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ATGMs42: The Hollow Echo Part 2 – Musical Traps

This is (still) the fifth of these Ask-The-GMs that I’m tackling without recourse to my usual allies and fellow-GMs.

Traps and puzzles are always a tricky problem for the GM. All too often they focus attention on one particular character and leave the rest sitting around doing nothing, possibly for what feels like an extraordinary length of time – especially if the player of that character milks his spotlight for all it’s worth.

The question to be considered here is about a particular GM, a particular set of players, and a particular type of trap encounter. But it draws attention to a bigger issue, the intersection of knowledge of three different parties to the situation – the PC, the Player, and the GM, and a general principle of the way that they interact at the game table.

Ask the gamemasters

First, to remind everyone of the details, ‘Masteh Casteh’ wrote:

“How do [you] incorporate music [into] your campaign? I have been very interested in this idea for quite some time now, I have thought about using different styles and songs to convey ideas, feelings and moods. Everyone in my DnD group (including me) is either a musician or a music fanatic (no joke, we once had a conversation entirely about what [each] different race’s music would sound like). Would it be a little too much to put musical puzzles in the game for them to figure out? I need your help, you did a great job with a previous question about art and I have incorporated that into my own campaign.” (edited for clarity)

The previous Ask_The-GMs answered all of the above except the question about musical traps, and I was going to squeeze the specific answer in at the tail end of that, then refer back to it in a separate article looking at the bigger picture somewhere further down the track. But I ran out of time and decided at the last minute to put the rest of my eggs into this ATGMs basket.

Guitar by PeteLinforth via Pixabay

Image Credit: / PeteLinforth
Licensed under Creative Commons CC3.0
This pic is so evocative I had to share it full-sized.Click on the ‘thumbnail’ to view.

The Intersection Of Knowledge

A player is not his character, and vice-versa, no matter how close the identification – unless the GM has had players create “themselves as characters” which is way beyond the scope of the current discussion.

The character knows things that the player doesn’t – he might know some of the history of the Game World because it hasn’t yet been revealed, he has the experiences that come from living in that environment day-to-day, he may have skills that the player does not, such as Riding, and he may have knowledge that the player can never know first-hand because its’ entirely fictitious.

And you can swap character for player in the above statement (and perhaps change some of the specific examples) and the statement will be every bit as true. There might be some knowledges in common, if you don’t look too closely, but there are going to be distinct and pronounced differences.

The divisions blur a little if we permit knowledge of a simulated activity to be equivalent to the real thing. A player might not know how to ride, but he knows how the game system simulates riding – so the overlap between the two grows.

The Player-Character intersection

That overlap is very important. The greater the intersection between the two, the more easily the player can connect with the character and “step into the character’s shoes”. There is in fact a fairly obvious hierarchy in terms of the contribution to the overlap: Real World Experience, Theoretical Expertise, A little research, Game Knowledge. Common Knowledge, Ignorance.

  • Real World Experience permits a player to be specific and detailed about his actions in such a way that he can provide color and verisimilitude to his character’s actions.
  • Theoretical Expertise means that the player knows a lot about the subject, may even have a professional qualification of relevance – but hasn’t actually performed whatever the subject is in real life. He can get the technical details right – what a belly-strap is for when saddling a horse, for example – but can only pretend to know what it feels like to be riding at full gallop.
  • A player who has done a little research will not have all the technical knowledge but will have the basics. He may also have a fair share of misinformation (the web is notorious for it, more so than is often warranted) but there will be gaps in his knowledge.
  • Game Knowledge falls somewhere in between Common Knowledge and actual study of the subject, however superficial. If the game system is very good, or the player has a wide breadth of experience from multiple game systems, this may amount to research by proxy; if neither of these is true, it’s only a little better than what the guy next door knows on the subject (and may be a lot worse, depending on the neighbors!)
  • Common Knowledge indicates that the player has done no research, and is simply relying on the experiences soaked up from years of television and the like. Substantial gaps will be the rule, not the exception, and even sounding putting credible words in the character’s mouth can be a challenge.
  • And ignorance, of course, means that the player knows nothing, and perhaps can know nothing. If a starship is propelled by “the inversion of quantum locked dimensional vector fields” the player has no hope because such things are technobabble and usually meaning-free in any realistic sense. But they sound good, unless you try looking at them too closely – say, by asking specific questions – which is when it all falls apart.

Every given combination of player and character will have a mixture of several if not all of these, when the totality of knowledge of the two is considered. When you add it all up, it’s virtually impossible for there to be a 100% overlap.


A tool that is often useful when discussing correlations of this type is one of the earliest that school students are taught to use, the abstract Venn Diagram.

The diagram to the left illustrates what we have just discussed. The more knowledge the player has that can be applied to what the character supposedly knows, the greater the overlap. The wider the gulf between theory and in-the-field experience, the smaller. The abstractly we define the equivalence of different forms of knowledge, the greater it is.

This becomes significant when we consider what sort of problems a GM can be expected to pitch in the direction of that PC (as opposed to another, who presumably has a different skill-and-knowledge set). I’ll come back to that later, I want to get the theoretical underpinnings of all this in front of readers first.

If the overlap is large, the player can step into the characters’ shoes (provided personalities are compatible) easily, and is well-suited to running that particular character. If the overlap is tiny, the player has a great deal of difficulty doing so.

These overlaps are not foxed and constant; they change over time. The player does a bit of homework, the GM reveals a bit more campaign background, the character learns a new skill – the changes can be small and progressive over time, or even quite dramatic. Like the player, a character can be taken out of his comfort zone.

One of the things that GMs love to do is take characters out of their comfort zone by posing roleplaying challenges and situations for the character to solve. Players don’t mind that very much, in fact it can be a lot of fun – especially if the player is at one of the two extremes when it comes to the field in question.

There’s a lot more to the whole situation, of course; this is a very broad and abstract description of something that can be very messily complicated. For example, Ian Mackinder (who has written a two-part article here at Campaign Mastery and half of one more, and contributed comments to a number beyond that, and who is one of my long-time players) doesn’t play detective characters if he can help it. That’s because he is no good at them, at least in his own estimation. That doesn’t mean that he’s ignorant on the subject; aside from exposure to a number of relevant TV shows in varying degree, he is a fan of Sherlock Holmes. So there are additional factors involved. The general statement is good enough for the purposes of this article, however!

The Three-way intersection

Let’s introduce a third party to the conversation – the GM.


In terms of his shared knowledge with the player, this can be greater or smaller depending on the degree of commonality in their social experiences, life experiences, education, and professional lives. It’s fair to say that some shared cultural experiences will typically exist – without that, communications between the two would be problematic. The mere fact that they are playing the same game argues strongly that there would be at least some overlap.

In terms of the GM’s knowledge overlap with the PC, the situation is going to be very similar to that of the player. The GM will know more of the world, but the player and PC may have commonalities of expertise not shared by the GM, or not to the same degree.

There will, therefore, be some overlap between each of these “individuals”, and even some areas in which all three might have expertise – to varying degrees, a complication that the general diagram you can see conveniently ignores.

I’ve labeled each of the areas of overlap, first to call attention to them, and secondly, because they might be useful in later discussions when we get into practical applications of all this theory.

Four Realistic situations

Combinations of intersection levels.

A side-note: these have been done deliberately in different colors to the earlier diagrams. That’s because I didn’t want to explicitly state that the color Blue represented a PC and so on. What these diagrams are intended to illustrate are the combinations of intersection levels and different knowledge breadths.

To start the transition from theory to practice, let’s look at four more-realistic situations. These attempt to quantify the quantity and quality of expertise and the degree of shared knowledge overall that results.


Diagram 1

The first numbered diagram (right) illustrates something close to the theoretical ideal, at least at first glance.

Closer examination dispels that impression.

The intersection between green and red is the smallest, that between red and blue is only a little larger, and that between green and blue is much larger. The area of intersection between all three is very small.

There are six different ways to interpret this, depending on the significance of the colors:

  • GM Blue, Player Red, PC Green – The player doesn’t know as much about the character’s specialties and areas of expertise as the GM does. Not an uncommon situation, but the player is not as well-suited to this character as he might be.
  • GM Blue, PC Red, Player Green – The GM and character have a little more in common than the Player and PC, which is not all that surprising given who they are. The player and GM have a great deal of common ground. This is possibly the most common situation.
  • GM Red, Player Blue, PC Green – the player has created a character that fits in well with his own experience and knowledge, but the GM will have trouble refereeing the character because of the small overlap. I’ve encountered this situation on many occasions; it’s not ideal, but a bit of boning up can get you through it – most of the time.
  • GM Red, PC Blue, Player Green – That bit of self-education has an interesting effect. Not only would it slightly increase the commonality of experience between GM and Player, but it would greatly increase the overlap between GM and PC, overcoming a lot of the problem – and this interpretation of the diagram illustrates the results, in relative terms.
  • GM Green, Player Blue, PC Red – the player will struggle with the character almost as much as the GM will. There are ways around this, but they aren’t easy. Either the character changes, or both the player and GM study up, or both. This character, as things stand, is a poor choice.
  • GM Green, PC Blue, Player Red – the last of the possible interpretations is also a reasonably common situation, especially with a relatively inexperienced player; the character that the GM has helped create is one in which the GM can provide the player with additional expertise on the character’s subjects of interest as necessary, but the character has also been chosen to be one that the player can handle fairly comfortably a lot of the time. What’s interesting is that the common ground between player and GM is the smallest of them all – as though one were native to a foreign country, or a very different part of the same country, or a completely different segment of society.
Diagram 2


The observant may notice that the red disk is slightly larger than the others, and the green slightly smaller. This can be interpreted as breadth of experience, which – in the PCs case – is usually directly relative to his INT score, at least in broad terms. In this case, all three are reasonably equal; with the second diagram, that is distinctly no longer the case. Here the green is considerably larger, and the blue, considerably smaller. This would often be the case when the GM (red) is helping a new player (blue) with a super-intelligent or high-level PC (green).

There are other combinations/interpretations that make sense, too, such as an inexperienced GM with an experienced player.

What’s most significant here is the degree of overlap between blue and red; it’s almost total. If either of these represents the PC and the other the character, the two are a particularly well-suited combination.

It’s also noteworthy that the three-area overlap is also a lot larger, and probably close to 40% of the blue area. IF the blue is the character, this would be a fairly easy one to GM regardless of which of the other colors represented which individual.

Diagram 3


In diagram three, the red is the biggest, and there is even more overlap between all three data-sets. Blue is almost-completely contained within the red, but there is more than 50% commonality between red and green as well. If red were to represent the GM, green the player, and blue the PC, this would represent something that’s pretty close to perfect – from the GM’s point of view. If red is the PC, it’s also noteworthy that between them, the player and PC have almost 40% of the character covered – depending on the minimum standard of knowledge needed to qualify for inclusion on the diagram, that could be significant – in other words, if the chart only shows the real-world experience of the real-world people, it has a very different significance than if game-experience is enough to qualify.

Given that most GMs will have considerable shared cultural experiences with their players, there are many interpretations in which this is the most accurate representation of the real world of them all.

Diagram 4


The final diagram shows red larger than blue, and green larger than red. All three are almost completely overlapping. As a result, there’s actually relatively little to differentiate interpretations regardless of which color represents who.

This can be a dangerous combination in real life if other players at the table do not share the same degree of overlap; it means that the player and the GM can sidetrack themselves into discussion of minutia in several subjects (boring the pants off the others), and that they might tend to gang up on those who don’t share their enthusiasm for any given subject.

The realistic cases as analysis tool

These same diagrams can be interpreted with completely different labels, and be illuminating to the GM. For example, let’s say that there are three PCs, and this illustrates the extent to which they differ in expertise, or commonality of motivation, or ambitions. Or perhaps one of the two is an NPC, one a PC, and the other represents problems or challenges to be faced. The degree of overlap defines the likely strength of the relationship and how useful an alliance would be in dealing with mutual problems.

Here’s how to use them as an analysis tool: decide on what the different circles will represent (but not which one represents which factor). Determine which of the three factors should be represented by the largest circle, and which by the smallest. Then try each of the four to determine which one best represents the situation – either as it is, or as they perceive it to be. Look at the commonalities that result and the three-way overlap, and interpret the results in the same manner as I have above.


Confluences Of Knowledge

If you look closely at these diagrams, you will find that they are exactly the same as the first four – only the colors are different. That’s very deliberate.

If the first four represent a general situation, such as the general level of shared expertise, these four can then be used to represent the commonality of a particular subject. It doesn’t matter which set of graphs best represents the overall situation, when you get down to specifics, any of the four can be the correct representation.

If the exact same diagrams were used for both, confusion can easily result. By deliberately designating one as general and the other as specific to some part of the general situation, Any trait or specific can thus be analyzed, both in general terms, and in specific ones, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses. This is a tool that will eventually be used to discuss the question raised – and which this article is intended to answer!


Two Undesirable Situations

But first, let’s consider two more situations – ones that represent trouble, unless something is done about them.

Case 9

In the first, there is a void, a hole. There is no three-way overlap, and even the overlaps between individual areas is smaller than in case 1. If we return to the GM-player-PC triangle (because it’s relevant to the specifics of the question being answered), this is a situation in which the player and GM have areas of mutual interest, and areas of commonality with the character, but none of these areas of mutual understanding overlap.

This sort of thing happens in real life all the time in various ways. My sister and I have some areas of overlap in our musical tastes; I have a friend with whom I also share some musical likes. The two areas in common are very, very, different. I happen to dislike the few things I am aware of that they both like. Any two of us can chat quite happily about the specific areas of mutual interest, but there is no common ground connecting all three of us, at least in this specific area.

This poses a real problem when extrapolated out into a general applicability and applied to the PC-Player-GM triangle. Not only will the GM have lots of trouble refereeing the player’s choices of actions, but the player will have real difficulty in understanding the basis of the GM’s decisions regarding his character.

It’s not likely to happen, in the general sense, but it can easily happen in the specific. The player and the character might both understand leather-working (which the GM doesn’t, except in the most general of terms), but the GM is familiar with the structure and design of leather armor, which the character knows about and the player doesn’t. Both the player and GM might know something about the dying of leather, though, a related subtopic about which the character knows nothing. When you consider the general subject to be “leather”, this is the diagram that results. Any challenge or puzzle posed by the GM based on his overlap with the character is both legitimate and a problem for the player.

Here’s another real-world example: I can count on one hand the number of Pulp novels (excluding “modern pulp” like Clive Cussler) that I have ever read, and have room left over for the number of Pulp movies that I’ve ever watched – if I count movies and their sequels as one. If not, I need my other hand. I could barely and only vaguely even define the genre when I started co-GMing it. What I did know was how to write and run a good campaign. If one circle represents everything that you need to know about how to run a good Pulp campaign, and the others represent my co-GM and I, respectively, then – at the time – our expertise would look like Diagram 9. He supplied the genre knowledge and I supplied the modern-standard campaign-creation chops that took his original ideas and have the campaign still running strongly, every month. We’ve learned from each other since, of course, and collaborated on various articles on the subject, so that the campaign itself now occupies a three-way overlap between us, filling in the ‘notches’ in the circles, but, when we started, there was a lot of discussion needed about how we were going to make it work.

Case 10

The other situation is one which is even more problematic. This represents no connection whatsoever between two of the three parties. It’s like GMing a mage in D&D with a player who knows the magic system and a GM who doesn’t. The player, in that example, is the circle in the middle. Another circumstance which this would represent would be two people with virtually nothing in common except the character in the GM’s campaign.

Unless some connection between the two isolated circles is established, and quickly, the whole relationship is unstable and prone to fall apart.

Again, this is a situation that I have encountered in real life. A guest player in an early superhero campaign session who stopped a bank robbery by incinerating the bad guys, then robbed the bank himself (reasoning that the deceased would take the blame). She felt entitled to do so because she was running the character and it was appropriate for the anti-hero character that she had created; I didn’t think it was heroic, or era-appropriate (very black-and-white, morally). That was only the start of our disagreements about just about everything; she preferred canned modules, I wrote my own adventures; she liked the official rules with no deviations, I liked to house-rule as I deemed necessary; I was D&D, she was Empire Of The Petal Throne. She felt a sense of privilege and entitlement, and I felt they had to be earned. She was strongly racially- and ethnically-biased and socially class-conscious; I was egalitarian in outlook. We literally didn’t see eye-to-eye on anything. She was gone at the end of the session, and didn’t come back.

Situations Of Interest: The General Chart

So, let’s turn our attention to practical applications of all this theory. Assume that the diagrams represent the strength of common interest between a PC, the Player of that PC, and the GM in one particular type of adventure. This then turns the general diagrams (1-4) into a toll for choosing between adventure types. Any adventure in which either player or character are strongly engaged will work fine; where there is poor intersection, you either need to add a sub-element, a subtext or subplot, that will engage both player and character to compensate for the weakness of the association with the proposed main plot. This enables you to take an adventure idea, classify it as to its nature, and then assess the suitability of each PC for participation – and identify additional adventure elements necessary to make the adventure suitable for the whole group.

You can further employ this in campaign planning by ensuring that each adventure in succession is of strong appeal/relevance to a different PC, giving each their share of spotlight time. Adventure sequences can be further refined by ensuring that no two successive adventures are lacking in appeal to the same character, or to the same player.

A lot of GMs do this sort of thing by instinct, and occasionally get caught short. In combination with other tools and techniques, such as ensuring that each character gets some sort of ‘moment’ in the spotlight in the course of an adventure with a simple checklist and inserting difficulties and plot points as necessary, you can ensure that your campaign maintains a strong level of appeal to everyone.

All previous tools for examination of this problem have relied on a simple yes/no; this is the first tool I have seen or created that permits a more qualitative assessment, even if that is only a relative measure and not an absolute.

In Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow, I rated adventures based on a number of criteria – level of fantasy, level of “cosmic”, level of action, emotional content, and the overall mood or tone (upbeat or downbeat), and showed how I used those ratings to create variety, rhythms, and contrasts within the Zenith-3 campaign. But there was no tool for assessing the resulting adventures in terms of the PCs and Players and what additional content needed to be incorporated – I simply employed the “checklist” approach and, while everyone had something to do at some point in a given adventure, I had to employ instinct in determining how strongly to focus on those subplots. For the first time, an assessment of the relative overlap results in an indication of how strongly the other parts of the adventure need to be emphasized to evenly distribute screen time over the entire party. To do this, two of the circles represent different PCs, one is used constantly as the reference standard and the other is changed – test PC1, then PC2, and so on, measuring the overlap between appeal-of-adventure-type of each with the content of the proposed adventure.

For example, if the main adventure is about 12 scenes long, and each PC gets a one-scene subplot as standard in addition, that’s a total of 17 if there are 5 PCs. If one PC is only going to connect with the main adventure half as strongly as the others, or one player, then the adventure is worth only 1/2 of 12 scenes “value” to them – 6, instead of 12. More to the point, since each character should be engaged equally in the main plot (in an ideal world), such characters get only (6/5)+1=2.2 scenes in the spotlight, while the other four get (12/5)+1=3.4 worth. To get that disengaged player/PC combination back up to equality, their subplot needs to be bigger – 1.2 scenes worth bigger, or about two-and-a-quarter times as big as everyone else’s.

If the engagement level for one of the other PCs was only 1/3, as estimated by comparing overlap sizes? One-third of 12 is 4, so that character would only get 4/5ths of “a scene”, plus the standard subplot, instead of 3.4 scenes – a difference of 1.6. So, instead of a subplot being “one scene long”, they need one that’s 2.6 long – about two-and-a-half, as a rule of thumb.

Let’s further suggest that we then analyze the appeal of the adventure to the players, and find that the player of the character with the 1/3 engagement is also very weakly connected to the main adventure. That means, according to the guideline I laid out above, that the subplot should appeal strongly to the character AND to the player. If the planned subplot only ticks one of those boxes, the simplest solution might be to insert a second subplot that does fulfill the second criterion, taking it out of the additional 1.6 subplot “scene units” required.

How long is a “scene unit?” How long is a piece of string? In some adventures, one scene could take 5 minutes and another five hours. If you look really closely, though, you will find that most of those 5-minute scenes are actually one longer scene that keeps getting interrupted just to rotate the spotlight.

Here’s the way I think of it: An adventure is generally broken up into 3, 4, or 5 acts. Subplots either occur in a prologue or interweave amongst these acts. Similarly, each day’s play can be divided into 3, 4, or 5 “blocks” of play. Each additional 5 hours of play after the first adds +1 to the number of “blocks” for the day. Using this, you can determine how many “blocks” of play are in the adventure – and each such “block” is what I have been using as a “Scene unit”.

Early in the adventure, there will be more “blocks” in a day; at the end, there will be few. I also like to end each day’s play on a cliffhanger or a moment of decision. That means that the first “block” is always the resolution of that cliffhanger or the implementation and consequences of that decision. The adventure itself needs an overall conclusion (and a beginning, but I’ll get to that). The conclusion needs to be overcoming the final reversal, difficulty, or challenge – and so the preceding block needs to present the PCs with that problem. Working backwards like this and integrating the starting and ending points of each day’s play permits the working out of how many blocks you need per day, and even how many hours (on average) each will represent.

But I don’t like using real time units for the purpose; it’s too easy to fall into the trap of padding or rushing in order to meet an arbitrary time schedule. A more abstract measure representing one Nth of the adventure, more or less, is a more useful scale.

Specific Subjects Of Commonality

I haven’t forgotten that the subject of the day is “Musical Traps”! But these same analytic tools can be used to dig deeply into the question.

In terms of a puzzle based on any sort of specific knowledge, there are four possible Player-PC-GM configurations that come to mind. The GM aspect matters because he is the one posing the problem, the Player aspect matters because he has to solve the problem, and the PC matters because, within he context of the game world, he is the one that is supposed to solve the problem.


All four have strong overlaps between two of the participants – these are shown as constant – while the third is changing position relative to the others in each configuration.

In A, we have strong overlap between all three. In B, one of the three has only weak intersection with the other two. In C, there is no overlap between the red disk and the strongly-coupled pair. D is the most unusual in that the total overlap between blue and green is also overlapped by red.

These could symbolize the player’s interest in, or knowledge of, the specific subject; the broadly-defined subject matter of the problem being posed by the GM; and the character’s knowledge or skill in the subject. Which is which – well, that would depend o the exact situation.

Since the only independent variable is the red disk, let’s interpret each of these based on the different possible identities of that red disk:

  • Red = Broad Problem, Pattern A – All three participants know the subject. So long as the problem falls within any overlapping area, it will be fine. If it does not, the result may as well be Pattern C, below.
  • Red = Broad Problem, Pattern B – The overlaps with the red disk are much smaller, and that means that the overall scope of the problem is constrained. In fact, it’s about half the size of A, if not less. While the occasional problem of this type may be fine if supported by the context, they should be the exception and not the rule.
  • Red = Broad Problem, Pattern C – While both player and character have expertise in the field, the GM does not. While he could copy a problem from some other source, he is relatively helpless to assess how difficult it would be to solve. Despite the synergy between player and character, the GM lacks the expertise to create much campaign value from the subject. He needs to educate himself until Pattern B, or better yet, Pattern A are achieved.
  • Red = Broad Problem, Pattern D – Everything that both the player and the character know on the subject, the GM also knows. There are also some things that each of the participants know but that knowledge is not shared. Anything in yellow has to be solved by die roll; anything else in the overlapped area can be solved by the player.
  • Red = Player, Patterns A, B & C – This happens all the time. The GM poses what seems to him to be an easy problem., forgetting that the player is just a well-read armchair expert. A is when the GM gets it right and the player has the required knowledge most of the time; B is when the player struggles and needs a clue or hint supplied by the GM after a die roll; C is when the GM has unknowingly aimed straight at one of the gaps in the player’s knowledge. Pattern D defines what happens when the Player and GM are both armchair experts in the subject who are working almost completely from the same source, and defining the character’s knowledge as the sum of what they know on the subject. This also happens more often than many GMs would like to admit, but it works – most of the time.
  • Red = PC, Pattern A – The most common situation is illustrated by Red=PC knowledge. Both player and GM know enough of the subject to get by, because the skill is fairly rudimentary or common. Pattern A shows that there are some aspects of the subject that one of the two haven’t mastered, but the other has, and some aspects of it that neither understand, but that the PC supposedly does, but the central core of the subject is well understood.
  • Red = PC, Pattern B – Pattern B shows that while the player and GM have the same understanding and knowledge level in the subject, the PC is supposedly an expert. This is often the case with invented technologies in games like Star Trek, but it can also be the case for Magic in games like D&D. A large part of the time, problems have to be solved by a die roll to determine if the character knows the answer (even if the player and GM don’t).
  • Red = PC, Pattern C – There are often skills that the character has about which the player and GM are both identically ignorant. I’ve seen entire skill definitions accidentally get left out of the main rules; that’s fine when you can make a reasonable guess as to the subject matter (“Materials Science”), but falls over fast if you haven’t a clue (“String Dynamics”, “Temporal Diversity”). Okay, in a sci-fi game you might be able to hazard a guess as to the first – though it seems a little specific to be listed as a separate skill if it really is just a specialty within String Theory, and has to have relevance and nuances that neither can even guess at, purely to justify it’s conclusion. Accidentally-misnamed skills can have the same effect – I once saw a game in which there was a skill, “Lorp”. It turned out that this was supposed to be “Lore”, and represented knowledge of the contents of an oral history from a period without literacy – an oral history that included certain ‘truths’ that modern science had ridiculed and stuffed in a draw of nonsense. But I defy anyone to get that out of “Lorp” – especially in a game that is short on explanations.
  • Red = PC, Pattern D – Finally, we have a situation in which the knowledge of the character is whatever BOTH the GM and player know about the subject, plus a small degree of extrapolation from that.

Musical Puzzles (for Masteh Casteh’s group)

Now let’s look at the specific question I’ve been asked, and match the circumstances to one of those patterns to see what it tells us.

“Everyone in my DnD group (including me) is either a musician or a music fanatic (no joke, we once had a conversation entirely about what [each] different race’s music would sound like). Would it be a little too much to put musical puzzles in the game for them to figure out?”

This tells me nothing about the knowledge in the subject of any of the PCs – and that tells me right away that Red=PC, because it’s the one that varies. Blue and Green are the Player and GM and both have considerable knowledge of the subject. Pattern A applies if the character faced with such a puzzle also had a reasonably high skill level in the subject; Pattern B if they have a low-to=moderate level of expertise in the subject; and Pattern C if they have no skill in the subject, and are (functionally) tone-deaf (because simply being reared in a given culture should give a very general introduction to the music of that culture, just as most people today could name at least one top-40 artist – any top-40 artist there has ever been – but won’t understand the esoterica of microphone placement in a recording studio.

I would have no hesitation in deploying music-based puzzles and traps if Pattern A applies to the character or even any member of the party who were expected to solve the problem. In fact, simply to draw on that shared knowledge, I would mandate that at least one PC have an appropriate skill, just to ensure that Pattern A applies!

If pattern C applies to everyone, I would still deploy them, but as analogies for some other form of puzzle in which the character is supposed to be skilled but the player is not. For example, you may have a puzzle based on the symbology of magic in D&D, a subject that neither the players nor the GM know anything about; what I as GM would do is decide how hard the problem was supposed to be and then issue a musical puzzle of equivalent difficulty. Solve the musical puzzle, and your character is deemed to have solved the ‘symbology of magic’ puzzle, even though every real person involved is totally ignorant of the subject. This keeps play dynamic and more than just die rolls instead of bogged down in esoterica.

Pattern B is somewhere in-between, and I would answer the question that way. If the puzzle;e is a very simple one, for example turning a C Major chord into a C Minor chord then I would let the players try to solve a puzzle that is the equivalent to them, given their state of knowledge, of the difficulty their character (with his relatively low level of knowledge) would face in solving the puzzle. If it was a more complex puzzle that you had in mind, then I would save it and use it in the “analogy” (Pattern C) manner.

Musical Puzzles in general

As I said in the answer to the first half of the question (in Part 1 of “The Hollow Echo”,

“It first has to said that MC’s group is relatively unusual in its makeup, and what might work for them might not work for everyone.”

While most of us have a very general musical knowledge – for example, most people would know the term “C major” has something to do with music – that’s about as far as we can go. Does that mean that musical puzzles should be off the table?

Heck, no!

But it means that they need to change in nature. Identifying a piece of music from a couple of bars, or perhaps played backwards, and other game-show style ideas targeting the layperson still work perfectly – so long as they are appropriate in context eg as the lock preventing entrance to the castle or keep of someone with a keen interest in music.

What was a very simple puzzle – transforming C Major into C Minor – is suddenly a very big deal. Each of those chords is composed of three notes – only one of which has to be changed in order to achieve the desired solution. Adjust the wrong one of the three, or the right one by the wrong amount, and you might be lucky enough to get an entirely different note, but it won’t be a C Minor – and will probably be just a horrible noise.

If the PCs were to be confronted with a more serious musical challenge, there are only two solutions: solve it with die rolls (an anticlimax most of the time) or use something else that the players can solve as an analogue. In other words, the Pattern C treatment from Masteh Casteh’s group – with the shoe on entirely the other foot.

But those aren’t the only solutions that might apply – there is one other that’s worth looking into, before I wrap up this article.

Bringing In A Fourth Party

I’m not an armaments expert. I know very little on the subject. Whenever specific questions about weaponry come up, I either look something up in a sourcebook or on the web, or I turn to my co-GM, who is something of a lay expert on the subject. Beyond that, “It looks cool” or “it sounds good even if it makes no sense in real life” would be my guiding principles.

If Blair were a player in one of my campaigns (and he is), I would have no hesitation in letting one of the other PCs be a firearms expert, regardless of the player’s level of knowledge of the subject; I would simply simulate the character’s understanding of the subject by letting Blair assist in solving the riddle. That might be a 0.1 share of the “scene block” for that adventure that goes to Blair instead of the player, but it turns solitary challenges into group activities, and most of the time, that’s a good thing.

Similarly, I don’t hesitate to tap some esoteric knowledge of one of my players when a problem comes up if I don’t have the answer to hand, and haven’t had time to properly prep for it with some specific research. It humanizes the GM if – every now and then – he can stop pretending to be the expert in everything and admit ignorance – though most of the time I use the research technique that I outlined in Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time to have an answer at my fingertips, provided I have enough notice of the problem!

Never fail to appreciate the possibilities of bringing in a ‘ringer’; make them work to your advantage.

GMing the PlPC Complex

This isn’t the first time that Ask-the-GMs has looked at puzzles in games. In Ask The GMs: Puzzles In Your Games, I leveraged metagaming to offer the following advice:

“My advice: Since it’s the players who have to solve the puzzles, and not their characters, aim your puzzles at the players.

Today’s article doesn’t conflict with that advice (read the article if you want more specifics on the technique); it simply broadens the logical underpinnings of the subject and offers some new planning tools to understanding the complexities of Player-PC-GM interactions, and finding a solution that works to a given challenge.


Music is a rich element of much of our shared culture. Just about everyone can talk about music to just about anyone else, regardless of their cultural framework, provided they have a language in common; but more than that, some aspects of musical experiences transcend the language barrier.

You can derive enjoyment from listening to a piece of music that strikes an emotional resonance of some kind without being able to understand word one of the lyrics. That doesn’t mean that nuance and context magically communicate themselves; they don’t, and you are obviously getting less than the full experience; but, at the same time, you are forced to read more into what you are actually hearing, so appreciation of a foreign-language song in which the vocals are just another instrument can – in some ways – be even more pure as a musical experience.

At its’ heart, a lot of music is about rhythm, and timing, and harmony, and collaborations of sounds. There is a very strong association between many of those elements and an RPG. Neglecting musical puzzles is like ignoring a chapter of the rules – the experience that results is fundamentally incomplete.

There is always a place for musical challenges and puzzles and traps in a game. Only the specifics of what, where, how, why, and who are going to change. And the same can be said of puzzles based on any other skill or expertise that you can name. Even being genre inappropriate is not the trump of doom – who’s to say that there isn’t some analogous relationship between high-energy particle physics and the workings of spellcraft in a fantasy game? Especially once we’re through adding layers of metaphor and abstraction and representation and simulation.

The more of a player’s knowledge base and skillset that you can apply to the process of interacting with the game, the more that player will feel part of the game. The more of those things belonging to a character that you can engage with in an in-game context, the more the character will seem to be part of the world that they live in. Those are two very powerful principles around which to build your game.

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 2nd Shelf

The Second Shelf: Villains & Famous Real People


Heroes are nothing without villains, at least not in a Pulp environment (though it’s also true of most other forms of gaming). Each of them has to be distinctive and interesting and challenging in an entirely different way, requires their own personal style, their own flair, their own Gimmicks.

Villains tend to be less iconic than heroes, and so most pulp villains are not nearly as well-known as the most famous pulp heroes. That is a double-edged sword – it gives the GM more scope for creativity but it means that it is harder to draw upon existing genre characters for inspiration. Arguably, then, it is even more important to have a villains’ shelf than it is to have one relating to Heroes.

If it weren’t for the villain functioning as the engine room of the plot, however, their important would be overwhelmed by the major NPCs. These come in two flavors: the Famous Person from Real Life who is appearing an adventure, and the important recurring character with which the PCs interact regularly, i.e. the supporting cast.

Mike’s advice is to always treat the supporting cast as though they were heroes in their own right – but to a lower standard for one reason or another.

There are a couple of NPCs in the Adventurer’s Club who are more than a match for any given PC who is on their own – but they each suffer from at least one (and usually several) fatal flaws. The one is that they don’t cooperate with each other as well as they do with the PCs, which in turn is not as well as the PCs cooperate with each other. On top of that, they are aging. One, probably the most powerful and famous of them all, of the Action Man archetype, has already been forced to hang up his spurs and hand the baton over. Nor is he the oldest of them, but Investigator-types don’t need to be as physically active.

The more strongly-defined you make a featured NPC’s personality, the more they will grab the spotlight unless the GM makes it his business to prevent it.

Take the recently- (and reluctantly-) retired adventurer we mentioned, Doc Storm, our Homage to Doc Savage. When the campaign started, the PCs took on assignments that were too small for him – he had bigger fish to fry. Before too long, he started throwing more important missions their way because he had been adventuring for a long time and had built up a significant rogues’ gallery that kept him perpetually on the hop. Outside circumstances soon forced him to rely on the PCs keeping the world in one piece while he got involved in the often-dirty world of Washington Politics. Eventually, he achieved his goals – but he needed the PCs help to do it. In the good old days, he could have done it all alone, but those days were done.

Doc went from dominating any scene in which he appeared to being an important character – but one who was, in many ways, less directly significant to events. He functions now as an enabler, a plot delivery vehicle, and someone who takes care of the day-to-day stuff so that the PCs are free to handle the bigger problems.

The character has been handicapped to make him less significant than the PCs. Everyone in the room still quietens down when he speaks – but slowly but surely he is transitioning from an adventurer to just another staff member.

So the second category of NPCs should be handled using the Heroes shelf. That leaves the first – people like Churchill and FDR and Elliot Ness and Himmler and Goebbels and the Prime Minister of Canada (who hasn’t yet actually appeared in an adventure).

The problem is that everybody recognizes these characters, and they will instantly recognize it if your delivery is off, even just a little. To bring these characters to life, you need to understand them, to know who they are.

Villains and Significant NPCs – the subjects of the second shelf of the Essential Reference Library.

