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Race To The Moon – a lesson in story structure


I was catching up on a Documentary series recently aired on Australian TV over the weekend just passed, called “The Sixties”. Each episode attempts to encapsulate one aspect of the singular decade of my birth, whether it be the Civil Rights Movement, the War in Vietnam, or – in this case – the Space Race.

Something that Tom Hanks said as part of the show kept bouncing around in my head, realigning stray thoughts sparked by a book on Superhero comics called “The Superhero Reader” by Hatfield, Heer, and Worcester, and what emerged was a different perspective on why many Americans seemed to lose interest in Space after the first Moon landing, why a few did not, why the popular imagination was recaptured briefly by Apollo 13, and why it faded once again.

And then I realized that this perspective had a relevance to RPG adventures and campaigns that made it worth a public exploration here at Campaign Mastery.

The Quote

“From my perspective, as a kid, we were in a race against the Russians, and the Russians were The Bad Guys, and they were winning this race, and that meant they were superior to us, and yet they were The Bad Guys.” – Tom Hanks, “The Sixties”, episode “The Space Race”.

The Makings Of A Hero

As someone who runs a superhero campaign, and has for a long time now, this quote yielded deeper meaning. In superhero comics and stories, the other side is often superior in many respects, the hero out-gunned or outnumbered or both. It was to enable the character to be more easily challenged, producing greater drama, that Superman was first explicitly de-powered in the 1970s. There is always one respect in which the hero is superior however – the quality that makes him a hero of the old school, his moral superiority. He’s the good guy, and that enables him to overcome the odds at the last second, discover some fundamental chink in the overwhelming force (relative to him) that he is confronting, and achieve the victory.

And that’s the end of the story.

The Apollo Story

The Space Race, as Hanks points out (indirectly) is completely analogous to the superhero conflict. The enemy is superior in capabilities, seemingly unstoppable, and – in the early days – failure by “our heroes” occurs again and again, while the Evil Empire goes from one triumph to another. But slowly, NASA got it’s technological act together, and began to claw back ground.

It’s not clear exactly when the “good guys” caught up with the “bad guys” (some say it was the Gemini 8 mission where they successfully docked with another rocket), but it had clearly (in hindsight) occurred by the time the Apollo 8 mission orbited the moon, its mission profile having been moved up in the schedule because the LEM (now known as the Lunar Lander) was not yet ready for testing. The Soviets, shortly before that mission, were able to place a satellite into Lunar Orbit and photograph the far side for the first time, but this paled in comparison to the feat of placing men into Lunar Orbit and retrieving them safely.

With the successful landing of Apollo 11, the popular Zeitgeist was that the story had reached its crescendo, the good guys had once again triumphed over the bad guys, finish your popcorn and let’s go home.

There are resonances with the smashing victories of the Second World War in both stories, too. There, once again, the Allies were faced with a seemingly invincible enemy, one who seemed capable of achieving victories with seemingly nonchalant ease – witness the speed with which France had been overwhelmed. But the Allies (not yet including the US), expecting invasion at any turn, held on through the Battle Of Britain to achieve an against-the-odds victory of survival; and then the Nazis were defeated by the allies (now including the US); and then, finally, the War in the Pacific was won, bringing to an end the last of the Axis powers. Each of these represented many smaller victories and achievements, and there were more than a few defeats along the way, but “the good guys” won in the end. And then that story ended, and the troops came home to hero’s welcomes.

If you were writing it as a proposed Movie Trilogy, Movies two and three would appear to be the wrong way round. The Nazis, as the original “bad guys” of the plot, can’t be defeated until the end of the last movie. But this is real life.

You see the same thing in many of the movies of the era, too. You win, and the story ends.

After Apollo

Psychologically, then, many US citizens were predisposed to Apollo 11, and the achievement of the defined mission – “Landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade – meant that the story should then end. Except that it didn’t; Apollo 12 followed, with all the drama of wet spaghetti from the perspective of the public at large. If it had been packaged as “rubbing it in”, they might have gotten away with it, but these were engineers who sought to eliminate all potential for drama and excitement from the program because those were signs of things having gone wrong. NASA’s professional pride made such an interpretation impossible. Small wonder, when the story still didn’t end (with the announcement of Apollo 13) that interest was at a fairly low ebb, and stayed there. At least until…

The Emergency In Space

Without warning, there was drama and excitement aboard the Apollo 13 mission. An explosion on board the spacecraft threatened the lives of the Astronauts in so many ways that it’s difficult to count them all. It’s worth noting that the movie (starring Hanks) actually glossed over several of the problems that had to be confronted and defeated!

Once again, we had a story of an intrepid band facing overwhelming odds – and once again, we had a triumph, perhaps one that was as great as the road to success of Apollo 11 in the first place. It would make – did make – a compelling story, and suddenly the Space Program was the hottest story in the world for the second time.

But “Our Heroes” won against impossible odds, the Crew came home safe, and the second story ended.

Except that the Apollo missions dragged on and on, like a movie that didn’t know when to stop.

The Sublimation Of Enemies

Not everyone lost interest in Space, of course. And almost universally, those whose fascination remained had a characteristic in common: they were able to sublimate Space itself, or ignorance, into the Ultimate Enemy. That was part of the nerve touched on by the original Star Trek – it showed a world in which that enemy had been defeated, paving the way for new and interesting challenges.

For most people, though, the remainder of the Apollo program, and Skylab, and the shuttle program that followed it, was just part of the wallpaper. They would miss it if it was gone, and the regretted the expense of maintaining it, but it was just there, and nothing to get excited about. Hence the budgetary cutbacks of the 70s and 80s.

Some people might debate my suggestion that the public would miss the Space Program if it went away completely, but I think the grief after the shuttle disasters showed that people did still care, in a diffuse and background sort of way.

And from time to time, there were other success stories that captured the public imagination – and, strangely, they can all be cast in the same basic mould as the ones described already. The plucky little Voyager probes which braved the dangers of deep space to bring us images of the outer planets. Half-Blind Hubble who astonished us with magnificent images – once gifted with his almost-magical corrective lenses.

Once again, as soon as their stories were done, these dropped from the public consciousness. How many people who went gosh-wow over the images of Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons, give passing thought to the space probes that captured those images and where they are today? Are they even monitored in case they discover something unexpected, out in deep space? The answer is no, obviously. You don’t have to think about these missions that way; I’m certainly not suggesting that this is the right way or only way to do so! But it is a way of looking at them that explains why they captured the public imagination – at least for a while – and then faded into the background for all but the cognizanti, and that’s what’s important here.

The Relevance to RPGs

RPG adventures and campaigns are tales in this same heroic mould. That’s a large part of their appeal. And that means that they should come to a definitive, clear, end – and then either stop, or get out of the way of the next adventure.

A long time back, I wrote an article about compacting a plotline that had been underway for too long in one of my campaigns: When Good Ideas Linger Too Long: Compacting plotlines. At the time, I couldn’t work out why the plotline had lingered too long, just that it had (because the players were clearly growing tired of it), and that I needed to accelerate the reaching of a definitive conclusion.

Now, with this new context, the reason becomes clear: The PCs had encountered, and defeated problem number 1. But the story didn’t stop; problem number 2 arose, and was defeated, but by now it was clear that the solution to adventure number 1 hadn’t solved everything. And neither did adventure number 2. Or three. Or Four. It was while working on adventure number five, which was building directly toward the crescendo of Adventure number 6 in this little mini-campaign within a campaign, that I realized that I had a problem, wrote the article referred to, and did something about it.

I also touched on this issue peripherally in my two-part article on Sequel Campaigns (Part 1, Part 2). What I have now realized is that aiming for shorter, more discrete campaigns with inbuilt plans for a sequel can be more advantageous than I had previously thought. This is a radical shift in my thinking; I typically design very broad, very long, campaigns, and those campaigns sometimes go through lulls when there isn’t a lot of caring about the campaign on the part of the players. Then a new adventure will re-engage them, the campaign will build up a new head of steam, and things will go fine – until the next dead spot.

Quite often, these lulls don’t affect the players equally; some remain interested in the campaign because the adventures remain relevant to their characters and appeal to their preferences in storytelling. That’s why dead spots don’t occur at the end of every adventure, or even every second adventure. The more players you have, the more likely it is that at least one of them will be able to sustain interest on behalf of the group, motivating and encouraging the others. At the same time, the more players you have, the harder it is to keep the campaign interesting for everybody.

A side note:
It follows that each GM has an ideal number of players in terms of sustaining overall interest in the campaign, whether they realize it or not; this is entirely aside from other administrative and GMing problems with too many players, it solely concerns the number of players that they are able to keep interested in the campaign. For me, the optimum number is 4-5; others have told me 5 or 6, based on subjective experience, and again without being able to explain why it is that a campaign with more players tends to lose one or two until it reaches that optimum level.

Finally, this places into a new context my recent two-part article, “The Wandering Spotlight” (Part 1, Part 2), which is all about maintaining player engagement in the campaign even when their characters aren’t the central focus of an adventure. Within this new context, this can be described as ensuring that other players have something to sustain interest when their part of the story seems to have ended.

Applying the Theory

This is all too new and raw to have a major impact on my campaign or adventure design. In fact, you could say that most of the lessons to be derived from these thoughts have already been implemented in my different campaigns, one way or another (described in more articles here than I can readily count). However, those changes were implemented without regard to why they worked or were necessary, beyond the most superficial understanding. What this new insight offers is a reason for the necessity of those changes and techniques to be implemented, and that in turn provides a means of validating future proposals and enhancing the benefits that it is hoped that they will yield.

Understanding this makes me a better campaign designer, a better adventure designer, and a better GM. Understanding some fundamental principle always does, even if it has no immediate practical application. But it’s still worth shouting about, don’t you think?

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Memorials To History – an ‘a good name’ extra


There is a pub in Soho that still bears the name, “The John Snow”. It is named for the brave physician who proved that Cholera was spread through drinking water, ending an outbreak in the district.

And that sparks a thought: Every place name is – or at least can be – a memorial to the history and background of a campaign.

All too often, GMs are lazy when it comes to naming things like inns and such, using traditional and fairly universal names like “The Red Sparrow” or “The Boar and Ox”. Even town names are often meaningless and placid things.

All this is a tremendous wasted opportunity.

Foundations in History

Every Inn and Tavern should be named for a famous figure or event from history. Every town should be named for someone who was important either locally or nationally famous or for some event in the region’s past. If that means that towns change their names every hundred years or so, so be it!

Use these place names to connect with the stories behind the names, breaking the details of your campaign background into bite-sized chunks. Write it as you go if you have to – so long as you maintain a compendium of the results for future reference and consistency, why not?

Of course, the major events should be outlined before you start, but every event can be expanded upon in greater detail.

If a place is named for some heroic deed, it can be a source of local pride. If a place is associated with some scene of infamy, it can be a source of shame or repentance, with the people going out of their way to demonstrate that the event was an aberration. Either way, the name can be used to give the community a personality, and that’s half the battle to making it memorable.

Here’s a list of questions that you can use to spark your thinking:

  • What happened here?
  • Who came from here?
  • Who lived here?
  • Who died here?
  • What was discovered here?
  • What ended here?
  • What is grown here?
  • What is made here?
  • Is there a local legend?
  • If not, create a local legend!

Plot Integration

Once you get used to employing significant names for places and institutions, you can start to entwine your plots with names. The Inn of Gravesend in the town of Barrowsmound may refer to some past event of no great significance – or there may be a local legend about a cemetery that broke in half and slid into the sea from which the unquiet dead emerge from time to time. Or maybe there’s a legend about a treasure buried in a Barrow, which is a type of burial mound.

The town of Matthias’ Crown may be innocuous – or it might be the site of a historic confrontation between two claimants to the throne, one of whom emerged victorious and the other who is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the vicinity. Or the Crown may be a literal object and not a metaphoric one, perhaps with arcane powers, if only the players have the wit to track it down.

It only takes a little of this sort of thing to have the players looking for the meaning behind every name, picking up bits of campaign background as they go, and the campaign more than half-writing itself.

A quick little post today for three reasons – first, to give me time to work on some bigger ones that I have underway, second, because the subject didn’t really need lengthier treatment, and third, because I lost time on the weekend to motorsports and earlier this week to a passing illness. Don’t worry, I’m fine now.

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Abandoned Islands – Iconic Adventure Settings


I love a great location, and one of my favorite settings is an abandoned island. There are lots of reasons for this. Here’s just a few:

  • They contain great visual elements, even when described in narrative.
  • Decay and Ruin can be used symbolically to represent almost any situation in a game. And there’s always overgrowth and undergrowth and the like for symbolic representation of everything else.
  • They are full of nooks and crannies that can hide anything.
  • If you put something underneath that ruin and decay, you can get great contrasts.
  • There’s always a story behind such places. Why is it abandoned?

Abandoned Islands in a Modern setting

Beneath the ruins of an ancient city, a super-agency has built a high-tech resource centre from which to mastermind their attempt to shape the course of future world events – whether the world agrees with them or not. Vine-encrusted stone walls lift and swing aside to reveal a hanger deck for stealth VTOL variants on modern transport and fighter aircraft. Infrared sensors and hidden cameras are mounted in collapsed and broken statues that give their eyes an eerie red glow at night. Pillboxes lie concealed behind centuries-old carved walls. Partially-collapsed staircases hidden beneath layers of dirt, leaves, and fallen branches lead to long-forgotten cellars whose walls have been rebuilt with secret entrances providing access for personnel, while caverns conceal a jetty for marine craft of all varieties to tie up – if you have the correct signalling equipment to trigger the lowering of a mechanised “reef” and a wall of razor-sharp stagalmites that block access to the jetty from the outside.

The more modern-day the campaign, the farther off-shore the island can be and still be “connected” to the campaign. This is due to two factors: faster transport, and modern communications.

Abandoned Islands in a Fantasy setting

In contrast, fantasy-campaign islands fall into two discrete types: those that are close enough to be reached by bridge, or – perhaps – by rowboat, and those which require a sailing vessel to access. The former are great for semi-isolated settings and contrast the life of the urban environment with the desolation / wilderness of the island, while the latter emphasize the isolation and disconnection from the known world; precedent for this type of usage stretches all the way back to the tale of Jason and the Argonauts.

The River Carstan runs through the centre of the port city of Jezwel, and in the centre of that river lies the island of Marshwell and the abandoned keep of Thimolise. Once, it dominated the region, but its strategic position attracted more settlers than could be accommodated within the safety of the Keep, and so the urban settlement of Jezwel sprang up. At first, the keep remained the position of power over the settlement, but its days of authority were already numbered. That authority was weakened when walls were erected around Jezwel, and much of the burgeoning bureacracy relocated, signalling a slow drifting of power into the heart of the urban community and away from the island.

The deathknell for Thimoline came when a stranger came to visit the Precept of Thimoline – a title that has since fallen into disuse. Although he claimed to be a friend, travelling with news of far places, his visit was for his own dark purposes. Late that night he stole into the mortuary and crafted a dark spell beyond the powers of most mortals and even many supernatural agencies, and the revered dead of the keep rose from their resting places to assault the living even as they slept. And each defender who fell rose again within minutes to join the army of undeath. Slowly, the alarm was raised, and the sixty-two fortunate survivors fled, burning the bridges that connected the island Keep to the town of Jezwel.

Deep within the crypts, according to legend, the Precept – the last of his line, for his sons and daughters had already fallen and joined the ranks of the enemy – confronted the Necromancer, and killed him, before succumbing to his own wounds. Others claim that the Necromancer had been summoned by the Precept himself to save the life of the Precept’s son, who was reportedly sickly and ill, but that the Precept was betrayed by the Necromancer, and that the killing was an act of revenge. None who survived know the truth.

Whatever the truth, every night the undead stir, under the command of the long-dead precept and the Undead Necromancer, and seek ways to reach the living to swell and bolster their number. For years, Jezwel was a town under seige, as the undead simply walked across the river bottom each night; but then came Stewen The White, who erected the white SoulGuard stones to confine the undead, giving his life to get the last in place before sunset and the rising anew of the dead. For a year and a day, it was thought that the threat was confined eternally, but then the Wards failed, and it was learned that they needed to be renewed each year.

In the handful of centuries since, this has become an annual tradition within what has grown into a trade centre and cosmopolitan city, but it has also grown ever more dangerous, for all manner of fell creatures have been attracted to the island, and even by dat, it is now a place of deadly danger for any who dare to set foot apon its rocky outcroppings.

The above is a slight revamping of the background to an adventure used in one of my D&D campaigns – I have the vague memory of it being the first Fumanor campaign, but I’m not 100% sure. There are three obvious ways to use this background for an adventure, and the changes made are intended to make them all viable choices.

  • Option 1: The PCs are hired/selected to renew the Soulguard Stones for another year.
  • Option 2: The PCs are hired to attempt to penetrate the catacombs beneath the keep, locate the crypts, and bring an end to the menace once and for all.
  • Option 3: One of the Soulguard stones has been broken or stolen, presumably by one of the creatures on the island or perhaps by the Undead who have long sought to escape their confinement. The PCs have been hired to solve the crime and restore the Soulguard Wards, and to try and end the menace once-and-for-all if they can.

The option chosen will require further development of the setting to support it.

Using Real Locations

Jump-starting your imagination with a real-life location can save you lots of effort, because all you have to do is recast whatever you can find out about the place into appropriate terminology for your campaign. If you are presented with a wall constructed of shattered fibro or something similar with vines growing through it, you can change it to stone, or wood, or concrete, or plastic, or whatever is appropriate. The key to doing so with plausibility is to note how long the island has been devoid of habitation, and why – then adjust both accordingly. Then employ the visual translation trick described earlier in this paragraph.

Finding Places

There are a number of web pages that list abandoned islands and communities. I’ve gathered a small collection below, but there are many more. Most, if not all these places, will have wikipedia pages dedicated to them, and a Google image search will turn up anywhere from a few to hundreds of images.

I expected it to be a problem selecting sites that didn’t have too many entries in common, but that turned out not to be a significant problem, much to my surprise!

Google Image Search Tips & Tricks:

  • Google’s web search understands the use of “plus”[term] to mean “must include” and “minus”[term] to mean “exclude” – Google’s Image search doesn’t seem to do so. Response to using quotation marks around a term – which on the web search mean “exact match only” or “must include” – can also be sporadic.
  • It’s also worth remembering that Google’s Image Search doesn’t search for images that match the search term you provide, it lists ANY image on a webpage that includes the search term – so you can end up with a lot of rejects that aren’t what you want.
  • As a general rule of thumb, the farther down the list of results of an image search a particular result is, the less likely it is to match what you are looking for – but there are frequent exceptions to this rule.
  • Once you have an image search underway, click on Search Tools, and you can restrict the size of image to whatever you want. I use two searches all the time: “Large” and “larger than 800×600″. This is great for weeding out images that are too small to be useful; the default is always “Any Size”, which gives you lots of thumbnails and small size images. The bigger the image, the more details you can usually extract from it.
  • Don’t assume that Google Images on any setting will show you the largest version of an image. If the image offered is large enough, that’s fine. But if not, you have options:
    • Click on the size link to look for the identical image in other sizes (sometimes with very minor variations). This search normally happens in a new browser tab or window, preserving the original search.
    • Click on the Search By Image link to search for similar images – sometimes these will be very close to the original, sometimes identical, and sometimes wildly different. Again, this search normally takes place in a new browser tab or window.
      • This can give you pages that contain the image.
      • Clicking on all sizes gives you the search results IN SIZE ORDER, excluding the original.
  • Sometimes, when you click on “view image”, you will get a “forbidden” message.
    • The “Visit Page” button can often get you the image when this happens. There are all sorts of ways to design a web page so that clicking on the “view image” button won’t work. These sites don’t distinguish between Googles’ search and any other website hotlinking to the image, and that’s a practice that all website operators tend to discourage because it means people can use the site’s bandwidth to download the image without seeing ads that support the website and keep it “on the air”.
    • There will sometimes be times when the page that comes up won’t have an obvious link to the image. There is one final trick that sometimes works: click the “Visit Page” button, and then, with that page still open in another tab, click the “View Image” button. Because the page is open, the site thinks that you have permission to view the image, and hey presto!
  • Finally, if you get desperate, choose the medium or small image sized options. These can sometimes get you thumbnails that link to a larger image that the website has told Google not to list.

Google Images 1

These tricks give you access to a lot more images – learn to use them all!

The List

The next time you need an idea or a location, consider an abandoned island!

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The Wandering Spotlight Part Two of Two: Shared Stories


My co-GM in the Adventurer’s Club campaign and I work very hard to maintain player engagement even when the spotlight is not on that player’s character (which only makes it all the more obvious and painful when we fail in attempts to do so). While there is little that I regard as especially novel about the approach and techniques that we employ to do this, what seems obvious to me may not be so obvious to anyone else, and that makes it a topic worth exploring.

There are two distinct phases to the approach we employ; the first is to ground each of the PCs in a place of relevance at the start of the adventure through what I described in Part One as “Prologue Scenes”. These are incredibly useful for establishing context for the adventure to follow, for keeping the world dynamic, and for giving the PCs personal lives that can then be disrupted by the adventure, to name just a few of the potential benefits. The second phase kicks in when the main adventure starts and builds on the foundations laid in the prologues, and it’s this phase that I am placing under the microscope today.

Shared Stories

Just as the PCs are individuals who come together for the main adventure, setting aside those personal independent lives for the achievement of common purpose, so the adventure itself should bring the characters together, whether that be in objective, in motivation, in mutual survival or benefit, or simply in mutual alliance. In other words, the prologues are all about the individual stories of each of the PCs, while the main adventure is something that is to be shared by all of them.

In considering the overall adventure and how it will be broken down into a coherent structure, there are nine things that we consider, and attempt to keep in mind.

These are:

  1. Rotating Spotlights
  2. Parts Of A Whole
  3. Can’t Be Everywhere
  4. Side-stories & Subtleties
  5. What’s My Motivation? (Continued)
  6. Making it Personal
  7. Everyone is somewhere doing something, all the time
  8. Partners make life easier
  9. Plot that eats itself

It’s important to realize what I mean by the term “overall structure” in this context. I mean what the major elements of the plot are, and which character or characters have a featured or dominant role in each of those elements.


Adventure Structures example 1

For example, consider the diagram to the right. It assumes that Prologues have been put in place for each character, and that Character A’s prologue leads to the main adventure by way of a second prologue for character D. But once the main adventure starts, look at what happens: Aside from one plot sequence dominated by Character A and one by character C, it’s all about D, all the time. Characters B and E don’t even get a look in – they may as well be generic NPCs.


Adventure Structures example 2

What this article, and especially the nine considerations above, are concerned with is turning that structure into the one shown to the left. D is still the central focus of the adventure, there’s no doubt, but everybody catches a bit of the spotlight, and they all make a contribution to the plot.

So let’s start by looking at those nine principles in detail.

1. Rotating Spotlights

This simply means that if this adventure revolves around character D, with arguably more substantial contributions in key scenes from A and C, the next adventure should revolve around someone else, and preferable characters B and/or E. After that, one of the others gets a feature, and so on.

It’s very rare for any one adventure to give equal prominence to everyone – and one of the ways of achieving equal prominence is for the adventure not to matter especially to any of them, which is not all that desirable. One or two characters will usually have a particularly string connection to the overall plot of any given adventure.

You can see how we implement this particular principle in our overall planning by reading Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited, an earlier article that looked specifically at how we order adventures, It’s a revisit on the overall subject because I employ a more complex process for plotting my superhero campaign, Zenith-Three, which I had described extensively in a still-earlier article series – you can find the link in the “Amazon Nazis” article.

