Campaign Mastery helps tabletop RPG GMs knock their players' socks off through tips, how-to articles, and GMing tricks that build memorable campaigns from start to finish.

Ask The GMs – Up Hill and Down Dale: RPG Travel Laid Bare


Once again I’m daring to tackle a topic without the counsel of my friends and fellow GMs, largely because I had a clear answer in mind.

Ask the gamemasters

Today’s question comes courtesy of Jason B, who asked,

“Hey, I was about to start up a campaign that would ultimately take characters to all ends of the world. I was wondering, what is a good way of handling travel?

I was thinking of having an Elder Scrolls-style system, where once they discover a location, they can “fast-travel” on future visits. This would of course be overruled by ambushes and trailing enemies. But they must find the way to their destination first.

For me, it would give role-playing opportunities as well as ways to give plot hooks outside of cities. Maybe they find the lost temple on their own while on their way to the Elven capital. Maybe the Old Road that connects the three human kingdoms, usually protected and open, is being held by highwaymen.

What would you guys suggest for handling long-distance travel?”

Travel inevitably gets faster as characters gain in levels or power, depending on whether we’re talking D&D / Pathfinder or some other game system. Not only are there fewer creatures that will make them break stride, but they have access to rapid-transit magics – whether that be a flying carpet, a flight spell, a friendly dragon, or Teleportation.

Jason’s solution is just another variation on this well-worn procedure, and so would work perfectly well. But, (and it’s a big but), there is still that initial journey, and in fact, any travels undertaken while the characters are still low-level.

I always use these as opportunities to establish the framework of the campaign, the ground rules as it were. I will deliberately design supposedly “random” encounters to highlight any house rules that demand such recognition, for example. I’ll make sure that the players encounter people from a variety of the religious, social, and cultural backgrounds in the campaign, because dry words on the page are one thing, actually encountering something “in-game” is far more real to the players.

Beyond that, though, once these metagame considerations are dealt with, what then?

To a surprisingly large extent, it doesn’t matter what the game genre is, or how the PCs are getting around – the determining factor is travel time, and greater distances in some campaigns merely mean that the speeds are greater. I treat a week aboard an FTL starship the same way that I treat a week spent on horseback, or on foot, or on a sailing vessel, or handling a big rig.

Travel in RPGs

Travel is one of the trickier campaign elements to get right. Most of it can be hand-waved, but if you hand-wave the entire journey, characters will have no perception of the scale of the distances that they travel, and that can lead them into errors of judgment tactically. Hand-wave too little, and it can be desperately boring. The balance between these two contradictions can be tricky to manage.

The Problem

Much of the problem results from the fact that Travel is 90% GM Monologuing, and there is a limit to how much Narrative is acceptable in a big block, or even a succession of Moderately-sized blocks. That can be hard enough to manage on it’s own, but it’s far from the only headache; the limits of what are acceptable and what is sufficient are not fixed. In fact, there can be quite a lot of variation, from group to group, game session to game session.

Just some of the factors that can be involved are:

  1. Length of Narrative,
  2. Type of content,
  3. Predictability of content,
  4. Repetitiveness of content,
  5. Monotony of content,
  6. Quality of delivery,
  7. Expectations,
  8. Interval since the last narrative block,
  9. The Length, Nature, Subject, Content, Quality and Reception of that previous narrative block,
  10. Storytelling priority relative to interaction priority on the part of the GM,
  11. Storytelling priority relative to interaction priority on the part of the Players,
  12. Player psychology,
  13. PC psychology,
  14. Calls to action blocked by narrative,
  15. Any sense of railroading of plot, (right or wrong), and
  16. Any sense of bias against the players/PCs on the part of the GM (right or wrong).

You would need to be a mind-reader to assess all these factors with any accuracy – and many of them will be different from one player to the next. What’s the standard to aim for? Is it the lowest common denominator, is it the minimum that will get the job done from a functional perspective, is it a medium value that is still within the tolerance range of the least-tolerant player in this respect, or should you aim to satisfy everyone at the table while not going farther than any find tolerable? That last is obviously the theoretical ideal, but is it practical in the real world?

If everything aligns against the GM, he can even discover that the minimum non-handwaved travel in order to properly abstract the passage of time is more than the maximum tolerable amount of game time to be allocated to the cause – a gap that can only be bridged through strenuous efforts to change the base factors of one or both ranges, increasing tolerances as much as possible while lowering demands.
narrative-tolerance-diagram

If you find yourself dealing with cases 4 and 5, there’s no problem. Most of the time, however, cases 1, 2, or 3 will be the reality, and the challenge for the GM is to change the factors that he can control to altar these conditions to something more acceptable.

In other words, how to bring the journey to sufficient life while increasing substantially the players tolerance for the journey?

Well, the place to start is with that improbably long list of factors, and what the GM can do to shade each of them in his favor.

Length of Narrative

There is an art to being able to compress narrative without loss of detail, nuance, and emotional resonance. It’s by no means easy, and yet it’s one of the fastest ways of improving the ability to write. That’s why (in addition to reasons of practicality) so many writing workshops focus on stories with very restrictive word limits.

Still, it’s not difficult – it just takes an effort, one that grows less as you learn the skill. I’ve devoted an entire series (The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative) to the subject and the techniques, plus a few tips and tricks shared along the way.

Type of content

Some things are more interesting than others to hear about. Focus on those things and hand-wave the rest.

Repetitiveness of content

If you’re merely repeating yourself, collapse the information into a single narrative statement, and consider hand-waving it if that still results in repetition. Kill repetition stone cold dead.

This:

Day 23: Becalmed
Day 24: Slow Progress
Day 25: Slow Progress
Day 26: Becalmed
Day 27: Slow Progress
Day 28: Slow Progress
Day 29: Slow Progress
Day 30: (Something interesting happens)
Day 31: Slow Progress
Day 32: Slow Progress
Day 33: Becalmed
Day 34: Becalmed
Day 35: Slow Progress
Day 37: (Something else interesting happens)

becomes:

For a week, the prevailing winds are against you, resulting in slow progress, sometimes none at all. But the monotony is interrupted on the 30th day of your voyage when…
(Something Interesting Happens)
Almost a week later…
(Something else interesting happens)

Note that a further occurrence of “Almost a week later” or anything too similar is also repetition and prohibited. Find another way of phrasing it, or even ignore it altogether: “The next break in the dull routine takes place [N] days later…”

Predictability of content

If the players already know that their ship’s sails are not built for sailing into the wind, don’t tell them again. It’s predictable, it’s another repetition, even though it may be the first time in this journey that it gets mentioned. If the season is changing from Autumn through into mid-winter, don’t tell them that the days are getting shorter, and don’t give daily weather reports; use your narrative to make it clear that the season has changed and leave it to the players’ intelligence and general knowledge to tell them that the days are getting shorter – if they even have some way of keeping precise track of time.

If the players know that they are sailing in a northern latitude in winter, don’t bother mentioning snowfalls, or ordinary levels of sleet or storms. Compress and hand-wave: “The Cambulian Sea is notorious for its winter storms, making your passage to Port Tuffnarkle an exercise in misery.”

Monotony of content

“In the mid-afternoon, the wind shifts again…” Kill it.

Some modes of travel lend themselves to narrative differentiation due to the changes in the landscape, while others do not. Compare the following two passages:

“Over the course of the next week the foothills grow steadily steeper and taller, and you begin catching glimpses of the Dragontooth Mountains when the weather is clear. The winds grow chill, especially at night, and your journey is becoming a real race against the changing of the seasons – it seems Winter is coming early this year.”

“Over the course of the next week the waves grow slightly and increase the force with which they crash into the ship, especially when the winds shift in the afternoons.”

The first is great; it gives a sense of the many leagues of travel implied in a journey of that duration and implies that the world is moving on about its business while the PCs are going from point A to point B. It even threatens something interesting in the near future and lays the foundations for difficulties resulting from picking up the pace.

The second is barely tolerable. It could be improved – “the waves crash with greater force against the hull in the afternoons, when the wind shifts” – but even then, it doesn’t say much more than “time passes, the sea grows more agitated,” which is pretty ho-hum. Save it for the narrative when you introduce something more interesting going on – “Over the last week the waves have grown more violent, and the ship pitches and wallows ever more violently. Today, as the horizon rose over the side of the ship, Kalton saw…”

Quality of delivery

Some people are better at oration than others. The rest of us have to work on it, and do so again and again, because it’s easy to fall into bad habits. The more adverse the gaming environment, the more you are constrained in this department. Do whatever you can to improve your skills.

Over the last century or so, Oratory has gone from an art form to at least semi-scientific. There are all sorts of principles and techniques that can be used to enhance the style in which content is verbally arranged for best delivery.

Too many GMs take their narrative style from the delivery of actors and voice-over men in movies and TV shows. They get to deliver their lines in sound studios and often to do it over and over until they get it exactly right. Even worse, when some people read text they sound like they are reading text. You can tell.

Probably the easiest quick improvement that can be made in this respect is to read everything you have written in advance aloud at least once, at something approaching the volume levels that you will need at the time. Rehearse. Better still, if you can, record it and listen back to it at least once.

At the very least, this will point out passages where you have to take an awkward breath, or where your delivery becomes flat and monotone, or where you have pronunciation problems. Rewriting to avoid the first and third and adding reminder notes regarding your delivery will do wonders. And watch out for sentences running together.

Expectations

Some expectations need to be confounded, and other embraced. If the PCs are expecting a harrowing journey through danger, deliver. If the PCs are expecting a dull, routine, trip, liven it up at least once, and hand-wave the rest.

Interval since the last narrative block

As you’ll see when I get into travel narrative content, later in this article, an interval consists of player interactions with someone or something. No matter how interesting the content is, narrative blocks come in just two lengths: Too-long, and Not-Too-Long. The same is true of the intervals that separate one block from another.

There isn’t a lot of information out there on the specifics that distinguish Too-Long from Not-Too-Long. But I do have a rule of thumb that I employ: subtract the length of the interval from the length of the preceding narrative block, in terms of delivery time, and then consider the combination as though it were one larger narrative block. If the result is a narrative block that is too long, something needs to be done about it – either you need more content in the interval, or you need to shorten one or more narrative blocks still more, or you need an additional interval to be inserted somewhere.
narrative-intervals

The reality is more complicated than that:

  • if the two narrative blocks are on the same subject, the interval is only 75% effective at separating them.
  • The same is true if the second block can be considered a continuation of the first – 75% of 75%, or about 50% effective.
  • There is also a compounding narrative length factor: every subsequent block of narrative after the second is effectively 25% longer than it seems, cumulative – so (roughly) +0%, +25%, +50%, x2, x2.5, x3, x4. The only way that isn’t the case is if the total of the intervals on either side of such a narrative block are at least as long, in playing time/reading time, as the unmodified block of text, which resets the pattern at +0%.

Let’s apply those “more complicated” principles to an abstract example:

  • Narrative Block 1: 3 minutes
  • Interval 2: 0.5 minutes (estimated)
  • Narrative Block 2: 2 minutes
  • Interval 3: 1 minute (estimated)
  • Narrative Block 3: 3 minutes
  • Interval 4: 2 minutes (estimated)
  • Narrative Block 4: 5 minutes
  • Interval 5: 0.5 minutes (estimated)
  • Narrative Block 5: 3 minutes
  • Interval 6: 30 minutes (estimated)

Becomes, step by step:

  • Interval 1 is a die roll which is intended to be rhetorical. The PCs should succeed easily. Therefore:
  • Narrative Block 2 is effectively a continuation of Block 1, so Interval 1 (a PC die roll) is effectively half length: 0.5 minutes becomes about 15 seconds.
  • Narrative Block 1+2: 3+2 minutes-15 seconds = 4 minutes 45 seconds.
  • Interval 3: 1 minute (estimated) – a brief conversation and a decision. Narrative Block 3 is on the same subject but isn’t a direct continuation because of the decision point, so it is 75% effective, or about 45 seconds, effectively.
  • Narrative Block 3 is effectively +10% in size: approx 3 minutes 20 seconds.
  • Narrative Block 1+2+3: 4’30” + 3’20” – 0’45” = 7’5″.
  • Interval 4: 2 minutes (estimated) – a conversation of greater substance, and maybe a die roll at the end of it. Therefore Block 4 is not a direct continuation of Block 3 but is on the same subject, so the interval has an effective value of 75% of its length, or 1’30”.
  • Narrative Block 4 is effectively +25% in length, so 5 minutes becomes 6′ 15″.
  • Narrative Block 1+2+3+4: 7’5″ + 6′ 15″ – 0’45” = 13’20” – 0’45” = 12’35”.
  • Interval 5: 0.5 minutes (estimated) – perhaps a simple yes/no decision. Effectively 75% long, or about 25″ long.
  • Narrative Block 5 is effectively +50% in length, becoming 4’30”.
  • Narrative Block 1+2+3+4+5: 12’35” + 4’30” – 0’25” = 16’40”.
  • Interval 6: 30 minutes (estimated) – a minor combat or substantial roleplaying encounter. Since this is vastly more than the cumulative effective narrative total of 16’40”, and since the other side is “before play” (effectively an infinite interval), this breaks the pattern of increasing narrative length. Narrative Block 6 will therefore be a fresh start.

As a general rule of thumb, a 2:1 play-to-narrative total is tolerable to most players, provided that the initial narrative isn’t too long. This example seems more or less right – the narrative is a little longer than half the estimated length of the combat/conversation, but battles/conversations are easy things to underestimate, and the narrative has been broken up with GM-party interactions and decisions.

Note that I don’t normally calculate things out in this fashion – I do it by eye, feel, and instinct, and then pay as much attention as I can to the response of the players at the table. Perhaps that attention isn’t enough at times, but it’s the best that I can do.

Oh, and one more hint: you can use breaks to extend intervals, but not AS intervals in their own right. Taking a break after the players get to do something is fine, but making them wait to do something is not.

The Length, Nature, Subject, Content, Quality and Reception of the previous narrative block

The above already deals with this in a fairly substantial way; there’s not a lot more to say.

Storytelling priority relative to interaction priority on the part of the GM

We all have different levels of emphasis on storytelling as opposed to the PCs interacting with the game world and its inhabitants. The former promoted chunky narrative blocks, the latter breaks them up. By way of example, compare the very interactive outline used as an example above with:

  • Narrative Block 1: 16’40”.
  • Interval 1: 30 minutes (estimated)

Even though the Narrative Block is the same length as the effective combination of the individual blocks, given the intervals in between, this is a horse of an entirely different complexion. The GM drones on for more than 15 minutes before the players get to do anything. There are GMs who focus VERY strongly on storytelling who might consider this acceptable; I consider it extremely marginal, and I have a strong storytelling emphasis in my campaigns. Most GMs would consider it unacceptable, even if the players were content to listen to it.

Sidebar: The reality of storytelling priority

Actually, while we’re on the subject: the very concept that GMs have a single tolerance/desire level to narrative is a myth. In reality, it varies depending on where you are in the adventure. During the set-up phase, when there’s a lot of information to impart to the players, it can be fairly high; as the adventure gets underway, it declines to a mid-range sort of level; and as the adventure approaches a climax, it should plummet.

Or, at least, that’s the GMing style that I employ, which is all about my getting the PCs into an interesting situation and letting them find their own way out of it; the consequences then forming part of the initial conditions for subsequent adventures.

Other GMs have different approaches; my former partner here at Campaign Mastery recently discussed his own approach (I’d provide a link but I’m not sure it’s available online yet), which is to always start the session with some action. He and I would probably be a poor fit for each other’s campaigns – I’d be wanting to talk story and character development while he was reaching for dice, and vice-versa. Nothing wrong with either approach, or with some other pattern that suits you and your players.

The same is true of just about every metric defining GMing or Campaign Style that I’ve ever seen – whether it be continuity, or emphasis on combat vs roleplaying, or whatever. At best, they are a starting point for a conversation about style, not an adequate definition.

Storytelling priority relative to interaction priority on the part of the Players

What the GM considers acceptable may not be the same thing as what the players consider acceptable. And each player will have a different tolerance level. And it can vary from one campaign genre to another. One mistake that some GMs make repeatedly is writing to the PCs intelligence and not that of the players – addressing all the information blocks to the most intelligent character, for example, as though the less-intelligent fighter was irrelevant.

I try to treat all PCs as having situational intelligence and pitching party information in terms of that situational intelligence. If I’m giving the tactical situation, I will point the information towards the Fighter. If we’re talking about Magic, I’ll write to make the narrative accessible by the player with the Mage. If it’s about puzzles or security, a rogue gets the focus of that part of my briefing, and so on. Every PC should have their own focus where they are the expert, and the narrative should be pitched from their perspective. And I never short-change one to make room for another to receive additional information.

Player psychology

Or, to be more precise, player emotional and psychological state. There are days where you just want to hit something – hard – even if you aren’t a fighter. Bazorting something with a fireball can be a tolerable substitute if that’s the way your character rolls. If the player wants a fight and you’ve planned political dances, you’re in trouble.

The best approach is to have something for everyone and let the players decide who wants to do what – and NOT based on character abilities; the trick is to read these prevailing winds in advance and tailor the content so that what appeals to the player this week is suited to the character he runs. The impregnability of fortresses can vary enormously depending on who wants to penetrate it – if the fighter is feeling relaxed and comfortable but the thief craves action, a frontal assault may miraculously become impossible between the time we sit down at the gaming table and the time the PCs approach the fortress, tower, or whatever, while some flaw in the defenses might equally-miraculously materialize at the same time. Maybe there’s a bling spot where a climbing rogue would not be noticed, enabling him to undo whatever is making a direct assault impossible…

PC psychology

Some players tend to get as deep inside the heads of their characters as possible, wrapping themselves in their PC’s persona like a cloak. Others seem incapable of relating to their characters except from a distance and through what the game mechanics permit them to do in any given situation. Some of a GM’s biggest headaches arise when the mechanics and the character are in conflict. I don’t want to get deeply into the metagaming that can result, or we’ll be here all day.

Suffice it to say that the more deeply a player role-plays, the more you need to aim information at the personality and capabilities of the character and not of the player, and that for most, you need to take both into account.

On top of that, every character has certain ‘buttons’ that you can push to provoke a particular response. The psychology of the individual character is something that the GM always needs to be mindful of – whether that is because it defines the abilities that the player will apply to a situation (the deep roleplayers) or because the player has more trouble than most thinking “in-character”.

Tolerance for narrative can vary enormously depending on whether or not the content of that narrative accords with the psychological profile of the player-PC gestalt. To some extent, this lies beyond the capabilities of the GM; to some extent, it can be manipulable. Doing something to put the PC-player combination in a good mood can directly impact their tolerances. I know one player who has a great deal of difficulty making decisions when he is responsible for what a character does, but who is perfectly capable of making excellent and insightful suggestions when they are only kibitzing. In the former mode, he is capable of tolerating enormous amounts of narrative, even demanding as much information as possible to help them reach a decision, while their instincts outside that framework are far more direct and interactive in nature.

Calls to action blocked by narrative

It happens to all of us at times – you’re mid-paragraph, haven’t finished describing the situation confronting the PCs, when one of them wants to interrupt to ask a question (often one that you were about to answer) or to take action on the situation as they perceive it.

Action:

There is little more frustrating to a player than wanting to do something right now while the GM wants to continue with the briefing.

Whenever this happens to me, the first question that goes through my mind is whether or not the remaining information can be repackaged to result from the action being proposed by the character. If yes, problem solved.

If not, is there a way for the character to initiate the action they have described only to pull up short as the additional facts come to light? Again, if yes, then no problem; the player has simply inserted an additional interval into the narrative block, signaling that there should have been one there, all along.

Again, if not, is there any way to rescue the situation from reckless, perhaps precipitous action? If so, then no problem, let the player go ahead. If not, I will usually ask the player if they are really sure, which is polite table code for “you’re about to make a colossal mistake, you fudgeknuckle”. This is effectively asking the player to expound on his character’s thinking, giving the GM an opportunity to reassess the earlier yes/no questions, and the chance to initiate discussion of the desired action if nothing changes as a result. But if they say “yes,” then let the chips fall where they may.

Persuading a player that their decision is the wrong one when it’s the only one that they can think of may be frustrating to the player, but that won’t last if the reason they can’t see any alternative is because they didn’t yet have all the information that they needed, or because they were making a flawed assumption.

Question:

Is the question one that the briefing will answer in due course? If so, is it possible to preempt that passage and answer the question? A yes to this combination solves the problem – answer the question and then continue with the briefing. A ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively and I’ll just tell the player to hold his horses, I’m getting to that.

If no to both of these questions, is the question a fair and valid one? And is it one that the character, or some other character present might/would think of? A double-yes earns the character a brownie point in the form of a bonus point of experience – about 100-300xp on the D&D scale – and some quick thinking on the part of the GM. If I can’t give an answer pretty much right off the bat, I’ll take a couple of minutes break to think about the problem, usually having to rethink the internal logic of the whole adventure. It doesn’t happen often.

But, if not, then it’s my job to explain why not – sometimes the player will accept that, and sometimes they will offer a counter-argument that I will accept, leading to a reassessment.

Ultimately, most players will deliberately ignore a genuine plot hole if you acknowledge that you’ve included one by mistake, letting the adventure play out – and, any number of times, one of the people at the table will come up with something to wallpaper over that plot hole eventually.

Any sense of railroading of plot

Nasssty, Nassssty, we hates it, we hates it! The only time this is tolerable is when it is an agree-upon mechanism for the GM enabling the character to go somewhere, plot- or character-wise, that they have already agreed to go. In other words, a plot train is perfectly acceptable if there’s a player at the wheel and his character is the only one affected. Under any other circumstance, tread with extreme caution. And derail the plot train at your first opportunity.

There is a big difference between a plot railroad and shaping circumstances to lead to a specific outcome, however. If something happens despite the players’ best efforts, that can be fine (though the next point might apply). That said, I never like imposing a situation in which there is nothing that the PCs can do about a situation; they can try and fail, that’s fine, but there has to be some chance (and one beyond a mere die roll) to steer events – eventually. They might have to endure a situation for a while before an opportunity presents itself to them!

This is relevant because any block of narrative is essentially describing the outcome of decisions already made by the PCs, or that the GM assumes they will make. And that last is where things can come unstuck – that, and assuming that when things start diverging from their wishful thinking that the PCs won’t do something to change their decision.

Compressing narrative is never an excuse for taking decisions out of the PCs hands. That’s why there are intervals.

Any sense of bias against the players/PCs on the part of the GM

It’s human for a player to feel like the GM is picking on them from time to time. It’s also human for the GM to want to rub salt into wounds. I work very hard when writing narrative to guard against the first, and to resist any urge toward the second. I may not always succeed, but I always make the effort.

I always seek refuge in the “Yes, but…”, or the “You can, but…”, or “That won’t work because…”, or even, “That won’t do it unless…”.

Of course, it’s not bias against the players/PCs for a super-smart opponent to have anticipated an action and prepared a countermeasure. Doing so is one of the easiest ways for those of us who are mere mortals to simulate the super-genius. But the NPC needs to have already been described as a super-genius to the players, or they are entitled to find out the hard way.

There have been times when I’ve wanted to simulate not a super-genius plotter, but a crafty individual, or a someone who is just a little smarter than the PCs – which I do by letting them come up with a plan while I think of something that could be done to stop it, with word of that piece having been moved onto place on the metaphoric chessboard just as the PCs are about to put their plan into motion, signaling that their enemy has only thought of it a short time before they did, or that he took a long time to come up with a countermeasure.

The players should never feel like you are making up their minds for them. Constraining their decisions is fine. Adopting the role of someone in a battle of wits with them is fine – even cheating a little to make up for the fact that it’s X players against one, or to simulate the villain having had a lot of time to think about things and prepare accordingly.

Ultimately, I prefer to ensure that there is always a fatal flaw in the most brilliant of schemes simply so that I know what the solution that the players ultimately find should be, and can steer them gently in that direction if necessary. Players are not their characters, and each has limitations and advantages that the other lacks; players can often see the big picture more readily than characters who are swept up in the moment, for example.

Another point that’s relevant in this context is that NPCs can and will lie their heads off if so inclined, but anything delivered ex-cathedra is gospel as the players understand the situation to be. If something happens to contradict that understanding, I make sure to highlight it.

Narrative must always be honest.

Narrative Travel Content

Confession time: when I first blocked out this article, what follows is all there was after the numbered list at the start of the article. Everything you have already read was an afterthought, expounding on the items in that long list.

So here’s where we’re at: Travel is best handwaved into narrative passages interrupted by passages of interaction. What should be contained in those narrative passages, and what should those interruptions to the narrative be?

Well, the basic assumption is that the narrative will describe the journey being undertaken by the PCs up to the point where something interesting happens. Quite often, a narrative passage will naturally lead to some form of interaction; at other times, you need to break a large block of narrative up into digestible chunks.

Narrative passages essentially consist of two parts: Summation of otherwise boring/mundane events and introductions to an interaction that interrupts the narrative long enough for the players to have input into the situation, to make decisions, or to otherwise interact with the GM, with an NPC, with a situation, or with the game mechanics.

Every trip starts as a blank slate. Here’s what should go into that vacant space:

  • Environmental Transitions
  • Awesome scenery
  • Noteworthy locations
  • Noteworthy events
  • Notable Weather Events
  • Peculiar Events
  • Encounters – trivial
  • Encounters – non-hostile interactions
  • Encounters – hostile interactions
  • Mini-adventures
Environmental Transitions

If the terrain changes, the PCs should get a description of that change. “Over the next few hours, the bracken part before you like a stick parts the sand, but ahead of you now stands the Darkflame Forest, the very stuff of nightmare, or so legend would have it.”

“You forge the icy stream and crest the pass. A valley of reds and golds, forever autumn, stands before you, and a wash of warm air envelopes you in the scent of honeysuckle and roses.”

Awesome scenery

You would have to be blind not to recognize that there is fantastic beauty in every country on Earth, be it the breathtaking pyramids of Giza rising out of the sand dunes or the waterfalls of South America. People have been going out of their way to look at such sights for centuries; whenever possible, roads pass within view of them, and when not, side-roads and paths lead to amazing sights – side-roads and . paths that may be sufficiently unofficial that they do not appear on any map.

Placing such a natural wonder in the path of the PCs and ensuring that there is something distinctive and memorable about it forever transforms an otherwise forgettable road between obscure townships. No longer is it the road between Farns-something and Junomacallit, it’s the Road of Giant Idols or the cliff-side forest or whatever.

What’s more, because these are natural sights of attraction, places to break a journey, the odds are far greater that a fellow-traveler will be encountered at such locations, affording an opportunity to break the narrative with a bit of roleplay.

Noteworthy locations

Sometimes the location might not have natural beauty but may have deep significance historically or culturally. This is not only a chance to bring some of that campaign background to the fore, it’s a chance to directly connect one or two PCs to it. “Mid-afternoon, you reach the Humbolt Crossroads, where three armies once clashed in battle, slaughtering each other to the last man. With a start, you realize that the forest of sticks stabbing skywards are actually grave markers that go on for as far as the eye can see. Bruclaw, you’ve heard of this place and its story all your life; your Great-Uncle is amongst those buried here.”

If you forgo the personal connection, it becomes just another passage of narrative, another brick in the wall of perception of the journey; adding that connection gives an opportunity for some roleplay. If your players are reluctant to take the hint, you can get more direct, asking if, for example, Bruclaw is stopping to pay his respects to the fallen, or suggesting to the cleric that some words of prayer might be appropriate.

Noteworthy events

Some events are sufficiently noteworthy that the narrative should inform and then pause for the characters to investigate. “As you watch, the stream running alongside the path turns blood red for a moment before clearing.” “In the distance you hear an anguished scream.” “The horses panic as two dragons flash overhead, eye a potential lunch, and decide it isn’t worth the price of collection.”

Notable Weather Events

One of the things that I specify for every region that I create is the risk of an unusual weather event at different times of year. This risk is usually expressed as such-and-such a percentage per day spent in the area. I then do a calculation to tell me how many hours are needed for the cumulative chance to reach 10%, 25%, 50%, or 75%. This reduces the die rolls required to check for such phenomena to just a couple, and makes it practical to skip results or roll additional dice if the PCs pause for whatever reason.

An ordinary storm would be mentioned only in passing during the narrative, as would an ordinary wind. This is reserved for the really unusual and noteworthy weather events. As a further rule of thumb, unless the plot has something funky going on with the weather, there is a limit of one such event per month, no matter what the roll might be.

For example, a once-every-four-years winter event would have a chance as follows: One day in four years, divided by 4 seasons in a year, is one in 365 x 4 / 4 = one in 365, which is about 0.275% per day.

10% is therefore 10/0.275 = 36.5 days.

25% is 91 days.

50% is a bit more complicated, because a season is only going to be about 91 days long. 50 divided by 0.275 = 182 days – so if there wasn’t one last year, the odds of one happening this year are doubled to get the same net percentage chance. So 50% is two years, or 0.55% per day if it didn’t happen last year.

Similarly, 75% becomes 25% if there was one two years ago, and 50% over the entire 90-day season if the last was longer.

Note that these are not accurate calculations in terms of the probability; they are rough numbers that give a near-enough description of the situation, and are fairly simple to work with.

If it is going to take the PCs a week to cross the region, it’s a simple answer to make seven rolls against the daily total. If it’s going to take longer – thirty days, say – that becomes impractical. But if 10% chance is 36.5 days, then 30 days is 10 x 30 x 36.5 = 8% chance.

Once I know that there will be an event, the question becomes how serious? The base that I use is always once every four years, because 91 is close to 100, making for convenient calculations. (I will usually define a season as 100 days with some overlap between them, just for the convenience, to be honest).

Roll one d6 for each year. If any of them come up a six then it is worse than a once-in-four-years event, it’s a once-in-eight years. If two come up six, then it’s a once in sixteen years, and so on. For every two additional years, roll an additional d6; a six again doubles the numbers from 1-every-16 to one-every-32 to one-every-64 to one every 128. I don’t go beyond that 128 years is “never in living memory”.

Once I know how bad it is, I can plan the event accordingly, write the narrative that goes with it, and so on.

Peculiar Events

Sometimes, inexplicable things happen. Other characters are out there having adventures, and sometimes there’s a spillover. I use these when my imagination produces one. “The horizon lights up with eldrich fire; the display persists for a little more than an hour before vanishing.”

Encounters – trivial

Trivial encounters are something noteworthy but that don’t involve any PC interaction or combat. A pod of dolphins swimming alongside a ship qualifies. These don’t even rate a mention in the narrative unless they are unusual – so including one by definition makes it a notable event. A two-headed owl? Yes. A small lizard which runs through the air from snowflake to snowflake? Yes. The largest herd of buffalo that you’ve ever seen, more than 1,000 head? Probably. A dozen brown bears sitting around a campfire in some standing stones? Very definitely.

Most of these will simple get mentioned in passing. I place a limit of two of these per month of travel unless the PCs go somewhere where everything is new and strange, in which case I will have it at two or three a day for the first week and once a day for the rest of the month.

Encounters – non-hostile interactions

A non-hostile interaction is one in which there is a potential danger but no actual combat unless the PCs are foolish enough to start it. Those dragons flying overhead? They would qualify. A strange footprint in the mud? That would qualify. A passerby who hails the party and wants to chat about something? That definitely qualifies. I will use these as often as they seem appropriate when I need an interruption to the narrative.

But these can’t be filler. All right, one can be. The rest have to be significant in some way – either conveying news of something that will affect the journey, or that might affect the PCs on arrival. They are story groundwork.

Encounters – hostile interactions

Quite obviously, if someone has hostile intent, the encounter escalates to this category. I only use these when I need to reset the narrative clock unless the PCs are somewhere known to be dangerous.

Mini-adventures

I define a mini-adventure as anything that will take less than an hour to resolve. It could be five minutes, or it could be fifty-five minutes. Unless it is going to be shared by the entire party, the length is divided by the number of players and each of them needs to get one somewhere in the course of the journey; in truth, I always try to have at least two taking place for different PCs at the same time, just so that the other players at the table have a variety of things that they can get mixed up in, even though it’s not strictly any business of theirs.

I also permit players whose characters aren’t involved in a mini-adventure to kibitz. If I can involve them in some other way, that’s good too.

For example, in one of my campaigns, Dopplegangers need only have physical contact with someone to be able to replicate their appearance and mannerisms. In that campaign, at one point, a PC in a mini-adventure encountered one of the other PCs, even thought that second PC was last mentioned as staying put in the Inn where the characters were staying. The two went on to share the mini-adventure. At the very end of it, I handed the second player a note that said, “the character who has been adventuring with Thessald Brasstacks is a Doppleganger. Your ‘character’ should make an excuse to leave. When he returns to the inn, you will have no knowledge of any of the events of the evening, and won’t have gone anywhere all evening. Pull this off and you get full XP for the mini-adventure.”

Note that I have changed the name of the second PC. The first PC asked no questions and still has no idea that the encounter he had wasn’t with his friend…

The Principles of Compilation

I start by laying out a rough draft of the narrative. It might be as simple as “Depart Z’Lessig; Fields of Miphrew; Crossing the River Hellspan; Forest of Gressel; Summer -> Autumn; First Glimpse of Monbark; Arrival during an uproar.”

Some of these will suggest natural intervals in the Narrative where some interaction is clearly likely to happen or at least possible. There may be inadvertant gaps – in the example there is no mention of exiting the Forest of Gressel, the trees of which would make it hard to catch a glimpse of anything other than more trees until you were right on top of it. Always, each item is accumpanied by the unspoken question, “Why is this significant?”; the question might be implied, but the answer will not be.

Once I have rough-drafted the results, I can look at the length of the existing narrative blocks relative to the intervals already assigned and decide whether or not to subdivide the narrative block, bearing in mind that doing so will require the insertion not only of the interaction details but the inclusion of the introductory narrative to that interruption. If your narrative is twice as long as you think you want, divide it in three!

Once I know what the intervals will be, and I have allocated the ones that are logical outgrowths of the narrative block, it’s time to decide what goes in the others from the palette of choices described earlier in the article. Rough-draft them, estimate how long it will take to resolve, and then read it through from start to finish looking for issues of poor narrative flow from one section to the next. The more distinct each passage of narrative is, the better.

Then it’s a matter of polishing, adding detail and color and tonality. Simple, really.

Some rules of thumb:

  • A week’s journey should take up no more than half a page unless there’s a roleplayed encounter involved, in which case I’ll let it stretch to 3/4 of a page.
  • Between a week and a month should be less than a page.
  • More than a month but less than three months should be no more than a page and a half.
  • Up to a year should be disposed of in two pages -with full narrative flavor text and interruptions.
  • Between one and five years, three pages, at least one of which is used by one or two interactions.
  • Between five and twenty years, six pages.
  • Longer, seven pages.

(All with 10-point text).

These are absolute maximums. I typically try to achieve half this – or, to put it another way, that’s the length of the rough draft of my narrative before I compress and polish it.

As a rough rule of thumb, it takes me five to seven-and-a-half minutes to read an A4 page of narrative aloud. Letter-sized pages are a little smaller – call it four to six minutes (3/4 inch margins).

In the next ATGMs: Shared Worlds and Co-GMs!

Leave a Comment

Blog Carnival November 2016: Ordinary Life in an RPG


rpg blog carnival logo

bored

image credit: freeImages.com / Christie Merrill

This is an article in two halves, but the two should segue together seamlessly. The first is partially a rebuttal, partially a sequel, and partially a reply, to Clark Timmins’ thought-provoking submission to the Carnival, The Real Life of Heroes.

The second half looks at how the ordinary lives of the PCs are depicted in the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, serving as one way in which the suggestions and comments put forth in the first part can be practically applied in an RPG.

It is also the fifth and final article scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting.

Hand-waving the boring bits

Clark starts by pointing out that its good practice for GMs to skip or hand-wave the boring bits. No-one wants to roleplay every stride of a 10,000-league march – let alone doing it a second time when burdened with the fruits of victory. It is neither necessary nor desirable to detail every bite of every meal. Heck, even standing watch is better hand-waved most of the time, and even rolls for wandering monsters can get dull and tiresome.

As Clark writes, “Who wants to roleplay all this drudgery? That’s not really fun.” And he’s completely correct. And so we hand-wave the boring bits.

…taken to ridiculous extremes

But why stop with just the mundane and trivial parts of the game? Why not remove the repetitive as well? All that checking for traps for the umpteen-thousandth time, the rolling to hit, the recording of damage – why not simply have the players taking it in turns to roll once for each battle to see how it works out for the party, how much damage they take, and get on with handing out the XP and the goodies? After all,
     “We break open the door, weapons at the ready.”
     “There are a dozen Orcs in the room.”
     “We kill the Orcs. Do they have any loot worth noticing?”
is a sequence that I’m sure resonates with most of us.

Let’s be clear on this: I am NOT advocating the hand-waving of all combat! On the contrary, most GMs go to great lengths to make combat interesting, both to them and to the players. Nevertheless, there is a grain of truth in that, after a while, all dungeon rooms begin to look alike, all combats begin to blur together. What makes them distinctive and interesting is interaction – between the PCs, between the PCs and the (NPC) enemies, between the PCs and the environment – and in making the story bigger and more substantive than just a combat, attaching meaning to events.

Asking The Wrong Question

Clark’s points get to the heart of what this Blog Carnival is all about. And yet, at the end of his article, when he writes, “Doing “real life” stuff in-game is not escapism, and it’s not fun for most people. And so when it comes to the administrivia of packing a horse, striking a camp, wheeling a wagon… why… we just assume those things happen without comment. When our characters must traverse a mountain range, why… they just do it. When they stagger out of the dungeon at encumbrance capacity with silver coin tucked into every pocket, why… of course they do it. And when they get to town, why… they drink ale. What else is there?”, he is asking the wrong question. Phrased that way, in that context, there can be only one answer, and it traps the GM into the same endless treadmill – dungeon after dungeon, with only the occasional wandering monster for variation.

When you’re 18, it can seem the ideal diet is to live on Pizza and Coke, with the occasional hamburger for variety. But a few months, or years, of such a diet and it will quickly lose its luster. In the same way, a few months or years of unremitting dungeon-bash grows dull and tiresome. That’s when people start doing something else with their free time, leaving the hobby for good.

Real Life vs In-Character “Real Life”: The Right Answer

having fun

image credit: freeImages.com / Ned Horton

The question isn’t why we can’t skip the “bits in between” because they’re boring; it’s how we can make them more interesting. There’s no need to roleplay everything; – but there is an implies assumption that the mundanities that Clark describes are the entire palette of choices, and that’s not the case.

Beyond the dungeon walls there are strange phenomena, breathtaking vistas, deadly environments, social problems and movements, greedy merchants, ignoble “noblemen”, church politics, buxom barmaids (or bar-men if that’s your preference), gypsy curses, Orcish Armies, Sinister Plots, Rogue Wizards, wise-cracking (and just plain wise) trees for those with the wit to hear them, haunted houses, scheming guilds, duels, rivals, friends, allies, enemies, and much, much, more. Why throw all that away? Because it’s “boring”?

The ordinary life of a PC is not like the tedious “real life” that would exist were these adventures our actual existences. We still hand-wave the boring bits – but we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Simplest Implementation: Where are the PCs and What Are They Doing?

The most straightforward way of incorporating non-boring “real life” for the PCs is simply to ask, “Where are they and what are they doing when the adventure comes calling?”

  • Uthrak is in the marketplace, haggling with a vendor about the price of his melons – not to mention the black market jewelery under the counter. If he can get in good with the merchant, a lucrative side-career as a transporter of stolen property awaits him.
  • Berwald is on the run from the watch, having been mistaken for a second-story burglar. Calumny – no-one’s ever seen him casing a target, so it has to be a case of mistaken identity – but the chains on the prison walls won’t care, either way. He has just darted into an alleyway leading at the other end to the market square; maybe he can shake off his pursuers in there.
  • Zarkasal is following the arcane trail of a necromancer. Never turn down a chance to learn something new, even if it forbidden knowledge, is his philosophy of life! Either the Necromancer will agree to give Zarkasal a few lessons or the Fighter-mage will turn him in to the authorities. If the prey rubs him the wrong way, he might do that, anyway. There’s a disturbance up ahead – with a start, he realizes that the Watch are chasing Berwald. He can’t afford to let them catch him – those forbidden scrolls he found are still hidden in Berwald’s pack! Looks like the Necromancer will have to wait for another occasion!
  • Asther is in a poker game in the cellar of the inn where all the PCs have been staying. The dealer thinks he’s smart, dealing from the bottom of the deck; he hasn’t realized – yet – that Asther is marking the cards. A third player has just run out of cash and offered a rather interesting-looking tattered scroll containing, he alleges, a map to a lost treasure from the Old Kingdom. Time for Asther to make her move – and then bail on the game before she gets caught.

There you have it: Plot Hook (the map) and the other PCs are about to have a reason for them to leave town in a hurry. And all it took was the GM to listen to what the players wanted to do and find some interesting twist into which he could drop them at the start of the day’s play. It would be a matter of only a few seconds play for the GM to bring the party together, now in possession of the plot hook, and on the run.

When My co-GM and I started touching on the lives of the PCs outside of the main adventures, it was so that we could lay the groundwork for future plots. It didn’t take too long for the “You all meet up at the Adventurer’s Club” to become a bit stale, however; better to have the plot hook come to the attention to one PC and for him or her to then call in the others. But that raised the logical question of what the others were doing at the time?

Stepping It Up: Mini-Adventures for Fun and Profit

It didn’t take too much longer to realize that the interests of equal screen time were best served if we didn’t simply pay lip service to “What the PCs are doing”, and gave them the chance to roleplay themselves into and out of whatever situation they were in. These mini-adventures didn’t have to be long; the rule of thumb was always how much screen time it would take for the PC to receive the plot hook and what had to be done about it.

Five PCs, five minutes of mini-adventure each – working our way around the table every minute or so, that’s just 25 minutes or so and we’re into the early stages of the main plot. Ten minutes each? About an hour. 45 minutes each? That’s a session’s play, permitting us to use the intro to the main adventure as a cliffhanger. The decisive factor is always the expected length of the part that “matters” in terms of the main adventure, then matching that in screen time for the rest (for more information on our techniques for “splitting the party”, see Ask The GMs: “Let’s Split Up.” – “Good Idea, we can do more damage that way!”).

Mini-Adventures to Mark Time

Some adventures have lulls in between significant developments; once you’re used to the notion of mini-adventures, there’s no reason not to drop in some to mark time in such lulls. Hand-waving the interval with nothing happening is easy enough, but it doesn’t “feel” right to most players; the interval doesn’t seem real. This is doubly true if the GMs want the events pre-interval to fade into the recesses of the PCs memories because they think the adventure is over. On top of that, you have all the considerations of pacing (discussed in a series of articles here at Campaign Mastery). The list below has been excerpted from another post (which is why it may look familiar).

  1. Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 1
  2. Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 2
  3. Pacing and the value of the Pause
  4. Anatomy Of An Interruption – Endpoints
  5. Status Interruptus: Types Of Pause
  6. Compound Interruptions: Manipulating Pauses
  7. The Yu-Gi-Oh Lesson: New Inspirations In Pacing and Style, plus a couple of older articles that touch on the subject:
  8. Back To Basics Part 1: Adventure Structures
  9. and, Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow if applied at the micro-level to the individual adventure instead of the macro-level of an entire campaign.

Zenith:3 and the Adventurer’s Club: The Difference in Philosophy

There are still variations that the GM has to decide between. There is, for example, a profound difference between the approaches employed by the Zenith-3 campaign (described last week in Ordinary Lives In Paranormal Space and Time as part of the Blog Carnival) and that used in the Adventurer’s Club.

In the Zenith-3 campaign, I assume that every event of significance to the character will be of interest to the player of that character, and that whenever something happens, the PCs will be doing something else. The campaign is designed to evolve over time, and the PCs are expected to evolve as it does so, sometimes radically, sometimes only in their relationships with each other or with others. It is a “Continuity-rich” campaign.

In the Adventurer’s Club, in comparison, is far more static and stable. While parts of the background may evolve, the game date is perpetually somewhere in the mid-1930s, and we gleefully expropriate events from whenever they actually happened to suit our storytelling needs. For example, the last adventure, “Boom Town”, took place in late January and early February of Nineteen-Thirty-Whatever, but featured a World Heavyweight Boxing title fight which actually took place on June 13, 1935. This despite many of the events of the previous game year also deriving from 1935… The Adventurer’s Club campaign is a Serial campaign in which the game world is more-or-less static, evolving only as it creates interesting situations for the PCs. We’re quite happy to connect an event from 1933 with another from 1937 and call the whole thing 1935.

The philosophy of the Adventurer’s Club campaign is that we only play interesting events in-game, and any mini-adventures have to meet this standard. Individuals and organizations have memories, and relationships with the PCs evolve as a result, but the calendar is perpetually more-or-less locked. The players will know when the campaign is preparing to end (yes, we do have it planned) when real-world events start synchronizing in a major way with the game world – in essence, when the immediate precursor events to World War II start happening but that’s a long way off.

There may not seem to be much difference, but the distinction is actually quite profound. It’s the difference between things happening as context in the lives of the PCs, as those lives develop, that just happen to be interesting because the PCs are interesting people living in interesting times, and something interesting happening because we need to have something interesting happen to give a character his share of screen time.

Going Even Larger: Personal Subplots

It’s a short step from where things stand to giving characters personal subplots that provide a standalone in-the-background link from one adventure to the next. We have something of that sort going on with one of the newer PCs at the moment; his daughter had a rare form of Leukemia, in one adventure the PCs obtained a cure as a reward. Normally, that would be that; the actual use of the treatment would be handwaved and taken as read. But we saw potential for more interesting interactions with the plotlines, so first the daughter had to travel from England to the US by ship, waiting to meet her gave us the chance for the character to have a mini-adventure finding the parents of a lost child. Then we had the surgery, performed by another PC, be disrupted by an explosion down the street. The cure will take time to fully cure her; she is still convalescing, and we have another couple of small mini-adventures to come in which her position within the game world will stabilize, to be pulled out of our back pockets only when her presence adds something to an adventure or mini-adventure.

Taken collectively, these mini-adventures form a small plot arc, adding additional textural elements to the adventures in which the PC becomes involved.

We’re also going to be initiating another Personal Subplot for a while at some point in the near future of the campaign in which another PC gets to expand his personal “fleet”, we’re just waiting for him to decide what sort of ship he actually wants. If he takes too long, we may present him (one at a time) with three or four alternatives and then tell him to pick one! But we aren’t at that point, yet. Meanwhile, we are deliberately “aging” his current vessel just a little; it’s seen hard use for several years and is going to need a major overhaul eventually. These events will let us use the ship as the hook to connected mini-adventures for the character for some time.

The Oriborous Principle: Plots that eat their own tails

We love it when we can interweave or interconnect mini-adventures with the main plots, using the mini-adventure to give the player information they will need for the main plot. For example, that title bout that I mentioned? We first brought it to the players’ attention through a time-marking mini-adventure, without hinting as to the significance that it would later assume in the main plot as PCs in four separate locations attempted to disarm “planted” bombs being used to blackmail the city – with only one of the PCs having the skills necessary, having to give the others instructions via a patched-together telephone hookup!

But it was the start of that mini-adventure that really serves as the best example: each PC had a mini-adventure, each of those mini-adventures provided part of the plot hook into the main adventure, they crossed over with each other and intertwined… you could say that each of the mini-adventures was a prelude or prologue to the main adventure.

This was done because the players had grown accustomed to one of the mini-adventures being the “hook” while the others were just interesting things that happened. So we changed it up on them – not something that we’ll do every time, but it broke the pattern. We followed that up with an old-style beginning to the current plot that had no mini-adventures at all, simply pitching the PCs into the adventure, because that made sense in terms of the dramatic pacing of the adventure. The only rule is that we will structure the adventure in whatever way works best for that Adventure. Personal Life doesn’t automatically happen; it is subordinated to the exigencies of plot.

A Collection Of Interesting Experiences

Ultimately, the personal lives of PCs are best viewed as a collection of interesting experiences. Whether your approach is for things to happen that you then make interesting, or to only hit the interesting highlights on the way to the main plot, the basic strategy is the same: make parts of the “mundane lives” of the PCs interesting and ignore/hand-wave the rest. The wealth of plot elements that this opens up more than justifies the effort, regardless of genre; it’s as true of Superheros and Pulp as it is for Fantasy games like D&D. Ignoring this potential is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Some time ago, in an article here at Campaign Mastery (which one it was, I can’t quite recall at the moment), I pointed out that I deliberately focus on the mundane elements of character’s lives in the lower character levels of a D&D campaign because they provide a vehicle for me to tell the players more about the world in which their characters are living, the way reality works, and so on. As routines become established and their capabilities rise with increasing character levels, things like making camp and who does the cooking and travel are increasingly hand-waved – unless something interesting takes place along the way. It’s the same principle, simply being applied in still a third way.

Clark asked at the end of his article, “What else is there?” The answer is, quite a lot. You just have to pick the low-hanging fruit.

Leave a Comment

Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 8th Shelf


author-1600a_sm

The Eighth Shelf – Life In The Pulp Era I: Civilian Life – Introduction by Mike

This month’s blog carnival is about “Ordinary Life” and is being hosted by Campaign Mastery, so its’ fitting that the vagaries of chance and publication schedules has this shelf of the reference library appearing in the course of it.

Players need to understand the pulp era so that they know what their characters are used to, what their childhoods were like, and what a normal existence is like in that game environment. GMs need to understand ordinary life in the pulp era because, quite often, they will need to provide the context that makes the world seem real and plausible.

A character needs to speak with someone urgently. Most players will be cluey enough to know that it’s too soon for mobile phones, but most won’t have come to grips with the fact that most homes don’t have telephones at all, and many don’t yet have electric power, at least at the start of the pulp era. So the PC goes down to the drug store on the corner to use their telephone to call for a cab. Sorry, in this era, most taxis don’t have radios – you don’t call for a cab, you hail one on the street. For that matter, many players won’t be old enough to have any experience of telephone operations before automatic switching, and the practicalities of telling the operator which part of the country you’re trying to call, and the telephone number, and having her negotiate manuals connections from one operator to another until you are dealing with the local operator who connects you with the number you’re calling. Telephone switchboards will remain a fact of life for as much as half-a-century yet. But with no need to phone the taxi company – who might not even have a phone themselves, it isn’t yet considered an essential business tool – that doesn’t matter.

So you wait outside the drug store for a cab. And wait, and wait, and then get accosted by a policeman for loitering. In order to hail a cab, you need to go to where they run – a taxi stand (near most of the rail stations, large hotels, and the like) or one of the main thoroughfares. How to get there? Well, you can walk, and people do a lot more walking in this era. Or there might be a bus line. Or perhaps a cable-car.

If you don’t know the era, the statement by an NPC, “I feel like going out – let’s go down to Harlem,” might fill you with horror. Does this NPC have a death wish? But if this is part of the era when Harlem was the social hot-spot of the city, it’s an entirely reasonable statement.

The iceman tells you that Mrs O’Laughlin from down the street wasn’t home to receive her ice delivery, and doesn’t have outside access to her ice-chest. If you don’t know the era, you don’t know that this is reason enough to surmise that something is seriously wrong.

Everyday life IS the “real” world of the game, the world that NPCs inhabit and that PCs derive from. It is one of the building blocks that GMs need to master in order to create credibility, verisimilitude, and immersion in the game world.

Relevance to other genres

For some genres, the contents of these shelves will be directly relevant. For others, perhaps less so. There’s meat to be found in the politics section for fantasy GMs, for example. But this shelf has a more period-specific focus than many of the others, so the relevance to other genres very much has to be measured on a reference-by-reference basis. There definitely some recommendations which will be useful beyond the Pulp Genre!

bullet-holes-3-600
variety of old books on two shelves

Image credit: freeimages.com / riesma pawestri

Shelf Introduction

There are only four sections to this shelf, but they are all fairly significant.

Everyday Life – I entitled the final section in Monday’s article “A world is for living in”. Before that can happen, you have to understand that world and how it works, what the ordinary everyday experiences are, and so on. You can’t just assume that it’s like 2016 only simpler, or with less technology. Fortunately, there are some really excellent resources to help you travel back in time to the world of yesteryear.