Relevance to other Genres

Heroes are Heroes, and Villains are Villains. Does anyone out there seriously think that Fu Manchu couldn’t make a good James Bond villain? Or be a good model for a D&D villain? Or Blofeld a good Pulp Villain?

The same holds true for significant NPCs – they can function as role models for important NPCs in genres which are temporally out of step with their real lives. If you wanted an inspiration Dwarven Leader, stiff-necked and unyielding (no matter what the pressure), you could do a lot worse than to ‘res-kin’ Winston Churchill. There were a lot of famous people alive and active during the pulp era – sometimes it seems like there were more of them then than at any other point in recent history simply because these people’s names and fame have (mostly) survived the test of time.

Of course, ‘famous’ can include the infamous, too….

two old books flat

Image credit: / m s

Shelf Introduction

This shelf contains two sections: Villains and Famous Real People from the Pulp era.

Villains deals with the forces of Evil, the antagonists of a campaign. Some of the reference sources listed in the Heroes section will also be relevant. Much of the content of this section could also have been placed elsewhere; for example, an item on the Mafia could go here, or it could go in the Crime section. Resources focused on the Nazis could go here, or could go into the ‘famous real people’ section, or in the Germany section, or into one of the Fringe Science/Occult sections, or – in some cases – could even belong on the Weaponry shelf. And some of them have ended up in all, or almost all, of those places. Where we felt a resource was most useful for the generation of Pulp Villains, we tried to put it in this section, unless there was some other focus to them that made another section especially relevant. If the focus is on individuals, it tended to get moved to the other section of this shelf. We have also included Antiheroes in this section.

Famous Real People deals in a great many individuals who might be encountered in a Pulp campaign and who are sufficiently interesting or important to get right. We’ve used a very flexible definition of “famous” – Mike and Saxon recognized all but one or two, and Blair knew them all.

We could have included a lot more people. Anyone who became famous in the 1940s was almost certainly running around somewhere in the 1930s, whether that be Rommel or Ella Fitzgerald or Bob Hope or Ernest Hemingway or Pablo Picasso. There’s at least a reasonable chance that some of the most famous people of the 50s were also active in this era – if you look in the right place, you would find Richard Nixon or Elizabeth Taylor (born in 1932) or Frank Sinatra or John Wayne. We have (for the most part – there may be a ring-in or two) restricted ourselves to people who were actually famous in the pulp era on the grounds that there is more likely to be material of relevance to a Pulp Campaign contained in books and documentaries about those individuals. It’s still a very long list.

A Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided a cover illustration. Where none was available, we’ve used a generic icon. Regardless of the physical dimensions of the item, all have been set to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 250 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Section – of which there are none on this shelf).


Villains & Antiheroes

Perhaps surprisingly, there are no “For Dummies” entries in this section. Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation.



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037. Rick Lai’s Secret Histories: Criminal Masterminds – Rick Lai

This volume does for villains and antiheroes what “Daring Adventurers” does for the good guys – collect a bunch of non-canonical essays and material and publish it all in one place. Possibly more useful to the GM for that reason.


038. Masterminds and Madmen – Rob Hudson [Pulp Hero sourcebook]

Pulp Hero, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the Hero System variant for the Pulp Genre. This supplement lists five masterminds, four organizations, and dozens of individual villains. Available from Amazon:

Also available from Hero Games is a Book+PDF deal and PDF only offer; however the PDF costs about the same as a second-hand physical copy, while the bundle offer gets you a new copy of the book AND the PDF for only about 50% more. This is Useful for character concepts and ideas generation even without knowing the game system, but requires Hero System 5 th edition and possibly also the Pulp Hero sourcebook to get full value from the product.



039. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Mafia, 2nd Edition – Jerry Capeci

You don’t have to investigate the history of the “Families” deeply to realize that, like the Yakuza, they started out as something completely different to their popular perception and evolved; you can’t even say that they were corrupted by power, as they continued to fulfill their traditional roles as mediators, brokers, and facilitators even during their most notorious periods. In fact, the more you look into that history, the more fascinating the dichotomy between “family” and “crime family” becomes. There are two editions of this book; the newer has more copies available at a lower price, so that is the one we have linked to.


Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation. We have not applied the availability criteria with the same rigor to Documentaries.

Unless it was somehow noteworthy, we have neither looked for, nor linked to, Blue-ray versions. Unless otherwise noted, a straightforward copy-and-paste of the title should reveal such if those are your preference.


040. Chronicle Of The Third Reich (4 episodes of 60 mins)

This documentary series contains fresh perspectives and previously unseen footage that can change your entire perception of the events surrounding Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s (they did Mike’s). The first half of the series (pre-war) is more relevant to the Pulp GM than the second, which deals with the regime during the War years.

Purchase Options:

  • Amazon US: $10-11
  • Amazon UK: Import from US (Region 1) very few copies in stock £13
  • Amazon Canada: limited availability, CDN$20
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041. Churchill and the Fascist Plot

This documentary was produced by Channel 4 in the UK and is “The compelling story of how Winston Churchill and MI5 hunted down a group of British fascist aristocrats plotting to bring down the government and forge an alliance with Adolf Hitler”. Unfortunately, it appears to have never been released on DVD. Some search results suggested that it may be available through Netflix, so we are listing it here anyway.


042. Churchill’s Traitors

The story of Semphill and Rutland, who are believed to have become Spies for Japan between the World Wars. You can read more about the documentary in this blog post which is too comprehensive to adequately synopsize and too well-written to ignore. Although this documentary appears never to have been released on DVD, it seems to be available through YouTube (58 mins) and is well worth the effort.


043. Italian Americans (Part 3: 1930-1945)

The only reason only one episode of this excellent series is recommended is because it was broadcast at an odd time in Australia and as a result, we missed the first two. The series documents the Italian immigration wave into the US at the start of the 20 th century and the impact that the new ethnic group had on the developing nation – it was not always what conventional history and Hollywood would have you believe! It’s arguable that America would not be the country it is today without their contributions, both for good and ill.

  • Amazon US: DVD Set: reasonable quantities at a reasonable price
  • Amazon UK: Plenty of copies but rather more expensive at £17.99
  • Amazon Canada: A reasonable number of copies at a reasonable price relative to most of the Canadian DVDs that we have looked at



044. Paddy-Whacked

The story of the Irish-American Gangster. A lot of people seem to think that all the real gangsters were Italian. This documentary from the History Channel will soon show them how wrong that opinion is. Amazon US: plenty of copies at good prices Amazon UK a more limited range of US import copies for £24 or more Amazon Canada: A limited number of copies but also at a reasonable price for a change Amazon also lists a book on the subject written by the star of the documentary, under the same name, at very cheap prices


045. The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler (3 parts)

This three-part BBC documentary is an attempt to understand, and explain, how Hitler became so beloved by the German people prior to, and during, World War II. Anything you GM that is set in period Germany will be less effective if you haven’t watched this. Unfortunately, not everyone will get to do so – but never fear, we’ve got you covered!

  • Amazon US have a limited number of UK imports and a limited number of Australian imports (pictured), which won’t play in most US DVD players. If you can’t cope with either of those, check below for further options.
  • Amazon UK have a few copies and more from other vendors at reasonable prices and also have it on streaming video But if the DVDs run out and streaming video doesn’t float your boat, there is a further option below.
  • Amazon Canada don’t have the DVD at all. So move on to the final solution below.
  • THE BOOK is something that none of us have read, so we can’t list it as an unqualified recommendation. But, that caveat aside, there’s wide availability and if it’s half as good as the documentary series, well worth the effort – especially if you can’t access the documentaries. Amazon US:, Amazon UK:, and Amazon Canada:



Famous Real People

This section is a little different to most. Rather than focus on books we knew (because we haven’t read biographies of all of these people), we instead had a brainstorming session – several, actually – to list all the people we thought were famous enough in the period and interesting enough from a Pulp-GM point of view to be worth listing. Where we knew of a biography that we could recommend, and that met our availability criteria, we ticked that box and moved on; where those thing were not the case, we moved to a second stage of research.

In stage two, we looked at as many biographies as necessary until we found one that we could recommend. The criteria were:

  1. Availability (the usual standards) and price;
  2. Suitability as a pulp reference (bonus points for indexes when mentioned);
  3. The biography of that individual that we most wanted to read, based on editorial and customer reviews on Amazon, supplemented on occasion by reviews at Goodreads.

Don’t read anything into the sequence in which the books are listed; at one point the list was sequenced alphabetically by the name of the Famous Person. Then things turned out not to be available, and there was some revision, and a few people dropped off our radar or vice-versa. It’s now thoroughly semi-randomized.

There are no “For Dummies” entries in this section. Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation.


Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation.


046. Tesla: Man Out Of Time – Margaret Cheney

Biography of one of the most dramatic public figures of his era, and the best biography of Tesla Mike has read (of about 4). Note that this book has been published with at least 4 different covers; this is neither the best nor the worst of them.


047. J Edgar Hoover: The Man And The Secrets – Curt Gentry

Authoritative and fascinating; lengthy, but with more than enough content to keep the pages turning.


048. The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey – Fred Nadis

Palmer was the early editor for the pioneering Science Fiction magazines in the 40s and 50s, Lots of ideas to steal herein.


049. Lindbergh – A Scott Berg

Nothing much more needs to be said about this entry, really.


050. Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes – Donald L. Barlett

This is our preferred biography of a man who defined “rich eccentric” for Americans, but who was also an adventurer, thrill-seeker, and aviation pioneer. Nothing much to write about, then.


051. Citizen Hughes: The Power The Money and the Madness by Michael Drosnin

This caught our attention while gathering links. It’s another book about Hughes, but one that uses source materials not available to Barlett and which may be useful as a supplementary read. We haven’t read it, but anything with new sources further illuminates a story, or even completely rewrite one.


052. FDR by Jean Edward Smith

A controversial leader during the great depression who was more than capable of political skulduggery to get around inconvenient public opinions, such as the Lend-Lease act and the New Deal. Then came the War. America’s first-and-only five-term President, Commander-in-Chief throughout the Pulp time period. That pretty much makes him the epitome of what this section is all about.


053. Maverick Marine – Hans Schmidt

Smedley D. Butler was a United States Marine Corps Major-General, the highest rank in the Corps at the time, and by the time of his death, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. In 1933, he told a congressional committee of an alleged coup attempt led and financed by a group of wealthy industrialists to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and install a Fascist regime with himself as their figurehead. The other alleged participants denied involvement and the media rubbished the story, but the final report by a special House Of Representatives Committee confirmed at least part of it. This is his Biography, written decades after his death.


054. Churchill – Paul Johnson

Our recommended choice for US audiences who only want a quick drop-in and don’t expect lots of international jet-setting in their campaigns.

055. The Last Lion – William Manchester (Volume 3 with Paul Reid)

For those who can use a more substantial biography, the first two volumes of the three volume set, “The Last Lion” are our recommendation, but Volume III is the one that most people will be most interested in reading.

  • Volume 1: Visions Of Glory (1874-1932)
  • Volume 2: Alone (1932-1940)
  • Volume 3: Defender Of The Realm (1940-1965)

056. Mussolini: The Rise And Fall Of Il Duce – Christopher Hibbert

There are lots of histories that will give you the facts of Mussolini’s rise to power and downfall; this book brings one of the most controversial leaders of the 20th century to life on the page.


057. Hirohito and the making of modern japan – Herbert P. Bix

A comprehensive, Pulitzer-prize-winning biography.


058. Perdurabo, Revised & Expanded – Richard Kaczynski

Biography of Aleister Crowley focusing on the more accepted perspective of the man, colored by the controversies of his beliefs and life. We think that to get the full picture of your range of campaign options for using Crowley, you should also consider the book below.


059. Aleister Crowley: The Biography: Spiritual Revolutionary, Romantic Explorer, Occult Master, and Spy – Tobias Churton

Focuses more on an exaggerated view of Crowley as an agent of Britain during the First World War, building him up to a figure of almost Bond-like proportions – which may even be the truth – but a necessary focus on non-esoteric activities makes this an excellent 2nd part of a 1-2 punch on the subject. Neither is complete without the other.


060. Neville Chamberlain: A biography – Robert C. Self

At 573 pages, this is probably more comprehensive and definitive than the typical pulp GM requires, and at the prices quoted by Amazon, is probably more expensive than is justified – but it is by far the best choice that we could find.


061. Stalin: New Biography Of A Dictator – Oleg V. Khlevniuk, translations by Nora Seligman Favarov

this is a well-balanced and researched biography of Joseph Stalin and represents an ideal source for GMs who want to portray him without ideological bias and hysteria.


062. Stalin – Edvard Radzinsky, translation by H.T.Willets

If on the other hand, you want Stalin & the Communists to be the font of (almost) all non-Hitlerian evil, this is the biography for you, portraying Stalin as even more calculating, ruthless, and blood-crazed than you ever could have imagined.


063. East To The Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart – Susan Butler

There are dozens of widely-available biographies of Amelia Earhart but there are few that are as well-balanced in their portrayal of the aviation pioneer and her political and social beliefs and influence. And those are the things that will come out in conversations.


064. Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea – Robert K. Massie

This might seem to be a strange volume to include in this section of Biographies, given that the book is ostensibly about the role of the battleship in winning World War I, but, to quote from the Amazon description, “Ultimately, the distinguishing feature of Castles of Steel is the author himself. The knowledge, understanding, and literary power Massie brings to this story are unparalleled. His portrayals of Winston Churchill, the British admirals Fisher, Jellicoe, and Beatty, and the Germans Scheer, Hipper, and Tirpitz are stunning in their veracity and artistry.” That makes it essential for any GM wanting to include those individuals as NPCs in their game. Furthermore, it is invaluable for any PCs with a Naval Military background, especially British or German.


065. Scandalous Women – Elizabeth Kerri

Brief bios of famous women, some from the pulp era.


066. The Last Celt: A bio-bibliography of Robert Ervin Howard – Glenn Lord

Robert E Howard was famous for taking the pulp genre in directions no-one expected – westerns, barbarians, Asia, pirates, etc – and this is one of the best biographies of his life, replete with period detail. The paperback’s cover plays on Howard’s creation of Conan, unlike the hardcover (pictured), but only the paperback falls within our pricing guidelines.

Despite this, if you want the hardcover, there are copies available. They just aren’t cheap.

Note that the “stripes” aren’t there in the real cover, these are an artifact of the process of shrinking the image in size that were too difficult to get rid of in the time available.


067. Lovecraft: A Biography – L Sprague deCamp

A controversial biography of what is arguably the most famous horror writer of the early 20th century. If there is weird supernatural stuff in your campaign, this is an expert who your characters might consult/encounter. However, it is worth noting that Lovecraft was obscure to the point of being anonymous until after his death, and that he went to his grave believing himself a failure as a writer. If you want to use him, you will have to bend history.


068. HP Lovecraft: The Mysterious Man Behind The Darkness – Charlotte Montague

Not that there is anything wrong with a GM bending history to his will! Although we know the deCamp volume listed above, this work is more recent and actually has better reviews. Choose for yourself; you will have to reinterpret events enough that either would be a serviceable choice, anyway.


069. Amy Johnson: Hessle Road Tomboy – Born and Bred, Dread and Fled – Dr Alec Gill MBE

Biography of one of the most famous aviatrixes (after Amelia Earhart, of course). This book is available in three formats: Kindle, Black and White (and affordable), and Color (rather expensive)


070. Showman: The Life Of David O. Selznick

Biography of a legendary Hollywood producer who was integral to the development of the movie industry, following his life from a nobody to expansive creator to paranoid negotiator with a fear of failure.

In addition to the locations you might expect, there are also some books that may be relevant in the Nazi Occultism section.

The usual caveats apply (see above).


071. Menzies & Churchill at War

Australia, as part of the British Empire, was automatically called in when Britain declared war on the Nazis. This Australian production tells the true story of the dark days of 1941 when Australian Prime Minister Menzies battled with Winston Churchill over the strategic direction of the Second World War with the fate of Australia hanging in the balance. For any GM with an Australian PC on their hands, this has a great introduction to the society and tone of life Down Under prior to World War II. To be honest, when this was listed, we didn’t hold out much hope that it would be available at all, never mind in all three markets that we are checking – but there it was:

  • Amazon US: Very few copies at a fairly high price ($30+)
  • Amazon UK: Very few copies at about the same price (£24+)
  • Amazon Canada: Two copies available at absolutely ridiculous prices (CDN$125+) and respectively
  • Watch Everything Online (appears to be free)
  • Download from Enhance TV (may not be NTSC) AU$20 (about US$15.60 / £10.80 / CDN$19.80)



072. Prince Philip: The Plot To Make A King

The inside story of the dynastic tensions surrounding the marriage of Prince Philip to Queen Elizabeth II, including the behind the scenes romantic intrigue of Lord Mountbatten who intended Philip to be his tool for manipulating the throne. While the finale plays out post-WWII the story itself is very much part of the background of the pulp era, and the whole thing reads like a pulp plot (with romance subtext on the side). Available on DVD from $11.27 or streamed through Amazon Video for $2.99.


073. The Real American: Joe McCarthy

Recommended because the events that were instrumental in forging the personality and obsession of McCarthy took place during and prior to World War II (and are absolutely pulp-relevant), when he was instrumental in exposing corruption and overspending by defense contractors. Unfortunately only Amazon US had heard of this documentary, and even they had no copies available. Fortunately, it is currently available through youTube and is also listed through this stream aggregator as available from multiple other sources



Afterword by Mike

Pulp villains tend to be Bond villains, straddling the line between over-the-top four-color super-villainy and the more humble villains of Sherlock Holmes. But even the ordinary characters that populate your game world should be larger than life, more extreme than mundane. Their trials and tribulations will be more extreme, and there is always room for a little melodrama. We’ve listed biographies for a number of famous and infamous people of the period, and many more who could have been listed but who were either too obscure, too mundane, or too-easily researched using Wikipedia.