2. Parts Of A Whole

It’s often said “there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team’”. Certainly, that’s the approach we take in plotting the main structure of any adventure – we View each essential step in the process of getting from start to finish of the adventure as parts of a whole, and a whole that furthermore is being undertaken by the team of PCs. By remaining aware of the abilities and experiences that make each player and each character unique – something I’ll talk about in more detail in a subsequent section of this article – we are constantly able to look for opportunities for each to play a key role even if they don’t dominate that part of the plot.

3. Can’t Be Everywhere

One of the key techniques we employ is to make sure that events requiring PC involvement pile up on the PCs so that no one character can do it all. This forces the dominant PC to delegate one of the others to handling part of his “spotlight time” as a surrogate. The more PCs you have, the more difficult this becomes, because you need more things happening simultaneously and it gets easy for the main plot to become muddled if you aren’t careful. So it’s not a complete solution in its own right.

4. Side-stories & Subtleties

Something we definitely look for are any side-issues from, or nuances of, the main plot that aren’t likely to get sufficient exposure due to the combination of PC abilities / personality and Player predilections / personality. Placing one of the other PCs (who is more likely to react) in a position to explore those aspects of the plot and then feed the results back into discussions / planning for the main plotline is usually a far better option than trying to force-feed that content to a player who’s uninterested or has a character without the capabilities for dealing with it. Sometimes, rather than dealing with those peripheral issues directly, it is better to employ a more metaphoric approach, on other occasions the direct approach is definitely the way to go. This depends on the exact nature of the additional content, the sensibilities of the player, and so on; it has to be tailored to each situation and each participant, both on a character and a metagame level.

An important sub-type of play content that falls into this category is the question of shaping, directing, or minimizing fall-out from the main plot. A second sub-type of no less significance is the gathering / recruiting of resources that the central character will need access to in order to resolve the main plotline. Both of these can provide an opportunity for other PCs to shine; it’s often simply a case of taking a scene that could be hand-waved or resolved with a single piece of roleplay and working it up into something a little more substantial.

One of the big side-benefits of this technique is that the PC takes ‘possession’ of the peripheral aspect of the main plot, providing a way for the character to invest in the main plot, resulting in a greater level of engagement in that plot on the part of that player.

5. What’s My Motivation? (Continued)

One of the sources / considerations that I listed for prologues was establishing or highlighting each PC’s expected motivation to helping resolve the main plot. Characters can often start with one motivation and discover personal relevance to the plotline as it unfolds, which is an obvious way of engaging them; but even when their motivation remains constant, it’s important to hit that beat every now and then.

Consider for a moment what’s wrong with the following outline: Before the main plot begins, we establish that character A’s motivation is his friendship with the PC who is central to the plotline. Once the main plot begins, the two do absolutely nothing together to demonstrate that friendship; they might as well be strangers thrown together by circumstance. Then the credits roll over a scene in which they are buddy-buddy again.

That’s right, the whole buddy-buddy thing seems tacked on, and you would seriously doubt how invested the character actually is in the main plot. And if the character isn’t invested in the plot, it’s a lot less likely (in an RPG) that the player is invested. While it might going too far to incorporate a scene whose sole purpose is to reinforce and reflect a PCs motivation, ensuring that there are opportunities built into scenes, that exist for other reasons, for those motivations to be touched on, goes a long way. And it gives those PCs the chance to roleplay a little, which is never a bad thing.

All that said, you need to be careful not to force behaviors onto a PC. Making it clear that PCs A and B are buddies as a result of past shared experiences, and providing an opportunity for that relationship to be roleplayed, is fine, and is as far as it should go – then let the relationship between the PCs evolve in it’s own direction.

6. Making it Personal

Unless it is becoming repetitive from one adventure to the next, you should always look for opportunities to make a main plot personal for each character if that hasn’t already been established. Every character has buttons that should evince strong reactions; look for ways to integrate “hot button” issues into the plot. A character might be ho-hum and by-the-numbers, doing it because it has to be done, about going after a corporate crook – until they discover that they are preying on old folks and orphans, or their actions have a secondary impact that is going to seriously hurt such folks. Even then, you don’t want it to be some abstraction; if the elderly are being victimized, include a couple of them (of various personality profiles) in a scene or two to put a personal face on the situation.

And if there’s nothing from a character perspective on which to hang personal motivation, consider the player. Where the player goes, the PC will follow. This is more subtle and complicated, because there needs to be a way of expressing that motivation within the parameters established for the PCs personality.

I once saw an NPC (in another GM’s game) break off the fight to help a little old lady cross the street, only to be struck down from behind as soon as “Grannie” was out of the way by one of the PCs. The other players, and one in particular, reacted quite strongly, motivating them for the first time to seriously consider the story the NPC had offered. When it subsequently transpired that the story was full of half-truths and spin doctoring for the NPC’s benefit, that one player in particular felt betrayed by the NPC, while the PC who had taken the cheap shot felt vindicated. They were both highly-motivated to play out the adventure from that point forward, though.

7. Everyone is somewhere doing something, all the time

In any plot sequence that revolves around one PC, it’s essential to always remember that the other PCs are still somewhere, doing something. They can be with the central PC, and able to react to the central PCs reaction to the plot sequence; or they can be somewhere else, where they can’t interfere. It’s always important to manage these situations carefully; you don’t want to force decisions onto the PCs, but there is absolutely no reason to arrange circumstances so that their characters want to make the decision you want.

If you don’t want a PC to be present for a particular scene, or if they don’t have a particular reason to be involved in that scene, it’s always worth asking what else they can be doing, even engineering a complication or plot wrinkle for the sole purpose of giving them something to do away from the main encounter.

Note that it’s VERY easy for this sort of planning to go astray. Contingency plans should always be in the back of your mind.

8. Partners make life easier

…well, sometimes they do. Let’s say you have a party of six PCs – it’s a lot easier to keep three pairs of PCs busy than it is to handle six isolated individuals. That’s all well and good, but the PCs themselves will usually allocate their manpower as they see fit, and this allocation will often be at variance with what you had in mind. Occasionally, you can arrange circumstances so that who should be assigned to what will be fairly obvious, but this is very easy to overdo, and it’s very conducive to plot trains. It’s one thing to tell the players how the switches on the track should be set, and quite another to set those switches on their behalf.

Or, to put it another way, the choices should result naturally from the confluence of personalities, abilities, interests, and circumstances.

A fun little exercise that can be employed occasionally is to allocate minor NPCs to players who aren’t involved in a scene. Name, basic personality, objective, and motivation, should be written as a single paragraph (as minimally as possible) and handed to such players, together with instructions to “have fun” with the role. These characters should be unimportant in terms of plot, so that you don’t have to give away any secrets to them; they are incidental extras.

Some players won’t like this, because it breaks their focus on their PC, which is the primary role they are playing; others will go too far over the top; and still others will take your “have fun” literally. Next time, leave out anyone who really objects, but most will go along just to have something to do while their characters are busy elsewhere, doing something that they will get to roleplay. In general, it’s a lot better than having players sit around waiting for the spotlight to get back to them, but it can’t be used all the time; it becomes too blatantly artificial.

The last time I can remember doing this, the PCs were visiting a nursing home for the geriatric. One player decided his “NPC” thought he was an ex-jewel thief and a born teller of tall-tales that made him seem more important than he was, another was a would-be Lothario, one was vague about just what the date was, and one did nothing but sleep – while mumbling “interesting” things between snores! Throw in two PCs trying to get witness statements, and a couple of NPCs run by the GM (who actually saw something) but who were more interested in other things – one thought the staff were stealing his money, and the other was just grumpy, cantankerous, and uncooperative.

9. Plot that eats itself

It can be the height of artistry in RPG plotting to have seemingly-unrelated plot threads in an adventure that come together at the end to reveal an unrecognized relevance that was always there, beneath the surface. Failed attempts at achieving this are also highly artificial in nature, and can be catastrophically bad gaming, fun for no-one. It’s an approach that doesn’t work if the supposedly-unrelated plot threads are too obvious in their connection to the main plot, and doesn’t work if they are too subtle, too.

Nevertheless, there is always value in having prologues and subplots relate to the main plot, however obliquely, so long as they are organic outgrowths of the personalities and “lives” of the PCs featured and the circumstances that obtain at that time in the wider world.

At one point in the pulp campaign, for example, we produced a series of front-pages to “newspapers” of the day, having determined which press sources were most appropriate to the personalities of the PCs. Each contained at least one headline that advanced the main plot and another that was designed to be of interest to the PC reading that newspaper. Note that we didn’t actually write more than a lead paragraph of each “story”, using Greeked Text (Lorum Ipsum) for the remainder. These headlines were entirely fictional and were derived using a variant of the “Chinese Whispers” method of Rumor Generation, which I described in Issue #322 of Roleplaying Tips. In this case, the process was “generalize/speculate, add bias, react, and spin the result”; repeat for each successive story while ensuring that the bias and spin were different each time. Some were alarmist, some pro-establishment, some conservative, some radical, some pro-Nazi, others pro-intervention, and some were just a vehicle for an axe to grind, but they were all peripherally related to both everyday events going on in the character’s lives at that point AND to each paper’s jaundiced views of developments in the main plot (before the PCs even became embroiled in it).

The general issue was Civil Rights, and agitation in various ports by Black Workers and Unions – a subject that was broad enough in a 1930s setting to permit all sorts of facets to come to light, and it was part of an insidious plot by a radical faction of the KKK to persuade the Authorities that they needed to clamp down, and to propel our fictitious Grand Dragon (and mastermind) into the White House. The plot, and the social issue, were eventually laid to rest, but – in the latter case – seeds were sewn that would eventually give birth to the historic civil rights movement. But, in the meantime, just look at all the tangents that this touches on – Nazism, Communism, War readiness, Social Policy, Organized Crime and the Unions, North-South tensions, Welfare, the New Deal, Democrats, Republicans, even questions about minority participation in national sports, advertising, sweat-shops, worker’s rights – the list just goes on and on – and that’s before we look at “pro” and “anti” positions on the issues. If you can’t find something of relevance to any period character in that list, you aren’t trying hard enough.

None of this was forced; we weren’t telling the PCs what to think. If anything, we were playing on the modern-day attitudes towards multiculturalism and equality of the players, setting them up for the plot twist in which the noble sentiments expressed before their time were being subverted by a power-hungry bigot as a road to power. But the point is this: it made the plot relevant to, and important to, each of the characters.

Everyone shares the spotlight: PCs

Item 2, above, points at individualism as a contribution to the collective pluracy of group participation. At the time, I promised to go into more detail in a subsequent section; in fact, there are two such sections. This, the first, deals with the PC and what the individual brings to the group; the next deals with the Player who controls the PC.

You can think of the PCs as a single organism with the combined abilities, knowledge, skills, and personality traits of its constituent parts, capable of doing multiple things simultaneously – within limits – as well as possessing some qualities and attributes that result from the collective group.

In terms of outlining the overall course of a plot, such a perspective can be very useful, but in reality this is a theoretical construct; because you have individuals deciding the actions of each participant member, once the main plot and the prepared paths through to an opportunity for resolution are determined as a broad outline, it is necessary to examine the plot in detail from the perspective of each individual PC. You want your plot to make use of some unique aspect of each individual as their contribution to the collective effort, and to reflect their individual personalities, presenting an opportunity for their uniqueness to be highlighted. In other words, each needs his share of the spotlight.

Each character can be broken down into six ways in which they are distinct to a greater or lesser extent. Knowing how each PC is different from the others in those respects allows you to present circumstances in which the exercising of that distinctiveness can or will advance or enhance the plot. Not all these opportunities will actually present themselves in play, because the players may choose a different allocation of resources or even an entirely different plan to the one you anticipate; and not all the opportunities presented will be taken up by the player in question. First, they have to recognize than an opportunity exists, for example, and second they have to decide to avail themselves of it, and third they have to succeed in doing so.

That suggests that having two, three, or even four more times as many such opportunities as you think will be needed to give each PC his share of the spotlight can be needed. Practical experience has shown that this is usually too many, because whatever a PC does he will reflect his own unique attributes and aspects in what he chooses to do and how he chooses to do it.

Providing such opportunities can be viewed as an insurance policy and a way of fostering engagement, i.e. encouraging that sort of participation on the part of the PC. In other words, looking for such opportunities and even building one or two each into your adventures is never wasted effort, but you should never lock your thinking in stone on the subject and view it as “enough”. Sometimes it will be more than enough, and sometimes you will need to leave it to the player to carve out his own spotlight time. Aiming for a better batting average than would result simply from a straight interpretation of the plot is generally enough – especially if you make a point of trying not to get in the way when a PC steps up (unless they are stealing another PC’s spotlight moment, of course).

A better approach is generally to view each stage of the plot as a problem that needs to be solved and asking how each PC can contribute to that solution. If there is no obvious answer on the part of one or more PCs, that’s when you should consider a supplementary scene or subplot for those PCs.

Points Of Distinction: Abilities

Each character is able to do certain things better than others. One might be faster, another stronger, a third might be armed against the supernatural, and so on. When you are dealing with a Fantasy Campaign, there tend to be even more variations within this category.

These are the most obvious point of distinction that separates one character from another, and therefore they yield the most predictable plots when relied upon. Nevertheless, ignoring these is usually a bad idea. Starting with the generic approach and then applying some element of differentiation between this PC and other representatives of the generic character archetype to customize the opportunity is usually a better solution.

However, skill-based abilities – characters who know how to do something specific – are often a viable point of distinction without elaboration – it depends how unique that knowledge is amongst the party. But see also my comments below.

The fact that another character was`a successful officer in the Royal Navy is enough for us to presume that he knows how to give orders in a tone of voice that makes others likely to obey, especially if accustomed to obeying such orders. This is an way in which an ability can impact a plotline by altering how an NPC will react. Other characters could issue the same instruction and the NPC will think it over; and still others could do so and be ignored.

One of the PCs in the Pulp Campaign is good at cutting through the fog and getting to the heart of a situation; another is good for legal issues; a third has morals and morality and questions of “what is right?” covered; and a fourth is great for issues of ethics and responsibility. The fifth hasn’t been with the campaign long enough to have demonstrated a particular aspect for which he is predisposed, beyond the obvious.

Points Of Distinction: Knowledge

We use this all the time. It works with the Hero System because there are enough skills that no-one can be qualified in every field, or even in the majority of subjects. It doesn’t work anywhere near as well in systems like D&D and Pathfinder because the skill points characters get are high enough that some ability in the majority of subjects is usually accessible by any given character.

Points Of Distinction: Life Experience

Not everything that a character has been through in their “lives” is always reflected in their skills and knowledge. We partially address this situation with Everyman Skills, many of which need to be defined and customized to match the individual’s background, but even these are incomplete. The knowledge that a character has spent time in the Middle East is sufficient basis to reasonably conclude that he has a tourist’s knowledge of Ancient Egypt, Pharaohs, Mummification, etc. If any of those subjects happen to be relevant, it pushes that character forward.

Even if the knowledge isn’t relevant, the appearance of relevance can be just as effective. It can shape the allocation of responsibilities by the PCs, and still provide a character with a slice of the available spotlight time.

Points Of Distinction: Attitudes & Opinions

Definitely ingredients that rarely appear on character sheets, these can nevertheless be just as influential as anything in writing. Again, the Hero System is better in this respect than some other game systems, but doesn’t offer the capacity for more than the most dominant characteristics of personality. The better you know the PC in question as the player expresses his personality in play, the more effectively you can write to that character.

Points Of Distinction: Circumstances

Not so much the circumstances within the adventure as the broader circumstances of the PC’s current status. Father O’Malley lives in a Vestry attached to a Church, the 54th Street Mission. He shares these accommodations with another Priest, who appears regularly on an interfaith radio show that discusses various subjects social, religious, and topical. He acts as a “relief priest” for the surrounding parishes. He does charity work one day a week when not otherwise engaged. He has a reputation for being fairly progressive and moderate in his social values. He has been professionally trained to be diplomatic when necessary. These are all circumstances that can be used as the foundation of a prologue, but they can also play a significant role in individual scenes within an adventure – when you need to question the nuns at a religious school, or persuade the head of a charity to give you the time of day, or simply need a connection to a friend of such a charity director, to name just a few.

He is also the shortest member of the PCs – which is something that we haven’t yet been able to make a significant factor, but you never know…

Points Of Distinction: Flaws & Limitations

Almost as important as determinant individualizing factors are the flaws and limitations of characters. Captain Ferguson is protective of his crew almost as much, if not more than, he is of his ship. He has the privilege of berating and (when necessary) browbeating them, but would be the first to interpose himself between them and anyone else giving them attitude, or worse. The relationship is very paternal.

It follows that if a crew member is seriously threatened in any manner, Ferguson will take the spotlight, and relinquish it only if specialist expertise is necessary – and even then will hover unless forced not to. So long as this “handle” is not abused too frequently, it can be used to steer involvement in an adventure. (Hmmmm – a thought – we haven’t yet done anything much with the families of those crew members…)

Points Of Distinction: Incapacities

Finally, it can sometimes be useful, entertaining, and realistic to put a PC into a situation in which he is as a fish out of water, having to cope and improvise his way to some sort of solution. It’s reasonable to assume that the PCs will hand tasks to the person(s) who combine availability with being apparently best-fitted to performing that task, given free choice; but those are a huge number of caveats. Remember the principle of “Can’t Be Everywhere”!

Everyone shares the spotlight: Players

It’s not enough to take only the PCs as played and their documented capabilities and restrictions into account. Behind the mask of every PC there is a player – one who may have vastly different strengths and weaknesses to those of the personality they are simulating; and, ultimately, it is this person behind the persona that we are seeking to engage in our plots. Who cares how much the PC enjoys the adventure, so long as they achieve victory in the end? In fact, every method of engaging and enmeshing the PC into the plot is simply a mechanism by which the person behind that character can vicariously participate in the shared activity of the game.

It can’t be disputed that such vicarious participation can be a powerful instrument in facilitating engagement, and it’s a lot easier to achieve than directly targeting the characteristics of the player. It is also prone to placing a barrier between the manipulations of plot and the player, making it less likely that the GM will tread on toes; tabletop gaming is a social activity, when all is said and done, and that’s hardly an appropriate venue for probing a friend’s moral values, politics, or other sensibilities.

Nevertheless, since it is the person behind the character who we seek to engage, it would be foolhardy to ignore the points of distinction that separate one player from another. These are inevitably going to be fuzzier and less-defined than those deriving from the game-mechanics and their clinical specificity; nevertheless, general points of distinction can be assessed and utilized to produce a better game.

Side-note: The inability to do this is one of the biggest handicaps of tournament gaming and of published modules in general; this is why most such need to be interpreted, if not overhauled completely, by GMs before usage, in order to get the best out of them (I addressed this aspect of the differences between “Canned” and “original” adventures in To Module Or Not?: A legacy article, which may be of value to anyone who wants to look more deeply at the subject).

I have divided the points of distinctiveness between players into six categories (several of which will look very familiar) and intend to look at them in what I consider the order of importance.

Points Of Distinction: Preferences

Preferences come in two divisions: what the player likes to do in his gaming and what the player doesn’t like to do, or doesn’t do very well – frustration and fun don’t often brew up very satisfyingly.

While it’s important to satisfy the gaming desires of each player, it is even more important to avoid handing them the sort of play they dislike, at least as much as is practicable. Ian M, one of our players (and the one whose comment sparked this entire 2-part article), likes to swash-buckle, and dislikes playing detective – it’s not that he doesn’t enjoy reading detective stories, it’s just that he doesn’t solve mysteries very well, in his own opinion. He prefers his games to be fairly straightforward, in other words.

For that reason, when there’s detective work involved, we will either arrange things so that the other players can assist him (even if their characters aren’t present), or find a way to present the mysteries to other PCs, or – at the very least – provide a straight-ahead path for Captain Ferguson to follow while others grapple with the puzzles presented.

Ian is the player I know best, having gamed with him since the early 80s; I don’t have quite as deep an understanding of the others. But for all of them, there are tentatively-identified “no go” areas and even-more-tentatively-identified positive preferences. Sometimes these are in opposition, and have to be balanced one against the other; but in general we’ve been able to keep our core group happy.

Points Of Distinction: Abilities

Equally, each player has his own abilities that he brings to the table, which we can take shameless advantage of, when it’s necessary. In some cases, the characters reflect those abilities by virtue of the PC having been created by the player; in others the characters abilities are actually the product of the PC-player gestalt, i.e. derive at least as much from the intelligence behind the character as they do from any game mechanics.

Points Of Distinction: Knowledge

One of the players has extensive knowledge of Occultism in World War II. Another has knowledge of maritime lore and history. A third is an expert in Anime and Manga: and so on. Each player has knowledge of various topics, with some overlap, but also with many unique corners. Any scene or adventure that touches on the transferable knowledge of the player will generally be of interest to that player, even if his character doesn’t have the knowledge that the player does.

Points Of Distinction: Life Experience

One of the players has served in the Army. Another is a librarian. A third works in a call center, while a fourth is former civil servant. Some have been urban dwellers for most if not all their lives; others are from the country. At least one has been overseas, and so has experienced customs, and international air travel. These life experiences can all be tapped in the course of an adventure, simply by using our own general knowledge of the subjects to put the PCs in a position where the player knows what to look for, and what to expect. The Dewey-Decimal system has not yet played a key role in an adventure, but sooner or later it might (will?) happen.

Points Of Distinction: Attitudes & Opinions

If these are fuzzy on the part of PCs, they are even more-so on the parts of the players behind the characters. Nevertheless, some are known by us; this enables us to incorporate scenes that reinforce or reflect those attitudes or opinions, or that use them to make the adventure more interesting. See, for example, the earlier “KKK” plotline.

Points Of Distinction: Circumstances

The final point of distinction is the one that I regard as the most problematic and likely to step on toes, so I only use it in the negative, as in “there are situations that might hit too close to home” – so I’m cautious about NPCs in those situations, and even more cautious about putting PCs into those situations.

What’s In The Shadows>

Even with all this to draw upon, there will still be times when you need to complicate what is otherwise a nice, neat plot outline just to make sure that everyone can play an active role. Eliminating a red herring is a worthy expenditure of effort, or an unrelated plot point that (entirely coincidentally) puts a PC in the right place at the right time to discover something important – even if it doesn’t seem to be so at the time.

Presence In The Periphery

The other way to permit engagement within th main adventure when the plot itself doesn’t support it is for a PC’s or player’s knowledge to be pivotal to exposing an otherwise undetectable plot twist or in some other critical manner. This only works when the individual in question is the only person able to supply the information, something that’s very hard to guarantee, and only works when the individual is already engaged – so from the point of view of this article, it’s a decidedly moot point. I mention it here only for the purpose of being as complete as possible.


Of course, there are three primary parts to any adventure – the before, the middle, and the after. It’s not uncommon for the latter to be ignored or forgotten when people discuss plotting RPG adventures, and that’s a major mistake.

There are four general types of Epilogue.

  • Individual Epilogue Stories
  • Group Epilogues
  • Springboard Epilogues
  • Deferred Epilogues
Individual Epilogue Stories

One option is to give one or more characters brief epilogues on an individual basis. This brings the adventure structure full circle and is a great way of demonstrating the impact that the adventure has had on a character. Those impacts come in two varieties: Impacts on PC thinking, and Impacts on PC circumstances, which includes character health.

In general, epilogues should be short, even compared to prologues. It’s often sufficient to tease one with nothing more than a single sentence and tip of the hat, but when you go for the tease, you should revisit the epilogue and the impact that it’s meant to display in the prologue to the next adventure – and there will be times when the two are incompatible, or where you are foregoing a prologue in order to tip the PCs into the action in a hurry.

