues of various types floating around. Perhaps throwing in a famine or plague of locusts around now would also get the PCs attention. And have lots of Temples to the God(dess) of Life getting smashed up when no-one’s looking.

Eventually they will ask the right question of the right person and discover the identity of the Death Eater or Soul Eater, or whatever you decide to call it. Set it’s lair under the plague-ravaged city where all this kicked off – will the PCs brave the plague, knowing that one or more of them will probably die from it, to end this menace?

That’s what I would do. What you choose to do might be something entirely different. I hope this helps.

While this is all sound advice, it won’t fit everyone’s needs. So the bulk of this article looks at the general issues raised by Jesse’s question, in two major categories: Undead-in-depth, and Plotting A Big Finish at the 11th hour.

We’ll start with Undead…

General Principles: Making Undead Scarier – without going too far

Low-level undead simply aren’t all that scary, even to low-level PCs. If you want undead that the players will respect or even fear, forget the zombies and ghouls, you need to wheel out magic-item equipped Mummies or Vampires and Liches. In fact, there’s a huge “undead gap” between these undead royalty and the run-of-the-mill undead.

There are three solutions to this problem, and none is complete in and of itself. The first is to make Turning that little bit less effective, the second is to make low-level Undead that little bit more dangerous, and the third is to make them that little bit scarier to oppose. Put those three together and you give low-level undead a whole new respectability.

Weakening Turning

This is a little tricky because higher forms of undead are already dangerous enough; whatever changes we make need to leave them untouched. That means altering the low-level undead, in my view, rather than anything more fundamental in terms of the rules. The simplest answer is to have them impart a penalty to Turn Attempts made while they are within the radius of effect. That also gives us grounds for differentiating between different types of undead based on their “gregariousness”. The other aspect of turning that we might tinker with is whether or not “destroyed” is a permanent outcome or just a temporary reprieve; but, if we do that, we also need to specify a means by which the destruction can be made more permanent.

Let’s look at 6 broad types of undead, and how these additional abilities can be used to differentiate between them. I’ll be using D&D 3.x because that’s the system that I know best.

  • Zombies
  • Skeletons
  • Ghouls & Ghasts
  • Wights
  • Vampire Spawn
  • Zombies

    Zombies come in all sorts of varieties.

  • Zombie, Kobold at CR 1/4
  • Zombie, Human commoner at CR 1/2
  • Zombie, Troglodyte at CR 1
  • Zombie, Bugbear at CR 2
  • Zombie, Ogre at CR 3
  • Zombie, Minotaur at CR 4
  • Zombie, Wyvern at CR 4
  • Zombie, Umber Hulk at CR 5
  • Zombie, Gray Render at CR 6

That’s because Zombie is a template that can be applied to almost any other kind of creature in the rulebook. These are just examples; if you want a Zombie Red Dragon, there’s no reason you can’t have it. Zombie celestials might turn heads, however!

But there is a fundamental divide that starts with Zombie Minotaurs in that list, and it stems from the habits of the creatures when they were living. Kobolds, Humans, Troglodytes, Bugbears, and Ogres are all typically encountered in groups, often large groups. Minotaurs are either solitary, paired, or in gangs of three or four; and similar patterns hold true for everything that follows them on the list of examples.

That means that it would be fine to introduce another fundamental divide beyond the examples on the list: Any creature of CR 7 or more to whom the Zombie template is applied retains it’s base intelligence. Zombie Slaad or Zombie Frost Giants immediately become far nastier propositions, bridging the gap between “Noble Undead” and “Ignoble Undead” with sheer power.

It also means that we can introduce our “Turn Resistance” effect and restrict it to Zombies of CR 1 or less, which you would normally expect to encounter in groups.

What we want is a progression that slows down with increasing numbers so that it is naturally self-limiting. Only Zombies within a cleric’s “turn radius” are counted. A bonus with straight numbers quickly becomes too large, or is too insignificant at smaller numbers. We want to make a Zombie Horde something that’s scary.

For my money, the Fibonacci sequence starting with 2,4 seems about right. A Fibonacci sequence is a string of numbers in which each entry is the sum of the two numbers that preceded it in the list. I like this pattern because it grows at a slower pace than a geometric expansion, which is the usual way these things are handled (doubling each time, for example), and because Fibonacci numbers are actually found in biological patterns all the time.


Creature Count: 2 4 6 10 16 26 42 68 110 178 288
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

I seriously doubt that you would ever encounter more than 288 zombies at a time! But if you need to, it’s a simply matter of addition to extend this table as necessary.

So, what happens: The cleric rolls his turning attempt as usual; the GM counts the number of Zombies within range of the turning attempt and consults the table above, the subtracts the modifier from the number actually rolled by the cleric before working out what happens. That means that Zombie Hordes become harder to Turn or harm by Turning as they increase in size.

The other part of this story is the “automatically destroyed” result. This happens (if the cleric so desires) when his class levels are two or more times the number of Hit Dice that the zombies have, and enables the cleric to destroy any that he would normally Turn. Since our modifier reduces that number, it also reduces the impact of the “automatically destroyed” result.

If you want to further reduce this effect, restrict the “class levels” to “class levels that add to clerical Caster Level”. In practice, that will probably have minimal effect, but even a small effect is enough. But I don’t recommend this.

Another thing that GMs need to understand is the relationship between CR and a fair fight, when it comes to Undead.

Doubling the number of creatures doesn’t double the effective CR of the group; it adds +2 to it. That means that to add +1, you multiply by the square root of 2, or 1.414. This breaks down with creatures of CR less than 1, becoming one rightward step on the list of CRs – from 1/4 to 1/3 to 1/2 and then to 1.

Zombie Kobolds have a CR of 1/4. So:

  • 1 Zombie Kobold has a CR of 1/4.
  • 1.4 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 1/3. But there’s no such thing as 1.4 zombies; it’s just a mathematical abstraction.
  • 2 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 1/2.
  • 2.8 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 1. I would round this to 3, and consider the result valid, because…
  • 4 Zombie Kobolds have a collective CR of 2.

From that point, the normal progression can be applied. To get a collective CR of, say, 7, count the number of +2s from 2 to 7 (three)l that’s the number of doublings. If there’s a number left over, apply the x1.414 to the result. So: we start with 4, double it to 8, double it again to 16, double it a third time to 32, then multiply that by 1.414 to get 45.25 – call it 45.

The other half of this equation is the level of the PCs. With most creatures, you can use the same principles to work out an effective CR for the party based on their character levels, permitting the calculation of a “collective CR” that defines a fair fight. This principle breaks down when we’re talking about Undead and Clerics, because Clerics have an additional “damage/destruction mechanism” (Turning) that can be applied. You can view this ability as either permitting Clerics to punch “above their weight,” i.e. having a greater “effective CR” than class levels alone would indicate, or you can view ordinary PCs as punching “below their weight” when it comes to Undead, with only Clerics at full effectiveness.

Either interpretation requires some sort of conversion to the party’s “effective Collective CR”. In theory, this sort of thing is handled by adjusting the CR of the creatures, but this doesn’t happen with zombies, whose CR is unchanged from that of the base creatures on which the undead is based, and it doesn’t happen with Undead in general because party composition has a disproportionate effect.

You might assume that the “advantages” of being a Zombie equal the “disadvantages”, including the vulnerability to Turning, but that doesn’t scale with increasing numbers, it’s still individual to each Zombie and each Cleric. So that counter-argument doesn’t fly.

Time to grasp the nettle, then: are 3 Zombie Kobolds a fair fight for a first-level fighter? If yes, then clerics punch above their weight and are effectively a higher number of “class levels” with respect to undead than the straight numerical value listed; if not, if they are too much for a fair fight, the every non-cleric class should count for less where Undead are concerned (of course, this ignores the elephant in the room – the painful possibility that the truth is somewhere in between these two interpretations).

Zombie Kobolds have an attack bonus of +1; most PCs will have an AC of about 17 (+2 stat and +5 armor) – either contribution to AC could be greater or less, I’m looking for a typical fighter average. So Kobold Zombies will hit on a roll of 16 or better, which is to say, about 25% of the time. The average damage by a Zombie Kobold using a spear is 1d6-1, or an average of 2.5, boosted by the critical of x3 on a result of natural 20. So, 4/5ths of the time when they hit, they will average 2.5 points of damage; 1/5th of the time, they will do 7.5 points. If they use Slam, they forgo the critical and average 1.5 points of damage; if they use a ranged crossbow, they are at an additional +1 to hit (succeed 30% of the time), do an average of 3.5 except on a critical, which happens on a 19 or 20 (so 2/6ths of the time that they hit), and does 7 points on average. Assuming that Zombie Kobolds only get one shot with a crossbow before needing to switch to spear, we have:

30% x [(2/6 x 7) + (4/6 x 3.50]
= 30% x [2 1/3 + 2 1/3]
= 1.4 points per Zombie Kobold, combat round 1;


25% x [(1/5 x 7.5) + (4/5 x 2.5)]
= 25% x [1.5 + 2] = 0.875 points per zombie Kobold on subsequent rounds.

The typical 1st level PC fighter will have d10+2 HP (or better); call it 7.5.

Three Kobold Zombies do an average of 3 x 1.4 = 4.2 HP while the fighter closes to melee range. That leaves 3.3 hit points to inflict. At 3 x 0.875 (=2.625) points of damage in a round, that will take 1.257 additional combat rounds. Since .257 is less than 1/3, the likelihood is that it will be on the second Kobold Zombie’s roll in the third round of combat.

Now, the other side of the equation: how long would it take the typical fighter to dispatch three Kobold Zombies? This is rather trickier, because there’s such a variety of weapons available, and because the Kobold Zombies have damage reduction of 5/slashing. We can assume that the typical fighter has his STR as his highest or equal-highest stat, and an additional +1 bonus can have a huge impact. But a few more assumptions (“broadswords are typical” for example) enable a similar calculation.

Under the scenario presented, round 1 damage = 0.
Subsequent combat rounds, the fighter does 6.5 damage on a hit, unless he scores a critical. The Average Kobold Zombie has AC 13 and 16 hit points. Even if the fighter hits every round, something that seems unlikely, it will take 2.46 rounds of combat to kill one zombie. In fact, he will only hit 50% of the time – and has a 10% chance of a critical, doing 13 damage. Taking those factors into account, we get 4.47 combat rounds per zombie. And that still ignores the damage reduction. Adding that to the equation takes the total to 7.44 rounds – for each Zombie Kobold.

In no way is a 1st level fighter equipped with a broadsword a match for one Zombie Kobold, never mind three.

But wait – what if he has a mace – the typical weapon of a cleric? His average damage, to-hit, and critical chance are unchanged, but he then gets to ignore the damage reduction, and that makes a big difference. 4.48 rounds per Zombie Kobold. Which is still way more than the 1.257 melee rounds that the Kobold Zombies would take to dispatch him. But, if you do the math on ONE Kobold Zombie, it’s a lot better than the 13.26 rounds that it would take a lone Kobold Zombie to defeat him.

You can play around with the numbers all you want, but the summary is that 1 Kobold Zombie is no match for a typical 1st level fighter, regardless of his equipment, and a typical 1st level fighter is no match for three Kobold Zombies. Logically, two to one is the closest to parity. Which means that the fighter is punching below his weight – effectively, he’s 2/3 of the character he normally is.

That means that everyone except the cleric should be assessed as having only 2/3 of their character levels when determining what a fair fight is for a party. But that’s a complication that GM’s don’t really need.

Now contemplate the impact of the change that I’ve proposed, which reduces the effectiveness of the “extra weapon” that a cleric has, especially against a group of Zombie enemies. As a rule of thumb, is it not reasonable to suggest that it brings the cleric into line with the other PCs – effectiveness of about 2/3 of his character levels? At the very least, it moves him closer to that value.

And that means that instead of being XP-fodder, a “fair fight” of low-level undead is actually a very difficult fight. A party of four first-level PCs against 12 Kobold Zombies? I know who I’d be backing.

Now, it’s only fair to point out that as characters gain in character levels, many of the variables that have such a big cumulative effect in determining the parity change. Even a party of 3rd level characters would have a fair chance in a “fair fight” with Zombie Kobolds. Attack chances go up, hit points go up, hit point bonuses stack, and so on. The change proposed makes zombie groups scarier, but is not overbalancing except against low-level PCs.


Skeletons are just like Zombies – a template that is applied to a base creature. That template shows that Skeletons are supposed to be more effective combatants than Zombies, but a Skeleton Horde doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. I would reduce the impact of the Turning Penalty:

Creature Count: 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 233 377
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

…and give them some other advantage to compensate. I rather like the notion of a Skeleton being able to reassemble itself from the bones of other dead creatures, for example – a limited form of regeneration, one that takes them out of battle for a round.

Ghouls & Ghasts

These are typically encountered in smaller groups than either skeletons or zombies. By making the initial values smaller, the Turning Penalty mounts more quickly:

Creature Count: 1 3 4 7 11 18 29 47 76 123 199
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

But even this probably isn’t enough on it’s own to make these scary. What’s more, this is NOT a template; if you want a Hill Giant Ghoul, you will have to build it yourself completely from scratch.


Wights are not usually encountered in numbers. I would further lower the numbers needed for a Turning penalty and skip every 2nd result:

Creature Count: 1 2 3 5 8 13
Modifier: 1 2 3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

…which makes them VERY hard to Turn. But I would go further, and state that, even though they don’t use weapons or armor, each has such (if they were a combat-character) or has been buried with some treasured item (if not). Unless that item (or those items) are found and destroyed, even a “destroyed” Wight will reform in it’s tomb in d4 days. What’s more, Wights are able to track such items and those who have taken possession of them, and will hunt down the thieves and recover their property. Selling the item merely adds another victim to the list, it does not relieve the initial ‘thief’ of the danger.

The next thing that is required to make these far more terrifying is to give them some means of being able to bridge that Nd4 days head-start that the party have – N being the number of times that the party have ‘defeated’ the Wight. They have a movement rate of 30 feet, which is much the same as that of the PCs. But, if we presume that they never need to rest, and can ignore terrain-based movement reductions in overland movement, then every night that passes they will regain at least 1/3 of a day of lost time, possibly more. Inevitably, eventually, the Wight will catch up, again and again.

Next, wights stick together. A wight in pursuit of a ‘thief’ will be joined by any other wight he encounters en route. One will become two; two, three; three, five; and so on. (This is another Fibonacci sequence, one that starts 1, 2).

What makes this particularly bad for PCs is that any of the loot they have carried off from the Wight’s tomb or surrounding area might be the Treasured Item. Such items can be detected once the Wight is in pursuit as Cursed, and the Curse can then be lifted once the Wight has again been destroyed. The rest of the time, Detect Curse and Remove Curse are ineffective.

Of course, there’s a problem: there is no such spell as “Detect Curse”. The DMG states that Cursed Items may be detected with Identify (1% chance per caster level) or Analyze Dweomer – but these aren’t trivial spells. Identify is only 1st level, but has only a small chance of identifying the item, per casting. If your chance is, say, 10% (caster level 10), would anyone care to hazard a guess at the number of times it would need to be cast to be reasonably sure of success?

My math says 110 castings gets you to 99.999% certainty.
88 castings will get you to 99.99% certainty.
66 castings gets you to 99.9% certainty.
44 castings gets you to 99% certainty.
22 castings gets you to 90% certainty.
11 castings gets you to better than 66% certainty.
7 castings gets you a better than 50-50 chance.

Things improve markedly at higher caster levels. It only takes 52 castings to get to 99.999%. 42 castings is 99.99% certain. 31 castings is 99.9% certain. 21 castings is 99% certain. 11 castings is better than 90% certain.

At Caster Level 25: 41 castings to 99.999%, 33 castings to 99.99%, 25 to 99.9%, 17 to 99%, 9 to 90%, and three castings gives you a better than 50-50 chance.

You see, each time you cast the spell, the gain in confidence is reduced. At Caster Level 10, you have a 10% chance of success – but, if you fail (which you will, 90% of the time), you then have 10% chance again. So, with two castings, your total chance of success is the initial ten, plus 90% of the initial ten for the second casting – because you wouldn’t cast the spell a second time if you had already succeeded. 10%, 19%, 27.1%, 34.39%, and so on.

It makes more sense if you work out the chances of failure. The first time, you have 90% chance of failing. The second, you have 90% of 90% of failing with both rolls. The third time, 90% of 90% of 90% with all three rolls, and so on.

You’ll know you’ve succeeded when the attacks stop.

Vampire Spawn

One reason Vampires like to have Vampire Spawn around is so that when a Cleric attempts a Turning, they can take the hit instead of him. If Vampire Spawn are treated like Ghouls and Ghasts and confer the resulting bonus on the Spawning Vampire,

In fact, the same logic holds for all higher undead – it gives them a reason to keep lots of low-level undead around.

Making Undead more Dangerous

What if contact with undead transmitted some sort of taint to the soul – and, if that taint exceeds the character’s capacity for it, if and when they die, they become undead of the type that caused the taint? Answer: nice in theory, too much work to track in practice.

Obviously, this would not have applied to “noble undead”, all of whom have very specific pathways to creation, in-game. But something keeps making more Skeletons, Ghouls, Zombies, and so on. Can you really lay all the blame at a few higher undead and the occasional malicious Cleric of a dark deity?

Most systems make the assumption that if you are killed by an Undead, you become that sort of Undead. But in a world with even moderately competent adventurers running around, that isn’t enough to explain their numbers.

To do that, we need to examine and counter other assumptions.

Let’s start with an obvious one:

Hallowed Ground

There is a theory going around amongst most adventurers that if you lay a potential Undead to rest in Hallowed Ground, it will not rise again, that the ‘sanctity’ of the grounds will thwart the evil.

What if the opposite was true? What if the presence of an undead Defiled a cemetery, leading those who are subsequently laid to rest there vulnerable to become more Undead of the type “in residence”.

If we were to couple this with the “Tainted Soul” concept, we would go quite a long way towards explaining the prevalence of Undead in appropriate locations.