History & Historical Events – Of course, everyday life is just the small picture. The big picture is comprised of and punctuated by events – what happened, where, when, why, and what people did about it.

Politics – As always, the big picture is dominated and shaped by politics more than anything else. You can’t understand the decisions that were taken until you understand the politics that lay in back of that decision, and you can’t determine the effect on the inhabitants of the world without understanding the decision and its impact. Or to put it another way, politics defines the size and shape of the societal “box” within which an ordinary life is lived. If the game world was just like the real world, it would be relatively easy – but it’s not likely to be, and every change alters the driving forces behind decisions that have real impacts on the lives of inhabitants – including the PCs.

Hollywood, Cinema, and Entertainment – When the crushing burdens of real life threaten to become too much to bear, people turn to their entertainments to relieve the pressure and restore some balance within their lives. Hollywood was big before the advent of the talkies and the Great Depression; they grew to be enormous during and after. At this time, few if any of the stars realized just how much commercial power they could wield with advertising and endorsements, and even if they had, the sort of thing that’s commonplace now would be considered the crassest form of commercialism then. The public perceived their stars as operating in a more pure world, of having risen above such petty concerns; the idolizing of strangers because of their public image was in its infancy. In some ways, the world of then is as alien to our modern routine existences as the planet mars.

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.

Spacerflourish-divider3

Books About Ordinary Life in the Pulp Era

There are a lot of books in this section, and if we could have found a reasonable way to subdivide it into reasonable even chunks, we would have.
bar-gray

Spacer everyday-life-from-prohibition-through-world-war-ii

749. Everyday Life from Prohibition through World War II – Marc McCutcheon

Organized by decade/era, this is essential period cultural reference – everything from slang to clothing to crime and media – a must-read for every Pulp GM.
http://amzn.to/1PP1CmI
bar-blue

daily-life-in-the-united-states-1920-1940

750. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940: How Americans Lived Through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression – David E. Kyvig

This book came to our attention in the course of compiling this list, and sounded too good not to include – but we haven’t actually read it. According to Amazon, the prize-winning author …”describes everyday life in these decades, when automobiles and home electricity became commonplace, when radio and the movies became broadly popular”. The Amazon blurb goes on to say, “The details of work life, domestic life, and leisure activities make engrossing reading and bring the era clearly into focus.” That description, plus a whole heap of authoritative recommendations, earns the book a place.
http://amzn.to/1mankda
bar-blue

1930s-fashion-the-definitive-sourcebook

751. 1930’s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook – Emmanuelle Dirix and Charlotte Fiell (Carlton Books)

A little on the expensive side (the cheapest copies were US$35 at the time of our review) but might be worth it to the GM who wants to nail this important element of period color. Amazon has two different editions, one published about a year after the other and losing 64 pages in the process – though, given that it was still over 500 pages in length, that might well be down to a change in font or typesetting. The covers are identical. The newer edition is marginally cheaper than the older, however, so there might be more substantial differences. For that reason, we recommend the older edition be considered ahead of the newer, even though they cost slightly more.
Older edition: http://amzn.to/1PdhIXL
Newer edition: http://amzn.to/1SqcHS8
bar-gray

1920s-fashion-the-definitive-sourcebook

752. 1920’s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook – Emmanuelle Dirix and Charlotte Fiell (Carlton Books)

Everything written about the 1930s sourcebook above also holds true for the volume detailing the preceding decade. 512 pages, featuring 600 totally original, period photographs and illustrations. Paperback: 36 new from $24.67, 15 used from $30.26.
http://amzn.to/2glNXd5
bar-blue

american-culture-in-the-1930s

753. American Culture in the 1930s – David Eldridge

This is a great book for understanding the impact that the Great Depression had on American Society. Although the primary focus is on what the economic situation and the response from what Washington did in terms of the Arts, that in turn changed what was popular and how it was delivered to the masses. When you read the chapter on radio and music, for example, you not only see the foundations of the studio system of 1970s television, but the primal gestation of MTV as a concept. Critically, if you change history to create a more pulp-like world, you also change the degree of cultural impact and hence change the everyday society. Mike and Blair had part of that puzzle solved for the Adventurer’s Club campaign; reading this book gave them the rest of it.
http://amzn.to/2c377F4
bar-blue

only-yesterday

754. Only Yesterday: An informal History of the 1920s – Frederick Lewis Allen

Originally published in 1931, when the author could not know what would turn out to be significant and what wouldn’t last – so he provided context and included it all. The important events are covered – Prohibition, Al Capone, and so on – but the prosperity society leading up to the crash of 1929 is also exposed, covering everything from flappers to speakeasies to the pioneers of radio to the scandalous rise of hemlines. Hailed at the time as an instant classic, it says something that it is still available today.
http://amzn.to/2coNKsn
bar-gray

since-yesterday-the-1930s-in-america

755. Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America – September 3, 1929 to September 3,1939 – Frederick L. Allen

The sequel to “Only Yesterday” (listed above) picks up the story with the Wall Street Crash. Acknowledged for its lack of political bias, you can always tell the writer was a supporter of FDR but he quotes the criticisms of others fairly and even agrees with them from time to time. This is not a history book about events, but about the look and feel of living through the events of the decade.
http://amzn.to/2cb31cT
bar-blue

the-1930s-house-explained

756. The 1930s House Explained – Trevor Yorke

This is a book about English houses of the period, not American ones. But from a distance of more than 85 years, the two were more similar than they were different. More importantly, the Brits never fell out of love with the style and fashion of the times (they just regarded them as rather dull and tawdry for a while); these days, restoring houses to the old-time look and feel is a popular practice in the UK, and that’s given modern analysts a chance to examine the styles at arms-length in terms of what worked and why, and why it was popular. Unusually, new copies can be cheaper than second-hand ones (and there are more of them, too) – which indicates that most people aren’t reselling the book, they are keeping it.
http://amzn.to/2cz12i4
bar-blue

dust-bowl

757. Dust Bowl: The southern plains in the 1930s – Donald Worster

No-one who hasn’t lived through a dust storm can fully appreciate the misery that they can cause, and no-one who wasn’t there at the time has ever lived through anything like the dust storms that befell the Midwest during the 30s. We wanted to link to a documentary on the subject but no links could be found; this book is the next best thing. The book was updated and revised in the 1950s as time brought a new perspective on events, and as a warning that it was about to happen again. Emergency action prevented the return of the Dust Bowl at the time – at least to the same degree – and again, in the late 70s and early 80s – but the documentary in question made the point that conditions and land management practices are once again “right” for the return of the dust-bowl, just as the GFC was a mirror-image of the Great Depression. That comment isn’t meant as a call to action or to influence anyone’s political views, but as a way of providing an association that should be meaningful to a reader of the book.
http://amzn.to/2coQO7L
bar-blue

the-1920s

758. The 1920s (American Popular Culture Through History) – Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber

We really shouldn’t list this book here (for availability/price reasons), but the next one in the series (the 1930s, listed separately) was so good that we couldn’t turn it down.

Known by many names, the 20s were an especially vibrant time, until, despite, – or perhaps, because of – the Great Depression and its precursor investment boom. Known variously as the Jazz Age, Dry Decade, Flapper Generation, or (most famously) as the Roaring Twenties, this was a colorful bright spot that stands in stark contrast with the preceding period of history.

http://amzn.to/2gi7tZ8
bar-blue

america-in-the-1930s

759. America in the 1930s – Jim Callan

A children’s book for ages 10-13, but don’t turn away just yet! Described as “solid, well-written” and “poorly formatted”. The list of subjects covered is robust, and would make an excellent primer for the pulp era; but the layout conjugates text with completely-unrelated imagery. Furthermore, small type is used on thin paper, which is somewhat unusual in a children’s book. Bottom line: Those who grew up in America may not need this book, for everyone else it makes a good foundation. As a bonus, it includes an extensive bibliography.
http://amzn.to/2fYEMzZ
bar-blue

farming-in-the-1920s-and-30s

760. Farming in the 1920s and 30s (Shire Library) – Jonathon Brown

Although there’s nothing we can explicitly point at to state it definitively, we suspect that this is about farming in England during the inter-war period. But there would be a very substantial crossover in farming techniques throughout the western world, regardless of locality. Certainly the tractor on the cover could be English, Australian, or American – or Canadian, or French for that matter.

This book looks at the challenges of farming in a recessed or depressed economy, the effects of peace after a Great War with its inherent labor disruptions, the crops and livestock being produced, and the new technologies that enabled the farmer to respond to the challenges. Agriculture is an essential but often-overlooked element of real life in ANY historical era or location.

64 pages, Kindle ($6.04), Paperback 27 New from $3.69, 16 Used from $3.68
http://amzn.to/2gic24u
bar-blue

diamonds-at-dinner

761. Diamonds at Dinner: My Life as a Lady’s Maid in a 1930s Stately Home – Hilda Newman and Tim Tate

Hilda Newman was a maid to Lady Coventry at the Worcestershire stately home of Croome Court in the 1930s. This is her memoir of the life she experienced and the one that she witnessed from her position. A lot of readers will also be drawn to her observations of the War years, when Croome Court housed the Dutch Royal Family, who escaped the Nazi occupation, and was also home to the top-secret RAF base Defford, where radar was developed and repairs were carried out on aircraft fighting in the Battle of Britain, even though they aren’t pulp-relevant.

Although clearly and distinctly British in subject, there would be a certain amount of overlap with the upper-class residents of other parts of the world. 272 pages, Kindle ($4.40) and Paperback (32 used from $0.77, 38 New from $4).
http://amzn.to/2g6kIeJ
bar-blue

minding-the-manor

762. Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s English Kitchen Maid – Mollie Moran

Moran was born in 1916 in Norfolk and left school at the age of 14 to become a scullery maid. This book walks similar terrain that of the previous listing but has perhaps a greater emphasis on the social life that was enjoyed beyond the house. 360 pages, MP3-CD (3 used from $21.03, 12 new from $16.33) and Paperback (61 used from $2.81, 36 new from $7.13).
http://amzn.to/2gD3o4S
bar-blue

queen-bees

763. Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses Between the Wars – Sian Evans

“In the aftermath of the First World War, the previously strict hierarchies of the British class system were weakened. For a number of ambitious, spirited women, this was the chance they needed to slip through the cracks and take their place at the top of society as the great hostesses of the time. In an age when the place of women was uncertain, becoming a hostess was not a chore, but a career choice, and though some of the hostesses’ backgrounds were surprisingly humble, their aspirations were anything but. During the inter-war years these extraordinary women ruled over London society from their dining tables and salons.” “Queen Bees looks at the lives of six remarkable women who made careers out of being British society hostesses between the wars” and who became the matriarchs of inter-war society in England.
416 pages, Kindle ($12,52), Audible ($26.14) and Hardcover (6 used from $18, 20 new from $16.75).
http://amzn.to/2gD0NHV
bar-blue

the-age-of-the-dream-palace

764. The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (reissued) – Jeffrey Richards

The Australian experience of cinema in the 1930s was not all that dissimilar to that of the US, producing a particular myopia on the subject from other perspectives, an unwritten and untested assumption that it was like that everywhere. Well, it was and it wasn’t; there were subtle differences, and this book exposes that even as it examines the role of the cinema in everyday British life of the 1930s. On top of that, Richards scrutinizes the film industry, censorship, cinema’s influence, the nature of the star system and its images, as well as the films themselves, including the visions of Britain, British history and society that they created and represented.

384 pages, paperback ,25 new from $10.56, 29 used from $4.08, 1 collectible at $50.23.
http://amzn.to/2f9EKbD
bar-blue

britain-in-the-1920s

765. Britain in the 1920s – Fiona McDonald

Sometimes it’s helpful to be an outsider looking in, because you can see the shape of the forest more clearly from a distance, even if some of the trees are obscured. Fiona McDonald is Australian, born in Armidale and educated at the Julian Ashton Art School before discovering a passion for making dolls and toys, especially dragons. That makes her just about as outside of 1920s England as you can expect to get! And the results from that examination are comprehensive, accessible, and indispensable, even for those whose .Pulp Campaigns are set later in the Pulp Era. Operating without the benefit of this reference, Mike and Blair’s campaign Britain clearly bears a greater resemblance to the Britain of the 1920s than that of the 1930s; recognizing that, they can either play into it and enlarge on that theme in future, or apply a correction the next time the PCs visit London.

The 20s were an exciting time in England. The war was over, new technologies and fashions were everywhere, and there was a sense of optimism for the future. Social progress granted women new freedoms and rights, automobiles were more accessible and houses became filled with electrical gadgets. And yet, counterbalancing that were high unemployment rates, extreme poverty in parts of the country, high inflation, and workers were shamelessly exploited. This book embraces the social, political, and cultural landscapes of the era to provide a comprehensive summation of a place that American readers would recognize only as “similar but different”.

Hardcover, 256 pages, 12 used from $16.52 and 13 new from $20.36.
http://amzn.to/2fr4nA3
bar-blue

1920s-britain

766. 1920’s Britain (Shire Living Histories) – John and Janet Shepherd

From Amazon: “How does a society recover from a devastating war? This was the question posed in the 1920s as people searched for normality in the aftermath of terrible trauma. Written from the perspective of those who lived, worked and played in the metropolis of greater London, 1920s Britain uncovers the hardships and stresses of the age, strains which manifested in the general strike of 1926. However, the 1920s was also a time of recovery and hope for the future; London itself was a place of international significance and hope. Delve into the past in this intriguing insight into a difficult time for Britain and the people tasked with its recovery.” This book is short, but the prices are a reasonable reflection of that, and if your campaign is not going to feature Britain extensively, this might be all you need.

88 pages, paperback, 30 used from $1.86 and 36 new from $4.46.
http://amzn.to/2fHOwOp
bar-blue

britain-in-the-30s-and-40s-ticktock-essential-history-guide

767. Britain in the 30s and 40s (Ticktock Essential History Guide)

“This title explores the times of 30s and 40s Britain, and uses essential facts and engaging imagery to give the reader an understanding of this period in history – from rationing and evacuations to the Great Depressions and antibiotics.”

For it’s minuscule size (only 32 pages) and categorized by Amazon as a children’s book, this is quite expensive – but there is not a wealth of alternatives to choose from. 14 used copies from $8.16, 10 new from $16.88. NB: This is a “bargain book” and even new copies may have marks from publishers and price stickers.
http://amzn.to/2fU8rN0
bar-blue

the-hollow-years

768. The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s – Eugen Joseph Weber

“Caught between the memory of a brutal war won at frightful cost and fear of another cataclysm, France in the 1930s suffered a failure of nerve.” Everyone knows about American isolationism in the period between the World Wars but far fewer understand it. This book corrects the gap in comprehension by looking at how the same forces of fear and economic distress affected a nation that was right in the firing line – and knew it.
http://amzn.to/2cb6isU
bar-blue

negrophilia

769. Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s – Petrine Archer-Staw

In the years after World War I, many Africans and African Americans emigrated to Europe’s urban centers in search of work and improved social conditions, where they had a major impact on European society. Nowhere responded more strongly than Paris, at the time the most culturally experimental city in Europe. Now known as the Negrophilia period in Parisian society, this book examines a cultural revolution whose traces were all but obliterated by the Nazi Occupation two decades later. The contrast in the Parisian mindset of the twenties, as described in this book, and that of the thirties described in “The Hollow Years” (above) is particularly stark and noteworthy.
http://amzn.to/2ggutrF
bar-blue

the-burning

770. The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 – Tim Madigan

A white mob with thousands of members descended on the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 1, 1921. They obliterated 34 square blocks of Tulsa’s Greenwood community, then one of the most prosperous black communities in the US, which had been nicknamed “the Negro Wall Street Of America”, reducing them to smoldering rubble. It was virtually impossible then to put an accurate figure to the death toll, and it is a task that has not grown easier with the passage of a further 80 years of history; it could be 100, it could be three times that. This book provides both the detail and the emotional narrative to recreate the town, the era, and the incident, as well as its precursors in the distant past and the silence that surrounded the events for almost 80 years afterwards.

There are quite a number of books that have now been written about the Tulsa Riot. We chose this one initially through chance and kept it (rather than searching further) because of the scope and context that it seems to offer. If copies run out, consider one of the others. Most can be found by searching for “Black Wall Street”, a few by searching for “Tulsa Race Riot 1921”.
http://amzn.to/2gcEhBw
bar-blue

when-harlem-was-in-vogue

771. When Harlem Was In Vogue – David Levering Lewis

Mike’s first exposure to the existence of Harlem was in the James Bond film “Live and let Die”, at least as best as he can recall. His second and third were from the TV series “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “Good Times” – which weren’t even set in Harlem (Brooklyn and Chicago, respectively). It is from such disparate and largely inaccurate sources that an impression of the locality within New York City is compounded for those who aren’t American. Self-education in music and music history proved a revelation to him; although not a Jazz aficionado, he learned enough about the subject through various sources over the years to completely reevaluate his perception of what was, in his lifetime, one of the most legendarily downtrodden slum districts of the city.

This 448-page book gives the history of Harlem and its African-American subculture from 1890 until the riot of 1935. For part of that time, this was the cool place to be and to be seen, and that period just happens to coincide with part of the Pulp Era. So, if your perceptions of Harlem bear even the slightest resemblance to those of Mike when he was younger, you need this book or you will be ignoring one of the cultural landmarks of the era.(We don’t think any of the players will ever forget Father O’Malley and Dr Hawke’s expedition into Harlem, which ended with one of them singing on stage and the other dancing on the tables after a bluff went horribly “wrong”).
http://amzn.to/2gH22Xu
bar-blue

jump-for-joy

772. Jump For Joy: Jazz, Basketball, and Black Culture in 1930s America – Gena Caponi-Tabery

For some, the 1930s were a time of exuberance, buoyed by high-profile successes in various fields, including the 1936 Olympics, the 1937 union victory of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Joe Louis’ 1937 and 38 heavyweight championship bouts. For the first time, black Americans had cultural heroes and ambassadors and could aspire to the heights that they represented. While the focus of this book is 1941 and the years that followed, it starts by chronicling these successes and the influence they had on the developing African-American subculture.
http://amzn.to/2f2wqKv
bar-blue

everyday-stalinism

773. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life In Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (English Language edition) – Sheila Fitzpatrick

I don’t think we need say too much to sell the inclusion of this book. There are those who would suggest that it should have been placed in the section dealing with Russia, but the focus on daily life, and the potential to extrapolate to large parts of Eastern Europe in general, were – in our opinion – enough to justify its placement here. Kindle, Hardcover, and Paperback; at the moment, of the latter two formats, the Hardcovers represent the best value for money, but that could easily change, so look carefully at the options and prices when you consider purchasing. 304 pages.
http://amzn.to/2flZhoy
bar-blue

decades-of-crisis

774. Decades Of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe before World War II – Ivan T Berend

A holistic approach to the history of the region yields a work that even those who lived through the period find educational. “Berend’s book is the broadest synthesis of the modern social, economic, and cultural history of the region that we possess, probably in any language. Much of the narrative is masterful, and of an unparalleled richness, both in fact and insight. This work displays well the broad erudition of its author.”–John Connelly, Journal of Economic History.

There were any number of places where this 485-page book could have been placed. It could be in the Politics section, or the Eastern-Europe “places” section, for example, and we can’t actually state any particular reason why we have chosen to list it here; just an instinct that says you can’t deal with such a broad palette without describing everything that defined life in these nations during the period in question, almost as a side-effect.
http://amzn.to/2gcZaMN
bar-blue

bartenders-bundle

775. Bartender’s Bundle (e-book)

Contains Bartending For Dummies and Whiskey and Spirits For Dummies – We aren’t complete teetotalers but there are hundreds more drinks than we’ve ever heard of, and that’s not counting the cocktails! How relevant these books will be to an earlier age is unknown, and our only concern. Do you know the difference between a Parrot Bay Sunset, a Tropical Sunset, A St Croix Sunset, a Perfect Sunset, and a Sunset Strip? – let along which of them should be your character / NPC’s favorite cocktail when ordering a tipple in, say, New Caledonia? Or perhaps one of the world’s 1+ varieties of beer is more your style?
http://amzn.to/2g6W25Y
bar-blue

bartending-for-dummies

776. Bartending For Dummies – Ray Foley

If e-books aren’t your thing, you might consider buying the two books conflated into the Bartender bundle in more physical form. This is the first of them, listing over 1, drinks recipes. Two editions are available; this is the older and cheaper. Forget the new copies; there isn’t enough value for the GM for the pieces being charged. If you really want a new copy, click through to the more recent edition. There are 50 used copies from one cent.
http://amzn.to/2gk1oh8
bar-blue

whiskey-and-spirits-for-dummies

777. Whiskey and Spirits For Dummies – Perry Luntz

The latest edition of the other physical book contained in the e-book bundle has somehow reached the conclusion in the title that Whiskey is not a spirit, which gave us a wry chuckle. Setting that peculiarity aside, this book is supposed to be a “complete guide to selecting and enjoying this family of noble beverages, flavor by flavor”. Kindle $11.74 (but the Bundle listed earlier is better value for money) or Paperback (36 new from $8.16, 50 used from $0.50).
http://amzn.to/2fueya0
bar-blue

wine-all-in-one-for-dummies

778. Wine For Dummies

The complexities of cocktails and spirits are dwarfed by the complications of fine wines and champagnes. Our only concern is the question of how much of the content would be relevant to the pulp era, but this is one area where it’s probably easier just to pretend that the modern range is available back then.

We’re actually linking to two different forms of this book, because they are very comparable in price. The first one, and our first choice (Pictured), is the Wine-All-In-One For Dummies; this contains the central book and four regional wine guides – French, Italian, Californian, and Australia/New Zealand Wines – though it’s worth noting that neither of the last two amounted to very much in the world of fine wines during the Pulp era. 696 pages, Kindle ($17.40), Paperback 28 New from $14.67 and 31 used from $9.57.
http://amzn.to/2g75O84

Compare that with the core book on it’s own, which we recommend only when the price of the breaks the $20-or-so barrier through scarcity, even though it is two editions later than the bundled one. 432 pages, Kindle ($13.28), Paperback 43 New from $10.40, 19 used from $12.74. Is the added color worth paying less for? Is that a silly question? Turn it around: would a pulp GM (as opposed to the general public) get enough additional value out of the updated information to justify the higher price?
http://amzn.to/2fup80L
bar-blue

cooking-around-the-world-for-dummies

779. Cooking Around The World For Dummies all-in-one

There are a number of regional cuisine books in the Dummies series, but we don’t think that any one of them is worth getting just for RPG purposes. Getting all eight of them in one volume, on the other hand, seems reasonably cost-effective. After all, one of the easiest ways to make different places around the world distinctive is through the food that’s on offer, especially when discussing a time before McDonalds!

As you would expect, under the circumstances, the page-count is high: 744 pages. Available in digital format (e-book by another name?) for $4.99, or as a paperback (29 new from $15.50, 54 used from one cent).
http://amzn.to/2goYMfq

flourish-divider1

Documentaries About Ordinary Life in the Pulp Era

Four items in this subsection that are heartily recommended. Books are a great way to impart specific information and details; actually seeing something permits the incorporation of details not even consciously perceived, leading to a greater appreciation for the way the world felt beyond the known details, and providing a foundation for decisions about the look-and-feel of those details.

See also a number of documentaries listed in the “Era Inventions” section, as many of them make great efforts to place the problems these technologies were to solve in period context.
bar-gray

hidden-killers-of-the-edwardian-victorian-home

The “Hidden Killers” Documentary Series:
780. Hidden Killers of the Edwardian Home

Even if this was nothing more than a detailed examination of the typical home in 1901-1914, it would be deserving of a very strong recommendation. Since it is so much more than that, examining the deadly threats and dangers that the radical new inventions such as electricity and domestic chemicals brought with them, it gets top scores. (It should be remembered that outside the larger cities, Edwardian technology and the social consequences it carries will still be the contemporary reality!) On top of that, any city-based character over 25 will have experienced these conditions first-hand, and may be suffering from ill-effects as a result – something that can be a useful plot point for any Medically-oriented PC.

781. Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home

Less directly relevant at first glance, this predates “The Edwardian Home” (above) in time period. But that only means that you have to travel further into the backwoods and backwaters to find people living lives of a Victorian standard. All the reasons for the other “Hidden Killers” documentary to be relevant are just as valid for this one – only the context of the applicability has changed.

782. More Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home

No more need be said.

Availability:

Unfortunately, this series is not available on DVD anywhere as far as we have been able to determine. US residents can stream the entire series for $9.99 per episode http://amzn.to/1PRZLx7, local DVD suppliers might carry it, and at least two of them are available through youTube http://bit.ly/1SOTaYX and http://bit.ly/1qtxUyL – at least at the time of writing.
bar-blue

new-york

783. New York

Known variously elsewhere as “An American Experience: New York: A Documentary Film In 8 parts by Ric Burns”, or some combination of those elements, this is a collection of thematically-related documentaries spelling out the history of New York City. Originally aired as elements of a longer-running series over multiple seasons, this collection excerpts them to form a continuous narrative that is indispensable for any pulp GM.

Firstly, it brings the era to life; secondly, it brings the politics of the city in the pulp period to life; and third, it grounds the GM in what is inevitably going to be one of the featured locations in any Pulp Campaign.

We are recommending the series for 5 episodes: “The Power & The People”, “City Of Tomorrow” (Parts 1 and 2), and “The City & The World” (parts 1 and 2). (Mike: To my great regret, I missed episodes 1-3, or the recommendation might be even more expansive)! This 8-DVD set isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it, and there may be cheaper options available to you, depending on where you live.

Amazon US: $54+ http://amzn.to/1NziSMK, or rent the entire series through Amazon streaming for $3.99, or buy the series streamed for $30 http://amzn.to/22KUQWi

Amazon UK: limited copies of the US import from about £52 http://amzn.to/23Ibewk

Amazon Canada: CDN$85+ http://amzn.to/1VB9xvM, which is far more reasonable than usual, relative to the US Price.
bar-blue

turn-back-time-the-high-street

784. Turn Back Time: The High Street (Eps 1, 2, 3, and 4)

A 6-episode British series looking at the industrial/retail sectors of society and how they have been transformed by society and technology over the course of a single century, and how they in turn have transformed society within that century. While the series is British, the social and economic forces that affected the UK had their equivalents in Australia, and in the US, and – I’m sure – in Canada as well.

Amazon US has a single copy of the UK import and four copies through other vendors, all starting at around US$20 http://amzn.to/1spoGEz.

Amazon UK has not many more copies, but links to several more second-hand http://amzn.to/1O2NQTp.

Amazon Canada doesn’t list the DVD at all, but they do list the book of the series, with second-hand copies available http://amzn.to/1WvfiMn at the bargain price of CDN$0.01!

Amazon US also has the book for very reasonable prices http://amzn.to/1UfzlIb
and Amazon UK has the greatest availability of all, in terms of the book http://amzn.to/1sJlX92.
bar-blue

victorian-pharmacy

785. Turn Back Time: The Pharmacy aka Victorian Pharmacy (3 eps)

Examines medicine in the Victorian era, when skin creams contain arsenic and cold medicines were based on opiates. Any pulp-era character’s parents will have experienced the pitfalls and social impacts of this era’s pharmacology (in many cases, may still be experiencing the aftereffects), and certainly any doctor with a medical practice anywhere in the western world during the pulp era would be familiar with the ailments and supposed treatments. (Interestingly, the DVD has a run-time of 240 minutes, suggesting a full hour’s worth of extras).

Amazon US has only a limited supply of UK imports that won’t play on most domestic US equipment http://amzn.to/1TIpxae.

Amazon UK has a few more, and quite good availability second-hand http://amzn.to/1spqu0j.

Amazon Canada also has a few British imports for the relatively reasonable price of CDN$20 or thereabouts http://amzn.to/20RNhgj and has a few more listed separately at totally outrageous prices of up to CDN$900!

When the reasonably-priced DVDs run out, there is also a book (we are not sure whether the book is based on the TV series or vice-versa) available:
Amazon US: http://amzn.to/1TVV647, Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/1ZbhAxY, and Amazon Canada: http://amzn.to/1r1vJlK and http://amzn.to/1sJqTup and http://amzn.to/1P22uFx and a few more on top of those at less attractive prices.

flourish-divider2

Books About History & Historical Events

We weren’t able to subdivide the everyday life section very effectively – there was too much crossover in the value to be provided by the different titles being recommended – but we were able to subdivide the second-largest section into four subsections: World History, US History, British History, and Histories of Elsewhere.

See also specific items by location on the “Places” shelves.
bar-gray

Books About World History & Historical Events in general

This subsection holds 11 books, three of which are “For Dummies books that we thought worth promoting to the main list of recommendations.
bar-gray

Spacer readers-digest-book-of-facts

786. Reader’s Digest Book Of Facts – Robert Dolezal

The list of past rulers from different Kingdoms, Empires, etc, has been very useful any number of times. And you can get adventure ideas from elsewhere in the book using the techniques offered in Campaign Mastery’s 2013 article, “Trivial Pursuits: Sources Of Oddball Ideas”.

There are a mountain of cheap copies available at http://amzn.to/1PSeNJO and, if they run out, there are some more here http://amzn.to/20mr1iX and if that’s still not enough, for the third edition they changed the name to “The Book Of Facts” and there are even more copies of that available at this page http://amzn.to/1PdjJTV!
bar-blue

the-concise-encyclopedia-of-world-history

787. The Concise Encyclopedia Of World History – Rodney Castleden

Every major event from 38, BC to 1993 by date. Also some very useful appendices. Very limited detail on any given entry, we use it as an index of events, because it permits you to “flip through time” very quickly. Published with a couple of different covers, the cover shown is the one that we have and use.
http://amzn.to/1PwCEN1
bar-blue

a-history-of-the-modern-world-from-1917-to-the-1980s

788. A History Of The Modern World from 1917 to the 1980s – Paul Johnson

A more narrative approach that gives context and insight into events. Mike has the paperback and paid a lot more than these prices for it! The cover is very plain – orange for the paperback (pictured) and green for the hardcover, so this book almost escapes attention, which is a shame – one that you should take full advantage of. Mike and Blair (metaphorically) ripped almost two full pages of narrative from the content to use as player briefing on the Yakuza in Japan during the 1930s without need to edit it at all – they just took the book into the gaming venue with them and read aloud from it!
http://amzn.to/1PSgp6s
bar-blue

chronicle-of-the-20th-century

789. Chronicle Of The 20th Century

Newspaper headlines, photographs, and story excerpts day by day and month by month, from 1900 to 1989 (and possibly beyond – keep reading). You can also get a subsequent and much thinner volume covering 1990; the plan was to keep issuing them; that never seemed to happen. But there was a second edition (with the same cover as the first, pictured), with a slightly different page count – and, very helpfully, there was still another edition (with a different cover, and 100 more pages, taking the total to well over 1400) released in 1995. These are essentially a-month-to-a-page, so 100 extra pages is roughly 100 more months – or about 8 more years.

We’re recommending the newer edition even though it costs more, for that reason, but there are copies of the other editions that we have mentioned available for ridiculously cheap prices.

One word of caution: At 9 lb in weight or thereabouts, postage will be expensive. No, Very expensive.

NB: We are basing this recommendation on a specially-prepared Australia-and-New-Zealand edition, but the links we have provided all lead to a US edition, so far as we can determine, except as otherwise noted.

1995 edition (newer, larger. more complete): http://amzn.to/1KUcWN4
Second Edition (older, cheaper, less complete): http://amzn.to/1mauazp

BRITISH EDITION (slight cover differences, presumably greater content differences – and yes, we’re tempted…): http://amzn.to/1nCX4ZT
bar-blue

chronicle-of-the-world

790. Chronicle Of The World – edited by Jerome Burne

NOT to be confused with the previous recommendation, even though the title is similar and the cover is clearly related. This is a history of the world, but it’s written in modern journalistic style, arranged in chronological order from 3.5 Million B.C. To 1945. There are also more than 50 essays to supplement the main text. Interestingly, major events after 1945 are only summarized, showing that the focus isn’t on modern history but how we got to the modern day – and part of that “to” includes the Pulp Era.
The last 100 pages of the book contain an alphabetical compendium of the nations of the world.

This book is almost 1300 pages in length and again, tips the scales at more than eight-and-a-half pounds, so postage costs will be exceptionally high even though the book itself is quite affordable.
http://amzn.to/1PSlrzE
bar-blue

the-worlds-worst-historical-disasters

791. The World’s Worst Historical Disasters – Chris McNab

A couple of pages each on various disasters from Sodom & Gomorrah through to the Pacific Tsunami. While only a few entries will be of direct value there are a lot more that can be historically relevant to characters and their families. Amazon carries three different editions of this book, and most of them are outside the price limits of this list – including the edition we have and use. So buyer beware, your mileage may vary!

2005 Edition (cheapest): http://amzn.to/1QENf7E

2007 Edition (only one used copy, priced at $41.43): http://amzn.to/2060pNB

2008 Edition (not enough copies, but they are reasonably priced): http://amzn.to/1PSn5Bv
bar-blue

debunking-history

792. Debunking History: 152 Popular Myths Exploded – Ed Rayner & Ron Stapley

Many of the articles within this broad work will not be relevant, but there are enough to make this worth listing anyway. Amazon has four listings for this book, but only one falls within our price limits. If the affordable copies are all gone, you may be able to find one of those more-expensive ones by searching for the title.
http://amzn.to/1X0fEaT
bar-blue

day-of-the-bomb

793. Day Of The Bomb – Dan Kurzman

This is the story of the Manhattan Project and the men who worked feverishly to construct an atomic bomb. Historically, the big threat that the US perceived was that Heisenberg would give Nazi Germany atomic weapons. At the end of the War in Europe, it was learned that the Nazis were years away from that achievement, and that they had never devoted the resources to the problem that were necessary to solving it. What is not well known, even today, and will be even more interesting to a Pulp GM, is that a more serious threat was a Japanese nuclear weapon; they knew it was possible and they were making great strides towards success.

With weird science to accelerate technology, the Manhattan Project becomes cutting-edge Pre-war research – and the Japanese Bomb a serious (and completely unrecognized) threat to world security (they were all too busy panicking over the possibility of a Nazi Bomb, but the Germans were never really close to achieving one and Hitler didn’t really believe in the concept, possibly because of the Jewish Scientist element). It’s this International aspect that has led to this being included in this subsection and not in the one on the US.

In addition, the scientists of the Manhattan Project are many of the leading scientists of the day, who can perform consultative roles for many Pulp Heroes – that is why they are featured in “The Proteus Operation” by James P. Hogan (http://amzn.to/1kcs1mT), as experts called in to solve the mystery of why the time machine isn’t working the way the time travelers expected it to!

Our copy of “Day Of The Bomb” is a hardcover with a different cover to the one shown.
http://amzn.to/1PSotUA
bar-blue

first-world-war-for-dummies

794. The First World War For Dummies – Seán Lang

The broadest possible definition of Pulp is “adventure set in-between the two World Wars.” That means that anyone who is old enough to be an adult character in a Pulp campaign will have been touched by the First World War, making this volume a no-brainer. The author has an acute in his christian name that horribly mangles Amazon’s search results and means that searching for “Sean Lang” can result in no titles found.
http://amzn.to/2fuA4f4
bar-blue

world-history-for-dummies

795. World History For Dummies – Peter Haugen

Of course, anything older than World War I will also have left it’s mark. Ancient castles, monasteries, stone circles, the age of exploration (and anything they might have missed) – these are all fertile grounds for pulp adventures. Quite often the problem lies in identifying what detailed research is required, as intimated earlier; a broad overview of world history is therefore very useful to have around.
http://amzn.to/2fuGN8R
bar-blue

world-war-ii-for-dummies

796. World War II For Dummies – Keith D. Dickson

Drawing a line in the sand at the start of the first battle or of the declarations of war is probably the worst way of delineating periods in history. Wars never “just happen”, they are the culmination of long buildups and rising tensions. You can’t understand World War II without understanding the context of the 1930s; you can’t understand the First World War without understanding the tangled web of alliances between the great powers and how those came about (in essence, it was to prevent wars between them by guaranteeing mutual defense – ironic, that). All of which means that books on World War II are entirely relevant resources to understanding the world prior to that war, and vice-versa. Hence the inclusion of this volume.
http://amzn.to/2faRiQ5

flourish-divider1
For-Dummies Books About World History & Historical Events in general

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.
bar-gray

twentieth-century-history-for-dummies

797. Twentieth Century History For Dummies – Seán Lang

By the same author as “World History For Dummies” listed earlier, and the same notes about the spelling of his name apply. A bit less than half of this will be directly relevant to the Pulp GM, though some future developments in history can be foreshadowed as “current trends” within a campaign. In terms of the value of this book as a reference, a lot depends on how heavy the focus is on the two world wars, because that content would be redundant given the existence of specific references on the subject.
http://amzn.to/2gkuIEp

flourish-divider1
Books About US History with a Pulp-era focus or relevance

See also a number of the books in the World History section, above.
bar-gray

the-plot-to-seize-the-white-house

798. The Plot To Seize The White House: The shocking true story of the conspiracy to Overthrow FDR by Jules Archer

The subtitle should tell you all that you need to know about the subject, but in brief, a former general, Smedley Butler, alleged that he had been approached by moneyed interests from the highest echelons of American Society and pressed into a conspiracy to overthrow FDR and take his place as President and Fascist Dictator. There are no less than seven different Amazon pages covering this product, but none of the others has prices below the $20 threshold. If this page is out of cheap copies, search for the title and hope to find one of the others.
http://amzn.to/1PwN9Qv
bar-blue

war-is-a-racket

799. War Is A Racket – Smedley Butler

This is an anti-war booklet or pamphlet (80 pages long) by the decorated US General which includes a section on the alleged attempted coup in the US, which was the basis of Mike & Blair’s “Five Star” adventure in their Pulp Campaign. There are no less than four different editions of this book listed on Amazon, each of which has its own separate Kindle edition, each of which is at a different price. Three of the four also have different covers. So far as we’re aware, these are all the same in terms of content. Check all four for your best purchase option at the time.
Link 1: http://amzn.to/2c5upKH
Link 2: http://amzn.to/2bZz6lP
Link 3: http://amzn.to/2cBTOKg
Link 4: http://amzn.to/2ceyE40
bar-blue

us-history-for-dummies

800. US History For Dummies – Steve Wiegand

While most Americans should be familiar with the subject, do they really know enough specific detail to build encounters and adventures around except in the broadest possible sense? And how familiar with those details is someone from outside the US likely to be? Everyone needs this reference.
http://amzn.to/2gDP63E
bar-blue

native-american-history-for-dummies

801. Native American History For Dummies – Dorothy Lippert, Stephen J Spignesi, and Phil Konstantin

It’s possible that Americans won’t need this reference; the rest of the world almost certainly will. But it’s our impression that even most US Citizens don’t know all that much more on the subject than the rest of us (and the same is often true of other indigenous cultures – Mike admits, for example, that he doesn’t know as much as he perhaps should about Indigenous Australian history).

Here’s the thing: the Wild West is astonishingly close to the pulp era in time. When does the latter end? 1870? 1900? 1910? Wikipedia puts the date as 1912. Did anyone tell those who were living in remote backwaters? How hard is it to imagine that some vestiges persisted into the 1930s in a pulp campaign?

Yeah, that’s what we thought, too.

But, while there are lots of very specific books on this tribe or that, this native American subculture or the other, such as the Navajo or the Sioux, there aren’t very many general overviews of the subject. That’s why this book makes our main list.
http://amzn.to/2gpsz7R
bar-blue

us-citizenship-for-dummies

802. US Citizenship For Dummies – Cheri Sicard and Steven Heller

In the last half of the 19th century and the first third or so of the 20th, more than at any other time in its history, US Citizenship was a passport to a prosperous future, a ticket to the land of opportunity. Say, from the start of the Irish Potato Famine in 1845 through to the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the US could no longer be seen as a refuge from the War. Throughout the Pulp era, immigrants swarmed into the country as fast as they could be accepted – and one of their highest priorities on getting there was making sure that they couldn’t be sent away again, by becoming naturalized citizens. Probably half this book deals with events and changes post-pulp in time, but the rest would be of absolute bang-on-subject relevance.
http://amzn.to/2fIE499
bar-blue

us-military-history-for-dummies

803. US Military History For Dummies – John C. McManus

There are a number of urban legends that circulate based on the impression that the rest of the world knows more about US History than Americans do. Like most urban legends and internet memes, there is at best only a grain of truth to the impression. It follows that this volume may or may not be essential reference material for any given GM, and this is doubly true for any American pulp GMs!

Our greatest concern is that there may be too great a focus on conflicts that post-date the second world war; Our greatest hope is that there is enough material on WWI and II, The Spanish-American War, the Civil War, and the Revolutionary War (to name just a few) to make this relevant. Some pulp-era characters will have grandparents who remember the civil war and great-grandparents who fought in it!
http://amzn.to/2g7schO
bar-blue

the-civil-war-for-dummies

804. The Civil War For Dummies – Keith D. Dickson

…which fully justifies having this volume somewhere at hand, we think. Well, that’s what we decided after a bit of debate, anyway; debate which started Mike thinking along the lines that eventually led him to devise the character-background planning tool he described in Throw Me A Life-line: A Character Background Planning Tool. The example of use which forms part of that article shows clearly that an adult character in Pulp 1933 could have known grandparents who fought in / endured the war, and whose parents were certainly affected, with who knows what ripple effects. The Civil War is probably the outer stretch for relevance, but throw in various groups in the South who might want to relive those glory days, and justifying this book’s presence on the list gets a whole lot easier.
http://amzn.to/2frQ3Hs

flourish-divider1
Documentaries About US History with a Pulp-era focus or relevance

One entry, and it’s slightly tangential – but very important.
bar-gray

frontline-money-power-wall-street

805. Frontline: Money, Power, & Wall Street (Ep 1)

Although this 4-hour production is all about the GFC, the opening hour is directly relevant to the pulp GM. You see, the GFC arose because banks did certain things that they had been forbidden to do until a succession of presidents began to weaken the restrictions holding them back. And who imposed the restrictions in the first place? FDR, following investigations into the causes of the Great Depression.

Available from Amazon US for reasonable prices (especially second-hand) http://amzn.to/1reSHGR, and from Amazon UK http://amzn.to/23Woz0H and Amazon Canada http://amzn.to/23WoHgG in limited quantities as a US import – but also with second-hand copies available at reasonable prices.

flourish-divider1
For-Dummies Books About US History with a Pulp-era focus or relevance

The usual caveats (described earlier) apply.
bar-gray

us-presidents-for-dummies

806. US Presidents For Dummies – Marcus Stadelmann

Most people no matter where they are from can name most of the US Presidents of the 20th and 21st centuries and get them more or less in the right order. But it’s easy to build a pulp plotline with its roots in American political history prior to that date, and for that, most of us – Americans included – might need reference material. The first resource we would turn to is “The Universal Almanac” (listed elsewhere) because it has an excellent section on the US Presidents, and the second is Wikipedia, where we would expect each to have a dedicated page and links to more detailed discussions. This book seems likely to slot in-between those first and second resources in terms of quantities of specific information – more than the entries in the Almanac, and less than Wikipedia’s totality – and that is enough to earn this a recommendation, especially for anyone who can’t get a copy of the Almanac mentioned. We intend to use it as a filter to prevent us wasting time doing research on US Presidents that don’t fit our plot needs.
http://amzn.to/2fVgf17

flourish-divider1
Books About British History with a Pulp-era focus or relevance

bar-gray

britain-in-the-1930s

807. Britain in the 1930s: A Deceptive Decade – Andrew Thorpe

Britain’s 1930s are a very different decade, with mythologies having become encrusted around controversially different perceptions of events. The tumult around the resignation of Prime Minister Chamberlain and installation of Sir Winston Churchill are the most famous manifestation of the conflict, but its roots ran deeper. “Were the 1930s in Britain a decade of growing prosperity, unprecedented levels of ownership and sane, competent government? Or was it a time of grinding poverty, long-term unemployment and political timidity?” Blair and Mike have their own interpretation of events, viewing Chamberlain as neither dupe, villain, or victim but as a leader who gave Fascist Germany enough rope while desperately trying to avoid another war like WWI and who ultimately was betrayed by Hitler reneging on his given word. Had he responded with more outrage and vitriol, his position might have been salvaged, with Churchill brought in as an advisor and member of a bipartisan war cabinet; but upper-class British Reserve saw him hold back, and appear too weak to inspire the nation in the way that Churchill did.

It’s a slightly more forgiving position than that taken up by Andrew Thorpe in this book, but one with which he would be more comfortable than discomforted. In its pages, he examines the politics, economy, and society of the period and concludes that while not particularly dynamic, [the] governments [of the day] did as well as could be expected in the face of unprecedented problems. Without whitewashing the administrations, he cuts through the myths and unravels the half-truths to show that things were never as bad as the jaundiced and traumatized view of a nation at war would recall.

Paperback, 152 pages, 26 new from $32.03 (too expensive for our restrictions), 22 used from $0.77
http://amzn.to/2fTTz19
bar-blue

from-scottsboro-to-munich

808. From Scottsboro to Munich: Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain – Susan D Pennybacker

To those of us who aren’t from the US, it sometimes seems that America has trouble recognizing that other parts of the world have their own racial issues and problems, and have had for as long as America has struggled with its own race relations and Civil Rights issues. In fact, there’s been more than a little spillover of America’s problems in these areas through the years with other developed societies, as this book makes clear. Pennybacker examines the British Scottsboro defense campaign, inaugurated after nine young African Americans were unjustly charged with raping two white women in Alabama in 1931, explores the visit to Britain of Ada Wright, the mother of two of the defendants, considers British responses to the Meerut Conspiracy Trial in India, the role that antislavery and refugee politics played in attempts to appease Hitler at Munich, and the work of key figures like Trinidadian George Padmore in opposing Jim Crow and anti-Semitism in England and Great Britain. This book sheds new light on the racial debates in the Britain of the 1930s.
408 pages, Kindle ($15.92), Hardcover (too expensive for our restrictions), and Paperback (15 new from $18.97, 19 used from $0.58).
http://amzn.to/2gDf1sk
bar-blue

exporting-fascism

809. Exporting Fascism: Italian Fascists and Britain’s Italians in the 1930s – Claudia Baldoli

How did Italians living in Britain respond to Mussolini’s fascism? What links did ex-pat fascists forge with the British Right? To what extent did Italophilia exist in Britain during the Mussolini years? Exporting Fascism addresses these questions, which have long been ignored by historians, exposing the effects of Mussolini’s policies of transforming local Italian communities around the world into “little Fascist Italies” and the Italophilia that dominated the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the first half of the 1930s, later replaced with an admiration for National Socialism as the fascists forged connections with Britain’s right-wing.
288 pages, Hardcover 20 new from $19.15, 18 used from $15.77; Paperback 21 new from $1.98, 20 used from $1.96.
http://amzn.to/2gopMvQ
bar-blue

british-history-for-dummies

810. British History For Dummies – Seán Lang

There are two great poles around which pulp adventurers would orient themselves: they would either be Americans or subjects of the British Empire. Similarly, most pulp GMs would stem from one of those backgrounds. Most colonial citizens don’t know enough about the history of Britain to GM British-history and institution-based plots effectively, and that includes Americans – especially such history that predates WWII.

Written by the same author as “World History For Dummies” and “Twentieth Century History for Dummies”, both listed earlier; the same notes about the spelling of his name apply.
http://amzn.to/2frZGpv
bar-blue

british-military-history-for-dummies

811. British Military History For Dummies – Bryan Perrett

See the comments under “British History For Dummies”, above! There are more copies than those to which we have linked, but they are all over the $20 threshold.
http://amzn.to/2fe21Jm

flourish-divider1
Documentaries About British/Commonwealth History with a Pulp-era focus or relevance

bar-gray

edward-and-george-two-brothers-one-throne

812. Edward & George: Two brothers, One Throne

A documentary that appears to never have been released on DVD. A Google search for “Two brothers One Throne” shows that in many countries it is available through local streaming catch-up services, at least for the moment. Consult your local networks or do a Google search for “two brothers one throne”. Note that the image shown is a fictitious cover.
Google Search: http://bit.ly/2fKXxWZ

flourish-divider2
Books About History & Historical Events outside the US & Britain

bar-gray

the-pope-and-mussolini

813. The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pious XI and the rise of Fascism in Europe by David I Kertzer

Although Pious XII only took the reigns in 1939, it is easy to translate his rule back in time a decade to make this yet another enemy force for the PCs to counter. But at best it historically falls at the very end of the pulp era, even by the most generous of definitions.
http://amzn.to/1PdxMZD
bar-blue

saints-and-sinners-popes-edition

814. Saints and Sinners Popes Edition – Aemon Duffy

The only thing not covered by the preceding recommendation is the mysterious death of Pope Pious XI, and the other first “fathers” of the Catholic Church. To rectify that, we recommend this volume, firstly because it is well illustrated, and secondly because of the review by Peter Stanford of The Daily Telegraph, who (in part) wrote, “As [Duffy] works his way through the papal roll of honor and dishonor, he is always careful to re-create the political, social and economic background to different reigns. He eschews opaque ecclesiastical jargon and, where a theological or doctrinal dispute has to be explained, he does so in a way that even those unversed in biblical concepts or Christian history will immediately grasp.”
http://amzn.to/1QqGgNb
bar-blue

european-history-for-dummies

815. European History For Dummies – Seán Lang

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a transition from a European-dominated period of history to an America-centric one. While the most immediately-relevant European influence was England, most of English history is either in reaction to, or an action targeted at, some other part of Europe. That, of course, means that English History is only half the story. This is part of the other half.
Search by title, not author, as explained several times already.
http://amzn.to/2gpBWEt
bar-blue

medieval-history-for-dummies

816. Medieval History For Dummies – Stephen Batchelor

Of all the European structures that can make their way into a pulp plotline, a medieval castle is one of the most likely. But you can’t understand such structures without understanding their historical and social role. Because of the pulp world’s inheritances from medieval times, this resource is both indirectly relevant and something approaching indispensable when that relevance comes into play.
http://amzn.to/2fVjDc9

flourish-divider1
For-Dummies Books About History & Historical Events outside the US & Britain

The usual caveats apply.
bar-gray

napoleon-for-dummies

817. Napoleon For Dummies – J David Markham

With all due respect to George Washington, Colin Powell, and Ulysses S. Grant, Napoleon Bonaparte is arguably the most famous and influential military commander and civil leader in modern history. The codes of justice that he introduced, for example, are the foundations of the modern jury system, and you can’t fully understand the failure of the military invasion of Russia by Germany in World War II without referencing Napoleon’s earlier failed attempt to do exactly the same thing. Therefore, while this book has very little direct relevance to a pulp campaign, it has enough indirect relevance and context to re-float the Titanic.
http://amzn.to/2fs7kjG

flourish-divider2

Books About Politics in the Pulp Era

We thought seriously about subdividing this section along similar lines to the histories, above, but there didn’t seem to be enough references to make it worthwhile. Then we found more references when it was too late and we were committed to the current structure (these articles are a lot more complicated than they might seem). The best we’ve been able to do is list them in roughly the sequence in which they would have appeared had we been able to create the subsections structure in time.
bar-gray

the-book-of-rule

818. The Book Of Rule: How The World Is Governed – Timothy Cain (‘Editorial Producer’)

Gives details of how different governments around the world work at the time of publication. Essential for jet-set games in the modern day – but by including historical reference and context, invaluable for the Pulp GM as well.
http://amzn.to/293ibk6
bar-blue

supreme-power

819. Supreme Power – Jeff Shesol

Brings the political and legal worlds of Pre-WWII America to life, Supreme Court vs Roosevelt over the New Deal.
http://amzn.to/1RYcmp7
bar-blue

isolationism-in-america

820. Isolationism In America 1935-1941 – Manfred Jonas

The US was highly resistant to participating in another European War. This was known as the Isolationist Policy or movement. This volume details the people at the forefront of the movement and the maneuverings to keep America out of the War. Not many copies available.
http://amzn.to/1Pdz9HG

An excellent alternative source is – surprisingly – a work of fiction. The debate is at the heart of part of “The Winds Of War” by Herman Wouk, and there are plenty of cheap copies of THAT available.
http://amzn.to/1WdoZet
bar-blue

the-sphinx

821. The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the isolationists, and the Road to World War II – Nicholas Wapshott

There were many reasons why America didn’t want to enter the war that everyone could see coming to Europe. GMs need to understand all of them to understand the time period, and why some were so intent on avoiding war that they would commit treason, or appease the Nazis, to stop it. (It may help modern readers understand the title to know that “The Sphinx” was FDR’s nickname in the pre-war period).
http://amzn.to/20mJFqV
bar-blue

black-culture-and-the-new-deal

822. Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era – Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff

The Roosevelt era was rife with contradictions forced on the administration by the practicalities of politics. In order to avoid antagonizing a powerful southern congressional bloc, they refused to endorse legislation that openly sought to improve political, social and economic conditions amongst the African American population, instead doing an end-run around the southern opposition to progress by providing federal support to notable black intellectuals, artists, and celebrities.