The rest of the time, we’re talking five minutes maximum per scene, and a two-minute or less target average. One, maybe two paragraphs, and one, maybe two responses of equal length, or a single paragraph and a conversation. Again, it’s often not necessary to play out the whole thing; if the player has already indicated that they are going to have a particular conversation, it can often be more effective to end on “Janey, we have to talk…” or equivalent – and then open the next adventure not with a continuation but with a sequel to the conversation. After all, a truly great actor might be able to improvise the dialogue in such a scene and keep it interesting – but fading to black and sparing the need is, 9 times out of 10, or better, going to be more effective because the dialogue you come up with in your head is never going to sound as good in reality, especially with someone on the other end of the conversation that hasn’t read the (non-existent) “script”.

Group Epilogues

Group epilogues are where the whole group shares an epilogue that ties up a loose end or two. Note that ending on a witticism is fraught with danger because they are rarely as witty to others. And – unless the length is very carefully controlled – stirring speeches tend to run on far too long and bore the players (even if it’s one of them delivering the speech. “The danger is past. Tomorrow, the rebuilding begins.” Job done, cue the music, and roll the credits.

Springboard Epilogues

There are two sub-types of Epilogue within the Springboard category. The first is designed to tease the players with what’s going to happen next, and implies that the next adventure will open with prologues as usual; the second is designed to create a cliffhanger situation that hits the players with some sort of revelation, and implies that the next adventure will pick up right at the moment where this one left off (the epilogue might be repeated as a prologue for that sequel adventure). Both have their places and their uses.

Deferred Epilogues

The final type of epilogue is the one that you deliver at the start of the next adventure, and represents something of a hybrid of the two springboard types. In effect, it fails to punctuate the adventure it is ending, and in the process, implies that something major is coming down the road at the PCs – but heaven help you if the next adventure fails to live up to the implied hype.

The Time-Slip Variant
A variant on the deferred epilogue that I have occasionally used – and to be honest, I don’t recall whether we’ve ever done this with the Adventurer’s Club Campaign – I describe as the Time-Slip Variant. You end the variant with a cliffhanger, but in such a way that it implies or states explicitly that time has passed between the end of the adventure and the delivery of this cliffhanger. At the start of the next game session, you deliver the epilogues as though they were prologues and have them lead to the opening scene of the next adventure as usual – which just happens to be a repeating of the cliffhanger.

This delivers the cliffhanger without context and then provides the context – and a slow buildup – at the start of the next adventure. It works because the cliffhanger teases the players and then builds up tension while they wait to catch up.

A variant on the variant opens the next adventure with the rehash of the cliffhanger and then time-slips backwards with the (imaginary but vocalized) caption, “[x] days earlier…” or it might be hours, or whatever. The big tricks to employing this sub-variant successfully are (1) making sure that the PCs don’t prepare for it by acting on knowledge that they have as players, but that their PCs don’t have, yet; (2) making sure that the time in between is properly filled; and (3) ensuring that you aren’t making decisions for the players, i.e. railroading them to the cliffhanger. As usual, you also have to make sure that it isn’t an anticlimax when the time comes, because you’ve given this cliffhanger “beginning” a lot of build-up.

The James Bond Teaser Variant
Occasionally, it can be useful to consider a deferred group epilogue to an adventure that you haven’t run and don’t intend to run. Instead, you use the ending of the not-played adventure as a James-Bond style teaser at the start of the next adventure, and then segue into the prologues for the next one.

This is my favorite trick to pull with adventures where there’s been a problem with the internal logic that will take more time to fix than you have available. You cut out the entire broken section of adventure and simply catapult the players into the dramatic finish, whether it makes a whole lot of sense or not.

Immersion vs Engagement

I wanted to take a moment to clarify the differences between these two phenomena and the relationship between them.

Immersion is what results when the world feels real enough to the players that they can almost reach out and touch it, when they start thinking in character. Engagement is when the players are hanging on every word, paying attention because they care about what is happening and want to know what is going to happen next – when they feel involved in the adventure and yet able to choose their own path, to, through, and out of whatever is to come next.

You can have Engagement without Immersion, which is a good thing because you have all these pesky game mechanics that drag players out of immersion, anyway. I am not entirely convinced that, in the real world, you can have Immersion without first achieving Engagement. In theory, it might be doable, but even that theory seems suspect to me.

Wandering Spotlights & The Wide-angle lens

I started the first article (after a brief prologue) with a metaphor about a wandering spotlight, and though it so apt that I named the articles for it. So I though it appropriate to end the same way.

When you’re the GM, pretend that you are directing, producing, writing, and photographing an entire movie with nothing but a wide-angle lens. No matter what you point it at, it will pick up everything else and put it on permanent display. The camera sees everything. To make certain things stand out from this flat-pack of moving images, you have a single spotlight. It can shine on one character, or on a small group at the same time – so long as they are not too far apart. But it’s only when the spotlight is shining that you create shadows deep enough for your other cast members to vanish from sight. Use of the spotlight can immensely improve your production but it also highlights any flaws and errors.

Employ your spotlight to enhance your adventures by shining it on whatever is most significant in any given scene – but don’t forget that you have an ensemble cast, and it’s up to you to make sure that everyone gets their fair share – and that they are all hanging around somewhere in every shot!

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The Wandering Spotlight Part One of Two: Plot Prologues


In the midst of all the angst on display in the last article, correspondent, friend, and involved party Ian M included this comment:

…as GMs, Mike and Blair are very good at making sure even PCs that (by skillset, background or whatever) are more or less side-lined for a specific situation are still well-engaged.

While I don’t think there’s anything too radical or innovative about how we approach that, the fact that our technique is successful enough for a player to comment on it means that it’s worth examining for the benefit of others. Quite often it’s these little touches that seem so obvious that they don’t need to be explained that can really help another GM, and that’s what Campaign Mastery is all about.

I’ve divided this article into two parts. The first is general introduction and also deals with plot prologues; the second will be larger, and deals with engagement both in and out of the spotlight during the actual adventures within the campaign.

Spotlights & Stage Lights

A good start is to think of each GM as having a single spotlight that they can shift around, or can shut off to let the whole situation be viewed as though under general stage lighting.

Each GM can focus his attention on one PC at a time, or on the whole group or subgroup. Giving another PC or subgroup spotlight time means shifting that focus. It’s obvious that you should give each PC or subgroup of PCs their own share of the spotlight.

It’s very easy to have one main plot that serves as the central spine of the adventure and lots of smaller subplots involving the other PCs. But that’s a fairly basic technique that has inherent limitations; it means that while the main plot is occupying center stage – which it will, most of the time – non-spotlighted PCs will be marginalized. So, while we will still resort to this approach if we have to, we have developed better techniques that we employ by preference.

(N.B. I’ve had to phrase this section a little carefully because the Adventurer’s Club campaign is a Co-GM’d game, which lets us focus on two things at once if necessary. However, we usually operate as one GM with two heads who take it in turns to deal with game play. It’s all a lot simpler in the more traditional one-GM games.)

Individual Prologue Stories

First, we like to have individual prologue stories most of the time. These are minor incidents and events that represent a slice of the everyday lives of the PCs. Most important, we aren’t afraid to advance those personal lives either a little or a lot when that seems appropriate.

These individual stories help establish “normality” within the campaign, so that the main adventure itself is viewed as something extraordinary. They also give an impression of the passage of time, and help maintain relationships with key NPCs, especially those who haven’t had any spotlight time in a while or who are going to feature.


We usually put quite a lot of thought into these Prologues. Here’s a list of the usual considerations that we take into account:

  • Firstly, one of the prologues will often lead into the main adventure. That requirement takes priority over everything else, though the other sources of prologue ideas listed below will often provide the vehicle or context.
  • When NPCs known to the party are going to play a significant role in the adventure to come, we try and re-introduce them in one of the relevant “prologues”, unless their involvement is to be a surprise.
  • When a philosophic or abstract perspective is needed to provide a context for how the PC should perceive events in the main adventure, we try to give them a starting point through an incident that is analogous to, or a metaphor for, that context. For example, if the main plot is all about forgiveness or setting aside past differences, we might have another smaller encounter with a similar theme, just to help the player view things with the appropriate slant.
  • A Prologue can also be a great opportunity to go into any background on the part of the PC that is relevant to what is to come, which also provides context.
  • Is there a logical development in the character’s personal life?
  • Has the player indicated that the PC is going to try and develop a particular skill, or investigate a particular subject? Take these metagame instructions and show the character putting them into practice.
  • Is there a recurring NPC who hasn’t been featured lately? If none of the above are relevant or sufficient, give such an NPC a vignette appearance with the PC.
  • Connected World: Just because NPC “Charlie Donovan” (made up on the spur of the moment just for this example) is part of PC “A”‘s background doesn’t mean that PC “A” has to be the one that he interacts with; Donovan knows the other PCs by virtue of their relationship with PC “A”, and so could get involved in any of their prologue stories.
  • Has one particular PC been having a gloomy time of it lately? It may be time for a little sunshine in their life, even if only temporarily.
  • Conversely, if everything’s been coming up roses for the PC, it may be time to rain on their parade a little. Life’s like that.
  • We’ll also consider those last two points from the context of how the PC is likely to interact with the main adventure to come, and either foreshadow or contrast that interaction with the mood of their prologue, whichever seems most appropriate to us when writing the adventure.

Prologues are sometimes the first things we write and sometimes the last things. Often we will adopt a hybrid approach by outlining them at the start and writing any that lead to the main adventure immediately while leaving the rest until last, when we can see what else is required to balance the spotlight sharing.

What’s My Motivation?

Another key consideration in designing these prologue scenes is the answer to a simple question that we should be able to answer for each PC: What’s that PC’s motivation for getting involved in the main adventure? If, for example, their primary motivation is because of their friendship with another PC, then building that friendship through a prologue is definitely worth considering. Is it necessary, or is it well-established? If their motivation is to write a wrong, then touching on some wrong-doing or injustice outside of the situation and about which the PC can become indignant can be very useful. You can never establish a motivation for getting involved too soon!

A Party Divided

That means that effectively, the entire party has been divided, and each has his own little plotline running more-or-less simultaneously.

There was a time when this would have been considered absolutely verboten, and you can still read advice to that effect here and there. It remains one of the hardest things for a GM to do well.

Key to our approach is to spend only a few minutes, real-time, on each of these situations before moving on to the next, and working our way around the table so that we don’t miss anyone. You can read other techniques that are helpful in a divided-party situation in Ask The GMs: “Let’s Split Up.” – “Good Idea, we can do more damage that way!”

The Dynamics of a static environment

At all times, we want to progress at least one PC’s background situation through these prologues. For example, Father O’Malley resides in a vestry that he shares with a parish priest, but he has no parish of his own; instead, he acts as a substitute for any of the priests in the surrounding parishes as necessary, as well as filling in for his co-habitant, who is quite elderly. Over the last half-dozen or so appearances of that NPC, we’ve slowly been letting his health deteriorate just a little – one time, Father O’Malley had to take over a regular radio address for him, another time he had to perform services for the congregation on short notice, and so on. Where we will go with this plot thread – which has probably been so subtle that the player hasn’t consciously noticed it, but will now that I’m mentioning it – is completely undecided. He might get very sick. Another of the PCs (Doctor Hawke) may be secretly consulted, in strict confidence. The Priest might have to be sent away to convalesce. He might be far more ill than he’s been letting on, and suddenly go downhill, or even pass away, bringing in a new NPC who rubs the PC the wrong way. Or maybe he’s a hypochondriac. We haven’t decided yet.

The point is that it’s an evolving situation, and something that therefore takes a static situation (the micro-scale of the campaign world as applied to this relationship specifically) and brings it to life. Or, as I put it in another article, Time Happens In The Background.

It’s astonishing how much vitality you can give a campaign with just a little of this technique.


How long these should take to play out, game time, is a delicate question. The time scales should be as uniform as possible, unless the prologue leads directly into the main plot, in which case it may be an exception. If the spotlight of the main adventure is to focus more strongly or more often on one of the PCs than the others, something we generally try to avoid (and which is the main subject of this article), we will often give the non-focus characters larger prologue plots in compensation. As a general rule of thumb, we try to give each prologue at least 5 minutes duration, and have the total before the main plot gets underway be less than an hour – but if a prologue leads directly into the main plot, we will often only count half it’s anticipated duration toward the total, giving a little more time for the other prologues.

On top of all these considerations, we remain mindful of the overall pacing and emotional intensity of the main adventure, and adjust the prologues accordingly. If the adventure starts with a bang, shorter prologues are a better fit; if the adventure starts with a “slow burn”, longer prologues are acceptable.

When we had a string of adventures leading one-to-the-next, also known these days as the “Things Of Stone And Wood” plot arc, or the China expedition, we failed to include prologues after the initial “adventure” in the plot arc, and in hindsight, that was – not a mistake, but a missed opportunity. We could easily have had prologues relating to life on-board the ship, and the relationships between the PCs and the crews. This would have been beneficial because the prologues serve one other vital function.

Prologues as Punctuation

Because they were part of an established pattern of structuring adventures, it wasn’t all that clear to the players that these were separate adventures; instead they tended to view them as being one very big adventure. This had an impact on their thinking, because it made the adventure seem to drag on a bit. In fact, it took about 1 1/2 years, real time, to complete.

The down-time represented by the prologues punctuates adventures. If we had included them, the adventures themselves would have been perceived as far more discrete elements, and the players would recognize that we had simply made a temporary change in the campaign setting – instead of being based out of the Adventurer’s Club in New York, their home base was now the Antares, the freighter owned and Captained by one of their number.

For the record – it will be useful as an example in part two – here’s the actual breakdown of that plot arc, showing the individual adventures, and (for the first one, as an example), a complete breakdown of the structure – and note the usage of prologues:

Things Of Stone And Wood

  • Adventure 1: An Asian Affair

    • Act 1: Shadow Of The East

      • Scene 1.1: Prologue: Captain Ferguson’s Telegram – recruits PCs for adventure.
      • Scene 1.2: The 54th Street Mission – Father O’Malley Prologue, Hints Of trouble in China.
      • Scene 1.3: A Private Airfield in Maine – Tommy Adkins Prologue, Hints Of trouble in Asia.
      • Scene 1.4: The Offices Of John Macenhay – “Mac” Prologue, not played as player had retired from the campaign to pursue his university studies. Instead, i think we improvised one for new PC Dr Hawke, though I may be confusing the timeline on that point.
      • Scene 1.5: Gather Ye Rosebuds – Captain Ferguson gathers the other PCs.
      • Scene 1.6: Briefing – Warnings of trouble in China & Japan, PCs Sent to rescue Archaeologists.
      • Scene 1.7: Bargaining – Ferguson decides whether or not to take the offer and how much he will charge. Preliminary plans are made.
      • Scene 1.8: Preparations & Shopping.
      • Scene 1.9: Departure, Planning en route (approx 14-21 days).
      • Scene 1.10: Scouting – Only to be played if Tommy Adkins had decided to scout ahead in his airplane. I don’t remember if he did or not, to be honest. But we were ready, just in case.
    • Act 2: Hong Kong
      • Scene 2.1: Harbor – arrival, get instructions for secret rendezvous.
      • Scene 2.2: Leung Fat’s Tavern – Secret Rendezvous for updated intel.
      • Scene 2.3: Increasing Urgency – Receive and analyze the updated Intel.
      • Scene 2.4: Brawl – a brawl is started by people in overalls.
      • Scene 2,5: Ferguson Alone – the brawl was a distraction to permit the kidnapping of Captain Ferguson. In this scene, we brief him on his situation.
      • Scene 2.6: One Of Our Sea-Captains Is Missing – PCs and Crew of Antares realize Ferguson is missing, begin thinking about what to do about it.
    • Act 3: Rescue
      • Scene 3.1: Dragon Lady – Ferguson discovers his kidnapper to be his arch-enemy and would-be love interest, Tomoko Kasugi.
      • Scene 3.2: Offices of The Hong Kong Times – a friendly editor interprets the clues that the PCs have after the brawl and kidnapping.
      • Scene 3.3: Hing Cho Pow Warehouse & Cargo – PCs raid the warehouse whose logo was on the overalls of the people who started the brawl.
      • Scene 3.4: Ransack – PCs search the warehouse, discover evidence of piracy, one of Ferguson’s buttons, and get the phone number of the “Management”.
      • Scene 3.5: Descent – Ferguson & Tomoko Kasugi, scene ends when he spots a possible chance to escape.
      • Scene 3.6: Dinner & A Show – PCs At the Jade Palace, a nightclub owned by the Kasugis and used as a front for various criminal enterprises, and the place which belongs to the phone number found at the Warehouse. Without warning, the nightclub comes under attack by a third party.
      • Scene 3.7: Release – Before he can take advantage of the chance to escape that he spotted, Tomoko Kasugi releases Ferguson in repayment for his saving her life in their previous encounter at Formosa. He returns to the Antares to find that the others are gone and about to put their heads into the Lion’s den.
      • Scene 3.8: Let’s Get Ready To Rumble – PCs have to decide which group they will help, or will they simply try to take advantage of the distraction to search for Captain Ferguson. Either way, a complicated 3-way fight results. The new hostile forces are ID’d as “The Brotherhood Of Kali”, a band of Assassins.
      • Scene 3.9: Rescuing The Rescuers – Both the Kasugi forces and the Assassins prove more dangerous than the PCs expect. All sides are being worn down when Ferguson leads reinforcements into the fray, defeats the Assassins and extracts the PCs.
      • Epilogue: Get Out Of Dodge – PCs bring each other up-to-date and depart for China before they get held up by official inquiries and awkward questions.
  • Adventure 2: The Mysterious Orientspotlight-320755-m.jpg
      • Arrive China, deal with Port Officials, Encounter another of Ferguson’s old enemies, Travel upriver, Encounter “pirate” fort which has constructed gates that block river traffic, raid fort, attacked by peasants, discover that the leaders of the peasants are wearing Jade (a still-ongoing subplot), escape and travel upriver, encounter a supernatural river-monster establishing principle of distance from civilization, defeat it, reach destination.
  • Adventure 3: Chrysanthemum Palace Temple
      • Make Landfall, Village, Fight off Dinosaur Raiders, Reinforce principle of distance from civilization, Climb The Alps, Reach & Climb the stairs to the dig site, find the ruins of “The Chrysanthemum Palace”, find that there’s a shortage of archaeologists but plenty of signs to say they were there, enter the Temple, bypass traps, Meet the archaeologists, get rudely interrupted by Nazis holding automatic weapons.
  • Adventure 4: Ice Storm One
      • Nazis (“Ice Storm One”) capture the party, Taunt the PCs, Show off for the PCs, PCs escape and defeat Nazis, but not before the Nazis awaken the Jade Dragon, sorcerer and last Emperor of the Chou Dynasty.
  • Adventure 5: The Jade Dragon
      • Jade Dragon reanimates his statues, PCs and fleeing Nazis play tag with the statues in the shadows as they flee, Form temporary alliance with the Nazis of Ice Storm One, Archaeologists and PCs figure out the secret vulnerability of the Jade Dragon, defeat him, capture the artifacts that can again restore him to life, and plan to dump them in the deepest part of the Pacific en route home.
  • Adventure 6: Bloodsuckers & Bureaucrats
      • Travel downriver, battle with Chinese Vampire, defeat Chinese Vampire, reach Port, battle Ferguson’s old enemy who has turned Bureaucracy against them, expose corruption, learn of imminent attack on China by Japan being fueled by Yakuza who have employed Ferguson’s old enemy.
  • Adventure 7: The Gaigin Rebellion
      • Enter Japan, undercover contact with Embassy, get intel, observe newspaper headlines critical of the rush to war, decide to contact the editor, discover him to be a rival Yakuza head, attacked by Ninja in the service of the Enemy Yakuza Boss, drive off Ninja, forge alliance with “friendly” Yakuza boss and his Samurai principles, supernatural attack repelled, discover Ally has been poisoned, save his life, receive intel on Enemy Boss’ fortified island base, plan raid, execute raid, penetrate fortress, discover that he has demonic ally, defeat demon, get proof that enemy boss was pushing for war for his own greed and power and planned to overthrow the Emperor of Japan, escape with the evidence, give evidence to ally who publishes it.
  • “Adventure 8″: Epilogue
      • Depart Japan, prepare to dump artifacts but some are missing, deal with archaeologist trying to hide some of them because of historical value, evidence that Jade Emperor is already beginning to re-manifest, dump artifacts (hopefully ending the threat), return home.

Plot Prologues: Conclusion

If you don’t employ plot prologues, you’re missing a great opportunity. While they might not be for everyone or every campaign – I don’t use them in my Fumanor campaigns – they are definitely worth trying if you haven’t done so before.

This was just the Hors d’oeuvre – the main part of the article is here!

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An Experimental Failure – 10 lessons from a train-wreck Session


Tomorrow (as I write this), as usual on the final Friday of the month, I will be deep into prep for the next session of the Adventurer’s Club campaign.

Unlike the usual situation, this won’t be final prep – we usually play that campaign on the first Saturday of the month.

This article will look at the reasons for this discrepancy, and the lessons that have been learned as a result.

The Backstory

The PCs are currently pursuing a Demon through Hell in what was supposed to be an extra-special adventure to commemorate the campaign’s anniversary by taking them someplace that the players would never have expected the campaign to go.

The Last Session

As the last session got underway, the PCs had reached and passed the gates into the Palace Grounds of Hell.

We had previously established that each PC saw a completely different environment that seemed personally calculated to tempt them, interrupted by occasional flashes of a less-welcoming and more traditional Hell that was nevertheless also targeted at each of their characters individually.

It had also been established that their environments, despite the differences, were topologically similar, and that a threat perceived in one “reality” by one PC could affect even those characters who could not see the danger. Distances were not to be relied on, and neither were times of day, or durations experienced.

Father O’Malley, from Boston, wandered through a New England Autumn. Eliza Black experienced Winter in her native Canada, her favorite time of year. Doctor Matthew Hawke found himself in Spring in his native Queensland (Australia). Captain John “Blackjack” Ferguson, another Australian, experienced Summer in the jungles of Asia, the time of year and place where he was most at home. And newest recruit, Steffan Bednarczyk, a tough-as-nails Engineer from Eastern Europe who had fled the rise of Fascism found himself wandering a world in which all man’s progress and creativity had been reduced to rubble and ruin. Each could see all the other PCs, they weren’t alone, but each perceived an entirely separate environment.

The Palace Grounds Sequence
The Palace Grounds sequence had been devised to build on these differences and similarities, establishing that they were “strangers in a strange land” and helping prepare the PCs for entry into the Palace. We were striving for immersion while informing the players of the ground rules while revealing the existence of hidden allies who were hamstrung by protocols and doing their best to work around these restrictions. At the same time, while perpetuating their individual environments, we wanted to show that the gardens weren’t there for the PCs benefit, but for the enjoyment of the ruler of Hell. We wanted to touch on the remnants of his former existence as an Angel and begin hinting at his character and the drives that had led to his downfall. And finally, we wanted to increase the dramatic tension that each experienced.

That’s a lot to achieve in a single game session.

In the pre-Gates sequence, we had been at pains to advance each character’s journey in successive steps – this character, then the next, then the one after that, and so on. This method was conducive to an even sharing of the spotlight, to immediate reactions to events, but not to any single character experiencing immersion in the environment; the mood and flavor of each PC’s journey was constantly being interrupted by that of the next PC in line, which meant that the impact of each journey was diffused. While this was practical for roleplaying, it was incompatible with the goals for the garden sequences.

The plan that went awry
To try and achieve everything, I had devised – and my Co-GM had approved – a radical approach to the sequence. We laid out each character’s journey with a concordance showing where each was within their journey when something occurred, with a carefully-chosen illustration. As each reacted to events within their frame of reference, notes would be made that would be integrated into the next character’s journey, permitting actions and reactions to be assembled one character at a time into a whole journey.