It would not be 100% effective; there would need to be some further part to the story. Perhaps it only works with Evil characters. Perhaps there is a time limit – and, if the body is sufficiently protected by coffins and crypts that the ‘seeding undead’ can’t reach them within that span of time, it doesn’t happen. Say, one day plus one day for each hit dice of the undead? That would give Zombie Kobolds 3 days and nights, an iconic sort of number.

Skeletons and Wights might get additional span of time if the prospective victim died violently – that’s important, because they are generally lower in HD than Zombies, but are equally if not more prevalent.

Perhaps there’s a limit to the number who can be converted at a time, again based on the number of hit dice the creature has – and only the seeding Undead can spawn more. But kill it, and any surviving Undead become a new generation of “Patriarch / Matriarch Undead”. Or perhaps Undead breed at the rate of Death, assuming they can fulfill the other conditions described.

Lots of options there.

Withering The Soul

Lots of undead are described in fiction and legend as having an impact on the living, should they turn hostile. This effect, if it exists, would be minor in comparison to the abilities some Undead already gain in this line, but they should have something.

Perhaps the Turning Penalty is also the modifier to a PC’s Will Save that they have to make in order to attack – or simply not to recoil from the touch of – Undead? You could even scale and customize the impact of this effect by the type of undead. Zombies cause violent nausea, preventing the character from attacking. Skeletons cause the victim of a failed check to recoil, reducing the character’s AC for a round. Ghouls and Ghasts might do 1d6 temporary hit point damage on a failed check – damage that is instantly healed at the end of the round, but that might make the difference in a close fight. Wights could force the character who fails his save to relive the Wight’s original demise. first-person i.e. as though it were them, potentially inflicting psychological harm on the character. The touch of Vampire spawn might sap the will and make the character aware of his own mortality, tempting the weak-willed to join their band and live forever.

As the Zombie Kobolds example showed, you don’t need much. The highest Turning Penalty I’ve listed is 10, and that requires an extraordinary number of Undead. Most of the time, the target would be far lower – maybe three or four. Most PCs will make their check easily – unless they roll a 1.

Taint, again

Just because it’s too much work to track in the case of PCs doesn’t mean that the concept needs to be thrown away altogether. It might only be effective if the subject has fewer hit dice than the undead. That means that a commoner touched by an undead has a fair chance of becoming another undead when they die – possibly too high a chance.

Making Undead Scarier

Fear is a dangerous thing for a GM to play with, because it potentially means a player losing control of his PC while it is in effect. What we need to do is make the Undead scarier to the Player commensurate with the fear that we want them to induce in his character.

The easiest way is to make undead more dangerous in numbers. Not much, just a little – maybe 1/2 or 1/3 of the Turning Penalty – as an attack bonus or an AC bonus when they are present in numbers.

If that seems excessive, it might only apply to as many undead as the Turning Penalty. Confront 20 Human Zombies – a Turning Penalty of 4 – and four of them each turn get +1 or +2 to hit, just from the size of the group. In fact, if this limitation on the effect is in place, I would be tempted to make the amount 1 to 1 for the Turning Penalty.

This simulates being swarmed under, and makes a group of Undead that little bit scarier – which is what we want.

Other techniques that I’ve seen – because I’m not the first person to muse upon this need – is for Undead to radiate an anti-life field that sucks away one HD in all attackers for every 2 HD of Undead within melee range. A fifth-level character up against three 2HD zombies finds themselves with – effectively – only 2 HD. That gets scary in a hurry.

But it’s also a lot of work if you have to recalculate attack numbers and so on. So let’s simplify it and simply subtract that many average dice in hit points, plus CON bonuses.

The Net Effect

The combination of these three changes to undead don’t overly change the danger represented by one Undead. But they greatly ramp up the danger posed by a group, and give higher undead reasons to maintain a group of “follower undead” that insulate them from an easy defeat.

And with that, I’m completely out of time. Next time: Making low-level undead more dangerous, and making them scarier. Don’t worry, I’m building to something…

Comments (2)

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

When you first begin, you would never even dream of being able to craft something so beautiful.
Image Credit: / Irum Shahid

This is not the article that most people will have expected to see in this space.

It’s supposed to be the fifteenth shelf of the Essential Reference Library, but that’s taking a lot longer to complete than expected – up to 3 hours per item just to gather and describe all the links, with 66 items to be done. You’ll see the work just oozing off the page when it finally appears!

So this is unashamedly a filler article. But it’s a goody.

How Hard Is It?

  • “I leap up, grab the chandelier, swing from it to the balcony, roll, and dive out the window in one smooth motion.”
  • “I use the pickax as a lock-pick.”
  • “I stare into the fog, straining for any hint of the enemy – and when I see him, I silently strike!”
  • “I execute an 11-G Immelmann with barrel roll to break the missile’s radar lock, then blast it out of the sky.”
  • “I use pressure from the CO2 extinguisher to keep the antimatter in the air so that it doesn’t touch anything solid.”
  • “I use the mirror to see around the corner and ricochet a shot off the far wall of the corridor to take out the bad guys.”
  • “I break the impossible code. What do I have to roll?”

These are all cases in which the GM is perfectly entitled to requiring a skill check or attack roll of some kind.

And that means that these are all cases in which the GM is required to assess how difficult the task is.

‘So What,’ you may be thinking. ‘That’s easy enough to do.’

Every game system has some sort of skill resolution system in which a character’s capabilities are tested with a random mechanism to determine success or failure with the probability of success being determined by the “difficulty” (or some analogous assessment parameter) of the task.

And, all too often, game designers think it’s simply a matter of creating a list of difficulties and associated modifiers or adjustments – the details will vary from game system to game system, but the principles remain unchanged. In D&D 3.x, the DC table looks like this:

Very Easy DC 0
Easy DC 5
Average DC 10
Tough DC 15
Challenging DC 20
Formidable DC 25
Heroic DC 30
Nearly Impossible DC 40

Most game systems provide no more guidance than that. A few are better – Pathfinder, for example, has specific DC standards for each skill, providing a solid basis for an assessment of DCs.

‘So What? What more do you need? you may be thinking. ‘Just pick the category that seems right, read off the DC, and get on with the game.

If only it were that easy…

The Benefit of Expertise

The definition of any specific task in terms of difficulty category isn’t as easy to pin down as you might think. There are two inherent problems to be overcome.

At The Easy End

One definition and measure of expertise is that tasks that were impossible to even contemplate become achievable, even routine.

That’s why gaming bloggers like myself revisit old topics from time to time – even if our gaming skills haven’t improved, even if we haven’t thought of any brilliant new tips or mechanisms, our expertise at explaining things will hopefully have improved, so that we can make clear what we failed to communicate on our previous attempts.

A skilled artist can capture a recognizable likeness with just a few casual pen or pencil lines. A beginner may be unable to do so with hours of painstaking effort. Personality, Expression, and Mood are captured and manipulated automatically by the expert.

“Easy” is a relative term that means different things at different standards of expertise.

At The Almost-Impossible End

And, at the same time, “Almost Impossible” also changes in content with expertise, as the artist example shows.

With the boundaries that seemed so simple suddenly rendered vague, the task of assigning an appropriate DC to any specific task suddenly becomes far more difficult.

Expertise Cap Vs Catch-all Net

There’s another hidden issue that lurks in the tall grass to catch out unwary GMs. Is the highest category capped – are there some tasks that are simply not possible without a certain standard of expertise – or is it a catchall for any task that is not ruled impossible outright?

Low-Skill vs High-Skill

To be fair, the reason that there is inadequate documentation in most RPGs is because at low levels of expertise, the impact of these effects is relatively minimal, and the category labels can be taken more or less at face value.

Only at high skill levels do the distorting effects of relative competence become overwhelmingly significant.

Even at moderate skill levels – competent to earn a living at a particular task, no matter how poor the living standards might be – the distortion, while present, is relatively easy to ignore.

But any game that lasts long enough will eventually butt heads with the problem.


This will vary from game system to game system, and from difficulty class to difficulty class. As a rule of thumb, the precise details start to matter when characters achieve a skill standard such that it requires only an above-average roll to succeed at a task of that difficulty class.

A d20 system has linear die-roll probabilities – so that’s succeed on a roll of 18 or 19 or more, or succeed on a 3 or 4 or less if the goal is to roll low. 3d6 has a dumbbell probability curve, buying the GM more time – succeed on a roll of 15 or less, say, or succeed on a roll of 6 or better if the goal is to roll high.

The Hero System is a roll-low system; Skill + Modifiers < Roll equals failure. ‘Modifiers’ are the equivalent of DC.

DnD is a roll-high system; Roll + Skill ≥ Difficulty equals success.

For example, lets look at DC 20 on the d20 system. When does this difficulty category begin to display distortion?

roll (18) + skill (x) ≥ difficulty 20, so x is 20-18=2.

Two ranks in a skill – that’s when it makes a difference whether or not a task is classified as DC20 vs DC25. But, because of stat bonuses, a single skill rank is probably enough.

Let’s look at it another way: what DCs are subject to distortion effects due to relative competence at a total skill of, say, 7?

roll (3) + skill (7) ≥ Difficulty, so DC 10 is affected.
roll (18) + skill (7) ≥ Difficulty, so DC 25 is massively affected.

You can employ similar testing with any game mechanic. The results are still the same – a small difference in the difficulty class to which a task is assigned can have a massive impact even at relatively low skill levels.

Three Models

There are three basic approaches to setting DCs that provide the necessary guidance. In the absence of guidance within the rules, it falls to the GM to make his own choice amongst the options available.

These three models are

  • The Everyman Standard
  • The Competent Standard
  • The Dynamic Standard
  • The Everyman Standard

    How difficult is the task for an untrained man off the street? That is the assessment approach embodied by the Everyman Standard.

    It makes the assessment of difficulty levels the most automatic, enabling the descriptive labels to be pretty much taken at face value.

    In terms of design philosophy, it indicates that expertise is measured not by the inherent capacity for success but by the frequency with which success will occur for a given level of expertise – which sounds fine, on the face of it.

    But this approach has a hidden vulnerability or two, as well. It de-emphasizes the difference between having no expertise and having little expertise. That can be a good thing when you have a smaller group than usual, but it means that all characters become that little bit more alike and less distinctive.

    Nevertheless, this is usually tolerable in a game system/genre that doesn’t place any special emphasis on skills, which is the case for most fantasy and adventure game systems, especially if character levels are never expected to rise very high.

    The Competent Standard

    The second model asks the question of any given task, “how difficult would this be for a typical character who is competent in the skill?”

    This avoids the hidden problems of the Everyman Standard, but at the price of introducing a second subjective value judgment – to wit, what “typically competent” represents, in terms of skill level.

    Again looking at DnD, I would say that any character with 4 levels in a character class is “typically competent”. At average INT, that’s +6 Skill Points, plus any skill points expended in character construction, plus stat bonus. Call it a skill of 7 or more, in total – which is why I chose that number when looking at when classification distortion has an impact on the meaning of a DC label, earlier.

    A character with high stats – +4 in bonuses – can reach that level with only 3 ranks, well within the reach of many 1st-level characters if they invest virtually all their skill points in a single skill, which is a useful logic check, because that certainly sounds like a standard of competence for a typical professional NPC.

    But another way to look at this as the definition basis of the task DC categories is to state that it adds 7 skill ranks of “distortion resistance”, relative to the Everyman model.

    In practical terms, it means that more tasks will be allocated lower DCs, making it easier for low-skill characters to succeed in them.

    This is the “gold standard” for most moderately skill-based genres/systems, such as modern adventuring. I would also apply it to relatively simple Sci-Fi systems like original Traveler.

    The Dynamic Standard

    The most complex, but richest, solution is to define ‘competence brackets’ and to assess each task relative to the competence bracket of the character attempting the task.

    This fully embraces the distortion effects on difficulty of rising competence. The same task might be classified as “easy” for a character with Skill 20 and “Challenging” for a character with minimal skill. External conditions and circumstances can also be taken into account with greater facility and ease – trying to defuse a bomb in an environment filled with smoke, for example – because it breaks the problem down into smaller sub-problems.

    That makes this the ideal solution for high-level games and highly skill-based genres.

    It eliminates the distortion problem pretty much completely, but it does require extending the official rules of most games, who don’t include predefined competence standards.

The Profound Impact

The choice of which model you are going to employ in any given game has a subtle but profound impact on the game. In effect, they redefine what a character of a given skill level is able to achieve using his skill.

Let’s take a reasonably typical task, and compare the three models. Free-Climbing a 20m cliff during a thunderstorm, say, in order to reach shelter.

The slower you move under these circumstances, the more slippery the rocks become, increasing the difficulty.

  • The Everyman Model: An untrained, unskilled character with no ability beyond inherent expertise levels is going to be slow, and will find this task extremely difficult. The urgency involved makes mistakes more likely, and 20m is a long climb when you aren’t a trained climber. If I were feeling generous, I would call this DC 18, but most of the time I would consider it to be DC 20. If the character had ropes, and pitons, and so on, I would drop the difficulty to DC15 on this standard.
  • The Competent Model: For someone who knows how to free-climb, even if they aren’t an expert, this is going to be a lot easier. Still not easy, given the circumstances. Without climbing gear, a DC somewhere between 10 and 15 seems about right. With climbing gear, that might drop to DC 10.
  • The Dynamic Model: The two examples given above already provide two data points for the Dynamic Model. In addition, let’s consider an expert climber. They will be less likely to make a mistake, by virtue of their expertise; they will be much faster, further reducing the difficulty; and they are far more likely to have climbing gear on hand. Putting all three factors together, I would rate this as an Easy problem for an expert climber (DC 5); If, for some reason, he didn’t have climbing gear (or didn’t want to stop long enough to get it out of his pack), a DC of about 10 seems right.

Of course, if the cliff was an especially difficult climb, I might have assigned higher DCs, but for a typical cliff, these are the numbers. So, let’s now see how these different models and the resulting differences in DC translate to chances of success for three characters – a beginner with Skill 5, a competent climber with skill 12, and an expert with a knack for climbing who has skill 18.

  • The Everyman Model: Let’s be generous: DC 18, or DC15 with equipment.
    • Beginner: Skill 5, so needs to roll 13 or better – 40% chance of success. With equipment, needs to roll 10 or better, so 55% chance of success.
    • Competent Climber: Skill 12, so needs to roll 6 or better – 75% chance of success even without equipment. With equipment, needs to roll 3 or better, so 90% chance of success.
    • Expert Climber: Skill 18, so needs to roll 0 or better – but a ‘1’ is always a failure. 95% chance of success, even without equipment. Using equipment doesn’t improve his chances.
  • The Competent Model: DC13, or DC 10 with equipment.
    • Beginner: Skill 5, so needs to roll 8 or better – 60% chance of success. With equipment, needs to roll 5 or better, so 80% chance of success.
    • Competent Climber: Skill 12, so needs to roll 1 or better but 1 is always a failure. 95% chance of success without equipment.
    • Expert Climber: Skill 18, so needs to roll -5 or better – but a ‘1’ is always a failure. 95% chance of success without equipment.
  • The Dynamic Model:
    • Beginner: Skill 5 and DC 18 (15 with equipment), so needs to roll 13 or better – 40% chance of success. With equipment, needs to roll 10 or better, so 55% chance of success.
    • Competent Climber: Skill 12 and DC 13, so needs to roll 1 or better but 1 is always a failure. 95% chance of success without equipment.
    • Expert Climber: Skill 18 and DC 5, so needs to roll -13 or better – but a ‘1’ is always a failure. 95% chance of success without equipment. But I wouldn’t usually bother getting an expert to roll such an obviously easy task.

Now lets make it a more difficult climb – a shortage of hand-holds, crumbling unstable rock, and 40m instead of 20. All told, those have to be worth +10 to the DCs, maybe more. But that will do to illustrate the effects.

  • The Everyman Model: DC 28, or DC25 with equipment.
    • Beginner: Skill 5, so needs to roll 23 or better – 0% chance of success, but a 20 always succeeds, so 5% chance, effectively. With equipment, needs to roll 20, so 5% chance of success.
    • Competent Climber: Skill 12, so needs to roll 16 or better – 25% chance of success without equipment. With equipment, needs to roll 13 or better, so 40% chance of success.
    • Expert Climber: Skill 18, so needs to roll 10 or better – a 55% chance of success. With equipment, needs only 7 or better, so 70% chance of success.
  • The Competent Model: DC23, or DC 20 with equipment.
    • Beginner: Skill 5, so needs to roll 18 or better – 15% chance of success. With equipment, needs to roll 15 or better, so 30% chance of success, but will still fail two times in three.
    • Competent Climber: Skill 12, so needs to roll 11 or better – a perfect 50-50 chance. Adding equipment improves his chances to 70%.
    • Expert Climber: Skill 18, so needs to roll 5 or better, so 80% chance of success without equipment. With equipment, needs 2 or better, so 95% chance of success.
  • The Dynamic Model:
    • Beginner: Skill 5, so needs to roll 23 or better – 0% chance of success, but a 20 always succeeds, so 5% chance, effectively. With equipment, needs to roll 20, so 5% chance of success.
    • Competent Climber: Skill 12, so needs to roll 11 or better – a perfect 50-50 chance. Adding equipment improves his chances to 70%.
    • Expert Climber: Skill 18 and DC 15, so needs to roll -3 or better – but a ‘1’ is always a failure. 95% chance of success even without equipment. Still in the category of maybe not even requiring a roll.

This shows that the Dynamic model increases the ‘spread’ of DCs for a task, emphasizing the difference not only of some skill vs little-or-no skill, but between experts and the moderately skilled.

Choosing Your Model

This isn’t the first time I’ve written on this subject – the last time, which also delves into other aspects of the questions raised, was “How Hard Can It Be?“. In that article, I talked about altering the standard scales of DCs, using the formula

New = 10 + 1.2 x (Old – 10)

…and advocated adopting what I’ve labelled the Dynamic Model for the purposes of this article. Further reflection has shown that this isn’t always the right answer, and hence this follow-up article.

GMs should choose the model that’s right for their game based on what they want to do with the game system and the campaign. If the intent is for the campaign to end by the time the PCs get to 5th level, the Dynamic System is probably overkill, and the Everyman approach is probably the easiest. If the campaign is going to be skill-based enough that skills will make a critical difference, but characters aren’t going to rise higher than 12th level or so, the Competent Standard is probably the best choice. But if skills are to be critical, or there’s even a possibility of the campaign lasting long enough for the characters to get to 15th level or better, the Dynamic Model is still your best choice.