While this may have been a short-term setback to Civil Rights, it was arguably more beneficial in the long run in terms of convincing the wider public to support the notion, despite the contemporary flaws, injustices, and bias within these programs.

This is the story of one major skirmish in the war of race relations and social enlightenment. Unusually, it’s new copies of this book that are cheap enough to permit its inclusion (just) and not used ones.

Kindle and Paperback, 328 pages.
http://amzn.to/2ggsYdh
bar-blue

congress-for-dummies

823. Congress For Dummies – David Silverberg

Everyone has some idea of how the US Congress works. Very few have enough information to actually write and roleplay a scene involving Congress. This seems to have everything you could possibly need. We needed this (but didn’t have it) when working on the “Five Star” adventure for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, finding out the hard way.
http://amzn.to/2fs3vuM
bar-blue

how-washington-actually-works-for-dummies

824. How Washington Actually Works For Dummies – Edited by Greg Rushford

This book actually contemplates and demystifies the rather murky world of Federal Politics. It’s an essential Pulp reference whether you’re American or not, even though it doesn’t cover everything that we hoped it might (did you know that Congress writes the City’s budget and not the Mayor’s office?).
http://amzn.to/2fVwCKP
bar-blue

the-supreme-court-for-dummies

825. The Supreme Court For Dummies – Lisa Paddock

Completing this trilogy of vital Dummies titles is this offering, which covers everything from how cases get assigned to the Supreme Court, how they are argued, and how they are decided.
http://amzn.to/2g7LX93
bar-blue

democracy-in-a-depression

826. Democracy In A Depression: Britain in the 1920s and 1930s – Malcolm Smith

The sun may have been setting on the British Empire (in fact, the process was well advanced) but that hardly dents the importance of the island nation at this point in history. This book looks at the politics, society, and economy of Britain during the period in question. Not enough copies, and even fewer at a relatively cheap price, but the lack of alternatives has forced us to include it anyway.
http://amzn.to/20676PF
bar-blue

twisted-paths

827. Twisted Paths: Europe 1914-1945 – Robert Gerwarth (editor)

Described as “a concise look at European History” between the years stated, this 464-page volume completes the primary historical references that the GM should have available. There was lots of the “the rest of the world” but there’s no unified reference to events there; this is as good as could be found. Prices are all outside our normal limit, but this is the cheapest comparable reference book on the subject that we could find.
http://amzn.to/20EnBEE

flourish-divider2

Books About Hollywood, Cinema, and Entertainment in the Pulp Era

There’s one book from this section that we really wanted to list, but it was just too far outside our restrictions. There will be an extensive review in the honorable mentions.

See also “The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain”, above.
bar-gray

the-great-movie-serials

828. The Great Movie Serials – Jim Harmon & Donald Glut

Talks about the behind-the-scenes creation of the movie serials and the directors, producers, and stars that created them. This book is available for Kindle but at $43 I don’t see many people rushing to buy it in that format. Fortunately there are still some physical copies left at half that price.
http://amzn.to/1QF31j1
bar-blue

continued-next-week

829. Continued Next Week, a history of the moving picture serial – Kalton C. Lahue

More of the same, plus synopses of some of the plots. Amazon has several pages listing this book, for up to $706 a copy. Fortunately, the copies we have linked to are more reasonably-priced.
http://amzn.to/1NOEiEe
bar-blue

hollywood-babylon

830. Hollywood Babylon – Kenneth Anger

Hollywood scandals of the era and the people involved in them – unsubstantiated anecdotes & gossip for the most part.
http://amzn.to/1o2ZuBz
bar-gray

hollywood-babylon-ii

831. Hollywood Babylon II – Kenneth Anger

More of the same.
http://amzn.to/1SqBd5J
bar-blue

the-rise-of-radio

832. The Rise of Radio, from Marconi through the Golden Age – Alfred Balk

We have three books to recommend on radio in the pulp era. This is the broader and more general, covering the entirety of the history of the medium in America from birth to the modern-day, and is the one we would be more interested in reading – which is the reason for it’s primacy here. There aren’t quite enough cheap copies but we’re making an exception to the usual rules.

Radio was the dominant form of mass communications from the 1930s into the 1950s, when it began to be slowly killed by a combination of television and ill-conceived media laws. “This anecdote-rich sweep of radio history, from its birth as Marconi s wireless telegraph through its current status under deregulation, analyzes the changing medium s social, political, and cultural impact…[casting] new light on many topics, including the roles of women and African Americans, programming sources outside the Hollywood-Broadway nexus, and arguments about Amos n Andy once the hit that jump-started radio s young networks, now a controversial remnant of a bygone era.”
http://amzn.to/2gd2iZi
bar-blue

radios-america

833. Radio’s America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture – Bruce Lenthall

This is more specific in scope, and more affordable. This book’s main contribution, distinctive to all the others, is that it examines how ordinary people integrated radio into their lives. Much of modern perception of that aspect of the subject is a cliché of the family gathered around the set of an evening, and while that is a part of the story, it is by no means the whole. Even in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, Mike and Blair are probably guilty of underplaying the value and impact of radio within the society of the time, a flaw this book promises to correct. Kindle and paperback (hardcovers exist but are ridiculously-priced).
http://amzn.to/2fnUxSG
bar-blue

on-the-air

834. On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio – John Dunning

A complete reworking and rewrite of the definitive one-volume reference on old-time radio broadcasting by the author of the original. 1500 radio shows from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s are presented in alphabetical sequence, with a complete broadcasting history, timeslot, network, advertisers, major cast and production members and even the theme song of the show. Not only does the book provide a synopsis of each series but takes the reader behind the scenes to capture the feelings invoked by the shows in their audiences and how they were achieved. On top of that, umbrella sections provide an overview of one particular aspect of the medium.

As a bonus of sorts, there will be a number of pulp-style radio serials that will have written up in individual entries!
http://amzn.to/2f3srO3
bar-blue

fdrs-fireside-chats

835. FDR’s Fireside Chats – edited by Russell D Buhite and David W Levy

This book collects, into a single volume, transcripts of all 31 of FDR’s “fireside chats” in which the President of the day talked things over with the American people. More in-depth and narrative in form than the modern-day press conference, these were an unprecedented attempt to achieve intimacy with the nation. Ridiculed by some at the time as a cynical and self-serving stunt, their effectiveness cannot be overstated in terms of the unity experienced by Americans during the war years and the winning of an unprecedented 5 consecutive terms as Commander-in-chief.
Link One: Kindle, Paperback (1993), cheaper copies (pictured): http://amzn.to/2gd81OB
Link Two: Paperback (2010), more expensive but quality may be better due to younger age of copies: http://amzn.to/2fZTbf4
bar-blue

the-genius-of-the-system

836. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era – Thomas Schatz

This book “…recalls Hollywood’s Golden Age from the 1920s until the dawn of television in the late 1940s, when quality films were produced swiftly and cost efficiently thanks to the intricate design of the system. Schatz takes us through the rise and fall of individual careers and the making—and unmaking—of movies such as Frankenstein, Casablanca, and Hitchcock’s Notorious. “ Also explores the distinctive styles of the different studios. 528 pages.
http://amzn.to/2f3CkuR
bar-blue

the-star-system

837. The Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities – Paul McDonald

The development and evolution of the Star system within the American film industry, tracing the popularity of star performers from the early “cinema of attractions” to the modern-day internet era, this book examines how Hollywood makes and sells its stars. 144 pages, which is a little on the short side.
Link One – fewer copies but cheaper ones: http://amzn.to/2fCqcNJ
Link Two – more copies but more expensive: http://amzn.to/2fmdKRu

flourish-divider1

Documentaries About Hollywood, Cinema, and Entertainment in the Pulp Era

bar-gray

the-story-of-film

838. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey – Pts 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5

This is the first third of an epic 15-episode 15-hour documentary series. I found the strong Irish accent of the narrator & director, Mark Cousins, to be a little distracting and hard to get used to, but the fascinating story of the interplay between social development being reflected in cinema and, at the same time, being driven by cinema, soon overrode any hesitation in watching (or recommending) this excellent series.

However, the scale of the series does make it rather expensive. Currently there have been 5 editions of the set in the US alone according to Amazon, a strong indicator of popularity; the cheapest of these is the second at the fairly reasonable price of US$21, but make your own comparisons at the time of purchase http://amzn.to/1sJanL0.

Amazon US also has the first five episodes available through their streaming service, at a price that’s about the same for the entire ‘first season’ of 5 episodes $40 or the 5 episodes individually for $10 each – (even though all 15 parts formed a single season when broadcast in many places if not all). By happy coincidence this ‘first season’ is completely comprised of the five episodes that are relevant to the pulp era so this is a viable option http://amzn.to/1VtkL52.

Amazon UK lists the series for the relatively reasonable price of £12.75 http://amzn.to/1UbrlZ8 while Amazon Canada has only one or two copies at the ridiculous price of CDN$80 or so, but lists several more second-hand at the marginally more reasonable price of CDN$60 or so http://amzn.to/20RGoeY.

flourish-divider2

bullet-holes-v10

Afterword by Saxon:

This is another of the shelves for the reference library that are about making use of the real life details of the pulp adventure period. We’re assuming that the game you want to run is set during the early Twentieth century, with at least some attention to historical detail. Or to put it another way, that the game isn’t simply taking the tropes and clichés of the pulp genre and running adventures on those in some other time period. In any case, period details can be used in several ways. Generating local color for the purpose of immersion. Characterization of the player characters. Idea generation for plots.

Local color helps establish the setting. Use too little of it and you run the risk of the players forgetting that they’re not playing in the modern world. Too much can be just as dangerous, since a pulp adventure is arguably about action and excitement, and the gamesmaster should be careful not to get bogged down. How much is just right? Well, that goes back to the old adage that the GM needs to know, and cater to, the preferences and needs of the players. However, a rough guide would be that in a pulp adventure, action takes first priority. Judicious amounts of period detail can be sprinkled about to maintain the games setting’s internal realism, but when there’s a choice between action and detail, choose action.

Next, using detail to build the characters. This has been discussed in the afterward to the first shelf on Heroes and player characters. At the broadest level, know what people and the jobs existed (in both reality and fiction) to choose the type of character to be played. Then refine with motivations, personal background and character tics as desired. Personal backgrounds are particularly useful, since they can be used to provide ideas for the third category, idea generation of plots. Does the character have something they particularly want to do, or an injustice they want to put a stop to? Do they have an enemy form the past that could act as a recurring villain?

Of course, not all adventure plots stem from the personal backgrounds of the characters. Some, even perhaps most, will derive from the random emergence of a Villain with his or her own agenda, and a notable fraction will emerge from the social, political and economic forces that existed at the time. Some of those will be generic to the setting, and can be made up out of whole cloth – if the GM knows what the cloth will look like. Others may involve the player characters becoming involved in specific historical events, in which case the GM will need to have done research to get the specifics correct. (Whether those details are then changed for reasons of surprise, dramatic emphasis, or plot convenience, is another matter entirely…)

Next: The 9th shelf: Non-Civilian Life: Crime, Policing, and Militaria!

swirlpralinchen-1

Leave a Comment

Blog Carnival November 2016: Ordinary Lives In Paranormal Space and Time


The illustration combines "sunrise from space" from wpclipart.com with "abstract-texture" by freeimages.com / Patryk Buchcik and "textures 9" by freeimages.com / Jason Boutsayaphat.

The illustration combines “sunrise from space” from wpclipart.com with “abstract-texture” by freeimages.com / Patryk Buchcik and “textures 9” by freeimages.com / Jason Boutsayaphat.

This is the fourth of five articles scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting. The carnival subject is “ordinary life” – in this case, how I create and manage subplots based on the ordinary lives of the PCs in my Zenith-3 campaign, how they connect seamlessly to the main plot of each adventure, and why.

My superhero campaign takes place in a big, hairy, complicated world. Magic works, time travel is… not routine but expected occasionally, extra-dimensional travel has become routine (and far easier than classical FTL), Demons are real, Heaven and Hell are real, and are just part of a broader cosmology that has places for everything from Norse Gods to Psychopathic Dreams!

Most of the campaign takes place in the year 2056, on a world in which the British Empire conquered half the world and still holds it. Every European nation, North & Central America, India, Australia, Africa, and about half the Middle East – all form part of the British Empire.

Each nation is a Kingdom in its own right, with its’ own rulers and government and laws – provided only that those laws are not overruled by the higher Imperial Law. But this is a Constitutional Empire in which the Throne, the elected government, and the ever-present civil service perform complicated dances of power with and around each other.

And the rest of the world? That is ruled by the sorcerous Mao, mysterious non-human beings who conquered it in pre-history and enclosed it behind a bamboo curtain which can only be observed by spy planes and satellites. Their technology is still that of the middle ages, but their power is comparable to that of the Empire.

Into this world have come a group of young superheros from another dimension, one which has endured the cataclysm of Ragnerok and recovered only to be in the process of tearing itself apart in global war, home to both a 4th Reich and a Fifth, in which a different America has seceded from the United Nations and been split down the middle by a new Civil War, as has a quite different England in which Two separate reincarnations of King Arthur struggle against the machinations of reborn Morgaine Le Faye, in which Japan has become New Atlantis, and Taiwan protects itself with Terminators. A hostile place that is far too dangerous for trainee superheros. About 20% of the groups adventures take place on “home ground”.

rpg blog carnival logo

In such a fantastic environment, it’s critical that the PCs touch base with the ‘munadanity’ of their daily lives outside of the regularly-occurring crisis’s and calamities that form those adventures. But the means of organizing such is something that can translate readily to any other campaign, and that is the subject of today’s article.

Campaign Structure

I’ve written before about the campaign structure – see the most advanced mode discussed in Back To Basics: Campaign Structures – and don’t intend to chew on old soup in this article, though there will be some bases on which I need to touch. (I’m also going to reuse a number of the graphics from that article in this one).

Plot Arcs

Campaign structures 6

The campaign consists of 36 plot arcs (well, it will, once they have all gotten underway) that are intended to weave together into a larger campaign-narrative. The campaign has been divided into 12 stages which have been grouped, terms of that larger narrative (called The Apocalypse), into 7 phases. The image above has the plot arcs running across the page while the phases and stages run vertically, and show which plot arcs are in effect in which phase/stage. A separate column over on the right hand side provides a tally of the number of standalone adventures that aren’t part of any plot arc, but that seemed like fun, that are scheduled. This was used as a planning tool, and then updated to reflect the planning results.

Plot Threads

Each plot arc consists of one or more plot threads, or individual narratives. These have been individually numbered in the heading columns at top and bottom; as you can see (if you zoom in) the largest plot arc in terms of plot threads has 4, most only have one.

The wider narrative

Looking at the graphic, you can also see some overall patterns emerge. Most of the plot threads in place in the early campaign come to a conclusion by phase 3 (counting down from 9), while about half the total plot arcs don’t start until phases 7 or 8 and also resolve by phases 2 or 3.

It’s important to note that these phases are story-based and don’t represent equal amounts of time or equal numbers of adventures. In fact, as a rule of thumb, each row is shorter than the one before it, until phase 1, when each phase is one or at most two adventures long. You can get some idea of the relative dimensions (in terms of content) by counting up the number of active plot arcs and adding the number of standalone adventures.

What’s more, all it takes for a plot arc to get a white box (a yes) is for a character who appears to have it relate to his motivation, or for such a character to drop some information of relevance to it in the course of an adventure. So the involvement of any given plot arc in any given adventure phase is highly variable.

It’s also clear that the core of the campaign comes down to four plot arcs that, once started, persist to the very end of the campaign (if everything proceeds as planned, sometimes it doesn’t). Plot Arcs 3, 8, 17, and 25. You probably can’t read the labels attached to these plot arcs, they have been deliberately obscured to hide secrets from the players.

Threaded Plot Bricks

Each plot arc consists of a number of plot “bricks” that connect to one another to tell a story. With all the plot bricks assembled in a sequence, you get a long ribbon of adventure content, which has been turned sideways in the image below and shrunken past the point of containing any meaningful information as to content.
Campaign structures 7-s2

This shows the entire planned campaign. If I zoom in on just part of this structure (and undo my rotation), you can see more:

Campaign structures 8

This makes it clear that each row of the campaign plan consists of five main sections: White, mostly red and green, mostly yellow and blue, mostly red and green again, and another white section.

Campaign structures 8c

Adventures

The central yellow section shows the main adventure and the PCs (and some major NPCs) who are expected to take part in it. Yellow is ‘yes’, blue is ‘no’. If I zoom in and show only that part, you can see that for the most part, there are no notations in any of the plot bricks – that’s because the key information on the content is all in the white sections to either side.

Campaign structures 8a
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
As you can see to the left, the first white block shows the phase of the overall campaign, the adventure number, the stage within the campaign, the plot arc that is to be involved in the adventure, and a “plot code” that indexes an individual part of, or event within, that plot arc. In fact, these were generated before this structural map was produced; this whole document simply indexes them chronologically.

Looking again at the diagram to the right, you can also see that there is one set of notations running across one row – that’s a character subplot that is intended to directly impact the course of the main adventure, i.e. two plot arcs coming together in a very specific way, usually as a complicating factor.

Essential Subplots

Campaign structures 8bCampaign structures 8d

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The red/green bands on either side of the main adventure sections show planned developments in character subplots that take place before, during, or after the main adventure. Some of these recur, some involve more than one PC, sometimes there isn’t one for a given character. Purple means they aren’t involved at all, red means there is no time for a character subplot and I should move directly to the next main-adventure plot brick, green means that there is some essential development, and white means that the characters are there but there is no important subplot involving them.

The Gaps

That’s where this article comes in. Those characters are always somewhere, doing something, even if it’s just lounging around the team’s headquarters soaking up the sunshine. They are, in other words, experiencing their character’s “ordinary life”.

What’s more, those essential subplots are often not enough to carry an entire scene on their own; they often need to occur in conjunction with an “ordinary life” scene, so – despite the green “attention-getting” flag, they are (in reality) mostly white, as well.

Functional Purposes

Aside from keeping the characters grounded in the reality around them, and permitting them to feel like they are actually living their lives rather than tuning in for “just the interesting bits”, there are often plot- and meta-plot functions that I want these subplots to perform.

  1. Where and when the PCs are: First and foremost, they establish where the PCs are when the main adventure starts and what they are doing, and any influences over their frame of mind at the start of the adventure.
  2. Campaign Background development: I use them as a vehicle for conveying developments in the game world, ensuring that the campaign environment doesn’t stay static, as per Lessons From The West Wing III: Time Happens In The Background. This might take the form of a conversation in which someone asks the PC, “Did you hear about [x]” or it might be a news story, or a magazine article, or something someone stumbled over on the internet, or something that someone sees first-hand.
  3. Character Development: If player X has told me that he wants to develop skill Y, I will look at how long that will take, and try to schedule at least one subplot that shows them studying that subject. Since that’s often a fairly dry and dusty subject, I will try to involve some character interaction as part of that – so the subplot might be their studies getting interrupted, or them overhearing/witnessing something, or meeting the NPC who is teaching them, or something happening just as they are finishing for the day. It’s a no-cost plausibility add.
  4. Relationships Development: Another key goal is for the PC to develop relationships, either with NPCs or amongst themselves. These shouldn’t remain static, and shouldn’t even experience their main development in the course of the main adventure; those main adventures usually represent only a small fraction of the time spent in each other’s company. I especially want each PC and key NPC to develop their own circle of friends and contacts, even if only lip service is paid to them thereafter and they never play a significant role in a main adventure. It makes the characters more “human” (even if they aren’t).
  5. Plot foreshadowing: Some subplots – especially the critical ones pre-programmed in – are hints and foreshadowing of future events. Like an iceberg, the true significance may be much larger than it seems at the time.
  6. Adventure foreshadowing: I like to drop in some connection to the theme of the next adventure for at least one of the PCs so that they are already thinking along “the right lines” when that adventure starts. If plot foreshadowing is an iceberg in the distance, this is an iceberg looming right in front of the players.
  7. Adventure context: The main adventure has to start somehow, and having it start as just another subplot, initially indistinguishable from the others, provides a seamless segue, making the main adventures an extension of the PCs ordinary lives. Occasionally, though, I want main adventures to come out of the blue – that also happens in real life, though the term “adventure” has to be applied a little loosely for most of us. This is an iceberg actually hitting the “good ship PC”.
  8. Post-adventure consequences: Some adventures have immediate repercussions and consequences. If those developments are not to have an immediate bearing on the next adventure, they are often better-handled as a post-adventure subplot. Sometimes, even if they will have an immediate impact, they are necessary to properly punctuate the end of the adventure.
  9. Post-adventure complimentary narrative/Epilogue: Sometimes, the deeper philosophical aspects of the theme or the adventure need additional exposition to round out treatment of the subject. And, sometimes, the true relevance/importance of events within the adventure are obscured by proximity to events and an epilogue subplot is necessary to give the ‘big picture’ perspective.
  10. Future-adventure teases: Finally, I might want to drop in a cliff-hanger ending or a teaser for the next adventure. This can even sometimes be something that I want the players to know but that their PC’s wont become aware of until ‘next time’. As the campaign continues, these will increasingly provide a launchpad into the next adventure with little or no room for pre-adventure subplots. And finally, sometimes I need to know where the players are going to be and what they are going to be doing before I can fully write up the next adventure; this gives an opportunity to capture that information in time to integrate it into prep for the next session of game-play.

As you can see, the subplots play a critical role in the campaign; in some respects, they can even be seen as doing more of the heavy lifting of making it a campaign than the headline plots do. Again, as things come to a head, this will change, but in the early phases of the campaign, it’s a definite fact of life – and one of the ways in which the importance of events in the main adventures will be felt by the players is as a result of the absence of these subplots. The focus will sharpen as The Apocalypse becomes the central fact of their daily existences.

The Events Table

So, how do I decide which aspects of the PCs lives each should experience as a subplot? Well first, I look at the needs of the main adventure and shortlist any requirements it presents. Sometimes, that will require a predetermined subplot, or there might be an option that explicitly satisfies those needs better than any other – choice made.

Most of the time, though, I use a random table that I have constructed and which slowly evolves as the campaign develops. Before I get into the table itself, I should explain how it was constructed (so that you can do one for your own campaigns if you like the technique).

everyday-activities-list

Content Lists

I started by listing as many possibilities as I could think of. and classifying them into one of three lists: “Regular Event”, “Frequent Event”, “Other Event”. I continue to add to these lists, and even shuffle items from one list to another, as priorities change.

The current lists are shown to the left. Note the event codes which can be used in compiling a ‘note form’ outline of the complete adventure before I start writing it. I then convert each code into a sentence or small paragraph, arrange them into the order that makes the most narrative sense to produce a synopsis of the adventure, and then employ the writing technique that I described in One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post to actually write the adventure.

There are a number of entries on the list that require additional explanation to an outside audience. First, the asterisks refer to notes that are attached to the lists as reminders to me:

* = first occurrence to be accompanied by an UNTIL Directive.

** = IMAGE mandated, first occurrence may be accompanied by an IMAGE Regulatory Update/Reminder memo.

*** = first occurrence to be accompanied by an IMAGE Efficiency Instruction.

These will have my players doing face-palm plants, I expect, but to most readers, they will also require explanation.

Three Bureaucracies

The first thing to understand is that the team are answerable to three different bureaucracies in two different dimensions of reality, two different parallel earths. There is their parent team; there is the UN organization, UNTIL, who sanction and regulate the parent team’s activities (and who pay wages to the team members); and there is the “local” authority, IMAGE, who sanction and regulate the team’s local activities. That means a lot of paperwork, first and foremost, and secondly, directives from these agencies sometimes conflict, or are impractical for a superhero team.

Japanese Management Techniques

I was working for a large organization when these became a big thing in the eighties. In a world without a Japan, with minimal Eastern philosophy of any sort, how long do you think it would take the locals to develop these concepts on their own initiative? In the British Empire of Earth-Regency, they are the hottest thing since sliced bread, and tasked with integrating them into the functions of all organizations within the Civil Service (including IMAGE and it’s subordinate, the team) is Division Commander A. Featherington-Hughes.
PDF Icon

I was going to provide a sample that you could read as part of this text, but with the tables themselves taking up so much room, the results weren’t legible, so I’ve done the next best thing and provided a PDF of the sample, which you can open in a new tab or download by right-clicking on the icon to the right.

So, an hour a week spent listening to music, another spent in artistic endeavors, and so on. These do two things: first, they provide talking points for conversations between a PC and one or more NPCs; second, they let me throw in cultural elements from the game world that the players can’t know (it’s 2056, so I have to make them up).

Media Appearances

The team get around a lot of laws, rules and regulations by virtue of being classed as “Registered Eccentrics”. The Imperial government long ago recognized the social value of satirists and gadflies as checks against the excesses of the other branches of government, not to mention the “bread and circuses” value of keeping the citizens happy, and so developed laws to protect cartoonists and comedians, public commentators, and other notable figures from prosecution for speaking their mind or behaving outrageously. This status is not conferred for life; you have to continually earn it with relevance and appropriate media appearances. Nor can they represent any sponsor or organization which is not exclusively constituted of such eccentrics.

The team’s sanction to operate, in other words, without worrying about traffic laws and the like, and without being members of the Imperial Police Force (and without being constrained by their requirements for due process), depend on them making regular media appearances and being publicly visible. That doesn’t mean that they can ignore these laws, rules, and regulations with impunity; prosecutions and evidence can and will be thrown out of court if it is illegally obtained, for example. But it does mean that in an emergency, they can take the appropriate action and worry about the niceties later. Neither are the Imperial Government responsible for the team’s actions – if they capture a villain, he can’t sue for illegal restraint, for example. So the team make regular appearances both individually and as a group.

Charitable Support

Meeting the social obligations that go with being a registered eccentric is partially achieved by each team member having one or more nominated (registered) charities for which they perform volunteer work or fundraising activities. They each got to choose a cause that they could get behind and for which they wanted to generate media exposure.

Tourism Activities

There are various ways in which the team’s operating costs, including the rent on their multi-billion dollar state-of-the-art interactive skyscraper headquarters, get defrayed, while also keeping their celebrity profiles high. One of these is conveying guided tours through the public parts of the facility, posing for photographs with the tourists who have paid for the privilege, and so on. The Imperial Government likes to encourage international tourism, as it helps foster a view of the Empire as a united whole in the minds of citizens, so on top of being a tourist attraction in their own right, the team will (in the future) get to visit and publicly review/endorse various vacation spots.

Cultural Activities

Other high-profile events to which they receive invitations are always on the must-do-if-at-all-possible list. Movie premiers, the opera, Broadway shows and plays, and other cultural events provide a confluence of public interest and media interest that must be exploited to keep their media profiles high enough. Such celebrity appearances form a self-fulfilling prophecy: the media and public are attracted by the celebrities, which makes these activities more of a public Event, which makes it easier to attract the media and public. There have only been a few of these so far in the campaign – one character got to throw out the first pitch at a major baseball game. Part of the value to me as a GM is that this puts the PCs out amongst the public in locations at which their appearance is public information, giving me the opportunity to bring adventure and PC together.

On top of all that, there are various causes that the Imperial Government promotes through named days, weeks, and months – “Frostbite Awareness Week” and so on – in which team members must occasionally take part. A recurring one is “Cuisine Discovery Day” – once a month, Imperial Citizens are encouraged to sample a meal that they’ve never tasted before. This has been mentioned once but hasn’t actually played a role in an adventure to date. Part of the ‘obligation’ is to review the meal and source on social media – again to encourage cross-cultural links within the Empire.

Recreational Activities

Of course, there are restrictions on how many hours people can work. In an emergency, those restrictions can be ignored/bypassed, but without good reason, the PCs are expected – even required – to spend a certain amount of each day sleeping and a certain amount on things that they do purely for their own personal enjoyment. This is largely about getting the PCs out-and-about and interacting with people and places rather than being holed up in their headquarters all the time.

Health and Safety Activities

These haven’t bitten the PCs much yet, but will eventually – annual medical checks, eyesight checks, and – the one example that’s occurred so far, marksmanship qualifications. Of course, those rules weren’t written with superheros in mind, so the qualifications had to be with a standard police-issue weapon. Some members of the team with military or police training breezed through, others struggled a little more.

Hobbies

Another of those “efficiency doctrines” is that people with hobbies are more creative at solving on-the-job problems, and that hobbies frequently provide other unexpected skillset and social benefits to both the individual and society as a whole. Guess what that means? Another hour a week, with the civil service bureaucracy keeping track of it. What’s more, once a month, you have to try a hobby that you’ve never tried before…

Fan mail (Mailbag)

While the team receives far too much fan mail to answer it all personally (or even read it all), the clerks who respond with pre-packaged ‘thank you’s are encouraged to extract any items of significant merit for more personal attention. Members take it in turns to respond to such, or at least they will – so far this subplot hasn’t shown up in actual play.

Self-Education

Many players, if they had their way, would develop no abilities or skills that were not of direct benefit to the character. Part of the rationale at a metagame level behind many of the above activities is the encouragement of characters to develop things that do nothing but make them more rounded individuals. But that needs to be balanced with things that the players actually want their characters to learn or get better at.

Some of these are more easily learned or accessed because of the game date, or are, at least, no harder; others require a cultural reference back to the group’s original homeland. Various correspondence courses are made available through both the supervising organizations, while the team members are also free to seek out appropriate tutors.

The Random Subplot Table

I started with the base table below.
event-table1a

As you can see, it gives a 20% chance of an “other” subplot, a 33% chance of a “frequent” subplot, and a 47% chance of a “regular” subplot.

But it also self-modifies – every second “other” event reduces the chance of future “other” event by 3%, allocating 2 of those percentage points to a regular subplot and one to the chance of a frequent subplot. So far, the vagaries of random chance have allocated 19 other events, 34 frequent events, and 47 regular events (I keep track so that I can backtrack if I have to).

That, with the resulting working, produces the table below:
event-table1b

The cumulative net effect so far has been for frequent events to become +5% more likely to result while other events have become less likely. Since ‘frequent’ events split their adjustments evenly between other and regular subplots, this will eventually manifest in a recovery on the part of the other category and a boost to the regular events, which in turn will eventually boost both frequent and other categories.

It’s worth noting that I have rolled subplot choices a long way in advance of where we currently are in the campaign! That gives me time to plan each, and even override the choice if that fits the main adventure better.

Once I know which list to draw from, I roll a d20. On the regular list, that means that I reroll 18-20 results, because there are only 18 events listed there. Item zero is one that can only be selected manually and deliberately, because it fits the plotline especially well; you can’t roll a zero on an unmodified d20! On the other two lists, there are more than 20 results, so each result that gets randomly selected gets rotated to the bottom of the list – I re-sorted the list I’ve shown you all above, the current one bears little resemblance to it.

The other reason for making the roles in advance is that a number of them require me to produce “memos” to the team, of the type shown as an example earlier.
event-table2

The first ten subplots allocated randomly using this system are shown above.

Subplot Implementation

The first decision. once a subplot has been identified, is how much screen time to allocate to the subplot. I talked about that in the previous offering within the blog carnival, Blog Carnival November 2016: The Extraordinary Life of a Fantasy PC. The principles are the same: Major Subplots, Minor Subplots, and so on.

I’m never afraid of starting a subplot in the middle, or of starting one and then switching spotlight to another, rejoining the first at a much later point in time. The goals are to spread the spotlight around as evenly as possible, from a PC point of view, but also to keep it moving – every two-to-five minutes, and aiming for the short end of that range, the scene should shift to someone else. I’ll make an exception when the PC in the subplot decides to interact with another PC as a result – one memorable sequence recently had St Barbara trying to work on the assignment for her creative writing correspondence course, only for one thing after another to interrupt her.

Integrating Essential Subplots

A critical related decision is how the pre-specified subplots are going to integrate with what everyone’s doing. Are they big enough to stand on their own, or do they need to integrate with a second minor subplot, and – if so – which is best suited?

What Is Everyone Doing?

To some extent, each PC’s subplot is assumed to be occurring simultaneously, but we’re only human and can only assimilate one scene at a time. A key consideration is always the way these subplots should be presented sequentially. I always give this careful thought; if I can use one as a “backbone”, a through-line to establish where each is up to, that lends cohesion to the whole process as it is experienced by the players. Things cease to be a series of isolated events and become part of a larger whole.

How Does The Adventure Start?

The other thing to which I will give careful attention is the answer to this question. Every adventure has some trigger event, the first spot of rain before the deluge. What is it, and which PC will experience it? Note that if it’s an NPC who experiences it, that still has to get relayed to the PCs so that they can get involved – which merely changes the nature of the trigger event. The question is always how the PCs will get smacked in the head with developments, or – more frequently – how one of them will be subjected to the revelation of the situation and will get the rest involved.

Adventure Conflation and Integration

You may have noticed earlier that a given adventure may comprise many lines of the planning chart. Where adventures can be linked thematically, and can complicate each other, I have no qualms conflating many events into one larger adventure. The current adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign, which I described in detail as part of Blog Carnival November 2016: The Everyday Life of a GM, consists primarily of three inter-connected ‘adventures’ – Holo, Swarm, and E-III/Vossen, the last of which has complicated both of the first two.

The fact that these chapters in the more complex whole are separated from each other in game time gives rise to the potential for more subplots, these occurring mid-adventure.

Mid-Adventure Subplots

The decision as to how heavily to feature these is always twice as difficult as any other planning question. I have to factor in anything that the PCs have said they want to do, and how much time I want them to have to reflect on the current situation – balanced against the risk of them coming up with some clever idea that I hadn’t prepared for, and in particular, against the risk of them learning something prematurely. Discovery can be exciting, confirmation (usually) has all the impact of cold spaghetti.

Although I dislike doing so, I will have to sometimes resort to game mechanics; having characters roll to keep their thoughts on whatever they are supposed to be doing instead of brooding while secretly hoping that they succeed, and doing everything I plausibly can to enhance the likelihood of success, for example. Equally, if I want them to brood, I can try to encourage the opposite likelihood. But, for the most part, I prefer to let the players make such decisions about the way their characters react without interference from me.

Metagaming for added value

Another thing that I am always on the lookout for is the ability to incorporate added meaning to the subplots by relating them to the themes of the campaign and/or the campaign. I don’t always see the need to make those connections obvious, either. Again, you can see some examples at work by studying the discussion of the current Zenith-3 adventure through the link offered above.

Conclusion: A World Is For Living In

I once heard someone describe a game world as ‘a place for the PCs to stand while they are experiencing the adventure’. I can’t tell you how strongly I disagree with that statement. The game world in question always felt like a cardboard mock-up of the real thing, not only to me, but to the other participants. This encouraged them to think of ways of gaming the system to their own advantage; their characters were just proxies for what the players felt like doing. There was no immersion, and the campaign had no more depth than a boardgame, and a not particularly engaging one at that.

I’ve always felt that the more concrete the world feels, the more into character the players can and will get, because of the strength of the interactions between character and environment. My GMing techniques are all aimed at creating engaging plotlines and letting the players interact with those plotlines, my plotting and prep are tools to facilitate this level of interaction.

A world is for living in. Your adventures can be as spectacular as you want, but your campaign should always be about the characters as elements of that game world and how the two evolve in response to each other. My sub-plotting technique is a way to educate players and facilitate the engagement between world and PC, as the players live vicariously through their characters. It’s an approach that works – with appropriate modifications – regardless of genre. If it’s not what you do currently, I urge you to at least consider the approach in future – within practical limits, of course; twenty players with separate PCs would make the game more than a little subplot-heavy. Practical limitations aside, it can be said that the true test of skill of a GM is how well he creates, incorporates, and manages his subplots.

Comments (1)

Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 7th Shelf


author-1600a_sm

Another monster post (18,400 words), another late posting.

I once swore that I would never be involved in anything this large and complicated on a weekly deadline again; but every two or three years, it seems, overconfidence or hubris combine with a really good idea, and before you know it…

Three things in particular caused this particular post to be delayed.

First, I discovered, backed up to a completely unrelated file, in a completely unexpected location, a whole bunch of links that had been listed to include but not written up. About 2/3 of the links in this post, in fact. There are also a few for later posts, but not even close to the scale of the impact on this one.

Second, I make it a point of making sure that there is some content of value to most GMs even if they don’t run Pulp campaigns. Normally, I can rely on the content to do that for me; this time around, that wasn’t going to cut it. So I decided to insert an extra, bonus, post-within-a post that would both be relevant and would fulfill that brief.

And third, Tuesday I got absolutely nothing done; it was one of those days of interruptions that come along every now and then. It was 7:30PM before I even finished my “breakfast” routine. It didn’t hep that I underestimated the scale of the additional work required on the post, either, but had I been able to work on it all Tuesday, it still would have gotten done in time – barely.

So that’s my tale of woe – a perfect storm of complications and setbacks. LUckily, such things are usually rare events!

The Seventh Shelf: Hardware II: Vehicles – Introduction by Mike

The quality and capabilities of transportation does more to define the shape of a society and a culture than just about anything else you can point at, with the possible exception of mass communications. Transport capabilities define how dependent populations are on local produce, define what exotic foodstuffs can be shipped in at what price, and how much produce costs. In fact, because raw materials have to be transported to where they are needed for manufacture of goods which then have to be transported to points of distribution, there are amplification effects and secondary impacts all over the sociological map.

During the California gold rush, it was routine to ship dirty laundry to Hawaii for laundering and back. Before electrical refrigeration became practical, frozen lakes were carved up and shipped south for use in New York City iceboxes. The mid-20th century was profoundly shaped by the reliability and affordability of motor vehicles, and even the design and shape of cities evolved throughout the 20th century to accommodate traffic.

In medieval times, it was routine practice for cities to have enough stored food on hand to feed the population for a year, and to supply the grain for planting the following year. At the start of the Pulp Era, this had declined to having sufficient food on hand for three or four weeks, a testament to the increased reliability of mass transport of groceries. By the 1950s, that was down to a fortnight, in the 70s or 80s, it declined to a week; and by the turn of the century, the average was three to five days. It is now two or three days, thanks to an increased focus on the desirability of fresh produce.

Similarly, as lifestyles have changed, waste generated has risen, making cities increasingly dependent on the sanitation departments that remove this to ever-expanding refuse piles. Transport is a defining factor in societies and business operations, and every time you think you finally have a handle on all the ramifications, a new one emerges to startle and confound. Think, for example, about the simple fact of where people work relative to where they live; without mass transit, suburbs are all-but impossible.

The Pulp Era is a pivotal point in the history of transportation. Commercial aviation has become a reality, albeit an expensive one. Commoners still rely on trains, an 18th century technology that was steadily improving in speed, reliability, and capacity. The motor vehicle has been mass-produced for a while, but outside the cities, infrastructure has not yet caught up; few roads are paved save in the most progressive and wealthy locations – the north-eastern United States, for example, and highways are strings of local back-roads. Submarines are making the transition from primitive to reliable, and in marine technology, the diesel engine has replaced the steam engine. Airships ply the skies, offering luxurious travel to the uber-wealthy and well-connected. The Jet engine is on the cusp of becoming a reality, and simple experiments in rocketry have been underway for a decade or more.

On top of this array of transportation possibilities and their impacts, they provide a irresistible splash of color; many of the vehicles were works of modern engineering art, as beautiful to look at as they were dangerous and often difficult to drive.

Relevance to other genres

For some genres, the relevance is fairly obvious. Late-era Cthulhu and Steampunk, for example. Post-apocalyptic genres may have deteriorated roads and dilapidated vehicles that don’t provide much better performance than the vehicles of the pulp era. For other game genres, it becomes less so, or at least, less directly so. Understanding the impact on society of transportation of people and goods remains directly relevant. Some of the techniques that we employ and have described below will be adaptable – for example, Mike uses the same basic technique to determine how far and how fast riders can move in his fantasy campaigns as the one described in the appropriate section on road trips. In fact, in an attempt to ensure that there is something of interest to most readers, he has gone somewhat overboard in that section, incorporating what could well have been a separate article into the text, which won’t surprise anyone who’s been reading Campaign Mastery for very long.

Shelf Introduction

bullet-holes-1-600

towering old shelves of books

Image Credit: freeimages.com / steph p

The seventh shelf has 116 references divided into 10 categories of transportation and related fields. There are undoubtedly others that we could have chosen – we didn’t search for a history of cable cars, for example, and the Melbourne (Australia) section lists a book on trams. We might have gone hunting for books on special-purpose modes of transport, like tugboats and submarines, or the river-craft that ply the Great Lakes, or the fishing boats of the Gulf, but we ultimately determined that there would have been too few books on the subject with a substantial relevance to the pulp period. And all those pre-Depression ships would not have vanished; many of them would still be working hard for a living, but we have chosen to disregard those as well, just to keep the topic range manageable.

Zeppelins & other Airships – We start with what are probably the most iconic form of transport in the Pulp Era – airships and dirigibles. Lighter-than-air craft that use great bags of gas to carry a gondola suspended beneath and are propelled by powerful diesel engines, these were luxurious and even opulent – in the passenger areas at least. Books on them seem hard to come by, these days, but we have found a few.

Aircraft – commercial & military – Airship references are few because airships didn’t really last as a commercially-viable mode of transport. Aircraft books are numerous, because they lasted; and yet, we struggled to find recommendations in this section, simply because most of them are too tightly focused to be relevant, or material on the pulp era gets drowned out by the decades of subsequent air travel. But we were convinced that there had to be a few gems amongst so many offerings, and persisted until we had found at least some of them.

Air Routes & Commercial Aviation – And, if you thought general books about the aircraft of the 1930s were hard to find, books regarding how they operated are like hen’s teeth. Nevertheless, this category contains some prizes.

Rocketry – We thought seriously about including books on early rocketry, but ultimately these were inadequate to carry a payload of substance; either they were disqualified as a mode of transport for that reason, or any books we selected would hold little relevance. We found one offering that is worth your while – hopefully quality will make up for the lack of quantity.

Naval Power – Naval Power, as a subject, suffers from two major problems as a subject: the technological developments of World War II and subsequent periods tend to drown out the pulp era, as do the eras of steam and sail that preceded it. It’s a real problem when paradigm shifts bookend both ends of your time period; during World War I, the battleship was King, and World War II elevated the aircraft carrier to primacy. The pulp era is neither one nor the other, and as a result, tends to fall between the cracks. There are any number of books that we looked at that dispose of World War I in one chapter and move directly to World War II in the next, as though the years in between didn’t happen at all. And, of the few that we found, a number of them were far too expensive to list. As a result, to have anything to list in this section, we necessarily had to compromise our standards somewhat.

Commercial Shipping & Passenger Vessels – Only slightly better served. Large passenger vessels take so long to construct that the basic models of the pulp era are actually the embodiment of pre-depression thinking – ships like the Titanic and her sister ship – and not much changed until the post WWII boom that produced vessels like the Queen Elizabeth II, launched in 1969. And yet, this is the beginning of a time that would have a transformative effect on commercial shipping of all kinds; in order to compete with air power, ships grew ever-larger in capacity, and ocean liners ever more tourist-oriented. As with military maritime vessel design, the pulp era tends to fall between the cracks.

Trains – The dominant land-transport systems of the pulp era so far as most citizens were concerned was the same one that had dominated since the mid-nineteenth century. Steam engines may have been superseded by diesel locomotives, but not much more had changed. It would not be until the diesel-electric and fully-electric created modern suburban rail networks in the 50s and 60s that any real change would occur; until then, it was simply a matter of giving the consequences and repercussions of the changes that had already taken place time to integrate themselves into society. And yet, trains of the period were faster, more powerful, more reliable, and more efficient than those that been in extant during the Great War and early years of the 20th century, and that had vast knock-on effects; it’s just hard to find any books that discuss the subject as anything more than a footnote regarding a trend that had begun before and continued long after the period in question.

Trade – There aren’t many entries in this section, and one of the biggest ones has already appeared in the list – but it’s getting a comeback appearance here, with an additional link.

Cars & related Road Vehicles – It’s probably not going too far to define the 20th century as the age of the motor vehicle and the aircraft. Throw in the space capsule and shuttle, and you have covered the 4 most influential factors in everything else that happened. When you mention a 1920s or 1930s vehicle to someone, it’s a good bet that the first thing that comes to mind will be one of the automobiles of the period. Later, the Yankee Clippers might come up, or the DC3, but a car will take the first honors almost every time. We had a lot of trouble in this section; our preferred references were too few in number, too expensive, or both, and we had to winnow through mountains of references in search of alternatives to recommend.

Motorcycles – Mike was talking to an old friend the other day and made the mistake of mentioning that these two- and sometimes three-wheeled vehicles were included in the section on Cars (then entitled “…and other Road Vehicles” and copped an earful on the differences in culture and lifestyle even back then between the two for almost half an hour. Accordingly, Bikes are now in a section on their own.

Tanks & other armored vehicles – Mike suggested that the term “tracked vehicles” be used, but Blair quietly shot his arguments down in flames. These are military road vehicles and while some of them – staff cars for example – would be covered under the previous section, there’s plenty of variety to go around. Existing in a kind of half-way house are armored cars, and they too have been placed in this category, both to distinguish them from the standard automobile and to ram home the fact that this category contains more than just tanks.

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.

Spacerflourish-divider3

But First…

Before we actually start this shelf, Mike wants to add a book discovered after the previous shelf was published but which he considers too enticing to refuse. So, into the weapons section of the previous shelf, he is adding:

Spacer the-worlds-worst-weapons

632. The World’s Worst Weapons (From Exploding Guns to Malfunctioning Missiles) – Martin J Dougherty

We’ll let him explain why:

It doesn’t matter how much of this book relates to the Pulp Era. The concept of experimental and prototype weapons fits so perfectly into the Pulp Genre that this book is 100% relevant – and the notion that such weapons carry a fatal flaw is a great way to ensure that they don’t take over the campaign if the PCs fail to regain control over them. 320 pages, which is more than 3 times the size I was expecting. Reviews are a little scathing – “I would have thought I would have learned my lesson by now with their series of “the World’s Worst” but I got suckered into buying this at a local store due to its extremely low price. Well, you get what you pay for… To be fair, there are a couple of valid entries – perhaps half of them, however there are a number that just absolutely boggle my mind.” The commenter then goes on to offer examples of inclusions that he disagrees with, one way or another. And more examples. And still more examples. And, to be fair, I agree with a lot of his criticism. But if you cherry-pick from the entries, do a bit of appropriate due diligence and external research, you might just find the perfect experimental weapon to give your would-be world conqueror.

41 used copies starting at one cent, 18 new starting at $3.24.
http://amzn.to/2fETFHv
bar-green

And with that, let’s move on to this week’s actual content :)

flourish-divider2

Books About Zeppelins & other Airships

Airships in the real world come in two varieties: Rigid Dirigibles and Non-Rigid Blimps. The former are much larger and as a design, largely discredited by time of the outbreak of World War II – but were alive and well throughout the Pulp period. The latter have survived but are, in flavor terms, as interesting as soggy cardboard – in comparison with their more iconic kin.
bar-gray

dirigible-dreams

633. Dirigible Dreams: The Age Of The Airship – C. Michael Hiam

This is a great general introduction to Airships and the many roles they played from the 19th century through to the imminent World War II.

“…fascinating stories of exploration, transatlantic journeys, and floating armadas that rained death during World War I. While there were triumphs, such as the polar flight of the Norge, most of these tales are of disaster and woe, culminating in perhaps the most famous disaster of all time, the crash of the Hindenburg…”

http://amzn.to/1RQfUdr
bar-blue

the-giant-airships-epic-of-flight

634. The Giant Airships (Epic Of Flight) – Douglas Botting

This is part of a series by Time-Life, and as anyone who has ever bought one of their books knows, they have production values that put everyone else to shame. It may lack in detail compared to the Hiam book, but it makes up for it with the lavish use of photographs and illustrations, perfect for taking your players inside one of these great machines.
http://amzn.to/23blLO3
bar-blue

lighter-than-air

635. Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships: Tom D. Crouch

This volume focuses on the people behind lighter than air flight – “flamboyant and daring, heroes and scoundrels” – which makes it tailor-made for use as a Pulp Reference – but at least half the volume will be on ballooning, which is not so useful.
http://amzn.to/1Je4I7h
bar-blue

transatlantic-airships-an-illustrated-history

636. Transatlantic Airships: An Illustrated History – John Christopher

While much of this volume treads similar territory to others already mentioned, this book is notable in focusing on the speculative use of airships that was envisaged post-war, making it a perfect reference for what might exist in a pulp world. It contains a comprehensive look at the history of the airships and the role that many experts predicted they would play in the future – Atomic Powered airships! 192 pages, 19 used and 29 new, both starting at $16.98
http://amzn.to/2eU0GFT and there are more copies at http://amzn.to/2fOccE7
bar-blue

flying-hookers-for-the-macon

637. Flying Hookers For The Macon: The Last Great Rigid Airship Adventure – Thom Hook

The lurid title gives completely the wrong impression. Two American airships, the Akron and the Macon, were aerial carriers, providing long-range transport for bi-wing fighters. Long before the term became associated with less reputable professions, the pilots of these aircraft were known as Hookers. Like the author of the “most helpful” review, we had high hopes for this book as a result. To quote it: “Spurred on by the title I was somewhat disappointed by its contents. Mr. Hook provides excellent coverage of the how, where, and why the USS Macon crashed but very little as to the day to day operations. You will not find any details of the hanger where the Sparrowhawks were kept or how and what kind of aircraft maintenance could be performed there. There is no step-by-step description of aircraft recovery or launch…

“There is … an abundance of filler type material. Is a biographical chapter on Ernie Pyle really necessary? There is also a chapter on the Japanese balloon bombs of WWII and the future of lighter than air vehicles.

The book is acceptable if you are after information on the crash of the USS Macon and general information regarding lighter than air vehicles. There is also a very decent bibliography and a detailed crew list. However, if you’re like me, thinking that this book is just about the Sparrowhawks you’ll be greatly disappointed.”

Nevertheless, the book is not without value to the Pulp GM, and even though the title is misleading in multiple ways, it deserves its place in our recommendations.

Paperback, 192 pages, 20 used copies from $4.80. New copies are outside our price limits and probably not worth the value to be gained from the book, especially since Wikipedia has excellent articles on the Macon and Akron.

http://amzn.to/2fJ4fxo
bar-blue

the-hindenburg

638. The Hindenburg – Michael M Mooney

The most famous dirigible of them all, and in many people’s minds, the one that did the most harm to the perceived viability of this mode of transport. In fact, it had no such effect; Both Britain and the US pressed ahead with airship projects following the Hindenburg disaster, the latter especially confident because they had more or less cornered the world manufacture and supply of Helium (which was the reason the Hindenburg was lifted with explosively-reactive Hydrogen instead). Nevertheless, all of these projects met with disaster of one form or another, and those more than this more famous incident caused the demise of the rigid airship. We have linked to two editions (but there are more copies out there as well). The first (pictured) is “Illustrated with Photographs”, the second is available in vast numbers – but makes no promise of photographic content.
Link 1: http://amzn.to/2g2CPqe
Link 2: http://amzn.to/2fOVe6h
bar-blue

the-golden-age-of-the-great-passenger-airships

639. The Golden Age Of The Great Passenger Airships: Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg – Harold G Dick and Douglas H Robinson

“Drawing on the extensive photographs, notes, diaries, reports, recorded data, and manuals he collected during his five years at the Zeppelin Company in Germany, from 1934 through 1938, Harold G. Dick tells the story of the two great passenger Zeppelins. Against the background of German secretiveness, especially during the Nazi period, Dick’s accumulation of material and pictures is extraordinary. His original photographs and detailed observations on the handling and flying of the two big rigids constitute the essential data on this phase of aviation history.”