In our world, these colorful characters were all larger-than-life; in a pulp world, they should still be exceptional in their place within history and at the center of events, but they should also set the standard by which every NPC is measured. And if a real person is not dramatic enough, not extraordinary enough – that’s when to rewrite history on the small scale.

In a pulp universe, characters can be famous, or extraordinary, or both – but those should be your only options. Even your eminently-forgettable characters should be so extraordinarily mundane that they become noteworthy for simply exemplifying their role – your ordinary cop is either a crusading gang-buster (just not as good at it as the PCs), a corrupt weasel, or a drunken incompetent, who may or may not be in search of redemption.

In a pulp universe, there should be no forgettable characters.

Next week: The Third Shelf – The World and its more ‘Ordinary’ Places!


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The Ultimate Weapon: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 5

stone cross by Bob Smith

Photo credit: / Bob Smith

This is the (almost-) final part of a very intermittent series that examines alternatives and possible implications to the standard spell storage solutions built into D&D, Pathfinder, and, in fact, most fantasy games. Today, We look at Relics and Artifacts.

Artifacts are some of the most misused categories of magic item, and some of the most controversial and disliked by many GMs.

It doesn’t have to be so, it shouldn’t be so, and – after reading this article – it won’t be so…

The Old-School Origins

The third volume of the original D&D introduced Artifacts all the way back in 1976. It included no less than 22 of these wondrous creations, and they were prominent in AD&D, which was the first game that I played – or GM’d, for that matter. And right away, there were problems with most of them. From that high-water mark, it seemed that the games’ producers – whoever they happened to be at the time – began to retreat from the idea. There were only three of them listed in 2nd edition’s DMG, and the later publication of a standalone book on the subject, the Book Of Artifacts – a tome so rare that I didn’t know it existed until I started doing background research for this article (there are copies still available through Amazon if you’re interested) – containing no less than 50 of them.

The 3.x Core rules listed only a few of them, though other popular ones reappeared in published adventure modules. Many of them were relegated to the ranks of “Epic Magic Items” in the optional Epic Handbook, continuing the line of thought initially espoused in the Book Of Artifacts, that these were optional content to be included only if the GM deliberately and explicitly permitted them within his campaign.

It’s a similar story for 4e, and 5e contains a mere seven of the best.

Why is that? Because, to a lot of people, Artifacts represented everything that was wrong with D&D. So much so that the Book Of Artifacts found it necessary to spend most of the introduction answering the eight most common of these criticisms.

The Resulting Problems

“Artifacts are too powerful.” “Artifacts have horrible curses that keep them from being useful.” “Artifacts are just collections of random powers.” “Artifacts created by gods that shouldn’t be involved in the campaign.” “Artifacts are only in the GREYHAWK® game setting.” “Artifacts can ruin the campaign”. “A character with an artifact will ruin the adventure. Any adventure.” “Artifacts are nothing but a headache.” Those – slightly paraphrased and edited – are those criticisms.

Let’s boil these down and take a closer look at what’s left.

  • Artifacts are highly powered, perhaps even over-powered. A valid criticism. The tales of a PC coming into possession of an artifact and becoming virtually invincible are many, or they used to be. Many GMs were forced to resort to opposition with their own artifacts – a combination that effectively incinerated all the other PCs, as no-one without one could hope to withstand one.
  • Artifacts are perceived as ‘the random finger of fate’ bequeathing one PC with disproportionate power. A criticism with a couple of kernels of truth. AD&D did have an “00” result on the random magical treasure tables that was “artifact or DM’s choice”, which many seemed to read “artifact of the GM’s choice” – no matter how ridiculous that was in the context of the encounter. The rest of the time, artifacts weren’t part of the treasure tables, they were intended for deliberate placement by the GM. And the second part of the criticism is entirely valid – one member of the party immediately became disproportionately powerful and the central figure of the campaign. Those without one often felt left out, overshadowed, or in the firing line of foes they couldn’t possibly defeat.
  • Artifacts take the campaign to a cosmic level, at least in most cases. This is a consequence of the power levels involved. They, like the PC who wields one, certainly become the focus of the campaign immediately – again, regardless of what was going on already.
  • Artifacts are the ultimate example of Monty Haul syndrome, or are perceived as such. The power is often counterbalanced by equally-horrific penalties and curses, making the entire campaign over-the-top. All too often, a GM would give one away without realizing what they were getting themselves into simply because they often had evocative, cool, names.
  • Artifacts are incoherent collections of abilities without rhyme or reason. In many cases, this is a justified criticism, especially of the early examples. There were a few that had, or evolved, coherent through-stories that elevated them, and these are the ones that have survived into later rules incarnations – The Wand Of Orcus, The Hand Of Vecna, and so on. The original idea was that anything not provided explicitly by the rules/write-ups was for the GM to create so that they would integrate with his campaign, but this wasn’t well explained or prominent enough – and even the content that was provided was subject to editorial revision by the GM. This is a notion that began to fall out of favor with 2nd Ed, and was almost completely lost by the time of 3.0, leading to the advent of “old-school gaming” and the edition wars.
  • Artifacts are a contaminant of ideas from one campaign being force-fed into another. Again, this concept stems from a misuse of the concept; while the artifacts in the AD&D DMG were intended for, and derived from, the Greyhawk® campaign setting, other campaign settings had their own artifacts, just as 3.0 Faerun had it’s own bespoke spell lists. They were never intended to be campaign-portable, never mind universally omnipresent.

Those six complaints/problems begin to boil that litany of problems down into specifics. For a modern campaign, there is absolutely no reason not to include an artifact – provided that these five criticisms: Power, Balance, Price, Coherence, and Integration – are dealt with.

The simplest way of doing so is to evolve a set of principles and creative rules and then use them to create your own as a deliberate part of your campaign. No artifact from any other source is permitted unless it is put through the same wringer, i.e. edited and rewritten as necessary.

The Limited Artifact

Before we go there, however, there is a solution that occurs to many GMs, or should – the Limited Artifact. An artifact that meets all the conceptual parameters of an old-school artifact but is so constrained by some additional restrictions or handicaps that it has no impact on the campaign beyond that which the GM intends.

No matter what the individual descriptions of these may say, they are all made of Plot Devicium. They are employed by the GM to set up some additional game conditions that are needed to create a particular challenge, or to solve a challenge that would otherwise be insuperable.

I have an examples to offer from my own Fumanor campaign. From the third Fumanor campaign, we have The Gates Of Joraldon (actually spelt “Goralden” but too many people got the pronunciation wrong, so I decided for this article to make the spelling more explicit). (I was going to add a second, but ran out of time).

Example: The Gates Of Joraldon

The party were being escorted to an offshoot of the Temple Of Thoth by Brother Jirome, a priest from the Temple who was following instructions laid down a century earlier by his deity without explanation. The temple is located in the township of Joraldon, which no-one has even heard of in living memory.


From my adventure notes [with annotations];

The path has just ascended toward a crest on the side of a mountain named, according to Jirome, “Mount Karven”. As you crest the ridge, it begins to descend quickly into a hidden valley. While the center of the valley is packed with small farms, most of the region is filled with a vast forest of red-leafed trees. “The Rudd-trees keep this color all year round, and the valley is heated by hot springs at it’s upper end end; Goralden lives in a perpetual autumn,” he explains. To the right of the narrow path, Mount Karven looms almost vertically, while to the left there is a weak stone railing no more than a half-dozen cm high, beyond which a sheer drop plummets to the valley floor. Winding around the face of the mountain, the path shows clear signs of Dwarven construction, having been cut directly out of the mountainside rock – “Hence the name, Mount Karven,” explains Jirome; “It’s rumored to have been sculpted into a completely different shape than that which nature bestowed by Dwarfish picks hundreds of years ago.” Half-way down to the valley floor, the path turns sharply left, where it crosses a narrow stone bridge, of unbelievable unsupported length. At the point of the turn onto the bridge are two small towers which, to Auralla and Ceriseth [two of the PCs], glow with a subtle magic.

On the far side of the gently arching bridge, the path begins to climb quickly through a series of switchbacks toward a sizable ledge on which the township of Goralden is located. The architectural style is very different to anything you have seen before, with one building sharing all four walls in common with another, flat-roofed buildings built on top of other buildings, like a stack of children’s blocks. At the back of the town, nestled against a sheer cliff face, is a large commons crisscrossed by paths and sheltered by high stone walls. In the center of the town-side of the commons is a tall plinth-shaped structure with pyramidal cap, towering almost 180m into the air (Think of the Washington Monument, but bigger, if you’re not sure of the shape). Three watchtowers [near the bridge] permit approaching enemies to be continuously raked with arrows from the time they cross the midpoint of the bridge, and the path (and bridge) are so narrow that troops can march only two abreast. The only weak point, in terms of conventional warfare, is that from this ridge you can see across into the town and have a fair idea of the defensive layout; but it’s a debatable point, because the layout is so intimidating that troops attacking the town would be suffering morale problems before even coming under fire.

Observing the town, it seems clear that they are aware of your approach, but not overly concerned. A handful of archers lounge, unconcerned, on the tower battlements; farmers till the fields and gather the last crops of the summer; and what clearly seems to be a welcoming party are gathering at the town entrance.

Notes to PCs:

[retroactively synopsized]:

Various party members had the ability to detect magic, and the whole town reeked of it, even from this distance, which seemed to radiate from the watchtowers.

A PC cleric (who had a high Wisdom) was able to use that characteristic to determine that the Mages’ pronouncement was self-evident if you only had the wit to observe instead of merely seeing.

From my prepared note to the player:
“Showoff Mages, blurting out the blindingly obvious – of course the towers have an Arcane component. They are, after all, in perfect condition after a century of virtual neglect. What they don’t realize, because you haven’t told them yet, is that they are primarily spiritual in nature, and are clearly NOT of the Chaos Powers. So far as you can tell, they bestow some exotic variety of blessing on all who pass, or live in their vicinity.”

Some Explanations:

The central tower is the Temple. It casts an illusion over the entire town of the way life was for the long-deceased spirits of the dead inhabitants who haunt it with no idea that they are actually dead. They live their lives perfectly content, farming, caring for their children, celebrating minor triumphs and festivals and so on. Because these are the actual spirits of the formerly-living, they were capable of reacting to, and interacting with, the PCs. None of this has been previously discovered because the town is so isolated (it had taken the PCs almost a month to journey there, and they had a guide who was following a magical map and prophetic instructions from the deceased God Of Knowledge, Thoth.

More important are the Gates, i.e. the space between the three watchtowers. These are an artifact crafted by Thoth shortly before he wrote his prophetic instructions and then erased all knowledge of instructions, town, or relic from his own mind – something only possible to the God Of Knowledge, because that divine attribute would prevent anyone else from eliminating the knowledge. They have the power to turn any illusion into reality within its range of effect – the entire township.

Background Info:

From my adventure notes [with annotations];

You get the impression that the reception committee is out-of-practice at this. They are still getting organized when you reach the gates into the town. There are 4 people waiting to welcome you to Joraldon, and a substantial crowd of onlookers, women and children for the most part, with a sprinkling of guards in chain mail. You notice that the crowd is behaving in a slightly-odd fashion – none of them are crowding in so closely that anyone is in physical contact with anyone else.

Of the ‘official’ group, Person #1 is clearly better dressed than the others. He’s a large, portly man, in elaborate red robes and a broad velvet sash, with very ruddy cheeks. Persons 2 and 3 are identical twins, giants of men standing almost 7 feet tall. One is dressed as a farmer, and the other is in brightly polished chain mail with a purple cape. The fourth is a small man, wizened with age, with narrow, beady eyes. As you approach, they appear to be debating which of the twins protocol demands be introduced first – the elder or the one with higher rank. Suddenly they notice you, and with a sharp gesture, the fat man cuts off the debate and steps forward in your direction, his palms open and extended outward from his body, looking intently at Rocky [the party cleric].

“In peace, I greet you,” he announces, as he executes a complicated salute. “My name is Jann Thew, and I am the governor of the village of Joraldon. These worthy gentlemen are my councilors, Farley,” (he indicates the farmer), “Hebrom,” (the Warrior), “and Neveritt” (the old man). “We bid you welcome to our humble township, Most Holy. A small feast has been arranged in your honor, but I must first advise you of a local custom which you may not have encountered previously, and whose transgression could cause ill-feelings amongst the townsfolk toward you.

“Almost a century ago, a succession of terrible plagues swept over the town, and in defense against them, it was decreed by my predecessors that none may touch one another save husband and wife. Although the need has long passed, the practice persists; it has come to be seen as a gesture of respect to one another. It would ease your visit, if you would respect this custom while within the town or its surrounding farms.”


Synopsized from the adventure notes:

Jann Thew gently probed for the reason for the visit, and made the necessary arrangements when told that the party need to consult with the Priests of the Temple. The “feast” was relatively simple fare, but well-cooked; service is by a smörgåsbord arrangement. Toasts are offered, etc etc. Brother Jirome did not attend the feast, returning to the Temple and report.

It slowly became apparent that not all was as it seemed. A couple of children, too young to obey the rules, were playing and one was observed by one PC to run straight through the other. There are plants growing in the garden that are impossible for this climate. Various other clues come to light. The mystery of what was going on was not solved until they actually went to the Temple, where they learned that Thoth had personally left a letter to be hand-delivered to the group who matched the description of the PCs.


[synopsized from later campaign notes, and not known to the players/PCs at the time]:

I’m not going to go into huge detail on this because it all tied in with the (extensive) campaign background, which is far too lengthy and involved. In a nutshell, Thoth had decided that as the God of Knowledge, he should have knowledge of the Chaos Powers, i.e. the enemies of the Gods, responsible for all evil and corruption, against whom the Gods had been struggling for millennia. Recognizing the dangers that this posed through his knowledge of the future, he prepared Joraldon as a fail-safe with instructions on how to destroy his own existence, after the plagues completely wiped out the populace, and set various things in motion that would eventually create the unique assemblage of PCs, who would be the right people to take advantage of the instructions he was leaving them. And then set up backup plan after backup plan in case it was necessary. This was the knowledge that he had expunged.

He then attuned his mind to the ‘forbidden knowledge’ and learned that doing so exposed him to the corruptive force of the Chaos Powers, converting him into a willing pawn to their cause. He then, at their direction, began planning their ultimate victory with everything at his disposal, as he knew in advance that he would. In keeping with his personality, he wrote everything down that he needed to know in order to make these plans – force assessments, information about the Chaos Powers, tactics, who needed to be corrupted and how they could be influenced, where the plan was susceptible to interference, and so on. The magic imbued into the “lost temple of Thoth” meant that it retained a copy of all this information, stored away in a particular volume of records that no-one else would ever have any need to consult – until the PCs followed his pre-prepared trail of breadcrumbs.

The key to success was the perfect preservation of Thoth’s personal notes in the form of an evolving illusion without his knowledge (it had long earlier been established that since Illusions were not real, he had no knowledge of them).

Plot Devicium:

The gates were a plot device, pure and simple, that enabled me to bootstrap information into the hands of the PCs that was completely impossible for them to obtain in any other way, the springboard to the 3rd Fumanor campaign’s big finish. Each 80′ tall, virtually invulnerable to harm, weighing hundreds of tons, they were completely immobile. They were limited to doing what I wanted them to do. In fact, to prevent “Dark Thoth” from learning what the PCs now knew, there were specific instructions on hand to end the illusion, effectively destroying the artifact, and on how to use a far less powerful artifact that had previously been recovered – without operating instructions of any kind – by the party Druid, unknowingly following another of Thoth’s breadcrumbs to shelter them from Dark Thoth’s abilities.

In fact, the party had previously discovered that they were unique in that the Chaos Powers couldn’t ‘read’ or ‘influence’ them, though they never knew why that was so. This was revealed to be another of “Good Thoth”‘s machinations, a byproduct of the plot of the first Fumanor campaign.

The Story Continued:

In fact, “Good Thoth”‘s entire plan worked – after an epic struggle. Five armies, volcanoes being raised as tactical barriers, marching forests, lots of fun. The PCs had left the Gates Of Joraldon in ruins, and thought no more of it. Campaign number 3 revealed that Thoth’s plan had one colossal oversight: he couldn’t anticipate the actions of another deity (or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in this case). Through a carefully-planned encounter, Lolth – believed to have been killed a century earlier but who has more lives than a cat – learned of the gates, traveled to them, reprogrammed them, moved them to the Elven Lands, and reactivated them to corrupt the entire race and bend them to her will. Only those Elves who were outside their native realm and the Drow that she had abandoned and who had been converted by Corallan in her absence were immune. This set up some of the major plot threads of the “Seeds Of Empire” and “One Faith” campaigns. But, once again, Lolth can’t move the Gates, and can’t leave their vicinity, without losing her tenuous grip on True Divinity, which had been her motivating ambition throughout the campaign – something that the PCs learned, in part, in the first campaign, and in part, in a “coincidental” encounter en route to Joraldon – which was me deliberately setting up the seeds of the next Campaign.

Redefining Artifacts: Relics

Whew! That was rather longer than I originally expected. Anyway, moving on: because of their limited nature and definition as Plot Devices by the GM, “Limited Artifacts” are a side issue (though very much the sort of thing that this series was intended to explore). The real story here is what to do about “True” Artifacts, which I will describe hereafter as “Relics” so as to avoid any confusion between old-school “Artifacts” and the reinvented model that I am about to present.

The place to start is, as usual, by defining the key characteristics of Relics; once those have been determined, I’ll show how to use them as a fill-in-the-blanks blueprint for creating a Relic.

Key Characteristics

A Relic has 12 defining characteristics:

  • Persistence
  • Undetectable by normal means?>/li>
  • Immutable State
  • Exotic Form or Exotic Otherwise
  • Buff, Boost, or Both
  • Scaling Abilities
  • Usually Worn, Held, or Wielded
  • A Part Of History
  • The Price Of Ownership
  • The Difficulty Of Acquisition
  • The Difficulty Of Rejection
  • The Plotline Impact

As usual, these need to be discussed in greater detail to be meaningful.