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An Introduction To The Brilliance Of Derren Brown

Promotional image from Derren’s Official Facebook page
It is possibly not public-domain but I am using it with the greatest of respect and in hopes that Derren and his management will let it slide :)

There were only two DVDs by Derren Brown that were appropriate to the Pulp Reference Library, Items 1175 and 1176, which can be found reviewed towards the bottom of the Twelfth Shelf.

These barely scratch the surface of the relevance of this man’s work in a broader RPG context, however, and so I determined to slot into my schedule a deeper examination of the subject, in the order that I first saw them (as best I can remember it).

Those memories are a little confused because I re-watch them anytime any of them are repeated, but I’ll do my best.

Nor can I treat the subject with the depth that it really deserves. Doing so would probably make for very boring reading, in addition to being unreasonable in length. This is very much going to be a tour of various high points, with lots of links to further information.

Before we get into that actual subject, though, a little background (both his and mine) and a couple of ongoing themes in many of his works need to be examined to provide context.

Who Is He?

Derren Brown is an Illusionist and Mentalist from England. He frequently insists that he has no special powers, and that his effects are all tricks, deductions, and psychological techniques that anyone can master with the right training and practice. Nevertheless, he is a master manipulator and psychologist, and an accomplished hypnotist.

He has presented a number of TV documentaries, hosted TV series, written books, and had a series of successful stage shows, some of which have also been broadcast (those I have seen are detailed below).

Derren Brown, Hypnotist

In fact, until you see him in action, you cannot comprehend how accomplished a hypnotist he is. No gimmicks like spinning rings or any of the other clichés that I’m sure most people are familiar with – with the right subjects, it’s as simple as putting a hand on the subject’s shoulder and telling them to “sleep”.

He makes it look so easy that you find yourself wondering if it’s ‘staged’ the first few times you see it.

Paulo Lumierre of the Adventurer’s Club

When I first joined the Adventurer’s Club, I was a player, not a co-GM, and my character was Paulo Lumierre, a master hypnotist based on some of the stunts and tricks that I had seen Brown perform in the shows described later in the article. To make the character seem credible,though, I actually had to downgrade his abilities from those displayed by Brown – I added a hand-gesture to attract the attention of the subject and a snap of the fingers to signal the actual act of hypnosis. Neither are necessary, but verisimilitude demanded some more overt display. I also downgraded what the character could do with a hypnotized subject for the same reasons.

Derren Brown, Illusionist/Mentalist

Throughout the 20th century, Illusionists and Magicians have been performing all sorts of tricks and stunts, many of which have become the stuff of legend and myth – which is to say that no-one ever actually did them. Every decade or so, some magician or another becomes popular on TV. A large number of them follow in Harry Houdini’s footsteps an Escape Artists, others have a broader repertoire. Chris Angel, Penn & Teller, Dynamo, and the ‘granddaddy’ of TV Magicians, David Copperfield, are all names that I recognize (and yet, for one reason or another, none of these really appealed to me, with the exception of Penn & Teller, and even they only had limited appeal).

That makes me really unqualified to judge, but here’s the difference between these professionals and Brown, as I see it: most of them give the impression of excessive flamboyance to the point of pretentiousness. It’s as though they have to work hard to achieve their illusions. Brown, on the other hand, gives the impression of being able to do what he does casually, at will. I have no doubt (because he’s shown us in several specials) that he works as hard, if not harder, than any of these others – but despite Brown regularly showing us how his grand illusions work, the apparently impossible seems easier for him.

Derren Brown, Skeptic

Brown has followed in Houdini’s footsteps in at least one respect: he debunks mystics and faith healers in a number of documentaries. He regularly insists that he has no special powers, unlike the majority of Illusionists who play up the mystique of what they appear to be doing. In the process, he actually makes his stunts and Illusions seem all the more miraculous and surprising.

Derren Brown, Socially Responsible

While Brown admits that his first priority is always to be entertaining, there is a strong undercurrent of social responsibility to a great many of his shows. This was a key aspect of the first show of his that I saw on TV, and was only reinforced by subsequent shows. “The Heist”, for example, has a subtheme of opposing ageism. He is frequently at pains to emphasize that any apparent danger is actually tightly controlled, and many of his shows are about people being taught how to have better and more responsible control over their lives. It could even be argued that his approach to subjects such as faith healing is an off-shoot of this social responsibility.

Derren Brown, Showman

First and foremost, Brown is a showman; his effects and stunts are designed to be entertaining. The broadcasts of his stage shows highlight this aspect of his craft, undiluted by bigger-picture concerns. While that sometimes makes them seem shallower than the documentary specials, they also place greater emphasis on the skill with which he performs. When he gets something wrong, he’s not afraid to admit it – it doesn’t happen that often.

Speaking Of Skeptics

Before I first saw anything by Brown, I had discovered a TV series shown late at night on Australian Television – I think it was sourced from Cable TV in the US. This was Penn & Teller’s Bullsh*t.

From Wikipedia’s article on the show: “In each episode, Penn and Teller debunk a chosen misconception such as cryptozoology, debate a controversial topic like gun control, or “expose the truths” of an organization like PETA. Sometimes their objective is not to completely dismiss the topic at hand but to decry certain aspects of the topic that they believe to be pernicious, misleading, unnecessary, or overemphasized.

“Proponents of the topic make their case in interviews; however, they often end up appearing fallacious or self-contradicting. For example, in “Safety Hysteria”, a manufacturer of “radiation guards” for mobile phones admits that there is no proven link between mobile phone radiation and brain cancer, but assures viewers that “you can’t be too safe” (mobile phones use conventional radio waves for communication, which are non-ionizing radiation). When he states his background is in advertising, not medical science, it is implied that he knows his product is useless but exploits people’s fears to turn a profit.

“Opponents are then interviewed and they offer rebuttals to the proponents’ arguments.

“Penn and Teller often conduct informal experiments. For example, in the episode “Bottled Water”, diners in an upscale restaurant are presented with a variety of apparently fancy bottled water brands. After the diners praise and pick a favorite, it is revealed that each bottle was filled by the same garden hose behind the restaurant.”

The above quotes are very selectively sourced. I enjoyed the first season so much that I ate breakfast cereal for a week in order to save enough money to buy a copy on DVD, and subsequently purchased seasons 2 through 4, often before they were broadcast here in Australia. I didn’t, and don’t, agree with everything the duo have to say, but many of the opinions expressed on various topics resonated strongly with me.

A consistent sub-theme of the series was the undercutting of pomposity, pretension, and grandiosity for its own sake. This series, and especially the first two seasons of it, primed me for Derren Brown, and provided the background context within which I watched the first of the shows listed below.

Derren Brown: Apocalypse

This is a two-part special in which they subject was tricked into believing that the Apocalypse had occurred while he was traveling on a bus. The setup was of a giant meteorite hitting the earth; Steven woke up two weeks after this disaster in an abandoned military hospital to find that he is one of a small group of survivors now living through a Zombie Apocalypse. Steven had, prior to these singular experiences, been described as suffering from a “lazy sense of entitlement”, and he admitted in one trailer for the show to being “lazy” and “Irresponsible”. The goal was to give Steven a second chance at life by leading him through a carefully-planned storyline designed to make him realize how important life really is.

Steven had submitted his name to the show, volunteering to be part of a Derren Brown special, because while this was the first one that I had seen, Brown was now an established performer in England. A great deal of the planning involved ensuring that Steven suffered no unwanted aftereffects and he was monitored throughout by a psychologist and medical team.

The first episode focuses on convincing Steven that the world is about to end, the second on the life lessons to emerge from his continuing efforts to survive. They were first aired on successive weeks in 2012.

The show was described as having taken months of planning including hacking Steven’s phone, controlling his news feeds and Twitter accounts, recording special versions of TV and radio shows, and using over 200 actors. Despite all the preparations, not everything went according to plan; and Steven was a free agent, able to make decisions for himself, throughout, with Brown and the team sometimes needing to scramble when those decisions were unexpected. Throughout, the viewer is placed in the position of privileged observers, shown the preparations and with a running commentary by Brown.

At the end, the deception is revealed to Steven, and interviews of his friends and family make it clear that he has been profoundly changed for the better by his experiences. (I wouldn’t normally reveal that sort of thing, but the special is not available on DVD. UK readers can stream it from Amazon UK as episodes 3 and 4 of “Derren Brown: The Specials” from this pagenot to be confused with the US DVD of the same name, which collects four of the specials described individually below, and which we reviewed as part of the Essential Reference Library for Pulp!

Derren Brown: The Experiments

“The Experiments” is a quartet of related specials, three of them exploring darker sides of humanity and one rather lighter in tone. This was reviewed as item 1176 of the Essential Reference Library, so I won’t go into it again. These all date from 2011, but I first saw them aired some months after “The Apocalypse”, and confirmed me as a fan of Brown.

Derren Brown: The Great Art Robbery

This special centers on a bet between Brown and an art collector, Ivan Masslow, who is planning an exhibition for charity. Brown bets that he can steal one of the paintings from under the nose of the collector, even if he has told the collector exactly when it will happen, which painting they are going to steal, provided a photograph of the person who will commit the robbery, and given the collector a week to lay on as much additional security as he wants. Brown then recruits a team of senior citizens to carry out the robbery and trains them; his thesis for the episode is ageism and how people tend to ignore and undervalue the older people around them. He hopes to take advantage of this phenomenon to get away with his brazen daylight robbery. We follow the team as they are taught the skills they will need, as they rehearse the plan, and as they put it into action. What ensues is a triple twist (or maybe its a quadruple twist) that leaves the audience as blind-sided as the collector. The outcome? That would be telling! This special was nominated for an award by the British Academy Of Television for best Entertainment Programme of 2014.

I’ve actually found a link that permits you to download this special from YouTube – if it’s still available: – but, if that link lets you down, there seem to be a great many other places from which to download or stream it, as this Google search reveals.

Derren Brown: The Events

…and “The Events” dates from 2009, two years earlier again. This is another quartet of specials; it’s possible that they were originally aired in Australia before “The Apocalypse” brought Brown to my attention, though the title of Episode 4 would probably have attracted me if I had noticed them, and I normally pay close attention to the TV guide, so I suspect not.

The four specials included are:

  • “How To Win The Lottery”
  • “How To Control The Nation”
  • “How to Be a Psychic Spy”
  • “How to Take Down a Casino”

These were filmed in front of a live studio audience and blended “interactions” with the audience and pre-recorded location segments, each building up to a major “effect stunt”.

“How to win the Lottery” showed Brown correctly predicting the winning national lottery numbers hours before the draw. This was demonstrated with a series of numbered balls being revealed one at a time next to a television displaying a live feed from the lottery draw; after the draw, the numbers predicted were correct. The next part of the special took place two days later which offered three techniques for appearing to win the lottery. The first, faking a winning ticket, was quickly tossed aside; the bulk of the episode deals with automatic writing and crowd psychology. Unusually, Brown does not reveal how he has done the stunt, and the explanation offered – despite the attempts to make it convincing – fails even a mild credibility check.

This was such a disappointing special that if it had been the first thing I saw by Brown, I might have skipped everything else described in this article. I mention the fact specifically for anyone who fell into that trap!

“How To Control The Nation” dealt with subliminal messages as a means of exerting control over people. About half the studio audience appeared to be affected by the short film brown had produced which was supposed to make people unable to get out of their seats using subliminal messages. Various in-studio stunts and prerecorded segments on the technique and its history make for interesting viewing. At the end of the show, Brown reveals that there were in fact no subliminal messages in the film and that the seemingly-effective technique was in fact a demonstration of the power of suggestion. The result is a comprehensive examination of the concept of subliminal messages and their limited effectiveness in real life – with sufficient preparations, they can influence, but anything more is nonsense. Along the way, however, the effectiveness of persuasion is also clearly demonstrated, with everything that is shown being designed to convince the studio audience that the “subliminal message” will be effective in having the effect he has told the audience to expect.

“How to Be a Psychic Spy” debunks remote viewing by making it appear possible, until Brown reveals how it was done. The implication is that this, and all other ‘psychic abilities’, are nonsense, which becomes a recurring theme within Brown’s mentalist performances thereafter. This, of course, has been a technique employed by Magicians to debunk spiritualists and psychics since the time of Houdini.

The curator of the Science Museum was asked to paint a simple picture on a canvas that was then covered over and placed on ‘display’ for a week with visitors given the chance to draw what they thought was on the canvas. On the night of the broadcast, the artist was taken to a secret location, and had no idea of that location. Viewers at home are as well as in the studio were invited to draw images of what was under the covers for themselves. The four main things that were drawn were trains, Stonehenge, horses, and concentric circles. Towards the end of the show, it was shown that 30-35% of people drew some form of concentric circles; the second most common image (10%) was of Stonehenge. The ‘secret location” was then revealed to be Stonehenge, which she admitted was the inspiration for her painting of concentric circles. Brown then revealed that the program had been recorded three weeks before broadcast, and that on the day of broadcast, he had arranged for adverts containing concentric circles to be placed in all the major newspapers, ‘priming’ the home audience to draw circles themselves. These were reinforced by content within the show aimed at suggesting the abstract notion of concentric circles. No explanation was given as to why many thought that the painting would be of horses or trains, but the answer to that question seemed obvious to me – steam trains (the most commonly-drawn variety) have prominently-revealed wheels, while horses go with carriages which also have concentric circles in the form of large wheels. The result was another demonstration of how a convincing demonstration of a fictitious phenomenon could be staged with appropriate preparation, building on the premise of the preceding special.

“How to Take Down a Casino” followed the same blending of live and pre-recorded segments and centered on Brown attempting to win £175,000 by gambling £5,000 taken from a member of the public on a roulette wheel in an undisclosed European location – with that person’s consent. Despite showing the training that Brown has put himself through in order to estimate where the ball will land on the roulette wheel, he makes a point of stating that while he has vastly improved his odds of success, there is still a 2-in-3 chance that it won’t work. In fact, he turns out to be one number off, losing the £5000 – though only being one number wrong was still mighty impressive! He then promises to repay the lost money, even though the ‘donor’ had been aware of the risks, and would have been permitted to keep the proceeds had Brown been successful. The unstated implication is clear, however – if Brown couldn’t succeed with his skills and specific training in the necessary skills to achieve superhuman levels of speed and accuracy, what chance does a lay person have? If gambling, you may as well throw your money away, most of the time. More to the point, only gamble with money that you can afford to lose, and don’t throw good money after bad.

Derren Brown: The Heist

Collected in the US as part of “Derren Brown: The Specials”, this originally aired in 2006 and was reviewed as item 1175 in the Essential Reference Library series. In that review, however, we incorrectly used the term “convinced” – in fact, we should have said “manipulated into spontaneously” committing the robbery. From an initial field of 13, four were primed to carry out the robbery in broad daylight – the van’s driver and guard were played by actors and the ‘criminals’ used a realistic-looking toy pistol. Three of the four went through with the robbery as a result of the conditioning that they had received from Brown, showing in the process how opportunity and mindset could combine to turn otherwise good people into criminals. Refer to the Essential Reference Library for purchase links.

Derren Brown: Miracles For Sale

This is a special about faith healing in which Brown turns a member of the British public into a convincing “Faith Healer” and wins endorsements from several of the leading “practitioners” in the US. Originally airing in 2011, this documentary exposes many of the techniques employed by confidence tricksters to prey upon the vulnerable. Although he does his best to maintain his composure, there are moments when Brown’s dislike of such practices is palpable.

At the same time, he is careful not to dispute anyone’s sincere religious beliefs or theology. If anything, by exposing those who perpetrate fraud in the guise of religion, he affirms and purifies those beliefs for those who hold them.

Derren Brown: Fear and Faith

This is the second two-part special which was produced in 2012. It focuses on the placebo effect.

In the first part, “Fear”, this takes the form of a fictitious drug developed by an equally fictitious pharmaceutical company for the inhibiting of fear. Most of the subjects of the fake clinical trial of the drug, who suffer from various forms of intense fear that have been ruining their lives, succeed in overcoming their fears through belief in the placebo, vastly improving their lives. These improvements persist even once the truth is revealed. By the end of the programme, it is also revealed that the same experiment had been conducted with two other groups promised, respectively, smoking cessation and allergy relief, again with positive outcomes for a number of the participants.

If the first part was fascinating, the second – “Faith” – in which Brown examines the psychology of religious beliefs, conversions, and ecstasies was compelling. Using a number of established psychological experiments and techniques, Brown tests a group of subjects, eventually choosing one named Natalie, in whom he is able to induce a ‘conversion experience’ despite her being a self-identified atheist, i.e. an experience which convinces her that the religion is genuine, persuading her to convert. Once again Brown skirts the dangerous terrain of these demonstrations without offending anyone’s religious beliefs, targeting cults and related groups/individuals like Jimmy Swaggart who give religion a bad name (some would argue that they don’t need any help, being quite capable of moral failures on their own). In fact, the program shows that a pseudo-religious experience can take place with absolutely no involvement on the part of the congregational leader simply because the subject is in a receptive state; the environment and context then prompts an ‘appropriate’ interpretation of the experience.

Derren Brown: The System

This special is included in the box set that we have recommended as a source of item 1175, The Heist, in the Essential Reference Library. It centers around pyramid schemes, confirmation bias, and convincing one participant that Derren has developed a “100 percent guaranteed” system for winning on horse racing. The principle subject, Khadisha, so comes to believe in the system after Brown correctly provides her with the names of five winning horses in a row that she invests every cent she has and borrows more to raise a £4000 wager. To demonstrate the system’s validity, which rests on the fact that such correct predictions are not impossible, just very unlikely, Brown had previously shown a sequence of tossing a coin and getting heads ten times in a row. After the bet is placed, Brown reveals that the system makes no predictions whatsoever; he had simply tossed a coin repeatedly until ten heads came up in a row, then discarded the footage that didn’t show what he wanted it to show – it took him over 9 hours. In a similar fashion, he had started with 7,776 participants, discarding those who lost along the way (and refunding their wagers), until he was left with only the one who had been successful five times in a row. When the predicted horse fails to win, and Khadisha is convinced that she has lost everything, Brown tells her to take another look at the betting slip he gave her; she discovers that it bears the name of the winning horse, meaning that she not only keeps her stake but also receives winnings of £13,000.