In other words, character #1 would experience their entire journey from A to Z. If, at step G, they had to make their way down a rocky and unstable slope, or decided to draw their weapon, or whatever, when character #2 went through his journey (with his reactions and responses being logged as well), at step G in that sequence, they would see character #1 behaving as though they were climbing down the rocky and unstable slope, or drawing their weapon, or whatever, and could react to both their environment and that action. Character #3 would have the benefit of the their own experiences and the compounded actions of both Characters #1 and #2, and so on. The order in which these experiences were to take place had been carefully selected to build incrementally the whole-party experience.

The whole was to culminate in Captain Ferguson’s journey, in which he would experience not only his own journey, and the actions of the other PCs, but a series of constant interruptions for hints, advice, and insights from those hidden allies.

Practical Implementation
The practical implementation was to be a series of short narrative paragraphs read mostly by my co-GM while I switched images seamlessly in step with the narrative. My major narrative was to be interrupting Blair’s narration to briefly deliver the Hell-views that interrupted the journey. Here’s an example, formatted in the same way as the adventure, i.e. anything in Bold was a direction to the GMs and not something to be read aloud. The Illustrations had both an absolute number and a within-Character number.

(Pic 159 Ferguson 33) showing:
Blair: Often, there is no obvious path to follow, but every alternative is choked with underbrush or rocks too tall to scale. This invisible path now begins to trend steadily downhill. The tinkling sound of falling and splashing water becomes noticeable from up ahead. Captain Ferguson suddenly breaks through a screen of light brush to find himself looking down at (Pic 160 Ferguson 34) a small waterfall which is landing on an angled piece of flat quartz which sings in a thousand tiny chirps, one for each drop, before emptying into a pool of pristine –

Mike interrupts: (Pic 161 Ferguson 35) …pristine devastation, lava spilling down the sides of a cliff, chocked by noxious fumes erupting from red-hot rock. On a distant hilltop, a serpent, or perhaps a dragon? Screams defiance at the heavens in a full-throated roar (Pic 162 Ferguson 36) –

Blair resumes: …of pristine emerald purity. Circling the pool, which is some distance below your current ground level, you come to the stream which feeds the waterfall. Of course, just calling it a stream is like labeling a butterfly as a “pretty insect”. (Pic 163 Ferguson 37) It’s a horizontal waterfall, liquid spiderwebs tumbling over and around mossy green rocks.

Insert concordance notes:

And here’s an extract from the Concordance for those paragraphs…

AC-Concordance Extract

In theory, it should have worked perfectly.

Have you ever noticed how, whenever someone uses the phase “In theory” in the past tense, it means explicitly that it didn’t work out that way in reality? The session was an almost-total disaster. A near-walkout by one player, a near-walkout by one GM, and a near-collapse of the entire campaign.

The player stuck it out despite evident rising frustration and irritation because he could “see [we] had invested a lot of effort in it” – in other words, out of friendship more than anything else. I nearly walked from the campaign out of anger over an unrelated issue with another of the players – but calmed down somewhat after a couple of weeks. And, if I had walked, I doubt the campaign would have continued for very long.

The Metagame Backstory

There was actually a LOT more effort invested than anyone could realize. All the way back in December 2013, our writing had more-or-less reached the point in the adventure where the PCs now are – with the expectation of this stage of the adventure being played in April or May at the latest. It would have represented about an hour of game play. We had been working on the adventure for about 4 months.

All that was lost when my PC crashed in the process of saving the file, just one impact point in it’s deterioration and ultimate failure. At the time, this adventure was listed as an optional extra add-on to another adventure which was also within the same file and which had taken another four months to prepare.

It ALL had to be re-created, almost from scratch. Which always takes longer. We had the advantage in working on the first adventure of memory, but that had faded by the time we got to the second. It also leaves a lot more time for “clever ideas” (which often don’t turn out to be half as clever as they seem at the time). In the process, inflation occurred because we were trying to keep all the elements and ingredients that had incorporated seamlessly into the first version even though they mostly had to be put back in as separate “bits”.

I averaged one sleepless night per week for the entire period from early January to the end of July trying to get everything done, and searching out the images ran up a total of $150 in excess internet charges – and for someone on a Disability Pension, that’s a lot! On top of that, every spare minute (plus the time supposedly allocated to another of my campaigns) got dedicated to getting it all done.

At least part of my reaction derived from exhaustion, I’m now completely certain.

What went wrong?

The players didn’t react. The characters didn’t interact, except when we had built deliberate bits in. One found the presentation so dull that he almost walked out, as noted earlier. Another PC acted like a sociopath, incapable of any empathy or normal human feeling, because the player felt we were pre-programming his reactions to suit the narrative.

How could things have been improved?

Instead of giving all the “hidden ally” clues to one character, we should have had them either spread amongst all the PCs, or even had them all encounter them together, immersion be damned. Rather than restricting these hidden allies to pre-scripted clues, we should have allowed interaction between them and the PCs. And, critically, none of the narrative ended in a call to action; it just kept going and going.

Who was to blame?

There’s more than enough blame to go around.


I fell in love with one particular, and rather experimental, way of structuring the narrative. There was no fall-back in case it didn’t work.

My Co-GM

Part of the function of a co-GM is to throw cold water on the other person’s ideas when they won’t work. Blair either didn’t see the problem coming, or didn’t object strongly enough in the face of my error.

The Players

They didn’t interact with their environment, didn’t interact with each other, and just sat there, passively, except when prompted. Only on one or two occasions, when they were pushed into it, did they actually participate. But part of that was because of:

My Co-GM, again

The intent was for a pause at the end of each of the segments or paragraphs for the players to interact with the environment. Instead, he simply took breath and moved on to the next paragraph of narrative. This only got worse when the frustration levels on the other side of the table began to become obvious and he started rushing to try and get through it all. But at least in part, that was because of:

Me, again

I had completely forgotten the need to prepare the Concordance until we actually arrived at the Game Table. It took about an hour-and-a-half of feverish work while everyone twiddled their thumbs to finish it, even in rudimentary form, and it was far more user-unfriendly than it should have been. But without it, the whole plan would have failed completely. Nevertheless, this was a substantial reason for the “rush”.

The Ultimate Responsibility

The Bottom line is that the buck has to stop with the GMs. We wrote the adventure, decided the format, and – it has to be admitted – got too ambitious, especially in light of the loss of the (much shorter and faster) first draft.

The Forthcoming Session & the rest of the adventure

The player who came close to walking out was so unhappy with the way things had gone that he told us, in quite impassioned manner, that if the next section of the adventure was going to be the same, to tell him; he would rather stay home than experience more of the same.

But, by then, we could already tell that it had been a colossal train-wreck. I had already decided that whatever we were going to do next time, it was NOT going to be more of the same – no matter what had to be done to the adventure to make it salvageable. What’s more, I could see exactly how to restructure what we did have planned to solve the problem. The first step was to throw away more than 10,000 words and most of the 89 images – about 75% of which were originals, which had been far more time-intensive to prepare than simply finding and downloading photos from the internet. In essence, the last 6 weeks work had to be junked.

Lest that player feel guilty about it, I want to emphasize that even if he had not made the request described at the start of this section, We would have done this anyway, as our reaction to the total failure of the overambitious plan that we had experienced.

The original plan

Without giving too much away, the plan was to separate the PCs for the final leg of the journey to the Palace (each journey had stopped as soon as it came into sight). In the course of this final leg – expected to be about half the next session – they would see various impossible things and lose track of everyone else at some point, all calculated to make it uncertain who – if anyone – had been replaced by a demonic impersonator, while giving everyone cause to suspect same. This was what we had been building toward throughout the session of the train-wreck. The PCs would then gain entrance to the palace; we had enough material prepared to complete the session with various roleplayed encounters with NPCs inside.

The revised plan

Instead, we are going to fast-track the PCs to the Palace, using a single paragraph each to tell the story of their approach, and only hinting at the paranoid aspects of the situation. This should take no more than five or ten minutes of game time. We then have the half-session of already-prepped interaction with the NPCs present. This throws the timing of the rest of the adventure out, but we are going to compress some aspects of it and expand others. We also have a far more action-oriented conclusion to the adventure in mind than we had under the original plan – trying to get the whole thing to fit neatly into this session and one to follow, rather than finishing mid-afternoon, is what I meant by “throwing the timing out”. In many ways, the result should be a far more player-friendly conclusion.

So why no game session in October?

The week after the train-wreck, I was required to remain on Standby to appear in Court as a witness. That meant that no prep was possible. Which was probably a good thing, in hindsight, because it gave me time to start calming down and the lack of activity gave me a chance`to recharge my batteries. The week after that, I accidentally left my phone off the hook – and then had to do some emergency shopping after my TV decided to fry its control circuits. So, no prep was possible.

Under any other circumstances, neither of these would have been fatal to the next session even if both occurred together, because we would be working not on the next session (which, under the original plan, was virtually ready-to-go).

Even with the revised plan, if one of these two things had not happened, there would have been enough time to prep enough material to get us through the October session, based on how much we got done last week and this week.

But the triple-whammy left us one week short of being ready-to-run, with no opportunity to make up the shortfall. And that’s why we canceled the next game session.

The lessons learned

I’ve always maintained that you learn more from failure after an honest attempt than from success without effort. This isn’t the first Mea Culpa that I’ve had to make, and it won’t be the last. In order to improve as a GM, you have to push the envelope every now and then, and sometimes that means things will go horribly wrong. And, that you can learn from other people’s mistakes.

Aside from an arguably-deserved infusion of humility, I’ve identified ten lessons that can be learned from this sequence of events.

1. Narrative Triggers

Mulling over what had taken place had a definite impact on the series on Narrative that I was already writing. If it seemed like I was emphasizing the need for narrative to end on an interaction trigger, it was as a direct result of these experiences. I don’t care if the trigger requires a PC to have a conversation, enter combat, adjust a control panel, solve a problem, make a decision, or whistle dixie, the end of a passage of narrative HAS to trigger SOME sort of PC action or interaction.

2. Experimental Triggers

Without experiments, nothing gets learned. So I am all in favor of trying a different approach every now and then, especially if the GMs stock solutions are inadequate to the campaign and plot needs. But, when you DO try something experimental, have some way of recognizing early on if it isn’t working.

3. Backup Plans

…and if the experiment is failing, have some way of bailing out of it and transitioning to a backup plan. It took only about 20 minutes play to realize that things were going out-of-whack, but because we had left ourselves no alternative, we could do nothing but watch the train derail while clinging to it for grim death.

4. Objectivity

Find some way of objectively considering how ambitious you are being with your experiments. In this case, I lost perspective on what was reasonable, and became enamored of one possible solution to the plot needs. I had a Co-GM who usually pulls me up when this happens, and I do the same for him; what wasn’t in place was a pause to reflect on whether or not we were betting the farm. We weren’t – quite – but a consciously-objective review of the plan, simply because it was radical, ambitious, and untested should have been mandatory. It wasn’t – but it will be, in the future.

5. If players tune out

If your players tune out what you’re saying, what you’re putting in front of them, that should be a sure sign that whatever it is that you are doing is not working. Time for an immediate emergency rethink. And, if no alternatives come to mind, tell them straight that you don’t think what you have prepared is working the way it was intended, but you haven’t been able to think of a practical alternative other than pressing on with it. This will hopefully de-stress situations and prevent train-wrecks. It might even encourage your players to try that little bit harder to make it work, at least somewhat, for their own entertainment.

6. Experiment small-scale

Try to keep your experiments small-scale, at least until you’ve established that they work. We’ve had several opportunities to try the approach that failed in recent adventures, if only for a few minutes. Some of those opportunities were lost because the radical approach that failed had not yet been thought of, but there were still three or four scenes in the previous adventure where we could have tried it out before we were committed. As implied earlier, it would not have been too difficult to fix, simply by moderating our ambitions for the act. Which I estimate would have cut it’s length in half – further minimizing any remaining problems to a more acceptable level.

7. Speak up early and strongly if necessary

This actually refers to events in three ways, only two of which have been mentioned so far.

Secondly, Blair could have spoken up about the dangers of the approach being taken when I had lost perspective – but he was swayed by wanting to avoid confrontation, and by my evident passion for the approach.

Thirdly, I could have spoken up about the perceived problem with his delivery on the day – but I also wanted to avoid a confrontation, and furthermore had my hands full because of the semi-shoddy concordance I had put together in haste. And the last thing I wanted to admit (even to myself) was that after all that delay, play wasn’t proceeding according to plan. So nothing was said, and then it was too late to say anything. I should have called a break and spoken to him privately to remind him of the need to engage the players; what was written was meant to be a starting point, not a whole unto itself.

But Firstly (in chronological sequence): The “To The Gates” sequence was enough like the “Palace Grounds” that the player who was most upset could have spoken up sooner. It might not have changed the train-wreck – preparations were well-advanced at that point – but even knowing that he was that unhappy with the approach taken would have suggested that we ease up the focus on his character, and that could have led us to the solution identified earlier. But he didn’t want a confrontation, either. Like I said, there’s more than enough blame to go around.

Sometimes, you have to speak up. Do it politely and respectfully, but make sure that you are heard. It won’t, and shouldn’t, always change things, but saying nothing certainly won’t.

8. Remember the Campaign Core

The core premise of a Pulp campaign is, or should be, Action-Adventure. This adventure wasn’t.

Now, campaigns can’t be monotone, and sometimes a variation is needed; but these decisions should always be made knowingly. The fact that it took less than 30 seconds thought to figure out how to solve the problems in terms of the next session, and make it more action-adventure in the process, says to me that this adventure wasn’t close enough to the core of what the campaign was supposed to be about.

Fortunately, the next adventure is VERY action-adventure :)

9. Don’t throw out the baby

I was chastised but not upset by the request to be left out of the next part if it was going to be more of the same. Both Blair and I had seen the train-wreck as it developed before our eyes, and realized that the player was justified in what he had said. But in losing all enthusiasm for the campaign, however briefly, I was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Fortunately, events conspired to give me space before I said or did anything.

I’m still angered by the situation that led me to that point. What I don’t know is how much the train-wreck itself played into it – so I’ve taken a deep breath and I’m giving the person responsible the benefit of the doubt. And, because I haven’t spoken to them about it, and don’t intend to until that question is resolved and I know what I’m talking about, I’m being very careful not to identify who it was, and not to let it influence me.

10. The Four-to-one threshold

This is a guideline that I’ve used before, to good effect. It should take no longer than four times as long to write something to a standard that’s ready for play, as an absolute maximum. If you exceed that, you had better have a good reason, like needing to extend the campaign background. And I include preparing graphics and props in that time-frame.

That the prep for the train-wreck session was taking between eight and twelve times the anticipated play time should have been a warning that there was not enough scope for player interaction with the plot. It should take NO MORE than four afternoons to prepare an afternoon’s play FROM SCRATCH – or less. And “Less” should occur more frequently than hitting that maximum.

The goal should be between two-to-one and three-to-one. Less than two-to-one generally means that you haven’t put enough thought and detail into the plot or its delivery (though there can be exceptions when building on past work). But anything more than four times is a near-infallible sign that something’s wrong – another warning that I had managed to overlook, blinded by my zeal for the scene structure that I was erecting.

Future ‘Experimenting’

I stand by the principle that GMs need to challenge themselves in order to improve, and that you learn more from honest attempts that fail than half-hearted attempts that succeed. When the existing solutions don’t seem to work, your only options are to change your requirements or seek a new, experimental solution. Not all these experiments will work – but I’ll be more aware in future of the potential for such failure, and the need to make them fail-safe to a minimum standard of playability.

I can only apologize to the players for the failings last time around on behalf of Blair and myself, and seek to move on from there.

Mea Culpa.

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The Expert In Everything?


In January, I wrote an article called The Hierarchy Of Deceit: How and when to lie to your players. There’s one type of deception that was poorly covered in the original article, though it was hinted at in the subsequent article on deceptions that are meant to be penetrated, I See It But I Don’t Believe It – Convincingly Unconvincing in RPGs. The undiscussed mode of deception: giving the impression that the GM is an expert in everything that he needs to know about.

Last week, in the comments to Thatch and Confusion – creating a village, this capability was obliquely shuffled onto center stage. EricG wrote,

The info in the blue boxes is amazing, how do you know all this information? Do you have lists for possible medieval industries? And how do you know so much about civic and social dynamics (e.g. the relation between workforce, economic value and dependence)?

At the time, I gave a fairly short answer to the general question and moved on to the specific questions, but it highlighted the omission that I mentioned at the top of this article.

Expert In Everything

A GM has to be – if not an expert – then at least well-grounded in a vast number of fields of study to be able to create his game worlds and justify his adjudications on various matters brought up by the players. If he exudes confidence in his knowledge, then those rulings will have a weight of verisimilitude that stifles table debate and allows play to continue.

In the discussion of one piece of the occasional punditry that I offer through my Twitter account (as and when they occur to me), I alluded to the list of subjects that the GM has to at least have a working knowledge of:

You never know what will turn out to be useful information. In the past as GM, I’ve drawn on information on subjects as diverse as biology, genetics, politics, history, music, art, sociology, real estate, banking, economics, computer science, software design, desktop publishing, cooking, geography, geology, thermodynamics, engineering, metallurgy, movies & media, publishing, journalism, mathematics, and many more fields besides.

Example One

Let’s say the PCs have to stop a story being published. Knowing something about the process of publishing and printing a newspaper, and the deadlines involved, creates a far richer, more detailed, and more interesting passage of roleplay than proceeding from ignorance. Knowledge of the laws relating to publishing and secrecy are also going to be immensely useful.

I have neither a law degree nor a journalistic qualification. I can’t even say that I’ve studied either one to any sort of degree. Yet, the situation demands that I have, at the bare minimum, a solid layman’s knowledge on the subject. The more you know, or appear to know, the more interesting you can make the resulting encounter for the PCs.

Example Two

The PCs in a Fantasy Game have arrived in a Fishing Village within a hostile nation, preceded by a not entirely-unjustified reputation. The children flee from them, the women lock themselves indoors. Most of the men are at sea pursuing the daily catch, and the rest are no match for the PCs and they know it. The players know that if they force the locals to assist them, as soon as their backs are turned, messengers will be on their way to the local capital; it would be far better if they can persuade the locals to tell them what they need to know willingly, letting both sides part amicably. The GM needs to know something about the society and economy of fishing villages in order to know who is still around to be approached, but he does and decides that one vessel is still in port, repairing their nets. The PCs offer to help (in order to earn some good will). The GM needs to know something about how nets are constructed in order for the NPC to sound credible – sure, he could simply say “The fisherman shows you how to repair the nets. After watching you for a while to make sure you’re doing it right, he wanders away to direct work on re-tarring the hull of his vessel,” but how much more interesting and credible would it be if he were able to actually roleplay the instruction given to the PCs?

I’ve never been in a Scandinavian Fishing Village, and have never studied the economics, sociology, and logistics of the fishing industry. I don’t have the faintest idea of how nets for commercial fishing are made, never mind how they were made in a pre-industrial era.

Example Three

The PCs have to hack a computer to get key information. This is a machine with sophisticated anti-hacking defenses. Fortunately, one of the PCs is supposed to be an expert hacker. This is supposed to be a key step in advancing the plot. While it could be achieved by simply having the PC make a Hacking roll, it is anticlimactic at best; in order to emphasize the significance of the result, it has to be delivered melodramatically and be shocking and unexpected, or the scene will have all the impact of wet spaghetti.

If the GM knows something about computer security, he can break the process down into smaller steps that make the scene both more plausible and dramatic; this, in turn, takes some of the pressure off the information itself. Knowledge gives the GM options. Even if he makes the details up so that he isn’t actually telling players (or, in this case, readers) how to actually hack a computer, he can give the whole scene credibility by describing the process as it proceeds, building up to the revelation. This sort of thing can be the difference between a good game and a great one.

When it all goes horribly wrong

Equally important is the fact that his credibility can be completely shattered by getting the details wrong. Take a look at this review of the premiere episode of the new drama, Scorpion: Scorpion Brings the Stupidest, Most Batshit Insane Hacker Scene Ever (make sure to read all the venting in the comments, too).

Now imagine that these comments are coming from your players and are directed at your RPG plot.

We expect Hollywood to get details like physics and computer science (especially vulnerabilities) wrong, and can tolerate a surprisingly high quotient of nonsense if it looks good on screen. We can even forgive some of it because it makes for a more visceral experience – this is why there are so many Hollywood myths for Mythbusters to bust. Knowing, for example, that the “Big Heist” techniques used in such genre movies don’t actually work doesn’t stop us from enjoying Heist movies. Knowing that the explosives recipes given in some media are total nonsense (or leave out key ingredients) doesn’t stop us enjoying those movies and TV shows, either. And to be fair, I don’t think Scorpion is quite as bad as the review states, but it’s still pretty bad.

But knowing something about the subject helps keep silly mistakes at bay, which is vitally useful when those silly mistakes make a nonsense of your plot.

GMs have to be experts in everything. But they don’t have time to become experts in anything outside of their own real-life expertise and the craft of being a GM, which is a big enough headache on its own. It’s not enough to be able to pretend to be credible; you actually have to seem like you know what you’re talking about, and you have to know enough to avoid silly mistakes. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?

It’s not. And the solutions to this seemingly-impossible conundrum are what we’re here to talk about today.

Accumulate background information

I watch documentaries that are of interest. I watch TV shows that are of interest. I keep mental notes of what seems plausible and what doesn’t, in other words, I employ my critical faculties. These are things that we all do.

More importantly, I remember things of interest and integrate these into a flawed, possibly massively incorrect, gestalt view of the subject.

Watching NCIS can give me an education, however spurious, in everything from Military protocols to Investigative Techniques to Hacking to Security… the list is not inexhaustible but is far vaster than you might think.

What’s more, information can be mentally tagged by degree of reliability. We all do this, as well – when watching a news report or documentary, we look for signs of evident bias and potentially flawed assumptions. We know that shows like NCIS are fiction. Some shows contain more credible foundations than others; when Numb3rs explained how rolling codes work and are employed in auto remote-locking, you know that most of the information is credible because the show took great pains over the mathematics, to the point where each episode was used as the basis for a subsequent university lecture in higher Mathematics.

A lot of the information that I have on Medieval Sociology comes from an archaeological TV series from the BBC, “Time Team”, supplemented by other documentaries and readings. Informed critical reviews of relevant fiction can also add to the totality.

You can never be sure where the next critical piece of the puzzle will come from. Watching an episode of The British, another documentary series currently showing on Australian TV, suggested that the period on which D&D is most-heavily modeled is post-Agincourt. It did this not by presenting information that I didn’t already have, but by emphasizing that this was the coming-of-age of the concept of the “Professional Soldier” as opposed to conscript armies of peasants. However, the devastating effectiveness of longbows at that point in history is at odds with D&D – it’s as though the social concepts and precepts of one era had been superimposed on the technology of an earlier time. This defines a pair of relationships – D&D to the Norman era, and D&D to the later Middle Ages, regarding technology and some social aspects and the broader social patterns, respectively. This in turn gives me a framework and context to integrate other facts as they come to hand regarding these specific subjects into my background understanding of the standard “D&D World”. What’s more, a keener awareness of the palimpsest jigsaw that makes up the “D&D World” makes it easier for me to conflate changes that I might desire for this campaign or that. Being able to state that “Aspect [x] of the world derives from historical period [y]” makes it easier to isolate those aspects of the game world if I wanted to replace the source with historical period [z]“, for example. I might want a world in which the practice of separate temples to different deities has been abandoned, as was the case when Catholicism became the dominant religion, but in which the Greek Pantheon is worshiped as an integrated whole. Or Manichaeism. Or whatever.

To some extent, it doesn’t matter how accurate the information you gather is – just how credible you can make it.