The magic in the item is not consumed when the effect it contains is released, or instantly renews itself, and either way, the item itself survives.

Undetectable by normal means?

In AD&D, the rule was that artifacts were not detectable with “Detect Magic”. This was obviously done in response to a looter’s mentality on the part of players: “We put all the loot in one pile and cast Detect Magic. Anything that glows is worth attention, we flog the rest for cash.” (Flog: Australian slang for ‘sell’).

By making objects that looked mundane, did not respond to this Detect Magic, the GM was encouraging his players to respect all the effort that he had put into compiling descriptions, and in some cases, backstories, and possibly even important clues, for the treasure. The problem was that there weren’t many official Artifacts, and it was easy to separate anything that met their description, or even came close.

This ignored me so much that I started including rare coins and hidden compartments and the like in a number of my treasures. I had gnomish pranksters enchant coins and random objects with Nystal’s Aura, and so on. Very little of which had any real impact other than permitting me to ignore the basic problem of Artifacts and Detect Magic, at least for a while.

When I looked back into it, I decided that Artifacts might not be detected when they were lying passive, but when they were activated, they were instantly recognizable by the strength of the reaction. That meant that I needed some activation mechanism for the artifact itself, above and beyond that for any individual ability; I decided that the simple process of “taking it to heart”, of “claiming it as your own” was sufficient to activate the item the next time the person doing so touched it, and that there was a co-mingling of souls – the souls sacrificed to create the artifact having imbued it with a kind of pseudo-soul and its own distinct personality, a bond that was extremely difficult to break. Thereafter, for as long as the possessor lived, the artifact was his – extraordinary intervention notwithstanding. This mingling provided the ‘seed energy’ to ‘awaken’ the artifact.

All this, was, of course, a long time ago – the early 90s. When I looked back on it, I realized that this was an attempt to achieve the same thing as the original literary device of not having an artifact react to detect magic, and that it had been no more effective in that respect. While I liked some of the campaign color that resulted, that was all it was – so, when it came to the Fumanor campaign, because that ‘color’ didn’t completely fit with what I wanted for that campaign, I quietly set the notion aside, transferring the “activation principle” to necromantic magic and recasting ‘soul’ as ‘life force’. In Fumanor, artifacts were magical objects the same as any other – just more subtle, and often with many disparate schools of magic involved in their creation, which would be revealed when the aura of an object was successfully analyzed by a mage.

This is a decision that every GM needs to make for themselves. There are three possible answers: No detection, detect under certain conditions (eg ‘activation’), or detect as an ‘ordinary’ magic item. Make the choice that works best for your campaign, depending on what you decide artifacts actually are (as a class of object).

Immutable State

It’s very rare for these items to change in any way, though there is often a visual expression of a power when one is invoked.

Exotic Form or Exotic Otherwise

One touch that I always like to throw in is to make Relics and Artifacts exotic in construction. Either they are unusual in form in some way, or they are made of some exotic material, or both. This makes them inherently more valuable and notable as objects. Nor do I restrict myself to ‘real world’ materials – gloves may be in a potion bottle in a liquid state, until you open the bottle and they crawl out and coat your hands, giving them a mercury-like surface. Relic should be memorable, and a touch of the exotic helps make them so.

Scaling Abilities

Here’s an important point: the abilities that are bestowed by a relic or artifact should be proportionate to the abilities of the owner. They should scale with the character, rather than being in full bloom from the moment they are claimed. This means that Relics are no longer so overpowering that they take total command of the campaign, and no longer let one character completely overshadow the rest of the party. This one change alone is enough to take the heat out of several of the standard criticisms.

What’s more, it effectively adds a new plot thread to the campaign: the deepening bond between character and relic, and the increased abilities that result.

If a first-level character finds a sword relic – drawing it from a stone seems traditional – it may be nothing more than a +1 weapon with potential. But if that weapon gains a further +1 to attack rolls with every even-numbered level, and +1 to damage with every odd, and grants a new ability every 5 levels, then 4, then 3, 2, and finally 1, then by the time the character reaches 15th level it is a +8/+8 weapon granting 5 special abilities. As magic weapons go, that’s incredibly potent.

It’s also a long way short of the power levels of ‘traditional’ artifacts, depending on what the special abilities are. These should also start fairly small and grow in effectiveness with successive abilities. It’s important to note that these abilities can go outside the normal rules structure; most magical item capabilities can be described simply by listing a spell that is granted x times a day, or whatever. Relic abilities should be special, should deliberately avoid this pattern, enhancing the difference between this class of magic item and more mundane examples. Get creative!

Buff, Boost, or Both

Relics can add abilities, or enhance existing abilities that are measured by some numeric value on the character sheet, or both. The last is probably the most common.

Usually Worn, Held or Wielded

Almost universally, Relics have to be held, wielded as a weapon, or worn. However, there are some that go beyond this; for an example, contemplate “Howl’s Moving Castle” (Wikipedia entry, available from Amazon in a Blu-Ray/DVD Combo and strongly recommended) (bet you thought I was going to mention Baba Yaga, huh?).

A Part Of History

There’s a reason I included so much detail on the Gates Of Joraldon earlier – it was to show how strongly the existence and origins of the artifact was entwined within the campaign history and background. While it’s possible to have a Relic appear from nowhere, the gift of a Lady Of The Lake, never heard of before, this sort of thing should be rare. No, make that “Exceptionally Rare”. Why? Aside from countering some of the verisimilitude-distorting impact of the Relic itself, this is an opportunity to reveal and even extend the campaign background to an audience that suddenly has every reason to be attentive.

The right relic at the right time can bring parts of your campaign to life instead of leaving them dry words of limited relevance. But this won’t happen by accident; when planning Fumanor Campaign #3, the first thing I came up with was the “Dark Thoth” concept, the second thing was the “Gates of Joraldon concept”, the third thing was working out what the PCs would need to use (b) to resolve (a), and the rest was drawing a path from where they were (in terms of knowledge and abilities and campaign circumstances) to where they had to go, plus some filler, some color, some flexibility for the players to do whatever they wanted, and some plot seeds for what eventually became campaigns #4 and #5. And always, looking at repercussions and reactions to campaign events both planned and unplanned.

It’s only tangentially relevant, but a neat (and informative) metaphor occurred to me while writing the above that I thought I would share.

A campaign is – or should be – a ship on a storm-tossed sea. The GM is the Captain and has the tiller, the PCs are the wind, waves, and currents.

At any given moment, the players determine the direction that the forces of nature move the ship, and can even overwhelm the GMs control if they so desire; but over the long haul, the GM determines the course that the ship sails so that it reaches its chosen destination.

Think about that for a minute. Does that describe your campaign? Because it describes all of my most successful ones.

And remember: no ship is unsinkable if the Captain makes foolish mistakes. Or if the players exert too much force.

The Price Of Ownership

Possession of a Relic should never be straightforward. There always has to be a price, and one that is commensurate with the power and potential power that the Relic can grant. But the price should never be so great that it becomes the dominant force within the campaign or the character, unless that is made clear to the character by strong>known myth and legend before he accepts possession of the relic.

The Difficulty Of Acquisition

You know what’s wrong with the King Arthur myth of the Sword In The Stone? It’s too easy, smacks too much of a Deus-ex-machina. When Arthur (or anyone else) grasps the sword, they should be (spiritually) transported to a place in which they are tested and must prove their worthiness. Succeed, and you are returned to the instant from whence you came with strength sufficient to the task; fail, and you return suffering the full effects of fatigue, exhaustion, and long struggle. Outwardly, you may be unchanged, but your strength has been completely sapped by the experience, and you are thus unable to draw the sword from the stone. It’s even possible that you would retain no memory of the experiences you have undergone; or, perhaps, you return with full knowledge that you have been tested and either found worthy or have had your disqualifying flaws paraded before you in hopes that you would learn from the experience and become a better person.

A thirty- or forty-second montage of scenes would have been sufficient. But it didn’t happen.

It’s a truism that Relics should never be placed in a campaign arbitrarily or randomly; it should always be an informed and deliberate act by the GM. What is not so self-evident is that it should never be a trivial exercise to acquire one that has been placed. A Relic needs to be earned, it should never simply be given away in a pile of arbitrary loot.

The Difficulty Of Rejection

This comes directly from The Lord Of The Rings – it should never be a trivial matter to reject ownership of a relic, no matter how opposed to it your character might be morally or philosophically. The power of the Relic might represent an easy answer to an otherwise-difficult problem, or it might be seductive, or it might hold some other appeal, but it should never be a straightforward choice to reject one. Evil Relics will appeal to any weakness or flaw in the character’s personality; there might be hints (probably false) that a sufficiently strongly-opposed character might be able to hold the evil of the item in check, or even ‘reform’ it.

Even if an evil character accepts an evil Relic, the character should not be totally evil (not yet) and every good instinct or facet that the character has should rise up in opposition to what the character has done.

For me, the very best example of this is the story of Tremble in Knights Of The Dinner Table. Even beyond the Bag Wars epic, this was the plotline that secured them a life-long fan. This plot through-line started in Issue #14 with the ascension of Lord Gilead and slowly built up to an epic finish in Issue #95. It actually comprises several smaller story arcs that build on each other in succession; you can read a synopsis of most of it at this KenzerCo page, starting with the “Protégés Story Arc”, continuing into the “Doomsday Pack Story Arc”, and concluding in the “Tremble/Marvin Story Arc”.

This is as much a matter of matching the Relic to the PC during the design phase of the Relic and of creating the right campaign circumstances. As was said earlier, it rarely happen by accident.

The Plotline Impact

From the moment it enters the campaign, a Relic has to matter, to become a key factor in the campaign history that is still to be written. That’s most easily achieved by looking ahead and working backwards (refer to my comments on “A Part Of History”, above, and consider the example of The Gates Of Joraldon that I offered earlier.

From the moment that the PCs actually reached Joraldon, half my prep was devoted to the current and-near future in-game situation (i.e. the big finish to the current campaign) and half was devoted to preliminary work on the next campaign, and how best to utilize the potential of the plot seeds that I had scattered (while I’m not going to deal with this subject in any great detail here – this article is big enough already – you can read more about the process in these two posts: Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part One of Two: Campaign Seeds and Part Two: Sprouts and Saplings).

In this particular case, various powers and groups would learn of the existence of the Gates, and of their supposed destruction, even if the PCs chose to try and keep the story quiet. How would they react? What would they do about it? Some (Group one) would attempt to create facsimiles, only to find that it was not as easy as that (no Plot Devicium). Did I want one of them to succeed? Others (Group Two) might doubt that the Gates really were described and set out to find the place for themselves. A third Group might have similar thoughts and decide to claim them just to be sure they could not be used against them. A fourth group might suspect that some residual magic might exist in them, and set out for the place. Some would dream of what they could do with them if they were restored. What would that be? Did I want one of them to succeed?

By now, you know that the answer to this last question became a ‘yes’. Groups two, three, and four encountered each other along the way and either fought a bloody battle or backed off; by the time the victors (and it didn’t matter which faction they were part of) arrived to lay claim to the Gates, they were gone.

The answers to these questions were worked out in time to include mention of events in the epilogue to the Campaign’s big finish, letting it serve as springboard into the sequels (originally, there was only going to be one, but one of the players moved and needed a separate game for about 6 months).

Legacy Items – a modern 3.x take on Artifacts

Long-time readers at Campaign Mastery may be thinking that a lot of this sounds very familiar. It was by following these same lines of thought that I created the concept of Legacy Items for Assassin’s Amulet, the 3.x/pathfinder game supplement that I co-wrote with Johnn Four and Michael K. Tumey, and which feature heavily in the bonus extras that come with the e-book. But they evolved in their own direction, due principally to the concept of Legacies as the creative principle behind the origins of such items. Nevertheless, Legacy Items are a subset of Relics (as the latter are defined in this article).

  • You can read an excerpt from ‘A Player’s Guide to Legacy Items’, one of the sections of the Assassin’s Amulet supplement here at Campaign Mastery (it’s in two parts: Part 1, Part 2).
  • You can read about Assassin’s Amulet and see a list of the extras that have been published at the Legacies Setting page, also here at Campaign Mastery.
  • You can get the Free Preview of Assassin’s Amulet (73 pages with lots of behind-the-curtain content) at this link.
  • Or you can skip straight to the main attraction – the 300-page game supplement and all the extras published to-date by clicking here (US$20).

Blueprint for a Relic

A slightly-edited version of that list of characteristics forms a fill-in-the-blanks blueprint for creating Relics.

I was actually going to explain the process by way of presenting an example, created as-I-went, but time is beginning to be a factor, so I’ll do that in a separate post some other time (No, that’s not because I spent so much time writing up the Gates Of Joraldon for this article, that had been done in advance). Let’s see… If I move that, and delay this, and shift this other to there, then I can squeeze it in early in October, about two weeks from now… Done!


Every Relic starts with a central concept or idea, from which inspiration can be drawn. This can be broad or vague, or it can be detailed and refined – to be honest, I think that better results stem from the ‘broad or vague’ category, as too much detail can get in the way. Ideally, you want to be able to sum up that idea as succinctly as possible so that you can keep it in mind as you progress though the creative process.


I will usually jot down a couple of ideas instead of a full description and move on, returning at the end of the process to fill in this section properly. In fact, I will usually do that for the whole list. Why? Because one idea triggers another, sometimes quickly, sometimes not – but getting too caught up in writing one idea down in detail can derail the mental train; by the time you’ve finished, you’ve forgotten what you were going to write in the next section. So run through as fast as you can, then come back and expand on these rough notes.


How does the owner get the Relic to do whatever it does? Does it have any autonomous, all-the-time functions? Is there one trigger for all the abilities, or does something different have to be done for each? (Note: we haven’t actually defined those abilities yet). Are there any abilities that persist even when the object isn’t being worn/wielded/whatever? How about if the item is merely being touched? How do these choices reflect the core concept?

Abilities and how they scale

Given the note in the previous section, this is also the time to jot down some ideas about what those abilities are, then rank them in some sort of logical progression.

There are a couple of such progressions that you could use, depending on the nature of the Relic. It could be in terms of effectiveness or power – that’s a fairly standard approach. It could be a progressive shift from relying on the internal “power supply” of the Relic to empowering the character to use his own characteristics, or it could be the reverse, starting with whatever the owner is bringing to the party and then slowly supplementing that as the bond between the two strengthens. A fourth option is to transition from inward-focusing effects to outward-focused ones, and a fifth is the reverse of that. A sixth option is to start with abilities suitable for relatively friendly and comfortable environments and progress to those suitable for more hostile conditions, and – once again – the reverse sequence is a seventh. There are many others, I’m sure.

There are also two ways abilities can be expressed: all-at-once or strengthening with levels. All-at-once means that the ability is at full strength the first time it becomes available; Strengthening with levels means that the power of the ability is indexed to some other value. This might be character levels gained since taking possession of the Relic, or it could be a stat value, or number of ranks in a skill, or whatever.

One option that often serves fairly well is to define a new cross-class skill (or system equivalent), “Usage of Relic [X]” (because we still probably haven’t given it a name) and then index the powers to that. This gives the player some control over the pace of advancement – he can become proficient really quickly, but only by compromising his progress in other areas, or he can pace himself. Players generally love that sort of thing because it makes them feel in control of the process.

The Price Of Ownership

Now that you have a vague idea of what the Relic is going to offer its owner, it’s time to consider the downside, and make sure that it is commensurate with the advantage. You may be tempted to weight this one way or another, for example inflicting the worst of the downside before advantages begin to accrue – this is the concept of an investment in the Relic – or of letting the advantages pile up until the character is too tightly-bound to the Relic to resist the penalties. While it is possible to do a little of this sort of manipulation, as a general principle, it’s nowhere near as good an idea in practice as it seems in theory.

Remember my pointing out that players love feeling in control? Either of these options has the opposite effect. You can get away with a little bit on general trust, and a little more if you’ve chosen the “Usage of Relic [x]” Skill option, but that’s it.

Another good question is how many downsides there should be, and how severe they should be. Do you choose one per ability? Or one less than the total number of abilities? Should you count a more severe or progressive penalty as filling more than one penalty “slot”?

It is worth remembering that the Relic is probably going to fall into the hands of a PC, whose player will have an extreme allergic reaction to any downsides, exaggerating their impact in his mind simply because most magic items don’t have them. If the player is to learn of these downsides only when they manifest, they will easily be doubled in significance, perhaps even tripled, within his mind.

Finally, indexing the powers of the item to anything other than Character Level can be viewed as a downside in and of itself. It requires the character to commit to raising whatever the indexed power is (unless another of the Relic’s abilities does that for the character, of course). Even the “Skill In Relic [x]” option commits the owner to investing some – potentially many – of his skill points away from the usual source.

The Difficulty Of Acquisition

The more powerful the Relic, the harder it should be to acquire – assuming that the player sets out with the ambition of obtaining it. If he does not, the dangers should still be commensurate with the reward, but the reward should be assessed not on the ultimate power that the Relic presents but at its immediate level, plus an allowance for future potential.

Careful thought needs to go into this aspect of the Relic. And you also need to pay attention to the logical question of why it is so hard, within the in-game context. Who has made it so? Why? How?

The credibility and verisimilitude of not just the Relic but of the whole campaign can rest on getting this right – though that’s a worst-case assessment. So make notes, but on your second pass through the work-list, take the time to get it right.

Part of this problem is also consideration of the clues that you as GM are going to emplace around the Relic as to its nature, power, and history. There is a fine line between making these clear and making them too obvious, and an even finer line between making them too obscure (Players can be sharp – or thick as two planks – at the most inconvenient times). The correct level is for them to be fully obvious in hindsight once the Relic is claimed, and remembered until they become so, and for them to be noteworthy even if the significance is not appreciated in the meantime. In addition, some should become at least partially interpretable the moment a PC lays eyes on the Relic – enough to divine its basic nature as a relic, at the very least.