Derren Brown: Séance

Parts of this special were excellent, parts were less thrilling to watch. Students from Roehampton University are brought together for a live séance in Eton Hall, a location chosen because of a (fictitious) history of paranormal activity after an (equally fictitious) suicide pact led 12 people to kill themselves in 1974. Having set the stage, Brown then proceeds to demonstrate the methods used by spiritualists to convince their victims that they are genuinely able to contact the dead. Using pictures of the twelve “dead”, Brown employs a sophisticated Magicians Force to lead the students (and the home audience) to select the photograph of “Jane”. During the subsequent Ouija Board sequence, the ideomotor effect was employed to cause the board to spell out “Jane”. The “Séance” then followed, with more demonstrations of ‘contact’ with ‘Jane’s Spirit’. Brown then revealed some of the manipulations that he had used to produce such a convincing demonstration, ending by introducing the alive-and-well “Jane” to the participants. There were about 700 complaints about the show before it aired, many by organized religious groups, not realizing that the intent was to debunk the practices. The Séance is another of the specials that accompanies The Heist in entry 1175 of the Essential Reference Library.

Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live

Although the game of Russian Roulette forms the climax of the show, this is actually all about the selection of the assistant to load the gun into numbered chambers within the revolver; Brown’s goal was to select someone whose choice of number he could predict, based on the testing that the prospective assistant underwent. If this episode were viewed live, as originally broadcast, it would have far greater impact; we clearly know that Brown survived, so the show is a little anticlimactic when viewed on DVD or non-live TV. This is the fourth special included in the collection that includes “The Heist” (Entry 1175 of the Essential Reference Library).

Derren Brown: Hero at 30,000 Feet

The Subject in this special was an ordinary man named Matt Galley, one of a number of people who had applied to take part, who felt his life was stuck in a rut and wanted Brown to coach him in how to take control of his life and achieve his aspirations. The special was divided into chapters, each with a defined transformational objective; in the early ones, Gallow didn’t even know of Brown’s involvement, thanks to the assistance of Gallow’s parents and girlfriend. At one stage, Brown visited him in the middle of the night but left Gallow believing that the experience was just a dream, thanks to hypnosis. During the show, Gallow was presented with a number of challenging experiences – being the victim of an armed robbery, touching a live crocodile, illicitly entering a policeman’s home, and even being strapped to a railroad track in a straitjacket while a train approached – which was the first one in which he knew that Brown was involved and that he was awake. The climax involved Gallow taking spontaneous control of an aircraft whose pilot had been ‘incapacitated’ despite his fear of flying. En route to the cockpit, Brown placed him in a hypnotic trance and, after the real aircraft had been safely landed, escorted Gallow to a flight simulator where he awakened, believing this to be the real aircraft. Using directions from “Air Traffic Control”, Gallow successfully guided the “aircraft” to a safe landing without realizing that the incident had been staged. Gallow then exited the simulator, discovering the deception, and being greeted by Brown, the actors involved (many of whom had played the role of passengers on the ‘distressed’ aircraft) and his family and friends.

This special can be streamed from Amazon UK at this link:

Derren Brown: Something Wicked This Way Comes

The first of two televised live stage performances by Brown that I have seen, this one is themed on the vaudevillian mentalist of the Victorian era. If you think stage hypnotism is all about getting people to bark like dogs, watch this show to see what a real hypnotist can do. There’s so much going on in this show that it’s hard to distill down into anything meaningful. The show starts with Brown asking the audience to think of an animal. Audience participant selection follows: throw a stuffed monkey into the crowd, get whoever catches it to toss it again, repeat a second and third time, then call whoever now holds the toy up onto stage. The first audience member so selected is asked to turn a large card with a question mark around to see a prepared picture of the animal she was thinking of. The result is a stick figure that could be almost anything, and the disappointment in the stunt is palpable. He then tells her to open the envelope next to the picture and read it, then turn it over and show the audience. It bears the printed word, Horse. And so begins a roller-coaster ride through the great vaudeville stunts and a few of Brown’s own devising, all delivered with warm and friendly patter, climaxed with a truly amazing mentalist stunt – and then explanations of exactly how it was all done.

Amazon UK streams this show from this link and has plenty of copies on DVD as well:

Amazon US has a limited number of UK imports of the DVD (won’t play on most US equipment) and an even smaller number of boxed sets that include this special, the one below, and one more that I haven’t seen yet:

Oh, and one insight: the “Great Prestoni” (name-checked during the patter) only exists in an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show.

Derren Brown: Mind Reader – An Evening Of Wonders

I’ve saved the best till last! This show starts with a locked box suspended from the ceiling in full view of the entire audience, follows with gorillas playing table tennis and the warning that at some point in the show someone in a Gorilla Suit will steal a banana from a bowl without the audience even noticing him. Audience selection this time is with Frisbees that, with a good throw, can even reach the back rows of the balconies. A series of mentalist tricks then follow, with a few bits of hypnosis thrown in. The most impressive trick (aside from the finale) is getting an audience member to phone his father (who is at home) to ask various questions with the hope that the home participant would say numbers which Brown had already written on a whiteboard. After several failed attempts, Brown awarded the man a ten-pound note to compensate him for the failures. Brown seemed about to move on with the rest of the show when he paused and had the man check the ten-pound note – to find that the numbers chosen by his father over the phone were the serial number of the ten-pound note!

This show is also streamed from Amazon UK and there are a number of copies on DVD

Some of those DVDs are also available as imports to the US (but won’t play on most US equipment)

The Unseen Shows

There are other Derren Brown shows that I haven’t seen yet, some of them available on DVD. I am happy to commend these to your attention, sight unseen.

And for my American readers, who will have trouble accessing many of the shows listed above, permit me to point you to Brown’s official YouTube channel where you can find excerpts from many of them. Several places around the world also stream specific shows – you may have to hunt a bit through Google Search results, but it’s worth doing.

I’ve found connections in these shows to everything from confidence schemes to Nazi fanaticism, from Cults to Clerical Magic. I defy any GM to watch them all and not be inspired.

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Let’s Make A Relic: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 5a – The Crown Of Insight

Crown with Dragons and effects

This image combines Herzogshut_Oberösterreich.jpg on White by Hic et nunc, derived from Herzogshut Oberösterreich.jpg:, CC BY-SA 3.0,, with Drake_på_en_medeltida_vävnad,_Nordisk_familjebok.png By Nordisk familjebok (1907), vol.6, p.816 [1], Public Domain, and artistic effects by Mike.

This article offers an example to illustrate the process described in Part 5 of the Spell Storage Solutions series, by which much of the sting and stigma attached to relics can be designed out of them.

From the footnote to that article: “I was actually going to explain the process by way of presenting an example, created as-I-went, but time is beginning to be a factor, so I’ll do that in a separate post some other time. Let’s see… If I move that, and delay this, and shift this other to there, then I can squeeze it in early in October… done!”

Except that it wasn’t.

This article, in turn, was bumped aside by something with an even higher priority, and then again, and again, and, well, here we are in March, something like five months since it was originally scheduled.

In that time, my memory of the relic that I was going to use as an example has grown vague and even a little confused. That’s the problem with a spark of inspiration that doesn’t get written down. But, in a way, that makes this a more genuine example of the process.

The First Pass

I start by running through each of the categories of definition listed in that article and quickly jotting down my initial thoughts. This is the exact process outlined in the previous article in the series.


What if you could steal knowledge or expertise from your enemy on the battlefield? What if you could steal the occasional secret just by looking at someone? Inspired by far more modern forms of technological intrusion into our privacy, those are exactly the abilities offered by The Crown Of Insight.


An ornate crown as might be worn by the ruler of a kingdom – until it is claimed by a bearer. When worn, it vanishes from the view of everyone save those the bearer challenges. Its appearance is then revealed to be morphic according to function – a plain steel band for a Strength-based skill or ability (including attack bonus), a gold circlet for a Wisdom-based skill or ability, a plain silver crown with dragon motif for an Intelligence based skill or ability, a black hood for a Dexterity-based skill or ability, and its pre-claim appearance for a Charisma-based skill or ability.


The crown has three major abilities:

  1. It can siphon skill ranks from an enemy, which are either available to the bearer temporarily or can be made permanent by the allocation of skill ranks to a new intelligence-based cross-class skill, “Use Crown Of Insight”.
  2. It can ‘borrow” class abilities or feats from an enemy, which are temporarily available to the character, and which are denied to the enemy for the duration of the effect.
  3. It can attempt to leach from an enemy’s mind a random factoid about the enemy. This could be anything from his combat strategy or objective, the name of an ally, his shopping list for when he next goes to market, an incident or event from his past, or something he was once told (accuracy not guaranteed). If it fails, the bearer learns a random factoid about the crown or a past bearer of the crown, instead.
History of the Relic

One of a set of Relics of uncertain origins known as the six Parasite Items, each of which is focused on one key characteristic. A legendary king came into possession of the set, long ago, and employed them to create a vast kingdom of wealth and prosperity. In jealousy and mutual hatred, an alliance of his neighbors eventually moved against him when he was in his dotage, and not even the relics could save him. Each of the victorious generals claimed one of the relics as a prize, but each sought to ambush the others on their journeys back to their respective Kingdoms, and one-by-one the victors fell.

Centuries later, Durnbach The Sly somehow found the relic atop an altar deep below the Silvertop Mountains, where it was being worshiped as a god by a tribe of primitive half-trolls. Durnbach sought to overthrow his cruel and tyrannical king using the power of the Crown, and eventually succeeded in doing so, making himself the power behind the throne of the Crown Prince. Paranoid and treacherous, Durnbach and his secret police soon ruled with an iron fist. In all his plotting, however, he failed to anticipate that his figurehead might rise against him. Fleeing, he survived just long enough to conceal the crown in the newly-opened grave of a priest who had recently succumbed to old age.

Grave Robbers in the employ of a necromancer discovered the crown in the grave while exhuming the body for the evil rites of their master, and so it came into the possession of he who would become infamous as Tharkash the Lich. But the Crown rejected Tharkash, causing the Lich to dissipate his undead existence in fruitless attempt after fruitless attempt to dominate it and bend it to his will. Distracted, Tharkash eventually fell to a band of adventurers, but the hidden chamber in which Tharkash had concealed the Crown was not discovered, and it was presumed lost once again, perhaps for good this time.

Impact of the Relic on History

Many of the Kingdoms from which the PCs derive were once one, and each has common social roots as a result, though they have diverged once again over the centuries since, and integration was never complete even in the time of the Legendary King. The saga of Durnbach has entered into legend, but each Kingdom thinks another was the land of his rule, so the truth of the tale remains unknown. What is known is that from that point in history forwards, each Kingdom had an intelligence apparatus to spy on their neighbors and root out dissidents who might become disloyal amongst their own populations. Sometimes these powers are abused by bad rulers, sometimes they are used to protect the general populace by good rulers, and sometimes they simply protect the authority of weak and venal rulers. Finally, Tharkash had the powers to be a blight upon several kingdoms, but the Crown enthralled him by its refusal to accept him as a bearer, consigning him to the status of historical footnote.

Scaling Of Ability

Tying the abilities of the crown to the skill “Use of Crown Of Insight”, an INT-based cross-class skill with ranks capped at the current character level of the bearer, reduces the impact of the relic to a level commensurate with the power level of the character. The most significant abilities are temporary bonuses and abilities which will yield little benefit to the bearer at least some of the time. Only at higher character levels does the bearer gain any measure of control over this capability. The random nature of the ‘leach knowledge’ ability restricts its usefulness, though some insights may be invaluable. It is up to the bearer to put himself into circumstances in which he can make maximum gains from this capability.

This doesn’t seem quite enough; there need to be one or two immediate benefits from accepting the Crown. More thought needed.

The Price Of Ownership

The need to commit skill ranks to the Crown that might be used elsewhere leaves the character increasingly dependent on the powers of the crown. Characters will eventually become recognized as adept at winnowing out secrets and closet skeletons, making them a target. If he has a conscience, he may have to bear the burden of secret knowledge he would rather not have. Anyone who survives an encounter with the character may eventually work out that he bears the crown, further increasing the number of individuals prone to acting against him. Some abilities drain part of the character’s XP, though they may refund this cost to the character. Nevertheless, his advancement will be impaired slightly. Finally, even though he was unable to master the crown, the corruptive efforts of Tharkash The Lich have left a legacy that will eventually taint the character to the point where the crown will reject him – at a point where his dependence on the item is at its height.

The crown is all about short-term benefits for a long-term price. Both benefits and price are real and substantial.

The Difficulty Of Acquisition

Primitives are easily induced by the bearer-less crown by random insights into worshiping it as a deity, affording it some measure of protection. Furthermore, there are strict requirements and a testing process involved in becoming the bearer of the item; if these tests are failed, the crown will influence others to release it from the possession of whoever has it.

That is certainly what happened in the case of the Generals and Tharkash. It is possible that it is also the hidden mover of events in the tale of Durnbach The Sly.

This means that mere possession of the crown is dangerous unless the character is accepted as a bearer. And yet, it is a Relic, not something that many can easily turn away from.

I like the notion of three tests, but at the moment can only think of two: A test of how the character would use or abuse the power of the Relic if it chooses him, and a test of fidelity to the relic if the character becomes the bearer. The first is morality, and the second asks whether or not the crown would be just a tool to the character. Maybe the third should be something relating to capacity or ability to preserve ownership of the Relic. More thought is needed.

The Difficulty Of Rejection

A Relic “choosing” someone or “rejecting” someone implies some level of sentience, even if it is animalistic or instinctive. This makes a big difference to how it will react to someone turning down the opportunity of bonding with the Relic. If you chase an animal away, it is unlikely to be overly hostile; whereas an instinctive choice is more likely to be absolute.

I like the notion that the Relic ‘remembers’ those who have surrounded it in the past and can “summon” their likeness to attack the character. If he defeats them, there is no further penalty; if not, he suffers the consequences of defeat, up to and including death. This would be solo combat, and fully occurring in the head of the rejecting character. So it might pull out two or three of those primitive half-trolls, or some of the Lich’s undead servants, or three or four members of the Secret Police of Durnbach The Sly.

It’s even possible that if the PC wins, he gets one last chance to change his mind, and that if he refuses a second time, the crown becomes “cold” toward him. But if the PC leaves the crown where it is to await another prospective bearer, that’s the end of it; the bigger mistake would be taking it with him, as explained earlier.

The Plotline Impact – Immediate: The Search For Knowledge

This is fairly low-impact. The new Bearer doesn’t have to go hunting for knowledge of the Crown, he simply has to use it and make sense of the incomplete and fragmentary account of its history that builds up over time. But the three abilities and how to use them need specific introduction, which means plotlines in which they will prove useful, plus visions of a past bearer using those abilities.

The Plotline Impact – Medium-Term: The other Parasite Items

The fact that these were all wielded by one individual according to the item history suggests the possibility that they try to seek each other out; they want to be reunited. Logically, if that were the case, there would be some power-boost from the combination – the combination being more than the sum of its parts.

I don’t like this notion for two reasons: first, it’s been done before (the Wand of Orcus), and second, it violates the principle of keeping the benefits of ownership reasonably proportionate to the power level of the character who wields it/them.

So let’s go in completely the opposite direction: Only one being was ever able to force them co-exist; they are mutually antagonistic. Over time, each of the parasite items would seek out each other with a view to destroying the current bearer of the rival items. This turns the crown into a Quest item on the Campaign Scale.

So, what are the other Parasite Items and what do they bring to the challenge?

The Weapon Of Strength (STR)

Steals the physical strength of a rival. For every 2 points stolen, one becomes permanently available to the bearer through the item. Stealing Strength or Accessing stolen strength requires the use of a new cross-class strength-based skill, “Use Weapon Of Strength”.

The Eye Of Wisdom (WIS)

Steals the Wisdom and clerical spells of a rival. For every 2 points of WIS stolen, one becomes permanently available to the bearer through the item. Stealing Wisdom or Accessing stolen Wisdom requires the use of a new cross-class WIS-based skill, “Use Eye Of Wisdom”. The Eye can hold one clerical spell of each Spell Level by default; each rank added to “Use Eye Of Wisdom” after one each has been used for this purpose permits one additional spell of any spell level to be stored. Stored Spells, once cast, vanish from the item. Spells stolen must match the spell level of whatever clerical spell the enemy of the bearer is currently casting. Spells stolen are not available to the enemy caster until they can again memorize spells.

The Belt Of Life (CON)

Steals the CON and hit points of a rival. For every 2 points stolen, one becomes permanently available to the bearer through the item. The number of points of CON and number of hit dice (full capacity) that can be stored by the item are determined by ranks in a new cross-class CON-based skill, “Use Belt Of Life”. “Hit Dice” held by the item do not yield a CON bonus in additional HP.

The Gloves of Acquisition (DEX)

Steals the DEX and rogue abilities of the enemy. For every 2 points stolen, one becomes permanently available to the bearer through the item. Stealing Dex or Rogue Abilities or Accessing stolen DEX requires the use of a new cross-class Dex-based skill, “Use Gloves Of Acquisition”. In addition, on a critical success, one belonging of the enemy vanishes from their person (no matter how or where it is stored) and appears in the hand of the bearer as though they had been miraculously stolen. Such items are chosen randomly based on Value. Relics are unaffected by this capability.

The Mantle Of Perfection (CHA)

Steals the Charisma and confuses the followers of the Enemy. Stealing Char or Confusing followers requires the use of a new cross-class CHA-based skill, “Use Mantle Of Perfection”. For every 2 CHA points stolen, one becomes permanently available to the bearer and one Confused follower of lower level than the total ranks in this skill will eschew their old leader and join the bearer. In addition, a successful check against the Skill inspires as many followers as the bearer has Ranks in “Use Mantle” to fight fanatically (i.e. with +2HD of temporary HP and without regard for their lives). These additional HP represent the character fighting on when they should have collapsed from the severity of their wounds and should be described accordingly.