Skim relevant articles

When I can reasonably expect some subject to come up that I don’t know enough about, I’ll look for relevant articles and snippets. I have a number of reference works – the list offered in The Literary GM: Expanding your resources for a better game is just the tip of the iceberg – and then the world of online sources. For example, if I know that I need to know something about Vellum, as I did for the village article, and Wikipedia doesn’t seem to serving up the answers, I’ll do a Google Search. That’s how I found’s FAQ, which I referenced in Thatch and Confusion. I’ll search out and skim relevant articles and commit the most useful bits and pieces to memory or as written notes.

If I need to know about medieval Scandinavian fishing villages, I’ll search for exactly that – “medieval Scandinavian fishing village” returns 1,360,000 results, plus some photos. If I know I need to know something about repairing nets, I’ll dig out the 1964 Boy Scout Manual that I bought in a garage sale many years ago, then search for “repairing fishing nets” (4,750,000 results, including “Learn to make and repair your own fishing nets” and “Knots Used to Repair Fishing Net” in the first half-dozen results. Ten minutes spent doing such research gives enough local color and specific information that I could comfortably fake the narrative. I would also spend a minute or two reviewing my knowledge of the game system (relevant skills, magic, and the backgrounds of the PCs) so that I can integrate those relevant details – and watch out for obvious traps, like the “Mend” spell in D&D 3.x, which could bring the whole encounter to an abrupt halt. I may need to insert some detail about the village being renowned for being rabidly superstitious about the use of magic, for example.

Wikipedia is your friend

While there can be controversies about individual articles, this is still one of my most-tapped resources. As with all other sources, I don’t rely on it as gospel, but interpret what I learn relative to information derived from other sources. Again, it’s surprising how far a few minutes research and skim reading will carry you. In particular, I watch out for key terminology.

No, It’s Not

Wikipedia is becoming less useful. I’ll save the details for a dedicated rant on the subject at some future point, but the long and the short of it is that they are pursuing credibility at the expense of comprehensiveness, and in the process throwing away irreplaceable reference material.

In the bad old days, I was in the habit of saving any web page that contained pertinent or useful information for future reference, because web sites came and went so quickly. Better to risk having out-of-date resources than no resources at all. Over the last decade, I had started to get out of that habit, because Wikipedia and Google were so good at providing what I needed. Now I’m getting bitten every now and then by self-censorship on the parts of these internet giants, and am seriously considering reverting to old habits.

Read, read, read

Don’t think you are alone in these needs. Provided you don’t intend your work for publication – and sometimes even if you are – other authors have had the same needs in the past, and satisfied them with varying degrees of effectiveness. Don’t reinvent the wheel unnecessarily. If you remember that you have a book by John Grisham that describes a South American jungle village, dig it out, skim to find the relevant descriptive passage, scan and paste, or simply copy what’s there – then modify accordingly. Heck, it may be enough simply to re-read the relevant narrative and fix the image in your mind.

For example, you may need to come up with an exotic form of nuclear reactor to power a starship. You might remember a description of something interesting in a novel or TV show, or you could create your own by remembering the name of a subatomic particle that sounds interesting and coupling that with the word “reactor” in a Google search. To demonstrate this, I chose “Pion Reactor” (sounds nice and exotic, doesn’t it?) Searching for that alone produced a bunch of irrelevant results because there’s a web analytics tool called “Pion Reactor” – but filtering the results by searching for “pion reactor -analytics -platform” pulled up a number of pages. In particular, “Muon-catalyzed fusion” – a Wikipedia page – sounded interesting, especially since the preview excerpt talked about Pion Decay, which is why it came up in the search results. Skimming a little further down brings me to “Pion-induced fission – A review – ResearchGate”, with the preview text refers to “Virtual Pions” as being useful intermediaries for triggering nuclear reactions. A quick skim of the first article mentioned for general principles of such reactions and then incorporating “Virtual Pions” as a key element the reactions gives me enough to come up with an entirely fictitious reactor design, with particle physics that probably wouldn’t work in real life but that sound really cool – and the fact that it’s only marginally tied to reality lets me alter the characteristics, performance, and behavior of the resulting “reactor” to my plot needs. A quick refresher on what Pions really are from the first page to come up in the search, the Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject “Pion”, and maybe a second search on the subject of “Virtual Pion” and I’m ready to go. Elapsed time – more than three minutes, less than ten.

I got a lot of the information relating to the tanning and dying industries that was so pivotal in the example within “Thatch and Confusion” from a work of fiction, “A Civil Action” – both Movie and Book – and was able to simply project it into the past. I didn’t even need to crack open the book.

Generalize, then extrapolate

That was because I knew that the book was set in a modern era, when all sorts of artificial chemicals are employed, which – according to the site I had already referenced had cut production times from months to a days – and which would almost certainly be more polluting than the older techniques, because of the intensity of industrial production, if nothing else. That was fine – I generalized the process into the statement that “parchment production uses chemicals and treatments that have an ecological impact”, then extrapolated what that impact might be.

Establish your credentials

There are times when you need to establish your credentials as someone who knows what they are talking about, especially when you don’t. The best way of doing so is to undersell your expertise on a subject that you do know well, or have prepped more extensively for. By stating that you aren’t an expert in the subject and then demonstrating a repertoire of expertise in that subject, you establish that if you don’t undersell your credibility on another subject in the near future, and have clearly “done your research” because your narrative contains key terms and details, which you can readily explain/describe, your players will accept whatever you offer without blinking unless they know better. And even then, you simply suggest that you’re simplifying for game purposes, implying that all you need is suspension of disbelief sufficient to move the plot forward. This is exactly what Hollywood does, usually implicitly rather than explicitly, employing dramatic visuals and sound effects to make something seem plausible.

Everyone knows that space travel is silent, ships won’t make “swoosh” sounds. But repeated audience testing has shown that without the sound effects, the purported speed of such vessels doesn’t register properly. Put a sound effect on it, and suddenly it seems to be traveling fast.

Redefine expectations

I want to end with a lesson from “The Making Of Star Trek” by Stephen E. Whitfield (a pseudonym for Stephen Edward Poe). The first draft of the pilot was sent out to a number of consultants for technical review; a number of points were made in response, some of which were adopted, and some of which were not. One of the ones that did have an impact was the use of a “Laser” to do various things; the comment came back “A laser wouldn’t do that,” or words to that effect. Someone (possibly the author of the criticism) pointed out that light was made up of photons; if you took the “ph” and used it instead of the “l” in laser, you got the word “Phaser” which – being something completely different from a laser – could do whatever was needed by the plot. Because it was completely made up, no-one could say it couldn’t have the abilities projected onto it by the plot.

In that moment, the relationship between technobabble was definitively established, and from that moment on, there was no excuse for getting the technical details wrong.

And that takes me back to that review of Scorpion. The real problem – well, one of them – is that they attempted to use technical language that would be familiar to the audience and make the terminology do what their plot required. Five minutes work should have revealed the plot holes and potential fixes – instead of “software” use the term “spacial model” or “dataset”, describing it as the window within which the aircraft need to fly in order to successfully land on a runway of this length, suggest that the on-the-ground versions won’t work because the “window” takes account of current atmospheric conditions, and describe the breakdown of the airport systems as being the software that gathers and interpolates this data. The aircraft on the ground have a backup copy of the last window provided by the airport systems before they went down, but the ones in the air have a copy that has been updated with the integrated wind and atmospheric conditions at different altitudes. This pushes the incredulity point farther away, making the situation and solution more credible. Oh, and the Wifi attempt failed because instead of an incremental update (small file), the aircraft systems only hold an integrated real-time model (a big file). Throw in a passing comment about the system permitting airports to be much smaller, releasing a lot of valuable real estate`for development, and you’ve used technobabble to cover all your plot holes.

In the case of the Pion Reactor, if Pions won’t do what you want, just invent a new particle – the “Trion” perhaps? – which has the unique metagame characteristic of being exactly what the GM needs. No-one can state what a ‘Trion Reactor’ can or can’t do…

The vulnerability of technobabble

It would be remiss of me to end this section without pointing out the major flaw of technobabble, a flaw that means that if abused, technobabble can do more harm than good.

The problem is Consistency. Having introduced a plot device and cloaked it in technobabble, the use of that plot device to solve future problems is seductively easy. The leading example of this phenomenon is the “Deflector Dish” from Star Trek: The Next Generation and related shows within the franchise like Voyager. It became a magic bullet that could solve almost any problem if “reconfigured” properly, and lost almost all its credibility as a result.

Dr Who’s Sonic Screwdriver is in the process of succumbing to the same problem.

A moment ago, I stated, “No-one can state what a ‘Trion Reactor’ can or can’t do” – but that’s wrong – there is one person who can and should – you, the GM.

That’s why Game Physics is so important. By looking behind the technobabble to explain how things work, they explain what things can and can’t be used for. Technobabble that isn’t backed by a functional game physics is a minefield in which the GM – and his campaign – are playing hopscotch.

I’m no expert

My professional training is as a programmer and an analyst programmer. I’ve had training in Bookkeeping, attended some first-year university courses about 33 years ago, and have completed a four week course in graphic design and desktop publishing. I’m a self-taught digital artist of mediocre caliber – skilled at some image manipulations, barely adequate when it comes to creating new images (with exceptions). I’m a self-taught composer. In fact, virtually everything else I know – where’s that long list again? “Biology, genetics, politics, history, music, art, sociology, real estate, banking, economics, computer science, software design, desktop publishing, cooking, geography, geology, thermodynamics, engineering, metallurgy, movies & media, publishing, journalism, mathematics” – is the result of self-education.

And being very good at faking expertise when I need to.

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Control-Alt-Delete – A Modern-day SciFi Campaign


This evocative illustration is by Greg Scherer, aka s1kick.

I come up with more ideas than I can ever use. Until I co-founded Campaign Mastery, I simply threw away the excess that I couldn’t use; since CM came along, it’s been my practice to give these away for free to the readers here.

Yesterday, I woke up with a complete campaign outline in my head. Since it would take almost as long to make notes on everything I had thought of as it would to write it up for everyone here, I’ve chosen to do the latter.

This article is the outline of a campaign suitable for 4-5 players, using any reasonably modern-day game system – GURPS, Hero System, d20 Modern, or whatever. Heck, you could probably adapt it to run with Paranoia, for that matter. It’s largely inspired by a number of movies and TV shows from the last 20 years or so – you’ll probably spot the references as they come up – but I’m not going to name them explicitly (a) in case I leave one out, and (b) because I want to put some distance between them and this concept.

The Premise

The PCs are all agents for a shadowy government agency. Rather than risk their highly-trained agents in the field, they have built up a bank of volunteers. These get cash, or a problem solved, or have their sentences reduced, in return for letting the minds of the trained agents be downloaded into their cortexes for a mission. If the deal is for a problem to be solved, that forms part of the mission objectives. The donors all know that this is a high-risk deal, but either they or their families will come out of it better-off. It’s an especially popular choice for the terminally ill, as all medical bills get covered, but all sorts of people have volunteered for every possible reason under the sun – and they receive some benefits simply for remaining “on standby” as a host. Some hosts have even been used multiple times and can almost be said to do this for a living.

Unknown to the donors but not the agents, it’s not just the modern-day bodies of the hosts that gets used; the agents are actually downloaded into a past version of the host. Some will know what’s going on because the hosting event will occur in a time-frame after they signed up for the programme; others will have no clue.

There are also times when one or more of the agents’ physical capabilities will be needed, and an edited upload of a given skillset from the volunteer to the agent will then occur. Most missions contain a mixture of the two.

The Missions

The Agency is supposedly not the only ones who know how to do this. Somewhere, there is an organization named Scorpion who want to arrange things so that they are in charge. No-one knows who Scorpion are or where they are based. The Original Mandate was to function in a similar fashion to the Backstep Programme in Seven Days, a series that I greatly enjoyed when it was showing. All that changed when Scorpion was discovered, which occurs pre-campaign.

These days the missions comprise of a mixture of fixing problems before they become emergencies (original premise), countering some manipulation of history by Scorpion or some attempt to take advantage of the outside-sourced emergency by Scorpion, and fixing whatever personal problem the host contracted to have solved – preventing some mistake they made with their lives, reuniting the family, or whatever, in the Quantum Leap style.

Eventually, it is anticipated that missions will be directed against Scorpion itself, but until the Agency knows who and where to target, intelligence-gathering in that area is the current order of the day.


The PCs should be a mixture of traditional James-Bond style characters (The Brawn) and a few people with indispensable skills that are completely unable to function on a physical level but whose minds are still sharp and clear (The Brains). The latter could be people tethered to life-support machines or in wheelchairs or whatever. However, they should all be within the normal-human range in abilities.

Each mission, the GM hands each player a dossier which specifies the physical characteristics of the host that they will be occupying, with any skills that the host has. The original personality will function as an NPC with the same body, who can even take it over in periods of high stress or when the agent-in-charge is knocked unconscious. Once again, these are ordinary people built within the normal human range of abilities. It’s the combination that gives PCs (and their enemies from Scorpion) their advantage over the normal population. Most of the time, they will simply offer “suggestions” – some of which will occasionally be useful – and interact, personality-to-personality, with the PC.

From amongst the many volunteers “on file”, these hosts have been computer-matched as having potentially-necessary skills and being physically able to reach the intervention point in time. There are times when beggars can’t be choosers, and the agents will be saddled with someone whose sole qualification for the mission is being able to take part in it. Other times, they may have someone with particular expertise relevant to what the mission appears to be. The Caveat is because these missions can actually turn out to be something completely different to expectations when the PCs start investigating.

Because they are involved in Temporal Manipulation, outside of the limited scope of their missions, the agents have to keep changes to history as tightly confined as possible. History has some elastic “give” but there may be limits that the Agency doesn’t want to push. That’s also why they aren’t trying for really big changes like eliminating Hitler – these are too unpredictable. Small, specific, isolated, changes are the scope of the mission profile.

On a mission, then, the PCs are hybrids of two characters – the original PC and the “host” (if in a host body) or the original PC and the “donor” (if in the PCs body).

At the end of the mission, after debriefing, the PCs are “rebooted” from backup copies of their pre-integration state, clearing away the “acquired” skills and personality, restoring the Agent to being “himself”. This also scrambles somewhat his memories of the actual mission; an important post-mission phase is using the debriefings to enable them to reintegrate those memories into a coherent whole. If this doesn’t happen, the memories will eventually return, but may contain erroneous bits that the subconscious of the PC has “created” or “romanticized” to fill the gaps.

It would also be an important phase of each adventure to have news footage or some other reports showing the impact on history that the PCs had in the course of the mission.

The “personal problems” angle is important because it permits the ongoing experiencing of “ordinary lives” within the game world. You’ll see why that matters in a little while.

The Technology Timeline

A key to making the campaign work will be plausibility in the source and limitations of the temporal “insertion” technology. From what’s been written in the preceding paragraph, it should be clear that the Agency doesn’t really understand, on a theoretical level, how it works. Deciding the answers should be left to each GM.

My inclination would be to have this be an accidental discovery seized on by the military or an intelligence agency and pressed into practical application before the researchers were ready, especially when they couldn’t give any clear answer as to how long it would take to get those answers. Assuming that the research was being funded by the military / agency (explaining how they came to know of it), it then becomes understandable why they would want to start seeing some returns on their investment before all the whys, wherefores – and bugs – were worked out.

Of course, once Scorpion was discovered, all bets were off. There could no longer be an argument about using, or not using, the technology.

An ongoing concern should be the possibility that Scorpion understands the technology better than the PCs do. This gives the GM a way to introduce anything that he wants the PCs to be able to do – by posing it as a problem for them to overcome. This inherently limits the scope of the technology so that it doesn’t get out of hand and destroy the campaign.

The Campaign

Here’s a complete outline of the campaign that I foresee:

  • Mission One should be a typical anti-Scorpion mission so that all the elements of the campaign can be introduced.
  • Missions Two-Five should be a mixed blend of the mission types. Add more if you come up with more good plots, or if necessary to have the PCs “gel” as a team. I would suggest at least two should be “prevent a disaster” in nature, one more should be “anti-Scorpion” and Scorpion should win that confrontation, one should expose the limits of the technology by sending the PCs on a mission that turns out to be unnecessary, and one should be a defensive move aimed at making sure that one of the agents actually survives to be recruited when it is discovered that he died in the past.
  • Somewhere around Mission Six or Seven, the PCs should discover that their debriefings are being edited to keep classified information The Agency doesn’t want them to know, taking advantage of the principle that the “subconscious fills-in-the-blanks” with something which quite probably has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. In the course of missions six through ten, the PCs should become aware that life in general outside the agency is slowly becoming more and more dystopian, despite their best efforts. So far as the personnel of the Agency are concerned, this is in the agent’s imaginations, the world is exactly the same as it was aside from the changes they – or Scorpion – have made. The mission mix should be similar to the first five.
  • “Mission 11″ should be a typical mission, but the PCs should discover – in the course of it – hints that they have actually participated in a mission in between Mission 10 and the current one and have no memory of it. They should start burying hints in their debriefings of this discovery while leaving out any direct mention of their suspicion. There are three possibilities: One, the agency has found a way to edit the recorded personalities used for the “reintegration” process, or two, Scorpion has infiltrated The Agency, or three – both of these have happened.
  • Missions 12 and 13 should be “normal”.
  • Mission 14 should include evidence of a second “Lost Mission” that the PCs (and players) have no memories of. Perhaps they have acquired a skill each that they don’t remember ever studying. What’s more, Mission 14 involves direct contact with an agent of Scorpion, which the PCs remember post-mission in flashbacks, but of which there is no mention in their official debriefing.
  • Mission 15 should again be fairly normal, though it may involve doing something the PCs consider morally “gray” at best. Throughout Missions 11 to 15, the trend toward Dystopia should continue.
  • Mission 16 is when you start the buildup to the big finish. The PCs have to nobble a supposedly-friendly agency because the latter is about to launch some action that The Agency considers premature. Agents of Scorpion are encountered with exactly the same mission objective, and it is an entirely permissible outcome for Scorpion to complete the PCs mission for them.
  • Mission 17 should be normal, but – for a third time – there should be a “missing mission” discovered.
  • Mission 18, the first part of an unannounced two-part adventure, should appear superficially to be a normal mission, but the consequences of the mission should be very different from expectations. Mission 19 should be an intervention to undo the success of Mission 18, and the PCs should encounter agents of Scorpion who are trying to ensure that Mission 18 succeeded as the PCs remember it.
  • Mission 20, so far as the Agency is concerned, should be an entirely normal anti-Scorpion mission. HOWEVER, the problem to be solved is that Scorpion agents have done “X” where X is actually what the PCs accomplished back in one of missions 1-5, and in order to stop Scorpion getting in the way, the PCs have to pretend to be agents of Scorpion themselves. Prior to the mission commencing but after Integration, one of the PCs will overhear a technician being ordered to redact the entire mission briefing from his recorded memories.
    In other words, the “missing missions” are all times when the PCs are acting as agents of Scorpion, and The Agency hasn’t just been infiltrated by Scorpion, they are Scorpion!

    • There are several parts to the resulting climactic adventure. First, they have to decide how to handle their current mission – they can either try to succeed or deliberately fail.
    • Then there comes the mission debriefing. They should realize that because changes to history flow downward with the timestream, they can tell the Agency anything they want in the debriefing because the Agency receiving their reports is one that has already been affected by the change in history (if any) and won’t know any better. They will also have to find some way of communicating their discovery to their “reintegrated” selves.
    • After that comes the double-agents part of the adventure, in which the PCs properly investigate the Agency and discover who is really in charge of it. There are lots of possible solutions, some of which I’ll detail in a minute. At first, it might seem that they have unlimited time to decide what to do, but in reality, they only have until the next covert mission (when their memory records will be examined for “redacting” and possibly only until the next mission, when fresh “backups” will be made and might be examined. So they really only have a very tight window in which to get to the bottom of things…
    • …and take action, in the campaign finale.


There are a number of possible solutions as to who is behind Scorpion. Here are some of my favorites;

  • It could be a shadowy government conspiracy, a-la X-files;
  • It could be a less-shadowy conspiracy who see the world going to hell in a hand-basket and are desperately doing what they think is the right thing in order to save it;
  • …or a less-shadowy cabal trying to undo the damage from some colossal mistake very early in the program (before the PCs joined);
  • It could be aliens, manipulating the leaders of the agency using the same technology that the PCs have been employing, thereby explaining where the tech really came from in the first place…
  • Or, lastly (and my favorite) it could be older versions of the PCs trying to prepare the world to fend off some even-worse disaster (eg an alien invasion thirty years in the future, or a global war) at any cost;
  • or some combination of the above!

For example, I like the by-the-bootstraps of the aliens idea, but that can also be used in conjunction with the “undoing the vast mistake” or “future selves” solutions. If I were writing this as a novel, that’s probably the solution I would aim toward, writing the missions as a series of short stories. However, in an RPG, this leaves you open to complaints of “My character wouldn’t do that no matter how bad things got” – so I would probably go with one of the other solutions in a game, simply to remove the conflict between Villains and Players.

Time travel mechanics

I haven’t gone into these extensively in this article. The discussion of the “big finish” covers most of what you need to know. The only “soft spots” in the campaign concept are two:

  • The whole “into a past self” process needs explanation, even if it’s pseudo-science at its worst. My present thought is that by “Integrating” the two minds in the present-day, that this somehow travels back along the personal timeline of the “host” until it reaches a point at which the combination is somehow “conditioned” to begin manifesting itself. But I think a better answer is needed, if one can be found. If not, you can probably get away with hand-waving it with my current answer and inserting some sort of “conditioning” phase in the mission prep.
  • If the agency that the PCs come back to each time is one that has already been affected by the changes in history, then so have the recordings of the agents minds, which undermines the entire premise of the campaign which relies on the PCs retaining knowledge of the way things were. My best answer to this is that the temporal condition itself (ie, mechanics problem #1 above) acts to “insulate” the PCs throughout their timelines. Thus both the hosts and the sources would be aware of the way things were because they were joined mentally at the time of the change, and hence the recordings of their mental states would also be preserved.

The real problem is that you can’t protect the recordings without having the technology to protect the Agency part of the campaign, and you can’t protect the agency from the changes in history without eliminating one of the key elements from the big finale, giving the PCs the ability to lie to The Agency and buy the time they need to investigate and take action. This is at the heart of both the specific mechanical problems described above. Solve them and you solve the real problem, or vice-versa.


This is a campaign that I think would be a lot of fun. I hope it provides some inspiration for someone out there looking for a cool idea for their next game :)

Some additional resources

I should point readers to my past series here at Campaign Mastery on the subject of Time Travel in RPGs (3 parts)

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Thatch and Confusion – creating a village


Despite many articles in development, today I’m choosing to scratch a pure fantasy-gaming itch that’s been growing for a while.

Specifically, I’m going to look at how I go about creating a village for an RPG.

There are some aspects of the process I employ that I’ve never seen written up anywhere else – whether that’s with good reason or not, I’ll leave to your own judgment.

Preliminary Decisions

Before I get started on the Village itself, there are a number of preliminary design considerations that I need to assess.

Context: The PCs

Why are the PCs going to be here? Are they just traveling, or does this have to tie into some larger adventure?

Who are they? This will dictate what institutions will “connect” with them, eg Clerics and Temples.

Is there anything that the PCs are going to want to do in town, and do I want them to be able to do it, partially or completely? This includes the obvious (replenish supplies) and the inobvious (sell loot, sell hot property to a fence, etc). What limits do I want to put on this activity,eg how much ready cash do I want in circulation?