It’s the offer of operational information that is most valuable to the Pulp GM – the procedures and techniques employed in actually flying such an airship. Not many books go into that aspect of the subject at all, so this book definitely earns its place in the list.

We aren’t sure the cover image isn’t a generic placeholder, it seems remarkably plain, but we’ve given it the benefit of the doubt. 226 pages, published by the Smithsonian; 28 used copies from $2.99, 19 New from $16.82.

http://amzn.to/2g2FS1r
bar-blue

airship-from-fabled-environments

640. RPGNow: Modern Floorplans: Airship From Fabled Environments

This is an inexpensive offering from RPGNow at $3.76 for the PDF. We picked up a copy a year or two ago, and were profoundly disappointed by the lack of detail. While passenger areas are reasonably detailed, as are the crew quarters, there’s virtually nothing of the internal structure. The product description is confusing as well – is this a modern-day version of a luxury airship or is it a “Modern” day fictitious example supposedly from the 1920s? We’ve bought the product, and still aren’t sure.

Quite frankly, if there had been an alternative, this wouldn’t have made our shortlist, never mind actually being listed here – but there isn’t, making this the only game in town of it’s type.

http://bit.ly/2fUGl2C
bar-blue

the-great-texas-airship-mystery

641. The Great Texas Airship Mystery – Wallace O Charlton

The ultimate in ringers? During 1896 and 1897, mostly in the west and Midwest and Texas, came a sudden series of reports describing a cigar-shaped Airship, complete with crew, long before man mastered heavier-than-air flight… or so the histories of aviation would have us believe. In modern times, this would be an Unidentified Flying Object, but that term was fifty years or more into the future.

“Chariton provides his reader with a chronology of events, maps and excerpts from the newspapers of the day and places you right in the middle of the events, as if you were there, one of the befuddled witnesses,” writes one reviewer. He “…writes about this great mystery with a sense of fun, awe and intrigue.” As you would expect, the newspaper reports oscillated sharply between skeptical dismissal and credulity.

Another reviewer criticizes the book for an over-reliance on anecdotal information (what other kind is there regarding unlikely events of this vintage, we wonder?) and was also put off by the inconsistency of viewpoint, completely missing the point. But that reviewer also hints at content that could be directly pulp-relevant while considering follow-up investigation: “Has anyone attempted to search for any mysterious explosions that might have occurred soon after these sightings? If there really was a mysterious inventor named Wilson in NY or Iowa or wherever, perhaps his lab was destroyed in an accident that might have been recorded subsequently.” That sounds to us like the basis of a good pulp adventure, because it immediately begs the counter-question, “what if it weren’t?”…

Hardcover, 272 pages, 23 used copies from $10.24, 6 new from – well, let’s just say, too much.
http://amzn.to/2fV2OMm

flourish-divider1

Documentaries About Zeppelins & other Airships

Readers may be wondering why there is no mention of any of the TV documentaries investigating what ‘really destroyed the Hindenburg?’. There was a reasonably good documentary by that name that examined a number of the leading theories, dismissing some and judging the others on their plausibility that would have been compelling – an essential inclusion – if there were not an episode of Mythbusters that directly contradicted their findings in an even more compelling manner.

So far as we’re concerned, the jury is still out on the subject, and none of the theories should be taken as a definitive explanation, and none of the documentaries that are available are sufficiently comprehensive, authoritative, and unbiased. That includes the favorite theory espoused in “Hindenburg” above, which focuses on the suggestion that the explosion was caused by a crewman committing sabotage.

We thought about linking to both documentaries, but felt that there was too great a risk that readers would buy one and not the other, yielding a biased understanding. So we haven’t listed any. Just thought we’d clear that up.

bar-gray

dirigibles-and-blimps

642. Airships: Dirigibles and Blimps

Eighty-seven minutes of black and white historic films and newsreels about dirigibles and blimps, including “History of Heavy Airships”, a US Navy documentary that showcases the flying aircraft carriers USS Macon and USS Akron, and “Goodyear Aircraft at War” which describes the building of aircraft and scouting blimps. DVDs are manufactured to order when you order a new copy. Used copies for $14.85, New for $16.95, Amazon’s price $24.99.
http://amzn.to/2fJ4icx

flourish-divider2

Books About Aircraft

There may be additional resources on the forthcoming “Crime, Police, and Militaria” shelf.
bar-gray

chronicle-of-flight

643. Chronicle of Flight: A Year-By-Year History of Aviation – Walter J Boyne

At 512 pages, this is as comprehensive as you could possibly wish. Chronicle of flight itself into chapters, three of which deal with the pulp era: 1914-1923, 1924-1933, and 1934-1943. Each chapter contains a timeline of important developments, a two-to-four page summary of the events of the decade, and a boatload of high-quality photographs of hundreds of aircraft, airships, helicopters, designers, pilots, military commanders, and aeronautical events that start with Icarus and end in early 2003. Reportedly, there are more than a few incorrect captions, but that’s only a minor detraction from the value of this book. Best of all, it’s bargain-priced and in reasonable supply: 29 used copies from $0.46 and 11 new from $4.99. P&H will probably be higher than normal, however; the book weighs 4.4 pounds without packaging materials.
http://amzn.to/2fVefmf
bar-blue

atlantic-fever

644. Atlantic Fever: :Lindbergh, his Competitors, and the Race to cross the Atlantic – Joe Jackson

For five weeks–from April 14 to May 21, 1927–the world held its breath while fourteen aviators took to the air to capture the $25,000 prize that Raymond Orteig offered to the first man to cross the Atlantic Ocean without stopping. Atlantic Fever tells the story of the race to achieve this milestone, who the participants were, and what befell their respective attempts., as well as the stories of those who subsequently attempted to emulate Lindbergh’s successful crossing – and, in many cases, failed.

544 pages, Kindle ($5.87), Hardcover (40 used from $0.01, 22 New from $5.71) http://amzn.to/2ffT4Lu, Paperback (29 used from $0.01, 32 new from $2.95).

http://amzn.to/2eZCIpw
bar-blue

grand-old-lady

645. Grand Old Lady: Story of the DC-3 – Lt. Col. Carroll V Gines and Lt. Col. Wendell P Moseley

The DC-3 was arguably the most successful aircraft of the Pulp Era. Noisy, Drafty, Easy to fly, and Utterly reliable, the DC-3 became the luxury airliner of it’s day as we;; as being recast in dozens of other roles – the C-47 cargo plane aka the “Gooney Bird”, the R4D Naval Aircraft, and the Dakota amongst others. More than 11000 were built for the military during World War II, but the ultimate citation as to its status in aviation history has to that there are several hundreds still in service around the world, delivering passengers and cargo. At the time of its creation, it was widely held that two engines were not enough to provide stable flight if one failed; when he bet the business on the creation of the DC-3, Donald Douglass was convinced that these pessimists were wrong, and demanded of his designers that the DC-3 be able to hold its altitude on a single engine. Although development was a far rockier road than he expected at the time – see the documentary listed later in this section – the aircraft went on to exceed his every expectation. A true classic, we had good reason to focus on it in this list.
http://amzn.to/2ePHo13
bar-blue

douglas-dc-3-dakota-owners-workshop-manual

646. Douglas DC-3 Dakota Owners’ Workshop Manual: An insight into owning, flying, and maintaining the revolutionary American transport aircraft – Peter Blackah

One of the benefits of the aircraft still being in service is that maintenance manuals are still in circulation, giving the GM everything he needs as background material for an airfield maintenance hangar – even if the model of aircraft being maintained is different, this book will provide the language and foundation for the GM to “fake” it enough for plot purposes.

And yet, the title is misleading; while it contains anecdotes, stories, pictures and illustrations including technical drawings that can’t be found anywhere else. This wouldn’t actually give you the expertise needed to maintain or operate a DC-3, not the way an equivalent manual on maintaining a specific model of motor vehicle would. It’s more general and accessible by the layman than that – and that works in favor of our purposes.

So don’t be scared off.

160 pages, 14 used from $8.99 and 11 new from $27.13 – so this doesn’t meet our usual criteria, but it’s so different and useful in its subject matter that we’re listing it anyway.

http://amzn.to/2fOOu8v
bar-blue

dc-3-and-c-47-gooney-birds

647. DC-3 and C-47 Gooney Birds: Includes the DC-2, DC-3, C-47, B-18 Bolo, B-23 Dragon, the Basler turboprop Goonies, and many more – Michael O’Leary

This 128-page paperback examines the many variations of the DC-3 that evolved over the years. Notable for it’s high-quality photographs. 30 used copies from $7.64 and 13 new from $23.96.
http://amzn.to/2g78TZ4
bar-blue

douglas-dc-3-80-glorious-years

648. Douglas DC-3: 80 Glorious Years – Geoff Jones

Published in 2014, this is a celebration of the aircraft and its history. 288 pages, hardcover and kindle, 11 used copies from $15.90, 27 new from $16.10.
http://amzn.to/2g7iLlK
bar-blue

the-dc-3-50-years-of-legendary-flight

649. The DC-3: 50 Years of Legendary Flight – Peter M Bowers

But, if that’s too expensive for you, consider this book from 1986 which might even have a greater focus on the pulp era (simply because that gets less drowned-out by the later history). The actual number of pages per year of history is not all that different (3.84 for this book, 3.6 for the previous one). 39 used copies starting at one cent, 11 new copies from $17.95.
http://amzn.to/2fJ2MqO
bar-blue

pan-american-clippers

650. Pan American Clippers: The Golden Age of Flying Boats – James Trautman

To only model of heavier-than-air flying vehicle that can come close to the iconic status of the DC-3 during the pulp era are the Yankee Clipper flying boats operated by Pan-Am in the 1930s, and the similar services operated by Britain’s Imperial Airways. We could hardly devote so much attention to the DC-3 without giving the flying boats their due as well. Which brings us to the contents of this book. “Illustrated with rare period photographs, vintage travel posters, magazine ads and colorful company brochures, [it] covers every aspect of the fabulous era of Pan American’s graceful clippers.” Full of diverse tidbits that only the “exceptionally well-informed” would already know, according to one reviewer, but most single out another aspect of the content for the highest praise: 200 color images and 100 historical black-and-white photographs, all of the highest possible quality, and many pf which had never been published before. 272 pages, Paperback; 17 used copies from $19.50 but start with one of the 28 new copies from $16.96.
http://amzn.to/2ggkoOS
bar-blue

the-pan-am-clipper-the-history-of-pan-americans-flying-boats-1931-to-1946

651. The Pan Am Clipper: The History of Pan American’s Flying-Boats 1931 to 1946 – Roy Allen

A similar book to the previous one listed, few photographs and less than half the length, but makes up the deficit with era-original charts and diagrams. 28 used copies from $5.69, 2 collectible from $14.00, and 15 new for more than our price limits at $29.95. Hardcover, if that makes a difference.
http://amzn.to/2fVjdiT
bar-blue

wings-to-the-orient

652. Wings to the Orient: Pan American Clipper Planes, 1935-1945: A Pictorial History – Stan Cohen

Two reviews are pertinent: “This book is one of the finest collections on information regarding Pan-Am’s famous flying boats. Loaded with old photos, classic ads, maps and much more.”

And, “Cohen’s book is among the better works to document the short but exciting history of Pan American’s pacific clipper operations, providing insight into the pilots and aircraft that flew it and the route they took. My few complaints were with the relative dirth of information following the outbreak of World War II, some speculative accounts which have been correctly described in other books, and a lack of color photos.”

Which means that it focuses completely on the flying boats during the pulp era. 214 pages, Paperback (47 used from $0.01, 15 new from $29.99).
http://amzn.to/2fY9FoC
bar-blue

pan-americans-pacific-pioneers

653. Pan American’s Pacific Pioneers: The Rest of the Story, A Pictorial History of Pan Am’s Pacific First Flights 1935-1946, Vol. 2 – Jon E Krupnick

We were unable to locate Volume 1 anywhere; if we had, this two-volume double-act might have been at the head of the list. In fact, it was while searching for Volume I that we discovered the books listed previously.

There are, in fact, two editions of this book; we have linked to the older (24 used copies from $15.85, 13 New from $49.22) because the prices for the new are out of the question (20 used from $34.14, 6 new from $72.15, 1 collectible at $125.01).

At 315 pages, and only covering half the history of the aircraft, this is going to be the most comprehensive book on the subject, but, is a book with only limited coverage of the period in history worth those prices? We weren’t sure, though inclined to think not; ultimately, we have left the decision to the individual purchaser.

http://amzn.to/2fWP06J
bar-blue

warplanes-of-the-world-1918-1939

654. Warplanes Of The World 1918-1939 – Michael J H Taylor

Detailed reference on the history and capabilities of the aircraft in question. 192 pages, 20 used copies from $4.73.
http://amzn.to/1YuaAA0
bar-blue

janes-fighting-aircraft-of-world-war-i

655. Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of WWI by W. E. De. B. Whittaker

Includes a lot of information about non-military aviation of general use, up to 1919. Not enough cheap copies available but worth the extra price, especially since the WWII volume (below) makes the cut.
http://amzn.to/1PifubN
bar-blue

janes-fighting-aircraft-of-world-war-ii

656. Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of WWII – Bill Gunston

Includes a lot of information about non-military aviation in the final years leading up to the War.
http://amzn.to/1PifF6W
bar-blue

janes-encyclopedia-of-aviation

657. Jane’s Encyclopedia of Aviation – compiled by Michael J H Taylor

The history of aviation from hot air balloons to late in the 20 th century. We’re referring to the older edition, published in 1989 (960 pages) – expect postage to be relatively high – http://amzn.to/1mfCVsr – but if it’s no longer available, there is a newer version called “Jane’s Encyclopedia Of Aviation Revised Edition” with a different cover – and fewer cheap copies available! http://amzn.to/1Tf12Cd
bar-blue

last-talons-of-the-eagle

658. Last Talons Of The Eagle: Secret Nazi Technology Which Could Have Changed The Course of World War II – Gary Hyland and Anton Gill

Nazi experimental and proposed aircraft from late in WWII – Jets, Helicopters, VTOL Aircraft, etc. These make great Pulp Vehicles if you assume (a) that they work, and (b) bring them forward a few years as prototypes.

Paperback (pictured) http://amzn.to/2c0ZWPo, Kindle http://amzn.to/2clbMTo.
bar-blue

strange-and-wonderful-aircraft

659. Strange and Wonderful Aircraft – Harvey Weiss

We close out this section with a number of books on strange and dangerous aircraft, some of which even date from the Pulp era – but which (even if they aren’t period-correct) can make great vehicles for PCs and NPCs – whether they work as advertised or not. The first of these, and the one that inspired the inclusion of this subsection, is this book for children which examines some of the stranger byways and failed attempts in the history of aviation both before and after the Wright Brothers. To be honest, we were sold by the cover. 64 pages, ages 8-12 years, hardcover, 25 used from $0.01, 10 new from $14.99, 3 collectible from $8.50.
http://amzn.to/2fWVDWH
bar-blue

the-worlds-strangest-aircraft

660. The World’s Strangest Aircraft: A Collection of Weird and Wonderful Flying Machines – Michael Taylor

A reviewer wrote: “This is just a scrapbook of some interesting aircraft, more than half of which really are not that “weird,” but are commonly included in many other books about “regular” aircraft. In fact, many other “weird” aircraft that could have been included are not. The textual commentary on the aircraft is extremely limited and not very interesting nor does it provide information that is not readily available online.” To which, we respond: the visually-interesting or unusual is always a popular inclusion in such general books because they catch the eye, so we aren’t too bothered by the first criticism; and that it’s always easier to find information on the internet when you know exactly what to look for.

The pages are reportedly thick and glossy, giving the impression that there are more than the actual 112 pages. That should make it more robust, but it may also increase postage. 57 used copies from $0.01, 13 New from $9.10, 1 Collectible from $18.00.

http://amzn.to/2fYhdbb
bar-blue

weird-aircraft

661. Weird Aircraft (Flexi cover series) – Peter Henshaw

The contents range from the sublime (the flying boats) to the ridiculous (the Junkers G38 and Spruce Goose) and way, way, waaay beyond. 256 pages, 27 used from $0.01, 7 new from $32.50.
http://amzn.to/2fWXxGB
bar-blue

the-strangest-aircraft-of-all-time

662. The Strangest Aircraft Of All Time – Keith Ray

Most of these are strange aircraft that actually flew. There are a few minor errors that should have been caught but weren’t – the commentator who referenced this problem points to the entry for the Arup S1 which reportedly had a 26 hp motor and a top speed of 607 mph. As always, do your due diligence – Wikipedia confirms the size of the motor, and points to this being a modified glider (but has no performance information), so we suspect that a decimal place should go somewhere in that 607. After the 6 seems too slow, after the 0 seems too fast – but the date of 1926 suggests that “6.07 mph” might in fact be the correct number.
http://amzn.to/2fWY6jK
bar-blue

the-worlds-worst-aircraft-winchester

663. The World’s Worst Aircraft – Jim Winchester

The first of three different books with exactly the same name, but fortunately one of the reviewers at Amazon have two of the three and was able to compare them to educate us. Both this book and the other (Yenne, below) are good reads, “injecting humor into the subject”. This book covers a greater number of aircraft from a greater number of countries, Yenne covers fewer entries from his “Hall Of Shame duds” in greater depth. The reviewer recommends buying both; who are we to argue? 324 pages, hardcover, 29 used from $3.62, 8 new from $15.000
http://amzn.to/2fEY4tP
bar-blue

the-worlds-worst-aircraft-yenne

664. The World’s Worst Aircraft – Bill Yenne

See comments above. 160 pages, 99 used from $0.01, 17 new from $4.18.
http://amzn.to/2ggxw6u
bar-blue

the-worlds-worst-aircraft-gilbert

665. The World’s Worst Aircraft – James Gilbert

This book has three strikes against it. First, we have no such comparison available to distinguish it, only a single review which gives it high praise; Second, that review leavens its praise with a complaint about appearances over functionality in terms of inclusions, which raises a slight question-mark about the content; and Third, do we really need a third book covering the same territory as the previous two?

On the other hand, there is the chance that it will cover something that the others won’t, and the pages look a lot bigger, meaning that hopefully the photographs will be, too. So it might be able to hold it’s own.

Hardcover, no page count, 12 used from $4.99, 6 new from forget-it; paperback, 15 used from $2.82, 5 new from forget-it-even-faster.

http://amzn.to/2eFiyFW

flourish-divider1

Documentaries About Aircraft

bar-gray

planes-that-changed-the-world

666. Planes That Changed The World ep 2: the DC3

The first half of this program is pure gold for the pulp GM, with information on flying times, costs, capacities, etc. The documentary is not available on DVD anywhere except in Australia (Amazon UK lists one imported copy at a high price £45 (
http://amzn.to/1NkVPut
)) but that isn’t enough to keep us from making it available to readers!

Amazon US has both the series and individual episodes available through its streaming service for $2.99 an episode or $7.99 for the whole season (http://amzn.to/1NAJ21D) and also lists a book on the subject from $5 a copy http://amzn.to/1Ssw1vC.

Once again, Canadian readers get the short end of the sharp pointy thing; there are limited copies of the book (NOT the DVD) available at quite exorbitant prices.

However, we did also find the episode on YouTube: http://bit.ly/1riyPCS, and it’s definitely worth your effort to watch it.

flourish-divider2

Books About Air Routes & Commercial Aviation

There may be additional resources on the forthcoming “everyday life” shelf, and are certainly a few others scattered through earlier parts of the series.
bar-gray

picture-history-of-aviation-on-long-island-1908-1938

667. Picture History of Aviation on Long Island 1908-1938 – George C Dade and Frank Strnad

Over 300 rare photographs, with detailed informative captions, recall Long Island’s crucial role as center of early aviation. Exploits of Lindbergh, Curtiss, Doolittle, other pioneers. First “blind” flights, seaplanes, endurance records, technological breakthroughs, much more including a map. 160 pages. 43 used copies starting at $0.01 and 19 new from $18.93.
http://amzn.to/2fVcyVU
bar-blue

long-island-airports

668. Long Island Airports (NY) (Images of America) – Joshua Stoff

“Long Island is a natural airfield. The central area of Long Island’s Nassau County?known as the Hempstead Plains?is the only natural prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains. The island itself is ideally placed at the eastern edge of the United States, adjacent to its most populous city. In fact, nowhere else in America has so much aviation activity been confined to such a relatively small geographic area.” Some of which we already knew, and all of which makes this book relevant to any Pulp Campaign set in the US – or that even visits there. 128 pages, Kindle ($8.11) and paperback (27 used from $4.49, 26 New from $10.99).
http://amzn.to/2fWQm11
bar-blue

turbulent-skies

669. Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation (Sloan Technology)

This is a book more about the Aircraft and their makers than about the Airlines. That said, that is useful information for the Pulp Referee – but this book won’t supply all your needs. 1st Edition
http://amzn.to/1QIBjnO
bar-blue

conquest-of-the-skies

670. Conquest of the Skies: A History of Commercial Aviation in America – Carl Solberg

Written from the customer point of view, which makes this a valuable resource. 441 pages, hardcover, 44 used copies from 1 cent, 13 new from $20, 8 collectible from $11.99.
http://amzn.to/1RDv5pv
bar-blue

from-airships-to-airbus-the-history-of-civil-and-commercial-aviation-vol-1-infrastructure-and-environment

671. From Airships to Airbus: The History of Civil and Commercial Aviation (Vol. 1: Infrastructure and Environment) – William M Leary

Between this volume and the next, this seems to be both authoritative and comprehensive. 256 pages, published by the Smithsonian. 21 used copies from 76 cents, 12 new from $20.97.
http://amzn.to/1S8fQUW
bar-gray

from-airships-to-airbus-the-history-of-civil-and-commercial-aviation-vol-2-pioneers-and-operations

672. From Airships to Airbus: The History of Civil and Commercial Aviation (Vol. 2: Pioneers and Operations) – William F Trimble

Refer above. However there are only limited cheap copies available. 384 pages, 19 used copies from $1.58, 9 new from $28.97.
http://amzn.to/1YulqpR
bar-blue

sky-as-frontier-adventure-aviation-and-empire-centennial-of-flight-series

673. Sky as Frontier: Adventure, Aviation, and Empire (Centennial of Flight Series)

This seems more related to the social impact of aviation than about Aviation itself. But that is valuable in its own right.
http://amzn.to/1QICcwH
bar-blue

footsteps-in-the-sky

674. Footsteps in the sky: An informal review of US Airlines in-flight service 1920s to the Present – Helen E McLaughlin

These days stewards and stewardesses are largely considered part of the furniture that comes with an airline, but when aviation was in its youth, this was almost as glamorous a profession as being a Hollywood star, and the standards, expectations, and lifestyles were unbelievable. This book was published in 1994 so take the “to the present” part of the title with a grain of salt. It is not only a comprehensive history of flight attendants, but of commercial aviation in general, and is strongly illustrated with photographs. 352 pages.
http://amzn.to/2eepl9r
bar-blue

long-island-aircraft-crashes-1909-1959

675. Long Island Aircraft Crashes: 1909-1959 (NY) (Images of America)

There were more aircraft manufacturers and airports located on Long Island than in any other part of the United States. Due to the extraordinarily high volume of air traffic, Long Island also led the country-if not the world-in aircraft crashes. As a result, it also led the world in the development of safety systems like air-traffic control systems, airport lighting, aviation weather reports, paved runways, and professional flight schools. This book not only captures images of some of the aviation disasters, but documents the evolution of safety as a result.
http://amzn.to/2ddWSjL
bar-blue

transatlantic-flight-a-picture-history-1873-1939

676. Transatlantic Flight: A Picture History, 1873–1939 – Joshua Stoff

The title is slightly misleading because there’s a lot more content in this book than it suggests. The author is the Air and Space Curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York, and in these pages he chronicles all the drama of the international race to make transatlantic flight a reality with over 250 rare photographs, many previously unpublished. He traces a host of flight attempts, including a number made in lighter-than-air balloons and in huge “flying boats” developed by the Curtiss Company and the U.S. Navy.

Also documented here are Alcock and Brown’s difficult crossing from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919, an around-the-world flight in 1924 by the U.S. Army’s “world cruisers” (which took five months, 22 days, and 72 stops!), Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927, and Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated circumnavigation attempt in 1937.

http://amzn.to/2f5aIBR
bar-blue

britains-imperial-air-routes-1918-1939

677. Britain’s Imperial Air Routes 1918-1939 – Robin Higham

This remarkable book pictures the growth of British civil air transport from its inception in 1910 through to the formation of Imperial Airways in 1934 and then the beginnings of British Overseas Airways Corporation, better remembered by its initials, B.O,A.C. This is the birth of the aviation industry in Britain, a very different story to that of the US. Included in the book are comprehensive statistical appendices and a complete bibliography, and that last item is a major plus in our valuation. Hardcover, 384 pages, Kindle ($9.11) or Hardcover (9 used from $23.26, 22 New from $19.26.
http://amzn.to/2fXrEOb
bar-blue

airways-abroad

678. Airways Abroad: The Story of American World Air Routes – Henry Ladd Smith

WWII created modern intercontinental aviation. Initially, this business was greeted with much of the wariness today’s World Trade Organization engenders. Anglo-American unity broke down over aviation even before the war was over. The negotiations required to resolve these conflicts, especially the famous Chicago Conference of November 1944, are detailed in some depth by University of Wisconsin lecturer in journalism Henry Ladd Smith in this 1950 book. But we’re more interested in the situation that these negotiations were intended to manage – an extrapolation of the world Pre-WWII – because that is going to be closer to the world of a Pulp Campaign.

355 pages. Hardcover: one used copy from $17 (we also found a signed first-edition copy being sold on e-bay). Paperback: 22 Used copies from $3.40, 5 new from $17.96.

http://amzn.to/2f0kDYA
bar-blue

pilots-directions

679. Pilot’s Directions: The Transcontinental Airway and it’s History

This is a concise book on the origin and operation of the first transcontinental air route under Post Office auspices, based on a reprint of the instructions manual for air mail personnel. 16 pages, so very short. 6 new copies from $12.95; 17 used from $5.24; 1 collectible from $19.95.
http://amzn.to/2fvDrQI
bar-blue

weblink-icon-320

680. SFO Museum Website, Aviation Museum & Library Collection

The page to which we have linked contains a high-resolution map (shown on the page at greatly reduced size) of the Pan American Airways clipper service across the Pacific with an indicator of Flight Time Required which has been useful on more than one occasion.
http://bit.ly/2fPZTo8
bar-blue

weblink-icon-320

681. NickGrantAdventures dot com

The same Pan American Airways map, but we aren’t sure which has the better resolution, this version or the one linked to above. But we are including this link for the map below it, which was produced for an April 1936 article in Fortune Magazine on Pan American which is full of delightful anecdotes and trivia that makes great campaign color. “Pan Am bought the Alaskan airways chiefly for strategic purposes. To get mail contracts they had to bid against dog-sled owners.” But it also shows major connecting routes flown by other national airlines, and the thickness of the lines indicates the number of services a week, making this map absolutely loaded with valuable and hard-to-find information. Be prepared to lose a lot of time scrolling around examining it! As an absolute bonus, the page also has a map of the various pacific islands and who claimed them prior to WWII.
http://bit.ly/2fBc5IW
bar-blue

weblink-icon-320

682. David Rumsey Map Collection

The page to which we have linked contains a zoomable high-resolution map of Imperial Airways air routes through Europe, the British Empire, and Across the US. You will need other maps to identify where some of the stops are.
http://bit.ly/2fUzeXS
bar-blue

weblink-icon-320

683. Wikipedia

The Imperial Airway’s page at Wikipedia contains a link to a high-resolution 1935 map of the routes to Australia and South Africa.
http://bit.ly/2gcrRxy
bar-blue

weblink-icon-320

684. Cool Old Photos

This site collects exactly what the name says. It’s a great place for photographic reference, though you can sometimes spend a long time looking for just what you want. Buried away on the site is the page we have linked to, where they provide two maps: one of US Air Mail routes across the US in the 1920s, and another from August of 1928.
http://bit.ly/2fRTh7L
bar-blue

weblink-icon-320

685. Gizmodo / Pale Of Future: “What International Air Travel Was Like in the 1930s” by Matt Novak

This article provides lots of flavor text and photos, both of which will be of massive benefit the next time your players want to fly somewhere.
http://bit.ly/2gaPnvO
bar-blue

weblink-icon-320

686. The Daily Mail Online

An article on the same subject (“Nervous flyers look away: What air travel was REALLY like in the 1930s when planes were so loud cabin crew needed megaphones and flights from the UK to Australia took 11 days” by Georgia Diebelius) from a British Newspaper’s online site, with many of the same photos – but in much larger sizes.
http://dailym.ai/2fTAxbt

flourish-divider2

Books About Rocketry

bar-gray

rocketship-galileo

687. Rocketship Galileo – Robert A Heinlein

If rockets are part of your game plan, there is only one reference that fits the bill. This is a science-fiction novel aimed at juveniles – but if you ignore the “nuclear power” aspects of the plot, and the unlikely plot device of the juvenile crew, the rest is very much an extrapolation of the experimental rockets of the era, and therefore is a model to be used for any rocket transportation in your game world. It even has Space…, no, mustn’t give away the plot twist. Suffice it to say that it’s a very pulp one.

Cheap copies: http://amzn.to/2fnWiQ5
More copies (Pictured): http://amzn.to/2fvD7Se
Bundled with three other (enjoyable but not relevant) Heinlein novels: http://amzn.to/2f5eRFS

flourish-divider2

Books About Naval Power

Additional resources may be found in the forthcoming “Crime, Police, and Militaria” shelf.
bar-gray

hitlers-naval-war

688. Hitler’s Naval War – Cajus Bekker

Describes the development of the German Navy up to and into World War II. Actual War period information predominates, unfortunately limiting it’s value to the Pulp GM interested in pre-war information.
http://amzn.to/1NJqoVh
bar-blue

the-metal-fighting-ship-in-the-royal-navy

689. The Metal Fighting Ship in the royal navy 1860- 1970 – E.H.H. Archibald

A wide ranging survey of every of every stage of development of the metal-hulled warship.
http://amzn.to/1QIw0VC
bar-blue

the-encyclopedia-of-the-worlds-warships

690. The Encyclopedia of the World’s Warships – Hugh Lyon & Consultant Captain J.E. Moore R.H.

In many respects not as useful as the Archibald volume as a general reference, but has (small) deck plans, comparative stats, specific ships of interest, and a listing by country. Great as an index of Wikipedia entries thanks to it’s listing of specific ships by ship class (and Model), eg the Kagero Class lists 18 named vessels, their fates, and when they met those destinies.

Available with two different covers, some at this link http://amzn.to/1PihvVk and some at this link http://amzn.to/1O6ro9D. Some new copies of this book come in at over $2000 bucks, but we haven’t linked to those!
bar-blue

sea-power

691. Sea Power – a modern illustrated military history – Anthony Preston & Louis S. Casey, authors, & John Bachelor, illustrator

Especially valuable for the chapters on Submarines, useful reference for other subjects as well. Also covers foreign navies. Has more deck plans and some cross-sections.
http://amzn.to/1RDrcB2
bar-blue

janes-fighting-ships-of-world-war-i

692. Jane’s Fighting Ships

Any era-specific volume that has been reprinted. NB: sections dealing with the war years (from either World War) contain many inaccuracies. Aim for a volume from 1920-1935 – these are all around the $30-$60 mark. Exception: Jane’s Fighting Ships Of World War I, lots of reasonably-priced copies at this link http://amzn.to/1QEKq9n and a few more at this link http://amzn.to/1U2pvuM – so that’s what we’re recommending.
bar-blue

tramp

693. Tramp: Sagas of High Adventure in the Vanishing World of the Old Tramp Freighters – Michael J. Krieger

A lavishly-illustrated book with photographs and blueprints detailing tramp freighters from the turn of the century to the modern day. This was actually lent to us by the player whose PC owns and operates such a vessel in the Adventurer’s Club pulp campaign.

We did find one alternative that looked promising, but copies were too expensive. Look for it in the honorable mentions when that list gets published.
http://amzn.to/2cAeQdq
bar-blue

gunboats-of-world-war-i

694. Gunboats of World War I – Angus Konstam

Detailed technical guide to the gunboats of all the major navies of the war. Many of these vessels would still be In service here and there in the Pulp Era, some converted to commercial purposes.
http://amzn.to/2c2EcCZ
bar-blue

naval-policy-between-the-wars-i

695. Naval Policy Between the Wars: The Period of Anglo-American Antagonism 1919-1929 – Stephen Roskill

The first of two volumes published in 1968 and 1976 respectively that in combination still constitute the only authoritative study of the geopolitical, economic, and strategic factors that shaped the Royal British Navy and the US Navy during the inter-war period. During the decade examined in the first part, the two navies are rivals and the governments antagonists, due to the aftereffects of the Armistice that ended the First World War, the struggle to prevent a new arms race, the rise of Japanese influence and power, and the attempts at peacekeeping through the fragile and ultimately doomed vessels of diplomacy and the League Of Nations. In particular, the transition from Empire to Commonwealth in Britain and the Isolationism and Empire-building of the US put the two on collision course politically even as both pursued peace through their own disparate methods. On top of that, you had the challenge to the authority of Battleships from air power, and the internal struggles of the US Military as the Navy struggled with the Army Air Corps (later the US Air Force) to obtain aviation assets for the fleet – a struggle that some say continues to this day, behind closed doors in appropriations committee-rooms. The 1920s may be ignored by most naval historians but clearly there was plenty going on.

672 pages, Paperback (7 used from $20.62, 26 New from $18.22) and one copy of the book in Hardcover costing $75. Published by the British Naval Institute Press just two days ago as this text is written (and almost sold out already), so there may be a reprinting at some near-future point, and British readers may find more copies available from local sources.

http://amzn.to/2fvGiJu
bar-gray

naval-policy-between-the-wars-ii

696. Naval Policy Between the Wars: The Period of Reluctant Rearmament, 1930-1939 – Stephen Roskill

The second volume of Roskill’s inter-war history is marked by increased commonality of interests between the two Navies and the governments of the day as exemplified by treaties such as Lend-Lease. 544 pages, Paperback; 9 used from $30.91 (beyond our standards), 20 new from $18.73. See comments above regarding publication/reprinting.
http://amzn.to/2fo258d
bar-blue

the-royal-navy-seapower-and-strategy-between-the-wars

697. The Royal Navy, Seapower and Strategy Between The Wars – Christopher Bell

This book offers a counter-point to the two-volume official history by Roskill. Drawing on a range of unpublished sources, Bell challenges the accepted view that the intellectual shortcomings of Britain’s naval leaders resulted in poor strategic planning , instead pointing the finger at differing views between the British Navy and the civilian decision-makers regarding the role of sea-power in the post- Great War era. This book is essential for a GM to get the full picture. Strictly speaking, we should not list it; it violates both limits of price and availability, but it is too important a reference to ignore. 256 pages, 10 used copies from $39.95.
http://amzn.to/2fOuViA
bar-blue

the-treaty-navy

698. The Treaty Navy: The story of the US Naval Service Between the World Wars – James W Hammond Jnr

After three books from the British perspective, we could hardly ignore this book on the US position. Takes the position that the US Navy knew that war in the Pacific was coming and spent the inter-war period preparing to meet the challenge, “despite treaty limitations, pacifist opposition, a parsimonious Congress and public neglect”, a position with which we have several bones to pick; first, it smells very strongly of revisionism and prescient abilities on the part of Naval Commanders; second, it completely miscasts the isolationism that was the predominant political and social policy of the day; third, it seems to assume that money grew on trees during the great depression, or that the Navy should have been exempted from the belt-tightening that everyone else needed to accept in the period.

It is, perhaps, worth noting that the author is a post-war graduate of US Naval Academy, leading to suspicion that it might not be him reinventing history but the official naval “recollections” of the period. While in active service, he was editor and publisher of the Marine Corps Gazette, and after his service he edited another pro-Navy magazine. So there is a definite possibility of bias toward the official US Navy position in his interpretations and reporting.

Which does not mean that this book is without merit or value to the Pulp GM; even if it is judged inaccurate or distorted from a real-world perspective, it would be quite in keeping in the pulp era for it to be the foundation of the game version of the US Navy, and furthermore, it intersperses verifiable history, interpretation, and “sea stories” from the era. Furthermore, some of the content, such as the discussion of “Battleship Admirals” vs “Carrier Admirals”, can be characterized as insightful – rather than regarding the former as out-of-date fossils of a past era of Naval Strategy, Hammond suggests that the two were eying different strategic targets (Europe/Atlantic vs Japan/Pacific) and viewing the two classes of vessel from the perspective of being the most appropriate ones for dealing with the enemy on whom they were focused.

A potentially flawed book, then, but one that definitely has something to offer the Pulp GM that he can’t get elsewhere. Paperback, 294 pages, 15 used from $14.89, 20 new from $14.90, 1 collectible from $16.01.
http://amzn.to/2g2IWL0
bar-blue

two-block-fox

699. Two-Block Fox: The Rise of the Aircraft Carrier, 1911-1929 – Charles M Melhorn

This book is published by the Naval Academy at Annapolis, so it clearly offers the Navy’s views on the subject. The inter-war period is often characterized as a confrontation between an old-guard wedded to their Battleships and a new generation who foresaw the dominance of the aircraft, and therefore of the delivery vehicle that conveyed those aircraft to the battlefield, the carrier. Quite clearly, the carrier won that particular battle and has been the dominant naval instrument of war ever since.

Oh, yes, the title: the term “Two-Block Fox” is believed by some to be a reference to the Foxtrot flag (red diamond on a white background, used to represent the letter F. On US Aircraft carriers, it meant “Flight Operations Underway”. When a carrier got ready to send off aircraft, the signal bridge would be told, “Two block Fox.” Immediately the fox flag would be sent to the yardarm which overhung the ship to provide a visual signal to tell nearby vessels that the carrier was launching aircraft. “Two-blocked” meant raised all the way, or run out to the end.

The alternative meaning is as a naval-service nickname for an aircraft carrier; a carrier is “two blocks in length and at sea using its 40 mile per hour speed, clouds, night, fog and other obscurations — well, the aircraft carrier is as hard to find as a fox.”

Our suspicion is that the first usage is the original meaning, and the use of the “Foxtrot” flag to signal flight operations led to the second usage.

Hardcover, 192 pages, 34 used copies from $5.71, 6 collectible from $15, new copies available but outside our price range.
http://amzn.to/2fnYUNM
bar-blue

the-rise-and-fall-of-the-aircraft-carrier

700. The Rise and Fall of the Aircraft Carrier – Bernard Ireland

An account of the development of the aircraft carrier, from the early experiments and the first flush decked carrier ‘Argus’ in WW1, through to the major carrier to carrier battles of WW2 and subsequent post-WW2 developments, including details about the WW2 CAM ships, merchant conversions and escort carriers, etc. Numerous color and half tone photos, with additional maps and drawings.

We found the title provocative, but were unable to locate any reviews to shed light on the “Fall” of the carrier suggested therein. We certainly aren’t aware of any developments that have overtaken it, strategically, despite attempts by platforms such as the nuclear-powered submarine to do so. Ireland is a British retired naval engineer, editor of Jane’s and a writer on naval matters who has nearly thirty books to his credit. As independent authorities on the subject go, he is clearly amongst the best, so his opinions have weight.

Nevertheless, that’s nothing more than an intriguing side issue; the relevance of this book is in the early part of the history, and the many at-best semi-successful attempts that were made at a viable carrier design in the early post-war period. 168 pages, coffee-table sized hardcover; 30 used copies from $0.58, 2 collectible from $10.80. Published in London, so British readers may find additional copies through local sources.

http://amzn.to/2etOrRM

flourish-divider1

Documentaries About Sea Power

bar-gray

ghosts-of-the-mary-rose

701. The Ghosts Of The Mary Rose

This is a documentary about Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose, which sank in battle in July 1545. The programme explores the possible causes for the ship sinking and features a computerized re-enactment of the disaster. But what makes it brilliant for Pulp GMs is that they examine ALL possible causes, and that makes this a useful primer on sunken ships (treasure-carrying or otherwise).

There are a handful of copies available through Amazon US for prices that range from the OK to the obscene http://amzn.to/1R5ZzuX.

There are rather more copies at considerably better prices from Amazon UK http://amzn.to/1TFZzna;

…and there are less than a handful from Amazon Canada http://amzn.to/1Tlm17U.

However, both the US and Canadian copies are described as imports, without listing the region code. Unless you have a universal DVD player and a TV that can handle both NTSC and PAL formats, you need a plan B.

(Hot tip from Mike: it costs money to put region-coding into DVD players. The cheaper the model, the less likely it is to care where the DVDs come from. Before I bought my current previous DVR-DVD-Recorder/Player, I used a AUD$20 compact DVD player – about US$15 – that played ANY disk from ANYwhere).

In this case, Plan B is Youtube http://bit.ly/1XwF3ex, at least as of this writing.

flourish-divider2

Books About Commercial Shipping & Passenger Vessels

bar-gray

the-golden-age-of-shipping

702. The Golden Age of Shipping: The Classic Merchant Ship 1900-1960 – Robert Gardiner

The period covered by this book deals with the development of many specialized forms of merchant ship: the great transatlantic liners, the fast packets and simple tramp steamers, for example. These and many other types are described and analyzed in detail. The Golden Age of Shipping is the ninth in a series of twelve volumes intended to provide a detailed and comprehensive reference work, the essential first stop for anyone seeking information.
http://amzn.to/1Mvs56M
bar-blue

great-passenger-ships-1930-1940

703. Great Passenger Ships 1930-1940 by William H. Miller

Describes the vessels, where they operated, and the economic fate that resulted, with internal and external details and photographs that help visualize the experience on board as either passengers or crew.
http://amzn.to/1SaxqYz
bar-gray

great-passenger-ships-1920-1930

704. Great Passenger Ships 1920-1930 by William H. Miller

See comments above, most of these would still be in service.
http://amzn.to/1O8LJLw
bar-gray

great-passenger-ships-1910-1920

705. Great Passenger Ships 1910-1920 by William H. Miller

See comments above, many of these would still be in service.
http://amzn.to/1QKI6O1
bar-blue

workers-on-the-waterfront

706. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism is the 1930s (Working Class in American History) – Bruce Nelson

A history of maritime workers, unionism and radicalism on the Pacific Coast, especially San Francisco. There are reviews that suggest that the perspectives of Longshoremen are inadequately represented, and that the text exhibits a bias towards the business owners, and several reviewers would like additional east-coast content. But even taking that potential bias into account, this could still be a useful reference to procedure and practice in a period port.

384 pages, hardcover 24 used from $0.01 and 7 new for $50+, paperback 30 used from $0.01, 14 new from $20.01
http://amzn.to/2g2PAki
bar-blue

floating-palaces-the-great-atlantic-liners

707. Floating Palaces: The Great Atlantic Liners – William H Miller

A maritime ‘arms race’ began in the mid-1890s to design and build the most luxurious and fastest ocean liners, each successive vessel trying to outdo the previous one in size and opulence. Everything on board was bespoke designed and custom-built from the cutlery to the paneling, from the china to the bedrooms, from the furniture to the boat-decks. In truth, ignoring the occasional undeclared armistice, you can argue that this arms race continues to this day, though the advent of air power has recast the ocean liner as a “cruise ship”, a mobile holiday destination in its own right. The great ocean liners were floating palaces, as this collection of images clearly demonstrates, showcasing the elegance of an unhurried time when “getting there was half the fun”.

128 pages, Kindle ($7.99) and Paperback (11 used from $14.00, 24 new from $11.44, 1 collectible at $24.95). Page size appears to be typical paperback but landscape orientation has been used.
http://amzn.to/2eU5ECy
bar-blue

grand-luxe

708. Grand Luxe : The Transatlantic Style – John Malcolm Brinnin and Kenneth Gaulin

Another book of the same type on the same subject. Coffee-table size and 232 pages; unsurprisingly, it costs a little more, but you get more bang for your buck. Hardcover, 19 used from $6.29, 5 new from about $55.
http://amzn.to/2f5dzKR
bar-blue

record-breakers-of-the-north-atlantic

709. Record Breakers of the North Atlantic: Blue Riband Liners 1838-1952 – Arnold Kludas

The author is the former director of the scientific library of the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven and has has published more than forty books on maritime history. He is considered one of, if not the, foremost authorities on the passenger liners of the North Atlantic. This 160-page book is more than 10 inches x 10 inches in size, and contains 50 color illustrations and 120 black-and-white photographs. The subtitle refers to the Blue Riband, a mythical trophy for the fastest transatlantic crossing, which fascinated the public during the pulp era and preceding decades and was a subject of interest for almost 200 years while never officially existing. The battle for this non-existent and strictly unofficial trophy was, however, very real, and five maritime nations (England, the US, Germany, Italy, and France) took up the challenge of producing the fastest ship on the high seas. This book traces the course of the contest, and the participants, from the early paddle steamers through to the luxury liners of the post-war period.

Paperback, 11 new from $9.22, 26 used from $0.01; hardcover 15 used from $17.98, 11 new from $39.95.
http://amzn.to/2ePHm9q
bar-blue

south-atlantic-seaway

710. South Atlantic Seaway – N R P Bonsor

When it comes to passenger vessels, the South Atlantic is the forgotten corner of the world, at least in comparison to the Pacific (both North and South) and the North Atlantic, who between them, garner all the attention and glamor. This book redresses the balance by providing a comprehensive report on the passenger lines and the vessels that ply the seaways from Europe to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. 548 pages, hardcover; 20 used from $18.4, 8 new from $19.00.
http://amzn.to/2fnNwS4

flourish-divider2

Books About Trains

There have always been iconic professions that young children aspire to because of the romance attached to them. In the past, those have included pilot, and astronaut, and cowboy, fireman and policeman. And in the pulp era, another to be added to that list is train engine driver. In the 20s and 30s, these were the elite of the working class – for every one who achieved it, a thousand aspired to the position. Although the great age of railroading was in it’s final days, soon to be undone by the rise of air transport, this was the era when it was at its height. Before living standards rose to the point of almost every family having their own automobile in the 1950s, and before airfares became cheap enough and airliners large enough (developments that went hand-in-hand), rail was the only accessible form of mass transit for most people. This collection would have a gaping hole without books on trains, but finding books that focus specifically on the era is very hard.
bar-gray

streamliners

711. Streamliners: Locomotives and trains in the Age of Speed and Style – Brian Soloman

In the 1930s the style was to streamline everything (whether it moved or not) and trains were no exceptions. This book details the historic and scientific context for the development of the streamlined trains that are iconic representations of the pulp era. Includes photographs, period advertising, ROUTE MAPS, and patent design drawings.
http://amzn.to/1Ose0LW
bar-blue

north-america-railroads-the-illustrated-encyclopedia

712. North American Railroads: The Illustrated Encyclopedia – Brian Soloman

Includes specifics for more than 300 railroads in North America with photographs, advertising, and histories. Presented by railroad so useful only if you know what you are looking for – but richly detailed if you do.
http://amzn.to/1SrSsD0
bar-blue

streamlined-steam

713. Streamlined Steam – Britain’s 1930s Luxury Expresses – A.J. Mullay

Does for England what the preceding book does for North America. We’ve linked to the first edition, http://amzn.to/1V1XQuh, but if those run out there is a second edition as well (fewer copies, more expensive) http://amzn.to/2eDPChF.
bar-blue

the-ultimate-europe-train-travel-guide

714. The Ultimate Europe Train Travel Guide – J Doyle White

This relates to modern travel more than period travel, but there is still a lot of great use to the Pulp GM in this volume – most of the book comprises details of every railway station in Europe from public transportation to privately-owned rail stations, but there is also a section on historic and scenic railways. Some of the tourist information is a little scanty, but as a starting point for further research this is excellent.

There are limited copies of “Volume 1” http://amzn.to/1OshDkW, but copies of “Volume 2” http://amzn.to/23afAd3 are relatively plentiful. However, we think these are actually different editions of the same book! – the covers are the same, some of the language used by Amazon is confused, and there is no evidence of a “Volume #” on the covers.
bar-blue

european-train-travel-tips

715. European Train Travel Tips – Mona MacDonald Tipping

While focused on modern train travel, some of the tips included in this book are relevant to an older era.
http://amzn.to/1ntAfYS
bar-blue

train-wrecks

716. Train Wrecks: A pictorial history of Accidents on the Main Line – Robert C. Reed

While this volume focuses on the era just preceding most Pulp Campaigns and back into the late 19th Century, and on the US, the pulp plot potentials keep this book relevant.
http://amzn.to/209QkBg
bar-blue

flying-scotsman

717. Flying Scotsman: The Most Famous Steam Locomotive in the World – James S Baldwin

The Flying Scotsman may not be the most famous train in the world, the Orient Express could certainly dispute that claim to fame, but in the very late 1920s and through the 1930s, it was undoubtedly true. This book tells the whole story of the iconic train from its creation, through to the speed record of 1928 (the first train to achieve 100 miles per hour), its subsequent service, near-scrapping, rescue, and restoration. 120 pages, 9 used from $7.36 and 22 new from $8.62.
http://amzn.to/2geowil
bar-blue

flying-scotsman-lner-class-a3-pacific-4472-1923-onwards-owners-workshop-manual

718. Flying Scotsman: LNER Class A3 Pacific 4472, 1923 onwards (Owners’ Workshop Manual) – Philip Atkins

What’s involved in maintaining, operating and restoring the iconic train. This is highly detailed manual, based around 4472’s recent overhaul and subsequent return to main-line operation, also looks in detail at every aspect of its engineering and construction, and serves as a prototype for the maintenance and operation of railroad engines and carriages in general.
http://amzn.to/2fLjvcP
bar-blue

weblink-icon-320

719. TossnyBlog (in Japanese)

The post to which we have linked has a high-resolution map of the track layout at New York’s Grand Central Station.
http://bit.ly/2fB7t5G

flourish-divider2

Books About Trade

We aren’t recommending any books in this category as specifically relevant because we haven’t found an interesting or comprehensive one yet. In fact, we couldn’t find any books on trade in the 1930s! The books listed below are general histories of trade that will at least provide a foundation, plus a couple of books on specific commodities of note in the pulp era. Beyond that, we recommend using the internet (especially Wikipedia) by commodity for specifics of trade in the period in that resource.

There may be additional recommendations relating to this topic in the treasure section of the “Things” shelf and the forthcoming “Everyday Life” shelf.
bar-gray

a-splendid-exchange

720. A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped The World – William J Bernstein

A comprehensive narrative history of world trade, starting with Mesopotamia in the year 3000 BC and running all the way through to the debate over globalization today. One reviewer felt that the author had let subjective opinion unbalance the book, leading to (for example) underplaying the Mongol conquests relative to the depredations of the Portuguese who are repeatedly demonized, even characterized as the “most brutal trading nation” of their era. Most, however, laud the book as extremely readable and of top quality.

Paperback, 496 pages, 54 new from $5.90, 69 used from $0.01.
http://amzn.to/2fvDqfI
bar-blue

the-world-that-trade-created

721. The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy 1400 to the Present (2nd Ed) – Steven Topik and Kenneth Pomeranz

“Why are railroad tracks separated by the same four feet, eight inches as ancient Roman roads? How did 19th-century Europeans turn mountains of bird excrement from Peru into mountains of gold? Where has most of the world’s oil come from in the 20th century?”

This book presents a series of brief, highly readable 2-4 page vignettes that bring to life the complex world of international trade and its principals – migrants and merchants, pirates and privateers, sailors and slaves, traders and tree-tappers. Importantly, the focus is less euro-centric than most such books, with several chapters devoted to the Far East and South America. However, the author’s cynicism and disapproval of European colonial expansion is a recurring theme that some reviewers find objectionable.

This doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive work on the subject; its focus is on anecdotes that are accessible to the lay reader. That makes the contents directly valuable to the pulp GM who can turn those anecdotes into the foundations or settings of adventures.

Paperback, 304 pages, 18 new from $14.88, 89 used from $0.01.
http://amzn.to/2fMJ5x1

There is also a (more recent) third edition at completely ridiculous prices.
bar-blue

food-in-history

722. Food In History – Reay Tannahill

Food is one of the most commonly-traded commodities, and trade in foodstuffs has influenced the course of great nations and mighty empires for all of recorded history and probably longer. Occasionally sparkling with wit, this is an overview of the role played by food in human history, complimented by anecdotal excursions, such as the role played by Cinnamon in the discovery of America and how food has influenced population growth and urban expansion.