The Plotline Impact – The Campaign Scale

Under this concept, it would not benefit the bearer to avoid these quests; presumably the bearer of the rival Parasite item has similar capabilities to hunt down its enemies; sooner or later the quest will find the PC if the PC doesn’t undertake the quest.

This also makes sense of the whole approval/rejection concept; the crown doesn’t want to accept a lesser bearer who is likely to lose to its rival. But the background of the crown would need to be adapted to incorporate at least one such confrontation in the past so that the player who bears the crown can learn about this aspect of the ownership.

Maybe the items are all dormant until one chooses a bearer, and this awakens the others? And if there’s some mechanism by which the Relic can “trade up” to a better bearer, say by way of the defeat of the current bearer, then we have a story in which each Relic of the group builds up to the most effective “champion” it can find before the confrontation.

The crown (and its rival Parasite Items) might even lure other potential bearers into hostilities to challenge the current bearer – which would need to be integrated into the short-term plotlines of ownership.

The Second Pass

As you can see, from a vague beginning, the concept has evolved and matured quite a bit in the course of jotting down (typing up, in this case) those ideas. Having reached this point, the trick is now to start over using what has now been figured out, making decisions as necessary, and fleshing out any details that were left vague or uncertain the first time around.

I find the easiest way of doing so is to simply copy and paste everything that I’ve already done and then type over the top. The actual process is fairly boring, so I’ll spare you – in the process leaving this as an “unfinished item” so that readers can take the ideas and do whatever they want with them.

Relics are the most powerful magic items in a game, so it’s only appropriate that they take a bit of effort to get right. But this process still yields a finished item, complete with backstory and integrated into the campaign history, in just an hour or two. For something with this much impact on the campaign, that’s not an unreasonable investment in time.

The other reason for this article being relatively short is to give me extra time to work on the next entry in the Essential Pulp Library, due next week. I already know that this will take extra time, so I’m shaping my schedule around making that time available.

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Ask The GMs: Your Latest Bling – Questions About Equipment

A trio of questions that take me out of my comfort zone, because I don’t know the game system, and they are – to some extent – heavily system-related issues. But I had the advantage of being able to consult my fellow GMs on this one, and also had the luxury of being able to answer twice, and of being able to take long enough to mull over my answers to find a more universal solution on general principles. It does mean that this article will be a little more all over the place than usual.

Ask the gamemasters

Tommy Franklin asked (edited for clarity),

“I am planning to run a Shadowrun 4E game for my friends. The setting is quite attractive, but my major concern is the huge amount of gear options that I have to deal with. I know some DMs prefer to use “adventurer kits”, which pack up most of the necessary gadgets, to reduce the amount of work for the players. However this approach doesn’t seem to work with Shadowrun, because “gear sensitive” is the hallmark of this system. I do not want to combine the SR setting with some other rules, which requires a lot of transition work.

Here are my three questions.

  1. How do you, as a GM, helps the players to choose their equipment? Either because the system is too complex, such as SR, or because the players may take advantage of the rules to become too powerful or too weak due to lack of game experience.
  2. How do you track the cost of ammunition and potions during the game? Do you calculate exactly what the players have bought and used, or just hand-wave the geek-math?
  3. When will you allow PCs to buy new equipment? Any time they want, after the session of the game, or will you, as GM, set a special “shopping day” in the game for them?

By the time this question was received, Johnn and I had become aware of the mounting backlog of questions, and had instituted a policy of providing preliminary replies by email in order to buy ourselves time. You can assess the scale of the backlog problem by glancing at the Ask-The-GMs queue, considering that we closed it to new questions at the end of 2011, by the fact that this question was asked at the start of 2011 and is being answered “officially” six years after the fact!

So. here’s the plan of action: I’ll start with my original email response to Tommy, follow that with some thoughts from my fellow GMs on the subject, plus a few general observations of my own from other game systems that I do know, and then wrap up with my new general-principle answers to questions 2 and 1 (in that order) – I stand by my preliminary answer to question 3!

There’s a lot to do, so let’s get busy…

Section 1: Mike’s Original Answers

Here’s the text of my original reply to Tommy, annotated with further thoughts:

We have a bit of a queue built up for Ask The GMs so I thought I would give you some quick answers to tide you over until we can give your questions the attention they deserve.

First, let me state that I don’t know the Shadowrun system, so take my answers with a grain of salt.

Question 1: Managing Equipment

The easiest way is to go by price.

Beginning characters should not be able to afford anything more expensive than 20% of the highest priced item in the book. As the characters gain experience and the rewards that go with it, and capture the odd piece of equipment along the way, they can move first into the 20-40% range, then the 40-60% range. Anything over 60% should always be a specialty item that you deliberately place for them to find and use. Never give anything in the 60%+ range that has a standard power supply, regardless of what the books might say; if you limit the power available, you have a means of removing something that proves to be too powerful. If it proves OK, then you can have the PCs learn of a cache of power packs that fit the specs for the item in question.

Also, make sure that each character has a fixed budget to spend on the equipment that they have at the start of play; this will usually be the same amount for everyone, but you might tailor it to character backgrounds.

Of course, if you give one PC an advantage in the form of accessibility of advanced/better equipment, you should either give them a balancing disadvantage or give the other PCs an advantage of a different type. This is a critical area of campaign design. – Mike, 2017

If you combine these two guidelines, you should have no trouble with equipment choice.

Question 2: Ammunition / Power Supplies

Another of the ways you can control the danger to your campaign is with restricted ammunition. I generally divide the ammo into two types: standard and exotic. Standard ammo is available in just about any town that the characters visit, though they may have to deal with the black market. Exotic ammunition should be treated as a “controlled substance” by you – doled out in small amounts until you see how dangerous the weapon is compared to others. In general, even if a weapon using exotic ammo is not too unbalancing, it should be harder to obtain than standard ammo.

A good way of distinguishing between the two is the price per shot times the number of dice in each shot. If a box of 50 rounds costs $500, that’s $10 per shot; if each shot does 2d6, that’s a price of $5 per d6.

Compare that with a belt of 5000 shots costing $25000, each doing 1d6: $5 per shot, 1d6, so $5 per dice – the same. However, the implication of such a large number of shots is a semi- or fully-automatic weapon; if the weapons fires 10 shots a round, that should boost the price per dice accordingly, to $50 per shot.

Which should place the ammunition belt into an entirely different availability category. What’s more, 5000 shots – even when used in a semi- or fully-automatic weapon – is enough to last for a long time. To test the waters, I would make a partially-expended ammo belt available, one with maybe 100 shots.

Once again, the 20-40-60 rule would apply, giving some ammo categories that would start off being exotic but become more readily available in the course of the game.

Potions are a different story. You always have to ask yourself where they come from when placing them in a game. Once you answer that, you can work out whether or not they are available generally or are low-priced “exotic” rewards.

Never forget that the promise of exotic equipment makes great bait to wave in front of the players – just be prepared for grumbles if the bait isn’t really on offer.

Equip NPCs in exactly the same way – but they have as much budget as the story demands!

Question 3: Buying Equipment

Anytime they want? Heck No! They have to go somewhere where equipment is sold, deal with any entanglement due to past and present affiliations and deeds and even things they are rumored to have done, but might actually be innocent of. One of the best ways an NPC can weaken the PCs is by spreading a rumor that will cause their source of supplies to dry up.

If the PCs want to go shopping, and they can get to a marketplace, more power to them – but the game does not stop while they max out their credit cards. And if there’s no marketplace nearby that’s willing to sell to them, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the beginning, middle, or end of the session – they have to make do with what they’ve got.

Even then, don’t presume that the PCs have received exactly what they thought they were buying. “When I sell a horse, I won’t guarantee that it has four legs, the customer has to count them for himself,” as was written in a Robert Heinlein story. Filing the serial numbers off batches of defective ammo, “correcting” use-by-dates, and in fact, every scam you can think of, is fair game. And if the PCs shoot their guns and the guns just go “click” that’s part of the fun!

In the past, I’ve seen advice on this subject that suggested using a backwater starting location for the PCs so that the GM could limit the amount of gear that the PCs have to choose from, and employing a rags-to-riches subtheme to adventures. The way I see it, there’s only one problem with the proposal: in order to vet the lists, the GM needs to read up on *all* the equipment and be an equipment-combination guru. Letting the PCs have full access to the equipment list means that you only have to read up on the equipment they select, plus whatever you are going to need. Even the price-point suggestion in response to question 1 lets you stratify the prep work required, putting up to 90% off for another day.

Hope these quick answers help,

Unfortunately, the email exchange is on an old hard disk and no longer accessible, so I can’t state what Tommy was able to make of my advice, I can only hope that then, as now, it was helpful.

Section 2: Collective Wisdom from Multiple GMs

While waiting for another player or two to finish their lunch a week or five back, some of us had a quick discussion about the problem. Most of the participants weren’t familiar with Shadowrun as a game system, either, so there is that ongoing Caveat. But at least one was, which is better than none, and all of us had experience with other equipment-heavy rules systems such as Star Wars: Edge Of The Empire. The following are some of their thoughts and some of my own, in no particular order, for whatever they are worth. Some are mutually-contradictory, be warned!.

Shadowrun is equipment-hypersensitive

Control of access to equipment lists is a key assumption in the Shadowrun game. It is especially sensitive to equipment problems when this principle is not adequately policed, and a single mistake can be campaign-wrecking, though it’s rarely quite that bad. Double-check and double-think every equipment decision you make.

Exploit Initial Equipment Restrictions

If the players start with little-or-no equipment, whatever they acquire will have to come as a result of their adventuring, placing equipment under strong GM control. The trick to this approach is challenging the characters without overwhelming them – and without gifting them easy meat.

Equipment should break

Especially if not properly maintained, the survival rate for equipment should be restricted. Maintenance might require specialized tools; restrict access to those, and you effectively restrict the PCs access to the equipment already in their possession. But this road can leave the GM open to accusations of bias.

Breakability Based On Characters

Most game systems have some sort of hit-point mechanic. GM’s can exploit this to quickly test for breakage of equipment.

  • To do this, rate all equipment into one of several categories:
    • 5% – weak and fragile
    • 10% – sensitive or delicate
    • 25% – robust and functional
    • 50% – designed to be resilient
    • 100% – special case for vehicles and the like
  • Multiply each character’s hit points by each of the indicated percentages, rounding up, EG if they have 35 HP, you get 2, 4, 9, and 18, respectively. These are both a HP threshold and the amount of damage any piece of equipment can take once that threshold is breached.
  • At the end of combat, compare the total damage done to the character to these targets. Equipment can take the indicated damage without risk, and the percentage chance of failure is the % of the way through the indicated rating. The chance of repair is 100 minus this number. When one piece of equipment breaks, the next restarts at 0% chance but the grace period is applied only once. 100% chance is guaranteed breakage.

    For example: At the end of a fight, our 35 HP character has taken 13 points of damage. Applying this to each category:

    • 5% = 2; 13-2=11; 11/2 = 5 pieces of 5%-rated equipment irreparably damaged (potions, mealpacks, bandages, whatever) and 1 piece which has taken 1/2 damage (50% chance of damage, 50% chance of salvaging it if so).
    • 10% = 4; 13-4=7: 7/4 = 1 piece of 10%-rated equipment irreparably damaged (roll randomly for which) and 1 piece which has taken 3/4 hp, having a 75% chance of being damaged and 25% chance of being repairable if so.
    • 25% = 9; 13-9=4; 4/9 = 1 piece of 25%-rated equipment (choose randomly) which has taken 4 hp out of 9 possible, having a 44% chance of being damaged and a 56% chance of being repairable if it has been.
    • 50% = 18; 13-18= -5. So no 50% equipment has been damaged. Optionally, you can track the -5 and apply it as a modifier to the HP of the 50% equipment in the next fight (so the 18 would be a 13 in the next combat encounter).

This saves you from having to track this sort of detail during combat, but is reasonably realistic despite the heavy levels of abstraction.

You can also rule that all experimental equipment is one category worse than it would otherwise be once the bugs are worked out.

Make each equipment-function a project: who is it good for?

Don’t try and swallow a whole equipment list at once; divide equipment up into functional categories and study each one separately. You might do armor this week, shields next, melee weapons the week after, ranged weapons after that, and so on. DO make notes on each item, especially asking “who would use this?” and “who can afford this?”; those enable you to quickly select the equipment used by NPCs, and to vet the equipment lists proposed by players.

It can be worthwhile letting characters have ONE piece of equipment that is outside the restrictions provided that there is a story attached to how they came to posses it, which they have to provide.

Can you map out an equipment tree?

If one piece of equipment is obviously just an improved version of a previous one, with no downsides, penalties, or restrictions added or increased, it can be considered a more expensive version of the previous one. This lets you map out equipment trees, with each such downside, penalty, or restriction forcing an item off onto a separate branch of the tree that is only accessible to those who aren’t bothered by the downside, penalty, or restriction.

Don’t ignore combinations, such as including a ring of protection in D&D; leather-plus-+1 ring is obviously better than leather alone, but not as good as +1 leather would be, which would free up that ring slot for some other magic item. Pay close attention to stacking restrictions.

Defining a typical entry-level for each character archetype or class completes the map. Expect martial types to have two-to-three times as many entries on their branches.

With shields, remember that there is a limitation introduced: no access to two-handed weaponry while using one, so “X-plus-shield” is not an entry on the “X” branch, it is an entirely separate branch. This can result in the same item appearing multiple branches.

You can then assess from a character’s progress through his career how far along the tracks he should be and hence what his equipment level should be, quickly and easily – but do allow a bit of random chance if you do so, don’t be completely predictable.

Restrict Access To Ammo

It can be far more effective in a sci-fi game from a game point of view to give the character whatever equipment he wants and restrict provision of the ammunition or power supply. Don’t assume that the tail comes with the donkey, the PCs may have to pin the tail on it for themselves.

Beware the unlimited power-pack

Think twice before giving the PCs ANYTHING with an unlimited power pack, and if it’s combat equipment, think a third time – and then think better of it. Not saying you can’t do it, but be darned sure you know exactly what you are doing AND that the power pack can’t be modified or adapted to power anything with greater combat effectiveness.

The Improbable recharge-rate alternative

A nasty trick to play is to give the PCs an unlimited-charges power supply that takes a long time to recharge – a week, say. This effectively gives them one shot with the weapon or whatever-it-is but then takes it away from them for that improbably recharge period.

The Second-hand/black market is your fremeny

The black market will always have things on it that you don’t want your players to get their hands on. Make it as much trouble as these things are worth (and a little more) to access them. And remember the ammo comments.

“Experimental” weapons should always have a flaw

Experimental weapons (or equipment in general) should never function perfectly. They should always have at least one flaw. This may mitigate the effectiveness of the weapon, or it render it completely worthless. There may be a practical work-around, or not. As a result, it can always sound like a fun idea to let a PC have one or more such pieces of equipment. The problem is that you then have to come up with these flaws, and make them both distinctive and reasonable, and not something that could/should have been spotted and corrected long before things reached the point of field-testing. And that gets hard-to-impossible after a while.

A New-Equipment/Prototype Design Flaw system

Roll 2d6, and multiply the results shown on one die by the results of the other. Multiply the result by four plus the number of generational steps ahead of current standard equipment the equipment is, plus one more if the owners don’t have access to the appropriate standard maintenance equipment required or don’t have the appropriate skill.

The number before the decimal point is the number of major design flaws. These are easy to identify but hard to correct. Roll d% for each: 0-30 and the character will be permitted a field workaround if they think of one; 31-60, and the character will be permitted to obtain a modification to the design that they can implement in a future adventure, if they look for it; and 61-00, the problem is inherent and uncorrectable.

The number after the decimal point is the chance of a minor design flaw manifesting each time the equipment is used in a different way or different environment. It can be much harder to identify the precise cause of these, and they can even seem intermittent or idiosyncratic to one particular example of the equipment. Roll d% each time one comes up: on a 1-20, the problem can be identified immediately; 21-30, the problem can be identified immediately, but a correction will take d6 game sessions to design and implement; 31-40, the problem will take d6 recurrences before it can be properly diagnosed and d6 game sessions for a correction to be designed and implemented; 41-60, the problem can be identified after d6 recurrences but correction will require months of work by the manufacturer; 61-80, the problem can be identified after d6 recurrences but correction is not possible; 81-00 the problem can’t be identified, roll again after d6 recurrences.

Traveller Tech-Levels can be a guideline

Some game systems like Traveller and Space Opera assign equipment to a given Tech-Level. Even when employing a completely different game system, understanding at what tech level an equivalent item becomes functional/possible in such a game system can provide a guideline on what should be available in your game. But it can be more work.

Use equipment to drive the plot and engage the players

Only the most basic equipment should be freely available. Anything beyond that should involve a story that the PC has to work through to obtain it. This can be a single encounter, purely roleplayed, or it can be a major quest, depending on the value of the item and its rarity.

The need to obtain replacement parts, ammunition, power supplies, etc can be a separate story in its own right. Treat your equipment choices as opening the door to future PC motivations and rewards.

A simple availability system

Rate equipment as a percentage of typical starting capital; subtract each item’s result from the highest result to get a basic availability level, assuming the PCs can identify and purchase from the right place. 100% or higher is readily available, unless illegal; the interpretation of anything lower is up to the GM but should reflect the combination of the amount of trouble the PCs face in acquiring it, the amount of trouble the PCs will be in if they are caught using it, the amount of trouble the PCs will be in if they are caught simply possessing it, the number of other people who want it and can’t get it, and the number of people who want to take it off them.

Give major pieces of equipment a personality.

This tip speaks for itself. Treat major equipment as a simple NPC in its own right – cooperative when treated right, cantankerous when not, and in-between the rest of the time.

The “What-you-need” approach

With this approach, PCs start with no equipment, none, nix. Instead, up to their weight limit, PCs are assumed to have whatever they think they need – but there’s no handing anything back, and once you hit your weight limit, that’s IT; thereafter they have to trade in and do all their shopping in character.

Coupled with reasonable restrictions, this can force PCs to use their existing equipment in innovative and creative ways because they don’t want to commit any of their remaining capacity.

Note that equipment that increases carrying capacity does NOT increase the equipment limit.