These objects are supposed to be important.

And remember that every clue has to have been deliberately left by someone – who and why?

The Difficulty Of Rejection

There’s no point in emplacing a bardic Relic if none of the PCs is, or wants to become, a Bard. Similarly, if a Cleric is to be the Acquisition target of a Relic, you won’t get far if it appears dedicated to some other Deity than his own – things become a little more flexible if he is the priest of an entire Pantheon, but D&D / Pathfinder aren’t typically set up that way.

You need to take into account the goals of each PC, the personality of each PC, and the personalities of the players concerned – then target an in-game element of the “pitch” at each of these. There may be times when an item will appeal to several PCs – and there are players who will deliberately alter their PCs plans to accommodate Relics. Even if your intent is for the PCs to undertake a quest to destroy the item, that doesn’t always work out – remember Frodo and the One Ring in the heart of Mount Doom?

At the same time, you need to beware making things too clearly targeted at one specific PC. It’s very easy to fall into the position of being accused of playing favorites. One way to compensate for this is to clearly and deliberately go light on the treasures suitable for the targeted character for a period of time prior to the discovery of the Relic, but this can also be fraught with danger because it can make the player feel pressured to accept it, lest he fall farther behind the other PCs in magical equipment. The best solution is for at least part of that targeted “slowdown” to take place after the character comes into possession of the item, and for this to be communicated to the player in advance.

This, too, is a tricky balance to get right, and requires considerable thought.

History of the Relic

Once you have some ideas about all of the above, you can start thinking about the history of the Relic. Who created it, and why? Was it used in that way, and if not, why not? Either way, what happened? Who then came into possession of it? How did it come to be where the PCs found it?

Was the entire reason for Gollum’s creation by JRR Tolkien to answer the questions of how the Ring came to be where Bilbo found it? Or was it all about Gollum’s reclaiming of the Ring at Mount Doom? Given that The Hobbit was written before The Lord Of The Rings, and that many of the ideas in the latter were not fully represented in the former, I suspect the first – Gollum was simply present as an means of getting “a magic ring” into Bilbo’s possession, and half of his role in the latter book was by asking the question of what Gollum would do once he had lost the Ring. Answer that question, and its’ a very small step to the logical conclusion of his ultimate role in the plot of the trilogy.

Even if the PCs are never going to get more than hints, the GM needs to work all of this out for himself, so that those hints can be logically consistent except where the GM chooses otherwise as a reflection of history being distorted by time.

Impact of the Relic on History

This is equally important. The direct contributions to history should be fairly evident, or developed in conjunction with, the preceding section; but you also have to think about all the indirect contributions that the Relic, or its absence, may have made.

Again, the Lord Of The Rings is informative – just look at everything that happened because Sauron no longer had the ring, and everything that took place to recover it once he knew it had been found again. It was Saruman’s search for the Ring that led to his being ensnared by Mordor and corrupted, and that in turn led to Wormtongue and the Ents and the Corruption of the Rohan, and the creation of the Uruk-Hai. Gandalf and Aragorn spent years in search of Gollum to learn of how he came to posses it, and in the hunt for additional ring-lore. The Ring had at least as much influence over people because they didn’t have it as it eventually had when its existence was rediscovered.

The Relic In Myth

It would be a rare thing for something so astonishing and pivotal not to generate its own myths and legends. Heck, you don’t need power to do that in the real world – just be impressive in some way. It’s commonly believed, for example, that Napolean shot the nose off the Sphinx in a demonstration of the power of his weapons, or perhaps, of his ego. In fact, that has been conclusively shown to have never happened.

This is also a great dumping ground for any ideas that don’t work out – abilities that were too weak, or too powerful, pieces of history that didn’t make sense when the final story was assembled, etc.

The Plotline Impact – Immediate: The Search For Knowledge

Almost certainly, the immediate impact of the Relic will be a search for more information about it. This can be underplayed, or a dominant element of the campaign. Rumors of information can be a useful plot device for getting the PCs into adventures.

There will be far greater impact if it becomes obvious or known that the new owner is in possession of the Relic. Political alliances have been broken and forged over less. There are those who will be envious, those who will deem him less worthy than they are, those who don’t care how worthy he may be (they just want it), those who don’t want anyone to have it, those who will want him to do things with it (that may or may not be possible – refer to the myths section above), those who will strike before the Relic can be used to prevent whatever it is that they want to do (even if they aren’t really ready), and those who will want it destroyed – at any price. The Relic will become the pivot around which politics throughout the known world changes. And, of course, all sorts of rumors and misinformation will spread about who has it, and what their agenda is, or might be.

Even if it is a total fraud, a relic has Massive consequences for a Campaign. Quite often, it will be easy to read “Relic impact” into an event even if the event has nothing to do with the Relic – which means that everything has to do with the Relic.

The Plotline Impact – Medium-Term

In the medium term, even if the new owner tries to hide the fact, it will slowly become known that the Relic is out there. There are too many sources of information in a fantasy world for a secret that big to stay hidden forever. That whole long list of consequences and reactions are inevitable.

On top of that, we have the consequences of its’ actually being used, and the reaction of the owner to the expectations of what he will do, and the reactions of the public and various social groups and political bodies to the consequences of its use.

And finally, a Relic should never be emplaced within a campaign without some idea of where the resulting plotline is heading. The medium term is when that begins to make itself felt, though it may not be appreciated for it’s true significance.

The Plotline Impact – The Campaign Scale

That ultimate direction is the ultimate impact of the Relic on the campaign, and – hopefully – the reason for its presence within the campaign in the first place (you should always have a reason, even if it isn’t a good one, and if it isn’t a good one, come up with a better one eventually).

But it doesn’t end there. Now that you’ve finished with it, what happens to the Relic? Even if it gets destroyed, there will be those who believe otherwise. Its’ absence will continue to shape events, as discussed earlier. Only when those just old enough to be aware of events are dead and buried will it fade from immediate relevance – though it may start doing so in a mere generation or so. Call it between 70 and 100 years. A generation or so after that, and it will again begin to retreat into myth and legend – unless something occurs to keep the story current, of course.

Elves have very long generations….

Other Game Systems

It might be stating the obvious, but everything that’s been said in this article can also be applied to other campaigns, from magic in 7th Sea to uber-powerful super-science devices in Sci-Fi.

The (slightly premature) Wrap-up

“Artifact” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. It can be the ultimate expression of Fantasy in a Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Too much of the stigma associated with them derives from misuse and inadequate preparations. Avoid those mistakes and you too can ride the whirlwind!

An artifact, or the somewhat watered-down representatives called Relics in this article, immediately becomes the central focus of a campaign, whether the participants realize it or not. Respect them, and take that seriously, and put the effort in that anything of that magnitude of importance demands, and all will be well.

Artifacts and Relics: the ultimate magic items, so powerful that they don’t even have to obey the game mechanics, so awesome that they can rewrite the rules – in specific and limited fashions. A fitting place to end this series.

Except, of course, that the series isn’t quite over. I still have the example Relic that I devised especially for this article, and then had to excerpt. So there will be a kind of postscript to this series.

But, in the meantime:

Next here at campaign Mastery: On Thursday/Friday, The Essential Reference Library For Pulp – 2nd Shelf, and next week, Part 2 of ATGMs42: Musical Puzzles – if all goes according to plan! Of course, I’ve already changed that plan once twice and counting!

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 1st Shelf

The First Shelf: Heroes & PCs


Heroes are at the heart of a Pulp campaign, as much if not more than any other genre (with the possible exception of Superheroes – but you could draw a continuous line running from Pulp Heroes through to powerless heroes like Batman, Green Arrow, Hawkeye, the Black Panther and the Black Widow, through Low-Powered heroes like Plastic Man, Ant-Man, and Captain America, to moderately-powered heroes like The Flash and Spider-man, to high-powered heroes like Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Superman, and Thor, and then through to characters like Dr Fate, Doctor Strange, and Phoenix, who routinely deal with the cosmic, so that exception is really just reflective of this continuity). Of course, pulp itself contains a wide range of archetypes and even some of those low-powered exemplars listed a moment ago would not be too far out of place.

Heroes – which include by definition (in a pulp campaign) the PCs – are the obvious place to start. It’s part of the GM’s job to make sure that the characters played as PCs are suitable reflections of the genre, and there might also be the odd NPC hero running around as well. To achieve the first, the GM needs references on just what a Pulp Hero is, and what he can – or should – be able to do, so that he can say, “this is genre appropriate,” or “this isn’t right, but here’s a more suitable alternative”. The second would be his primary motivation in compiling this shelf of his reference library; the first application would simply be a bonus.

Those are what the contents of the first shelf of the Essential Reference Library for Pulp are all about.

Relevance to other Genres

Of course, there are going to be obvious synergies in the areas of characterization and character psychology and even the basic concepts of heroism between Pulp and many other genres. The details may vary, but the underlying principles will remain, and the characters are still humans, or quasi-human, in almost all cases. Even characters who are half-human and half-something-else have a place within the pulp genre, as you’ll see when we get to the section on Criptids.

In general, what makes a good pulp character will also be the things that make a good character for D&D, or Cthulhu, or… well, you get the point.

easy chair in study with books on shelves

Shelf Introduction

Contains two sections: PC Archetypes & Heroes; and Character Background Skills.

PC Archetypes & Heroes deals with examples of Pulp Characters and the psychology of characters, pulp and otherwise.

Character Backgrounds & Skills covers the things that characters know about or can do, and giving the GM enough of the fundamentals of the most common subjects that he can fake what he has to.

A Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion. Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon. Regardless of the physical dimensions of the item, these have been set to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 250 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Section). These are the minimum values that we felt rendered titles reasonably legibly.)

Image Credit / mario gonzaga

Shelf Contents:


PC Archetypes & Heroes


Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation but may have changed since.

Spacer writers-guide-to-character-traits

001. Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, 2nd Edition – Linda N. Edelstein, PH.D

A great characterization reference that Mike has recommended on multiple past occasions (we thought we would get it out of the way right off the bat). This is a book that helps you define the way the character thinks, and what impact that’s had on his life – or vice-versa – in an extremely readable format.


002. The Great Pulp Heroes – Don Hutchison

Describes in greater detail a number of the most famous pulp heroes. If you want archetypes, inspiration, or figures for the PCs to look up to, re-badging and reinventing these is a great place to start.


003. Yesterday’s Faces Volume 1: Glory Figures – Robert Sampson

The ‘Yesterday’s Faces’ series covers a very wide range of characters, broken down into sub-genres dealing with different character types. NB: Volume 3 deals with villains, but we’ve included it here to keep the series in one place.


004. Yesterday’s Faces Volume 2: Strange Days – Robert Sampson

More than 50 characters in four categories: Scientific Detectives, Occult & Psychic Investigators, Jungle Men, and adventurers in Interplanetary Romance. While some are well known to this day, others are obscure and forgotten by all but collectors.


005. Yesterday’s Faces Volume 3: From The Dark Side – Robert Sampson

These are Villains who ever so occasionally will work the other side of the street – for their own purposes, to be sure. With more than forty to choose from, you have plenty of options.


006. Yesterday’s Faces Volume 4: The Solvers – Robert Sampson

Detectives of all types are shown in this collection, from the amateur to the professional, from the medical mystery-solvers (shades of House!) to professional police officers.


007. Yesterday’s Faces Volume 5: Dangerous Horizons – Robert Sampson

Explorers and Archaeologists, with the odd Ship’s Captain thrown in for good measure, these are characters that go where the strange and unexpected can be found – and live to tell the tale, then do it again.


008. Yesterday’s Faces Volume 6: Violent Lives – Robert Sampson

Some characters live for the thrill of combat, of swashbuckling, of bearding danger in its’ lair. This collects profiles representing the combative archetypes. Few copies available, and very expensive; it has been included only because we have already listed the other five, it would normally be relegated to honorable mentions. Expect little change from $100, and you may have to pay more.


009. The Chronology Of Bronze – Rick Lai

Summarizes most if not all the Doc Savage adventures that had been published up to 2010. Listed as much for the benefit to adventures.


010. Rick Lai’s Secret Histories: Daring Adventurers – Rick Lai

Rick’s volume relies on non-canonical additions to the backgrounds of characters and may mislead readers, but this volume of essays on iconic characters you’ve probably never heard of is a great source of inspiration.


011. Pulp Icons: Erle Stanley Gardner and his Pulp Magazine Characters

with over 650 pulp stories to his credit in the 20s, 30s, and 40s before his most famous creation, Perry Mason, Gardner’s work is an excellent source for pulp characters and this volume specifically focuses on his creations, both moderately-known and obscure.

There will be some additional relevant entries in the Writer’s Tools section and elsewhere.

Most of Campaign Mastery’s readership comes from the USA, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia in that sequence. Because each of the first three are served by bespoke Amazon websites (with differing levels of availability of product) (and there is also an Amazon Australia for Kindle products), and because these four locations have three different region codes on their DVDs, we have gone to the trouble of checking all three sites. However, we have not applied the availability criteria with the same rigor, instead choosing to quote prices in all three markets (and noting some interesting patterns as we went). This was because this is a rapidly-evolving marketplace, thanks to the rise of streaming services; we think forecasts of the imminent demise of DVDs are a little premature, but have done our best to future-proof the series (even though pricing and availability information began to depreciate in accuracy the second they were recorded).

Unless it was somehow noteworthy, we have neither looked for, nor linked to, Blue-ray versions. However, when the search methodology required to actually locate the desired target was not a straightforward copy-and-paste of the title, we have made notes on that as well, so if you want to search for higher-resolution / premium formats, you should be able to do so – and may discover additional copies of something in short supply otherwise.


012. Air Aces

(6 part series). Originally shown in some markets as Heroes of the Skies. Criticized by some as overly dramatic and by others who seemed to expect cinematic special effects, this series tells the stories of six of the most legendary pilots and the most heroic airborne missions of World War I using real vintage aircraft and stunt pilots for reenactments, rare archival footage, and interviews with experts & the last surviving veterans (making a mockery of claims of factual error).

Available on DVD (Region 2) from Amazon UK for about £30; available in very limited numbers on DVD (Region unspecified, presumably Region 1) from Amazon Canada for about CDN$69; or can be streamed from Amazon US in HD for $3 per episode or $10 for the entire series


Character Background Skills

There are a whole raft of subjects that might be applicable to this specific character or that. If the character is a Bridge player, for example, “Bridge For Dummies” might be an essential reference, even if all you got out of it was the psychology and vernacular. Those are not the books that we’ve listed in this section (with one or two exceptions).

There are some subjects that are going to occur frequently enough that the GM (and the occasional specialist player) is going to need to know about them – not for their benefit, but for the character being created/played.

Of course, you could simply give a copy to the player in question when it became relevant – such things make great Christmas gifts, a fact that Blair and Mike have exploited on a number of occasions.

Picture the following scenario: A teacher gives each of his students a copy of the (non-standard) textbook around which his class will be based for the year – bur doesn’t keep a copy for himself to refer to in planning his classes and writing his tests and preparing the class assignments…

Quite obviously, the GM (teacher) needs a reference source at least as good as that of the player (student).

You can further argue that the teacher can’t know what it’s reasonable for the student to have learned and understood if he doesn’t have exactly the same reference available to him. How can he expect them to know about, say, the Alaska Purchase if it’s mentioned in his references but not in the book that he gave the class?

Then, too, the GM is more likely to need these for NPCs and adventure planning. If anything, that’s likely to be a more urgent and recurring need – how many PCs will be created in the course of a Pulp campaign? Relative to how many PCs?

If there is one place where these resources belong, it’s on the GM’s shelf.


013. Jazz For Dummies – Dirk Sutro

While arguably the blues (which metamorphosed into Rock & Roll) ultimately became the dominant musical form of the 20th century, during the pulp era, two styles were dominant: Swing (aka ‘Big Band’) and Jazz. Well there’s no “Swing For Dummies”, but there is this introduction to Jazz, enough that your narrative can name-drop with the best. You have to start somewhere! Note that the first edition had an accompanying CD that the second lacks, and that only first-hand copies of the book are likely to still have that CD as part of the package. We suggest that price be your guide as there are almost certainly introductory compilations available cheap if you want to actually provide a soundtrack. In general, this book is so useful at providing an element of background color that we have listed it in the main reference section, and of course, you can easily set an adventure or two – or just an encounter or two – in the world of the Jazz performer.
1st Edition
2nd Edition


014. Early Blues: The First Stars Of Blues Guitar – Jas Obrecht

We thought about listing “Blues For Dummies” but there seemed to be too much focus on the more popular artists of the 50s and beyond, which the authors of that book describe as “a gateway drug to blues aficionados”. Instead, we are recommending this book which focuses completely on the people and places that define the early blues from 1900 through to the popular boom of the 50s, when it began to morph into Rock & Roll. Although there are quotes from many more modern exponents of the style such as BB King, the focus is almost entirely on the blues scene that would be found or remembered by ‘contemporary’ characters in a pulp campaign. Copies start at about $13.50 and there is also a Kindle edition for roughly the same price.


015. And They Called It Swing – Its History, Its Bands, Its Legacy – Oren Freshour

Swing is the dominant musical style of the pulp era, at least in the US, and its popularity was spread globally by troops during World War II. This book seems to be both comprehensive and yet organized in such a way that it can be either read as narrative or used as a dip-in reference, covering everything the Pulp GM needs to know for period color from the hit songs to the artists, promoters, and early radio disk-jockeys who popularized them. Copies from mid-$6.


016. Complementary Medicine For Dummies – Jacqueline Young

This book offers a goldmine of all sorts of individual cultural medical practices – a chapter on Chinese and one on Indian and so on That makes it a potentially useful reference for the GM. In essence, this described traditional medical practices in non-western parts of the world. There is a Kindle Edition as well as the paperback linked to.