It is the latter that is most directly pertinent to the pulp era; this was the time in which industrial refrigeration began, revolutionizing the preservation of foodstuffs, permitting a vast increase in the gastronomic sophistication of cities all over the world and an urban concentration of population that would have been impossible previously for reasons of brutal logistics.

There are more comprehensive books on the subject, but this seems better-suited to the needs of a pulp GM.
Paperback, 448 pages, 44 new from $9.06, 130 used from $0.01. There are also a limited number of copies with library-reinforced binding, but these cost more than our limits.
http://amzn.to/2eU5mM0
bar-blue

the-devils-milk

723. The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber – John Tully

Rubber is one of the wonder-materials that is responsible for the industrial revolution and the modern world, and that has fueled an insatiable demand that resulted in seemingly endless exploitation, conquest, slavery, and all the other worst traits of humanity coming to the fore. Mike has seen suggestions that the primary objective of the Japanese in World War II was control over the world’s rubber supply, and while that might be an exaggeration, it isn’t beyond the reach of plausibility. Kindle ($12.55) and Paperback, 416 pages, 18 used from $19.96 and 22 New from $23.92. There is also a hardcover edition, but copies in that format command high prices.
http://amzn.to/2fOntnT
bar-blue

mine-to-mill

724. Mine to Mill: History of the Great Lakes Iron Trade from the Iron Ranges to Sault Ste. Marie – Phillip J Stager

The history of the iron ore trade on the Great Lakes, from 1900 to 1980, in visual form courtesy of photographs and reproduced picture postcards.

Contains nearly 300 views of the mines, railroads, loading docks, and ships of the Great Lakes. 128 pages, Hardcover, 11.6 x 8.7 inches, 14 used from $10.91 and 29 new from $20.61. http://amzn.to/2ePOhzx
bar-blue

book-117596_960_720

(597 repeat): Metal Prices in the United States through 1998 – US Geological Survey (US Department Of The Interior)

This link appeared on the previous shelf, but we had to include it a second time around. You’ll see why if you compare the two entries.

This is an invaluable *free* PDF which you can download from this link. The prices quoted are all in 1998 dollars, but there are a number of websites that will handle a conversion to 1920s or 193x currency for you, like this one, or this alternative. There is also an updated version that is available as a website and a spreadsheet and runs through to 2010: http://on.doi.gov/2eEoVYr.

We usually simply divide by 10 to get a close-enough number, but bear in mind that in the Adventurer’s Club world, the Great Depression was neither as deep nor as protracted as it was in real history. Game-mid-1930s is thus more like real-1940 in terms of market recovery.

Mike mentioned this PDF in an example in his article at Campaign Mastery, Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time, but didn’t include a link, saving that for this article/series. He also described how he and Blair use the information in another article, Oddities Of Values: Recalculating the price of valuables, which readers may find worth referencing.

flourish-divider2

Books About Cars & related Road Vehicles

All the books that we originally shortlisted to recommend are too limited in available copies to make the list. But we needed something for this category, and so have searched out books that seem promising but which have not been personally reviewed. There will be a list of books that failed to make the cut for one reason or another in the final part of the series; you may want to chase down one of the few copies of one of our preferred recommendations.

Some trivia that will be of value to GMs of pulp-era games: Tires weren’t black until 1912, when carbon was added to them for the first time. These were narrow-rims that visually remind viewers more of bicycle tires, and even into the early pulp period, tires were only a couple of inches across the face of the tread and relatively rounded in profile. By the 1930s, that had changed and tires were three or four inches wide – a fairly modern width – offering vastly greater contact with the road surface. There’s a heavy reliance on photographic resources in this section for good reason, and one of the first things that we always look at are the tyres. Handling, top speed, the likelihood of breaking a rim in rough terrain, and the all-important flavor text of what the vehicle felt like to ride in, all can be surmised based on this one factor alone.

bar-gray

a-z-of-cars-of-the-1920s

725. Automobile Magazine’s A-Z of Cars of the 1920s – Nick Baldwin

British-built cars from the 1920s and a chapter on American-made imports of the period. Each entry has a good quality photograph and a bare-bones description with very limited information. There are more copies available than the ones we have linked to but they are up to $886 a copy. There aren’t really enough copies of this to list, either, but books on cars of the 20s are relatively hard to find. Even if the cover does look like one of those auto-trader sell-it-yourself magazines.

Hardcover 224 pages, only 13 copies available starting at $16.94 used.
http://amzn.to/2fSevCn
bar-blue

a-z-of-cars-of-the-1930s

726. A-Z of Cars of the 1930s – Michael Sedgewick and Mark Gillies

The title should read “A-Z of British Cars of the 1930s”, just like the previous listing. If that’s what you’re looking for, excellent – but there are only 10 copies available through Amazon at reasonable prices. This is allegedly the most comprehensive work of its kind, and that’s the only reason we’ve made an exception to our usual standards and listed it. Paperback, 216 pages, from $10.65 used.
http://amzn.to/1OigCc3
bar-blue

anglo-american-cars-from-the-1930s-to-the-1970s-those-were-the-days

727. Anglo-American Cars: From the 1930s to the 1970s (Those were the days…) – Norman Mort

Has a whole 16 pages on Cars of the 1930s. Nice photos, histories, original adverts – but short on technical detail, and nothing from the 1920s. Though it’s not the only book on this list to fail in that respect. At least there are a reasonable number of copies available at reasonable prices. Although the page count of 96 pages puts the price-tag (copies start from $3.34 used) into a new perspective. There are even a few new copies within our price range!
http://amzn.to/1Tf8i0U
bar-blue

vintage-cars-motoring-in-the-1920s

728. Vintage Cars: Motoring In The 1920s – Cyril Posthumous

This is one of the few reference book on 1920s vehicles as they were that we could locate. It is available in sufficient quantities at less than our threshold price but is more concerned with the history than with individual models and makers. Information may be hard to extract. Furthermore, coverage of American vehicles may be limited as Hamlyn is a British Publisher.
http://amzn.to/1OKeTg3
bar-blue

concept-cars-from-the-1930s-to-the-present

729. Concept Cars: From the 1930s to the Present – Larry Edsall

At first we were going to lose this from the list because it seems more about prototypes and more modern vehicles than the Pulp era, but then we thought, if anyone is likely to be running around in something that could be described as experimental, it’s a pulp character (hero or villain)…

Hardcover, 220 pages, 78 used copies starting at 1 cent, 17 new copies starting at $18.98.
http://amzn.to/1keQt5T
bar-blue

american-road

730. American Road: The Story of an Epic Transcontinental Journey at the Dawn of the Motor Age – Pete Davies

On July 7, 1919, a cavalcade of sixty-nine military motor vehicles set off from the White House on an epic journey. Their goal was California, and ahead of them lay 3,250 miles of mud and rock. Sixty-two days later they arrived in San Francisco, having averaged just five miles an hour.

The purpose of this incredible expedition, carried out at government instigation, was to crystallize the need for good roads. En route to their destination, trucks foundered in mud, crashed through wooden bridges, and got beaten to pieces on byways barely better than trails. Modern motorists will be surprised to learn just how bad things were back then, but the story behind the undertaking is equally interesting. Automobile and tire manufacturers, who stood to gain if newly car-crazy citizens had smooth roads to travel, managed to drive the government their way; the grueling journey captured the American imagination and spurred road building to a fervor only interrupted by World War II.

228 pages, hardcover (22 New from $6.82, 5 collectible from $9.85, 52 used from $0.01) or paperback (9 New from $20.99, 2 collectible from $9.85, 25 used from $0.01).
http://amzn.to/2fUyhyN
bar-blue

car-country

731. Car Country: An Environmental History (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books) – Christopher W Wells

The United States is Car Country, according to the author; a nation dominated by landscapes that are difficult, inconvenient, and often unsafe to navigate except when sitting behind the wheel of a car. “The prevalence of car-dependent landscapes seems perfectly natural to us today, but it is, in fact, a relatively new historical development. In Car Country, Wells rejects the idea that the nation’s automotive status quo can be explained as a simple byproduct of an ardent love affair with the automobile. Instead, he takes readers on a tour of the evolving American landscape, charting the ways that transportation policies and land-use practices have combined to reshape nearly every element of the built environment around the easy movement of automobiles.” The foundations for the modern automotive-friendly landscape were laid during the pulp era, as the preceding recommendation makes clear. If “American Road” asks the question, this is the story of the answers that were found, showing how the landscape made the dominance of the automobile in American society an inevitability, and how the car reshaped that landscape.

There is a book that will be listed in the honorable mentions section that we would love to have included as “the other half of the story” immediately after this book. Entitled “Drive On!”, it is the story of how the car evolved in response to the demands being placed on it by society. But while there are enough copies to justify inclusion, they are so far outside the range of acceptable pricing that it simply wasn’t feasible.

Kindle $23.34, Paperback, 464 pages, 18 used from $13.74, 32 new from $14.87, Hardcover 25 used from $17.34 and 22 new from $54.19.
http://amzn.to/2fAXxsR
bar-blue

great-car-craze

732. Great Car Craze: How Southern California Collided With the Automobile in the 1920s – Ashleigh Brilliant

“With keen perception, serious scholarship and wry amusement, Ashleigh Brilliant, not only a famous epigrammatist but also an accomplished historian, recounts the profound social effects of our mass conversion to the automobile age in the 1920s.” Hardcover, 208 pages, 17 used from $9.03, 5 New from $19.95, 4 Collectible from $11.25.
http://amzn.to/2eVgGEq
bar-blue

the-car-the-history-of-the-automobile

733. The Car: The History of the Automobile – Jonathan Glancey

There are lost of histories of the car. We’ve chosen two that seemed to offer all the choice necessary – this 256-page overview, which purports to be comprehensive but doesn’t have room to even come close to it, and the alternative listed below.

Hardcover: 19 used from $7.19, 10 new and 1 collectible at too-much or more.

Paperback: 15 used from $6.77, 25 new from $6.78.

http://amzn.to/2fPMcFN
bar-blue

the-life-of-the-automobile

734. The Life of the Automobile: The Complete History of the Motor Car – Steven Parissien

At 448 pages, this comes closer to being able to accommodate “comprehensive”, in our opinion, and claims nothing less in its cover text. In fact, it’s still limited to a very America-centric perspective; don’t expect to see much on anything not sold there. Don’t look for the Tatra 11 (a Czech car) or the ZIL-41047 (Russian), for example.

We came close to pulling it out of the list, however, because there are reports that it is riddled with inaccuracies. Reviewer J Fuzz offered a list of examples that had him wondering if anything the book said could or should be trusted:

  • “He says that GM divested itself of the Dodge brand. Neat trick, considering they never owned it.
  • “The Pontiac GTO was introduced in 1962. Sorry, it came out in 1964.
  • “The Datsun 240Z was introduced with the 510 4-cylinder engine. Not right. It was a straight-6.
  • “The Prius came out in 2004. No, it was introduced worldwide in 2000.
  • “Mercedes sport brand is it’s AMF division. AMF IS a sport brand, but only for bowling. Mercedes sport brand is AMG.”

We still think that, provided that due diligence is observed, this could be a useful resource – but with its obvious limitations and flaws, it hardly has our unqualified support, and the price we would be willing to pay certainly deteriorated in light of these reviews. Fortunately, copies are both plentiful and cheap – Kindle: $4.82, Hardcover: 31 used from $2.99, 37 new from $4.99.
http://amzn.to/2fUoOYe
bar-blue

cars-the-early-years-illustrated-edition

735. Cars: The Early Years (Illustrated edition) – Brian Laban with illustrations by Alex Linghorn and Ali Khoja

A book that you buy for the photos. Printed on high quality paper and with good binding. The phrase “The Early Years” is a bit of a misnomer, as the book’s contents range through to the 1950s. Hardcover, 236 pages, 27 used from $2.63, 8 new from $8.21, 3 Collectible from $19.99.
http://amzn.to/2fbESU0
bar-gray

cars-the-early-years

736. Cars: The Early Years – Brian Laban

Seemingly the same book as above, with a different cover, and no mention of the illustrators. Instead, this edition is 352 pages in length. 21 used copies from $3.98 and 17 new from $10.07. Make your own choice but we would probably pick this one, assuming that the greater page count permits greater content; the 120-or-so extra pages seem worth the extra $1.40 or so!
http://amzn.to/2fB6liC
bar-blue

the-art-of-the-automobile

737. The Art of the Automobile: The 100 Greatest Cars – Dennis Adler

The author has taken his own photos of his 100 chosen “best of” for this collection of cars beautiful enough to be (in his eyes) considered works of art. In fact, there are multiple photos for each car, including pictures of the mechanical parts that distinguish them, and that’s a distinction that, in turn, distinguishes this book from the others of the type. Several of which we have also recommended. 256 pages, 12” x 9”, Hardcover; 62 used from $4.31, 39 new from $19.85, 2 Collectible from $20.00.
http://amzn.to/2fB0kCm
bar-blue

motor-cars-of-the-1930s

738. Motor Cars of the 1930s (Shire Library) – Ian Dussek

We had high hopes when we saw this listed in our search results. It is, after all, right on point, and quite affordably-priced, even if there aren’t quite enough copies to meet our usual standards. There’s no real product description, but given how obviously pertinent it was, even that would not have put us off. Then we noticed the page count: 32 pages. Decide for yourself if it’s worth it, we were immediately torn.

Paperback, 10 used from $12.11, 8 new from $3.05.
http://amzn.to/2eAtDZ7
bar-blue

just-30s

739. Just 30s – Angelo Van Boggart

This is more like what we expected the preceding book to be like, but we were more than a little put off by the collage-style cover which makes it look like a cheaply-produced mass-market magazine. Nevertheless, the details are all good – 144 pages, written by the publisher of Old Cars Weekly and the OldCarsReport.com Price Guide, and a list of the innovations which appeared in the course of the decade (most of which would go on to become standard fittings (pneumatic tires, hydraulic brakes) and default industry practices, like the annual “facelift” to the designs. Paperback, 18 used copies from $0.14, 11 new from $6.75.
http://amzn.to/2eZESss
bar-blue

american-trucks-of-the-early-thirties

740. American Trucks of the Early Thirties (Olyslager Auto Library) – edited by Bart H Vanderveen

Amazon lists this as selling in the Children’s books category; the fact is that we know next to nothing more than what we’ve already told you about this book. Quite clearly it’s period-relevant. We can also state that finding photographs of period trucks is a LOT harder than photographs of period cars. So we’re inclined to give this book the benefit of the doubt, even in the face of the dearth of information. 64 pages, 18 used from $0.01, 5 new from $58.64.
http://amzn.to/2fRQjA5
bar-blue

american-trucks-of-the-late-thirties

741. American Trucks of the Late Thirties (Olyslager Auto Library) – edited by Bart H Vanderveen

The obvious companion volume to the previous listing. Again, Hardcover, 64 pages in length. 23 Used copies from $1.58, 1 Collectible from $29.00 and 5 New from $64.

To put those page lengths in perspective: contemplate the combined price as though you were buying a single book of 128 pages. $1.59? Sounds fair enough. $122 New? Not gonna happen. Somewhere in between is the squeeze point, at which a ready ‘yes’ becomes a firm ‘no way’. We think it’s in the $6-10 range, but your opinion might vary.

http://amzn.to/2g10CmW

Bonus Content by Mike: “Are We There Yet?” –
How Mike & Blair determine travel times on pulp-era roads

Travel times are a three-stage process. The first is average speed (not peak speed), and the second is distance. Combine the two in the third stage and you get travel time.

1930s-speed-display

Stage One: Average Speed

As an avid follower of Formula One and Top Gear, I’m well aware that straight-line top speeds haven’t increased that much over the last couple of decades. The same isn’t true of road cars, which are far less controlled in their specifications, but even so, the greatest improvements have been in road-holding and handling. Even in the pre-war 1930s, Formula 1 cars could hit 200 mph in a straight-line. Not too long ago, a Bugatti Vaeron set a new record of 267mph, something that I understand has since been beaten by a small amount. Regardless, let’s say 70mph increase between 1938 and 2016 (an interval of 78 years) – that’s a smidgen less than 1mph per year, average.

In truth, there was a lot of increase in the 20 years after the war, and then things seemed to bottom out for a long time, and only in the last ten years or so have has the upward trend been resumed. On that basis, we have set a baseline of +3 mph every 2 years for standard road cars (sports cars and weird science specials are something else again), and a baseline of 50mph average on good roads in 1940. Both rather fuzzy assumptions, but they work well enough. This compares well with modern averages – and these days you can assume that roads are 1930s-“good” quality everywhere, sometimes better.

Over dirt roads, the period average is halved – which is a big improvement over the average recorded just two years earlier in the story described in American Road (listed above for your consideration).

Both types of roads are then subclassified into three conditions: Good, Okay, and Poor. Each step down the order subtracts 5 mph from the average speed. Rain or adverse conditions subtracts up to another 6 mph, usually 3 (it’s easy to roll a d6 for how bad conditions are). Mountainous terrain with its hills and multiplicity of curves and bends subtracts another 5.

The combination tells us what the average speeds are depending on the road type and quality.

If you get a speed of 0, obviously, you are going nowhere. If you get a speed of less than zero, the GM can inflict a problem appropriate to the situation – the car may get bogged, or throw a tyre. PCs can go faster than these speeds by making a driving roll; each point by which they succeed lets them travel under control at an average 1 mph faster. However, the player has to specify his speed and then roll to keep control, and the GMs can ask for another roll any time they deem it warranted, and can also impose penalties to the roll if that seems appropriate – an icy patch or oil slick or whatever.

Another consideration is the year of manufacture of the vehicle. A car or motorcycle from 1924 is not going to be as good in 1930 as a car built in 1930. A simple rule of thumb is to average the two to get road conditions and vehicle capability – so the example would yield 1927, which on the table would be rounded up to 1928 capabilities.

The tables spell out the basic speeds according to the above rules. Click on the tables to download a version more suitable for printing.

Stage Two: Distance

This used to be so easy using Google Maps. You told it the start point and the end point, and it plotted a route. We made the basic assumption that unless it clearly paralleled an existing set of roads, highways and freeways and what have you from the modern era were all present back then. Then it was just a matter of allocating road conditions to each section of the trip. Our whole methodology was based on this technology.

Well, it’s not there anymore. Google have changed maps – for the worse in many ways, at least for our purposes. Maps don’t even fill the entire screen any more, and there’s no longer a scale provided. As a result, it’s been necessary to evolve a workaround that’s a lot more complicated and fiddly.

In order to explain it clearly, I need to demonstrate it, and that requires an example. I decided to use one from a real adventure – Driving from New York City to New Orleans, just because it was the last one that we did the “old” way, which took about 15 minutes. The amount of work now involved will enable a direct comparison with the old technique.

Step one: Screen Grabs

We start by grabbing as many screen grabs as we think we need to show the whole route at a large enough zoom that we can see major and minor cities. We aren’t worried about small towns.
0-seven-screen-grabs

In this case, that was seven – and there should have been an eighth, as you’ll see. Each one then has to get cropped and compiled into one large image. It took about 5 minutes, two of which were spent getting the right zoom level and finding the starting point.

Step Two: Overlay Grabs

Since each of the seven grabs is on a separate layer, and my software lets me control the opacity of each individually, it’s easy to stitch them together into one larger map.
1-compound-map-ny-to-no

As you can see, I should have grabbed the upper part of the Florida peninsula as well; the map looks strange without it.

One of the good things about the new Google Maps is that – so long as you don’t change the zoom level – place names and state names don’t move as you pan around. That makes it easy to produce a seamless map. This took another 5 minutes.

Step Three: Duplicate layer and merge mode

The colors of the map aren’t distinct enough for me to be able to manipulate it as easily as I would like in subsequent steps, so the third step is to duplicate the merged layer of map pieces twice. I sharpen one of them, and apply a brightness/contrast adjustment to both duplicates that makes the dark colors darker and the light colors a lighter. I then set both layers to a merge mode of multiply and play around with the opacity levels until I’m satisfied with the result. The image above is the result in this case – duplicate layer one was 100% opaque, duplicate layer one was 30% opaque. This is fairly typical, though I may need to lower the second one to 20% to hide jpg imperfections resulting from the sharpening.
2-multiple-duplicate-layers-set-to-multiply

The results dramatically improve the legibility of the map when printed on a black-and-white laser printer, or when being displayed on a laptop at a distance from a player.

This took less than a minute because I’m very familiar with the technique; the first few times, it took a LOT longer.

Step Four: Select Route(s)

With the new, darker colors for the roads, it’s easy to do a “select all of a certain color” using the standard settings and be confident of (a) getting all the road that I want, and (b) getting nothing else. I can then zoom into the map and using a colored paintbrush on a new layer, mark out the route to be followed. In this case, there were two obvious alternatives, so I did the first in Red and the second in purple where it diverged from the first.
3-routes-with-duplicate-layers-faded

To make them stand out a little more, given that I was going to be reducing the images a LOT in size (to about 12% of the actual size I was working at) I’ve faded those multiplying layers somewhat. This took about 5 minutes.

Step Five: Mark the Good and Road Zone

We decided a long time ago that the northeastern states all have good condition main roads. This is where the money is, this is where the manufacturing is, this is where the demand for cars would be greatest, and hence, where the demand for good roads would be greatest.
4-showing-the-good-road-zone

We call this the “good road zone” and it’s quick and easy to draw in and fill an overlay to indicate it on a new layer. In general, we aren’t worried about the shape of it, just where we think it will cut across our routes. We generally use the density of modern roads as an indicator.

This takes only a few seconds. Call it half a minute, to be on the safe side.

Step Six: A measuring Stick

From looking at another map – one with a scale – we know that Philadelphia is roughly 100 miles from New York City. So that’s our rough-and-ready measuring stick. I draw a straight line on yet another new layer between the two, and then a vertical and horizontal line from the end points to form a triangle.
5-triangle-ny-to-philadelphia-aprox-100m

In this image, I’ve turned off the routes layer and cropped a copy of the working image to illustrate the process, so this shows the actual size of the image that I was working on without shrinking it at all.

This takes much less than half a minute.

Step Seven: A colored dot

The next thing I do is create a filled circle in an appropriate color on another new layer. Then I resize and reposition it until the edges JUST cover the New York to Philadelphia line. I will generally get to within a few percent of the right size if I start my circle at the right angle of the triangle and draw out at a right angle to the hypotenuse until I reach the “measuring stick”; the closer to 45 degrees the hypotenuse is, the more accurate this guesstimate method becomes.
6-a-dot-the-size-of-the-triangle-long-axis-aprox-100m-diameter

The result is a transparent dot that is roughly 100 miles in diameter.

I will then surround it with a border to make it a little easier to spot, creating that on another layer, reducing the opacity of the dot, and then merging the two layers.

All this takes only about half a minute.

Step Eight: Okay Road Zones around the major cities

We have arbitrarily decided that the major cities would all be surrounded with okay-quality roads for a radius of 50 miles. We use the size of the city name font as our guide. In this case, we decided that Atlanta and Charlotte looked big enough on the map to qualify. So I duplicated the circle and centered one around each of these centers. (Note that other places may have been large enough but weren’t on our routes).
7-the-major-cities-okay-road-zones-100m-diameter

This shows the whole map, plus – in an inset – a zoomed crop. Also, obviously, I’ve turned the route back on, so you can see how prominently it shows up against the main Good road zone.

Also, quite obviously, there’s no need for any inside the main “good zone”.

Another half-minute, maybe longer if there are more major cities.

Step Nine: Okay road zones around minor cities

I take a duplicate of one of the dots and shrink it 50% to get one that’s about 50 miles in diameter. I then position and duplicate this as necessary until every minor city on the route outside the good zone.
8-plus-minor-cities-okay-road-zones-50m-diameter

As a general rule of thumb, we assume that any road major enough to show up at this zoom scale and east of the Mississippi and north of the Gulf is Of Mexico is going to be a sealed road, no matter how badly constructed. That means that none of these roads are going to be dirt roads. Farther west, until you reach the far side of the rockies, you can’t make any such assumption. California is considered a mix of good paved major roads and okay-or-worse dirt minor roads, not from any personal knowledge, but because it seems right.

This took another couple of minutes. If there had been additional time spent on more major cities, it would have reduced the time in this step, so the total would have been more or less the same.

Step Ten: Adding an Okay-Zone “Fringe” to the main “Good Road Zone”

Departing the “Good Road Zone” shouldn’t by like flipping a switch. There should be some fuzziness – but because you’re only concerned with one or two routes, this can be fairly rough and ready.

I duplicated one of the minor city zones, color-shifted it to a reddish-purple (because it stood out) and then duplicated it a bunch of times. I then placed these around the edge of the “good road zone” and – on a new layer – draw a rough “Okay zone” from edge to edge, then filled it.
9-adding-an-okay-zone-50m-perimeter

I would normally then turn off the markers, or – more accurately – reposition them in step eleven, but I have left them in place and visible so that you can see the technique. Time: another two minutes.

Step Eleven: A rough mountainous zone

We have a rough idea where the mountainous regions are in the US. With that knowledge as a guide, I surrounded the national parks with more marker rings (reusing the ones from step 10 and adding more as necessary), then once again drew a rough shape around their perimeters. I selected the interior and filled it in to show mountainous road zones. I then shrank that selection by about 4/5ths of the width of one of the marker circles in pixels and applied a second “coating” of the fill to make it darker.
10-a-rough-mountain-zone-using-national-parks

This gives me a “dirt road zone” and a paved mountain road zone surrounding it. Not that I would expect to need it on this particular road trip, but you should always make allowances for the PCs going off-track or taking a wrong turn.

Once again, I’ve left the marker circles in place so that you can see the technique as well as the result. This took about 5 minutes. Using the old Google, it would have been a snap to turn on satellite view for a second or two to do the same thing with far greater accuracy.

Step Twelve: Add a scale

I drew a black rectangle on a new layer and duplicated it. I filled one with black and one with white, lined them up, and merged them together, then duplicated that a few times until I had a scale. I added some text to give meaning to the scale.

Turning everything on that should show up and everything off that shouldn’t produces the finished map:
11-the-finished-map-with-a-scale

It took about three minutes to make this scale in a new layer using one of the large “okay zones” as a guide, and another 30 seconds to position it. I notice that I missed something though – the Charlotte good-roads zone is not visible. No matter; I know that the purple OK zone is 50 miles wide, I can see that Charlotte is right on the edge of it, and that it’s about as far again to the next OK zone – so the entire purple road to the edge of the overlapping OK zones is actually a good road, it’s just not shown as that.

It’s also worth noting that we would have produced a small-scale overall map about twice the size of the one above but kept the working map full-sized – so that towns and states can be read clearly.

Total time to replace what we used to do in less than a minute: about 29-and-a-half minutes.

Stage Three: Combining

For stage three, we make a list of all the changes of zone or road quality in the order they take place, and use the scale to roughly estimate the length of each – to the nearest ten or twenty miles, greater accuracy isn’t needed.

We then look at each and decide “does anything happen here?” We will also deal with what the weather is going to be.

Because we don’t know how fast the PCs will choose to drive, we can’t do much more. But when the time comes, we can use the tables, and the PCs desire to risk speed, to calculate the travel time for each leg in just a second or so. The PCs can then inform us if they are stopping somewhere for lunch or coffee or whatever.

As it happened on the day, the PCs made a wrong turn in Atlanta and cut across the mountains, where they had an encounter with old-school moonshiners who didn’t seem to have gotten the message that prohibition had been repealed. There was some fun and games and some Dukes Of Hazzard action. Eventually, though, they reached their destination, taking it in turns behind the wheels of their two vehicles.

Okay, back to the reviews and recommendations!

flourish-divider2

Books About Motorcycles

Most books aren’t available in enough copies to make our list; our standards have had to be compromised so that we had something to offer.

bar-gray

motor-cycling-a-history-of-the-early-motorcycle

742. Motor Cycling: A History of the Early Motorcycle – John H. Wyatt

There is a growing publishing sub-industry in reprinting old books that are now out of copyright at minimal prices and with generic covers. This is another of the products of that sub-industry, reprinting a book originally published in 1925. The paperback edition to which we have linked has a plain red cover; we’re showing the more visually-attractive faux-textured hardcover.

The book itself is a detailed guide, packed with photos and diagrams, and is as much a how-to guide as a history, with chapters such as “Reliability of Magnetos”, “Accessories, Spares and Tools”, “Driving and Up Keep: Starting the Engine, Gear Changing, etc”, and “Troubles on the Road: Refusal to Start, Choked Petrol Pipe or Jet etc”. This makes it invaluable for the pulp GM who wants to replicate the real-life difficulties that might be encountered by a PC using such a vehicle!

148 pages, Kindle $6.44 (but most Kindle editions are without the photos and diagrams, be warned), Paperback 8 used copies from $25.43 and 19 new from $15.98. The prices of hardcover copies are in the $37+ range. http://amzn.to/2gaoAiU
bar-blue

great-british-motorcycles-of-the-1930s

743. Great British Motorcycles of the 1930s – Bob Currie

While British cars were not as successful as American ones for many years (except in the luxury department) the same cannot be said of British motorcycles. This a slightly-small coffee-table sized book, few details provided. 144 pages, 10 used copies from $3.40, 8 new from $22.28.
http://amzn.to/2fPLIzI
bar-blue

british-motorcycles-of-the-30s

744. British Motorcycles Of The 30s – Roy Bacon

Again, not much in the way of details, and the majority of what is known comes from a reader’s review: “Written by a true authority on the subject, but no pictures of many important models. Packed with information for the vintage Brit bike enthusiast. A few annoying typos…” Hardcover, no page count, 15 used copies from $0.76, 5 new from $84.95. There is also another hardcover edition with prices in the hundreds of US dollars.
http://amzn.to/2fUtD3V

flourish-divider2

Books About Tanks & other armored vehicles

bar-gray

tanks-of-the-world

745. Tanks Of The World 1915-1945 – Peter Chamberlain & Chris Ellis

Extensive coverage, detailed information, includes experimental models and prototypes. Each vehicle has notes on design, production, and performance. While there is a volume in the honorable mentions that would be our first choice, availability leaves this as our first practical choice.
http://amzn.to/1POLJNq
bar-blue

tanks-and-other-afvs-of-the-blitzkieg-era-1939-1941

746. Tanks and other AFVs of the Blitzkrieg Era 1939-1941 – B T White

Although it isn’t obvious, there is a lot of technical info in the back, after the mass of lovely color pictures. There is a second volume covering 1942-1945 but that is much less useful for a Pulp Campaign.

There are some copies of the 39-41 volume available at this link http://amzn.to/1lnPmBx and more at this one http://amzn.to/1Pbr1Nm.
bar-blue

bulletproof

747. Bulletproof A History of Armored Cars and the colorful characters who Ran Them, Rode Them, and sometimes Robbed Them – James L. Dunbar and Robert Grant Kingwell

There are mixed reviews of this book (of which none of the authors of this article have personal experience) at Amazon, but it is the only work that we could find on the subject in general, and is cheap enough that GMs can probably afford to take a chance on. The title sounds incredibly on-target for a pulp resource, and that’s all that we’ve got (since the two reviews contradict each other so comprehensively that we can’t trust either of them).
http://amzn.to/1VmNQvT
bar-blue

early-armoured-cars

748. Early Armoured Cars (Shire Library) – E Bartholomew

We’ve reviewed another book from Shire Library (Motor Cars of the 1930s) above. Virtually every word of that review applies to this book as well. But we can state as fact that images and details of early armored cars are even harder to come across than images of ordinary trucks, and beggars can’t be choosers. 64 pages, 16 used copies from $4.45, 9 new copies from $11.00.
http://amzn.to/2gao9oY

flourish-divider2

bullet-holes-v9

Afterword by Mike:

The most important question for a GM to be able to answer, when it comes to pulp vehicles, is, “Are we there yet?” Knowing how long it takes to get from A to B – and allowing for transit times when developing plots – is one of the most important characteristics of any vehicle in the era. And, just because it wouldn’t work or wouldn’t be practical in the real world is no reason for it not to exist in a pulp environment.

Once that critical consideration is dealt with, there are a host of subsidiary possibilities and traits to consider.

For the adventurer’s club campaign, we once came up with an aircraft that ran ballast along guy wires to change the center of gravity, obtaining a tighter turning circle and greater acrobatic maneuverability than any real-world aircraft then in existence (typically, of course, we had a PC test-pilot the thing while hunting for someone who was sabotaging the project). Never neglect the potential of a vehicle to serve as a location for adventure.

Pulp vehicles should be faster, stronger, tougher – or more sumptuous, or more decrepit. They will always be more dangerous. As with so many things Pulp, “More” is the operative adjective all things should have in common.

swirlpralinchen-1

Next: The 8th shelf: Civilian Life!

Leave a Comment

Blog Carnival November 2016: The Extraordinary Life of a Fantasy PC Pt 2


rpg blog carnival logo

This is the second half of this article; the first dealt with character backstories during character generation, and this deals with making use of them once play has started.

It is also the third of five articles scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting. The carnival subject is “ordinary life” – in this case, the ordinary life of a PC, and how to create plots and subplots using the character profile generated in the first article as a foundation.

I should add that while it is intended for fantasy games such as Pathfinder and D&D, it can be used with any genre.

Introduction/Recap:

So you’ve got a shiny new PC Profile, generated using the method outlined in Part 1 of this double act, or some reasonable analogue thereof, and it’s time to generate some plot connections or subplots using it.

Each of the axioms has at least two ways that they can be applied to this purpose, and on top of that we have the character evolution information that provides context for those axioms. And, of each type of axiom, a player may have none, one, two, or three that he has applied to his specific character.

stone faces

Image credit: FreeImages.com / pipp

The axioms, once again, were:

  • Past Successes
  • Past Failures
  • Past Mistakes
  • Past Life Lessons
  • Past Moments Of Danger
  • Past Travels
  • Family Incidents
  • Past Ambitions
  • Fascinations
  • Proximity to key events

and the contextual directions were:

  • Background Context
  • Core Concept
  • Supplementary Words
  • Axiom Sequence
  • Character Direction
  • Character Destination

If you employ the system that was described in the first half of this article, players will allocate 20 axioms to construct their backstory. These are milestones in the evolution of the character’s personality. If you don’t know or don’t recall what is meant by any of them, use the link above to review the definitions before we continue.

Overview of the plot-creation process

There is a basic process to go through when constructing plotlines using a character profile.

  1. Review Profile
  2. Prominence
  3. Direction
  4. Opportunity
  5. Setback
  6. Consequence
  7. Conflict
  8. Confluence
  9. Subplot

All these except the last one take the form of a series of yes/no questions, answered in order until you get to a ‘yes’ response. The final option is the default response that gets selected when there is no higher-priority ‘yes’ response. They identify the nature and extent of the character’s connection to the plotline. I’ll get into specifics shortly.

Once you have a ‘yes’ decision, or have arrived at the final option, a subplot, you enter a second stage of the process. This is similar in all cases, identical in many of them:

  1. Axiom Selection
  2. Relevance
  3. Defined Elements
  4. Undefined Elements
  5. Theme/Counterpoint/Side-issue
  6. Story
  7. Intensity/Tone
  8. Timing
  9. Execution

That all sounds like a lot of work, but each step is usually short (with the probable exception of the last one, Execution) – a matter of seconds, and more often a handful or two than a more substantial number of them. The theoretical minimum is about 20 seconds, plus however long is spent on execution, which depends on GMing style and the depth of prep that you like to undertake prior to play. But, in practice, and when your imagination is fired up, inspiration can actually drop that time to a quarter of that or less. I encourage that process with a step zero, as shown above – not strictly necessary, but it has proven beneficial so often that it’s a standard part of my routine, and strongly recommended.

So that’s the overview. Let’s step through it in detail.

Phase 1: Seven Decisions

The process assumes that you have a rough idea of what the main plotline is going to be, even if the details are vague, that can be expressed in a simple statement. This could be a high concept – “What is a monster?” – or a plot direction – “The PCs inherit an enemy from the previous generation of heroes” or “Magnetic-Man makes his move” – or a reaction/question – “The PCs have made an enemy of Lord Bedswick, what happens?” or “The PCs are questing for the Unholy Cross of Vladimax, what do they find?”.

Step 0: Review Profile

Start by refreshing your memory of the character’s profile. You don’t have to read the entire backstory – use the development notes as an index and worry about the specifics when you know what part of it will be relevant.

Once that’s done, you can start asking the questions. Remember, stop as soon as you get a strong “yes” and move to the second phase; a “maybe” is a “yes” only if you don’t get a firm “yes” further down the list. Don’t agonize over these questions; they should be made bang-bang-bang-bang, a succession of snap judgments. It’s easy to over-think and over-analyze and fall into a trap engendered by wishful thinking which relies on events playing out according to a script; counter that by not giving yourself enough time to formulate a script in the first place. Use your first instincts, and you will be right more often than not.

Step 1: Prominence

How prominent is the character’s involvement in the plotline to be? Is this a star vehicle for the PC, or for a different PC, or is this more of an ensemble moment? Refer “Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign?” for discussion of the decision.

Another way of phrasing this question can be, “is this to be a pivotal event, another milestone in the character’s evolution?”

This is a critical question because it determines whether or not the adventure will feature the PC, or if the character’s participation will be less-central. It shapes the weight that is attached to a ‘yes’ response to any of the subsequent questions, and is the only one of these questions that does not lead immediately to Phase 2 in the event of an affirmative response.

Step 2: Direction

Can the planned adventure advance the character in the direction that the player wants him to go? What circumstances are needed to encourage this?

Step 3: Opportunity

Does the planned adventure open a previously-closed door for the character that will enable him to advance in the direction the player desires at some future point?

Step 4: Setback

Does the planned adventure place a roadblock in front of the character direction desired by the player that will have to be overcome? Can that overcoming be part of the rewards for success in this adventure or will it have to wait for a subsequent one?

No development should come without the occasional struggle, the occasional temptation to turn aside. As a GM, you aren’t required to ensure that a PC achieves his ambitions, but you are required to present him with the opportunities to do so.

Step 5: Consequence

Has the character recently taken a step in the direction that the player wants, and if so, is there a consequence or ramification that can be highlighted by the adventure?

Step 6: Conflict

Does the desired direction of the PC conflict with that of another, and if so, does this adventure offer an opportunity to highlight and/or resolve this conflict?

Step 7: Confluence

Does the desired direction of the PC accord with the ambitions of another? If so, has this point of mutual desire been explored in the past? And, if not, is this adventure conducive to such an exploration?

Step 8: Subplot

Unless you have a firm “yes” to one of the above, the decision is made that this is NOT a milestone in the life of the character, or at least not intended to be. It is, instead, just part of his ordinary life as it currently stands. Events can still take on a life of their own!

‘Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It”

It’s a simple matter to rephrase the question to which you found a ‘yes’ response into an additional piece of description for what the adventure is intended to achieve, a second sentence to the one with which you started, if you will.

But, of course, most campaigns have more than one PC. Let’s say, for example, that there are 4 PCs: if you apply this same process to each of them, you end up with an adventure description that is one-part GM concept and 4 parts PC-driven. That can be a difficult proposition to reconcile and structure, so there are a couple of shortcuts and techniques that I employ so solve the problem.

Rule one: One personal milestone per adventure

As a general rule of thumb, I will only permit one character to achieve a personal milestone per adventure – to be the most prominent ‘star’ of that adventure, in terms of character development. There are times when exceptions will be made, but as a general rule, one is enough, and two are more than enough.

That doesn’t prohibit personal progress, it just means that such progress is not central to the adventure.

Rule Two: Inevitable focus foregos anything but a subplot

Some adventures are naturally going to spotlight a particular PC for one reason or another. If an Adventurer’s Club adventure has a supernatural element, we know in advance that Father O’Malley will feature. If there’s a military or maritime situation, we know that Captain Ferguson will already have a good slice of the spotlight, and so on.

The same is true in my fantasy campaigns; each PC has something distinctive that the blend of player and character brings to the group, and some adventures focus more intently on those elements of the party. That doesn’t mean that the others are irrelevant; just that they aren’t central to the plot.

While they might still receive a subplot, a ‘what have you been doing lately’, I’ll try to avoid making it especially personally significant because they are already receiving a greater share of the spotlight in the adventure.

Rule Three: Subplots come in two grades: Minor and Major

A minor subplot is more incidental, less significant, and less transformative, than a major subplot. It matters less, and it’s more a case of the character simply experiencing his life as he is currently living it.

Compiling the Adventure Description

Examples are sometimes a difficult proposition. While they can be illustrative, making something clear that isn’t obvious, they can also be a trap when they are just one of many possibilities. To address a process in general terms, an example can be counterproductive.

For that reason, I didn’t want to include an example in this section; but I’ve found that one is necessary or the process becomes too vague to be understood.

So, let’s assume that there are four PCs: Adam, Baker, Carlos, and Deborah. Adam is going to naturally feature in the adventure, so he gets only a minor subplot at best. The list of questions produced only “No” answers for Baker, so he will receive a major subplot to compensate for his reduced involvement in the main adventure. The plot could present Carlos with a Setback (from a Step 4 “yes” for Carlos), or it could highlight a conflict between what Carlos wants and what Deborah wants (a “yes” in Step 6 for Deborah, with Carlos as the other party member involved). Normally, rule one would force a choice between the two, but in this case, the two obviously dovetail: Carlos encounters a set-back in his personal development and Deborah has to choose between what she wants and what Carlos wants, a significant step in the relationship between them.

If the potential conflict was with Adam, say, instead of Carlos, then rule one would definitely be in effect, and I would have to choose between them. Such choices are most easily guided by future opportunities: If the choice is between a milestone for Carlos and one for Deborah, I would look at which one I’m more likely to have a future opportunity to explore; the other one gets the nod.

But I also consider how long it’s been since the character had a prominent advance in their development; if Carlos has just had a milestone, I’m more likely to give it to Deborah even if opportunities for Carlos are relatively few and far between.

To be candidly honest, I try to avoid this problem arising in the first place by altering my planned adventure sequence. A lot of my campaign planning is aimed at distributing opportunities and spotlight time evenly amongst the PCs. Blair (my co-GM in the Adventurer’s Club campaign), for example, doesn’t like hard SF and “Cosmic” adventures, while Vala (one of the PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign) and Runeweaver (another of those PCs) lend themselves to those types of adventure, respectively. But that’s not all there is to either of those characters, so for each adventure focusing on those natural proclivities, there will be another that focuses on some other aspect of their characters, and two that are more humanist – emotional or humanitarian – in focus, and one or two that are detective/mystery stories (to suit the remaining PC), and one or two general romps. You can read more about the techniques that I employ in another of my older articles, “Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow“.

Getting back to the example, we have:

  • The main plot idea from the GM, featuring Adam, with significant personal developments for Carlos and Deborah;
  • A Major subplot revolving around Baker;
  • Possible minor subplots for Adam, Carlos, and Deborah, though one of those might lead into the main plotline instead of being a standalone sub-adventure,

…but, we could have just as easily have had:

  • The main plot idea from the GM, featuring Adam, with significant personal development for Carlos;
  • A Major subplot revolving around Baker;
  • A Major subplot revolving around Deborah;
  • Possible minor subplots for Adam and Carlos,

…or,

  • The main plot idea from the GM, featuring Adam, with significant personal development for Deborah;
  • A Major subplot revolving around Baker;
  • A Major subplot revolving around Carlos;
  • and Possible minor subplots for Adam and Deborah,

Some adventures feature more than one character; in our planning for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, we even have a few that feature *all* of them prominently. So the composition of each adventure will change depending on the nature of the adventure.

I should also point out that some subplots can be such that another PC is likely to become involved. Such involvement counts as a minor subplot for the involved character, or increases an existing minor subplot for that character to the equivalent of a Major one.

What’s the difference between a major and a minor subplot?

In a nutshell: length and complexity. A major subplot can be divided into three or more scenes, a minor one is one, two, or very rarely, three scenes, no more. It’s all about the screen time.

I don’t have any fantasy examples at hand, so I have selected a pair of examples from a recent Adventurer’s Club adventure, “Boom Town”. Midway through the adventure, which appeared to have concluded with unanswered questions, there was an interval before the second part commenced, during which period each PC had different subplots.

  • Captain Ferguson: Minor subplot: The captain’s ship is commissioned by the Government of San Salvatore to attempt recovery of cargo/treasure/artifacts from a Portuguese shipwreck believed to date back to the 16th century that has recently been discovered in a cave on the north side of Rum Cay in the Bahamas. The wreck might be the Portuguese ship Chagas which was captured after a battle with three English Privateers and sent home as a prize by the commander of the English Fleet, Sir George Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland, the following winter. Under the command of Christopher Lister and with a cargo of looted silver, she was lost with all hands in a gale. The wreck has been found deep in a cave. It’s unclear whether the crew sailed into the cave seeking shelter after being blown off course by the gale or if it was driven there despite their best efforts. It might contain as much as 20 tons of silver, worth as much in 1930s dollars as US$317,274.82 (Modern equivalent, US$3.17m). On top of that, log book and instruments, because of their historical and collector’s value, could be worth another $32,000 (1930s). The Antares will earn 30% of whatever she recovers. The trip is expected to take 2 days, the salvage as much as a week, and delivery and return to New York another 3 days, for a total of 12 days voyage, possibly less. Scenes:

    • Initial Briefing, possibility of other PCs accompanying Captain Ferguson.
    • Finding the cave and examining the wreck, verifying that it is the Chagas.
    • Salvaging various things – the silver has long been looted by someone who found the wreck and didn’t report it. The log book tells the story of the last days of the Chagas. Evidence suggests that the Crew killed the Captain before abandoning the wrecked ship.
    • Dealing with a WWI sea mine that has also drifted into the cave.
  • Father O’malley: Major Subplot: After conducting a church service, Father O’malley engages in social niceties with the parishioners. “Mrs O’Reilly’s cat is doing much better. Mr Dunkley’s Dog is no longer chewing on the furniture, he has moved on to Mr Dunkley’s wooden leg. Miss Driscoll has the flu and her sister would be grateful if someone could look in on her sometime. Mrs O’Reilly promises to do so – a bit of hot chicken soup will soon have Violet all in order. Colonel Leiber, a German Jew who served in the Kaiser’s army during WWI before emigrating to the US, is convinced that the boys from the school down the road are stealing his apples, and if he ever catches one he will “give him such a thrashing”. Father O’Malley is not overly concerned by the threat, he’s heard it before; Colonel Leiber is infirm, uses a walking stick, and is unable to move at anything faster than a stately amble. Mrs Brancowicz, a 34-year old widow, and the mother of one of those boys, is looking distressed and instead of sharing whatever has been going on in her life, simply asks Father O’Malley to pray for her, she doesn’t think she will be able to cope without it. She doesn’t specify what’s wrong, but she has clearly not been sleeping well for the last few nights and this is the first service that she has attended in over a week, something that’s unlike her usual habits. Clearly, something is amiss.” Scenes:
    • Introduction (quoted above), discussion with Mrs Brancowicz reveals that the boiler in her building has stopped working, and she and the children are very cold, and the owner doesn’t seem willing to do anything about it, except to threaten to raise the rent to more than she can afford in order to pay for a replacement. Father O’Malley promises to see what he can do to help, drives Mrs Brancowicz and her children back to the apartment, inspects the boiler and fails that maintenance of the property is abysmal.
    • Investigating the owner discloses a criminal past and a connection to a sports team owner, and model behavior – for a slumlord.
    • O’Malley can confront the owner, get Steffan (another PC and an engineer) to take a look at the boiler, report the owner to the authorities, or try to get the sports team owner on-side. He chooses option number 2, and is interrupted by the arrival of City building inspectors. Steffan reports that his repairs are only temporary and that the condition of the boiler is dangerous.
    • O’Malley needs to find the money for a replacement boiler. His choices have now narrowed to the owner or the owner’s ex-partner in the illegal liquor operation that enabled the slumlord to buy a string of apartments and the ex-partner to buy his baseball team. He chooses the latter and manages to convince him that his own reputation looks at risk due to his past associations, and reminding him that the League has a moral turpitude clause in their owner’s contracts; if he isn’t careful, the League may revoke his franchise and resell the team to someone else. This persuades the ex-partner to buy the building and repair it.
    • O’Malley persuades the current owner to sell and use the funds raised to repair his other buildings without increasing rents or face criminal charges.
    • Concluding scene delivering the good news to the Brancowicz family.

The first breaks the three-scene limit by separating the initial briefing and the first played scene, finding the cave, but that’s a minor point; there is clearly a lot more detail and emotional involvement in the second subplot. Nevertheless, the first one is an important moment for the PC, as it was the first time in-game that he had been “seen” performing his “day job” as a salvage operator. Of course, I’ve omitted a lot of descriptive narrative, photographs and maps and the like from both.

The key point is that Neither subplot has any relation to the main plot at all, they are self-contained examples of the characters going about their daily lives and doing the things that they do when they aren’t out adventuring, but one is clearly more substantial than the other. (I’ll be talking more about subplot and main plot integration in the Adventurer’s Club campaign in another article within this blog carnival).

I should also admit, at this point, that the character development tool described in the first part of this article and utilized in this one is a new tool that has not yet been implemented in any of the campaigns that I GM. At some point, however, they will be – you can never have too many planning tools at your disposal! The example subplots were a combination of character backgrounds provided by the players and campaign background elements added organically in past subplots.

Phase 2: Construction of Subplots and key plot moments

Phase 1 defines what you have to construct and then integrate into your planned day’s play; once you know that, it’s time to actually create those plotlines, large and small.

Axiom Selection

The first decision in constructing a subplot that is part of the character’s ordinary life is what part of that life experience you are going to connect with. Sometimes, that will be quite obvious, if inspiration has visited you with a plot idea, at other times you need some additional inspiration.

The GM should quickly look through the list of axioms for the PC who is to feature in the subplot or to be affected by the major subplot. If any of them seem especially relevant, he should choose it; if not, he can roll a d20.

Relevance

Once he knows the axiom, i.e. the part of the character’s background that is going to be relevant, the next step is to decide how it is going to be relevant. This will, of course, be different for each of the different axiom types.

Defined Elements

At it’s most general, you can view a plotline of any size as a jigsaw puzzle, with the same general classes of pieces recurring. These are something that I think of as “plot elements.” Examples include

  • The identity of the Antagonist,
  • how & why the PC involvement comes about,
  • the nature of the conflict,
  • the antagonist’s intentions/desires/plans,
  • how/where the conflict will be resolved,
  • what the outcome should ideally be (and what else it could be), and,
  • what the consequences should be (if any) for the character.

There may be others, such as setbacks and how they are to be overcome, identifying the things the character needs to know in order to resolve the situation, sources of information and how the character will (a) learn of, and (b) interact with, those sources, what quid pro quo’s might be involved, alternative paths to the confrontation, and so on. These are the basic building blocks of the adventure.

This step involves taking what you already know and filling in any of these plot elements that have been predetermined. The specifics of the axiom chosen will be at least one of them.

For example, look over the list of standard elements above, and consider how many of them could involve a Rival over whom the PC triumphed when still young: the Rival could return as the Antagonist; he could appeal to the PC for help, bringing the PC into the plot; he could simply serve as the messenger of some unexpected consequence of the rivalry (the nature of the conflict); he could have stumbled on the antagonist’s plot and be making an independent effort to stop the antagonist before the PC does; his home could be the venue for the resolution of the conflict; or perhaps the outcome of the past rivalry is holding the PC back from the direction in which the player wants him to develop and it has to be resolved before he can move forward, and that is both the consequence and the cause of the PC becoming involved. Pick one that doesn’t seem too much of a cliché and go from there!

Undefined Elements

Once everything that has already been decided is “locked in”, fill in the blanks.

Note that while the result is an outline of the plot, it isn’t complete enough yet to actually be played. These bare facts are just the skeletal outline.

Theme/Counterpoint/Side-issue

The next thing that I consider is the theme, if any, of the campaign and/or the main adventure. In particular, there are a trio of questions to be answered, and these it’s fine to spend a few seconds or even minutes thinking about if you sense that there is something there to be prised out of your subconscious:

  1. Can the subplot highlight or reflect some alternative aspect of the theme that isn’t present in the main adventure?
  2. Can the subplot offer a counterpoint to the theme or premise of the main adventure?
  3. Can the subplot look at a side-issue raised or implied by the main adventure that is not resolved within the scope of that adventure?