Spreadsheets can be worth their creator’s weight in gold

Let’s say that you have put together a spreadsheet listing all the equipment, a category or type, its price, its weight, a very brief summary of what it does, how many of each a given PC has, and the page number and location that holds more details, 1 item to a row. What can you do with it?

Sort it one way and you have a list of all equipment by type in alphabetical order, making it easier to find specifics on anything. Sort it another, and you have a list of all equipment by type in price order, making it easier to decide what should or shouldn’t be available to the PCs. Sort it another way (and assuming consistent nomenclature) and you have a list of all equipment that has a similar effect on the game. Sort it another way and it’s a contents list for the equipment sections of the rules, regardless of the source volume. Sort it still another way and it becomes an index to those sections.

If you adopt some of the suggestions above, you can easily insert columns for availability or damage rating, or even simply list the weights of the equipment that each character is carrying, taking all the work out of that..

If you’re talking about equipment, you need to be thinking about what you can do with a simple spreadsheet, and whether or not it’s worth your time to create one. And if in doubt, just say “yes”.

Abstractions can save time and effort

Our natural inclination is to be specific about equipment. This many med-packs, that many bullets or energy charges, and so on. But there is an alternative that can yield big benefits: Abstraction. Define healing in terms of the number of 4-round or 5-round combats-worth that the PCs have between them. Define Ammo in terms of the average number of rounds of combat they will last, and forget how many actual shots are expended in each of those rounds.

The advantage is that all you have to count is the number of rounds of combat that have taken place to know how many of the PCs supplies have been expended, and how many more they have left.

Avoiding the problem: Different system with the same setting

Rather than just converting the equipment section from another game system, something that Tommy has ruled out, contemplate changing game systems entirely, retaining nothing but the game background. This enables you to bypass the entire equipment system if it seems to complex; the important point would be to match genre with genre. Traveller, Space Opera, even Star Wars (minus lightsabers, perhaps)… you have plenty of options.

Study NPCs from published adventures to understand equipment

The final tip to unlocking the most effective equipment combinations is to study the characters in published adventures, especially those from the system authors. Don’t just look at what equipment they have, try to understand why the characters have made the choices that they have done, and why an alternative would be inappropriate; where they have been forced to compromise, and what they have prioritized. The more equipment-sensitive the game system is, the more this will pay off.

Section 3: A new system for ammo-tracking

So why does a GM want to track ammunition in the first place?

First reason: Realism. Verisimilitude is a perfectly legitimate motivation – but is it enough to justify all that tedium?

Second reason: Replenishment. You want to force the PCs to have to replenish their supplies from time to time. But tracking ammunition seems to be a lot of work when the GM could simply tell the PCs that they will run out of Ammunition in a day or two or a week or whatever at the rate they’ve been using it – whatever suits his plot purposes. If plot is the reason you’re tracking expendables, in other words, make the decision a plot-based one.

Third reason: Motivation/Excitement. Knowing that the ammo is running out and the zombie horde are still outside the door – or whatever – makes encounters more exciting. But any sort of ammo tracking system will have the same benefit, so choosing one that has the minimum workload for the GM is infinitely better than tracking each and every expendable.

Fourth and final reason: Confinement. Knowing that they don’t have enough expendables to do so is also a good way of stopping the PCs from simply shooting at everything in sight, forcing players to become more cautious – and more inclined to roleplay their way out of situations if they can see a way to do so. But if the point is to confine the amount of damage that the PCs can do to judicious levels, why use the most labor-intensive approach?

None of these reasons justify tracking expendables by item. This was touched on in the suggestion earlier to be more abstract in your handling of expendables. But even that proposal involves a certain amount of work that isn’t all that necessary. I was reviewing the discussion with my fellow GMs for breakdown into the earlier sections when I thought of an even simpler approach.

Meals: track by days’ worth of food. Assume that if they choose to go on light rations, they can double the number of days remaining. If they choose to go onto bare minimum survival diets, this amount can be doubled again. If they can forage/hunt but there is relatively little food to acquire in this way, they can extend their supplies’ duration by an additional 10% per person so engaged for at least 3 hours – provided that they do so every day. If they miss a day, it drops to 5% a person. If game and food is plentiful, make that 25% per person so engaged for at least three hours. In the process, this expendable becomes all about the PCs activities and not a mere bookkeeping activity.

Bandages/Medicines: track by HP worth. “You have bandages and medicines capable of handling 120 HP worth of wounds, between you.” Sell these in standard units of, say, 40 HP worth. Again, if they undertake the appropriate activities, up to 50% of used bandages can be salvaged – but it’s rather harder to do so with medicines. Nevertheless, a character with the appropriate skills who expends 3 hrs on doing so might be able to restore 25% of one standard unit’s worth with natural equivalents. That distinction does mean that these two types of expendables should be tracked separately, even though they are bought as a unit.

Ammunition: track by HP, and sell in standard batches of HP worth. If you want to get technical, multiply the number of items of ammunition in a standard box by the average amount of damage per shot, divided by the average number of items that have to be expended in order to achieve that damage – but once you’ve made a nice, round-number estimate, forget the working and simply use that as a standard. For example, if shotgun shells do 2d6 each, that’s an average of 7 points per shot. So a box might contain 140HP worth. All you need to do is total up the damage inflicted by the shotgun-wielder each game session and deduct it from the 140hp total.

Some characters are walking arsenals. That’s fine – get them to specify a primary weapon and a secondary weapon, and if necessary, a tertiary weapon. Assume that 75% of their damage comes from the primary weapon, and 25% from all the others. 75% of that 25% will therefore come from the secondary weapon if they have more than two, and 25% of the 25% from the rest. Simply work down the chain. This ignores the weapon actually used, which is fine; the law of averages will eventually even things out.

That leaves only the problem of a character deliberately specifying a weapon that does low damage as their primary choice and then actually using a heavy-damage weapon almost all the time. This is a form of cheating, but don’t call it that; simply keep track of what weapon each PC is using, most of the time, and if it doesn’t match the list provided by the player, tell them that you are adjusting the sequence of the list to match what the PC has actually been using.

If you want to deal with smaller numbers and less math, track all of the above (except meals) in dice – which are never rolled, simply counted. “You were hit three times by the Landekkian Fungus-Worm for 3d6 each, so that’s used 9 dice worth of bandages and medicines.”

That’s about as simple as it gets.

Section 4: A new system for managing complex equipment options

Tommy himself raises the question of standard “adventurer’s kits”. The problem is that this neglects the opportunities for individualization, arguably going too far.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use the concept as a foundation, have all the advantages of a standard “kit” and of individualization as well – it’s all in what you do with those kits.

Prep Step 1: Price Points

Lets assume that most PCs have starting money of 500 Moons (to invent a currency on the fly). Nine-tenths of this amount will be the base price-point for a standard adventurer’s kit, or 450 Moons.

More advanced basic kits increase in price by double the last increase. So a level-2 kit costs 450+900=1350 moons; a level-3 kit costs 1350+1800=3150 moons; a level-4 kit costs 3150+3600=6750 moons; and so on. (Personally, if I were generating these, I would round all of these except the first up by 50, to get 1400, 3200, and 6800 moons, respectively, just for the convenience).

Prep Step Two: Standard Breakdown

Whatever is more expensive, Armor or Weapons, costs a % of the available funds, decided by the GM – somewhere between 50 and 75%, probably around the 60% mark. Half of what’s left goes on the other type of item. Round the results of both up to get convenient numbers. Whatever’s left goes on accouterments.

If we continue the example, using 60%:

  • Level 1 kit, 450 moons: Armor 270 (call it 300) moons, Weapons 90 moons (call it 100), other 50 moons.
  • Level 2 kit, 1400 moons: Armor 840 (call it 850) moons, weapons 280 moons (call it 300), other 250 moons.
  • Level 3 kit, 3200 moons: Armor 1920 (call it 2000) moons, weapons 600 moons, other 600 moons.
  • Level 4 kit, 6800 moons: Weapons 4080 (call it 4000) moons, armor 1400 moons (but this is less than the previous, so call it 2000), other 800 moons.

…and so on.

Prep Step Three: Construct the base kits

Level 1 Kit: Buy the best that you can afford in whatever the main two categories are (armor and weapons, usually). Buy the essentials from the ‘other’ budget, choosing the most basic items and avoiding unnecessary frills. Contemplate a very cheap vehicle. Spend whatever’s left on supplies.

Level 2 Kit: Buy the best that you can afford in whatever the main two categories are (armor and weapons, usually). Buy upgraded forms of all the essentials from the other budget, Buy any remaining essentials from what’s left. Spend the remaining funds equally on ammunition (if applicable), food, bandages/medicines, and supplementary equipment.

And so on. You can define whatever breakdown categories you deem fit, based on the game system.

Prep Step Four: Give the standard kit lists to the players

Make copies or printouts for the players to refer to. Distribute them. Then let them start to customize them.

Customization of Kits:

The total price point is fixed. Everything else can be replaced. So if a player wants a cheaper armor, they can spend whatever they save on a better weapon, or on upgrading essentials, as they see fit. But once play starts, they are stuck with what they’ve chosen.

Until they can afford the next level of kit, they are stuck with only those equipment upgrades you hand out as part of an adventure or as rewards. Keep track of the value of these, as they should not exceed the allocated value of the next kit’s equipment.

When a PC can afford to upgrade to a level-2 kit, they can customize it in exactly the same way as they did previously. They may already have received some of the equipment included in it as rewards or whatever; that’s fine, because of the restrictions placed on such equipment in the preceding paragraph.

Why this is beneficial

It keeps consistency across all characters in terms of resources. You can’t buy a bigger gun without sacrificing armor, for example. The checks and balances are inherent to the system.

But, more importantly, for each kit you have to look up just one piece of armor, one weapon, and the miscellaneous equipment list, plus whatever the players choose for themselves – four major items, instead of the ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty-plus of an equipment-rich game system. Just pick the most expensive item that can be afforded in each category.

The Bottom Line

Even in an equipment-rich system like Shadowrun, equipment need only be as much work as you want it to be. And, of course, the same principles and techniques can be applied to any RPG, from Tunnels and Trolls to GURPS

The question now is not, “How can I manage PC equipment,” it’s “Hoe easy do you want it to be?”.

Section 5: About The Contributors

As usual, I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights:


Mike is the owner, editor, and principle author at Campaign Mastery, responsible for most of the words of wisdom (or lack thereof) that you read here. You can find him on Twitter as gamewriterMike, and find out more about him from the “About” page above.


Blair Ramage was one of the first players of D&D in Australia, using a photocopied set of the rules brought over from the US before they were on sale here in Australia. When the rulebooks finally reached these shores, he started what is officially the fourth D&D campaign to be run in this country. He dropped out of gaming for a long time before being lured back about 15 years ago, or thereabouts. For the last eight years, he has been co-GM of the Adventurer’s Club campaign with Mike.


Saxon has been vaguely interested in gaming since the early 1980s, but only since going to university in the late 1980s has the opportunity for regular play developed into solid enthusiasm. Currently he plays in two different groups, both with alternating GMs, playing Dungeons and Dragons 4th ed., the Hero system (Pulp), a custom-rules superhero game (also based on the Hero System), Mike’s “Lovecraft’s Legacies” Dr Who campaign, WEG-era Star Wars, FASA-era Star Trek, and a Space 1889/Call of Cthulhu hybrid. When it’s his turn he runs a Dr Who campaign. He cheerfully admits to being a nerd, even if he’s not a particularly impressive specimen. He was a social acquaintance of both Mike and Blair long before he joined their games.


Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for more than 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he GMs but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales Of The Floating Vagabond, Legend Of The Five Rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, Gurps, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many, many more.

Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting (based on his prior experiences). Amongst the other games he now runs, Mike and Blair currently play in his Star Wars Edge Of The Empire Campaign.

In the next ATGMs: The first of a pair of undead-related questions: When Undead Go Stale…

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 12: Relations


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

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

It has been suggested on a a number of occasions that one of the hallmarks of the beginner’s campaign are the lack of depth in the characters. It’s a view that I can certainly understand and even agree with to some extent.

GMs often resort to stealing characters from elsewhere and ‘reskinning’ them in order to combat this tendency, fielding NPCs who are thinly-veiled homages to the GMs favorite characters from fiction and media. But it’s hard to be unbiased when an NPC is an ‘interpretation’ of a favorite character, and even if the beginner pulls that off, they leave themselves open to allegations of favoritism if the source is recognized – and it usually is.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and this article will show you how even a first-time GM can create characters like a pro. They can even be used by players to create the base personalities of a new PC (such will always evolve with play and interaction with the game environment)!

I’ve recommended various books on characterization here and there over the years here at Campaign Mastery. Such books proceed from personality type to the traits that are exhibited by that personality type. When two character traits from different characters interact, the result is a definable relationship.

What’s In A Profile

A characterization profile generally consists of several elements. You have a summary or synopsis that defines the central attribute of the personality type; you have a list of traits, often divided into two subcategories – internal and external.

Internal traits deal with the feelings and ideography that develops as an expression of the characterization profile. (“Ideography” is is a more liberal application of the political concept of an ideograph: ‘An ideograph or ‘virtue word’ is a word frequently used in political discourse that uses an abstract concept to develop support for political positions. Such words are usually terms that do not have a clear definition but are used to give the impression of a clear meaning.’ I have broadened the concept to ‘an abstraction that idealizes, simplifies, or typifies a general reaction associated with a particular trait identified as characteristic of a personality type’.

External traits deal with the relationships that the personality type tends to assume in its interactions with other personality types.

Most such traits are socially acceptable, and even socially productive. But most of them also have a darker side in which, carried to extremes, they become unacceptable or induce unacceptable behavior. Such discussions form the final definition section of a personality profile; what follows are examples, or famous figures who exemplify the profile, or application of the profile in some respect, depending on the source.

Single-profile characters

Applying such theory comes in two forms: Single-profile characters and complex characters. Single-profile characters, without incorporating the depth of profile books such as The Writer’s Guide To Character Traits, can also be defined as stock or cliché characters. The benefit of such a reference book is that they provide depth beyond this cliché level right at your fingertips. Each personality profile has 3,4,5, even 6 traits in both the internal and external categories; simply pick one as dominant and the others as minor traits and quick characters assume depth and viability immediately. They aren’t fully rounded, complex characters, but for single-adventure roles, they are all you need.

Complex Characterization

Complex characters consist of layers of profiles. I generally operate on the three-profile basis, because it is consistent enough to be robust and not too confusing to the GM to referee, but packs sufficient richness and complexity of characterization to be subtle and believable and to stand up to repeated encounters at length.

Three-profile defines, unsurprisingly, three profiles as the character. Traits are this compiled within the personality that are sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory.

I simplify the integration of the three profiles by defining one as Primary, one as Secondary, and one as Tertiary.

A Primary Profile is dominant most of the time. In particular, traits that are complimented in some way by the Secondary profile are strengthened, while traits that are contradicted can either neutralize each other or can be a source of internal conflict for the character. Even when neutralized, such traits will still persist as an inclination when no more powerful drive is in play.

The Secondary The secondary profile augments, contrasts, and compliments the primary. It influences most of the time but rarely controls the character; only in circumstances where the primary profile is neutral or apathetic as an influence, times when the single-profile character simply wouldn’t care.

The Tertiary The tertiary profile rarely manifests, even as an influence over the character except to reinforce a secondary trait to the point of making it equal in dominance to a trait of the primary, or when both primary and secondary profiles are neutral or apathetic. However, in one or two specific areas of activity, phases of the character’s life, periods in their history, or types of activity, the tertiary profile exerts itself above even the primary traits. Thus you can have a warm, generous, lovable person who becomes, by instinct, an absolutely ruthless shark when it comes to business, for example. It is important to tightly confine the tertiary profile’s applicability at the time of character definition so that it becomes instantly clear to the GM whether or not it overrides the Primary in any given situation.

Application of Complex Characterization

It is vital for there to be intent to have the character participate in many different types of activity with the PCs if the effort and richness of a complex characterization is not to be wasted. You need their relationship with the PCs to be such that all these different traits and influences have an opportunity to play out.

One of the great benefits of these approaches is that it is easy to add depth to an existing single-profile character – you simply define the “single profile” as the Primary and restrict the Tertiary Profile to a situation that wasn’t relevant to their characters’ first appearance.

Alien/Non-Human Characters

Human nature hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries of recorded history. We can still connect with, and relate to, the story of an Egyptian King despite a separation of thousands of years, or an early Chinese Bureaucrat from 1,000 years ago, for example. Social progress has been more profound, as have economic and scientific progress – often by virtue of the interrelationship between the fields – but the characters of Shakespeare still ring true.

Two reasons render a lot of alien/non-human characters as humans in different clothes: first, a failure of either imagination or technique on the part of the GM; and second the need for human players to relate to the stories of those characters. I’ve long felt that this isn’t good enough. One of the most popular articles here at Campaign Mastery at the time it was published, Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans addressed the first reason in a way that is still better than anything else that I’ve seen. The foundation principles of that article and of the “Create A Character Clinic” are Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs, a theory of psychology that continues to evolve and which has come under some justifiable criticism in various respects, as you can read in this Wikipedia Page.

Applying the principles of characterization described in earlier sections of this article to alien characters is something that is hinted at in “Creating Alien Characters” but not overtly described. Even in the context of this article, it is both too complex to describe comprehensively in a short space and too far off-topic to justify a larger space. Nevertheless, some indication of the process is warranted.

There are two approaches that I have come up with: the Iterative Profile Technique and the Profile Modification Technique. I’m going to look at these processes in as brief a manner as I can manage.

The Profile Modification Technique

This takes a character that has been constructed to be human using the simple or complex profiling methods described above and alters the profile to fit the revised racial thought/emotional processes generated with the “Creating Alien Characters” article. You first define the character using human profiles, then for each profile, define the needs of a character who would exhibit the dominant traits that you have selected. This identifies the interplay between the profile and the human hierarchy of needs that connects character with circumstances. Once you know that, you can examine the consequences of removing any needs that no longer apply and altering any that have changed, as well as the consequences of any changes in the hierarchy’s sequence. This enables you to ‘rewrite’ the profile to define the equivalent profile within the alien culture/society/race. Once all the relevant profiles have been updated accordingly, you can then apply the principles described above to harmonize the modified Primary, Secondary and Tertiary profiles in the case of a complex character or simply apply the altered profile if using simple characterization by making suitable amendments to the traits associated with the profile.