017. Cricket For Dummies – Julian Knight

Cricket For Dummies – For most people in the USA, the game of cricket is the most confusing sport ever invented. The language of the game is inherently internally contradictory, leading to a number of amusing verses “describing the game for Americans” in the most deliberately confusing way possible. But for a large part of the world, cricket is one of THE major sports, as big as Baseball is in the states – but international in scope. If you come from a country that plays cricket, you don’t need this book. If you come from the US, and want to set an adventure in England, or Australia, or New Zealand, or India, or the West Indies, or Pakistan, or South Africa, or Zimbabwe, or many many more places, then you probably DO. As usual, there is the physical book and a Kindle edition.


018. Etiquette For Dummies – Sue Fox

One of the changes that has taken place over the last century or so is that a certain informality has become acceptable. While the pulp era wasn’t quite as straight-laced on the subject as Victorian Times, there are still strict limits on how far one is permitted to deviate from the rules of polite society without acquiring an unsavory reputation. The formal rules of politeness are called Etiquette, and that’s why this volume is essential reference for anyone younger than about 75, or maybe 80. Even today, lessons on Etiquette and Deportment are taught – and there are places where the highest formalities are expected to be observed (White House formal dinners, Buckingham Palace, when dealing with Aristocrats and Snobs, etc). We do recommend that this be used sparingly – a little goes a long way – but for any formal occasion, this would be essential. That said, this can be an essential guide to creating the look and feel of the pulp era. There is the usual Kindle edition as well as the paperback linked to.


019. Organizational Behaviour For Dummies – Cary L. Cooper, Sheena Johnson, and Lynn Holdsworth

How do organizations behave and how can an organization perform and support actions that none of the leaders or individual employees would personally countenance? Organizational Behavioral studies got their real start post World War II as people struggled to understand how the German populace could simply not notice what was being done in their name, or worse yet, embrace the Nazi ideology so completely despite morally ‘normal’ upbringing. A lot has been learned since then. This is a must for GMs regardless of genre. (And no, that’s not a misspelling – the title is spelt in the British way).


020. Sociology For Dummies

In a nutshell, Sociology is the study of societies and how they evolve. And since any pulp campaign will have non-standard stimuli driving the social development, it’s a subject that GMs should have at least a basic understanding of. We can’t remember a single adventure in which we didn’t have to explore this subject as it applied to the development of the Game World. There are two versions of this book at Amazon (one also has a Kindle version, the other has an “e-textbook” version which may or may not also be a Kindle version before the marketing machine really hit its stride. Both are described by Amazon as First Editions, one more prominently than the other. The style of the covers makes it clear that one is older than the other.

The older version is the one with the “E-textbook”version and the more explicit “First Edition” label; it is 384 pages, and is credited to Jay Gabler.

The newer version is the one with the Kindle-by-name version; it is 400 pages, and is credited to Jay Gabler (author of the older version) and Nasar Meer – with the latter being listed in first place (it matters when it comes to books, just as it does in Hollywood).

Beyond these observations, we have no idea what the differences might be, either cosmetic or substantiative.

For Dummies

In most cases, we haven’t read any of these, and are recommending them for consideration based purely upon the publisher’s descriptions and on general principles except where otherwise noted. We felt reasonably comfortable doing this because the publisher has an established reputation for providing consistent levels of quality-if-introductory-in-scope works. This also shifts the content of the review from one of “this book is recommended and here’s why” to “this book might be useful and here’s why” – a subtle but important difference. We have also made the assumption that availability and price would fall within our parameters, or close enough to them; we have rarely found this not to be the case.

Selected works were so promising and so relevant, that they were afforded a greater level of scrutiny and (in some cases) promoted to the main list of recommendations, excluding them from the general caveats that apply to this section.

Some notes about Complete Idiot’s Guides

A lot of people have a marked preference when it comes to “For Dummies” vs “Complete Idiot’s Guides”. Blair, for example, has a marked preference for the latter, while Mike tends to find the former more accessible when he knows nothing about the subject. That having been said, he has a particular anecdote which we intended to form the basis of our editorial policy on the subject:

A few years back, I was a quite successful self-taught composer of original music. When I received a gift certificate from Dymocks, one of the major book retailer chains in Australia at the time, I used it to buy both the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Composition and Music Composition For Dummies, and discovered something very interesting: The two complimented each other perfectly. What one explained very poorly, the other made very accessible, and vice-versa. Invariably, too, the one that was harder to grasp went into greater technical detail on that aspect of the subject. The combination made for a far more effective self-educational tool than either one alone.

With that in mind, our recommendation was going to be that such pairings be the preferred option, especially on technical, scientific, or obscure subjects.

But then we discovered one critical difference between the two series: while the “For Dummies” series has a website that lists all the books currently available in the series, there is no such equivalent resource for the “Complete Idiot’s Guides”. The most complete listing we could find was a list of 101 books on Goodreads. Is this all there is? We are fairly certain that it is not. It’s often perceived that there is a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” to match any “For Dummies” book that you care to point at, but the absence of a definitive listing raised doubts as to the veracity of this perception.

So, here’s what we have done: We’ve gone through that list of 101 books and extracted the ones of relevance to the Pulp GM and that have no direct “For Dummies” equivalent (almost all of which ended up getting promoted to the main list as described earlier), and are issuing the blanket advice that if Amazon lists a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” that matches the subject of one of our “For Dummies” recommendations, you should buy both. That blanket advice (without the backstory) will be repeated in each part of the series.


021. Art History For Dummies – Jessie Bryant Wilder

Art is one of those subjects that generally either fascinates or bores, and art history doubly so. We’ve tagged this book for inclusion because it’s likely to be broad enough to provide enough of an overview for the GM/player to be able to fake whatever knowledge of the subject is necessary while being general enough to be quickly digestible. Art technicalities are hard to fake convincingly, but art is a definite source of pulp plots (even if it’s only the theft thereof) – it’s our hope that this reference will take the pain out of the problem for anyone who isn’t naturally interested in, or educated in, the subject.


022. Anatomy Essentials For Dummies – Maggie Norris and Donna Rae Siegfried

Doctors are going to be encountered from time to time in any pulp campaign, and once again, it’s hard to roleplay one credibly if you don’t have the vernacular down, usually by preparing it in advance and then reading it from your notes. There are at least two “For Dummies” books on Anatomy, and we aren’t sure which one is better suited – so we’ve listed both. “Essentials” is supposed to give you the knowledge you need to pass a first-year medical school exam in the subject in a quickly-digestible form – which means that it assumes that the reader knows a lot on the subject already. If you do, this can be a great quick-reference, but for most of us, this lacks the necessary descriptive passages.


023. Anatomy & Physiology For Dummies – Maggie Norris and Donna Rae Siegfried

This is the other book on Anatomy. Unlike “Essentials” by the same authors, this is intended to be a general introduction to the subject for someone that knows nothing, and as such, Strong>is our preferred recommendation for most GMs.


024. Medical Terminology For Dummies – Beverley Henderson and Jennifer Lee Dorsey

This is a third contending volume. This offers a course in the taxonomy and construction of medical terminology, enabling you to take terms like “histology” apart to see what they mean or even create your own medical terms to describe the structures of the body from first principles – if you study and understand the whole book. But that makes it less likely to be useful as a dip-in ‘find what you need and get out’ reference.


025. Herbal Remedies For Dummies – Christopher Hobbs

Pharmaceutical History becomes more fascinating the more you study it – but there’s no “History of Pharmacology For Dummies”. Again, this book represents the height of pharmacological knowledge in much of the world, and even in the more advanced corners, these would persist as home remedies. That makes this worth listing – with the understanding that regardless of their efficacy or otherwise in the real world, most of these should be treated as populist quackery in the era – with perhaps the very occasional grain of truth. We suspect from the very “old-style” for-dummies cover that this may have been replaced by the next book on our list.


026. Natural Cures For Dummies – Scott J Banks

There is considerable overlap between this volume and the one above. We don’t like the implied advice of replacing what your doctor has told you to take with something somebody’s grandmother’s grandmother used to use (though this might be editorial hyperbole on someone’s part), but as a guide to what native healers might use for treating common ailments, this looks like it would still be an occasionally useful volume. Just don’t follow the advice yourself without serious consideration.


027. Charity & Philanthropy For Dummies – Karl T. Muth, Michael T.S. Lindenmeyer, and John Kluge

We debated whether or not to include this book on the grounds of relevance of the subject matter and whether or not the perspectives would be entirely too modern to be useful. In the end, we decided to include it – with a caveat. Charity and Philanthropy on a large scale, and by the wealthy, are far more common in the Pulp Era and Genre. This book seems to be aimed at the modern-day ordinary person, and deal therefore in much smaller-scale activities. On top of that, the world has changed a lot since the 1930s, so this may require some period analogue interpretation by the Pulp GM. Or it could be brilliant. But we don’t think so.


028. German Phrases For Dummies – Paulina Christensen and Anne Fox

There are a number of language and phrase books in the For Dummies series, and until we came to this one, we had rejected them all on the basis that there was nothing you couldn’t get (and customize far more effectively) using Google Translate (especially now that they have added a phonetic English display as part of the service). But the Nazis are such a big part of the pulp Genre that this volume might just be useful enough to include.


029. Inventing For Dummies

There’s more to inventing than just coming up with a clever idea. Since a great many pulp characters will be the type to invent things – some released to the public, some commercially successful and some commercial flops, and others kept private, and their inner workings a mystery – it behooves GMs to understand the process of taking inventions from idea to manufactured product. That’s what this book is all about.

There are two editions of this book. The older one (pictured) is 384 pages and credited to Pamela Riddle Bird. There is a Kindle edition and a lot of cheap copies available.

The newer one is 394 pages and credited to Peter Jackson (nothing to do with the Lord Of The Rings), Philip Robinson, and Pamela Riddle Bird. There are nowhere near as many cheap copies, so unless you want to do more than talk the talk, that is probably a better bet.


030. Patents, Copyrights, & Trademarks For Dummies – Henri J A Charmasson and John Buchaca

…But it’s also what this book is about, and we aren’t sure which one is going to be more useful to the pulp GM. We suspect the previous listed, but have minimal confidence in that assessment. Make your own assessment, but buy cheap just in case.


031. Medical Ethics For Dummies – Jane Runzheimer and Linda Johnson Larsen

A recurring concern with some of these books is that the perspectives may be too modern to present much Pulp reference value. That’s certainly the case when it comes to this book, and bearing in mind that medical ethics was a far less universal practice in the 1930s – in fact, about the only thing you could say for most medics of the period is that they were far more honest and ethical than their turn-of-the-century forebears, who in turn were better than the practitioners of the later 19th century. Radium as a treatment for skin blemishes? Lead in women’s makeup? Heroin as a recommended treatment for alcoholism? The more historical context this book provides, the more valuable it will be, because our history is the Pulp “Now”. Beyond that, if your PCs include a doctor, you may be able to get any number of plotlines and difficult decisions to confound him with.


032. Leadership For Dummies

Another of the books that we debated including. If it contains material that helps you “think like a leader,” i.e. roleplay someone in a leadership role, this is worthwhile. If it helps you show leadership as a GM, inputting the desires and goals of the players and PCs and shaping them into a campaign direction that suits everyone, so much the better. But if it’s full of self-help buzzwords and superficial phrases like “Be the change”, this isn’t worth getting. We haven’t read it to know for certain.

There are two editions of this book – a very old 388-page one from 1999 (pictured) credited to Marshall Loeb and Stephen Kindel and a much newer one with 352 pages from 2012 . Unsurprisingly, there are many more copies of the older one available at a much lower price than the newer, but it’s the shorter length that actually makes the decision about which one to recommend far more difficult. What’s missing between the two? Is the difference mere waffle, or outdated techniques that have subsequently fallen out of fashion? Rather than decide for you, we’ve decided to spell out the issue (as we have now done) and leave the decision in your hands.


033. Organizing For Dummies – Eileen Roth and Elizabeth Miles

This seems like it would go hand-in-hand with the previous listing. Again, there are two possible areas of benefit: the GM himself, and the representation of leaders and organizations in-game. From the blurb that we have read about the book, we suspect it leans toward the first of those benefits far more than the second.


034. Physics Essentials For Dummies – Steven Holzner

An astonishing number of people struggle with basic physics, even people who should know better – like those who pronounced that man could never travel to the moon because there was no air for the rocket to push against. Game mechanics and a liberal imagination will solve 80% of the physics problems you come across as a GM – hopefully this book will help solve the other 20%.


035. Public Relations For Dummies – Eric Yaverbaum and Ilise Benun

Blair’s character in the Zenith-3 campaign wants to study this subject; she’s supposed to be pretty good at talking to the press, and she’s certainly been doing enough of it over the last game year or so. If your campaign is ever going to include a politician (NPC or otherwise), CEO (ditto), or anyone who’s used to being interviewed or promoting a brand, they need to know this subject, too. Of course, as with several of these books, value might be limited because the world has changed a lot since the pulp era, but most of the basics will remain fairly relevant, we think.


036. Roberts Rules For Dummies

“Robert’s Rules Of Order” is a famous guide to the conducting of meetings and making decisions as a group. But there’s a lot of technicality and formality in the real thing, and it can be quite expensive; it’s our hope that this will cut through to the basics and cut through the price barrier as well. Older editions are probably going to be more useful to the pulp GM simply because there will be less focus on modern communications methods.

There are two editions of this book – the 1st edition is from 2004 by C Alan Jennings, is 360 pages long, and there are abundant cheap copies available.

The newer edition (pictured) comes from 2016, is by the same author, 432 pages in length, and is not quite as well-supplied with cheap copies – and what copies there are tend to be around the $10 mark and not the 1 cent price. This makes the choice fairly simple, for a change – we recommend buying the newer one (unless the price is beyond your budget) until the remaining copies hit the $20 mark (or thereabouts) at which point a cheap copy of the 1st edition begins to look fairly attractive. But if you aren’t sure that you will get $10-$20 of value out of the book, go directly to the first edition.



Afterword by Blair:

The first thing that a Pulp PC needs is a Niche, something that they are particularly good at, notably better than other PCs. This needs to be something relevant to adventuring, to advancing the group cause. It could be a skill such as Streetwise, Climbing or Persuasion, or it could be a particular knowledge such as Archeology or The Occult or Demolitions. He could be an expert shot or a brilliant tracker or have the forensics skill to find clues where others cannot.

And then, he needs a ‘look’, something about him that is distinctive. This could be an item of clothing (Indiana Jone’s leather jacket and fedora come to mind), or it could be something different about his demeanor, perhaps a habit such as humming to himself when thinking hard, or it could be a particular speech pattern or accent, or perhaps even a preference for a particular brand or variety of alcohol and/or tobacco. Whatever it is, it should be something that makes him stand out, at least occasionally.

Last, he needs a personality, but not one the way most other genres would define it (as things the character will or won’t do under certain circumstances). Pulp PCs tend to be a fairly pragmatic bunch, who will do whatever is necessary to solve the problem and end the menace (whatever it is). Core to the personality is his motivation – he might have strong empathy, or a burning desire to right wrongs, or be out for revenge against evil/crime, or have a sense of nobility, or protecting somebody that they care about from a dangerous world.

One of the most unusual motivations of anyone who has ever been in the Adventurer’s Club campaign (in terms of PCs) was that of Alberto Mediteraneo, a mob lawyer who saw this as a way of causing trouble to rivals and others who would disturb his “family”‘s smooth integration into American society. Chaos and conflict were bad for business! On the NPC side, we have Colin Blackstone, a stage magician and noted illusionist who desperately wants to prove the existence of the Occult – but perpetually finds himself debunking the supposedly supernatural events that he encounters, finding them a mask for fraud, corruption, and crime.

Everything else in the personality orbits around this core motivation, and can be set aside (however reluctantly) at need. Father Justin O’Malley may be a man of the cloth, dedicated to peace and unwilling to harm a fly if he can avoid it – but he carries, and has used, a gun, and is known to smite supernatural evil without compunction. If Dr Matthew Hawke has to shoot someone to stop them, he will (though he would rather employ sedative-coated darts from his blowgun) – and, if he has time afterwards, will try to save their life. If not, well, you sew the wind, you reap the whirlwind.

Those are the core ingredients of a pulp character. Everything else is flavor – add to taste.

Next week: The Second Shelf – Villains and Significant NPCs!


Comments (3)

The Hollow Echo Part 1 – Adding Music To Your Game

a sound board 1 by LeslieR

This is what you DON’T want
at the gaming table.
Image Credit: / LeslieR

Music can provide an iconic trigger that instantly transports the listener into an associated memory.

Soundtracks and scores for Film and TV have long recognized this effect and played on it. You might not know it, but every major character in a movie or TV show has their own “theme”, a handful of notes, usually at most a bar or two, that is played whenever they first appear after being off-screen for any length of time. Sometimes there will also be a group or ensemble theme.

Although not consciously aware of this slight change in the background music being played under the scene and sound effects, it aids recognition of the characters and – through the occasional variation – can nuance the emotional perception we have of the characters. The theme for the shark in Jaws is the instantly-recognizable “Da-Dum”. The orchestra only has to play it once and you immediately know that the shark (nicknamed “Bruce” during production) is out there somewhere.

On a larger scale, theme music can provide a deeper association. Star Wars is held together by two instantly-recognizable themes – the Star Wars Main Title Theme and the Imperial Theme.

A number of DVD-extras over the years have made the power of the soundtrack clear to audiences. It only makes sense that GMs would like to tap into that power for their campaigns. And that’s where today’s Ask-the-GMs question comes in.

This is the fifth of these Ask-The-GMs that I’m tackling without recourse to my usual allies and fellow-GMs. I asked, but none of them have any experience with incorporating music or sound effects in their campaigns – though their comments as to why that was the case will find a venue within this article.