These questions are deep stuff. In essence, they use the subplot as a way to add depth of meaning to the main plotline. If you aren’t into deeply philosophical thinking and artistry within your campaign’s plots, this step can be foregone, but the most memorable adventures always seem to get the players thinking. In section 4.6 of the first article I offered in this blog carnival, “The Everyday Life of a GM“, I offered a substantial breakdown of the current adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign that provides an example of the kind of depths that I’m talking about.

One of the themes of the campaign is “Heroes are those who act heroically”, or variations on that notion. The converse is, “Villains are those who commit villainous deeds”, and a variation on that converse is “Monsters are those who commit Monstrous deeds” – and the current adventure looks at that statement and its implications, implying but not answering the question, “Who is the real monster – the creation or the creator?”, a question that’s been inspirational since the first publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, if not longer.

I’m not interested in being pretentious; I am interested in adding depth and richness to my plotlines and forcing my players to think about what their characters believe, think, and feel.

Story

The next step is to check the character background for more information on the chosen axiom, as it applies to the featured PC. This is made possible by consulting another part of the evolution plan, the one that indexes the axioms in chronological sequence of affecting the PC; this tells you where to look in the background for the pertinent details.

With that information, you should be able to sum up the planned plotline in four short paragraphs, one for each PC, outlining the adventure in its full specifics of who, what, when, where, how, and why. It’s almost ready to convert into a full ready-to-play adventure, but first there are two important considerations.

Intensity/Tone

I’ve made a big thing about the benefits of the GM consciously manipulating the emotional intensity of both an individual adventure and the entirety of the campaign in a series of articles on the subject (there are too many to list here, I’m running short of time). Before you can execute the creation of the ready-to-play adventure, you need to decide on the tone of the plotline and how it’s intensity is going to rise and fall.

Take the two example plotlines listed earlier from the Adventurer’s Club campaign: the first had relatively little intensity until the sudden threat of the mine appeared. The overall tone was more wistful, everything important had happened long ago. In contrast, the Father O’Malley plotline was full of peaks and troughs, of triumphs and setbacks. The O’Malley character has no particular axe to grind against slumlords, but by the end of the subplot, he could easily justify such. I could translate the basic plot outline to the Zenith-3 campaign with only a few detail changes and it would engage a completely different character belonging to a completely different player – who also doesn’t have a listed hate-on towards slumlords but who would be no less aroused and inflamed by the situation.

There is a big difference in the settings – 1930s Hell’s Kitchen in New York City Vs 2050s New Orleans – and that would have an influence, but the basic plotline would be unchanged. And the uncaring landlord is such a universal trope that the same plotline could easily be modified to operate in a Fantasy setting – if you had a character would react to it. The problem might be a leaky roof instead of a failed boiler, but the basics would be the same. And, once again, the tone would be slightly different because of the differences in the settings.

Timing

The other consideration is the timing, and how you are going to subdivide the plotline to move the spotlight around the table. It’s never a good idea to focus gameplay on one character for too long; you need to have a single scene and then move on to someone else. Sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes it can be quite tricky, requiring scenes to do double or even triple duty in terms of advancing the plot. A good example of that was in the Father O’Malley plotline when the health inspectors turned up and acquainted Father O’Malley with the extent of the social problem, the current legal framework, and the reputation of this particular landlord, giving him what he needed to advance the plot to the next scene.

Execution

Finally, the longest step of all: actually writing the plotline up in scenes and narrative and dialogue and die rolls required and anything else that you might need to have prepared in advance to immerse the character in the plotline. If you’re comfortable improvising off the cuff, you can skip this step, or most of it; but most of us will want to make notes on the locations, create the NPCs, and so on, at the very least.

Last Minute improvisation

It happens to all of us at times: the players zig instead of zagging and we need to come up with plot on the fly. Hopefully, you can lead them back to the main adventure, but whether you can or not is not as immediately important as having something with which to engage the players right now.

A quick d20 roll to select an axiom and an off-the-cuff allocation of plot elements takes only seconds, and gives you at least the raw materials to improv an entertaining encounter or plotline. “You see an urchin in the marketplace swiping an under-ripe and overpriced Malgin-Fruit. He looks so much like your long-dead brother, who died when you were but a youth, that the memory of those events comes flooding back afresh for a moment. The merchant spots the urchin and gives chase; he will run right past you. What are you doing?”

Comments (1)

Blog Carnival November 2016: The Ordinary Life of a Fantasy PC


rpg blog carnival logo

This is an article in two parts – the first dealing with character backstories during character generation, and the second dealing with them during play.

It is also the second of five articles scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting. The carnival subject is “ordinary life” – in this case, the ordinary life of a PC who is about to join the campaign, i,e, his backstory, and – in the second part of the article (to be published next week) how to create plots and subplots using the resulting profile as a foundation.

I should add that while it is intended for fantasy games such as Pathfinder and D&D, it can be used with any genre.

A starting point

Before you can use a character’s backstory to help bring the campaign world to life for them and give them a personal stake in the adventures and mayhem that they experience (more on that in part 2), they need to have that backstory. And if the player generating the character knew as much about the campaign world as you do, that wouldn’t be a problem, assuming the player has half-decent writing skills and imagination.

That is, however, an ‘if’ the size of Mount Everest. First, the assumption might be invalid. Second, it’s completely impossible for the player to know the campaign world as well as the GM who created and interprets it does. Third, even skilled writing and a capable imagination properly harnessed might not create the plot opportunities and connections that the GM wants/needs. Fourth, turning the whole thing over to the player neglects an opportunity to expand the campaign world to encompass what both the player and GM want; and Fifth, a character backstory is also an opportunity to bring part of the Campaign Background to life for the player, obviating some of the GM’s need for long-winded narrative.

Image Credit freeimages.com / Loretta Humble

Image Credit freeimages.com / Loretta Humble

Nor can the GM do the job alone. First, he’s already got his hands full getting the campaign ready to play. Second, he might be no better at writing than the player (hopefully he is at least as imaginative, though). Third, even if the GM is an excellent writer with a gift for expressing his imagination through prose, the backstory that he creates – assuming (falsely) that he has the time – is certain to be different to the one that the player wants to run.

By far a better solution is for the player and GM to collaborate on crafting a backstory that ticks everyone’s boxes, taking advantage of the potential synergies between the two to produce something better than either could do on their own, with the GM providing expertise and leadership while the player does most of the actual crafting of the character.

I’ve seen a number of articles in the past that show how to develop a backstory. Most of them are inadequate. The remaining few are generally so detailed that they leave no room for growth, and can produce characters so detailed that they become stifling. Neither outcome is satisfactory. What’s more, most of them are terribly uneven; depending on the player, some will be extensive and others minimalist providing disproportionate access to the game world’s opportunities.

What’s more, there’s a limit to how much a player can hold in his head before the details start to merge and run together.

No, what’s needed is a system for development of character backgrounds that puts all the PCs on an equal footing, with equal opportunities, that integrates the characters with the campaign world and makes the campaign background relevant to the player and provides an opportunity for the player to tell the GM where he wants the character to go, and that provides the GM with the raw materials that he needs to craft plots that both he and the player are interested in exploring.

And that’s not an easy prescription to fill.

Step 1: Character Axioms: Player

There are ten categories of what I call Character Axioms – these are the foundation memories and events that have formed the personality of the character, the events that have taught him how to behave – or how not to behave. The player has 20 ‘axiom incidents’ to distribute amongst these 10 categories; no category can have more than 4 incidents assigned to it. The categories are:

  1. Past Successes – occasions when the character succeeded in something that was quite difficult for him or her at the time or that was otherwise memorable.
  2. Past Failures – occasions when the character failed. This might have been because the task was difficult, under the circumstances, or it might have been something that the character was expected to succeed in. Each should be accompanied by a note on the seriousness of the repercussions – use the terms mild, serious, grave, devastating.
  3. Past Mistakes – a mistake is not the same thing as a failure. These are occasions when the character misjudged someone or something or made a fool of themselves.
  4. Past Life Lessons – These can be positive (the character witnesses someone solve a difficult life problem) or negative (the character witnesses someone fail to solve a difficult life problem), it’s the player’s choice which.
  5. Past Moments Of Danger – These are moments when the character (rightly or wrongly) felt in danger.
  6. Past Travels – These are times when the character went somewhere interesting or memorable. Depending on the player and the basic profile of the character, this could be to somewhere quite close or somewhere quite exotic. It might be anything from weekly trips to Temple, or a trip to attend the funeral of rich aunt Mavis, or a Holiday to the elven kingdom, or the first time the character rode a horse. The player should give some indication of the type of trip, at the very least, but should not specify beyond the sort of brief phrases used as examples.
  7. Family Incidents – These are times when something drastic happened to the family. Father was accused of a crime, (may have been guilty or innocent), or there was a family argument, or brother went missing, or grandmother disowned the family (or came around after such disowning to spend time with the grandkids). Again, the player should give a general indication of the sort of incident they have in mind but not a resolution or any specifics.
  8. Past Ambitions – When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. next, I thought seriously about being a journalist or a comic-book artist. Then I wanted to design computer systems and software. Each of these was shaped by an aptitude, and each shaped my (self-) educational path at the time. What did the character want to do when he was younger?
  9. Fascinations – This is something that fascinates the character, and has done so for a while. It could be a practical skill, or a piece of history, or a person, or a knowledge subject, or a sporting contest. The player should specify what the subject of the fascination is, and whether it is past or current, or even something that he wants the character to become fascinated by in the course of play.
  10. Proximity to key events – The number of times a character was on hand to witness some important event or decision and that made a lasting impression on him or her. Obviously, the player at this point has no idea of what those events might have been. The character may or may not have been directly involved, but the player can’t decide that until he knows what the events were. In effect, then, these are blank spaces for the GM to fill in for the character.

Step 2: Character Evolution: Player

There are six other key pieces of information that the player should provide as they will form the context which will shape decisions as to the specifics of the axioms.

  1. Background Context – The player chooses some suitably evocative single term to sum up the character’s life prior to entering play. This might be “struggle” or “bucolic” or “urban grind” or “privileged” or “street urchin” or “ambition vessel” or anything else the player thinks appropriate.
  2. Core Concept – The player gives a one-sentence summary of the character’s personality as it will be at the start of play.
  3. Supplementary Words – For every game mechanics “label” that can be applied to the character – race, class, past profession (if any), and an adjective frequently applied to characters who are strong in the character’s highest stat – the player should provide a brief note on what makes this character different from all the other examples. A quick example:
    • Fighter – dislikes thinking with his fists.
    • Dwarf – mildly claustrophobic.
    • Blacksmith – especially skilled at floral etching & filigree.
    • Resolute (CON) – very sickly as a child or, perhaps, paranoid about getting sick.
  4. Axiom Sequence – With a basic concept for the character, the player should next number the axioms he has chosen in the chronological sequence he thinks is appropriate to produce the personality. This is to serve as a guideline to the GM in steps 3 and four.
  5. Character Direction – “All life is a journey from what we are to what we will be”. This is a brief summary of the direction in which the player wants the character to evolve in the course of play. Valid choices include “redemption”, “slay personal demons”, “struggle with temptation”, “discover a love for his people”, “saviour/hero to his people”, “find somewhere he’s happy to call home”, or “extract the maximum fun out of life before it’s too late”. This tells the GM what sort of subplots (and to some extent, main plots) the player wants to experience with this character, what sort of opportunities he wants, etc.
  6. Character Destination – How does the character want the character’s story to end? If different, how does the player want the character’s story to end? “Happy ever after”, “Guardian over the things he cares about”, “heroic sacrifice”, “blaze of glory”, “patriarch/matriarch of a large family”, “filthy rich”, “well-connected”, “politically powerful” or something else? There’s no certainty that it will work out that way, or that the character/player won’t change their minds later, but, once again, it tells the GM what sort of opportunities to put in front of the character.

Once the player has completed this step, he hands the character development notes over to the GM for steps 3 and 4.

Step 3: Character Axioms: GM

The GM’s first thought is probably to spread the axiom events fairly evenly over the character’s life. That’s predictable, boring, and unrealistic; life isn’t like that. Instead, there are usually long periods of status quo punctuated by a cluster of events.

The place to start is always the home environment of the character and the critical events that have unfolded there during the character’s lifetime. Next, the GM should try to match these up with, first, Axiom 10 entries, and then with any others that seem to fit. It may or may not have been noticed but there are a lot of relative terms used in the axiom descriptions – a “key event” may mean one thing on a border town and something quite different on an isolated country farm. The emphasis is always on first, what parts of the campaign background could or will affect the character, and second, on events that seem to play into the character evolution chosen by the player, especially items 11, 12, and 13. It may be necessary to alter the preferred sequence to get them to fit such a timeline without too big a “nothing happening” period. Similarly, “Moments Of Danger” could be a hunting incident, or a freak weather condition, or an invading army, or any number of other incidents.

Once that is done, it’s time to list specifics in each item. These should be given as events with no indication of how the character was involved or how he/she was affected by the events. If nothing “earth-shaking” or socially/politically significant was taking place at the time, the GM should create a suitably localized event that highlights some aspect of the culture that he has created – this will be a lot easier if he has created that culture using the Distilled Cultural Essence process that I described in four parts back in 2009.

The goal is to marry key incidents from the character’s life with key or illustrative events from the campaign background and game culture to make them directly relevant to the character (and hence, to the player).

At the start of each item, the GM should either put a bullet (·) or a dash (-). The bullet means that the event is happening at or near that point in the local history experienced by the character, and if it doesn’t tie in with the chosen Axiom, it will have to tie in with another one; the dash means that it’s a suggestion that can be changed in step 5.

Step 4: Character Evolution: GM

Next, the GM should rough out some quick plans for how the character’s current personality (as summarized), future evolution, and ultimate end, will fit into his campaign design. Both campaign and character should be considered fairly fixed at this point, but some thought needs to be given to how the character will fit into the campaign plan, how he will react to the planned events, and how the campaign plan will fit into the desired character evolution. It might be that none of what the GM has planned will be suitable for permitting growth in the desired direction, in which case he will need to add a subplot to achieve that goal.

The results should be a paragraph studded with glittering generalities and vague intentions; don’t spoil any surprises, don’t reveal any plot twists, but give some indication of the general trend of things. “The character will encounter undead fairly early in the campaign and there will be a lot of social upheaval as a result. Parts of the campaign world will come under threat from something that will force them onto a war footing, and eventually the PCs will go behind enemy lines to discover the cause of the threat and stop it. The overall tone will be of civilization coming under threat and having to choose between their ideals and their survival.” Or, perhaps, “The PCs will be trying to make a life for themselves in an environment rife with hidden enemies and political forces beyond their control”. Or, to use the central concept of my Seeds Of Empire campaign, “The Kingdom has outgrown its political structure; it is now encountering the problems of an Empire, finding its ad-hoc solutions inadequate, and will need to evolve socially and politically to deal with those problems while avoiding or addressing the mistakes of the past.” This brief summary should be followed by an indication of how these events/themes will fit into the planned character evolution.

Once the GM has made his notes, he returns character development to the player and schedules a meeting to go through them. Actually, the process is pretty quick, so it might be just a matter of each waiting until the other has done his thing.

If the player gives the GM an indication of race and class, the GM can be preparing his events list for use in step 3 while the player is doing steps 1 and 2; the player can then do his game-mechanics character creation while the GM is doing steps 3 and 4. The process to this point should have taken 30 minutes absolute maximum – if it’s taken longer than that, someone is over-thinking things or getting too specific. 10-15 minutes is probably a more realistic number.

Step 5: Draft Background Negotiation

At that meeting, the player ticks off any items he likes/agrees with, and discusses with the GM alternatives to any that don’t seem to fit what he has in mind, and discusses his thoughts on how the character would react to each of the axiom events, while the GM offers possible consequences of those reactions. Between the two of them, it shouldn’t take long for the player to get a sense of the campaign world and its recent history as it would affect his character. The order of the axiom events, or even their nature, can get revised at this point. The player should take notes of the discussion. Once he’s ready, he can start making more substantial draft notes while the GM moves on to working with another player on his character.

Step 6: Player Draft Background

The player then writes the character’s backstory in note form based on the axiom events – what happened, how the character reacted, and what happened as a result, and – at the end – how this unique personal history created the character he is today, and a more substantial outline of what that personality is.

Step 7: Negotiate revisions if necessary

When the player is finished, he gives the notes to the GM to read through. The GM should make any additional notes or clarifications and discuss anything that has been misunderstood, supplying additional details of the campaign world and the PC’s society and culture as necessary. Again, the player should make notes, and may even copy some of the GM’s notes on the campaign world – descriptions of relevant key locations, NPC personalities, and so on. If the GM needs to, he should use the quick-NPC creation methods provided by Campaign Mastery in past articles – I listed them in section 4.2 of my previous entry in this month’s blog carnival, “The Everyday Life of a GM”, but I’ll repeat them for your convenience:

Note that the last one requires the game-mechanics character sheets of the PCs!

Step 8: Final background

With the final wrinkles ironed out, and additional material provided as necessary, the player can then write up the character’s history in prose, either from a first person perspective (“I was born….”) or third person perspective (“[Name] was born….”) as he prefers. Obviously, he will want to retain this for himself, but the GM should be given a copy for his reference during encounter, adventure, and campaign planning. He should also get a copy of the character sheet for the same purpose. In the next part of the article, I’ll show readers how to make use of it “in play”.

Why this process works

Everything about this process is geared at filling the character’s backstory with the critical steps that resulted in the personality that the player wants to operate in play. Most other systems that I’ve seen are questionnaires or list generators that produce a lot of detail, (“who is your best friend?”) but not a lot of context. This, on the other hand, tells you nothing that isn’t directly relevant – leaving a lot of areas empty for in-play exploration.

You may be tempted to haul out one of those other profile generators to fill in those blanks. While that can be useful, it can also hamstring the GM in his efforts to produce the campaign that the player wants. For example, let’s say that the player creates, using one of these questionnaires, a childhood rival – one who has had no formative impact on the PC.

Why do I say “no formative impact?” Because the axioms list the formative impacts on the PC, and the rival wasn’t one of them. Right away, this undermines his credibility as a rival, and of the character as a whole; it makes no sense. That isn’t to say that the character didn’t have rivals from time to time, just that none of them was significant enough to have the relationship description capitalized. It’s the difference between a rival and a Rival.

But, setting aside the inconsistency that results, if at some point the GM needs a hook to get the character interested in a plotline, and no rival has been specified, he could create one to order. If one has already been specified by the player, the GM has to integrate it into his plot or find some other mechanism to achieve the goal if the rival that the player has created doesn’t fit.

The Media Lesson

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a character bible from a TV show. Often considered part of a larger document, the “show bible” or “writer’s guide”, this succinctly spells out what has been established about the character in the course of production, ensuring consistency. See this Wikipedia entry.

The first one that I saw was (partially) reproduced in The Making Of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield (aka Stephen E. Poe) ($21 used, from Amazon, ridiculous prices new).

Until something made it into the bible, it wasn’t canon. If it wasn’t in the bible that Spock was an only child, any writer that came along could create a brother for Spock if that suited the story he was pitching. Once it was stated firmly that he was an only child, any choice to the contrary had to come as a Revelation to all concerned, a secret that the character was previously unaware of (which is one of my many beefs with “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”).

The absence of something creates freedom and opportunity, provided that it isn’t necessary to explain what has already been established.

It follows that at the start of a TV series, only the bare essentials are known about a character, and documented in their Bible. As production proceeds, more details get added as they are established. Almost every show either uses one or uses production members as “Walking Bibles” – which can pose a problem when crew members leave or get promoted, or simply suffer a failure of memory.

This concept has obvious utility within the television industry. Comics companies have something similar for keeping their characters straight. I am quite certain that big movie series would generally have a similar plotting tool, especially something like the Marvel Movie Universe.

RPGs can take a lesson from this concept, adapting it to our semi-unique purposes – semi-unique because it’s not too different to an actor/producer using the Show Bible to tell them how a character behaves (same as a player would) while scriptwriters (read: the GM) use it to develop plotlines that involve the character and his backstory.

The Screenwriting Bible was central to the concept elucidated by this article. “Only what’s necessary and what’s been established in-game” should be the mantra.

An acceptable compromise

On the other hand, additional details can serve as a springboard for inspiration. So there is a compromise that is possible: nothing not in the “Bible” is canon, but anything else the player chooses to produce can be considered an unofficial suggestion to the GM, a tool for them to use or ignore or even contradict – whatever is necessary to make the integration between character and game batter.

But that is a subject for part two of this article!

Comments (3)

Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 6th Shelf


The Sixth Shelf: Hardware I: Weapons, Things, and Science – Introduction by Mike

Pulp technology and science is a very strange animal. It can encompass everything from steampunk to space opera, Monoplanes to UFOs, and yet it remains grounded in the very real technology available in the 1920s and 1930s.
author-1600a_sm

The difficulty is always not undermining that foundation, which is what happens when weird science is industrialized. You altar balances of power, which in turn impacts economics and politics and political relations, which can massively alter the course of history. At the same time, you should use science and technology to intrigue and surprise your PCs; it’s an essential part of the color of the genre.

One trick that we have found particularly useful is to use the 1940s and 1950s as both templates and misdirection. If something is discovered or becomes possible in the immediate post-pulp era, it’s not unreasonable that weird science will make those things possible to a select few in the pulp era; the only trick is ensuring that such technology does not find its way into the production lines prematurely, upsetting the historical apple-cart to too extreme a measure. As for misdirection, calling a weird science invention by a name that means or implies something in the post-pulp world, but giving it an equally rational but entirely different significance in your campaign world is a sure way to get the PCs interested in the situation when they hear the name.

The Adventurer’s Club campaign has seen heat rays, a moon base (and the rockets to reach and sustain it), super-hypnotism, a mechanical strength-enhancing suit, a super-acid that turns into an explosive when it dries, and – in the adventure now underway – a prototype teleporter that has turned a gangland boss into a human/fly hybrid. On top of that there have been two medical miracles – one for an extremely rare psychological condition and another for an equally rare form of leukemia, and all manner of strange vehicles (which I’ll discuss when we get to the next shelf).

Relevance to other genres

Most fantasy games are just like Pulp, only the foundation technological level is different. On top of that, magic can do things that technology can’t.

It might seem that since a scientific understanding of phenomena such as lightning lay centuries into the future, that the GM is free to invent whatever he likes. And yet, when that approach is adopted in fantasy novels and games, the uncertainty about what is possible and what is not undermines the credibility of adventures and fuels player paranoia toward the GM. By far, the more successful approach is for the GM to apply a “game physics” that places constraints and consistency on the game world; even if the players and PCs don’t know or understand this “game physics”, its presence will still be felt.

When you get down to it, that’s a large part of the difference between a child’s fairy tale and a fantasy novel for grown-ups.

Almost anything could be possible, but not everything that could be possible will be permitted.

And, when you think about it, you find that this is a universal truth, applicable to every genre of RPG, from Science Fiction to Westerns.

By far the simplest starting point is knowing the way the real world works, at least in general principle, and being familiar with some of the stranger ideas that people held in various eras – so that you can file off the serial numbers and use them as inspiration.

bullet-holes-6-600

books on cart, architecture prominent title

image credit: pixabay.com / drquanli


Spacer

Shelf Introduction

Science & Technology takes in a very wide breadth of scope, especially when some of the more – well, let’s be polite – “fringe” theories and “technologies” that may not work in the real world but might be entirely acceptable in a pulp universe, are taken into account.

In fact, there’s an entire spectrum of scientific credibilities that this section embraces. The really out-there stuff (and some not-so-out-there that didn’t quite fit with the contents here) have been grouped with superstitions and religions and the like. But even excluding those there’s a wide range contained on this shelf.

There’s the material that is generally accepted as being scientifically accurate, at least at the time of publication – “accuracy” is always a moving target in the world of science – or at least is close enough to be generally so from a layman’s perspective. It explains the real way the world works enough for a layman to use, let’s say.

Then there’s the material that contains at least some grain of truth, or that was an honest but misguided attempt at genuine science. You would also have gotten a taste of that on the previous shelf with the section on Easter Island. This includes medical practices originating outside the sphere of western medicine, which certainly contains some validity that has slowly been recognizes by unprejudiced scientific testing, but which also contains material that at best can be described as ‘unproven’. Millions of people can swear by practices such as acupuncture, for example. The current general description for these therapeutic techniques is “alternative medicine” – but there are parts of the world, especially in the pulp era, where they are accepted and it’s western medical practices that are considered “alternative” or “fringe” and “unproven at best”.

And then there is the material that most people consider to be from cloud-cuckoo-land; you also got a taste of that on the previous shelf with the sections on The Hollow Earth theories, Atlantis/Lemuria, and the Bermuda Triangle. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Pulp GM considering these to be at least partially valid, if it makes for a great adventure.

Beyond the theory that explains the world, there is the practical realities of the technology that existed during the pulp era. That period, as we have defined it for the purposes of this series, is almost a century old, and so much technology that was invented afterwards was established routine and taken for granted before those reading this were even born, that it can be difficult to realize what wasn’t around at the time and what the absence did to everyday life. The story of technology is not just a tale of ingenuity and engineering, it’s a story about society and culture, a blend that makes it fascinating and something the modern-day GM needs to know about if they are to represent the world around the PCs. Even if that world has been transformed somewhat by the exigencies of fictional discoveries necessary to generate a pulp “atmosphere”, the real world remains the starting point, with changes to be made carefully and after considerable scrutiny.

And, to close out the section, we have one of the most ubiquitous forms of technology with which the PCs will be concerned – weapons, and in particular, firearms.

Era Technology – This section is concerned with the technology that existed in the real world during the pulp era and is essential to the look-and-feel of the campaign as well as dictating what characters are capable of without weird science assistance. This is an era in which shoe stores have X-ray machines to ensure a good fit, powered at levels that are the equivalent of hundreds or thousands of modern x-rays, per usage.

Currency & Valuables – This might well have been included in the “Everyday Life In The Pulp Era” section, but that was bursting at the seams – so much so that we had no hesitation in offloading it onto this shelf. For the most part, we aren’t concerned with economics or even the predominant economic theories of the time; those probably won’t be exactly the same in a pulp environment, anyway (though we generally view the “New Deal” as symbolic of what would have been the prevalent economic theories in such a world). No, we have listed books about the forms that valuables can take – specifically, the sort of valuables that the PCs might end up chasing after.

Weird Science – This section contains the most unlikely “science”, so far out on the fringe that most people don’t consider it science at all. It also includes all the fabulous technology of the Pulp Hero and Villain – everything from jetpacks to x-ray glasses.

Fringe Science – Existing in between accepted science and weird science is the scientific fringe, where individual subjects may hold a single grain of truth or mighty veins of it. But it’s all good for pulp adventures!

Accepted Science – We’ve already discussed why this is important, no matter what your genre. The pulp era is a particularly important one from a scientific perspective; in the pre-Victorian era, the quest was to explain natural phenomena that had been known and recognized for millennia. In the Victorian era, new phenomena were discovered that needed explanation, and the old phenomena were harnessed on an industrial scale. In the Edwardian era, explanations for those new phenomena were devised and used to harness the new forces – electricity and telephones and radio and the like, while new phenomena like radioactivity demand explanation. During the pulp era, the technologies resulting from those second-generation forces slowly become widespread (but still remarkable) while explanations begin to emerge for the new discoveries – explanations that will manifest in functional technologies in the post-pulp world.

Weapons – Not much more needs to be said about the final section! Weapons are a central part of any pulp campaign, and while you can probably get by just knowing the names, being able to attach some understanding of the limitations, strengths, and weaknesses of different specific weaponry adds color and credibility, leaving the GM with a little more wriggle room to be fantastic elsewhere.

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 are subject to change.

Spacerflourish-divider3

Books About Era technology

bar-gray

Spacer brevertons-encyclopedia-of-inventions

580. Breverton’s Encyclopedia of Inventions – Terry Breverton

A listing of what was invented when, including techniques, scientific discoveries and theories, with many interesting sidebars. Amazon has many more copies than those to which we have linked but the rest are slightly pricey at $26-plus – search for the title.
http://amzn.to/1JW0xNB
bar-blue

the-fantastic-inventions-of-nikola-tesla

581. The Fantastic Inventions of Nikola Tesla – Nikola Tesla with additional material by David Hatcher Childress

Most of these “inventions” never made it into reality and some of them didn’t seem to work as advertised, but the scope and impact of Tesla’s genius is still being felt today. He has been described as “the man who invented the 20 th century” and some argue that he invented the 21 st as well, so fundamental are his discoveries and inventions to the technology all around us.
http://amzn.to/1PCu5ME
bar-blue

the-inventions-that-changed-the-world

582. The Inventions That Changed The World (Eventful 20th Century series) – Reader’s Digest

In addition to an alphabetic listing of thousands of inventions, when they happened, and so on, there are two appendices of note: the first lists the great inventors and gives capsule biographies; the second is a chronological listing of the devices and inventions featured in the book, so that for any given year of a game setting, you can see what hasn’t been invented yet, what’s new, and what’s been around for long enough to become commonplace. Covers from 4,000,000 BC to 1981.

This book has been issued with a number of different covers and (presumably) different editions – the one we have is all silver metallic, but the one with linked to first has the cheapest copies. Note that condition may improve at higher prices! Links, in order of increasing price:

http://amzn.to/1T0kDs7
http://amzn.to/1PcOy0r
http://amzn.to/1ZxJRhd
http://amzn.to/1U8F30d
http://amzn.to/1KojraI

bar-blue

secret-weapons-and-world-war-ii

583. Secret Weapons and World War II: Japan in the shadow of Big Science – Walter E Grunden

“The atomic bomb. Rocket-propelled bombs. Jet propulsion. Radar. By failing to develop effective programs for such “secret weapons,” Japan increased the probability that it could not triumph [in World War II]”. Which is not strictly relevant to a pulp era, but is enlightening not only in terms of Japanese culture in the period, but of the Weird Science arms race that would necessarily occur – in a Pulp world. That context is what has placed it in this section.
http://amzn.to/2evzjDb
bar-blue

popular-furniture-of-the-1920s-and-1930s

584. Popular Furniture of the 1920s and 1930s – Schiffer Publishing Ltd

A reproduction of the Elgin A. Simonds Company’s furniture catalog highlighting the changes in style and function through the pulp era. 226 pages, and, as you would expect, lots of photographs. This book is actually designed to be a reference for furniture collectors, as these are now antiques and quite collectible, but ignore the suggested values quoted in the book, if for no other reason than that this was published in 1998 and values will have changed radically in the last 18 years.
http://amzn.to/2f8DMLF
bar-blue

furniture-of-the-depression-era

585. Furniture of the Depression Era: Furniture and Accessories of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s Robert W. Swedberg and Harriet Swedberg

At 143 pages, this is less comprehensive than the Schiffer Publishing volume listed above, but it goes beyond furniture to other common objects of the era. The book explains the history of the furniture and its development, with lots of anecdotes along the way, and has a lot of color photographs.
http://amzn.to/2ffODkq
bar-blue

wasnt-the-future-wonderful

586. Wasn’t the Future Wonderful: A View of Trends and Technology from the 1930s – Tim Onosko

Inventors create all sorts of things every year. Most of these go on to absolute obscurity, though they may attract short-term attention from magazines devoted to domestic innovation like Popular Mechanics. The heart of this book is the vision of the future that these obscure inventions promised in such magazines in the 1930s, especially “Modern Mechanix”.

Or, to put it another way, this can be considered a style guide for Weird Science and Exotic inventions in Pulp.

Most books of this type attach high prices, some as high as $50, but this accidental discovery is quite reasonably priced, even if it is only 188 pages – unless you insist on buying one of the 4 new copies, that is.

http://amzn.to/2eNy4LX

flourish-divider1

Documentaries About Era technology

bar-gray

britains-greatest-machines-1-2

587. Britain’s Greatest Machines (National Geographic, Season 1: 4 episodes, season 2; 4 episodes)

Each episode details advances within a specific decade of the 20th century. These aired in chronological sequence in Australia but are not presented in that sequence on these DVDs for reasons known only to National Geographic; the sequence is (Series 1) 1930s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, (series 2) 1910s, 1920s, 1940s, trains special.

Presumably there is a series 3 that is not yet available because Mike is sure he has seen episodes on the 1900s, 1970s, and 1990s – and is equally sure that he hasn’t seen the “trains” episode. Obviously, about half this series is not directly relevant to the pulp GM, but knowing that a technology didn’t arrive until the 1950s or 60s can be useful. Much to our surprise, we were only able to find this series for sale in the UK and Australia:

Series 1 Amazon UK (Region 2) – limited availability, international shipping options, £11
http://amzn.to/1OYtOmf

Series 2 Amazon UK – out of stock, 2 second-hand copies available only, £7.81
http://amzn.to/2f8IloS

Series 1+2 Amazon UK (Region 2) – very limited availability, international shipping options, £15
http://amzn.to/1QE3C5Y

Series 1 ABC Shop, Australia (Region 4) “Limited stock” but no indication of how many copies that might be, AU$25
http://ab.co/1YroRtv

bar-blue

inventions-that-shook-the-world

588. Inventions The Shook The World: 1900s,1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s (season 1, episodes 2, 3, 4, & 5)

Some episodes are more relevant than others, but half of this entire series gets a tick even without contemplating weird science bringing future discoveries forward.

Each episode looks at a number of significant technological advances in detail and a multitude more in snapshot, showing not only the origins of the idea but the struggle to realize it as a viable technology, and the impact that it had.

There are a number of copies available through Amazon USA at reasonably typical prices for a box set http://amzn.to/1SaLTiX and individual episodes can be streamed from Amazon http://amzn.to/1Yev4bm.

Amazon UK has only a small number of US Imports available (NTSC Format) http://amzn.to/1RXouV9.

Amazon Canada has a very small number of native box sets http://amzn.to/23fXhSC and only a few more US Imports http://amzn.to/1qtBw3K, both at ridiculous prices.

However, simply searching Google for “inventions that shook the world youtube” found three of the episodes that we are recommending, and we expect that the others would turn up in a more targetted search.

Links to the three we found:
1900s http://bit.ly/1qtBIQz,
1910s http://bit.ly/1N842g2,
1930s http://bit.ly/1UV63EI

bar-blue

the-genius-of-design

589. The Genius Of Design Pts 1 and 2

Industrial design has influenced the look-and-feel of society for as long as there has been civilization, even if for most of human history that design was based on the artisan producing one-offs, each of which served their intended purpose a little better or worse or looked a little prettier or uglier. But it was in the 20th century that industrial design became a focal point that both reflected and drove broader social trends.

This series was so revelationary to him that Mike turned out an extension to his series on “Putting The SF Into Sci-Fi” entitled, “The Design Ethos Of Tomorrow” inspired by it. You might also want to read this extensive review of the series if you need further persuasion.

So, to availability:
 
 
Amazon US has two copies and there are some other copies available http://amzn.to/1WCmg1F. One is cheap, most are a bit on the expensive side at around $24.

Amazon UK has one US-import copy and a few others through other retailers http://amzn.to/1Tks79M for about twice the price, which is really getting too expensive to warrant a recommendation (but all hope is not lost).

Amazon Canada also has one copy and a few more through other vendors http://amzn.to/1YyocGi, again at about twice the US price.

But, when those run out, there is another series of the same name and a different cover which we are 95% certain is actually a reissue of the same series, or maybe the domestic UK version, or something.

Amazon US have copies of this for about the same price as the one we are sure of, and some second-hand copies that are even cheaper at about US$14 http://amzn.to/1TktN2U; Amazon UK have copies for a lot less http://amzn.to/1NwyNB5; and Amazon Canada have a very small selection (at unreasonable prices, as usual) http://amzn.to/1sm5Pdp.

bar-blue

the-bomb

590. The Bomb

Although the Manhattan Project only officially came into existence in October of 1941, it’s developmental roots extend back into the Pulp Era when a number of European scientists fled the Nazi regime to Britain and the US.

This documentary is one of the few that tell this early part of the story, how the Bomb played into US internal politics and vice-versa, and that – plus the projects’ service in public eyes as the prototypical “Secret Government Project”, make this 1hr 54min documentary highly worthy of inclusion.

Available from Amazon US for about $15 http://amzn.to/1Xwn9bJ.

There are very limited copies from Amazon Canada for about CDN$19 up http://amzn.to/1R5I6Tg.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be available in the UK on DVD, you’ll have to either order a US import from one of the links above or settle for a 720pixel HD YouTube video http://bit.ly/27uC8Y6 unless you can access streaming video from Amazon US for $12.99 (purchase) or $4.99 (rent) http://amzn.to/1Oxk6J4.

flourish-divider2

Books About Currency & Valuables

bar-gray

the-worlds-most-mysterious-objects

591. The World’s Most Mysterious Objects – Lionel & Patricia Fanthorpe

Exotic and unusual objects and phenomena. Some are post-pulp but many have been found by the end of the Pulp Era, and make great MacGuffins.
http://amzn.to/1ngTBkg
bar-blue

gurps-whos-who-1

592. & 593. GURPS Who’s Who #1 & #2 – Phil Masters (Steve Jackson Games)

Not many of the people profiled are from the Pulp Era, most of the them predate it, but these are still excellent for the origins of Macguffins.
#1 http://amzn.to/1V3La6k

#2 http://amzn.to/1ngUk58

gurps-whos-who-2
bar-blue
dig-here

594. Dig Here – Thomas Penfield

Over 100 lost treasures of the American Southwest, most of which make perfect MacGuffins or plot triggers.
http://amzn.to/1JApJcC
bar-blue

fortune-glory-a-treasure-hunters-handbook

595. Fortune And Glory: A Treasure Hunter’s Handbook – David McIntee

Tips for treasure hunters, descriptions of famous lost treasures, and an excellent bibliography covering books, movies, and video games on the subject. This book could have been listed under several different categories!

Amazon US $6.25-$15 http://amzn.to/29Eu1CK

UK £3.70-£9 http://amzn.to/29uBYXY

Canada CDN$5.40-$18 http://amzn.to/29KkObI

bar-blue

new-mexico-treasure-tales

596. New Mexico Treasure Tales – W C Jameson

26 legends of lost mines and buried treasures.
http://amzn.to/2dBfcCI

bar-blue

book-117596_960_720

597. Metal Prices in the United States through 1998 – US Geological Survey (US Department Of The Interior)

We could not conclude this subsection without referring readers to this invaluable *free* PDF. The prices quoted are all in 1998 dollars, but there are a number of websites that will handle a conversion to 1920s or 193x currency for you. We simply divide by 10 to get a close-enough number.

Mike mentioned this PDF in an example in his article at Campaign Mastery, Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time but didn’t include a link, saving that for this article:
http://on.doi.gov/2fuKqu2

He also reports that there is an updated version that is available as a website and a spreadsheet and runs through to 2010: http://on.doi.gov/2eEoVYr

flourish-divider2

Books About Weird Science

Weird Science is the term used by Pulp Hero to describe not only exotic forms of ordinary technology such as Wristwatch Radios (shades of Dick Tracy!) but devices that could never exist in the real world (at least at that point in time, some have become practical realities in the decades since. Death Rays, Electric Stun-Guns, Disintegrator Beams, Bulletproof Clothing, Mole machines… the list goes on and on.

We have excluded superstitions and religions considered fringe by the mainstream, even though some of them intrude into this territory. More pertinently, we have also excluded the Hollow Earth, Atlantis, Lemuria, etc (they are on Shelf 5) and Cryptozoology, which will be found on the mysticism-religion-paranormal shelf to come.
bar-gray

wheres-my-jetpack-daniel-h-wilson

598. Where’s My Jetpack – Daniel H. Wilson, PhD

The technologies promised for the future that were never delivered (or practical) in real life – brilliant for coming up with Weird Science gadgets – also available as an Audio CD and a Multimedia CD (different covers).
http://amzn.to/1ZxK2Js
bar-blue

the-wonderful-future-that-never-was

599. The Wonderful Future That Never Was – Gregory Benford & the editors of Popular Mechanics

Extracts from early issues of the magazine looking at Future Technologies, from Flying Cars to Parachute Mail Delivery.

Unusually, the hardcover is often cheaper than the paperback.
http://amzn.to/1NhBi2S, http://amzn.to/1JeddPM, http://amzn.to/1ngSyAV
bar-gray

the-amazing-weapons-that-never-were

600. The Amazing Weapons That Never Were – Gregory Benford & the editors of Popular Mechanics

A companion to the preceding work by the same authors, just as useful, and even cheaper!
http://amzn.to/20aOpfL
bar-blue

death-rays-jet-packs-stunts-supercars

601. Death Rays, Jet Packs, Stunts & Supercars – Barry Parker

Devoted to the physics behind the James Bond movies, but most of these gadgets will fit seamlessly into a Pulp Campaign.
http://amzn.to/1QawsJu

flourish-divider2

Books About Fringe Science

Fringe Science is part “flaky” and part “legitimate” from the point of view of western science. These are positions that have changed quite a lot in the ensuring years; our guideline has always been the common Western-society perspective as it was in the pulp era. That means that this section will also contain books on everything from herbalism to Asian medicine.
bar-gray

hitlers-suppressed-weapons

602. Hitler’s Suppressed and Still-secret Weapons, Science & Technology – Henry Stevens

A compendium of inventions supposedly created by the Nazis during WWII, but great for equipping a pulp villain with.
http://amzn.to/1Pz807C
bar-blue

weird-science-and-bizzare-beliefs

603. Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs – Dr Gregory L Reece

Less general than the title suggests but excellent in what it does cover: Bigfoot/Sasquatch, Lost Worlds & the Hollow Earth, Ancient Astronauts, and rumored Tesla Technology.
http://amzn.to/1UG1MB2
bar-blue

suppressed-inventions-other-discoveries

604. Suppressed Inventions & other discoveries – Jonathon Eisen

Most of this is too modern but the section on Orgone Energy is useful and not often covered elsewhere these days.

The mass-market paperback edition is more widely available at a cheap price http://amzn.to/1PyuG1D
but if they run out, try the regular paperback http://amzn.to/1ZPn5S1. There is also a Kindle edition available.
bar-blue

the-ss-brotherhood-of-the-bell

605. The SS Brotherhood of the Bell: The Nazis’ Incredible Secret Technology – Joseph P Farrell

While the theory is very contemporary, it’s too perfect a fit not to include it on this list.
http://amzn.to/1TkVmJe
bar-blue

chariots-of-the-gods

606. Chariots Of The Gods – Erik Von Daniken

So plausible it became a best-seller, and hence essential reference for what might be in a pulp universe. The first in a very long series of increasingly speculative books on the subject, and note that many of the foundations have been discredited in the years since. There have been more than 40 editions with multiple cover designs, don’t be misled.
http://amzn.to/1WMr2qB
bar-blue

suppressed-transmission-the-first-broadcast

607. Suppressed Transmission: the first broadcast – Kenneth Hite (Steve Jackson Games)

Fringe science, Fringe history, and other things of interest, these volume could have found a home in several different categories on this list.

Available in limited quantities from Amazon http://amzn.to/1PyvinR but also as a PDF from Steve Jackson Games http://bit.ly/1SHMazg.

suppressed-transmission-2-the-second-broadcast

608. Suppressed Transmission 2: the second broadcast – Kenneth Hite (Steve Jackson Games)

More of the same. Same quantity problem and prices just out of our normal recommendation range from Amazon http://amzn.to/1OLU5Yo but also available through Steve Jackson Games for a more reasonable fee http://bit.ly/1SgtHZ6.
bar-blue

arktos

609. Arktos: The Polar Myth – Joscelyn Godwin

An overview on the theme of polar shifts, polar civilizations & super-races. We have linked to two different offerings on Amazon, one is cheaper but has fewer copies available; check both and make the best choice available to you at the time.

Link 1: http://amzn.to/1K7RclM

Link 2: http://amzn.to/1UnPjlA

bar-blue

hitlers-flying-saucers

610. Hitler’s Flying Saucers – Henry Stevens

A discussion of supposed German “flying disc” projects during World War II.

There are two editions of this book, and we aren’t certain of what the differences are, only that the first edition is 100 pages long and the ‘new edition’ 240 pages long, and that the covers are quite different. The problem is that there aren’t all that many copies of either edition – certainly not enough that we can pick and choose.

1st edition http://amzn.to/2cNwMDd

2nd edition (pictured) http://amzn.to/2c7Uwnb
.
bar-blue

man-made-upos

611. Man-made UFOs: WWII’s Secret Legacy – Renato Vesco and David Hatcher Childress

Traces Nazi flying disc and other technologies, and links them to modern UFO sightings.
http://amzn.to/2cBMpKY
bar-blue

roswell-and-the-reich

612. Roswell and the Reich – Joseph P Farrell

Talks about the Roswell UFO case of 1947 and its possible connection to Nazi technology. This is pretty close to the outer fringes of Pulp relevance.
http://amzn.to/2crsguO
bar-blue

lost-ancient-technology-of-peru-and-bolivia

613. Lost Ancient Technology of Peru and Bolivia – Brien Foerster

Focuses on an argument we first read in Chariots Of The Gods, i.e. that the ancients could not have shaped the stone blocks of places like Machu Picchu without advanced technology, and therefore the ancients had such technology. This book comes in for a lot of criticism even from supporters of the contention for being poorly written, hard to read, with abysmal photographs, and grammar that is not even at a 10th-grade level. But there are obvious pulp potentials. 236 pages, but many of them are reportedly almost empty and a large font has been used to pad the page count, so be warned. Kindle and Paperback.
http://amzn.to/2d4Jv3x
bar-blue

the-complete-idiots-guide-to-the-paranormal

614. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Paranormal – Nathan Robert Brown

We had no idea how this book treats the subject; we were sold by the title alone. If it is a debunking, there are Pulp Characters who do that in adventures; if it has a more “open-minded” approach, that can be a source of adventures, too. Either way, just about everything included is likely to be grist for the Pulp GM’s mill. While there is some overlap with other books on the subject, there is a secondary focus on Asian and especially Japanese paranormal “events” that has no real equivalence elsewhere.
http://amzn.to/2eNP1G5

flourish-divider1

Documentaries About Fringe Science

bar-gray

the-witch-doctor-will-see-you-now

615. The Witch Doctor Will See You Now (4 eps)

This is an absolutely brilliant series on the methods and effectiveness of traditional medical practices in different parts of the world: China, India, Cameroon (Africa), and South America from memory. The ‘hallucinogenic healing’ episode provided a central conceptual element for the Adventurer’s Club pulp campaign in the form of an underpinning theory of theology that influenced the campaign in ways well beyond the strictly theological, but the two most directly relevant episodes will be the ones on China and India. Unfortunately, the countries of discussion are not identified in the episode names.

Amazon US has one copy of the series as an Australian import http://amzn.to/1VtoqzL but that still puts them ahead of the UK and Canadian sites, who don’t seem to have heard of the series at all.

There are more Australian copies for sale through an Australian Distributor at this page http://bit.ly/1Zb8bGO, but we have no idea whether or not they will ship internationally, and even if they do, they won’t play on most non-Australian DVD players / TVs.

Fortunately, three of the four episodes are currently available through youTube:

“Snake Blood Remedy” (Chinese Medicine) http://bit.ly/1P1PlvV

“Cow Urine Cure” (Indian Medicine) http://bit.ly/1XN8LeU, and

“Goat Blood Bath” http://bit.ly/1TP3La6.
bar-blue

flourish-divider2

Books About Accepted Science

It’s important to note that these are books about the accepted science of the Pulp Era, though many deal with a broader palette.
bar-gray

brevertons-nautical-curiosities

616. Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities – Terry Breverton

A compendium of all sorts of information related to the sea and living/working at sea, full of interesting anecdotes – but it’s the “daily life” element that elevates this above other, similar works
http://amzn.to/1SBs602
bar-blue

deadly-doses

617. Deadly Doses – a writer’s guide to poisons – Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner

An excellent reference – the forms the poison takes, how quickly they act, the symptoms, treatments and antidotes, and more.
http://amzn.to/23GExwS
bar-blue

poisons-from-hemlock-to-botox-the-killer-bean-calabar

618. Poisons from Hemlock to Botox & the Killer Bean Calabar – Peter Macinnis

A reference of self-evident value. There is an older edition that is cheaper but may not be in the same condition here http://amzn.to/1QX6paY and a reprint with a slightly different cover here http://amzn.to/23GF3ee. Cover is of the newer edition.
bar-blue

the-poisoners-handbook

619. The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York – Deborah Blum

Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer. In this book, she relates the careers and discoveries of two of the pioneers of Forensic Medicine – Dr Charles Norris, Manhattan’s first trained chief medical examiner (and a figure who has appeared a couple of times in the Adventurer’s Club Campaign) and Alexander Gettler, it’s first toxicologist. “Moving chronologically from Norris’s appointment in 1918 through his death in 1936, Blum cleverly divides her narrative by poison, providing not only a puzzling case for each noxious substance but the ingenious methods devised by the medical examiner’s office to detect them” (Publisher’s Weekly).

You don’t get much more directly relevant than that.

http://amzn.to/2eEg7C5
bar-blue

asimovs-new-guide-to-science

620. Asimov’s New Guide To Science – Isaac Asimov

Now dating but still the most comprehensive and readable introduction to every science in existence, and the discoveries within it, that has ever come to our attention. The older edition dated to 1965 and was entitled “The New Intelligent Man’s Guide To Science” but was completely updated in the 1990s. That’s right, it’s 25 years out of date and still an automatic recommendation – as much because it is so readable, as for any other reason.

There are two editions available through Amazon – one is a very thick paperback, the other is a hardcover. Second-hand copies of the paperback http://amzn.to/1PdbF5u are relatively cheap but we recommend the slightly more expensive but still very affordable hardcover http://amzn.to/1nCCXLu as a first preference. We’re listing both so that readers can make up their own minds. The paperback admittedly has the prettier cover, so that’s what we’re presenting!
bar-blue

indiana-jones-off-the-beaten-path

621. Indiana Jones Off The Beaten Path – George Beahm

A dissection of the Indiana Jones movies and Young Indiana Jones TV Series. Goes into each film individually and attempts to separate fact from fiction, and also discusses film locations and describes a day in the life of a real archaeologist.

No copies available from Amazon US to the casual search but if you dig a little deeper you find some: http://amzn.to/29Ewsp2.
bar-blue

anthropology-for-dummies

622. Anthropology For Dummies – Cameron M Smith

The study of humans within societies past and present (as opposed to sociology, which is the study of those societies). Covers subjects such as the evolution of language and the value of societies. This book comes highly recommended by people who know a lot more on the subject than we do as a highly-accessible introduction to the subject (sometimes with a minor caveat over the use of Latin names in the section on biological anthropology, which is about how humans evolved, and is what most people think is the sum total of the whole subject). If you want cave-men, or lost viking villages, or modern-day Amazons, this book is a useful source. See also “Sociology For Dummies”.
http://amzn.to/2fwQvEJ
bar-blue

archaelogy-for-dummies

623. Archaeology For Dummies – Nancy Marie White

Archaeology is considered by Americans to be a branch of Anthropology, while the rest of the world considers the study of past cultures through their physical remains to be a completely separate subject. We don’t particularly care where people stand on that question – Indiana Jones was an archaeologist, and that’s good enough for us (we’re making the assumption that Anthropology For Dummies takes the European approach, or (at best) covers this subject in less detail than a dedicated book would). That’s why we’re recommending this book. Mike has one concern: the techniques of archeology have changed greatly over the last twenty or thirty years, and changed almost as much in the period between then and the pulp era, so this might be entirely too modern in approach and content to be useful. So we recommend buying a cheap copy, just in case, unless you’re interested in the book for its own sake.

http://amzn.to/2frjVoJ

flourish-divider1

Documentaries About Accepted Science

bar-gray

pain-pus-and-poison

624. Pain, Pus, and Poison (3 eps)

The history of pharmaceuticals and through them, the history of medicine prior to and shortly after the Pulp period. The first episode deals with pain and painkillers, the second deals with infection and antibiotics, and the third deals with poisons and how they can be used as curatives – from Curare to Botox. This DVD package comes with a 27 minute extra that we haven’t seen, “Wonders of the Microbe World”. The series was released under the name we have used, and under which it aired in Australia, but was subsequently re-released in the US under the name “The Story Of Medicine: Pain, Pus, and Poison”, and is far more widely available in this release, so that’s what we’ve linked to.