In other words, to make the character properly ‘alien’, you need to first subtract the human influence on the personality profile and then apply the non-human in its place.

The Iterative Profile Technique

Profile Modification works well if you only have one representative of the race to create. Where you have multiple representatives and want them to manifest individuality, the Iterative Profile Technique is the better alternative.

The principle is simple: do a rough-and-ready conversion of ALL the different profiles (there are 25 in the writer’s guide to character traits) and then cherry-pick the ones that you will actually need to undergo full Profile Modification. This enables you to achieve two things: First, you get a very broad overview of the way in which the changes that define the alien manifest in terms of personalities from the rough-and-ready conversions; and second, it enables you to choose character types who will interact and interrelate in interesting ways while still achieving your plot objectives for the individual representatives.

Cart Before The Horse

These techniques work perfectly well when constructing a character built around a defined, chosen, character profile or niche. They work very poorly when dealing with the vast majority of incidental NPCs who only appear once, or who appear multiple times in the course of a single adventure in exactly the same role.

That defines a character who exists to further a specific plot point, rather than one who is intended to experience a number of plot developments to which the GM wants them to react – since those plot developments are at least partially the outcome of PC decisions, you can’t fully predict exactly what they will be confronted with, and need a broader characterization to be “ready for anything”.

Starting with the characterization when what is needed is a profile that will achieve a specific plot function is putting the cart before the horse.

Solving this problem for beginner GMs is the purpose of this article. And it’s not as easy as it sounds. I have two solutions – one general, and one specific, but only the time to deliver on the first of them in the course of this article; the other one can get described in brief, but the tables involved will take too long to construct and assemble, and will therefore have to wait for a subsequent article outside this series. I’ll present that article in late March or early April – it’s currently scheduled for March 27th but a lot depends on how much time other articles chew up between now and then.

The Specific Solution

A list of character traits that the GM rolls on. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But usage requires some explanation, and the number of tables involved, make this too lengthy for this article: My system has almost 400 traits (with space to write more in). An initial d% roll defines the number of dominant traits, a d20 is then used to select which tables the traits are drawn from, and another d20 roll is then used on each of those tables to select the actual traits. The process is quick enough that if the results do not achieve the GM’s plot needs, another can be rolled. There are more than 16 million combinations possible, more than any one GM is likely to require in the course of his lifetime. I developed the system for my TORG campaign.

The General Solution

This doesn’t so much define one or more specific traits as guide the GM’s thought processes through a series of steps that enable them to create their own defining trait while still leaving room to inspire and yield the occasional surprising character.

This process has to fulfill a couple of important criteria. It has to be simple enough for a beginner to apply, and quick enough for them to apply it on-the-fly. That means that we’re talking about decisions that can be made in seconds. Secondly, it has to be capable of sophistication and depth of characterization, although that might require taking a little more time to generate the personality. Thirdly, it should be capable of at least indicating some characteristic values. Finally, it should integrate with the slower processes described earlier – just in case a walk-on walk-off character suddenly becomes a recurring NPC.

The process that I have devised hopefully ticks all those boxes. The need for decisions that can be made quickly does mean that there have to be more of these decisions, but GMs are free to skip ahead as soon as they develop a satisfactory characterization solution; I actually expect it to be fairly rare that the entire process has to be followed. The complete list of steps are:

  1. Observed Critical Relationship
  2. Categorization of Relationship Traits
  3. Intensity
  4. Force Of Control
  5. Power Of Self-Control
  6. The Opportunism Factor
  7. The Reciprocity Factor
  8. Response
  9. Trait Definition
  10. Generalization
  11. Optional: Profile Selection
  12. Optional: Profile Depth
    1. Observed Critical Relationship

    The general technique starts with a defined relationship to which you want the NPC to be a party to. This could be with a PC, with his deity, with a member of his family, or even with an abstract quality like “the truth” or “loyalty”. This is quite literally the defining relationship of the character; the GM should select one that would naturally prompt the character to fulfill the plot objective.

    The mere fact of selecting a foundation relationship that fulfills the plot needs (if any) that the GM has for the character starts you thinking about the personality that exhibits traits that would lead to that relationship, so while the remaining list of questions may be lengthy, they should also be capable of snap-decision resolution. If you spend more than 5 seconds, absolute maximum, on any of them, you are over-thinking the character.

    With that being understood, some characters have complex plot functions or need to integrate specific campaign background; these complicating factors take the character out of the category of one that can reasonably be generated on the spur of the moment and define it as one that should be created during game prep, and therefore justify investing more thought into each of these questions, or even generating the character “quick and dirty” and then going back over your first-instinct answers to refine them.

    2. Categorization of Relationship Traits

    The first question is to classify the relationship in one of three categories:

    • Positive-Positive;
    • Negative-Negative;
    • One-sided.

    A positive-positive relationship is one in which both parties gain something from the relationship that outweighs any costs or burdens involved. A negative-negative relationship implies that both the character being created and the other party in the relationship are trapped in the relationship, or are being forced into it by circumstance. The costs or burdens outweigh any positive benefits, harming both parties (not necessarily equally). A one-sided relationship is one in which one of the parties gets a positive benefit from the relationship at the expense of the other party; it defines a parasitic relationship or a domineering one.

    These characterizations can be very subjective; they are always how the character being generated views the relationship, and may bear little resemblance to the reality. For example, a character with a sensitive conscience, who feels frustrated by his resulting inability to relax and take it easy, might perceive his relationship with honesty or morality to be one-sided, unable to see the benefits that this characteristic provides him. But the time is not yet right for such specifics; rather than rationalizing and justifying the perceived nature of the relationship at this point, and then characterizing the result, the idea is to choose a category and narrow the options available to explain it in subsequent questions.

    Another way to look at this question is to decide whether or not the character sees himself as a victim of the relationship, and how he thinks the other party perceives it (or would, if it were a sentient being and not an abstract principle).

    From that description, you can see also that this choice hints at whether or not the character is the dominant, equal, or submissive within the relationship.

    3. Intensity

    To what extent is the character’s life / emotional state driven by the traits that are the cornerstone of this relationship – whatever they may be, we haven’t decided that yet?

    Once again, the principle is to choose a category and later select traits that fit, rather than choosing traits and classifying them.

    I usually use a numeric rating out of five, but you can answer this question in any form that is convenient for you; it’s purpose is to shape and direct your thoughts, and if you tend to think in literary terms, a descriptive answer might be more useful to you than a number that has to be translated before you can interpret it.

    4. Force Of Control

    A related but subtly-different question – to what extent does the driving trait control the character, and to what extent does the character control and exploit the drive?

    Again, an example of the distinction: if a character were driven by a sense of justice, and he answers that the trait controls him, then you have the makings of a law-enforcement officer or a vigilante; if he is driven by a sense of justice, and had defined his relationship with justice as a negative one, you are well on the way to describing an embittered cop who is compelled by his sense of justice but resents wasting his life in protecting an ungrateful public. If the relationship is a positive one, then his pursuit of justice gives him fulfillment and contentment. And if the relationship is one-sided, then the character is either in the process of ruining his life through his inability to look the other way, or has decided that he is entitled to reap the rewards that come from a lifetime commitment to serving justice – and is, or is ready to become, corrupt. Four very different characters, who collectively demonstrate the profound implications of these simple questions.

    5. Power Of Self-Control

    Before you can fully assess the answer to question four, you need to place it in context by comparing the character’s level of self-control with the level of control exerted on or by the driving trait. If the character is relatively weak-willed, being consumed by an ideal that he aspires to but cannot achieve becomes a likely description in the event of a controlling drive, while it is not all that unlikely that a character with iron self-control dominates and harnesses his driving trait; that drive can be quite intense and still only influence the character.

    6. The Opportunism Factor

    To what extent does the character take advantage of any opportunities that the driving trait affords him, and – conversely – to what extent does the driving trait restrict his capacity for seizing opportunities?

    Continuing to explore the variations that are possible to a driving sense of justice by way of example, a character with that trait who is nevertheless opportunistic may see himself as a savior, doing whatever is necessary to gain promotion so that he can “clean up this town”, while the converse could indicate a character who may have sublimated his sense of justice into a need to always drive a fair deal or negotiate a fair treaty. Or it could equally be used to describe a character who has been beggared by his inability to seize reasonable opportunities, even if doing so would be socially, legally, and morally acceptable; he holds himself to a higher standard, and it has ruined, or is ruining, his life. And yet, he might consider that a lesser price than the sacrifice of his ideals.

    7. The Reciprocity Factor

    Clearly, questions 3 through 6 shed a great deal of light on the relationship categorization, so – armed with the answers – it is now appropriate to return to the nature of the relationship in order to answer this question: to what extent does reality reciprocate the character’s personal assessment of the relationship?

    8. Response

    The last of the defining questions looks at the role of self-deception and self-image in the picture that has been built up in subsequent questions. If someone were to describe the character based on the answers you have selected, to what extent would he agree or disagree?

    A hard-nosed businessman might be convinced that he is actually being fair and even-handed in his dealings, perhaps because of a sense of entitlement, or perhaps because his personal definition of “fair” is drastically skewed, or perhaps because he prioritizes being “fair” on the hard-working employees who make his wheeling and dealing possible. A generous, even-handed bargainer might consider himself pragmatic and ruthless, but aware of the parasitic principle: don’t kill the host, keep him alive to bleed him again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that….

    Self-delusion can take many forms, and can be a positive force in a character’s life or a negative one. A character who is absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause can do despicable things in his pursuit of that cause. If presented with a true picture of the price of his zeal, he would not accept that it was in any way unacceptable. Regrettable, perhaps, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs…

    9. Trait Definition

    By now, you’re getting deep inside the character’s head, so it’s time to take a look around. All the while that you’ve been answering the questions posed thus far, your subconscious has been gnawing away at the unanswered question – what is the driving, defining, trait of the character’s personality? Systematically examining the influences that the trait has on the character’s life and has defined the ‘shape’ of that trait; at some point in the preceding list of questions, an answer to this section will probably have suggested itself to you, but if not, now is the time to select one that fits the criteria you have laid out.

    10. Generalization

    And, once you know the defining trait, the defining relationship, the way the two interrelate and the way that the trait has impacted on the character’s personality and circumstances, it should be a quick and easy step to generalize from the decisions made into a thumbnail description of the personality of the character. What matters to him, and how will that compel him to fulfill his plot function?

    11. Optional: Profile Selection

    If you deem it desirable, or if the character’s role in the adventure is to expand (or might do so), you might want to take the next step of winnowing through the character types in a book like “The Writer’s Guide To Character Traits” to identify the profile that best matches the personality you have assigned. Doing so adds a wealth of other ways in which the character’s personality might manifest itself.

    12. Optional: Profile Depth

    And, of course, once you have a primary profile selected, it’s not too difficult to select secondary and tertiary profiles to round out the character in such a way that any idiosyncrasies or elements that don’t quite match up with the profile are explained, turning the character into one with the depth of personality to sustain many appearances within the campaign.

Let’s be realistic and suggest that steps 9 and 10 might take half-a-minute; with the preceding steps taking a few seconds each. That’s still only about 40 seconds to have a ready-to-play personality. You won’t find a better bargain anywhere.

The basics-for-beginners series will now take a short break and return a little later in the year with the 13th installment: Surprises.

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A Trick Of The Mind: Aides de Memoire

African Elephant

Image Credit: / Donald Cook

Okay, I need to be up-front about a couple of things.

First, I’m not an expert in this area, and my memory is anarchic at best, remembering some things easily, some things easily with prompting, some things easily once reminded, and some things not easily at all. My advice and techniques in this area is therefore something that should be taken with a huge grain of salt and the caveat that what works for one person may not work as well, or at all, for another. (That said, I’ve tried some of the methods recommended by the experts and achieved very little that way).

Second, I’m not sure how well anything that I have to say is going to translate into publishable writing. This article is being written without the “road map” that I normally use to plan an article, simply because my handle on the subject is a little vague and admittedly, half-baked. This is about my interpretation of the memory phenomena that I have experienced and observed, and how I have assembled techniques to harness and, where necessary, thwart those phenomena. I’m reaching for a coherent ‘picture’ and have no idea whether or not one will materialize by the end of the article.

Let’s get started…

The Complexities Of Memory

All the science that I’ve seen and read on the subject asserts that we have two layers of memory – short-term and long-term. I’m going to start by disagreeing with it and suggesting that this view oversimplifies a more complex phenomenon.

For a start, I don’t think they are hierarchical, which is the image that is usually presented; instead, I perceive many different short-term memory “banks” which feed into “clusters” of related long-term memories, as illustrated (in a somewhat abstracted manner) below:

Thoughts and Experiences – “inputs” to use a more general term – get filed into short-term memory. Evolution has constructed the human mind in such a way that it pays more attention to certain things than others; processing of those things is given priority, and if there isn’t enough remaining capacity to deal with the other inputs coming to our attention, they get tossed into a general “junk” dumping ground. This is a specialized part of long-term memory; information is still there, and can be retrieved through tools such as hypnosis, but it never comes to our attention.

What is meant by ‘processing’? It means several things: conscious awareness, decision-making, instinctive reactions, fight-or-flight triggers, and associations. Associations are links, first, to other short-term memories that the brain’s processes deem relevant, and then to other long-term memories. These associations are also held in short-term memory.

Another aspect of Processing is sorting out what subject or subjects the Input is relevant to, based on the other inputs that accompany it and those that have just preceded it. I’m not talking about a physical difference that could be observed with medical instruments, or how memories are actually stored in the brain, something we are still some ways off understanding; this is an abstract representation of what seems to happen. So if you are reading an adventure, the memories that you make will have a number of environmental associations but ultimately it will get filed in a cluster relating to “stories” in the long-term memory.

To put it in computer-related equivalents, this is a logical file structure, not a physical one.

The brain seems to operate in such a way that closely-related inputs get filed together – it’s easier to remember other adventures when you are thinking about, or reading an adventure; when watching a TV show, it’s easier to remember not only other episodes of that show but other shows in general. That’s what I mean by a long-term memory “cluster”.

Short Term Memory

The currently-accepted figure for short-term memory is between 15 and 30 seconds. I disagree, because I consider this “immediate memory” and not true “short-term memory”. Incidents of people losing recollection of much larger periods of time immediately following an injury are commonplace, and some may never be regained.

Part of the problem is that the filing a memory into long-term storage is a process; it may start after 15-30 seconds, but it progresses in stages and is not complete for some time, minutes or hours. Where do you draw the line? The memory has not yet completed processing, and may still be lost, so it isn’t yet in long-term memory – but processing has commenced, nevertheless, and will – unless disrupted or interrupted – eventually be completed.

I resolve this by defining an intermediate “medium term” buffer – short term memory that holds thoughts, experiences, and associations while they are being processed into long-term memory, and that has nothing to do with “immediate” memory.

Awareness of the medium-term “buffer” concept came about as a result of contemplating the process of reading a book. It’s not strictly relevant, so I’m dumping this discussion into this sidebar.

When you read a book, you remember what you have read for longer than the 15-30 seconds of short-term memory, even if you aren’t trying to memorize the text. If that were not the case, a novel would be impossible – you would get part-way through a page and forget what you had read at the start of the page.

While you might not be able to quote it verbatim, this is clearly not what happens. Instead, an ongoing gestalt of “the story so far” builds up, which enables you to stop reading and later pick up the book and resume it.

The same phenomenon can be noted when watching a documentary or interview on television.

It can be argued that the text has nevertheless entered long-term memory, but often you don’t understand what you have read/seen until you get to the end of the book/show/chapter; but the ability to discuss, appraise, or utilize whatever you have just read/seen seems markedly different from being able to later recall it. There is a spontaneity to the flow of thoughts and ideas in the first instance that is lacking in the latter case, though those ideas will also tend to be more superficial; the experience is subjectively very different, and the memories can be applied more effectively in different ways, providing a qualitative difference.

Long-term memory

The process of storing an input in long-term memory is largely a matter of building and indexing associations between it and others that are already in storage, adding any that already exist in medium-term memory.

It is these associations that are critical in remembering something; the memories themselves can be recorded by the brain perfectly, but if the mental “directory” is damaged, it can be impossible to retrieve them.

In many ways, long-term memory is like the internet with a bad search engine. Many of the links that are presented come back “404 page not found,” even though the page itself is still in place. This happens to web pages when something interferes with the Domain Name system that translates an address in something approaching English, like “” into the computerese equivalent, which is what the web browser actually uses to request and retrieve the web page. If the address is wrong, the page won’t be found.

Routing Around

Some diseases cause this problem to become dramatically worse. Alzheimer’s. for example. I’ve dealt with a few unfortunate people suffering from this disease, and while their memory access is damaged, they can often find a path from another association to the memory in question, by recalling another memory that is related to the target input, i,e, the memory they are actually looking for.

When trying to remember something elusive, the same process can be helpful.

More Associations, Better Recall

That means that the more associations to any given input that are formed, the more easily it will be recalled. That’s what the process of memorization actually is; the creation of layer upon layer of short-term associations that will, in due course, be permanently enshrined in long-term memory.

Blocked Associations

If only it was that simple.

I had a lot of trouble learning my multiplication tables as a child. As I fell further and further behind in this area, I was, on a number of occasions, sent into the schoolyard to walk around reciting them aloud from the schoolbook. This was an attempt to use something called Acoustic Encoding, which is known to aid recall, to build the required association between the question and the answers.

It didn’t work. It was as though the associations that had initially been formed between multiplication table entries and the answers had been permanently filed in my long-term memory with a “bad link”, and all that the repetition did was reinforce that bad link, building associations to the “error page” of my brain’s internet.

It wasn’t for lack of desire, or lack of effort on my part, either. I spent hours outside of school working on those darned tables.