I’ll be putting my example in quote boxes like this one. Let’s assume a typical PFRPG / D&D party – a fighter, cleric, rogue, and mage. The fighter is a former member of the army of another Kingdom who lost a war, The cleric is a follower of a sun god, the rogue is a pickpocket but makes most of his “on the side” money buying, transporting, and selling stolen property, and the mage has a passion for secrets and hidden lore. The fighter is a Dwarf, the Mage is an Elf, the others are Human. And, just to keep things simple, they are just traveling from place to place looking for adventure, so the Village can stand alone. They have a little loot to sell, mostly weapons, nothing important, except the Rogue, who has a fancy necklace he is trying to sell (value 500gp).

Context: The People

What do I already know about the national identity of the inhabitants? About their racial profile? About the general society and social profile within the Realm?

Again, just to keep the example simple, this is a generic fantasy kingdom. The villages are neither poor nor prosperous, neither oppressed nor rebellious. The inhabitants have the generic prejudices and reactions to other races.

Context: The Village

This includes anything I know about the place in general before I start, like the general geography, climate, etc.

Rolling green foothills and a river, northern temperate climate, some snow in winters, and located on a middle-grade thoroughfare between Capital and the southern outlying parts of the Kingdom, commonly used as a trade route.

It’s currently late spring, so it’s warm and the river has settled down to it’s average level after being swollen with melting snow earlier in the season.

Harvests in this Kingdom come in three phases – the winter harvest is used locally; the spring harvests are mostly paid to the Baron who owns the land around these parts; and the Summer Harvest is mostly paid as part of the Baron’s Tithe to the King. But I want to make this village a little different, so crop farming is not going to be the major economic activity locally – there will still be some barley, wheat, and vegetable cropping, but it’s a minor activity, locally.

How Long?

How long do I want this place to be the center of attention? Ten minutes? An Hour? A game session? An adventure? Longer? This dictates both the level of detail and the level of complexity that I want to build into the place and the events that are possible there.

I want to set a shortish adventure here, between one and three game sessions, and then let the party move on. However, I want this place to become a regular stop for the PCs so that as the campaign evolves, they can see the village evolving with it, so I want to build in some inhabitants with whom the PCs will want to have regular contact.

The Axis Of Dissent

There is always one topic that is the focus of disagreement amongst the inhabitants of a community. This can be anything that has an opposite quality – individual independence vs law-and-order, wealth vs poverty, sociability vs intolerance, sloth vs activity, expansion vs consolidation, good vs evil, barley vs wheat, you name it.

No matter what opinions individuals might have on other subjects, these two points of view unite them into camps of strange bedfellows. Where one stands on the issue in question will define who your friends and acquaintances are – and who you are likely to have an argument with.

All other disputes tend to get resolved according to where you stand on these issues because they dictate who has power and who doesn’t, what favors you can call in, and so on.

Relations between the camps can be cordial, heated, fractious, or even violent. But they need to be close in numbers, so even if one is officially suppressed, it will have a number of adherents hiding behind a publicly-acceptable banner.

While it is sometimes possible to have 3-cornered disputes, I tend to reserve those for larger communities.

Sidebar: The Ordering Of Dispute
A great way to achieve the required complexity of settlements of different sizes is to have multiple axes of dissent. Small villages have one; small towns have one, plus a minority contingent that straddles the fence or argues in favor of a middle ground; larger towns have two, or one three-cornered one; small cities have three; large cities have four.

Each additional cause of dissent subdivides the community into power blocks. If there are two axes, the community is divided into four major factions, each of which sometimes allies one way and sometimes another, and each of which has an opposed faction with which it disagrees on every one of these fundamental questions (though they may agree on other, unrelated, matters). Three axes divides a community at least eight ways, and almost certainly creates opportunities for additional factions who are neutral on one of the three issues, while being passionate about one or both of the other two; four, sixteen plus neutrals. Internal politics becomes more and more complex with each increase.

Axes of dissent aren’t permanent; they come and go over time as circumstances and societies change. They may last for generations, or be resolved more-or-less permanently after a period of months – or even weeks, if important enough. In general, they persist until supplanted by another, more pressing issue that divides the community – and then, only if growth doesn’t permit the additional axis of dissent to be accommodated alongside the new.

As a general rule of thumb, the smaller the community, the more it can be said that – in broad terms – everyone wants the same thing, but disagrees on how best to achieve it. The more a community grows, the more room there is for dissenting objectives and agendas that are completely unrelated to the first point of disagreement.

The reasons for that commonality are long and complicated and have a lot to do with power structures and authority. As a general rule of thumb, higher-ups will let communities decide things for themselves until it impacts on their bottom line, at which point one faction will be brutally brought to heel, settling the question with a fair degree of finality. Sometimes the faction suppressed will be the one not currently in charge, sometimes it will be the current leaders – that depends on the vagaries of individual personalities amongst the nobility doing the suppression.

Finally, it has to be said that these issues are rarely as important in the broad scheme of things as the locals feel them to be!

I want this village to be a little unusual, so I’ll choose an unusual but entirely acceptable axis of dissent: Wet Vs Dry. What exactly that means remains to be seen!

Dominant Industry

There are three ways of measuring the relative importance of an industry: the size of the workforce it employs, the economic value of the industry to the community, and social dependence. I deal with each of these separately.

Dominance: Workforce

The dominant industry in terms of workforce is the occupation that most of the people in these parts do for a living, including any secondary industries that derive from the first. Mess with this, and you’ll have unhappy people. The more civil authority the individuals have, the more official policy will reflect the attitudes, opinions, and aspirations of the employees of this industry. If civic leaders are popularly elected, for example, you either cater to this industry or you need something to counter the popular support that it has.

It is fundamentally important that the dominant industry – no matter how you measure it – is firmly connected to the axis of dissent. You want these people to have opinions, one way or the other. It’s very easy and quite normal to characterize allegiance to one faction of the dispute as “the dominant industry vs everyone else”. The alternative is for this industry to be divided on both sides of the central issue, with this workforce providing the numbers that make up each faction more or less evenly, allowing other social factors to be the deciding consideration.

“Wet vs Dry” – to me, at least – suggests that the point of dissent concerns water management. This makes sense, since we have the river running through the town, or at least along one side of it. Water Management, in turn, suggests agriculture of some sort as the dominant industry – and, since I have already ruled out crops as the dominant industry, that must mean livestock. In a medieval/fantasy economy, that means one of four things, generally: Fishing, Beef, Pork, Horses, or Sheep.

Given the geography, Cattle and Pork are less likely, though the former is not entirely out of the question. Fishing is going to be limited in a river setting as compared to a coastal setting, so that is unlikely to be the biggest employer of the workforce, though it may form a powerful minority faction amongst the “wet” contingent. Horses tend to generate more wealth than I really want the village to have. So that suggests that Sheep-farming is the dominant industry.

So, what are the products that derive from shepherding? These will provide the secondary industries that make this so important an occupation. Wool, both died and plain, tanned sheep-leather, mutton, and vellum/parchment. Some cultures reserved the term vellum for calfskin, and all other types of hide treated for writing was called parchment; others were more liberal in their definitions. Further confusing matters is an economic differentiation which uses “Vellum” to refer to the highest quality materials, regardless of source, while “Parchment” is used for the more common quality of material. I’ll reserve judgment on the issue of how the locals use these terms until I see how it all fits in.

One thing common to dying, tanning, and the manufacture of parchment/vellum is that they produce pollution as a byproduct. This is worse today than it was back then, because we use more severe and efficient chemicals, but even so, let’s assume that the actual herds are “dry” (because the water is only used to supply the animals) while the secondary industries use the water in such a way that it cannot be used for grazing afterwards.

If that’s our point of contention amongst the different factions, then it’s clear that what I said earlier about Fishing is no longer correct – any secondary Fishing industry would be amongst the “dry” faction, who want clean water for the livestock, including fish. Furthermore, the dominant industry is divided by the point of dispute. The shepherds and mutton factions are “dry”, while the tanning and parchment industries are “wet”. The wool secondary industry is divided into non-polluting dies (dry) and polluting dies (wet).

Since its the shepherds who are the primary suppliers, the dry faction is clearly dominant at the moment. To achieve balance between the factions, it is going to be necessary for one or more of the wet faction to be the dominant industry in some other scale of measurement. Fortunately, we have two. What’s more, at least one unrelated secondary industry, possibly two, are going to be firmly in the “dry” camp – fishing, as identified earlier, and crop agriculture in general. Both are going to be minor relative to the pastoral industry, according to what’s already been decided, but they add to the power of the “dry” faction, and show that whatever the other measure of dominance is, the secondary industry concerned will have to be substantially dominant for anything close to parity to be achieved.

Dominance: Economic Value

Whatever earns the most money for the community will therefore be elevated in power and prestige beyond any direct measure of workforce scale. This is the source of “the few”, “the social elite”, “the wealthy” – no matter how you want to describe them, this is where they come from. Money always brings power, in some form or another.

Anything that isn’t being produced locally either has to be brought in from the outside or the locals will have to do without. That requires money, or the equivalent in trade goods. Since large-scale centralization of agriculture is not something that happens until relatively modern times, it can be assumed that just because the locals have one dominant crop or agricultural pursuit, the neighbors won’t be doing the same thing. Diversity is better for all. Regional focus may be more efficient in that one form of agriculture, but it must be supported by surrounding diversity, in other words.

That means that whatever meat is left after the tithings can be divided into local consumption and that available for trade with surrounding villages and townships in return for other produce. This trade, combined with whatever is grown locally, providing adequate diversity of diet.

It follows that the dominant economic force is either going to be the primary industry, a secondary industry attached to it, or something from a completely unrelated field of endeavor. In a mining community, the suppliers of food and services hold the trump cards in terms of economic value.

We’ve already decided that the shepherds of our village can’t be the dominant force economically; they are already the most populous group, and this would give them a dominant position in local politics. That would be fine if that was what was wanted, but we want there to be some contention within the town for the PCs to get involved in, and to make the place more interesting and colorful.

That means our choices for economic dominance are either a secondary industry attached to the sheep herds, or the suppliers of essential services, or both. For reasons that will soon become clear, I’m going to set aside the essential services possibility and confine myself to the secondary industry possibility.

So, we have dying, tanning, and parchment/vellum as possible economically-dominant forces in the region. To bring in significant amounts of money – enough to make them the dominant force or forces in the economy – they will need some point of distinction, something they do better than everyone else in the same line of work. This would not be necessary if the product itself was rare and highly prized, but none of them have that up their sleeves.

  • Dying: either the wool is a superior quality, or it takes and holds color better than others by virtue of some secret process, or the locals have some in-demand color that no-one else knows how to achieve, or some combination of these possibilities. Higher-quality wool begs the question of why it is of such quality and why no-one else can match it, and I don’t have good answers for those questions, so let’s rule that out and say that while the wool is premium quality, it’s not notably better than other high-quality wool providers. A secret process sounds good, but that can apply equally to either option. Choosing between them comes down to choosing something that’s better but common, or something that is unusual. So far, the community is fairly bucolic and mundane, so I’m leaning toward the latter. What’s an unusual color? Two thoughts come to mind: Purple – which used to be a very expensive and rare color, which is why it’s associated with royalty – and gold. I’m afraid that the thought of a town which makes “golden fleece” which can be spun, woven, and worn like ordinary wool, is irresistible.
  • Tanning: the same arguments lead to the same choices – quality, or something unusual about the colors. But we’ve already used the latter, and quality (softness) is easily achieved by using lamb skin instead of sheep skin. Toughness, the other way of measuring quality in leather, is more commonly associated with leather from cattle. So this secondary industry is not suitable to be economically dominant.
  • Parchment/Vellum: This used to be the dominant material for writing until paper became available in industrial quantities. I found the FAQ at to be useful on more than one occasion, and have excerpted three paragraphs from that resource below for general reference; the only thing to dislike about the site is that it doesn’t show prices. Clearly, price is no object if you want to use this stuff!

    Parchment and its subtype, Vellum, were clearly prized for their durability, but the production process was very slow. Using my preferred resource, “…and a ten-foot pole”, and converting the “middle ages” prices to standard 3.x using the process outlined in How Much Is That Warhorse In The Window? – Pricing Of Goods in D&D, I get 8.5sp per sheet, 6.5sp per sheet, and 8sp per sheet for paper, parchment, and vellum, respectively.

    That’s not enough to justify economic dominance unless there’s something superior about the locally-produced product, which therefore fetches a premium price, or they have made some sort of breakthrough that boosts their production rate and cuts costs, so that the profits are inflated. Let’s assume that most such production has a profit margin of 2sp per sheet, and therefore costs 4.5sp per sheet to manufacture. Halving the cost per sheet while doubling production means that per man-hour, the costs are effectively quartered to about 1sp – call it 1.5 for convenience. That leaves 5sp per sheet profit vs 2sp profit for everyone else. This would enable a reduction in price to 5.5sp per sheet – undercutting everyone else in the market – while capturing twice as much profit. That is enough to create economic dominance, locally. In fact, to satisfy the demands of their production potential, they would probably have to import additional untreated or partially-treated hides from some other shepherding region.

    But I have a better idea: Suppose the locally-produced parchment is of Vellum quality, costs twice as much, but halves the time required to transfer spells to it? This region would become the principle supplier of “Sheep Vellum” to mages and temples for scrolls and spellbooks. This lacks the complications of the “faster, cheaper, production” idea, and it gives one of the PCs a definite interest in the fortunes of one of the factions.

Selected excerpts from the FAQ of
The first parchments were simply unrefined animal skins. But over time, parchment production practices became increasingly refined until parchment became a legitimate writing surface. By the 15th century, parchment had eclipsed papyrus as the more stable, available, and preferred writing material. After the invention of the printing press and before the wide adoption of paper, parchment was also seen as the preferred material for use in printing — a prime example of this is the Gutenberg Bible. The material’s durability also led to its widespread use in bookbinding.

Over the past millennium, the process of making parchment and leather shrunk months to a week or less. We have modern chemicals to thank for this much swifter production period. The process has gone from taking months to now being able to be done in a week or less.

Currently at Pergamena, we produce parchment on four different types of animal skin: goat, calf, deer, and sheep. The most telling difference between the parchments of these animals is the grain, or the outside surface which contains the hair follicles. Goat usually has a rough, almost crackly, pattern to it that resembles the surface of asphalt, and can have a lot of fairly noticeable scars and marks, due to the wear and tear the hide experiences during the animal’s life. Calf has a much smoother, flatter surface characterized by the broad pattern of thick fat wrinkles and finer veins that spiderweb across the skin. Deer, being wild animals, have the most prominent display of scars, punctures, scrapes, and bites of all our skin types. Sheep have a very similar granular pattern to goat, but can usually be recognized by the smaller size of the “pebbles” in the grain. Because of our manufacturing process, all of the animal types can be prepared with anything from smooth, flat finishes to none at all.

Dominance: Dependence

When the locals are Dependant on some commodity, the suppliers of said commodity have authority and power. This is often expressed by the prices being charged, and the profits being gouged, from the locals. This is why so few gold miners who actually found gold got rich in the California and Klondike gold rushes (they fared a little better in Ballarat, here in Australia, on average, but the general principle holds for the most part).

The secondary industries of our village – which still hasn’t been named – all depend on the shepherds. But the shepherds also depend on those secondary industries buying their hides and fleece for the coin needed to buy goods and services. For all that they are at odds over the axis of dissent, they need each other.

This leaves the service providers as the only other source of influence. The secondary industries are all urbanized occupations, and require a support infrastructure – markets and bakers and furniture makers and taverns and wagoners and the like. What’s more, the presence of two high-end industries – the dyers with the gold-spun wool and the “sheep vellum” makers, both of whom have a process to hide, and require chemicals for the treatment of their products, and have lots of ready cash, pretty much ensures that they have something to protect, and that demands a police force or watch of some sort. Because these are the people paying the bills, this force will tend to take the urban citizens’ side over that of the shepherds. This is exactly the sort of thing that can create resentments and conflict within a community.

What’s more, it will probably resonate with another of the PCs – the fighter, being an ex-army type, is likely to either be strongly pro-law-and-order, respectful of authority, or to blame authority for the defeat that he experienced within the army. Either way, he is likely to have a strong opinion.

Shops and Services

With a fair idea of the basis of the local economy, the next step is to list the shops and services that the locals need. Note that we have two distinct groups of locals at this point – the urban population employed by the secondary industries and the rural population that sell to those secondary industries. I’ll usually brainstorm for a reasonable period of time on these. The decisions so far have been important, but much quicker to make than it has taken to explain them; I will spend at least as long developing the list of shops and services as I have on the entire process thus far.

With each, there are two things that I will assess: relative economic profitability and where they stand on the wet-vs-dry question.

Economic profitability is done on a simple scale – but a scale that changes with the size of the population center.

  • Villages are rated 0-3, with 3 being high and 0 indicating break-even or worse.
  • Small Towns are rated 1-4.
  • Larger Towns are rated 2-4. The assumption is that costs are higher and force any business dropping to a “1″ to close or move. Some types of premises may have multiple representations, eg more than one tavern.
  • Small Cities are rated 1-5, and will often have multiple instances of the same type of shop or service. The bottom-level profitability describes slum regions that cater to the poorest, but there is enough economic diversity in a small city to support most types of business, no matter how niche it may be.
  • Large Cities are rated 1-6. Almost every trade will have rivals or competitors, and in some cases there may be dozens of them.

Note that I don’t care how much profit they actually make – this is a rough measure of their relative importance to the community.

I’m running out of time to get this article finished, so I’m not going to apply the full process. In fact, I’m only going to offer a couple of representative examples.

Temples - The two populations have very different needs, and are likely to have separate places of worship. Alternatively, the local pastor may be the man-in-the-middle trying to keep peace between the two factions. If the latter, he is likely to find an ally in the PC cleric; if the former, the PC may side with one or the other sides. Which approach I chose would depend on the affiliations of the other PCs – so far, the fighter is either strongly pro- or strongly anti- the townspeople (“wet” faction), and the mage is definitely aligned with the “wet” faction. The rogue is also likely to be “wet”, simply because it creates more opportunities for “his line of work”. My preference would be to arrange things so that the party are evenly divided in their sympathies, but without creating the PCs in more depth, I can’t make that decision. “Profitability” 1 (rural), 2 (compromise), 3 (urban).

Abattoir - Urban (centralized) but tied more directly with the “dry” faction (the shepherds). The middleman that makes it possible for the secondary industry to forget where their raw materials come from – “they come from the Abattoir”. Profitability 2.

Taverns - If the shepherds were in town all the time, there would be a lot more taverns devoted to servicing them than there were devoted to the townspeople, but they aren’t. Expect parity across both populations. And some of the more bucolically-oriented would only be busy once a week (usually a Friday or Saturday night), and would look for opportunities for other revenue streams mid-week in order to stay afloat. Profitability 2 (urban), 0-1 (rural). This creates an opportunity for restraint-of-trade by each side – zoning, crackdowns, fees – when they`are in power. The town watch will be more active near the rural taverns.


The decisions made so far make it fairly easy to work out what will be for sale in the weekly or fortnightly markets, and what the townspeople eat. It also enables a lot of additional color to be introduced – “Barley train from Fenwicke’s overdue again,” in response to a complaint when the only menu item in the tavern is turnip stew with sheep’s-tongue.

Central Casting

Knowing what the most important businesses in town are, it becomes a lot easier to work out who the most important people are.

PC connections

Next, I make sure that each PC has a point of connection with a local who has a strong stance on the central issue, trying – as I suggested earlier – to balance the viewpoints across the party. If there’s anyone the PCs are likely to interact with who wasn’t detailed in the previous step, this is when it happens. I try to make sure there are some interesting people on hand for the PCs to interact with.

Again, a couple of quick examples:

Renfrew - Renfrew is a buyer from a somewhat elitist mage’s academy located somewhere else, here to try and negotiate greater access to the “sheep vellum” – which needs a better name. Affable and persuasive, this creates a conflict for the mage who is not from that academy and whose supply of “sheep vellum” would be lost if Renfrew succeeds. Pro-Wet, but attempting to obtain favor and leverage over the Wets by supporting the Dry faction. He doesn’t care if there is less “Sheep’s Vellum” produced as a result – so long as he gets most or all of it.

Kneelisworth - A wanted Fence who is hiding out in the village in the guise of a tavern owner. While he claims to have won the tavern in a card game from the former owner, he has in fact killed the man and his family and buried them in the earthen basement. Trying hard not to be discovered, he eschews his former trade and is vocally pro law-and-order. The rogue will recognize him as resembling the Fence, and can eventually discover the truth – then either turn him in or blackmail him into using his contacts to on-sell the goodies the rogue “acquires”. The latter is more likely, and gives one reason for the PCs to return here.

Points Of Conflict

These are the vocal and public surface of the underlying axis of conflict, the issues of the day.

  1. The Fishermen want more access to the river. The businesses want to build more docks for their own use so that they can freight their products downriver, avoiding the expensive fees charged by the wagoners.
  2. A brutal murder has been committed near one of the (rural) taverns. The victim is the son of one of the more outspoken locals who opposes the unfair treatment of the local farmers.
  3. The town council has just raised duties on wine and strong spirits. This doesn’t affect the rural taverns but the urban ones have had to raise their prices, creating unrest.

…and so on.

Town Layout & Name

Knowing what the major businesses are, and who needs what in terms of access, I can “zone” the city into poor districts, industry, retail, wealthy, and so on, creating a rough layout. This is also the point at which I name the town if I haven’t already done so.


Finally, I decide what the adventure or the adventures available to the PCs in the local district are going to be.

Several ideas have occurred to me in the course of writing this article. I would probably make them all available and let the PCs decide what to look into first and what to ignore.

  1. You have money moving in and valuables moving out of town, and a rural population, some of whom don’t think they are getting their fair share. This is an open temptation to banditry – which would explain why the wagoners have raised their fees to the point where local businesses are looking for alternative transportation solutions. Things get more complicated when the rural population really are being short-changed and hence have a legitimate grievance.
  2. The murder mentioned above. Perhaps it has nothing to do with who the victim was, and everything to do with a cult that has secretly taken over a local farm.
  3. A side effect of one of the unique industrial processes is turning some of the sheep who drink the water downstream into monsters. This in turn has caused the loss of several trade caravans and a couple of bandit raiding parties – all of which is being blamed on drunken townsmen.
  4. The other industrial process does something to the minds of some of the monsters, making them perfect hosts for some other form of nasty. This could be anything from Cthulhoid greeblies to Demons, but these won’t start showing up right away.

The great thing about this setup is that the PCs are buying into the argument, taking sides, simply by choosing where to stay. It doesn’t matter whether they choose the rural-oriented budget accommodation or the expensive urban-population-oriented accommodation that’s available, either choice places them front-and-center for an interesting stay.

….and that’s how I create a Village for a fantasy RPG!

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The Keys to the Kingdom Of Literacy: Stylish Narrative Part 6


So here we are on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Spring (at least in my neck of the woods, YMMV). What on earth am I doing posting something on a day like this, when I am usually Gaming (or catching up on all the non-gaming activities that often get swamped by game needs or Campaign Mastery itself)?

Unless you’ve been avoiding me (heavens knows why), you will be aware that the last few weeks at Campaign Mastery have been dominated by a 5-part – now 6-part – series on how to write better narrative. These were very much conceived as a single article, and much of the usefulness is lost by the divisions that were necessary to get them written and published. Furthermore, it was always my intention to provide a checklist to follow when using the procedure outlined, which is lengthy and detailed.

Neither document was ready for inclusion in the final part of the series when it was published, about 42 hours ago. But they are ready now! And this extra, out-of-schedule post is for the sole purpose of making them available to you, the readers.

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Checklist (1-page PDF) 74.1Kb

The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative Cover

A4 optimized PDF (53 pages, 919.8kB)

The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative Cover

Letter-size optimized PDF (54 pages, 925.7kB)

Click on the icon above to download the Checklist Click one of the covers above to download a compilation of the entire article series as a PDF – Available in Letter and A4 formats.