Amazon US – $26 http://amzn.to/1qWw6yn or you can stream the episodes via Acorn TV for about the same price http://amzn.to/1qCPyQn which we would only contemplate if the reasonably-priced copies are all sold.

Amazon UK – limited quantities of the US import at £22 http://amzn.to/1NzlgDb but there are still more copies available and at better prices than under the original title.

Amazon Canada – from CDN$31 which is “relatively” cheap. http://amzn.to/1U51GW5

flourish-divider1

For-Dummies Books About Accepted Science

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.
bar-gray

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.
bar-gray

architecture-for-dummies

625. Architecture For Dummies – Debrah K Dietsch and Robert A M Stern

If you want to be able to describe the differences between a Greek Alley and a Spanish side-street, all you need is a couple of good photos and a flair for narrative. If you want to understand why the differences occur and how they can manifest in differences in action sequences, you need to understand Architecture. – at least, that was Mike’s argument for promoting this book into the main list of recommendations. Blair and Saxon agreed that he had justified its presence on the list – but not in the main recommendations.
http://amzn.to/2eEJgNh
bar-blue

flourish-divider2

Books About Weapons

We fretted about this category. Was it too broad – should it be subdivided? Was it too narrow? Where would things like Tanks fit?

Ultimately, the fact that many of the books referenced cover the subject in broader terms argued against a subdivision. It was also decided that Tanks and other such weapons platforms would be considered types of vehicle.
bar-gray

armed-dangerous

626. Armed and Dangerous: a writer’s guide to weapons – Michael Newton

Short on specific weapons characteristics but excellent as a history of firearms. Only half the book is directly relevant to a pulp campaign, but some of the later chapters may offer ideas for weird science super-weapons. There are two editions, 1990 and 2011, but we don’t know if there are any differences in content between them. The link and cover are for the later edition; the 1990 edition had a yellow illustration and a thick blue border.
http://amzn.to/1Pi7fMO
bar-blue

the-new-illustrated-encyclopedia-of-firearms

627. The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Firearms – Ian V Hogg

Useful for finding the weapons you want to know more about through the index at the back. Our reference version is the 1984 edition http://amzn.to/1RDbA0n but there is a new one, “The New Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Firearms” (same author, different cover, shown), which was published in 1992 http://amzn.to/1RDcslL – obviously the content is updated, but does that mean that there is less room for the historical period that we’re interested in? Page count was not provided for the older edition by Amazon, but the book thickness is 0.1” thinner… We’re not sure, so we recommend going for the older edition in preference. YMMV.
bar-blue

small-arms-of-the-world

628. Small Arms Of The World – W H B Smith, 10 th edition revised by Joseph E Smith

A book that’s excellent reference once you know what you specifically want information about – but there aren’t not enough copies available, and the price is marginal (from $19.99) by our criteria http://amzn.to/1m644OY.

However, there is a newer edition available at even cheaper prices (but still limited quantities) that may serve: http://amzn.to/1QWGMWN. There is also an older edition if neither of those is available at reasonable prices, but again, we haven’t seen the differences in content: http://amzn.to/1mgf4sv
bar-blue

the-palladium-book-of-weapons-and-assassins

629. The Palladium Book of Weapons and Assassins – Erick Wujcik

The half-sized typewriter font may be hard to read, but the contents can be pure gold. The weapons are Asian and especially those which were supposedly used by Ninja. Far from comprehensive but very detailed within its limits. The Google search which provided the cover image also showed another edition with a painted Ninja. Note that the book is on backorder with Palladium themselves, so buy from Amazon or be prepared to wait, possibly for a very long time.
http://amzn.to/22nnIX5
bar-blue

reich-of-the-black-sun

630. Reich of the Black Sun – Joseph P Farrell

“Nazi secret weapons research” – at least, according to the guy who connects Roswell to secret Nazi technology.
http://amzn.to/2c5pbyv

flourish-divider1

Documentaries About Weapons

bar-gray

nazi-mega-weapons

631. Nazi Megastructures

While you might expect every part of this National Geographic / PBS series to be relevant, there were actually only three episodes that contained information not already known to us: Season 1 episode 2, “V-2 Rocket Bases”; episode 3, “U-Boat Base”; and episode 4, “Super Tanks”. The others, including all of season 2, were interesting, but not as useful to the pulp GM.

Amazon US has no copies. None, nada, nix.

Amazon UK has Season 1 in stock at a quite reasonable £14.99. http://amzn.to/1Qkgzx5

Amazon Canada don’t even acknowledge that the DVD series exists!

There is some suggestion through Google Search that the series appears to also be known as “Nazi Mega Weapons” in a different series order (it’s worth noting that the order shown is the one listed officially at various websites but isn’t the same as the broadcast order in Australia, either).

There are rather more copies under this name available through Amazon US http://amzn.to/1U4TZPJ at reasonable prices, Amazon UK has no copies available, and Amazon Canada has a limited number of copies at relatively ridiculous prices as usual (but more, at relatively reasonable prices second-hand and from other vendors) http://amzn.to/1Th4zRw.

The episodes are also available on YouTube, at least for now:

“V-2 Rocket Bases” http://bit.ly/1MFExZ1;

“U-Boat Base” http://bit.ly/26cXJ6P, and

“Super Tanks” http://bit.ly/1SXgH7w.

We recommend that you watch these episodes in reverse order because the “Super Tanks” episode provides valuable context for interpreting what the other two are showing you.

flourish-divider2

bullet-holes-v8

Afterword by Mike:

The Pulp era in the real world bridged two eras of rapid development in the category of things. Society moved from industrialization into mass manufacturing and the expectation of mass-manufactured products, and these radical concepts overhauled everything that a person of the time could see or touch. It was an age of miracles, in which records were being rewritten in virtually every field.

In a pulp world, not only these forces still extant, but there is a resurgence of the home inventor, cobbling together a prototype of mythic capabilities in his basement. Strange and exotic creations are noteworthy but – as a class of object – unexceptional.

The gadgets of a James Bond are Pulp in spirit, if perhaps a little more refined. Bulk them up and make them larger and more dramatic than they could ever be in real life, and you will capture the essence of the Pulp Era. Double-hull Zeppelins, Experimental Death Rays, Silent Explosives, Flying Boats, Rocket-assisted Gyrocopters, exotic antennas the size of buildings – there will always be a characteristic of showmanship in the great Pulp technologies.

As always, the trick is knowing how far you can stretch credibility. Be especially careful when mixing strange tech with the supernatural, as the two are inherently contradictory in their world-views, the former shouting “there is nothing science cannot do” while the latter disdainfully replies, “there are some things science will never understand.”

It was this very dissonance that led to the separation of the weirdness that – for the most part – at least pretends to be science-based or that has achieved some scientific credibility in the eras subsequent, from those weirdnesses that do not, and the further subdivision of the former into “fringe” and “weird” science.

Pulp wouldn’t be same without a touch of the exotic and bizarre in its science and technology.
swirlpralinchen-1

A week from now: The 7th shelf: Vehicles!

Leave a Comment

Blog Carnival November 2016: The Everyday Life of a GM


rpg blog carnival logo

This is the first of five articles scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting. The carnival subject is “ordinary life” – in this case, the ordinary life of a GM and how it impacts his game…

This article was within about 3 hours of completion, some 4 hours short of the desire publication deadline, when an electron strayed down the wrong pathway and lost about half of what you can see below. It’s quite disturbing when half your document is suddenly filled with garbage characters. Hence the delay in publication…

The typical GM’s life revolves around five activities: Plotting/Writing, Design, Time Management, Research, and Logistics. These five activities have to be arranged around everything else that the GM does – eating, sleeping, working, entertainment, and so on. The subject of this article is to offer an overview of those activities, their management, and how that arrangement is handled.

Every GM’s circumstances differ either by a little or a lot from those of every other GM. That makes this a difficult subject to write about because you can’t easily generalize and still be relevant. But I’ve been a GM under a number of different arrangements and circumstances, having been at this for a while now – since 1981, in fact – so it’s my hope that if I recount my own varying experiences from different periods of my life and then generalize all of them, I will in fact be able to discuss the subject in a meaningful way. The ride may get a little bumpy along the way, but at the end, other GMs reading this will be able to point at one of those circumstances and say, “that’s the one that’s closest to my situation” and find applicability to their own campaigns as a result – so we’ll get there in the end.

I’ve selected a number of different time periods in which my approach to gaming was quite different due to my external ‘real life’ circumstances of the time.

  • Period 1 is an aggregate of a couple of different time periods when I had no job (but had some obligations to meet in order to receive government support, consuming anywhere from 1/2 to 3 half-days a week – the equivalent of a part-time job but which traded disposable income for free time. Also included in this aggregate will be a recent time period in which I had no obligations but restricted physical capacity and in which I was writing gaming articles semi-regularly, either for Roleplaying Tips or in the early days of Campaign Mastery.
  • Period 2 covers the early days, a couple of years after I first settled with some permanence in Sydney and had a full-time job, but had minimal outside capacity for entertainment beyond gaming.
  • Period 3 is an aggregate of a number of times in which I was working full-time. There was a later period just after I resettled in Sydney (after spending a year away), and a couple of other occasions on which I had reliable employment, with the occasional bout of overtime, plus some outside non-gaming interests or social life to accommodate.
  • Period 4 will deal with my current situation in which I have demanding physical constraints and the equivalent of a part-time job – writing Campaign Mastery – around which I have to structure everything else I do.
  • Finally, Period 5 was a time when I had rather greater working responsibilities that mandated constant overtime – up to 200 hours of it a week at one point, but averaging about 30 hours a week, the equivalent of having a second part-time job, which a lot of people have to do these days to make ends meet, or of someone who has to look after the kids.

As you can tell, the major variance is in the amount of leisure time available, and the presence of other consumers of that leisure time with activities other than gaming and related matters. They have been arranged in sequence of decreasing time available for gaming, ranging from almost-unlimited free time (Period 1) to virtually no free time at all (Period 5), and a couple of different points in between. Hopefully one of them will be analogous to each reader’s current situation.

I’m going to discuss each of the time periods using the same structure:

  1. Context: The place to start is with an overview of each period to put the game-related activities into context.
  2. Game Play: How much potential prep time there was, and how much of that was consumed with actual gaming, and how the two were structured.
  3. Plotting/Writing: The basic consumer of time known as game prep, what corners had to be cut, how it had to be squeezed in, and where time was found to make it possible.
  4. Design: A sub-element of game prep, usually the handmaiden of plot/writing, how much of it I did and what corners had to be cut.
  5. Time Management: How rigidly I had to organize my time, and the impact of that necessity.
  6. Research: Time, tools, and practicalities.
  7. Logistics: Often overlooked, but a centrally important factor in a number of ways.
  8. Making Gaming Fit: the other major distractions, how gaming had to be compromised to fit, and how gaming forced compromises on those other leisure activities.
  9. The Impact On GMing Style: A wrap-up in which the consequences of all this squeezing of time are examined for consequences.

Period 1: Near-Unlimited Time

These days the Australian system of unemployment support is far harsher in terms of the degree of effort required to meet obligations and is founded upon the false assumption that there is work available for anyone who wants it, but in past times it was for more balanced. I don’t want to get too deeply into the politics and sociology involved, because those are side issues; instead, I want to focus on the time left available after those obligations were met. In a nutshell, that left between 5.5 and 6.5 days available. That’s plenty of time to run and prep a couple of campaigns for weekly play, and so that’s what I did.

My general rule of thumb is that every hour of game time requires between 1.5 and 2 hours of prep to be adequately provisioned. Anything less than that, and game prep is compromised; anything more is generally wasting time that could better be spent on big-picture activities or something entirely unrelated (a variety of stimulus helps keep you fresh).

Running two campaigns a week, sometimes three (I had a couple of once-a-month campaigns on the side, plus four-to-eight campaigns running concurrently each month) chews up time, but time was plentiful. More importantly, because four of those campaigns were set in the same game world, any picture work had four times the usual ‘value-for-money’. When the number of campaigns was four (plus on-the-side games), the game sessions were twice as long – 8-10 hours each instead of 4-5. Outside of the initial creation stage, when there is always more work to do, the total demands were the same: about 20 hours a week, plus eight hours for play. You can easily fit that into four days of roughly working-hours length, leaving plenty of time for TV or campaign creation or rules or whatever.

I generally made the effort to try and get each game’s major prep done in a single day, allowing me another half-day to full-day to polish anything that wasn’t quite as good as it should be, or that would add some lasting value to the overall campaign.

But it’s a truism that activity loads will increase to more than fill any empty time. Periodically, I would find that I was cutting game-prep corners to allow a little more time on a side project, and ultimately, that many campaigns became too much for me. Eventually, things stabilized at five campaigns for roughly 5 hours play a month, each – a single day’s prep each week.

A couple of tips for managing activities in this sort of environment:

  • Always take care of any real-world necessities first.
  • Divide game prep into the essential and the non-essential. Divide the non-essential into the enjoyable and the tedious. Ignore the last, prioritize the first, and use the middle group to revitalize and re-motivate yourself as necessary.
  • Save something that’s both quick and fun for the night before play; you’ll find that not only is the game more enjoyable for you but is often more entertaining for the players, and that your GM skills are both quicker and sharper, if you start in an “up” frame of mind.
  • The “Essential” takes priority over any other form of recreation. Always allow yourself a 50% time margin to complete it. Everything else is negotiable.
1.1 Plotting/Writing

The game week always starts with outlining the plot. Don’t rely on memory or on what seems obvious right after a game session; memory will fail you at some point. I then use the plot outline to list the required game prep that I would ideally like to have done. That list is always longer than time will permit; I use the prioritization technique specified in the bullet points above to categorize what has to be done. Top priority is always breaking the plot down into a more substantial outline, writing any narrative and dialogue that’s to be pre-packaged, and creating any notes to players that tell them things that the table in general don’t find out.

That gets followed by a more complete rendering of the adventure in text form. I always focus first on the big picture because that’s my guideline if/when the players zig when I expect them to zag; next, I focus on the needs of this individual adventure. Any other “essential” game prep gets done when it becomes relevant to the plot outline – if I need a map, I’ll pause writing and produce a rough outline when I get to the point where the PCs are first expected to enter the location, and so on. However, I won’t create full NPCs at this point; just a couple of rough notes on their story functions and the concept, personality, archetype, and/or abilities that are needed for them to perform that function. Just the essentials, in other words.

When you have plenty of time, there is no need to skimp or cut corners in this part of game prep.

1.2 Design:

Design generally comprises four types of activity: (1) Handouts/Props; (2) Illustrations; (3) Final versions of maps; and (4) Ready-for-play NPCs.

These all get the same essential/nonessential-but-fun/nonessential-and-tedious breakup. This category is always the first where corners get cut if they have to be. It’s always better to have a rough indicator for the players and solid vision in your head of what it will be, supported with descriptive narrative, than it is to have part of the day’s play fully detailed and lavishly illustrated/mapped and part not-at-all.

Again, unless you go completely over-the-top, with lots of time available, the essentials and most of the non-essential-but-fun activities should be possible.

I often found that I could work on the non-essential-but-fun while watching TV; it gave me something to do while the ads were on.

1.3 Time Management

Time management is fairly loose, tightening up a bit as game day approaches. If all the essentials are done, and I had lots of time on my hands, I would frequently look ahead and do any essentials for the following week’s game before dealing with the non-essentials for this week’s game, especially if I knew that I had something to do that was going to take a lot longer than usual.

1.4 Research:

For most of the period that this category of available time applied, I was without internet. That meant that I generally had two options: the local library, and making stuff up. Being the creative type, I usually applied the latter course, augmented by my personal reference library.

Research can basically be considered an interruption to the writing process. If you can do that research at home on-the-fly, the disruption is minor; if you have to walk to the library and look something up, it’s substantial. In the latter event, I did my best to create a list of all the specific questions that I needed answers to, and dealt with it all in one hit, minimizing the time wasted in traveling back-and-forth. If a lack of information created a bottleneck in the writing process, I always chose to make something up and keep writing.

This also formed my basic attitude to the internet long before the world-wide-web even existed – so far as I am concerned, it simply expands that home library. There were definitely times that I felt the lack, especially when dealing with European nations and cultures. You can’t tell much from a history and an atlas!

I always took the research needs of a campaign into account when designing it. It helped that I had a large omnivore’s appetite for non-fiction and television documentaries; I know a huge amount of odd factoids that have often come in handy with no clear idea of when, where, and how I learned it.

  • Tip: Amazon’s “Look within”, intended to be a sales-and-marketing opportunity, can be a great way to conduct research. Even if only 1/10th of a book is included, there is a chance that this tenth will include what you need to know. Let’s say the subject is Denmark; I start with the Wikipedia page, which will answer most questions I might have, leaving perhaps 1/10th or so. I will then go to Amazon Books and search for “Denmark”, picking the two or three most promising books off the first page or two of results for closer inspection. Then I will “look inside” any of those that offer the option. It doesn’t always give the answer needed, but neither would plucking a book off the library shelves. And if I discover a book that is generally going to be useful on multiple occasions, it goes into my wishlist for purchase when finances permit.
1.5 Logistics:

My logistics were always focused on my personal finances during these periods. The trade-off between employment and unemployment was always free time vs financial independence. When I was first GMing, I could only afford bus fare to gaming, not back again; I walked the latter, often getting home around the 3AM mark, sometimes later.

Logistics had one other vital role to play in the era when I did not have access to a laptop: if it wasn’t on paper, it couldn’t go to the game, and everything that I needed for a game session had to be physically carried.

Another key consideration under this heading was paying for meals. There were often two or even three of these to be covered; on many occasions I would make sandwiches, adding to my load (and consuming space in the bag used to hold everything). If it was a choice between buying a meal and getting public transport home after gaming, buying the meal won. On one occasion, I had to pay so much in photocopying expenses that I walked both ways.

As a general rule of thumb, the more tightly you have to manage your time, the more of a free hand you have with respect to logistics, and vice-versa, at least in my experience.

1.6 The Impact On GMing Style:

Adventures were a lot more sophisticated and polished, and there was a lot of focus on creating rich adventuring environments and game worlds. I looked on a lot of prep as being an investment in the campaign; for example, if I didn’t need an encounter or a location in one adventure, I would still have it floating around for when it did become useful. To some extent, too, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the Drow Kingdom was already fleshed out and detailed, it made it a lot easier to create an adventure that made use of the location.

Period 2: Dedicated Leisure Time

In my early days, I had lots of time but little money. These gave way to a period in which I had less time due to employment, but rather more money – and virtually nothing to do with my free time except gaming. That slowly changed when I bought my first TV and VCR, but I was more interested in music than TV in those days, and music is something that you can listen to while doing something else – as I write this, “The Best Of Supertramp” is drowning out the noise of traffic and providing non-immersive background. So my first purchases were a Walkman, a graphic equalizer, and some car speakers that were mounted on wooden enclosures. I used car speakers because they were sensitive enough to be powered by the Walkman, and when I went out, I just had to unplug it and jack in my headphones and keep right on listening to whatever it was that had been playing.

As a result, I had about half the prep time that I had enjoyed previously, but I was still learning how to GM; my techniques were inefficient and more closely resembled plotting a novel or short story. There wasn’t all that much in the way of grand plans, and the descriptor “epic” could only be applied to the occasional failure.

At the same time, I knew the direction that I wanted to head in my gaming; I just had to figure out how to make it happen. I frequently think back to those days when writing the “Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced)” series, with the occasional technique learned or devised subsequently thrown in for good measure.

2.1 Plotting/Writing

Quite often, i didn’t plot; I simply started writing, with no idea of the direction in which the story would go. At the time, I only had one or two campaigns, and all were being played weekly, so I would usually start with whatever the PCs had said they wanted to do in the previous adventure and the question, “how can I make this interesting?”. My focus was not on the PC who wanted to do whatever it was, but on how the situation would be made interesting for the other players at the table. I relied heavily on the premise that seeing someone succeed without a struggle was boring, whereas a complication or struggle could be enjoyed vicariously, especially if it spilled over to affect the whole group and not just the individual. There was also a strong emphasis on character interactions.

Everything was being done either longhand or, later, with a manual typewriter.

2.2 Design:

Handouts didn’t exist. Maps were all hand-drawn with ruler and graph paper, usually twice – once in pencil and a second time in ink, normally using 0.5mm marker pens. I worked hard on character illustrations, both PC and NPC, but anything else was rudimentary line art at best. Some sketches from back then are still in my possession; some were better than I appreciated at the time, some worse than I thought, and some manage to be both at the same time in different sections! All NPCs were fully developed and statted out, 99% of which was never used.

2.3 Time Management:

There wasn’t much of this at all; if I finished the adventure early, I would spend the rest of the week thinking about the big picture and making notes on ideas for later adventures, or working on rewriting the rules to do more of what I wanted and less of what I didn’t in a relatively piecemeal approach.

2.4 Research:

At this point, I didn’t have much of a reference library. There was no research; I simply made it up as I went along. While there was a great freedom in doing so, it showed in a frequent lack of polish and detail.

2.5 Logistics:

I no longer had to walk home, a positive benefit of being employed. But I would often go to a friend’s house on Friday nights for gaming, stay there overnight, travel to gaming on Saturday with him and the others who had showed up – initially by public transport and later in his car, then head home Saturday night – or with another friend back to his place for the night and still more gaming on the Sunday. I would also spend a lot of time watching videos with him until the wee small hours – he had an extensive collection of 1970s and 80s sci-fi, both TV shows and movies. After a few months of this, we were joined by another friend who had escaped a bad domestic situation and now crashed on my floor the rest of the week.

It was easy to make gaming fit; everything else (bar work) was compromised to make it do so.

2.6 The Impact On GMing Style:

I’ve given some indication of this in the section on Plot and Writing. These days, a lot of those plots seem so rudimentary that in writing up the official history of the Champions campaign for reference by later players – a still-unfinished process – I have found it necessary to dress up the plots or even replace them completely, keeping only the broad outlines of what took place in actual play at the time (another part of the motivation for these changes is to remove trademarked characters expropriated from other sources and replace them with more original creations).

Period 3: Part-Time without Restrictions

In the many timespans that comprise period 3, I was working at least part-time, consuming some of what would otherwise have been free time, but I had few other sources of recreation aside from reading old favorites. I didn’t always have the time to go to the library to borrow books, but made up for that by being able to spend money on my own books. Logistics eased, as always happens when you have money in your pocket (no matter how minimal) but time management became more important.

I frequently only had enough time to prep one campaign for play each week, but I continued running two or three or more of them anyway, so they were all fraught with compromises. The tight plotting of Period one was conspicuous in its absence; while there were a number of ongoing plotlines that I manipulated – hastening here and delaying there – in order to create climactic resolutions, there was a far greater episodic emphasis, and far more patchiness when it came to quality.

3.1 Plotting/Writing

One of the major changes that I made to the way I structured my plotting and writing was to always have a quick-and-dirty filler adventure on hand that I could drop into the campaign at the last minute. This was usually the opening salvo in a new longer-range plotline whose details had not yet been fully worked out, but on occasion it was a standalone adventure. Some things that were tried as experiments/fillers in this time period worked, such as dedicating a ‘standalone’ adventure to the introduction of each major NPC or ‘chess piece’ within the campaign, especially if these were to be different from canon, which is now part of my standard campaign structures.

The benefit was that if necessary, I could delay the next major development in an ongoing plotline until it was ready. The danger – and the result that eventuated – was that I would end up with too many plotlines on the go at the same time. This was also the source of some of that patchiness in quality that I mentioned. There were times that I invented the basic outlines of the plot in the car on the way to play, as I described in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly, especially when other interests began to eat into the available time. In hindsight, I was doing too much for the available time; but at the time, it seemed to be the right thing to do.

The basic approach described in 1.1 was unchanged in these periods other than as detailed above, but corners were cut almost everywhere, especially in the design phase.

3.2 Design:

Handouts just didn’t happen, and any need for them was written out and replaced with in-game narrative. For maps, rough drafts was usually adjudged to be enough. Illustrations were reduced to rough sketches done as I went, or also replaced with narrative; this sharpened my skills in the narrative area greatly. Everything was done on a manual typewriter or written longhand (mostly the latter) – and it’s astonishing how you learn to compress your writing when that’s the case. And I completely stopped developing NPCs beyond the initial ‘specifications’ described in 1.1.

3.3 Time Management:

Time management became a critical consideration. Many things that at other times would have been deemed “essential” were downgraded to “non-essential” and most non-essentials didn’t happen at all. Because I was trying to do too much, it became critically important to estimate how long tasks would take, and schedule them sufficiently in advance that I had at least a theoretical hope of finishing them on time. Quite often during this period I would use a 1-5 scale for priority instead of the simpler system described earlier. With some polishing and refinement, this period’s work practices were the basis for the system described in Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity.

3.4 Research:

Research simply didn’t happen if I didn’t have what I needed to hand. Even if I knew I had a book with the required information in it, I set a strict time limit to first searching for that book and second searching the contents for the information required. These days, the approach described in Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time would usually permit full research to be carried out within that allocated and restricted timespan; back then, there was no internet, so the basic practice was to further extend the practice of “answers, fast, or make something up”.

3.5 Logistics:

These weren’t as important. There was still a limit on how much I could take to a game, but that was fine because I didn’t have time to prepare as much material, anyway.

3.6 The Impact On GMing Style:

I had developed a long-term campaign plan before entering this period; all that had to be done was to devise the actual adventures that fitted into the prescheduled slots in that campaign plan. The results were a strange blend of careful planning and improv that worked so well it’s become a standard part of my toolkit ever since, though I no longer improv anywhere near as much as I did back then. What was astonishing to me is the way I garnered a reputation for having everything preplanned in this period, thanks to that master plan; as best I can tell, none of the players could ever tell that I was devising adventures ad-hoc and en-route. I’ve since noticed the exact same thing happening in more recent campaigns, such as Lovecraft’s Legacies, my Dr Who campaign.

Here’s a useful way to look at the process: There’s a rough master plan which dictates how each adventure relates to the whole, but doesn’t say very much about the content of that adventure, and which is largely concerned with evolving the campaign background. Each adventure then has a specific plan which creates an initial situation and provides an overall direction towards achieving the requirements from the master plan. The adventure itself is largely preplanned, but that specific plan, the current status of the campaign background, and the adventure/campaign themes, give me the confidence to let the PCs wander away from whatever I have planned, sure that I will manage to incorporate the developments that the master plan requires and beyond that, whatever is fun is fine.

Period 4: Part-Time with Restrictions

This is my now. I write Campaign Mastery two days a week, sometimes three; I do campaign prep for the Adventurer’s Club one day a week; regular life maintenance – shopping, etc – takes another day, sometimes two; I play one day a week; and that leaves one day for watching TV and relaxing and doing anything else that’s on my horizon, like prepping for my other campaigns.

All that is complicated by my physical condition, especially my eyes, neck and back.

I talked about the latter in Part 2 of Dice And Life: Bio of a gamemaster (but I’ve linked to part one so that if you’re interested, you can read the whole thing; there’s a link at the end of the post that will take you to part 2). In a nutshell, one of the discs in my lower back has split and managed to turn inside-out, where the lining abrades both the muscle wall and the spinal column. The vertebrae on either side of the damaged disc occasionally pinch nerves, and are only held in place by my back muscles, which are continually being damaged by the disk. The consequence is that I can’t do anything for too long (stand up, walk, sit, travel, even lie down) without crippling back pain. What’s more, short-term agony is always one careless move away – or a cough, or sneeze, or whatever. After severely overdoing it two or three years ago when family visited, I have only recently regained sufficient capacity to be able to walk about three city blocks – on a good day.

In my neck, I have two more slipped discs (one worse than the other) which occasionally pinch nerves affecting my upper body or give my hand uncontrollable shakes, and which often requires me to sleep in positions that puts my lower back under stress, and another which is showing the first signs of arthritis. It aches if I write for too long without a break unless I’m careful not to lean forward.

Both often cause phantom pains in other parts of my body, especially hips and shoulders. When my neck is particularly bad, my left arm can be completely numb and all-but-immobile. They also prevent me from doing even simple things in the kitchen more than two or three times a week – even making sandwiches is often beyond me. This makes managing my diabetes difficult, but fortunately I have responded very well to medication in that area.

As a rough guide, for every 2 hours or so of sitting and writing, I have to spend 30 minutes lying down. In combination with the sleep disruptions caused by these two injuries, it’s easy to drop off, further contributing to a perpetually-confused sleep cycle. But that at least lets me rest my eyes, which get quite tired after reading a screen for hours at a time, or reading a book for a few minutes.

These days, I organize my life around these physical infirmities and limitations. Everything takes 25% or more longer than it should – more, because it’s inefficient to stop and start; you have to spend additional time getting back up to speed, and you lose creative momentum.

4.1 Plotting/Writing

The solution to that problem, to a large extent, is to plan more stringently in advance, as described in One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post. I can delay taking a break long enough to finish a section or subsection, making it much easier to get back into the groove after a rest, or can bring the rest forward if I’m about to start a new section that I don’t think will be completed in time.

As I have remarked a number of times in subsequent articles, I use exactly the same process to do just about everything, including writing game content like adventures. This essentially means defining my campaign and adventure plans more robustly and in bullet-point form, permitting me to expand these adventure notes one at a time.
plot-technique

I’ve made any number of attempts in various articles to explain the process that I use, but have never been completely satisfied with any of them, so here’s yet another. The diagram to the right illustrates the process; I have a master plan that lists the developments in the big picture and contains, as a sublist, a very broad outline of the game events that result in those developments. A typical example might be “Earth-Prime: Baron Varnae (supervampire) – people are vanishing from the Paris Sewer art community and there are reports that the place is haunted by a shadow that kills with a glance.” This tells me where, in broad terms, the adventure is to take place, who the antagonist is to be, and what (in general) the plotline (or in this case, plot hook) are going to be. In addition, there might be various subplot developments and incidents from the personal lives of the PCs. These, collectively, are the “Adventure Content”.

The second level of planning is what I do when I refer to “plotting” – I take those known elements of the adventure that I am working on and add more until I have a full story outlined, identifying how the PCs will get into each piece of the plot, what the purpose of that plot element is at a metagame or big-picture level, what the tone of the adventure is to be, and so on, and the order in which they are to occur. These collectively form the Adventure Outline, and each item is “plot content”. A specific piece of adventure content may provide one piece of plot content or many. At this point, I also look at what any PCs are doing if there is no specific plot material for them – I have a table that I put together of 100 random “general events” in the PCs lives, so I simply roll for each.

Once the adventure outline is complete, it’s time to actually write the adventure. I break the list of plot contents and break it into acts and scenes, and sometimes into even broader units called Parts, indicating that the adventure is intended to operate over multiple weeks of play. I may also specify prologue and epilogue. Starting with the first one on the list, I break it into logical scenes and specify any details that will be needed – you can see the list in the right-hand side of the yellow box. Descriptions, who, where, what’s said, and what’s to happen, basically. Then I move on to the next one, and keep going until I’ve finished the adventure, or – if I’m pressed for time – enough to get me through the next day’s play.

A lot of this material is in brief note form; my players still have no idea how much of each game session is run “off the cuff” in response to their choices and decisions (well, one might, because he’s in the Dr Who campaign and I send him the adventure as written after it is finished). I use my improv skills to cover any shortcomings or gaps in my planning, using the adventure outline and the big picture content of the adventure to enable me to know what’s important in terms of outcome when the players go off-script.

The priorities for any given adventure are, in order, (1) to fulfill the big-picture needs; (2) to tell a good story that entertains the players; and (3) to keep the campaign and its NPCs evolving and developing. Anything and everything else is up for grabs, a distant fourth-place ranking in importance.

The major strength of this approach is that the essentials get done, and as much of the non-essentials as there is time for, but if anything else is unfinished, I know what it is that I have to achieve with whatever improvisation I use to fill the gap.

4.2 Design:

Handouts happen from time to time, but these represent a major investment in time and effort, requiring me to start work on them months in advance, so they are fairly rare. Maps are rough sketches some of the time, narrative descriptions of locations some of the time, and images some of the time, or some combination. On occasion, I will lay out battlemaps but I’ve found that leaning over the table to set these up is hard on my back, so I prefer to do them the day before play if at all possible; if that inconveniences the players at the game table, that’s too bad. As for NPCs, I’ve written several articles here at Campaign Mastery outlining the techniques that I use to create them – and not to spend any more time creating them than I have to. See:

You can also find a number of actual examples that I offered in the pre- and post-Christmas period last year (go to this list of articles from December 2015 and this one for January 2016, and click on any of the articles that are entitled “Pieces Of Creation”.

4.3 Time Management

You would think that time management would be more critical than ever, and sometimes – as when there is a handout required – that is the case, but for the most part the plotting technique outlined earlier means that I don’t have to worry too much about that.

My #1 priority is my health; Campaign Mastery is priority number two; and gaming is priority number three. These days, I GM mainly out of friendship, for my own pleasure – I like entertaining others – and for the inspiration of new articles. I could probably be more productive – for a while, at least – if I gave up GMing and focused on writing fiction and game supplements; but, since gaming is my primary social activity, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t go squirrelly without it.

For that matter, cold hard logic states that I should take CM to a weekly blog instead of the current bi-weekly schedule, enabling me to start updating old posts and converting them into e-books, but the itch to create new content is too strong; I have trouble squeezing every article I come up with into the current schedule, never mind trying to do it into half as many. My post schedule currently stretches into late January! It will undoubtedly change between now and then, but the fact remains that I have enough ideas for articles outlined to carry me through the next three months without thinking of anything in that time.

So my time management is simple and flexible. Sunday, I start Monday’s post (if necessary), and Monday I finish it, then deal with any big-picture game items needing my attention. Tuesday I deal with any real-life priorities. Wednesday I do game prep for the Adventurer’s Club campaign with my co-GM. Thursday, and occasionally Friday, I do the second article for the week; if Friday is not used for that purpose, I use it for my campaign prep. Saturday I game and relax. But all of that is subject to change as necessary; next week, for example, Pulp Prep will be on Tuesday so that I can watch coverage of the US elections on Wednesday (my time).

4.4 Research

I’ve already referred to the Lightning Research article, so there’s no need to do so again.

4.5 Logistics:

Logistics remains a major consideration. All but one of the games that I participate in, either as player or GM, take place at my home simply because I don’t travel very well. The Adventurer’s Club is the one exception that takes place off-site. For that campaign, two laptops are normally used – one to display maps and images to the PCs, and the other to show the plot to the GMs. Aside from dice, any handouts, the only other thing that I take is a notepad – both laptops have copies of most of the rulebooks. In a pinch, I can make do with a single machine, further reducing the load to be conveyed.

‘Logistics’ can also be used to describe the management techniques that I employ to squeeze in everything else that I do. In particular, I record a lot of TV shows so that I can time-shift them to more convenient watching times, and very closely monitor how much I need to watch on any given day to ensure that the hard disk doesn’t fill up. I maintain a rigorous and fairly pessimistic budget. I have a set morning routine, and the only real variable is how much spam I have to process; my daily TV-watching takes place, first and foremost, while I’m eating. I get my groceries delivered because I can’t carry them, and try to do most of it in a single big monthly order so that I can reduce delivery costs.

I have a huge stack of DVDs that I haven’t yet had time to watch, and a stack almost as tall of books that I have yet to read; I used to consume a book every 3 days while traveling to and from work, but I no longer have to commute (and I’m not really physically able to do it, anyway).

None of my health problems are immediately crippling unless they are mismanaged by exceeding the practical limits that have been learned the hard way. But they have compromised every other aspect of my life in one way or another.

4.6 The Impact On GMing Style:

A lot more is improvised than the players realize, thanks to the “master plan” technique that I outlined earlier. That being said, some of the most recent adventures have been easily amongst the richest and most complex that I have ever run, with more moving parts and chess pieces than you can poke a stick at.

Take, as an example, the current adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign, which I briefly outlined in Monday’s article; it contains more than two dozen significant plot developments or NPCs, (or will do after the final part) – don’t worry, I’m not going to give the game away to the players! Some of the entries on this list won’t mean anything to anyone not familiar to the campaign (and some are new to everyone because they haven’t appeared yet):

  • (1) a newly-resurrected (in the previous adventure) Backlash announces his intention to reclaim leadership of The Champions – at least for a while;
  • (2) An as-yet unidentified arcane invader whose presence and/or arrival is causing control problems for mages all over the world and who may have already triggered World War III;
  • (3) Voodoo Willy, a narcotics dealer and Voudon Priest with whom the PCs have an understanding;
  • (4) A blinding light that blanketed half of North America;
  • (5) Urba Garbon of Imperial Cybersecurity;
  • (6) Hollow, a hacker targeted by Garbon, who turned out to be a sentient distributed-intelligence hologram roaming the Internet;
  • (7) The PCs’ first public failure;
  • (8) E-III, an Imperial Special Forces soldier who was fully cyborgized after being wounded in a firefight somewhere in Africa and whose brain has been artificially over-clocked beyond it’s capacity;
  • (9) Swarm, an experimental cyber-upgrade into self-replicating nanobots;
  • (10) Dr Heinrich Vossen, aka The Maker, leader of the Menschen Richtung, the most extreme survivalist cult in the world;
  • (11-20) other notable members of the Menschen Richtung:
    • Oppenheimer,a cyber-enhanced ape with transplanted human brain;
    • Nurse Gillian, a bio-enhanced human with an extra layer of cloned gray matter added to her brain;
    • Brutus, head of security for the Menschen Richtung, an enhanced humanoid Doberman with transplanted human brain;
    • Georgio, a humanoid shrew-lemur hybrid with transplanted human brain;
    • Reginald, engineer and cybertechnician with a very impressive CV, whose brain has been transplanted into a human/mole hybrid humanoid body;
    • Gunther, a humanoid creation with slug DNA inserted into his genetic sequence;
    • Lupus and Carlos, a human-wolf hybrid and hammerhead-human hybrid respectively, both with transplanted human brains, and members of the security force;
    • Patricia, a cybernetically-enhanced snake-human hybrid; and
    • Arthur, a partially-cyborgized maintenance engineer;
  • (21) Other members of the Menschen Richtung menagerie: No-name (humanoid bear), Wolf-man, Elephant-head, Spider-woman, String-thing, Rat-man, Alligator-Man, Tree-Woman, and The Hunter-thing;
  • (22) The Freakshow, a name collectively applied to Vossen’s surviving failed experiments;
  • (23) Mutagenic Drugs;
  • (24) A cybered-up street gang named the Chrome Tigers who have begun to branch into the manufacture and distribution of low-quality Mutagenic drugs in order to fund a gang war;
  • (25) The Lavender Gang, a vice operation which runs territory formerly under Chrome Tiger control, and the targets of the Gang War;
  • (26) A conspiracy providing political, financial, and legal protection to the Chrome Tigers and who may be doing much more;
  • (27) Skygge, who the PCs have yet to meet;
  • (28) A stolen (and crashed) alien starship which is counting down to a continent-wrecking catastrophic self-destruction;
  • (29) Holy Web, the internet division of the Roman Catholic Church; and,
  • (30) A hidden ally somewhere in the Vatican.

And yet, when you boil it down, this represents a mere handful of pieces of Adventure Content:

  1. Subplots: RA12 (Arcane Invader), RA09, RSu03 (Voodoo Willy)
  2. Encounter: RV03 (Holo, E-III)
  3. Plotlines: V13a (Swarm, E-III), RV13a (E-III, Vossen, Menschen Richtung), V02e (Voodoo Willy, Chrome Tigers, Lavender Gang)
  4. Epilogue: RV03 (Holy Web), V05d (Vala’s Ship).

Each of those codes points me to what is usually just a line – something as simple as “RV03: E-III disrupts a raid to capture Holo (both previously unencountered)” – but which may be a paragraph, or even (in some cases) multiple paragraphs. The non-numeric part of the code tells me which plot thread of the 33 which will comprise the entire campaign the development is part of, but I’m not going to translate as it gives the players too much information.

That’s one adventure, lasting 4 sessions so far (with one to go) which examines the creation of “monsters” from four different perspectives with the overall theme that monstrous deeds, even if well-intentioned, create monsters who will, in turn, commit monstrous deeds. The campaign and plots are the richest, densest, and most layered, that I’ve ever run!

In part, that’s because the master plan is the most complex that I’ve ever put together; in part it’s because, while I can’t do much while laying on my back, I can think – and then take notes when I’m back on my feet; and, in part, it’s because of all the games that I’ve run, this is the one with the most complex and interesting PCs.

Period 5: Minimal Leisure Time

At one point I had a job that demanded Looong hours of partially-paid/mostly-unpaid overtime. Sometimes just an hour or two, in one particular week from hell, no less than 178 hours (an emergency situation). That on top of the 35 hours for which I was officially being paid. These herculean efforts were undertaken on the basis that if I helped the business survive the crisis, I would have a job for as long as I wanted it and a substantial pay rise. It didn’t work out that way, and eventually I was replaced by two 17-year olds whose combined salary was about 2/3 of what I was being paid. The business went bankrupt two months later when they wouldn’t do unpaid overtime, leading to a cash-flow crisis that made it impossible for them to pay their mandatory worker’s compensation insurance, or that’s what I was subsequently told. Nor was it all bad; the boss could be the biggest bastard around, or incredibly generous, depending on his mood and the circumstances of the business, and I have nothing but goodwill toward the managers who ran some of the subsidiaries, his sons.

Be that as it may, for about six months, I was working from 9AM to 10PM, sometimes later, 5 days a week, and the occasional weekend. This left me absolutely zero time for game prep. Did I shut down my campaigns? No – though I missed the occasional game session out of sheer exhaustion. I held that job for three years, and only about 6 months of it were bad.

5.1 Plotting/Writing

I didn’t have a master plan that was anywhere near as fully developed as those I now use, just a more general one. I did what I could while on the bus traveling to or from work, a journey of roughly an hour, but a mobile breakfast was usually a higher priority. At best, I usually had about half-a-page of notes.

5.2 Design:

All design was done on the fly, during play. There was no time to do anything else.

5.3 Time Management:

What time? To get to work by 9AM, I had to leave home at 7:50. To get ready for work, that required getting up at 7:30 at the latest (and breakfast on the go). Getting home at about 11AM each night, I had no time to do anything more than going straight to bed.

My metabolism is unusual; before my physical problems arose, if I could go to bed at my preferred time (between 3 and 5 AM), I was quite happy to operate on about 5 hours of sleep a night, but if I have to get up “early” to attend work starting at 9AM, I needed a solid 9 hours to undo accumulated fatigue. This ability continues to come in handy, mitigating the worst effects of the sleep disruption that occurs because of my current infirmities. But for that six-month period, I was getting less than I needed. I went to work each morning, I came home when the day’s work was done (or when I couldn’t go on any longer). There was no time to be managed.

5.4 Research:

Again, didn’t happen.

5.5 Logistics:

Perhaps surprisingly, there were logistics. I could sneak an extra hour or two of sleep during the week if I worked Saturday mornings; Public transport then got me to gaming just in time to GM. If I’d been paid for a reasonable amount of overtime, I could afford to splash out on a Taxi, giving me time to eat lunch first. If not, I would usually have to eat en route – which meant buying food before catching the bus.

The Impact On GMing Style:

In a word: near-catastrophic. If my current adventures number amongst the best that I have ever run, these numbered amongst the worst in many respects. Virtually everything was made up off the cuff.

That being said, gaming was my only release of tension and stress, so it’s probably fair to say that I GM’d with more intensity and exuberance in this period than in any other. Surprisingly, a number of players look back on those adventures fondly.

Broader Analysis

The critical factor in determining how you are going to game is always the amount of leisure time you can devote to game prep after playing time is extracted from the total. It doesn’t matter what else is consuming your time – it could be disability or employment or caring for the neighbor’s pets. Sometimes, you can make hours do double-duty, especially time spent traveling, but the total remains the critical value.

No matter what your circumstances, adapting your gaming style to suit the available prep time will enable you to game successfully. You don’t have to change it consciously; evolution will make changes whether you want it to or not. But a conscious and deliberate analysis of your situation and how you are going to adapt to it, using the varieties of experience that I have outlined above, will almost always yield a better outcome.

And always be aware that the less time you have to devote to gaming, the greater your need to game will usually be. Don’t stop, even if you have no prep time; human nature abhors a vacuum, and no matter how temporary you intend the change to be, other interests will inevitably crowd in.

Even when I was living hundreds of miles away from gaming, I arranged my life and circumstances to permit me to game (you can read the details in part one of “Dice and Life”, linked to earlier). That’s why I’m still involved in gaming to this day, which is what enables me to talk to you all about it.

Game on!

Comments (3)

Stalking Fear: The Creepy in Non-creepy genres


Based on spooky-moon-1566397 by Roman Pauwels

Based on spooky-moon-1566397 by freeimages.com / Roman Pauwels
Color enhancement and text added by Mike (see below for how it is done)

This is being written on October 31, which is one of those Iconic dates in North America and catching on (thanks to the marketing muscle of various supermarkets and retailers, who are always looking for an angle that will persuade you to buy something extra) through large parts of the rest of the world.

This time of year is always significant; it signals that the year is in its home run towards the finish line. Because the last opportunity to hand out Christmas gifts to our players is often the first Saturday in December, and we need time to have the things that we have ordered over the internet arrive in Australia, most of my Christmas Shopping is already done by this point, and various products are now in transit. December sometimes seems almost entirely one big end-of-year party getting in the way of the usual routine, so for most of our games there is just one more session before the end of the year.

So it’s a date that’s worth celebrating, that deserves to be noteworthy. And the usual way is by talking about ghosts and ghoulies and goblins – well maybe not goblins, not anymore. But the scary stuff. Which brings me neatly to today’s article, which is bang-on theme. I’m even aiming to publish an hour early, right at the stroke of midnight, just so that I can legitimately claim that this was published on Halloween here as well as in North America!

halloween_graveyard_scene

Fear

According to Wikipedia, “Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a specific stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk to body or life. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with or escape from/avoiding the threat (also known as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror) can be a freeze response or paralysis.”

I don’t agree 100% with that description. Fear doesn’t necessarily lead to a behavioral change. It is unreasonable to think that soldiers, police, and rescue workers would eliminate the fear response, but unless the fear becomes acute, they remain able to follow their training. Thus, while the Wikipedia description would be accurate for acute fear, there would be lesser degrees of fear which do not completely meet the description.

Fear is the emotion that we feel when we feel scared. There are causes both rational and irrational, and the latter are usually characterized as phobias, though I would include paranoia in that category as well. Rational fears are fears that have a solid justification in terms of perceived threat, and yet fear goes beyond simple threat perception and the associated physiological responses. You can feel an adrenalin rush without feeling fear; excitement and exhilaration are also possible reactions to danger.

Mutual fear can bond people together in a shared experience, just as can shared grief; the two often occur side-by-side. Survivors of a life-threatening incident such as an aircraft crash frequently bond in this way, for example, and survivors of terrorist threats may also respond in this way. Communities can band together in mutual cooperation in the face of natural disasters. Sometimes, these bonding effects can be transient, sometimes they last a lifetime; soldiers also report this phenomenon, to the point that it is almost a cliché.

Neither of these effects is part of the description of fear that is quoted above. Nor is the experience of fear by proxy, which happens in thrillers and horror movies, explained by it. And that last is important to us, because that’s the closest analogy to the purpose of the spooky in an RPG. So let’s look at it in more detail.

carved-pumpkin-md

Fear in Entertainment

Again, from Wikipedia:

“Horror is a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears. Inspired by literature from authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley, horror films have existed for more than a century. The macabre and the supernatural are frequent themes, and may overlap with the fantasy, supernatural fiction and thriller genres.

“Horror films often deal with viewers’ nightmares, fears, revulsions and terror of the unknown. Plots within the horror genre often involve the intrusion of an evil force, event, or personage into the everyday world. Prevalent elements include ghosts, extraterrestrials, vampires, werewolves, demons, gore, torture, vicious animals, evil witches, monsters, zombies, cannibals, psychopaths, and serial killers.”

So why do people enjoy scary movies? Bottom Line: while lots of people have opinions, the phenomenon is so complex and multifaceted that no-one can really say, definitively. Richard Sine of WebMD discusses several theories in his article “Why We Love Scary Movies” – everything from rites of passage to vicarious thrills. But most of his article is focused on the gore/slasher/torture subgenre, even though the title generalizes the topic. While some people find this subgenre thrilling, exciting, or enjoyable, most don’t – and it doesn’t come close to encompassing the whole of the genre.

Mark D Griffiths, PhD, in an web article for Psychology Today, “Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?“, attempts to look at a broader picture. What’s interesting is that the first quote, from Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht, is directly contradictory to findings quoted in the first article listed. Specifically, WebMD’s quote is that the reactions to the on-screen threat are exactly the same as if the threat were real because the hind-brain can’t tell the difference between simulation and reality, and triggers the identical physiological responses, while the Psychology Today article suggests that “But people have the ability to pay attention as much or as little as they care to in order to control what effect it has on them, emotionally and otherwise.”

This contradiction is most easily resolved by suggesting that neither of the two have the whole picture. when monsters or madmen attack from the shadows without warning, especially if there has been an appropriate buildup of tension, it’s easy to believe that for a second or so the more primitive parts of the brain respond as though the on-screen incident is real, and that this triggers physiological responses that last for some time. However, if granted sufficient distance before another such incident, the higher brain functions are capable of making the distinction between reality and simulation to whatever degree is necessary for individual comfort, together with personal reactions that limit further exposure to such shocks such as the desire to look away. This permits the viewer to enjoy the effects of thrills and danger at an intense level vicariously, without a personal sense of imminent threat.

Subsequent quotes in the Psychology Today article seem to bear this theory out, one researcher suggesting that there are four types of audience and that each would enjoy different sub-genres more, or for different reasons: ” (i) gore watchers typically had low empathy, high sensation seeking, and [among males only] a strong identification with the killer, (ii) thrill watchers typically had both high empathy and sensation seeking, identified themselves more with the victims, and liked the suspense of the film, (iii) independent watchers typically had a high empathy for the victim along with a high positive effect for overcoming fear, and (iv) problem watchers typically had high empathy for the victim but were characterized by negative effect (particularly a sense of helplessness).”

There are other theories as well, some dating all the way back to Aristotle (and obviously relating to the telling of scary stories). Amongst others, there are the Excitement Transfer Hypothesis (discussed in “Why Some People Love Horror Movies While Others Hate Them” By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., at Psych Central, which suggests a persistent emotional amplification effect; Catharsis, in which seeing or imagining scary things helps us manage the fears which are the subject of the media; primordial unconsciousness response, in which the perceived images express things that we can’t bring ourselves to envisage and offer a context in which to resolve them; Morbid Curiosity or intellectual stimulation, in which the entertainment poses questions of ourselves that we would not have thought to ask for ourselves; and many others.

I suspect that the individual has a complex relationship with the content and tone of the entertainment that engages one or more of these in different degree, and that the reasons for a given entertainment being enjoyed are subtly different both from one individual to another and from one offering to the next.

There are some horror movies that I quite enjoy, and others that don’t greatly appeal. I prefer the original version of “The Fly” over the remakes, even while appreciating the improved visual effects of the latter; I like both versions of the The Thing, for different reasons, but would choose John Carpenter’s over the original if I had to; Westworld is another that I quite enjoy, and so is The Gate, and The Wraith, and Trick or Treat, and the Dr Phibes movies, and Hammer’s Frankenstein movies, and Dark City. I enjoyed The Craft enough to skip a meal in order to be able to afford the DVD – but have never played it since. I know one person who regards Groundhog Day as a horror movie, because they fear being trapped in a world beyond their control, but who watches it regularly anyway, because it promises that there is a way out of such situations should they arise.

All this makes it incredibly difficult to apply the creepy to an RPG because you not only have a very small ‘audience’, each of them will react differently. In a larger group, the statistical likelihood is that some viewers will respond to specific elements or attributes and their reactions will entice others to respond in the same way via empathic association. In particular, fear is communicable to at least some extent, and so those who are most responsive will enhance the sensitivity of others to the scariness of a film – when you see it with a group.