Eventually, I devised a number of mathematical tricks and shortcuts that eventually gave me a reasonable level of proficiency – but, by then, I was in 6th grade and reading (and comprehending) at a university level. Because the method of achieving these results was different to the one that I – and my teachers – had attempted to employ in order to teach me multiplication, it eventually led me to learn the multiplication tables as a process but not as a result. (These days, I don’t remember most of the tricks and shortcuts; the process has (for the most part) become automatic. Some I remember – to multiply by eight, double and then double again and then double a third time; to multiply by seven, multiply by eight and then subtract the original number, or triple and then double and then add the original number to the result.) But by employing these techniques repeatedly over the next few years, I eventually built up an association between individual multiplication questions and the right answers.

But I never did learn them by rote; I learned my way ‘around’ the problem.

(Incidentally, as a result, algebra and calculus came easily to me, permitting me to more than make up any deficiencies in my grounding). In fact, I taught myself calculus in the Christmas holidays between 6th grade and 7th; it took about a week to master it. Then I got distracted by attempts to apply it to the gaps between prime numbers).

The Junk File

Here’s a well-known experiment in perception: Get three or four people in one colored shirt and another three or four in another. Have them throw a ball between them at random, while milling around. Film them, then have the experimental subject count the number of times a player in say, blue, passes the ball within a sixty-second period.

Do this and you can have someone in a gorilla suit walk straight through the group of players and nine out of ten people (seven in ten according to some) won’t even notice unless those on the court react to it. The subject is concentrating so hard on watching the passing of the ball and keeping count that the input of seeing the “gorilla” gets tossed into the junk folder in their heads.

The “gorilla” can even pause and wave to the camera.

What else can get filed as Junk?

Anything that is being performed by rote. Anything that is being learned while distracted. Anything that isn’t considered immediately relevant in a survival/fight-or-flight situation.

You probably remember being miserable the last time you had a headache – but do you remember exactly what the pain felt like? Some experiences have the “serial numbers” filed off and then get aggregated into a general impression.

Can you recall the individual strides that you made in walking to the car or the bus on the Thursday four weeks ago? Details that we don’t pay conscious attention to are rarely filed in the memory in such a way that they can be consciously recalled.

In some circumstances, associations can be damaged in terms of specifics – being hit by a yellow truck can create a damaged association, for example, in which anything yellow causes a ‘danger’ reaction, while trucks of other colors do not, because the specific association was damaged and only part of it – the impression of ‘yellow’ – survived.

The sirens of emergency vehicles can form an association in the minds of those experiencing traumatic injuries that can cause post-traumatic stress reactions in response to other sustained sounds, like music. Any sharp sound can trigger involuntary recollection of a gunshot in PTSD cases resulting from shootings or combat service. Every case is different to each individual; but they are all cases of damaged mental associations, strengthened and reinforced in some cases because in a combat environment they increase the likelihood of survival.

Buffer Accumulation

There are one or two more phenomenon that needs to be understood before I can get to the techniques and specific advice that I want to offer.

What happens when you work on something for a period of time greater than the usual transition period that memories require in order to migrate from medium- to long-term memory?

My experience is that if you are continuing to add to a mental “file”, processing of memories into long-term storage is delayed until the addition stops, and the process of performing the earlier parts of the activity are very likely to be filed as “junk”.

If you’re working on an adventure for a couple of hours, say, none of it gets written to long-term memory and properly indexed until you’ve finished – at which point, only the high points and some general impressions of the first 90 minutes will be remembered.

This discarding can have unwanted consequences; sometimes, the wrong things get filed as junk or abstracted into something simple. If, for example, you get half-way through creating an adventure and interrupt the process for a related activity like constructing a key NPC, you can find that details of the plot and even mental notes that were decided before the interruption are lost, or remembered in more abstract form – at least when compared with the part of the adventure written after the NPC was created.

This isn’t a failure of memory; it’s a failure of memory indexing. The details of the adventure were crowded out of mental RAM by the details of the NPC creation process; in order to make room for the latter, the former was subconsciously synopsized and compressed, and the “unwanted” details then thrown away as Junk.

Junk memories aren’t lost; they are just poorly indexed with associations. There are times when that becomes important.

Sleep Processing

During sleep, the absence of new “inputs” means that the brain can devote more of its processing capabilities to filing, indexing, and cross-indexing the events of the day.

As part of this process, some of the associations that already exist in the memory are retraced as the brain attempts to connect related inputs to that memory. Sometimes, that can lead it into the ‘junk’ folder. It can even lead to a memory being extracted from the Junk folder and properly processed – with the result that when you wake up, you recall a memory that had been long-forgotten but that you wanted to memorize at the time.

I’ve had ideas for articles, made a mental note to make a physical note of the idea at a later point, gotten distracted and forgotten the idea – only to suddenly remember it on waking some days, weeks, or months after the fact. Or it might be a rules insight, or something that I meant to add to the shopping list, or any number of other things.

That’s why I regard the “Junk” folder as another area of long-term memory.

This processing of “Junk” can also explain where some of the weirder things in dreams comes from, when a seemingly valid association being followed by the sleeping individual leads to a Junk Memory due to a malformed association.

Practical Advice

Enough of my half-baked theorizing and analogies, let’s apply them to actually trying to memorize something, at least well enough for practical purposes – an adventure, say, or the key contents of a reference book.

1. Skim-Read

Without trying to understand what you are reading, skim the contents as quickly as you can. For a page of text in something like the D&D DMG or Pathfinder Core Rulebook, five seconds to a column is an acceptable pace.

How much should you skim-read at a time? No more than you can read in a couple of hours, if you were reading it properly. As a general rule of thumb, one chapter.

2. Do something else for at least 30 minutes

The impressions created by that skim-read will form the foundations and central nexus of associations between the details of what you ultimately learn. So you want to give them time to get properly logged in long-term memory. If you do anything even marginally related to what you’ve been reading, you keep adding to the “buffer”, which is exactly what you don’t want to do. So the trick is to do something completely unrelated for half an hour. Work on your budget. Go Shopping. Cook a meal. Watch some TV (the more mindlessly entertaining, the better). Go for a walk. Have a shower. Anything that is s substantially different activity.

If working on something RPG-related, that doesn’t include having a conversation with someone over the phone who is likely to talk about RPG-related matters.

Last choice is to read something completely unrelated to the subject you were just studying up on – trying to learn History? Read a book on Physics.

3. Read “more properly”, in 30-minute blocks.

I’m still not talking about reading it word-for-word, digesting each and every statement. This is more like an in-depth skim, reading whatever it is as fast as you possibly can and letting the words soak into your subconscious. Or, to put it another way, loading your short-term memory “buffer” with a block of text.

4. Do something else for at least 30 minutes

Again, you want time for that to get filed away in long-term memory. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you catch up with your initial skim-read.

5. Read properly in a completely different location.

Experience has taught me that skim-reading in this fashion enables you to read and comprehend text a lot more quickly than simply reading it, and does a better job of lodging what you’ve read into accessible memory. I’m talking about a factor of 4, or five, here.

If this reading can take place in the area where you will eventually use the information you are learning, so much the better; additional associations will be formed with memories of the activity that occurs there. This works very well for RPG adventures and rules.

But, at the very least, go into a different room of the house if you can.

5a. Look for Patterns

Patterns enable something complex to be synopsized into a far more compact and accessible form that can be recalled far more quickly. During the reading above, look for patterns. It’s now at least three years since I used the EL table for D&D 3.x, yet I can still recall the structural pattern of it: EL N+1 = 1.414 creatures of EL N or CR N.

This pattern doesn’t quite hold up at ELs less than one, but almost all the table is completely contained by remembering one number and that relationship. And that’s a lot easier than memorizing the whole table.

6. Do something with what you’ve read.

Actually manipulating the knowledge you’ve just acquired in some fashion builds a whole new ‘cluster’ of associations. You could synopsize it to yourself, you could explain it to someone else (even your pet will do), you could think of ways to use it in an RPG, you could pretend to be giving a class report on it, you could try to express it in a diagram or (more abstractly) in a sketch – the specifics don’t matter too much, though some are more effective than others.

You do have a choice to make – refer back to the text, or do it all from memory. The first builds associations with the printed word, making it easier to find and understand what you need when you need it, but making you more dependent on having the source at hand; the second is harder, but removes that crutch.

Another choice that can work very well is to crack open a related book and find the equivalent sections, then skim-read those (even if you are familiar with the contents). When learning the COBOL programming language, I used my books on BASIC, PASCAL, and FORTRAN, even though those were out-of-date. That meant that when I encountered a statement in COBOL, I was able to bring to bear not just my understanding of what I had read, but the accumulated understanding and experience in all those other programming languages – and enabled me to quickly grasp the idiosyncrasies of the language I was actually studying. This is the same trick.

Environments, or why a different room

Environmental impacts on the learning process come in three varieties: distractions (to be avoided), masking agents, and serendipitous associations.

A Distraction impacts on your ability to learn, as discussed earlier. Does that mean, for example, that you shouldn’t have music playing while you study? Yes, and no.

Music videos and anything else visual poses a distraction. Our eyes already present our brains with more input than they can handle – that’s proven by the “gorilla” experiment I described earlier. So adding anything visual to the mix is a no-no. Similarly, any music that you haven’t heard before is a poor choice, because it demands that you pay greater attention to it by virtue of its newness.

Playing old favorites, however, potentially brings into play the Masking Agent effect and the Serendipitous Association Effect, and both are beneficial.

The “Masking Agent” Effect is when the familiar sounds mask the random distractions of the environment, permitting you to focus more intently on what you are doing. The potential downside is creating a deep association that makes it harder to recall the material without music playing. This is avoided, in part, by having at least some of the study taking place in a different environment – hence, a different room (Leave the iPod behind).

The Serendipitous Association Effect occurs when something in what you are listening to resonates with what you are reading in some particularly strong way, purely by chance. As a result, recalling what you were listening to aids recollection of what you were reading, and re-reading that text reminds you of the music. There is an intensification of both associations by virtue of the “soundtrack”.

A personal anecdote serves as illustration; it has been set off in this box so that if readers aren’t interested, they can skip over it and just take my word for the Serendipitous Association Effect.

I was rather late in reading The Lord Of The Rings; the reason was that this was the Library’s copy and someone had borrowed The Fellowship Of The Ring and not returned it. As a result, I put off reading it until I had gone through all the other sci-fi and fantasy they had, at least twice over (more often in some cases).

At the same time as reading it for the first time, I was also listening to the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Discovery” album for the fifth or sixth time. At the time, I tended to play new purchases multiple times in close succession. At three different points in the text of the Two Towers, three tracks of “Discovery” seemed to link emotionally to what I was reading: “Confusion”, “Midnight Blue”, and “Wishing” – despite the lyrics having little bearing on the textual content. As a result, I can no longer hear those tunes without recalling the relevant parts of the Two Towers, and whenever I think of those parts of the story (or re-read them), I remember the music. There’s an indelible association between the two.

Refreshing Memory

If you are really trying to learn something, rather than learning it for one use and then discarding it, this process should be repeated a few times at increasing intervals. The timing that I use is 1, 1, 11. That’s a Mnemonic device; it should be read 1 week, 1 month, 11 months. So, 1 week after completing the whole process (steps 1 through 6), I will repeat it. A month after that, I will repeat it again. And 11 months after that, I’ll do it again.

Each time, it should get faster, simply because you already have the memory associations that you’ve built up to help you.

Networking Associations

Another trick that I’ve found useful is to make an existing cluster of relevant long-term memories more accessible before starting study. For example, if I want to learn the initiative system for a new game system, it helps to recall the basics of the initiative system from D&D / Pathfinder, or the functioning of the turn chart for Champions. This “sensitizes” the mind to the new material and cross-links associations from something you already know to the new material being studied. You don’t have to go so far as to crack open a book; 60 seconds spent recalling the basics is enough.

When the time comes to recall whatever it is that you’ve learned, you can then recall to memory the system you know well, and that helps remind you of the newly-learned material.

Key Associations

Some associations seem to be “keys” that unlock a flood of related memories and learned material, as though they instruct the brain to “load up” the entire associated memory file; engaging a “key memory” actually feels like changing mental gears, bringing some learned material on-line while marking others as “irrelevant”. I’m acutely aware of this process when I change hats from D&D GM to Hero-System GM, for example.

I’m not exactly sure how a key association is formed, and there is no system I know of for identifying them. I can state that the key association often seems to have something to do with the first thing that you do when entering that mental “mode”, but that can vary quite a bit.

Creating additional stimuli to prompt recall of the key association is useful. Back when I was GMing two completely different campaigns back-to-back on the same day, I used food to do so – because AD&D was in the afternoons and Hero System in the evening, I had a meat pie for lunch and hamburger for dinner. Over time, I found that these foods, and especially the different sights, smells, and flavors, helped in the switching of mental gears, and even simply remembering the taste of the food could initiate the process. This trick made it easier to recall the key association, and that brought the entire campaign and game system to mind.

Sadly, dietary restrictions limit my access to that technique these days – but I can still put myself in “AD&D mode” using that memory. If I’m then asked a question about the Hero System, I have to stop and deliberately change mental gears.

I also deliberately altered the pattern of game set-up between the two to help form different key memories – with the Hero system, XP was rarely handed out at the end of the game session, it was more usual to do so at the start of the next game session. Recalling the principles that were used to determine the amount of XP to be awarded is the “key association” in my head for the hero system.

Actors have been known to use a similar principle to get into character.

The Research Connection

Readers may have experienced a strong sense of deja vu when reading the description of the process, as I’ve described it above; it bears more than a little resemblance with the techniques that I employ for “lightning research“. This is not a coincidence; the purpose of lightning research is to identify the key facts that you need and load them into short-term memory for immediate use. Once used, you aren’t concerned with what happens to that information – but the very act of using the research for whatever purpose you required it for engages “step 6” of the above process, so you are more likely to recall that fact when the time comes.


Does it work? Well, in the course of writing this entire article, I had to look up exactly one fact: the currently-accepted duration of short-term memory. As I explained earlier, I don’t wholly agree with the premise that it and long-term memory are “all there are”, and so have never memorized a value for it. Everything else in this article was simply written, stream-of-consciousness style – without, as I said at the start, any sort of structural blueprint or mnemonic. Despite this, it seems coherent in both content and structure so far as I can tell.

Working Harder

Any student knows that the more often you repeat steps 5 and 6, the better you will learn the material being studied. I used the technique to study higher mathematics, synopsizing key formulas and techniques in an exercise book devoted to the purpose, which I still have and refer to. These were written from memory (in pencil) and then rewritten in ink after verification of accuracy. It was only about five years ago that I discovered that (as a result) I had completely forgotten to include the formulae related to geometric series…

The greater the variety of ways that you apply what you have studied, the greater the variety of associations made with the content studied, and the more easily it can be recalled.

When it comes to learning something, there is ultimately no substitute for hard work. But there are ways of making that hard work more effective, and those are what I’ve hopefully presented here today.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Relevance to other genres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Shelf Introduction

This shelf is divided into three sections.

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

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

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

A Recurring Note On Images:

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

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


RPGs and game supplements

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Core rules and several supplements.

1257. Hollow Earth Expedition Roleplaying Game Core Rules

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

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

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

RPGNow (PDF only): $20

1258. Mysteries Of The Hollow Earth

Expands the game setting.

Amazon: $25+ and limited copies.

RPGNow: (PDF only) $17.50

1259. Perils Of The Surface World

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

Amazon: $11+ and very few copies

RPGNow: (PDF only) $10

1260. Secrets Of The Surface World (not pictured)

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

Amazon: $23+ and limited copies

RPGNow (PDF only) $15

1261. Revelations Of Mars

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

Amazon: $40 and virtually no copies left

RPGNow: (PDF only) $20

1262. Various PDF adventures and add-ons at RPGNow

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

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

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

Amazon: $33+ and limited quantities

RPGNow (PDF) Pay-what-you-want

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

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

Goes with Spirit Of The Century (above).

Amazon: $31 and few copies left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1268. Mystic China – Erick Wujcik (Palladium)

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


More On Treasures

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

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

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

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

1270. Buried Treasures of the Appalachians – W C Jameson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1273. Buried Treasures of Texas – W C Jameson

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

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

1274. Buried Treasures of the Ozarks – W C Jameson

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

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

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

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

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

1276. Buried Treasures of New England – W C Jameson

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

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

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

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

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

1278. Buried Treasures of California – W C Jameson

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

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

1279. Buried Treasures of the South – W C Jameson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1282. Pennsylvania’s Lost Treasures – Patty A Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

82 sites, the usual details and caveats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Books Of Practical Advice


1314. Camping For Dummies – Michael Hodgson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For-Dummies Books Of Practical Advice

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

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

A note about Complete Idiot’s Guides

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

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


1331. Martial Arts For Dummies – Jennifer Lawler

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

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

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

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

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


Afterword by Blair:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Thrill Of The Chase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: / dograapps

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

The RPG equivalent

There are distinct similarities between sporting contests and RPGs.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: ‘Hockenheim 2005’ by / Dirk Federlein

The Reporting Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Commentary Application

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

Image Credit: / Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: / keijj44

The “Scoring” Application

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perspective Application

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

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

Image Credit: / Saekawaii

The Tactical Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: / rihaij

The Thrill Of The Chase

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nascent Campaign

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

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

campaign structure 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some definitions in case the terms are new to you:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandboxing Vs Temporally-constant Campaigns

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

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

The Advantages Of Sandboxing

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

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

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

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

The Sandboxing Downside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pain of being temporally-constant

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

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

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

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

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

A Third Option: The Phased Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

Aspects Of Sandboxing

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Events: Plotlines, Society, & Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Consider the (very rough) map below:

sandboxed map

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

blank map large thumbnail

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


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

The Sandboxing Exclusions:

There are a few exclusions to these principles.

The Weather Exclusion

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

PC-triggered Exclusions

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

“Fuzzy” Sandboxing

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

Villain-triggered Exclusions

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

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

Progressive Campaign Developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background Phases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphysical Phases

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

Campaign Phases

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

Rules Phases

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

Song Of Swords Hardcover

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

Song Of Swords

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song Of Swords hardcover book opened

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

Advanced Tools

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


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

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

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

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

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

Or you could make the themes emotional in nature:

  1. Fear
  2. Hate
  3. Revenge

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

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

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

Nested/Parallel Plot Arcs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Usage For The Beginner

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

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

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