These documents may be freely redistributed provided they are not modified in any way and the accreditation and copyright notices remain intact.

Use them in good health!

(PS: I’m very gratified by the kudos and compliments that have been offered for the series. My thanks to you all!)

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Pearls Of Spontaneous Prose: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Pt 5


This series has been predicated on the belief that the real difference between game prep and a lack of game prep could be summarized as felicity of style: better-presented maps and illustrations, better thought-out plans, better characterization of NPCs, better depiction of that characterization, and more stylish Narrative, and has aimed at presenting a masterclass in the last of these. It doesn’t focus on actually stringing words together, or the artistry of literary or verbal communications; the subject has been the writing process itself.

More stylish narrative means creating concise, communicative, and flavorful words to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts that is nevertheless more easily assimilated because of the brevity. It is narrative that flows naturally instead of being disjointed and fragmented.

The process described is not quick, and assumes unlimited time is available for revision and polishing, however unrealistic that assumption may be. Efficiency is, however, always a consideration and the technique eliminates as much wasted time as possible.

Even if some of the more time-consuming steps are skipped, short-cutted, or combined with other steps, you can get 90% of the result for about 10% of the time. The secret to doing so is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, knowing the entire process, and where those strengths and weaknesses will impact on the process. You can target the areas for effort that will give you the biggest gains while skipping or skimping on those that play to your strengths. And it’s always great to have an awareness of the whole process on tap to be called upon when the result really matters.

In part 4, I examined the impact on an RPG of employing better narrative, and found that the gains were a many-fold return on the time investment. I also looked at the practicalities of learning to create better narrative that people should take into account – in particular, the short-term pain that may cause them to abandon their efforts prematurely because “it’s not working”.

This time around, I aim to focus on the ultimate test of creating good narrative – improvising – before wrapping up the series.

The ability to improv

It’s one thing to be able to create an improvised adventure and quite another to deliver it effectively, living by your wits and ability to respond. All your worst vices as a GM are sure to crawl out of the woodwork when you try – simple plots can become hideously over-complicated, for example, or villains can become over-the-top shams of clichéd characterization.

Past articles here at Campaign Mastery have looked at how to create an improvised adventure, how to get yourself out of trouble when improvising, how to generate characters on-the-fly, and so on, but haven’t looked all that closely at the implementation of those adventures.

If you take out the creation and roleplaying of NPCs, the creation of a plotline, and adjudicating of PC actions, there isn’t a whole lot to GMing left aside from narrative creation and delivery: what’s happening, where, and what it all looks like to the PCs. So the ability to improv narrative is the heart of implementing an improvised adventure.

The process used for creating great narrative can be easily modified to this particular application, but before I get into that, I have some general advice to offer.

Think it through

Guarding against those GMing vices is best achieved by always having a reason for what you do at each step of running an improv adventure. Before you begin a new scene, work out what that scene is to achieve in terms of the overall plotline you’ve come up with, and at least take a moment to decide whether things should be getting better, getting worse, getting more dramatic, getting more emotional, or winding up for a finish. This is a rough method of creating both a metagame context for the scene and implementing an emotional progression within the overall adventure; both of these things should shape the narrative that you deliver. Don’t agonize over things, but do take a handful of seconds to think about things overall.

Think ahead

Having decided why the scene should happen, in the context of the overall adventure, and what its tone should be, the next thing to do is to take a moment – and you only need a second or three – to think about where this scene should go, and how it will connect to the scene that will probably follow this one.

You might think that this is completely up to the players, but that’s not actually the case – they will respond to the cues you offer them, or they will do something completely unrelated to the adventure you had in mind. If you mention an NPC or a location, they will want to know more about it. If you hint that answers to at least some of their questions may be found at a given place, they will at least contemplate going to that place. If you always know why an NPC is doing whatever it is that they are doing in the scene, whether that’s offering a roman legionnaire’s salute to one of the PCs and addressing him as Emperor in Latin, or tearing up the sidewalk, you will also know how they will respond to whatever the characters do, or at least, how they will want to respond.

Polish as you go, not in advance

When improvising an adventure, you have to “live in the now” more than when delivering one that you’ve prepped for in advance. If you think of a wonderful piece of phrasing that you don’t need yet, or a clever twist for later in the adventure, your mind is not where it needs to be – forget it until the time comes, and if you remember it then, great. You do need to keep one eye on the bigger picture, but that’s what the preceding suggestions are for. Improv adventures require greater focus on the here-and-now and less on how it’s all going to fit together.

In particular, any new ideas that you have need closer examination before you implement them. One of my flaws as a GM is the bad habit of coming up with a wonderful idea in the middle of an adventure that completely changes that adventure in direction or outcome, and implementing it before thinking it through. Sometimes these plot twists work, other times they explode catastrophically in my face and require delicate emergency surgery on the adventure to prevent the complete derailing of the campaign.

Also in this category are PC mistakes and player misunderstandings, misapprehensions, and erroneous assumptions. As soon as you get the slightest suspicion that any of these have occurred, figure out how and when events will correct the error – and if they won’t do so, and the error threatens to derail the adventure or the campaign, insert a correction. When you are playing off-the-cuff, don’t let that cuff fray without planning a stop at the tailor!

Canned descriptions

When you’re thinking up your improvised adventures, images, scenes, and characters will come to mind. As soon as you are able, jot these down as notes and use them as the basis of descriptions. Two or three minutes so spent at the start of play – and don’t take longer than that – can save you a heap of grief later. Failing to do so is another of my failings as a GM and it does keep biting me, when a character turns up six or twelve months later, or the players go back to a particular location, and I have nothing on which to base the descriptions/action on. I don’t care how memorable or iconic you think the notion is – put it in writing. Make additional notes as you go.

Research in Prep

If you know that you aren’t going to have any prep time to create an adventure at some future point, spend three-to-five minutes before then on a Google image search, or looking up a wikipedia article. Stock some ideas and visual reference in the back of your mind for when the time comes. It’s astonishing how little such activity can be beneficial. You don’t even have to look at the full-sized images, just the thumbnails can be useful.

Iconic depictions as foundation

There are locations that are iconic, that we all know from TV and movies. Using these as a starting point and embellishing or transforming the scene in some way can be a great shortcut to the creative process, and it can also help deliver polished narrative simply because you can visualize the setting more clearly when describing it. Don’t be afraid to employ such trickery when you need it.

But there is a caveat: don’t use iconic places from novels, because your vision or interpretation might be quite different from those of your players. You can be quite clear in your own mind about what you are describing, but they simply can’t “see” it, causing frustration to both. Rely on a visual source.

Alliteration? Ahem! Although…

Some sources argue vehemently against the use of alliteration, and – to be fair – it is easily-abused. As a general rule, it’s best avoided. However, there are times when it can be used by choice for deliberate effect, as was the case in the title of this post. DON’T use it accidentally. DO use it when it benefits your narrative.

A simple process to improv great narration

The process for improvising great narration is surprisingly simple – the heavy lifting has been done in learning how to write that narrative in the first place.

Flow to bullet-points to narrative

The secret trick is to reverse a couple of stages in the literary process, and do the writing aloud. The full-prep approach was bullet-points to visualization to flow to narrative to polished and compressed narrative. The improve technique is to visualize, work out how to flow the narrative, turn the visualization into mental bullet-points, and then recombine them into narrative.

It’s that simple. You go from an overall impression that defines a number of areas for closer description, then uses that impression as the foundation for descriptive elements that fit into that overall impression. The result is often less creative than the full process, but it will be clear and succinct.

Picture it in your mind – what do you see?

I start by identifying one or two key adjectives to describe the overall scene or an iconic image plus original variation to be applied. Examples might be “Futuristic city – domed buildings – made of colored spun glass, delicate and artistic”, or “Operating theater, raised operating table angled downward at the feet, Frankenstein’s lab fittings, half-built mechanical man on the table.”

Entrance and exit

To this visualization I add or identify where the entrances and exits are. It often helps to assume that your visualization is happening from the entrance point, so that it will also be the PC’s point of view of the initial scene – but this can also leave you exposed when they enter the scene and look back in the direction from which they came.

Behind you!

So I make sure to spend a moment thinking about what the area behind that point-of-view will look like. “Crumbling Skyscrapers” and “a bank of machines and computers”, respectively, would work for the examples.

One Sentence at a time

With those impressions nailed down, I then create and announce the narrative, one sentence at a time. Once you have the visual in your head, if you avoid getting too specific too soon, you can rattle off your narrative almost as fast as you can think of it. Give a general impression that lists areas PCs might want to focus on and that tells them generally what’s in the room, and then let them either select something for closer inspection or deal with whatever there is within that space to interact with.

Remember to incorporate those little tricks from the literary approach – dynamics and motion and activity – as you go, and don’t neglect the senses other than sight.

Begin with any overall impression

The usual recipe for great narrative still applies. You always start with a general impression (bearing in mind that one may be inherited from preceding narrative)

Necessary information

Follow the general impression with a broad description of anything that players to know about before they can make choices.

Compress and polish as you go

When the same broad description can apply to more than one element within the scene, use it to describe them both at the same time and in the same sentence.

Ending the narrative passage

Again, as usual, end with an interaction trigger – a dialogue prompt, NPC action, or a question to the players – and make sure that you have no such interaction triggers before you get to that point. Skip over something if necessary, saving it until the end of the narrative.

Further improvements

There are all sorts of exercises that you can use to practice your narrative skills. These work for both written and improvised narrative. I use them all when the occasion presents, especially if I know my narrative abilities are going to be challenged in the near future.

  1. Write a novel or short story aloud – Make up a story, telling it out loud as you go. Record it to listen for defects in delivery, especially regarding enunciation and the smooth flow of narrative – no awkward pauses while you think permitted!
  2. Read fiction and pay attention – Narrative problems are hardly new, writers have been grappling with them since the time of the Greeks if not longer. The more you read and pay attention to how an author has done it, the more you will soak up the hundreds of little nuances of technique. Robert A. Heinlein is famous for being able to impart context and narrative background while advancing the plot in his short stories, and makes a good starting point. This article/series has shown you what to look for – now go and look for it! (Hint: use a book that you can tolerate but that isn’t one of your favorites, as the technical analysis can sometimes make it harder to enjoy that book in the future. Especially if you find that your favorite writers aren’t as gifted as you thought they were.)
  3. Read how-to-write books & websites – There are lots of these out there. A Google search on “how to write fiction” returned 156,000 entries. Another for “better writing” produced 424,000 responses. And those were using the literal phrase to target the most on-topic results. “Better writing” without the literal phrase yielded 719,000,000 results! “How to write fiction” gave 2,706 results at Amazon, while “better writing” gave 26,466 results – and that was restricting the search to the books department. There may well be documentaries and tutorials in the DVDs section as well!
  4. Describe Visuals – Find an “action photograph” – you can use this Google search if you like – then practice describing the scene as though it were narrative from an RPG. Start with the setting, and end with the activity. The goal is to be as descriptive as possible in as few words as possible. Try describing the photo over the phone to someone else. Start by doing it with the photo in front of you, then practice taking it away after an increasingly-brief look at the image, forcing you to fill in more of the details with your own imagination. And don’t forget to describe the scene around where you, the observer, are, and what’s behind you! You can also record this as suggested in exercise #1, and for the same purpose.
  5. Hit the high points – Synopsize a TV show that you have watched for someone else who has not, and who doesn’t watch the show, describing the sets and the action and synopsizing the dialogue from memory. Start with a single scene (from the RPG perspective, not the TV perspective, which may use multiple camera angles, etc). Then move on to everything between two ad breaks. Then a complete half-hour show – picking something unusual that you don’t normally watch, and that has strong visual elements. Work up to a full hour-long show. It’s OK to have just watched it before you start this exercise; it’s about practicing turning visuals that are in your head into visuals in words.
  6. Re-imagine settings – Pick a TV show or movie or photo from same, then re-imagine it as being from a completely different style of show, changing the details of the scene and the characters to conform with the new setting. Turn a western town into an underwater community populated by mermen. Turn a Manhattan street into a public thoroughfare on a futuristic space station. Turn – well, you get the idea!
  7. Explore Visual shorthands – Pick a photograph or freeze-frame from movie, TV show, or DVD. You have 60 seconds: Sum up what you can see in a single word that is as descriptive as you can possible manage. Then describe a completely different aspect of the same scene with another word. Keep going until you run out of things to describe, or time runs out. Very the time (shorter) occasionally to get practice at selecting the most important components of the scene.
  8. Employ Metaphors and Abstractions creatively – Obvious metaphors, abstractions, and the like are often considered to be lazy writing in literary circles. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be useful tools for deciding what to describe. Select an image from one of the usual sources, then try to mentally modify the image so that it reflects a metaphor, saying, or abstraction of your choosing from the point of view of one of the people in the scene or from the point of view of the viewer (if there isn’t anyone in the scene). Some will be much harder than others, so if it doesn’t happen, move on to another one, but give each a serious go.
  9. Visual metaphors and cues – A very long time ago, I wrote an article on the subject of better descriptions using color & texture as metaphors & iconography for Roleplaying Tips (it appeared in Issue #204 – and RPT is now up to Issue #623. So that’s at least 420 weeks ago. At 52 a year… ) Anyway, while the approach is somewhat outdated compared to what this article has presented, some of the specifics are still both relevant and valid. As was criticized at the time, the technique can be a bit much if over-used but saved for when you need something extra, can still be useful.
  10. Practice with DVDs – pause, examine, close your eyes, and describe. There’s not much more to say.
  11. Mental Prep – Everyone should have a quick routine that they can use to clear and focus their minds. Specific techniques will vary in effectiveness from individual to individual. Find one and use it before you start, and as many times as you need to while GMing. It will help in every aspect of the craft, including enabling the crafting of better narrative. Once you have something that works for you, learn to use it anytime you are angry or emotionally upset for some real-life real-world benefits.
  12. The interpretation Of Notes – Watching a TV show – it could be reality TV or fictional, but game shows are often less effective – take notes as to what is happening. Make sure that you keep up. Stop writing and step away from your writing implement(s) during ad breaks. 24 hours later (the gap is to allow details to be forgotten, extend it if necessary), try to visualize the action from your notes. And 24 hours after that (same reason for the gap) try to insert the action into a completely different setting, modifying what happens accordingly. The first few times you try this, choose a short programme (half hour) and allow yourself to watch it immediately before re-watching it and taking the notes – then gradually wean yourself off this crutch and extend the length of the show – one hour, then 90 minutes (short movies), then full-length movies (about 2 hrs), then long movies.
  13. More Hints – Finally, I want to point you to some earlier articles here at Campaign Mastery on locations & location descriptions:

The Keys to the Kingdom Of Literacy

The benefits to being able to turn out strong, concise narrative when you need it are so profound that every GM should invest time in bettering their skills in this area on a regular basis. This article/series – and make no mistake, it was conceived as a single (rather ambitious) article – should give you all the tools you need to start realizing those benefits in your games. The keys to the Kingdom of Literacy are yours! Do with them what you will…

Some real-world headaches have cost me a number of hours over the last couple of days, so I haven’t had time to produce the promised PDFs – yet (I had to have an emergency shopping expedition for a new TV after my old one froze solid – wouldn’t even turn on or off – and this morning, for some inexplicable reason, I couldn’t access Campaign Mastery. Everyone else could get to it, but I couldn’t.

So look for the checklist and compiled a-book in an extra, out-of-continuity post over the next 48 hours.

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The Impact Of Polished Text: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Part 4


This series is predicated on the belief that the real difference between game prep and a lack of game prep could be summarized as felicity of style: better-presented maps and illustrations, better thought-out plans, better characterization of NPCs, better depiction of that characterization, and more stylish Narrative. This article is part 4 of a masterclass in the last of these.

More stylish narrative means creating concise, communicative, and flavorful words to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts that is nevertheless more easily assimilated because of the brevity. It is narrative that flows naturally instead of being disjointed and fragmented.

The process that I described in parts 2 and 3 of the series is not quick, and assumes unlimited time is available for revision and polishing, that you can spend as much time as it takes, however unrealistic that may be. However, efficiency is always a consideration and the technique eliminates as much wasted time as possible.

Even if the process is not carried through to completion, or some of the more time-consuming steps are skipped or short-cutted, it’s possible to get 90% of the quality for about 10% of the time investment. The secret is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing the entire process and where those strengths and weaknesses impact on the process, so that you can target the areas for effort that will give you the most bang for your temporal buck. And it’s always great to have an awareness of the whole process on tap to be called upon when the result matters – when it’s intended for publication, for example, and not just friends talking amongst themselves or tutoring each other.

Before we get down to business:

In any work as comprehensive as this in scope, it’s almost inevitable that a few points get overlooked. In fact, I have a number of quick drop-ins sections that got left out because I didn’t remember them at the critical times. These will get inserted appropriately into the PDF compilation of the series.

Insert at the end of Part 1:

Hierarchical Nesting Of General Statements
General Impressions persist. A general description of the entire setting applies to all subsequent areas within that setting, and a general impression of a single area persists to all descriptions of specific elements of that area – regardless of how much other narrative blocks might interrupt the descriptive totality.

Consider the following structure:

  • General Impression of area
    • Description of immediately-visible areas
      • Detailed description of immediately-ahead area (Reception)
      • Dialogue Scene Trigger: Receptionist

This is a structural analysis of a typical block of narrative text, such as the one offered as an example of stylish narrative at the start of the article:

“The elevator dings as the doors open to reveal the offices of Brash, Livercoat, Woodley, and Howe. Interns with arm-loads of law-books and harried expressions walk past with measured strides, deep in quiet conversation. Nineteenth century opulence masks modern convenience. The cream-colored soft carpets become mushroom-brown at the walls and are clearly custom-made for this office space, The walls are polished teak, oak, and maple panels decorated with portraits of partners past and present in identical gold frames. Alabaster-white molded ceilings are almost lost in the shadows above tasteful but modern cylindrical brass chandeliers, and the scent of new leather fills the air. Directly in front of you is a central reception area with the company logo in Gold set against splashes of red, white, and blue on a pane of frosted glass. The receptionist says ‘Good afternoon’ with a smile as she looks up.”

If I extend the structure, bearing in mind the basic plot outline (PCs are here to meet one of the lawyers), what I mean should become clear:

  • General Impression of Law Offices
      • Description of immediately-visible areas
      • Detailed description of immediately-ahead area (reception)
      • Inserted Narrative Block: General Impression of Receptionist
      • Dialogue Scene Trigger: Receptionist
      • Inserted Dialogue Scene: Receptionist
      • Inserted Narrative Block: Description of Receptionist
      • Inserted Action/Dialogue Sequence: Receptionist summons Secretary of Lawyer
      • Inserted Action Sequence: Secretary Arrives at Reception
      • Inserted Narrative Block: General description of Secretary
      • Inserted Dialogue Scene: Receptionist introduces Secretary to PCs, Debates where meeting can be accommodated, settles on Meeting Room number 2, tells secretary to make sure Lawyer has vacated it by 4:00 PM as another partner has booked it.
      • Inserted Action Sequence: Secretary leads PCs past partner’s offices with secretarial stations.
        • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Secretarial Stations
        • General Impression of Secretarial Stations/office layout
        • Inserted Action Sequence: Secretary pauses by desk of Secretary #2
        • Specific impression of Secretarial Station #2
        • Inserted Narrative Block: General description of Secretary #2
        • Inserted Dialogue Block: Secretary asks Secretary#2 to find Lawyer & tell him the PCs are here
      • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): Secretary leads PCs past water features…
        • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Water Features
      • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …past fish-tank…
        • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Fish-tank
      • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …to the meeting room
        • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Meeting Room

Everything that derives from our location bullet-points is shown above in plain text, everything that derives from somewhere else is in italics. The General Impression of the law-firm persists throughout, though it may be refined or extended by subsequent descriptive blocks. The General Impression of the receptionist and the reception area persists throughout the scenes that take place there but does not continue into the next narrative block of law office descriptions. Each piece of the law office that the PCs pass by or through presents an opportunity for additional dialogue or action sequences, which combine to give the impression of the office as an active location where people are constantly doing law-office-type things, bringing the location to life. If you don’t have some sort of interaction at a location, for example the fish-tank, all you need is the general impression of it with no need to go into details.

In theory, there is no need to repeat or reinforce the general impression once it’s given, because it persists throughout. Every subsequent detail does that for you. In practice, if there is an extended action sequence (especially one that modifies the general impression in some way, eg a disgruntled client shooting up the place) or dialogue sequence (eg the meeting with the lawyer), it may be necessary to reestablish it if there is any further significant action to take place at the law firm on this visit.

Deciding when a general impression needs to be reestablished and how to do it is part of the artistry of writing. It depends on too many factors to be subject to hard and fast rules, or even to consistent guidelines: the intensity of the original impression, the amount of material in between, any “built-in” reinforcement from subsequent descriptive passages, to name but a few. Ideally, you want it all to be consistent and accumulate towards an overall perception of the place and people, and – as I said – that’s more of an art than a matter of technique, and certainly beyond the scope of this article.

Insert into Part 2, Step 23:

When two narrative blocks should be one:
When you find that your general impressions of the areas are the same, and the content is similar or fits a continuous motion, it is usually more effective to combine two narrative blocks into the one. The only common exception is when there are inserted sections – dialogue or action – that are sufficiently different in style or content that they need to be separated from each other. This employs the descriptive narrative as punctuation to separate those other elements.

If you consider the narrative structure described earlier for the law-office example, you will find a section towards the end of the structure that looks like this:

  • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …past water features…
    • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Water Features
  • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …past fish-tank…
    • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Fish-tank
  • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …to the meeting room
  • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Meeting Room

At the time I made the comment that each of these represents an opportunity for a new dialogue or action passage. If this was lending too much importance and activity to the sequence at the law firm, however, you might instead choose:

  • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): ….to the Meeting room.
    • Additional Narrative Block: General Impression of water features, fish-tank, meeting room.
    • Additional Narrative Block (cont): Details of meeting room.

Until you reach an endpoint, specified as a trigger for a significant dialogue or action sequence, it is all part of the one narrative block, and should be treated as such.

Sidebar: “Significant” dialogue?
The observant will have noted that I slipped a new qualifying term into the preceding statement: “Significant” dialogue or action. Significance requires that the text in question have a specific purpose beyond color and embellishment. That purpose may be to require a decision on the part of the PCs or an activity in response to events, or it may be to establish the personality of an NPC because that is going to be important to subsequent scenes or to the PCs interpretation of this scene.

If your dialogue doesn’t meet this criterion, it can be considered just another way of expressing the narrative, and should not form a break-point within the narrative block – which means that your two narrative blocks should, in fact, be one.

Insert into Part 2, Step 23, immediately after the above:

When one narrative block should be two or more:
It’s at least as common to encounter a narrative block that tries to incorporate too much. This leads to situations in which the GM has to interrupt the narration to deal with a PC response to the content, then resume, even though resuming at that point has broken the flow of the game.

It’s up to the PCs when they react. It follows that there must be no cause for them to react until the entire scene is described to them or there will be subsequent complaints of “I wouldn’t have done [x] if I had known [y]“.

The most usual cause of this problem is the choice of flow within the sequence. Because a trigger for interaction of some sort is always the signal to end the narration, such should always be the last item in the narration, and everything that the PCs need to know must therefore precede it.

While there are too many permutations of the possibilities to list them all, one or two examples should serve: Never, ever, describe an NPC before you have finished describing the environment around them. Never describe a piece of the environment that a PC might choose to interact with before describing any other elements with which they might interact, even if that means that the two have to be contained within the one sentence, i.e. the one action trigger. For an example of that, don’t mention a chest in the room as part of the description if you are describing a dungeon scene if there is some creature guarding it – instead, fuse both calls to action into the one statement: “Guarding a chest in the middle of the room is…”

Insert into Part 2, Step 29:

Narrative Flow and Reciprocating Perspective:
Unless you have good reason to vary it, you can often achieve more “punch” and greater seamlessness in your narrative passages if each employs the opposite perspective flow as the narrative block that precedes it. For example, if the preceding narrative block flows left-to-right, try to use a right-to-left flow in the one you are currently working on.