9jad8-7y5lg

Fear in RPGs

In broad terms, RPGs are fairly simple, at least in principle, when it comes to scary content. It’s only when you get into details that things grow more complicated.

Ultimately, for example, if the whole thing is about Fear, there are only three populations (plus the GM) who can experience a fear response.

Scared NPCs?

It didn’t matter how scared NPCs were in any game that I played, my responses and reactions were all predicated on the question of how great a threat the subject of those fears was to my character. Scared NPCs were ho-hum, a way of demonstrating the superiority of my PC over the ‘common herd’. When the NPC supposedly showing fear was someone that my character was supposed to respect because of his capabilities and prowess, my first reaction to such fear was always disappointment that the character had such feet of clay.

Sure, my character was able to feel fear when that was the appropriate response of his personality to the situation, but it was always from him, not from any NPC reaction.

If anything, I often found it to be scarier when there was something to be scared of – and the NPCs weren’t fearful.

Scared players?

It’s really hard to scare the players in an RPG because they are always aware that it IS an RPG. Sure, you could manage it by posing some actual threat to the players, but doing it by story alone is really tough. More often, players are scared for their characters than because of the actual situation facing the characters; they feel threatened because “their property” is at risk. This can lead players to spend long periods of time trying to analyze situations and make overly-extensive plans that drag out a game unbearably. I wrote about this in “Overprotective Tendencies: Handling Player Risk Aversion“.

So there is a really fine line to dance on, if you want to scare the players; it needs to be something that’s creepy more than directly threatening. I had this in mind when choosing the title for this article.

Scared PCS!

That leaves only the third population group: scaring the PCs in such a way that the players can experience that fear vicariously enough to roleplay (and enjoy) the situation while still leaving the players a sense of being in control of their characters’ destinies. Which is far easier to say than to do. Why? Because fear is all about restricting the choice of actions, while leaving the players with a sense of control requires no such restriction.

Nevertheless, this is clearly the road that needs to be taken. The theory is that getting the PCs to feel fear, if done properly, and even if that fear is not acute, can nevertheless be experienced to some degree by the player controlling the character by virtue of the player/character identification process. Achieving this objective is the subject of the bulk of this article.

The creepy in non-creepy genres

In one respect, it’s easier to do a scary adventure or encounter in a non-creepy genre simply because the impact is emphasized by virtue of the contrast between the “creepy” and “typical” situations. In another respect, it is harder, simply because the characters and players are not psychologically aligned to trend in that direction, and neither is the pervading mood, and – finally – the genre conventions might be in opposition.

Or to put it another way, putting the scary into a horror-themed RPG is easier because the mechanics are designed to support the genre and its standard tropes.

And yet, it’s that very difficulty that makes this worth attempting on occasion – if it doesn’t work, you have (ideally) a mediocre-but-solid adventure; if it does, you transcend the genre limitations to achieve something spectacular.

The difficulty means that it’s essential to have as many elements contributing to the objective as it’s possible to arrange. And that includes taking advantage of the psychological preparedness that derives from celebrating a “creepy” holiday like Halloween.

The Difficulties

It’s worth looking at some of the specific difficulties involved. If the adventure is to succeed, most or all of these will have to be overcome, or at least minimized in their impact.

Arm’s Length Remove

The first is an absolute – anything that pulls the players out of character has to be minimized, the identification between player and character has to be maximized. This affects everything from the choices of phrasing of the GM – he should speak to the player/character always in the first-person and personal (“you,” “he”) and never by name, i.e. in the third person – to the design of the adventure, which should emphasize roleplay and minimize die rolls (it’s not going too far to have players roll dice in advance and for these to be kept by the GM and applied as necessary). That includes the GM rolling dice.

The Startle Response

A lot of horror movies function by building up tension and then provoking a startle response that makes the viewer jump. This is much harder to do in an RPG; descriptions never have the same impact, and you can’t cheat by showing the villain lurking in the shadows or stalking their target. Everything has to be from the PCs perspective.

It can be achieved using sound effects, hushed tones, and sudden punctuation – but it’s not easy.

Gore? Only In Your Mind, mate

Some horror films, especially the slasher subgenre, function by killing characters off and employing liberal doses of gore and the gruesome. These lose all their impact in a narrative environment unless very carefully handled. Again, sound effects and visuals can be helpful, but by and large the PCs will ignore these things as attempts by the GM to manipulate them. The gruesome is just ugly unless it is placed in the correct psychological context.

Gratuitous Violence? What else is new?

Similarly, gratuitous violence has minimal impact; players in D&D are used to extreme violence, for example. If you can give the players the sense that someone or something is picking them off, one-by-one, you might be able to pull it off – but then you face the problem of what to do with those players whose characters have been, or have supposedly been, killed – and if you give any indication that appearances are deceptive, the situation has all the impact of wet spaghetti.

Horror-genre games usually solve this with high levels of lethality – if a character is killed off, the player goes into the next room and starts generating a replacement who can join the survivors in their next adventure – but this is contrary to acceptable behavior in most other genres. In D&D/fantasy it might be tolerable, but the gratuitousness would still be contrary to the heroic fantasy concept in general unless very carefully managed, for example trading each PC ‘life’ for one of the big bad’s lieutenants. But, if you go this route, no PC victory can be permitted without a cost being exacted immediately. And the tendency for PCs to function as a group, however poorly-coordinated, must be taken into account; most of these “pick-them-off” tactics mandate one-on-one encounters. Persuading the party to decide that they have no choice but to split up is the only way to go – but you can’t be seen to be dictating this choice.

It’s even harder in the Pulp and Superheroic genres. Violence is so ingrained in those genres that it is not sufficiently dramatic to be scary, and it’s completely opposed to genre conventions for PCs to get killed off willy-nilly. Such deaths are major set-pieces, and always have to be heroic victories in which a PC makes the ultimate sacrifice to achieve a major plot objective, like defeating the enemy. On top of that, deaths are often not all that permanent, especially in the superheroic genre, and that reduces the impact that it has.

Game Mechanics

I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating and emphasizing: every interaction with game mechanics takes players out of the close identification with their characters that the GM needs to exploit. Save that it would induce howls of protest, I would almost recommend taking character sheets away from the players just to make immersion in character as tight as it could possibly get.

Practicalities

The practicalities of when and where you play are usually going to be obstacles that have to be overcome as well. I have no choice, for example, about playing in daylight conditions and have no control over ambient noise.

Overcoming The Difficulties

There are techniques that can be used to overcome these and other difficulties, in whole or in part. Let’s consider the most useful of them.

Images

A good visual representation is worth 1,000 words or more under normal circumstances. These circumstances do nothing but emphasize the value of the right visual representations. I’ve even used tricks like manipulation of images and presenting them as a sequence to achieve effects – for example, find a good photo of a creepy old place, duplicate it, darken it and desaturate it and otherwise edit it so that it appears to be a night-time view, then – in rapid sequence – flash from the darkened image to the original and back. The results look like a creepy place being illuminated by lightning. Overused, this doesn’t work; used correctly, it can have a huge impact.

Here’s how it’s done:

I started with this image of Bucharest provided by freeimages.com / creatsima:

a1-budapest-1224041-original-by-createsima

You’ll notice there isn’t a lot of color in it at the moment. That’s good because it permits me to manipulate the colors as I see fit. I created a color mask, simply following the shapes of the bits that I wanted to be in different colors. In this case, there were two – I wanted a light blue for the sky and an even paler blue with just a little more aqua for the stone construction. Putting these on a new layer, I then set that layer to multiply with the original. This is the result:

a2-budapest-1224041-by-createsima-midcolor

I then made a copy of the original image layer, placed it above the color map layer, and desaturated it:

a3-budapest-1224041-by-createsima-midgray

I also set this layer to multiply the layers below. I then had three parameters that I tweaked a little: the opacity of the different layers, and the brightness and contrast of the grayscaled image. It took only a minute or two to produce the “final” image:

a4-budapest-1224041-by-createsima-dark

In use, I would make two copies of the final image, numbering them with a numeric gap in between. The first one might be number 12, and the second copy number 14, for example. I then have my choice of using either the original image or the colored image as picture number 13; the former gives a very bright bolt of lightning, the latter a rather more natural result. In play, I simply show image 12, hit the shortcut to show the next image, and as soon as it has appeared, hit that button again. The result is that the brighter image only flashes on-screen for a second, creating the illusion of a dark and stormy night.

Note that you don’t need a lot of dark, rich color; always work to match the color that you want the lightest part of the image area to be, and then be prepared to tweak hue, brightness, and saturation.

I used a similar technique to enrich the colors of the image used to welcome people to this article, above.

Adding blurred reflections of other images is another trick that can work well, as does framing an image with a dripping-blood border- doing that last in red is a cliché, doing it in black with just a hint of red glisten has a disproportionate effect.

To show you what I mean, here’s another example – and this time I saved the color map to show you! I start with the original image, also provided by freeimages.com / createsima. Note that it is black and white:

b1-cemetery-1443890-by-createsima

The first step is to add color. In this case, I did a slightly more complex job of it, loading textures into the sky, which I am making mostly green with just a little blue, and darker green where the trees were in the original. The lower section LOOKS white, but it isn’t, it’s a very VERY pale brownish-yellow-gray.

b2-cemetery-1443890-colormap

Setting the colormap layer to multiply has an immediate impact: Note especially the effect on the color of of the gravestones and mausoleum:

b3-cemetery-1443890-by-createsima-colorized

Next, it’s time to darken things up, using a desaturated copy of the colorized image, and setting it to multiply. I used some additional copies of the brightest parts of the sky and multiplied them as well, and used a soft erase to eliminate the resulting dark edges, plus some tweaking of contrast and brightness. When you put all those effects together, you get this image:

b4-cemetery-1443890-by-createsima-colorized-dark

Now, that’s fairly creepy on its’ own, but it really needs one final touch – a ribbon of dripping blood across the top. I made that separately and then copied-and-pasted it into the image:

b5-cemetery-1443890-by-createsima-colorized-dark-plus-blood

Right away you should be able to see what I described earlier. It doesn’t look like it belongs, it is too bright and saturated relative to the rest of the image. It feels cheesy. To correct this, I duplicated the blood layer, turned the duplicate to grayscale, darkened it to 100%, stretched the underlying red blood just a little, and then moved it up a couple of pixels so that the bottoms of the drops of blood had the most prominent coloring. Here’s the final image:

b6-cemetery-1443890-by-createsima-colorized-dark-plus-hint-of-blood

Now the blood looks like it belongs there, adding to the eeriness and creepiness of the scene.

Reflections are much harder to get right, I’ll deal with how to do them some other time!

Still another trick is to take images of NPCs that the characters know well, or even of the PCs themselves, and using a multiplying filter on a number of desaturated versions of the image on separate layers – with appropriate erasures – can produce much harsher shadows and sunken eyes. I’ve even taken a photograph and photoshopped in skeletal eye-sockets (with appropriate tints) to produce images of the recognizable dead.

Sounds

If you can use them in your environment, sounds can be extremely powerful in establishing mood, and mood is incredibly potent at creating a scary context. Even sparing use can be effective. This isn’t an option that I have, as I explained in the article on sound effects and music in RPGs earlier this year, but don’t let that stop you if you can do it.

Even minimalist efforts like a recording of fingernails on a blackboard looped into perpetual repetition and played so quietly that it can’t be consciously heard can have a substantial impact. Another is the gnawing of rats and mice. Bury both beneath a sonic layer of wind and then turn it down to the point where you can only just make it out when everyone is quiet.

Or save it for shock impact – a creaky door swinging closed, for example, or a crack of thunder – can be extremely effective especially if you don’t normally go to the effort, and can be played loudly enough, briefly enough, that they will be heard even in a reasonably high-ambient-noise environment but won’t be overly disturbing to others.

The key to maximum effectiveness is for these sounds to appear to be independent of you as GM – it takes all the surprise out of things if you are visibly fiddling with an app just before the sound effect gets played.

Atmosphere

Darkening the room and illuminating it with candles on plaster skulls – or anything else of the sort – that adds to the atmosphere of the gaming locale is a definite asset.

Emotional Pacing

When you’re talking about tension build-up and discharge, you’re talking about the emotional pacing of the adventure. I’ve previously written a series on the subject – to pull off a creepy adventure, you will need to master that material or get very lucky:

You might also find these of value:

Psychology

The more you know about how the players think that their characters think, the better you can target the characters – their fears and insecurities – as the players who control them understand them.

There are two grades of understanding – the gross and the fine. A gross understanding points at phenomena that are well known, for example a character with claustrophobia. These tend to be obvious and unsubtle, making them less desirable for use in a horror adventure. A fine understanding deals with those subtle nuances that may not be dictated by character sheets and descriptions. They are dictated as much by the way the player thinks as they are about the character, and as such, they are far more effective at targeting the “gestalt” that is the combination of player and character.

Setting

Horror stories take an aspect of the real world that causes distress, whether that be a fear of spiders, or death, or the supernatural, or whatever, and makes it palpably real from the perspective of the protagonists’ experiences. Whether it ultimately turns out to be ‘real’ in the sense of being what it initially appeared to be is another question entirely. In addition to containing most if not all of those potential horror elements, most game settings will have additional potentials that can comprise a nightmare scenario.

Some of these, like “fast zombies”, have been done almost to death, pardon the pun – but others will not have been. In D&D, smart zombies who retain the character levels they earned in life, and who are conspiring against the living, formed the foundation concept of my Seeds Of Empire campaign, for example, and a slightly different twist on the concept was used for the Tree Of Life campaign which I used for playtesting D&D 5e.

Seek out the uniqueness of your campaign setting and look for the elements within it that can be expressed as a nightmare, a fear. Done properly, this yields a horror story that can come from no other source, that is unique to this particular campaign.

cemetrary by createsima colorized by Mike

Another photograph from freeimages.com / createsima colorized using the techniques described (plus a couple of other tricks). This wasn’t ultimately required for an example because there was not enough visible other than the clouds, except as a silhouette. This time, I gave the clouds a purplish tinge while keeping the bulk of the sky a navy blue.

Proprieties of Plot

While the varieties of potential plot are too great to permit detailed analysis, there are some common traits that they are all going to have to have in order for the horror adventure to succeed in a normally non-horror genre or campaign. Three in particular stand out.

The Accumulation Of Tension

The first is that horror will not happen all at once. You can’t simply flip a switch and go into “scary mode’; instead, it will be a steady accumulation of tension and the expression of that tension in a form that induces fear. Each event along the way adds just a little to the horror scenario, but the cumulative effect slowly overcomes all the difficulties that were outlined earlier, especially if given a gentle shove in the right direction.

In the Zenith-3 campaign at the present time, one of the central themes of the current adventure is that it is easy to make monsters, either literally or figuratively. There is a distant descendant of the notorious Nazi scientist, Dr. Josef Mengele, who applies 21st century science and ruthlessness to transform those on the scrapheap of society into physical monsters in order to present variations on the human form capable of thriving no matter what form of ecological disaster befalls the earth. His motives are sincere and even laudable, his methods are ethical but just barely tolerable, his results are horrifying because no-one gets a choice until after the transformation has taken place, and it is a choice between survival as a monster or death. Some make the transition and even find a measure of satisfaction from their new existences, others fail to make the mental transition and either kill themselves when given the opportunity or go insane. Because the PCs know that the line of work in which they are engaged – being a superhero – is dangerous, they cannot help but put themselves in the shoes of the monsters, confronting their own answers to the question of what an acceptable price is for survival with no quality of life.

Another of the plot threads involves a form of drugs that makes monsters, and how far you are justified in going to satisfy ambition.

A third relates to the protection of one’s children, and how far that can and should be permitted to extend – when your child is a monster, protection of that child becomes monstrous and makes you a monster as well.

And finally, a fourth involves extremism, and extreme reactions to extremism, and how that turns what are otherwise good people into monsters. The extreme nationalistic movements and outright paranoia about Islamics that is manifesting in many countries, cloaked in the dressing of nationalism, is an example of this sort of plot element. If your government does monstrous things in your name, does that not make you just a little monstrous? If you support these acts, is that not even more monstrous? And if you don’t think they go far enough, and you condone still more extreme manifestations, does that not take nationalism and turn it into something monstrous, exactly as the Nazis did in World War 2?

The combination of these themed plotlines has left the PCs unsure of who their allies are, uncertain of who can be trusted, certain that some of those they trust do not have their best interests at heart, feeling isolated and vulnerable, and made them willing to compromise their personal integrity for the bigger picture. They are, in other words, becoming just a little monstrous themselves. That’s a formula for inducing fear, but it has not yet manifested in horror; it merely contains the potential to do so. That final step requires events to make the self-identification with potential monstrosity unavoidable and the impact that the plotlines have had on the characters, undeniable and palpable.

Each of the PCs has his or her own personal demons against whom they wrestle from time to time, and that will make these plotlines resonate with these particular characters in one way or another, whether that is the potential within the character to perform monstrous acts, or the loss of self-identity in service to a cause, or the capability of psychological diseases such as addiction to drive one to otherwise unthinkable acts, or the price of caring for others even when they misbehave.

This plotline has been underway for three sessions so far, and has one more session of buildup before the final part yields the horror that is implicit within these situations for the PCs to experience, an event that will further shape their personalities hereafter, in ways that – in themselves – contain the potential for monstrosity. If it weren’t for a couple of missed sessions, this big finish would have taken place this weekend – making this a Halloween Plotline.

It was no one event or plotline or situation that brought the PCs to where they are now; it was a steady accumulation of things that added up to a horrific total.

Moments of Discharge

It is absolutely essential that there be moments of tension discharge without altering the root cause that is generating the tension. The PCs need to make progress, only to find that the ‘other side’ has made greater progress. It’s also essential that you create robust plotlines that can withstand the inadvertent discharge of tension, whether it be from a character’s emotional outburst clearing the air at an inopportune moment or the joke of a player who is feeling the effects of your psychological manipulation a little to strongly. A key component of the solution is the capacity to increase or decrease the intensity with which situations are presented. After the relief of a planned discharge, a brief increase in the intensity of the situation as it heads toward a confrontation will restore the progress toward the emotional climax while still permitting the relief of the discharge; this is necessary to sustain the mood.

Paradoxically, if you don’t provide relief, the situation becomes the new ‘norm’ and begins to lose its impact – and the climax loses its impact right along with it.

That’s relatively easy to do with a planned discharge of tension, but is also the best tool that you have for unscheduled relief as well.

The absence of distraction

The stronger the identification with the character being played, the more keenly the player will feel the effects of what their characters are experiencing. Call it Horror By Proxy. To succeed, your adventure has to minimize or even eliminate the distractions of other levels of abstraction in the representation of reality – game mechanics, character sheet consultations, die rolls. If your adventure is not more role-play than roll-play by a huge margin, the horrifying becomes just another roll of the dice, another round of combat.

Battle is, in itself, an inherent release of tension, because it permits the characters to engage the source of their fears in a direct manner that takes the players out of immersion and into abstract simulation. It follows that opportunities for combat, as with all other forms of making palpable progress, needs to be carefully planned.

It doesn’t matter how established a principle wandering monsters might be, if they are going to undo all you hard work with their very presence in the adventure, you should forgo them, or defer them at the very least.

Remember the goal!

Always bear the ultimate goal in mind – to place the PCs in an uncomfortable situation that the players will feel and then permit them to resolve that situation, relieving the discomfort and generating entertainment for the players.

There are times when its important for the characters to have fun in order for the players to enjoy that entertainment vicariously. Horror depends no less on the characters experiencing fear for the entertainment of the players. Fear is a part of life, and every now and then, that should manifest within a game. Taking advantage of Halloween to make your efforts in doing so more effective is only good sense.

In a similar way, the charity and generosity of spirit that characterizes Christmas should be exploited in December, the sense of renewal of hope and opportunity at Easter, and so on. Christmas Movies at Christmas time are a self-fulfilling prophecy, representing the spirit of the occasion; Horror in late October is exactly the same.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Comments (2)

The Spoor Of Darkness: Dealing with Spam


An article that is only indirectly gaming-related today. Most of that relationship is narcissist in nature, because this is an article about Campaign Mastery itself, and about the environment – the internet – in which it resides. But I thought it sufficiently important, in light of recent events, to publish anyway.

anti-spam-with-magnifying-glass-md

The recent DDoS (Distributed denial-of-service) attack on the DNS Servers belonging to Dyn DNS was alarming and disturbing – but it came as no surprise to me. The reason is Spam Patterns, specifically spam generated by automated malicious software known as Spambots.

You see, I recently migrated my anti-spam protocols to a new methodology that I had devised. As a result, I was paying more attention to the Spam being received by Campaign Mastery than usual, and tracking it back to the originating networks, and started seeing spambot-generated spam coming from unusual places.

IBM. AT&T. Time-Warner. AOL. MIT. Microsoft. Places like that.

That led me to suspect that something new was going on, and that systems that would normally be hardened and resistant to such rogue software were being compromised.

So I was expecting something to go down, and hoping that the relevant authorities had been paying attention to the same things that I was (or to even better indicators); hence it came as no surprise when something did happen. Alarming yes, but surprising, no.

But, as it turns out, those weren’t the primary originators of last Friday’s attack. And the spambot infiltration of unlikely places has continued since. In other words, last Friday had nothing to do with the compromised system security indicators that I was seeing; those are still out there. Add disturbing to the mix, because the implication is that another sword of Damocles is poised, ready to strike.

So far, everything I have described sounds like a great intro to a science-fiction / secret agent adventure – one attack revealing another – but this is all very real.

Why take spam seriously? Isn’t it, like, just an annoying inconvenience?

We’ve lived with Spam for so long that people are starting to treat it like part of the furniture, the price of being on the web. And that’s a serious problem for the entire internet.

Based on the spam that I have been analyzing over the last two months, automatically-generated spambot-created spam outnumbered the old-fashioned kind about 99-to-one. As I said, a spambot is a piece of rogue software that is somehow placed on a system that generates spurious email messages aimed more-or-less randomly.

It used to be the case that the major purpose of a spambot was to target websites that didn’t pay enough attention to the comments being posted on them so that the websites being linked to within the spam would rise in ranking on search engines such as Google, enabling them to ensnare unsuspecting visitors whose systems would then be compromised, enabling hackers to do whatever they wanted – distribution of viruses, identity theft, compromising of bank accounts, or – on command – becoming a vector for a denial-of-service attack. And, of course, raiding the email accounts of the users to further distribute itself.

Every piece of automatically-generated spam received from somewhere indicates that someone has gotten something behind the defenses of that system. What if the spambot itself harbors a more serious payload, and the spambot activities are just a means of announcing to the hackers, “I’m here, I’m in place, awaiting your orders”?

That’s why I take spam seriously, especially when two things start happening: I start seeing it turn up in places it’s never turned up before (but that could just mean that someone who has my email address has been infected with a spambot) and when it starts coming from places that I never expected it to originate. Lately, I’ve been seeing both – so I’m concerned.

Are internet providers doing enough to combat spam? And what more can be done?

In theory, the way to deal with spam is to identify the originating network and alert them to the abuse of their systems. They then identify whose accounts have been compromised, perform the appropriate level of spring cleaning, and the spambots go away. It doesn’t work that way; the networks seem to have gone out of their way to make it as difficult as possible to report spam and other abuse. Whether this is because their security specialists assume that everyone who knows enough to report system abuse is also a systems security expert, or because they just don’t want to be inundated with reports, doesn’t matter; the end result is the same.

With the rise of WordPress and other blogging platforms, there are more unskilled people looking after their own network security than ever before. If ever the time was right for a pushbutton solution, it’s now long overdue.

Here’s what should happen: A user logs into their website’s administration section, goes to their comments-handling utility, and sees that there is something in their spam folder. They open the spam folder within their inbox and look each item, verifying that it is indeed spam. They then push a button or click a link that:

  • extracts the relevant information from their database;
  • constructs an email alerting the source of the abuse of their systems being compromised;
  • appends the relevant information from the database;>/li>
  • performs a lookup and obtains the email address for reporting systems abuse;
  • sends that email to that address using the account registered as belonging to the administrator of the website receiving the spam;
  • and then deletes the spam.

Having established with their login that they are an authorized and real human being, the recipient of that email knows to take it seriously – especially if they start getting hundreds or even thousands of alerts to the same problem. But if additional verification is required, a second password specifically required to authorize a spam report or some other real-human verification test is all that’s required.

This puts the onus on the people hosting the spam originators to do something about the problem instead of letting it fester, untreated. (Are you paying attention, Wordfence.com?)

None of that happens at the moment. When you boil the current situation right down, people have three choices: ignore the spam and hope it goes away, do all of the above manually (which takes a lot of time and effort), or simply delete it. Sources who generate a lot might get blacklisted or might not – which simply means that your website is no longer reachable from the compromised systems in any way. So far as that part of the internet is concerned, your site ceases to exist – for both legitimate users and the spammers.

I hate this approach. Not only does it potentially deny your website to the very people you want to read it, but it can be turned against people simply by making it look like spam is originating from a website that you want to deny to people. If enough internet users block a website, that business is no longer someone that those internet users can do business with. You don’t sell your goods and services, your business goes broke, you go away – leaving the market open to a shadier competitor who was willing to employ those tactics. And on top of that, it doesn’t actually solve the spam problem – it just hides it from you.

But, in the absence of the better alternative that I have described, that is the best choice that site administrators have.

A story of transition

If there was even a half-practical alternative, I wouldn’t use it, and wouldn’t have been using it since July 2014 (as described in “Fighting The Spam War“).

Ever since I instituted that anti-spam policy, I have been worried about blocking legitimate visitors to the site, condemning internet neighbors because of the one bad apple who happens to “live” next door. I did things that way because I saw no alternative. Which brings me back to my new anti-spam protocols.

I’ll be honest – they are a lot of work. I’d rather not do them. But the old procedures were no longer working sufficiently effectively, and spam levels had starting to rise to unacceptable levels – in fact, had been at those levels for a good six months or more. I was dealing with 200 spam “comments” a day on a good day and 450+ on a bad.

One of the major flaws in the old system is that it had no memory. A site could be blocked one day, go quiet for the next two or three, get unblocked, and then spam again. Or the site could be blocked, and hundreds of failed attempts to reach the site could be documented – and even if these were legitimate web traffic trying to visit Campaign Mastery, would be treated as spam attempts because one a block was instituted, there was no way to distinguish between the two.

One particular network got blocked for four months, in which time it accumulated more than 5,000 attempts to reach the site. Were these all attempts to spam it? It seemed unlikely. And that was the straw that broke the back of the old, flawed system – when the potential for blocking legitimate traffic became more than I could tolerate.

Introducing the new Anti-Spam Protocols

The new protocols took me three months, on and off, to design and get close to being right (I’m still making minor tweaks). And at the heart of them is a spreadsheet which provides that memory that I spoke of. They are designed to be as little work as possible – but they still consume a good hour or three of my day, every day. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that they ultimately classify all spam originators into one of six categories:

  1. Do Not Block, which indicates that I have verified that legitimate traffic outweighs spam by a significant ratio;
  2. Block Individually, which indicates that each IP address should be given individual treatment because there is a significant likelihood of non-spam traffic;
  3. Evaluation in Progress, which indicates that a statistically-significant number of attempts to reach the website have been blocked relative to the number of spam comments originating from that source, which will enable the originating network to be classified into one of the preceding categories;
  4. Block Collectively, an interim state in which traffic from an originating network is blocked for a period of time relative to the nature and frequency of the actual spam received, and which may enable a statistical appraisal of the traffic originating from that network (this is a necessary precursor to category 3 assessment), and which is the default into which ALL traffic falls;
  5. Green Denied, which is a stage that can eventually lead to a classification into category six if egregious behavior persists;
  6. Block Permanently, indicating that sufficiently significant spam levels have been observed with no legitimate traffic that I am comfortable that a Permanent blacklisting will not affect real people who want to read what the site offers.

As I write this, 33 networks are in category two, one has made it all the way to category one, and one has been relegated to category five. By sheer coincidence, the two worst offenders to date (43 and 53 spam in 96 hours, respectively) are both blocked until the 20th of December. That’s 60 and 73 days, respectively. One is a network, the other is an individual IP address.

This is clearly a major improvement on the old system for three reasons: (1) it’s more granular; (2) it blocks for finite periods rather than indefinitely if the traffic keeps coming; and (3) it permits analysis of the actual traffic instead of basing decisions on worst-case assumptions.

Eventually, it will permit me to make permanent decisions and stop using it – saving not only those 1-3 hours a day, but also the time that would have been lost under the old system.

So, how does it work?

The whole thing is actually based on the generic crime-and-punishment system of the American courts. Probation, suspended sentences, jail time, witness relocation, being let off with a warning for a first offense, consideration of past offenses, even a statute of limitations, all have analogues within the process. It has many of the same faults, flaws, and compromises, as well.

Caught committing a crime

A spam comment is received which has the originating IP address of (say) 345.367.400.894 (note that this, like all the examples, is a completely fictitious IP address which can’t actually exist in the real world.

The first thing I do is log it into a row of the spreadsheet, with the date on which I am doing so, the number of spam received from that IP since I last did my spam processing, and the number of those that conform to a recognizable spambot pattern. Then the spam is deleted, ensuring that if I get interrupted, it won’t get processed twice.

The First-Offense Warning/Suspended Sentence

When all the spam that has been received has been logged in, I sort the entire log by IP number. This groups the newly-arrived spam with the history of the originating record. What I do next depends on that history.

To keep the process clear, let’s assume that there is no history – that this is the first time that I have received spam from this particular IP address according to the system’s records.

The Trial

When this happens, I perform what is called a “Whois lookup” which identifies the owner of that particular IP address. That’s how I know that I’ve received spam recently from that impressive role-call of companies that I named at the start of this article. I record the range of the network – that is, the range of IP addresses that belong to it, on the assumption that the entire network may has been compromised until proven (probably) otherwise.

Some networks have a bad reputation with me, earned through being recognized as the source of a LOT of spam over the years. If I recognize the network as a known producer of spam, that gets recorded. Similarly, some countries generate more spam than others (and not a lot of web traffic to the site) – if I recognize the country of the network as being in my top-five unprotected countries for spam, that gets recorded as well. Both of these factors induce harsher treatment of the ‘crime’.

A few countries generate significant levels of traffic to the website. These are considered “protected” countries, in which a higher tolerance level for spam is justified by the traffic. My top-five traffic sources are the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and France, and those constitute the ‘protected’ list at the moment. If the network from which the spam originated comes from one of those, that gets recorded as well.

There are some sources that I know to be internet providers to ordinary people (not just businesses), or to be more likely to have people interested in RPGs (which is what the website is about). That gets taken into account. Finally, there are some types of network servers that, while useful, are more prone to abuse because of the anonymity that they are designed to provide, called TOR networks. If the description of the network indicates such an origin, that gets taken into account as well.

All of these factors are weighted and weighed up according to a numeric calculation and compared with an “action trigger” that indicates a sufficiently serious level of spam that action is warranted. At the moment, that trigger is set to a value of “4”. Over time, it will increase, as will the weighting given to recidivists.

If this target isn’t reached, the “judge” lets the “offender” off with a warning and a suspended sentence. If no further “crime” is committed in the time frame of that suspended sentence – which is calculated automatically based on the specifics logged – then it simply becomes part of the “criminal history” of that network, and – in due course – gets expunged completely, so that it will no longer be taken into consideration in future cases. The standard period at the moment is five days, but that can and does vary quite a lot. It could be as little as two – or as many as 6. Getting to a week generally means that the “crime” is sufficiently serious to merit immediate “incarceration”, i.e. blocking.

Second Offenses

Let’s say that the next day, a piece of spam arrives from 345.367.400.896. This is a different IP belonging, let’s say, to the same network as 345.367.400.894, which is serving its suspended sentence.

Right now, in this part of the process, I’m not interested in individuals; I’m hunting for criminal organizations. These are both part of the same network, and there’s no instruction to give individual treatment to them – the network again goes before the judge, and part of the “evidence” is the suspended sentence. Between the two crimes, there might or might not be enough guilt to warrant “jail time”, It’s about 50/50 and depends on the exact specifics. If there is a sentence, the whole network serves it, and it could be anything from 2 to 7 days. Three or four are the most likely.

Jail Time

So the network goes to jail, i.e. gets blocked. The sentence is actually divided into two equal halves – time to be served, and time to be out on parole. In the first half, the network is blocked, which means that traffic originating from that network is counted. Some of it will be spam, some of it might not be. That information gets recorded when the network is “released” and compared with the number of spam likely to have been received based on the tally which got the network “locked up”. This determines which type of parole is served – green or blue.

“Green” parole

Based purely on the number of spam comments that got the network locked up, this tests whether or not the network should be treated as individuals instead of collectively. It is a significant step towards “Do Not Block” status. Green Parole means that for a specific period of time, the network is not blocked, no matter how many spam gets received, but that records are kept for each individual IP address within the network. At the end of the time period (or sooner if significant levels of spam are received), the network may receive “block individually” status, or it may even receive “do not block” status, though that’s rare. Or it may fail, indicating that virtually all the traffic that was blocked was in fact spam, leading to “green denied” status. Or it may simply get thrown back into the general population, but that it also rare.

It’s all about the pattern and quantity of spam received. The network is placed under a microscope and treated according to the results. If all the spam appears to be coming from only a small handful of IP addresses within the network, that’s a “block individually” result. If there’s a whole lot of spam coming from a lot of different IPs, that’s Green Denied – a permanent restriction to the general population which leaves the network vulnerable to being classified as “block permanently”.

Green Parole is the equivalent of being in witness protection so far as the anti-spam protocols are concerned. It’s a fresh start and a chance to weed out the bad apples. What it really means, though, is that there has been enough web traffic over the projected spam levels to permit statistical analysis of the member IPs. Right now, there are 7 networks on “Green Parole”.

“Blue” parole

Blue Parole is a lot less forgiving. For the second half of the sentence, the network is “released on parole” (unblocked). If any spam arrives during this time, the network not only goes back to jail for the other half of the sentence before commencing a new parole period, the fresh crime is added to the sentence as well. Right now, there are 28 networks on Blue Parole – which indicates either that the number of blocked “hits” was in line with the expected levels of spam, based on the evidence when it was “locked up”, or that there were no hits at all (so there is no data to use for an analysis).

What’s more, past periods of blue parole are counted, and judged quite harshly. That “green denied” network that’s blocked until December 20? It had served 8 periods of blue parole. If it re-offends in the 73-day parole period that follows its jail term, it will be “locked up” for at least 133 days. Since this is longer than I am willing to fuss over the calendar involved (more than 3 months), it will instead be “life imprisonment without the possibility of parole” – also known as Block Permanently.

A criminal record

Networks don’t receive a criminal record for life. Assuming that they make it through their blue parole, they enter gray status. Grey means that they are waiting for the statute of limitations to run out on their original crime. If jail time was not awarded to a network because they behaved themselves while sentence was suspended, they also have this status. The current statute of limitations is the period of the original sentence plus 14 days. During this time, anything on their record counts for 1/2 when a “new crime” is committed. This is just enough, in most cases, to turn what would otherwise have been a suspended sentence into new jail time.

Individual Judgment

Our hypothetical example had two spam arriving over a four day period. Let’s say that while it was blocked, 15 blocked hits were recorded by the system. While it’s possible that this was another 15 spam attempts, it doesn’t seem very likely – not in a 3- or 4- day period. It’s certainly enough to permit statistical analysis, so our example network goes into Parole Green. For the duration of the parole period, spam is counted but triggers no action – until it reaches a level great enough to account for those 15 hits. If it gets to the end of its parole period without enough spam to account for the traffic recorded, it earns individual treatment (status 2), also known as “Block individually”.

That means that each IP number within the network is treated as though it were a network in its own right. Since all the criminal activities to date have been logged against the network, and not the individual IP – they started as individual records but get conflated into a single record – they all get tossed out, and the network starts over with a clean slate.

If you have an organization of as many as 33,554,432 individuals – and some networks have that and more – it doesn’t take many bad seeds to run up significant “jail time” when all their “criminal acts” are aggregated. It’s a lot harder for an individual to accumulate enough misdeeds in a short enough time period to permit analysis of them as an individual; many times, an IP might be locked up, paroled, released, and even had their sentences expunged through that statute of limitations, endlessly repeating this cycle of misbehavior.

But each time one is released, their information is checked on release, and if there is enough to make an assessment, it may earn a coveted “Do Not Block” status, indicating that its social probity – i.e. the internet traffic reaching the site from it – outweighs the spam that is received from it. If the one network earns enough of these and has no long-term inmates amongst its population, the entire network may be granted this status.

On the other hand, recidivism counts can accumulate; each jail term and parole period is longer than the last, and eventually the IP may be blocked for more than 3 months – earning it a “block permanently” status.

The Aging Process

After all the spam has been classified and treated according to its current status within the system, the final step is to roll forward the clock, dismissing any records that have aged beyond the “statute of limitations”, concluding parole periods, and so on. This also includes releasing from ‘prison’ any blocks that have expired, resetting the system ready for the next batch.

Flaws and Weaknesses

No human process is without flaws, and this is no different. It’s flaws and weaknesses, too, are largely reminiscent of the human institution of imprisonment.

First, I dislike the need to bias the results for known spam originators, both in terms of networks and nations, just as I dislike the use of racial profiling in criminal investigations. I do so simply because years of permitting the same thing to happen have shown that some people using those services or residing in those nations can’t be trusted, and it makes the system more prone to correctly processing and preventing the receipt of more spam.

Second, human error can and does happen. A network block can be reported as cleared but the block not actually removed, for example. Or I might misidentify someone by typing in the wrong IP address, resulting in the equivalent of wrongful imprisonment. That’s one of the reasons it was so important to have a statute of limitations and for all statuses to be subject to periodic review if site behavior changes.

Third, the system can break down in one of two ways: being flooded by too much spam to process, or as a result of not processing spam received at least daily and preferably two or three times a day.

Fourth, and finally, the entire technique is vulnerable to IP address spoofing, where the IP address that gets reported to me is false, a deception perpetrated by the spammer. There have been a few cases of this that I think I have detected (not those associated with the prestigious names I listed earlier, I must add). Briefly, when you block an IP address and more spam shows up supposedly from that IP address, I regard it as suspect in this respect, and treat it accordingly, discounting it in terms of judging the apparent network).

But my old methods were prone to the same failings, and lacked the safeguards built into the new one.

The Tools

All this is possible through a combination of three tools, both WordPress plugins. The first is Akismet, which learns to identify the spam and places it into a special “spam” folder, separating it out from real comments. While there was the occasional false positive in the first few months of use, for the remainder of the many years that Campaign Mastery has used it, there has been a 99.9999% accuracy in that respect – perhaps one in one hundred thousand comments identified as spam are actually genuine. False negatives, situations in which Akismet is unsure, happen more frequently; but that’s exactly the way you would want it to be, when you think about it.

The second tool is the spreadsheet that I have constructed, and the procedures for using that spreadsheet. Almost all the operations are manual in nature, but some calculation gets performed automatically, especially the dates on which conditions expire. While it would be convenient for more of this operation to be automated, it’s not a huge deal – and does give me a greater level of control over the process.

The third tool is the one which provides the functionality to implement the judgments made using the spreadsheet. This is done with a plug-in named Wordfence, which is excellent in what it does and getting better all the time.

We’ve been using both of these for virtually as long as Campaign Mastery has been in operation, and in that time have processed 1,299,127 pieces of spam. Appalling though that number is, I would estimate that the combination has prevented at least three-to-five times that much spam from even reaching the site – call it 4 million pieces of spam over the last 8 years or so. Note that this number is higher than the spam levels reported earlier because there have been times when hundreds or even thousands of spam were arriving a day, as I described the last time I wrote about this subject.

Half a million spams a year. 1370 a day, average. Even if each only took ten seconds to process each one, that’s still close to 4 hours every day. In fact, it often takes 20 or 30 seconds to assess each piece of potential spam – so if I had to operate without these tools, I would spend about 10 hours a day doing nothing but handling spam – on average.

In fact, one of the triggers that led to the creation of the new anti-spam protocols was spam handling routinely exceeding an hour a day, up from about 10 minutes. Under the new protocols, it still takes about an hour – but it’s a far more productive hour, with far greater confidence in what is being done, and what isn’t.

Protocol Impact

To date, I haven’t heard from anyone complaining that the site was unreachable. That’s good. Any disruptions in that respect are temporary, unless the source network is being really seriously abused. And it’s cut the Spam being received from that 150-350 daily tally to between 20 and 35 a day, and sometimes less – with the confidence that minimal impact is being experienced by the real visitors to the site. That is a ten-fold reduction, And that ratio is getting better all the time.

The End Goal

One of the main reasons why it’s a lot of work is because networks are being given every opportunity to deal with their own problems, i.e. to “reform” themselves. Networks and IPs have to be dealt with, time and time again. But there is light at the end of this particular tunnel, and it’s not an oncoming train.

The end goal is to have the entire internet classified into one of the two extremes – “block permanently” or “do not block ever”. When that happens, I will happily blacklist the real offenders, secure in the knowledge that genuine visitors to the website won’t be affected. And I can put the headache of spam behind me – so far as Campaign Mastery is concerned.

The Bigger Picture

There’s only one fly in that prescription: the fact that none of this is doing anything to actually stop the proliferation of spam at the source, and the potential for that continual flood to be a vector for more significant harm. Spam is, or at least can be, a conduit of evil – or, at the very least, the spoor of such a conduit, the visible manifestation of compromised network security. Last Friday showed what that can mean for all of us. It does me no good to be sitting in a protective cocoon if the internet itself goes down, in whole or in part.

What I have devised is a way to weed the spam producers out from (most) of the legitimate web traffic to my site. I can’t fix the entire internet, but I can try to keep my little corner of it clean – and if the spam producers stop getting the results they want, maybe they’ll stop wasting their time with it. Okay, maybe that’s too much to hope for.

But it would be a start if those who could would take spam a little more seriously – and act on that.

The Gaming Connection

I promised at the start of the article that there were be a gaming connection to all this, and here it is.

This is a practical example of something that I have been extolling in the pages of Campaign Mastery for quite some time – the power of analogy.

While I didn’t start out to model the new anti-spam protocols on the generic criminal-justice system, it was only when I grasped the similarities and consciously looked for other applications of that analogy that refinements like the “statute of limitations” revealed themselves. In fact, about half of the new spam protocol was a result of “analysis by analogy”.

I used this same principle to construct an entirely new view of psionics some time back (it was part of the Examining Psionics series back in 2010. And I try to apply it whenever I am trying to solve something complicated and that I don’t fully grasp yet.

Not only does it illuminate aspects of the situation that I hadn’t thought of, not only does it give me a handle on understanding the things that I don’t understand, but it can actually suggest solutions to parts of the problem that I wasn’t even aware of. In fact, that’s how you tell that you have an illuminating analogy – if it doesn’t do at least one of those, and preferably all three, look for another one.

So think about that the next time you have a complicated situation to analyze – whether it’s trying to figure out what a villain’s grand scheme is, or how a character will react to an unusual situation, or trying to get a handle on some house rules (or just understand the official ones).

Leave a Comment

Blog Carnival Anchor – Ordinary Life (Nov 2016) plus, How Long Should Potions Last?


rpg blog carnival logo

In addition to everything else I have going on here at Campaign Mastery, next month we are scheduled to host the Blog Carnival. The current carnival over at of Dice and Dragons is all about potions, and – despite having covered that subject in depth in the first part of the Spell Storage Solutions series – I’ll make a stab at saying something fresh on the subject in a bit.

Before I get to that, however, I want to discuss what Next month is all about.

Ordinary Life in RPGs

The theme is Ordinary Life.

This is a deceptively plain brown wrapper for a variety of content, falling into three main areas:

  • The Ordinary Life of the GM and how it impacts on their gaming, and vice-versa.
    • What compromises do you have to make?
    • What tips and tricks do you have for making Gaming part of your everyday life without getting characterized as “weird” or a “nerd”?
    • Or perhaps you’re a veteran who would like to educate younger readers on how gaming used to be a closet activity – and how it came out of the closet and became socially acceptable, or at least tolerable?
    • Or perhaps, how gaming has changed your life, and what you can learn from it? I saw a social media meme just the other day on how to describe gaming on your resume….

    Lots of choices there, and that’s not even what I consider the main vein of gold to be mined by this Blog Carnival!

  • The Ordinary Life of the Players and how that impacts on the game.
    • If one of your players has had a bad week, do you consciously twist the game in a direction they will like to get them ‘in the mood’ or permit them to blow off steam – rather than letting it interfere with the game in some more substantial way?
    • To what extent does ordinary ‘real’ life influence how players will react? What are the possible consequences for game planning?
    • Or, you might talk about the interaction of player and character personalities.
    • Or, perhaps, whether or not a player’s mood should be reflected in the mood of their character? I can see arguments both ways on this one. If yes, you could be letting the player blow off steam, as noted earlier, if no, you may be permitting them to step outside the bubble of ‘negative energy’ that filters people’s perceptions when they are experiencing troubled times in their personal lives. Is Gaming, and should gaming be used for, mood alteration?

    Again, lots of potentially interesting articles there. But this is still only one-third of the potential arena of discussion within this broad subject.

  • The real core of the subject (and potentially the easiest to write about), though, is The Ordinary Life of the PCs and how the GM makes the game seem real.
    • I’ve mentioned in other articles how ‘real life’ is incorporated into the Zenith-3 and Adventurer’s Club campaigns. How do you do it?>/li>
    • How do you avoid the PCs “real lives” becoming a soap opera? Or do you even care?
    • What sort of things do the PCs get up to when they aren’t out slaying monsters and behaving heroically?
    • If yours is the sort of campaign that makes everything dramatic and larger than life, how do you do that? What are your techniques?
    • Or you could write about just one aspect of the ‘real lives’ of the PCs in your campaign. What’s it like to go shopping in the Bazaar? What might you expect to find in a realistic Village Market?
    • Our real lives are shaped around work, rest, food, and play; how are these represented in your games for the characters? Is one category given short shrift, or is it a sequential deal where each takes the spotlight on occasion, or what?
    • How do you come up with incidents to populate your characters’ “real lives”?
    • Four of the dominating influences on our lives are Politics, Religion, Law, and Social Structure / Occupation. You could write about one or all of those in your campaign, and how they affect the PCs.
    • And that’s just scratching the surface! There are lots of other aspects of the ‘real lives’ of the characters that could make great topics of conversation.

For such a plain brown wrapper, there sure is a heck of a lot of potential underneath the surface. Everyone should be able to write something about at least one of these topics – and barely scratch the surface!

I have made space in my schedule to write and publish five posts on the subject, but which of the above I choose as the subject for each is still up in the air. There is so much ground that could be covered that you could write a fortnightly post for a full year just from the suggestions above. More, if you focus on individual PCs and not the big-picture. Still more, if you simply offer suggestions of events that PCs might encounter in their daily lives.

This post is to serve as the anchor for the Carnival; everyone should either link to it (to generate a pingback) or post a comment here when they post an article as part of the Carnival.

And so, to the main subject of the day (in terms of value for readers):

potion-bottles

How Long Should Potions Last?

I don’t mean, how many doses should they contain; I’m talking about expiry dates.

This is a question that pivots directly on the question of what a potion actually is. Are potions medical concoctions, perhaps with a magical energy infusion, or are they a form of magic directly, with the ingredients used simply to give form to the magical effects?

Indefinite Potions

The latter would indicate that the “ingredients” don’t necessarily have to be incorporated in the consumable ‘liquid’ of the potion (which may take some other form, if you like). Instead, they are used to give ‘form’ to the potion, is more literally ‘liquid magic’. As such, it would last indefinitely – energy doesn’t normally spontaneously change form.

This gives rise to a number of possibilities that the GM can exploit in terms of characters changing or altering the effect that a potion has simply by reconfiguring the ‘energy matrix’ (or equivalent) into some other pattern.

To prevent abuse, I would suggest that this only be possible through difficult and expensive rituals, but there is something appealing to an arcane sygil on the carpet that causes healing potions to spontaneously explode.

Of course, it is possible that this is “lost knowledge” possessed only by one of the PCs’ enemies…

A somewhat weaker and more controllable variation based on the concept of Reducing Metamagics, which I proposed in 2009’s Broadening Magical Horizons,, would be to adjust potion effectiveness with metamagics, using the reducing metamagics to maintain a net zero adjustment in spell level – meaning that you don’t have to know what the original spell level was. For example, according to the Pathfinder core rulebook, “Extend Spell” (doubles the duration of a spell) at the cost of +1 spell level, while the Reducing Metamagic feat “slow spell” doubles the casting time at the cost of -2 spell levels. Potions normally take effect one round after being imbibed, so the combination would enable a user to double the duration of effect of a potion twice (either a tripling or a quadrupling depending on how the GM handles the effects of stacking) in return for delaying it’s effects by a round.

This might well be what a PC mage learns to do from capturing the workbooks / research of the enemy in question, signaling that part of what the enemy was able to do has been understood, but part has not and can’t be replicated by outsiders that easily.

Decaying Potions

The polar opposite has the material ingredients of the potion being genuine ingredients which will eventually decay. The question then becomes how quickly this happens; if it is too short a time-span, consumable potions will never be found in treasure caches.

Of course, you could always specify that such potions can be temporarily ‘revived’ by a process costing half the price of a ‘new’ potion, i.e. half the price listed in the appropriate rulebook. This has multiple logistics implications – potions are useless when found, but can be (effectively) ‘traded in’ when the party get back to town for functioning potions, effectively representing a (fragile) form of “Half price voucher”. Once redeemed, the party has only a limited time before the potion becomes dead once again – meaning that the party have blown their hard-earned gold.

There are other possibilities. Potions might retain their effects but become poisonous – nothing so severe as the ‘official’ poisons, but still significant. Imagine a healing potion that restores Xd8 hit points of damage – but thereafter does one point of damage per round for two-or-three rounds per point of healing effect. Or perhaps it’s X points of damage for eight rounds. Or you could decouple the effects and roll Xd8 for the healing (happens all at once) and then secretly roll Xd8 for the level of poisoning (at Y points per round, starting the round after the healing takes effect).

There are other possibilities that can be fun. Perhaps the matrix ‘calcifies’ – the potion is still viable, but for an unknown period after consumption, the character imbibing it is immune to other forms of magic that might affect them. This period should be variable and the character should never know how long it will last, only that it has or hasn’t yet worn off!

The severe downside to all of this is that it adds to the logistical overhead on the GM, who has to keep track of how old potions are. This can be minimized simply by determining in advance the date on which the potion was last ‘refreshed’ and keeping track of the game date, something most GMs do anyway.

Spoiling Potions

There is also an intermediate possibility that is worth exploring. Potions might be fine until exposed to the air, triggering the start of the decay process. Each day that subsequently passes increases the chance that the potion has gone ‘bad’ in one of the manners discussed above by 1 in 20 – which means that as soon as a potion is identified by any means other than a convenient (and possibly misleading) label, the clock starts ticking.

This avoids most of that logistic bookwork by reducing it to a d20 roll made at the time of imbibing.

I certainly would not recommend the more realistic option of checking each potion in the party’s possession daily, though that has the option – if the risk is capped – of creating a greater degree of uncertainty. “Should I or shouldn’t I risk it” can distract players at exactly the worst possible time – from their point-of-view!

Wrap-up

Most medications have a use-by date, beyond which they are either reduced in effectiveness, increased in danger of (potentially lethal) side effects, or become outright dangerous. And each medication is different in this respect. Now, I’m not suggesting that GMs go that far – but perhaps specifying one of two of the most useful potions individually might be a worthwhile exercise. Water Breathing, Healing, and Invisibility, plus a one-size-fits-all solution for the rest, would probably be a worthwhile exercise.

The assumption is, generally, that potions last forever. That’s most unlike anything in the real world. Certainly, you can retain that option – opening the door to doing other interesting things with potions that would keep players on their toes – or you can make this aspect of the campaign more realistic, increasing the element of the fantastic in the process.

It’s rare to be able to do both with a single rules option, and only makes this something worth considering carefully in your future campaigns.

Postcript:

There is a way to instate these ideas in an existing campaign. All you need do is start thinking about potion bottles as well as the contents. Perhaps they weren’t quite as adept in the old days, and the PCs have just been lucky without knowing it…

Comments (24)