The only time this doesn’t work is when a motion or change of perspective is incorporated in the call to interaction at the end of the preceding narrative block, which supersedes the established flow.

However, this seamlessness and punch comes at a price: mental fatigue on the part of the reader/player. You are making them subconsciously work harder because they can’t compartmentalize each piece of the scene, just add to it. “L-to-R, R-to-L, L-to-R, R-to-L” has an obvious problem. The pattern itself becomes somewhat hypnotic, eyes will begin to glaze over, and important details can be missed. The solution is to ensure that there is some superseding motion incorporated after every one or two such narrative blocks.

I have seen this problem occur quite frequently when too much diversity is incorporated into an area, for example making all four walls of a room significantly different. Consider the description of a room with five alcoves, one directly ahead and two each on the left and right walls respectively, each with different content. Rather than describing each as part of the one narrative block, give a general impression and mention the arrangement of alcoves, but only describe the content of the one directly in front; then have the PCs move into the room before they can see the contents of the other alcoves, and then only the two closest to the entrance. Build up the description of the room rather than overloading the one narrative block. This is especially true if the content of each alcove requires detailed description with its own internal narrative flow.

Employed within limits, reciprocating perspective can be a powerful tool. Over-used, it overloads the description, and indicates that the narrative needs to be broken up and punctuated with a small action of some kind.

Okay, with those out of the way…

Having spent most of this series focusing on how to produce better narrative, it’s time to look at the implications and consequences of employing such narrative in an RPG setting.

The effect on player thinking

There are a number of effects that can be anticipated as a result of better crafted narrative when employed in an RPG context. I’ve divided these into three broad categories: The Effects on Players, Other positive effects, and the downsides.

Blurring the focus on spoilers

Poorly-crafted narrative either focuses on the significant before it is recognized by the readers/players as significant, telegraphing where they should place their attention, or it overwhelms with massive blocks of prose that swims with unnecessary detail in an attempt to conceal what’s significant amongst what is not. Neither is all that desirable. Far better for the players and characters to interact with their environment, assessing the significance of each element in turn, and leaving it up to them to decide what’s significant.

By providing a simple snapshot that cues areas or subjects for further investigation, well-crafted narrative eliminates the telegraphing without the problems of drowning it in detail. That in turn has two consequent effects: the adventures that the GM runs will be better and more interactive and richer, and he no longer needs to spend time either planning for the telegraphing of his plot cues or coming up with that swarm of details.

Make no mistake: the process of creating better narrative described may be lengthy and involved, but it is still a lot faster (especially with a little practice) than spending hours detailing the woodgraining here and the leather there. If a room contains 20 objects (and the room I’m in at as I write has far more than that), consider spending 20 minutes or so on each – 400 minutes – compared to touching generally on the four or five most significant and then spending an hour each crafting exceptional narrative for those four for a total of perhaps 250 minutes – less if you cut corners. That’s more than 2 hours prep time saved, at least.

It actually can take more time to craft bad narrative than good. That’s because with good narrative, you have a reason for everything that is included being there, and can use that logic as a guide to what to spend time on.

The result is that the players can be both more aware of and engaged in their immediate environment, while still getting the full benefit of rich detail when it matters or is useful.

The capacity to forget a detail

The alternative to being too obvious is to drown the players in details, as mentioned. Burying the important details makes them less obvious, to be sure, but it also encourages players to forget one or more items of significance. This can slow a plot or even bring it to a shuddering halt, or create ill-will between players and GM – “I wouldn’t have done [x] if I had known about [y]” rears its head once again.

The GM’s job, in terms of narrative, is to communicate effectively to the players what is around them, and then get out of the way of the plot. Doing so not only uses less game-time than the alternative – a point I’ll come to in a moment in more detail – but it reinvests some that time in additional play.

Although it won’t happen right away, as players get used to a higher quality of narrative, and grow accustomed to being certain that everything of significance has been brought to their attention sufficiently for further investigation, so they will grow in confidence in their interactions with the environment, and will place greater confidence in the GM’s neutrality. That’s a lot of benefit, but it doesn’t stop there.

The integration of situational awareness

Greater situational awareness can’t help but result from making the salient details more accessible to the players. That, in turn, makes the players more aware of the plot and more capable of interacting with it. This tends to derail any plot trains, forcing the GM to further improve his plot structures. Ultimately, the results are that plots become richer and deeper, while remaining accessible to the players. In other words, better storytelling by the combined whole, the collaboration between players and GM.


Greater awareness of their surroundings, richer plots, and more substantial interaction with their environment can be summed up as greater immersion in the game. That, in turn, brings other benefits – the game itself becomes more vibrant, alive, and responsive to the style of play that the players want. The game becomes more vibrant and at the same time more fun for the players. If the GM is able to cope with the demands that this places upon his skills and abilities, it becomes more fun for him too – not a bad return for less work on his part.


I’m closing the discussion of the impact on player mentality with an entry that is six of one and half-a-dozen of the other – consistency. Better narrative structures presents the players with greater capacity for consistency of characterization, as expressed through their roleplay and choices of actions. That’s the plus-side of the ledger.

However, it requires greater effort on the players’ side of the table for this to be achieved, so this capacity – if misused – can actually be detrimental to the game, as I’ll discuss in The Downsides in a little bit.

Other benefits

Beyond the impacts on the players, there are a number of other effects that can be expected from improving the narrative employed in the game.

Maximizing play time

There is a direct correlation between the amount of prep time beyond the necessary and the amount of wasted play time at the table. For example, drowning the players in detail not only consumes more prep time but it takes up more time at the game table. Both can be considered wasted time. Some of these savings are reinvested, as noted earlier, in greater interaction between the PCs and the game world, but even without counting that, less time wasted at the table still increases the amount of play that is achieved in any game session.

Better mental mapping of situations

Better narrative not only helps the players grasp what is going on, it helps the GM keep track of what is going on. This is of obvious benefit to both sides, which only amplifies all the other benefits mentioned so far.

In general, any prep time invested in doing better instead of doing more yields secondary benefits that more than justify the effort, provided that enough material is prepared to cover the anticipated game needs. This is a key consideration in prioritization of prep as outlined in Fire Fighting, Systems Analysis, and RPG Problem Solving Part 2 of 3: Prioritization, which focuses on first, achieving the minimum work needed, and then secondly, prioritization based on the expected yield in improvement of the game as played, taking into account the individual abilities of the GM doing the prep.

Better situational awareness on the part of the GM results in better game calls when he needs to adjudicate the results of PC actions, with fewer disputed calls (nothing will eliminate them altogether). And that yields a further return in reduction of wasted time at the game table, happier players, and a happier GM.

More appropriate interactions with environment

Better awareness of the circumstances on both sides also means that there will be less likelihood of stupid choices on the part of the players; these usually result from player frustration, and by minimizing the causes of that frustration, you improve the quality of player choices. That, in turn, means that the GM is able to use the combination of better awareness and better choices of action to adjudicate to produce better responses, which yields further improvements in player interaction with their environment. It’s a feedback loop of improvement in the game, and in the player’s appreciation of the quality of GMing.

More appropriate interactions with NPCs

Better descriptions of an environment leave the players with greater capacity for relating to NPCs and makes it easier for the GM to make the NPCs appropriate to the environment. This is another win-win for both sides, and – as shown previously – leads to further benefits. A better environment and better descriptions of NPCs leads to better NPCs and better interactions between PCs and NPCs.

These benefits come about in four ways:

  • It becomes easier for the GM to keep the environment and other game/plot requirements in mind when crafting the NPCs because better narrative descriptions make the overall situation more accessible to him or her. This results in better NPC characterization choices;
  • Better characterization leads to character descriptions reflecting more closely the character of the NPC;
  • Better character descriptions that reflect the personality of the NPC make the characterization more accessible to the players;
  • Better characterization leads to better dialogue, which is the primary means of exposing NPC characterization to the players.

All of these in combination can only produce better, more individual NPCs and more individualized interactions between players and NPCs – better role-play, in other words.

Better roleplay through immersion

Finally, with the immersion of both sides of the table being improved through the mechanisms described above, better roleplay can only result from the reduction of distraction by both sides. It’s as though everyone at the table decided to make a greater effort to roleplay well at the same time.

The Downsides

That’s a powerful truckload of benefit to the game. Most people tend to under-rate the benefits from better narrative, from working “smarter” not “harder”. But it does come at a price, and that side of the ledger needs to be examined as well.

GM Time

At least at first, while the GM is learning how to craft better narrative, he can expect to be less productive. How quickly the benefits begin to materialize away from the game table will vary from individual to individual, but it is unlikely to be immediate. For a while, then, an increase in the demands on a GM’s time can be expected. If you are already stretched to the limit, that can be a real problem.

It’s a hurdle that can be managed, however. Choosing a simpler plot with fewer time requirements – the sort of thing you might do if you were anticipating a temporary reduction in the amount of prep time that you have – can free up enough prep time to enable the transition to happen, and is probably the simplest solution.

Wasted Prep

Until you get the hang of the process and it comes naturally to you – which may take 3 weeks, 3 months, or a year, depending on how ingrained old habits are – you can expect to go down a few blind alleys, make a few mistakes, and – in general – have more wasted prep. This can be frustrating to the GM and even cause him to give up on the process before the benefits start to flow. Being forewarned – and allowing a little extra GM prep time – mitigates this problem.

In particular, it will take time for the players to get used to the new approach, especially if they are used to being spoon-fed the next plot hook. They may also grow frustrated, and this can add to the pressure on the GM to give up on the process of improving their narratives, or set it aside for use in a less-immediate context – something to use when prepping an adventure for publication somewhere, for example, but not during their day-to-day, week-to-week game prep.

Again, being aware of the problem and being prepared to lead your players through the process by hand can mitigate these negative impacts. Provided that the GM remains convinced that the end result will justify the short-term problems, he can usually convince the players; it is for that reason that I have spent quite a lot of time “selling” the benefits earlier. Above all, he should resist any urges to give the players what they want if they are resisting the changes. This sacrifices all the gains that can be achieved in return for some short-term relief.

GM inflexibility

GMs who aren’t used to the flexibility that this approach yields to the players are likely to struggle with it, at least at first, opening up a third front on which problems can manifest. Some GMs respond by becoming more inflexible in an effort to restrict player choices to a more manageable range. It’s very easy to fall into this trap because you can often get away with it for quite a long time without the players recognizing what is happening because the options presented include the one that they would opt for anyway, and it makes life for the GM much easier. Inevitably, eventually one of the PCs will attempt to go off-script, and that’s when things fall apart spectacularly. Even seasoned GMs have to relearn this lesson periodically.

GM inflexibility attempts to mitigate the problems already noted by reducing the prep and in-game workload of the GM, but this is the wrong approach to take. Virtually all the benefits mentioned earlier are predicated on giving the players greater flexibility to interact with the game world and NPCs; this approach eases the pain of implementation of the process by sacrificing the bulk of the benefit, making it much easier to decide that the effort is not producing any real benefit and should be abandoned.

And that assessment completely ignores the potential fallout when the wheels come off, and the players insist on doing something other than the options allowed by the GM.

Plot Railroading

The other aspect of the inflexibility response is that it tends to lead to plot railroading, or to be seen as tantamount to plot railroading. Players hate this far more than GMs do; they want to be in command of their characters at all times, and to have free choice of what their PCs do, even if it makes no sense.

Even the structural outline of the law-office example I prepared earlier shows some tendencies in this direction, simply by presuming how the PCs will respond to the receptionist and that they will be cooperative within the scene. Just because there is no reason to expect the PCs to deviate from this “script” does not mean that they won’t.

In this case, the tendency is actually an illusion, resulting from deliberately linking one scene (encounter with the receptionist) to another (encounter with the secretary) to another (encounter between the two secretaries) en route to the meeting room in order to show the way in which past narrative remains in effect even though the action itself has moved on. In reality, these should be separated into separate encounters so that if the PCs choose a response other than that expected, the GM can accommodate it.

Writer’s Block

One of the ongoing prices that has to be paid for better narrative is an increased susceptibility to writer’s block. By separating out the brainstorming of ideas (part of the bullet-listing stage) and the organization of ideas and conversion into functional narrative, the process tries to mitigate against the problem, but it can’t fully eliminate it. If you find yourself in trouble with writer’s block, I advise you to refer to my series on the subject, Breaking Through Writer’s Block.

Many writers come to anticipate losing X percent of their time to writer’s block and build in sufficient cushion to ensure they still meet deadlines. After all, if you finish early, there’s always something else you can spend time doing! This is the approach that I recommend.

Other writers tend to assume that writer’s block won’t hinder them because it usually doesn’t, and that the adventure will only proceed as far as they have prepared when play begins, anyway. I can’t argue too loudly against this approach, because I’m guilty of it myself most of the time – I rarely write articles for Campaign Mastery until the day they are to be published, for example. That means that I’m fairly confident of my ability to overcome any writer’s block; occasionally, I have a close shave with the deadline, but that’s as bad as it gets. If this is your preferred approach, I can only wish you luck.

It’s too much like work

When you’re used to writing as fast as the ideas can flow, the process described can seem profoundly hard work that`sucks all the fun out of game prep, replacing it with metaphoric sweat and toil. This is actually the result of being undisciplined in your approach to game prep; the “lack of fun” or “stifling of creativity” are actually a reaction to being forced to adjust to the more disciplined approach that this process requires.

In other words, this is another short-term problem that may be faced. Once you are used to the technique, you will become adept at dropping in additional bullet points and reminders to self regarding future parts of the prep as you write, and will find that you can be just as creative while still delivering the better results.

Game prep is always work, but often-times the pleasure of being creative and imaginative masks this fact. Changing your technique can strip that mask away for a while. As long as you have been forewarned, you can put up with the phenomenon for as long as it lasts.


I noted earlier that consistency was one benefit that could result from better narrative because it gives the players greater opportunity for self-expression through the choices they make for both themselves and the PCs that they play. It is, however, equally possible for characters to be expressed more inconsistently as a result of the greater freedom afforded to players. It can become much harder to predict how characters will respond to a given situation, which makes the job of adventure creation harder for the GM, and can lead to GM inflexibility in response.

There’s not a lot that the GM can do about this. The best answer involves a deeper understanding and definition of the personality profiles of the PCs generated by the player and subsequently communicated to the GM, but even that is only a partial solution. No matter how tempting it may be, resist any urge to force a player to justify his character’s choices in terms of his personality or mindset; it can only end badly. The farthest that a GM should go is telling the player (after the game) that he doesn’t understand why his character made those choices.

It’s actually relatively common for this to turn out to be a result of incorrect dramatic emphasis within the GM’s narrative, making something seem more important than it actually is, frequently on an earlier occasion to the actual manifestation of the problem. More often than not, inconsistency of play is the result of inconsistency of narrative when viewed as a whole, progressing from start to finish of the adventure.

Relative Importance To The Scene
One of the advantages of the process provided here (as opposed to other approaches to “better writing” that I’ve seen) is that it defines more clearly a relative importance to the contents of the scene, by stripping out the details of those elements that do and don’t matter equally, then putting the significance back only in response to PC interaction with the narrative elements.

I’m afraid that I’m not explaining this very clearly, so let me try an alternative phrasing by quoting something Hungry at Ravenous Role Playing had to say about one of the earlier posts in this article. He wrote, Players love to think (I think it’s an ingrained human condition), “Oh! The blue book was mentioned on the shelf, but none of the others were detailed, so that blue book must be the important thing in the room, so I’m going to grab the blue book and see what’s in it as soon as I can!”. This is a perfect example of what I had in mind when I talked about bad narrative telegraphing the next step in the plot.

This process removes that problem by not detailing any of the contents of the room until they are closely examined by the PCs – just listing them in a very general way: “The books on the bookshelves suggest that the resident is well-educated,” for example. However, the strength of language employed can still lead to a relative indication of significance, and this can cause inconsistency when the wrong thing receives unwarranted emphasis. This can result simply from seeing something more clearly in your mind when writing it, or because a particular turn of phrase came to mind.

Two Ways this can manifest
It’s bitten me in the past, when I have presented two problems to the PCs – one that is intended to restrict the possible solutions to the second by imposing additional consequences to most of those solutions – and they have decided that this means that the restricting problem is the more important one, the one that needs their immediate attention. Which is a perfect example of GM inflexibility leading to inconsistency of characterization. Instead of the problem that was supposed to matter taking front and center, the language employed caused a misdirection of player focus, and a wasted hour of discussion/investigation on the part of the players.

The other way that this manifests is when players are playing to the plot and not playing to the personality of their characters. “My character is more inclined to focus on problem X, but if I do that, problem Y will get out of hand. I should deal with the immediate plot problem first because it makes sense to do so in terms of the plot and not indulge my character’s personal preferences.” This becomes a problem when problem X is only part of the plot because of the character’s expected reaction to it, and that the solution is supposed to give key information needed in order to solve the other problem.

This can be restated as a problem in character prioritization of the problems being presented to them by the GM, resulting in an inconsistency of characterization; but players prioritize based on the information the GM gives them, and especially the dramatic strength of the narrative used to describe the circumstances. In other words, this is the GM’s fault. If you want a PC to take one problem as more serious than the other, load your words accordingly when describing it to the players.

The Reality of Sandboxing & Other GMing philosophies

Sandboxing and other such approaches to the art of GMing all aim to restrict or better-target the subjects of GM prep, enabling the benefits of limited prep time to be maximized, while minimizing downsides and excess. The key word there is target.

At first, it can appear that these philosophies are incompatible with the process detailed herein because they emphasize detailed preparation and then extracting the relevant details for further development. Further reflection will show that this is not the case, however; the process I have outlined is based on the approach of defining a general context and then only developing the resulting elements that are relevant to the expected adventure and its constituents.

Sandboxing is effectively built into the process. The only compromise is in defining that overall context before you start, thereby avoiding one of the great pitfalls of the pure sand-boxing approach – trying to create that context after the fact when the action moves beyond the area immediately detailed.

This compromise represents an overhead on the pure sand-boxing approach, but one that is an investment in the future of the campaign. Subsequent development will flow all the more easily for having that general context defined in advance.

Modifying the process for RPG needs

RPGs are a little different from other forms of text that require narrative. To some extent, these differences are already accommodated within the process, simply adding a new type of Passage (player decision points) to the list provided at the beginning, while modifying the content and structure of some of the others (context passages, location passages, and action passages). The requirement is still to prepare the narrative passage in such a way that it leads to one of the others. The only thing that really changes is the sequence with which different passages take place, which is dictated by a force external to the writer, i.e. the players.

In general, the basic structure of a narrative block remains the same: a general impression, content, and the trigger for a form of interaction between players and plot.

It is not all that difficult to modify the process accordingly. In fact, because it reduces the need for a seamless flow from one passage to the next by creating discontinuities and independent passages, writing better narrative for an RPG is actually easier in a lot of ways. Furthermore, less polish is typically required, because the GM can incorporate additional details as required, if necessary, inventing them on the spot.

It starts with the planning of the adventure.

Planning the adventure

A synopsis of what the adventure is about is the perfect starting point. This synopsis should not rely on any player decisions that have not already been made; it is far better to frame it in terms of what one or more NPCs are doing to create the situation that the PCs have to resolve.

The next step is to identify all the key locations and all the key NPCs.

Next step: map out a flow between inevitable sections of the plot, in the most general terms. This breaks the adventure down into sections that have to happen, regardless of the outcome of any individual events or encounters within; they are the logical building blocks of the overall plot. The goal is to synopsize the circumstances with which the PCs will be presented in the course of each of the major section.

Finally, identify from the above any inevitable set scenes that will occur. These typically include introductions to the key NPCs.

Define the locations

If these have appeared before, the details can be recycled from that earlier appearance. For those which have not, produce an overview of each, which will form the general impression of the location. You don’t want specific details, just a general concept.

Define the NPCs

Once again, if any have appeared before, the details can be recycled from that earlier appearance. For the rest, a general idea of their appearance and personality is all that’s needed at this point.

Breakdown The Acts

Bullet-point brainstorm the overall structure of the plot in each of the major sections, where it will take place, and who will be involved (from an NPC point of view). This is your list of scenes within each act.

Breakdown each location

Bullet-point brainstorm the descriptions of each of the locations you’ve identified, based on the guideline that you have already created.

Create the NPCs

Develop the personalities, histories, etc, of the NPCs, using your preferred approach, then synopsize that into a set of bullet points.

Narrative sections: Locations

List the narrative sections that apply to each location. In the case of the law firm example, this would be 1. reception; 2. secretarial/offices; 3. other locations en route to meeting room; and 4. meeting room.

Organize your bullet-points into each of these narrative sections. Duplicate as necessary.

Write the overall narrative passage for each section, and immediately after writing each, perform the first and second review phases in one step. In other words, edit bullet-list, flow, draft, clarify, compress, review, next section. Delete each bullet point as it is incorporated into the narrative. Append any remainder to the narrative as a bullet list.

Narrative sections: NPC Set-scenes

Use the combination of where they are occurring and the NPC bullet points to craft an introduction to each using the same steps outlined above: edit bullet-list, flow, draft, clarify, compress, review, next. Once again, delete each bullet point as it is incorporated into the narrative and append any remainder to the narrative as a bullet-list.

After each, make sure to note the NPCs objectives within the scene and how they intend to achieve them.

Narrative: Other Set Scenes

Bullet-point and then write narrative for any scenes in which the players will witness action but not be able to intervene.

Connect the dots

You now know where events are to occur, who is going to be involved, and what the basic events are. This step involves filling in the blanks, writing any canned dialogue, and so on. In particular, you need to note how each scene is supposed to lead to the next.

Final review

Once it’s all written, read the whole thing from start to finish, performing stages 7 & 8 and correcting/clarifying as you go.

Other prep

You can then move on to any other prep you think necessary or desirable, indexing them into the main text as you go. If you produce a map, for example, make a note of the map at the appropriate location description.

Adventure Done!

As quickly as that, the adventure is done. You have only general indications of how each scene will work out, based on the personalities and objectives of the NPCs involved, but you have everything you need in order to referee the adventure.

The typical adventure will have about half-a-dozen broad locations, with up to four areas detailed for each. A larger one may have more, a smaller one may have less. Similarly, most adventures will involve half-a-dozen or so major NPCs and potentially many more minor ones who have not been fully developed. (Use The Ubercharacter Wimp and The Flunkie Equation as tools). Instead of one large writing job, this turns the adventure into thirty or so smaller, more discrete, ones. It leaves all the details that you didn’t think you’d need available for use if the occasion merits it, but only turns into narrative the parts that you will definitely want to read to the players.

Each part should take 5 minutes at most to write – so that’s 150 minutes, or about 2 1/2 hours of prep. Figure maybe ten minutes brainstorming for each of the major locations, and about 10 minutes each for nine or so other narrative blocks, and that’s roughly another 2 1/2 hours. Throw in an hour for the initial planning, and that’s a complete ready-to-play adventure in 6 hours – or in one late night before play. Or an hour a night each night before the weekly game. That time frame is comparable to the time it takes to outline a more traditional adventure, if not less – I speak from experience.

Sure, there’s lots more that you could do, but that’s enough for play. The adventure is complete.

And so is this part of the series, because there is no way that I’m going to be able to do the final part and the checklist and the PDF of the combined article before the publishing deadline. This is mostly down to time lost in preparing the inserts that I started this part with, and which took fully as long to write as the rest of the article! So this series will wrap up with Part 5, later this week.

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