Ask the gamemasters

‘Masteh Casteh’ wrote:

“How do [you] incorporate music [into] your campaign?

I have been very interested in this idea for quite some time now, I have thought about using different styles and songs to convey ideas, feelings and moods.

Everyone in my DnD group (including me) is either a musician or a music fanatic (no joke, we once had a conversation entirely about what [each] different race’s music would sound like).

Would it be a little too much to put musical puzzles in the game for them to figure out?

I need your help, you did a great job with a previous question about art and I have incorporated that into my own campaign.” (edited for clarity)

(For the record, I don’t recall there ever being an Ask-The-GMs question about art, though it has been mentioned and discussed in a number of articles here over the years. If I knew which article he was referring to, I’d have linked to it.)

It first has to said that MC’s group is relatively unusual in its makeup, and what might work for them might not work for everyone. So I’ll be looking at the question both in general and as it might apply to his group specifically.

It also seems reasonably irrelevant that his group is/was playing D&D. While the content might change with genre, the basic parameters of the question would be reasonably unchanged in a Pulp campaign, a sci-fi campaign, superheroes, or a western campaign. That said, picking the wrong musical genre to accompany your game genre could have interestingly comedic or monumentally cataclysmic impacts on the mood at the table. I don’t care if it’s a chase scene, punching up the Benny Hill theme just kills all gravitas, turning the music into the delivery vehicle for a quick joke, and belittling the significance of what the PCs are doing (regardless of whether they are the chasers or the chased).

There’s a lot to cover in this subject, so let’s tune up, and tune in…

Credentials, and the lack thereof

Let me start by saying that I have never used music directly in my campaigns. I have composed music for them, and inspired by them; and I have attempted (in a very limited way) to incorporate a sound effect or two into my campaign. I’ll tell those stories if there’s time and when they become relevant.

That’s not to say that I haven’t thought about it, even before the question was asked to prompt deeper reflection; I have. I have simply concluded that the technology that was available to me, in combination with the environment, made it inviable.

So I have limited practical experience upon which to base my response. This reply will necessarily draw on all of it, but will, of necessity, mostly be written from first principles and theory. And there is almost always a vast chasm-like gulf between theory and reality. So your mileage might vary, and take everything below with a grain of salt.


When you’re talking about music in a game, you need to first think about the hardware and software that will be used to play and control the music.

Hardware & Software

In olden times, when I first considered the problem, the only solution was to pump the music through a sound system of some kind. Unless your gaming space is already wired for sound, that meant that it would be coming from a different room – hardly a high-fidelity solution. The alternative was to record the soundtrack to cassette and play it through a ghettoblaster. That hardly permitted any sort of control over what was being played, when.

The advent of the CD made it possible to program in a set track list, and at the end of each section (if you were quick enough), you might be able to hit pause, or repeat, until you were ready for the next programmed item. Assuming that you had some powered portable speakers, which were fairly uncommon at the time. But you would end up spending half your time paying attention to what the player was doing, and waiting for your next cue to fiddle with the controls. I’ve done multiple things at once, and that’s fine so long as you only have to pay close attention to one of them at a time – this isn’t that situation. I find it inconceivable that your GMing wouldn’t suffer, and I am completely convinced that at least once in most game sessions, you would get distracted by the gameplay and fail to manipulate the controls properly, causing something entirely inappropriate to be heard.

Then came the desktop computer. Hardly portable, but the capability of running software that did exactly what you wanted it do do – even if you had to write it yourself – at least started to solve the control issue, While I never found Cd-player software that automatically paused the playback at the end of a track, lots of them let you set a track to infinite repeat. But unless you were actually using your PC to GM from – not something that I have ever done – it took away a lot of table space and imposed an even more formidable barrier between you and the players, one that could easily muffle what you were saying. So we’re still not at the point of having a viable solution.

But PCs got better. And the MP3 format came along, enabling a playlist of infinite capacity. And remote, powered, speakers of – well, let’s be charitable – at least medium fidelity came along at an affordable price. It didn’t solve the control issues, but it did away with the capacity and reproduction problems once and for all – or did they? I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Because that was followed by the laptop, and the MP3 player, and the tools were suddenly portable. It was suddenly viable to replace the big, bulky desktop PC with a portable solution in place of the GM screen. You could even run your entire adventure from notes on the laptop itself. And word processors got better – you could now embed links to music files in the adventure itself, to be manually triggered when the time was right. And some player-software came along that auto-closed at the end of playing a selection, or that auto-faded or cross-faded when you were moving from one piece of music to another, and the whole thing started to look extremely viable.


On my Windows-98 PC I had a wonderful piece of software called ACDSee. Designed for image display and the bulk handling of images, it could show a slide-show, or freeze on a single image, advancing to the next with a click. And – in the case of some music files – it would play them as soon as you clicked on them. You could set it to show or hide non-image files in a folder. Of course, as soon as you clicked on an image, the music would stop. But it has the virtue of responding instantaneously. Or you could double-click and it would launch in whatever the defined application was for that type of file, but that might take a second or two to load – if it weren’t already running in the background. I immediately contemplated adding sound effects to my game – a combat sequence that would play until I told it to stop. And soundtracks. And editing the two to blend them into a single file. And then I found that I could have two instances of ACDSee running at the same time, so I could use one for images and one for sound and they wouldn’t get in each other’s way.

If I had a laptop at that point in time, it probably would have happened. Since I didn’t, I shelved the notion.

Control – without the need to pay constant attention to it – is absolutely essential to any serious attempt to infuse your campaign with music, or sounds of any sort. You want things to play the instant you tell them to play, for as long as you want them to play, and then be quiet – until the next time. And you want the hardware required to be unobtrusive – or there anyway.

I’ve run adventures on one laptop, splitting the screen to show images on one side and the adventure on the other. It works, but it’s not ideal – you can’t look at your notes while showing the players an image. On the other hand, you have the convenience of a single device.

For the Adventurer’s Club campaign, we use two PCs – one to show the images, and the other to show the adventure. Because there are two of us co-GMing, having a second laptop at the table isn’t a huge issue. It’s inconvenient, but it works far better. I’ve tried doing it for the Zenith-3 campaign, of which I am the sole GM, and found that I was using up too much table space (and I have a BIG table, designed to seat up to 14 people in a dining situation). Five players and one GM should fit, no problem. With two laptops, we didn’t. Of course, I could always forgo the adventure notes – but that never seems to work out well for me. Others, with a different GMing style, might be able to manage just fine.

Operating System and Responsiveness

I recently acquired a new laptop – about 6 months ago – because my primary machine has been dying by degrees for a long time now, This meant getting used to Windows 8.

I absolutely hate it in a lot of ways. It’s slow, it makes me hunt around for the things that I want it to do. It won’t run the software that I had accumulated for earlier versions of Windows. It won’t recognize my USB modem, insisting on using the built-in wireless modem. It decides for itself what I want it to do, and leaves me with the feeling that it’s in control more often than I am. I use it, because it works when it gets moved, and because it has a nice display, but once I can get it connected to the internet, there is a LOT of “help” that I want to rip out of it. Right now, so long as I’m not switching from window to window, or trying to write something, it’s workable, but annoying.

Nevertheless, I use it as one of the two for the Adventurer’s Club, and to run my other campaigns, including the “Lovecraft’s Legacies” Dr Who campaign.

There came a time in that campaign where the Doctor (the sole PC) was to encounter the Daleks, and for dramatic purposes, and because I could, I wanted him to hear their famous “Ext-er-min-ate” before he saw them. After a bit of a web-search, I found a wav file that was good enough for the purpose. At the proper moment, I double-clicked the sound file to play it – after spending 30 seconds trying to get Windows 8 to display the folder. And waited. And waited. And waited. And then, with all the dramatic tension irretrievably lost, it played. Biggest anticlimax in ten years or more of GMing.

Responsiveness is everything (except control and portability) when it comes to incorporating sound into your RPG. This was as responsive as a concrete wall. It didn’t ruin the adventure, but it ruined what was supposed to be the climax of that part of the adventure – the introduction, intended to set the tone for everything that followed.

I don’t care what your preferences are for an operating system. I don’t care how much you like your operating system to assist you. Those are personal choices that are irrelevant to the problem at hand. At the end of the day, for music to work as an assist to your game, you need to have instant and immediate control over it. Zero delay in launching the app. Zero delay in getting to the controls. One second of delay is too long. If you don’t have that level of responsiveness, control and portability of hardware don’t matter; it’s not going to work.


The final consideration in terms of the mechanics of incorporating sounds into your campaign is one that’s also been touched on a time or two in the preceding discussion: the distraction factor. You don’t want the music to distract your players from what you are saying, and you don’t want to be distracted by sound management issues.

But, let’s assume – for the moment – that these are all problems that have solutions – there is some software that claims to do so, and that sounds quite promising, which I’ll look at later in the article, and move on to looking at technique.

The simple soundtrack

The very simplest approach to incorporating music into a campaign is to cue up some appropriate playlist and just let it play in the background. If nothing else, this should establish and help maintain an appropriate mood and tone.

If the game is Star Wars, cue up the soundtracks to the different movies and go! If D&D, maybe the Lord Of The Rings soundtrack should be your choice. I’ll get into content, in general terms, a little later.

Why it doesn’t work

In terms of setting the mood, this works perfectly. You can’t hear the theme from Indiana Jones without getting into the swashbuckling mood. You can’t hear the theme from Star wars without being mentally conditioned to a universe that’s a long time ago and far far away. The music triggers an association in the listener’s mind and that association does all the work.

From that point on, though, the whole thing collapses in a heap. You’re trying to barter for parts when the Imperial Death March blasts out. You’re in the middle of combat when a love theme begins to serenade the table. A goblin enters the room as the Ents begin to march. The music, as sequenced in the soundtrack, simply doesn’t match what’s happening in the game. Rather than sustaining the immersion, it gets in the way.

That’s why you need absolute control over what starts playing, and when.

Tuning Out

When we used to have Fumanor game sessions at Steven Tunnicliff’s place, he would have the radio playing because the family pets were so accustomed to something being on – radio, TV, movies – that they would howl the place down otherwise. There were times when whatever was playing was wildly inappropriate and distracting; there were rare occasions when it bolstered and reinforced the tone at the table; but, for the most part, we simply tuned it out.

That’s fine when it’s essentially background noise – but when you have a carefully crafted and chosen soundtrack, and you have solved the control problems, tuning out defeats the purpose.

For that reason, movies and TV shows control the musical background very carefully, using it for emphasis where useful and submerging it when its’ not. But they have the luxury of going over each screen minute over and over again until they get it right. You don’t have that luxury.

For me, there is an episode of The West Wing that is very informative on the subject: Season 7, Episode 7 (“The Debate”), which was performed live-to-air. The entire ambience of the show is affected, purely because the use of music is limited and was not tweaked in this way (it’s also evident in other ways that this was performed ‘live’ as the actors stumble from time to time, and were given some license to ad-lib lines, which occasionally trips one or the other up – something that adds the veracity of the “live debate” experience). But, just as musical background would be inappropriate during a real (unscripted) Presidential debate, so it would be inappropriate here – but its absence is definitely noticed, even though in most TV episodes, aside from the opening and closing themes, you are hardly aware of the music.

All-in-all, the “Simple” solution leaves so much to be desired that it’s counterproductive.

The Limited-Immersion Solution

But the first bit worked, so why not take that principle and run with it? At the start of each game session, cue up the main title theme of your chosen soundtrack, and after each break in play, play that or some other selection from the same soundtrack? Just to set, or re-establish, the mood?

I see no reasons why this can’t work perfectly well, and it avoids almost all the problems that have been described in the course of this article so far. Control: there’s nothing to control. You start the music, you fade the music, and then you start/restart gameplay. You have time for the hardware and operating system to be balky. All you have to do is remember to turn the volume back up. It poses no distraction to the GM, because it requires minimal concentration.

If you really study the content of a DVD, you will find that most of them use music in exactly the same way – at the start of a Chapter, they will emphasize the music while any establishing shots are presented and then get into the dialogue as the music recedes into the background. Try it – get out a movie that is known for having a strong soundtrack, and that you know well, and use the “next chapter” button on your remote. That’s why commercial TV versions, which often stick ad breaks in the middle of chapters, can sometimes be so jarring – we are used to the ad breaks occurring between chapters, so that the soundtrack reestablishes the mood after the disruption.

The By-Proxy Solution

I have also found that playing appropriate music in the background while doing game prep and writing an adventure helps imbue the adventure with the pacing and “feel” of the source material. It’s an indirect, by-proxy technique for imbuing your adventure with music, but it works. It also has the advantage of giving you a far broader musical palette to choose from. Personally, I find that up-tempo rockers help in combat scenes, that mid-tempo and softer music works for dialogue, and that more progressive and varied music works best for sections of player-GM interaction. I also use something very classical to set the initial tone for fantasy, something that’s a bit more jazz or with lots of horns for pulp, something more techno for sci-fi, and something that builds dramatically for superheroes. But my tastes are eclectic and a lot of people will find different solutions.

I have noticed that adventures tend to be quite different in tone if I vary these choices. That’s how I discovered “The Proxy Solution” in the first place. So play around with your audio environment while writing and see what happens for you.

More complex solutions

If you want to move beyond these simple, relatively brute-force solutions, you will need all those things that were discussed earlier – control, responsiveness, and portability. The exact software tools that you use will need to be chosen carefully, and probably only after a fair amount of trial and error. It will always help to set up a shopping list of the things that you want to be able to do with the music that you are playing. Things like programmable pauses in playlists, auto-fade when stopping play, minimal screen real estate, simple and responsive controls, dynamic compression (I’ll talk about that and why it’s desirable a little later), automatic gain adjustment (ditto), and so on.

In terms of technique specifics, it will depend so much on what your chosen software can do that it’s impossible for me to offer much guidance. For the most part, you will need to put the cart before the horse – discover what your software can do and then work out how to use that to your benefit in the gaming context, rather than planning what you want to do and then working out how to do it. Remember, though, that a key requirement will be to have as little need to supervise what the software is doing as possible.

Choices Of Content

Having taken the question of technique as far as I can, let’s move on to some general guidelines in terms of content.


Vocals add a whole new layer of depth to the musical experience because words can contain context, narrative, and information content beyond that of the music. Vocals increase the odds of a clash between one or more of those elements of the music and your intended purposes.

On top of that, vocals add another voice at the table, one that constantly interrupts and ‘speaks’ over the top of the players and yourself. Having gamed in a crowded room in the past, I can tell you that the worst sort of ambient noise is the human voice; at quite moderate volume levels, it can make it almost impossible to make out what someone else is saying, even if the noise-maker is much farther away. I’ll have more to say on this front a little later.

Unless you know exactly what you are doing, I strongly suggest keeping any music that contains discernible vocals off your in-game playlist (something like Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky would be absolutely fine. And so would Annie Lennox’s vocals on the Two Towers soundtrack – I can’t make out what she’s actually singing most of the time in that song, the vocals are too quiet and submerged; the song seems to be more about the ‘feel’ of the music than the lyrical content. In fact, it was thinking of those two examples that led me to be so careful in specifying “discernible” vocals).


That leaves instrumentals, and with all of classical music and a reasonable selection of modern stuff available, that should still leave plenty of choice. but it’s not all good news.

Musical Ambiguity

Even when vocals are present, two people can listen to a piece of music and get something completely different out of it. “Every Breath You Take” is revered by many as a love song – it keeps getting played at weddings and anniversaries – but it’s actually about stalking. Take vocals out, and the ambiguity of a piece of music shoots way up. One of the things that I learned early on as a composer was that a song title profoundly influenced the perception of what a piece of music was about; on one notable piece, I went through over a dozen titles before being satisfied that my choice combined with the music to choose the subject matter that I wanted it to address (While I also wrote lyrics, my music was all instrumental in nature). (I don’t have my notes on such matters to hand, so I can’t give you the exact name at the moment, not that it’s relevant).

What one person hears as “wistful”, another hears as “mournful” and a third simply as “sad” – they are all reading different things into the music. These terms are all related, but the whole point of going further than the simple methods suggested earlier is to be able to finely nuance the feeling of the game situation. Without context to make it clear that is delivered in advance of the music, players will read something else into it, and then have to overcome that presupposition of meaning to get back onto the “same page” as the GM.

This is an example of how delicate you would have to be in infusing music into a campaign.

Dynamic Considerations

Not all available instrumental music will be suitable. A lot of music has quiet passages and loud passages, especially classical music. The same is true of some modern music, especially in the age of FM radio, CDs, and MP3s. When music had to be recorded to LP, and was mixed to be heard over static on AM radio, there was a lot less scope for such dynamism in composition; music was more nearly constant in volume.

That doesn’t work very well in a gaming environment. Either you have the volume turned up so that the quiet passages can be heard clearly (and the loud passages are too loud) or the loud passages are at a comfortable “background” level and the Quiet sections will be lost beneath the table chatter and ambient noise.

Or you use software to make the quiet sections louder and the loud sections softer, compressing the dynamic range of the music. This used to be done as a means of noise suppression – still is, for some applications – but rather than compromising your original files, I would prefer software that did it ‘on the fly’. Of course, there are limits to how far you can go without it becoming completely obvious and ridiculous, ruining the music – but some compression can be a godsend.

The other dynamic consideration to contemplate is gain adjustment.

No two pieces of music from different albums is recorded to exactly the same volume level. This is especially noticeable when it comes to vocals, but it happens all the time. What you want, ideally, is for everything to be at the same perceived maximum volume because that produces a playlist that can be listened to comfortably without continual volume adjustments.

I used to use software called MP3Gain to handle the problem. You could turn it loose on a pack of songs from the same album and it would measure their overall peak volume to set a benchmark; then use that benchmark on another album or group of songs to tweak their volumes to match. You could make manual adjustments of how much increase or reduction to perform (so that a quiet album of acoustic songs wasn’t made unnaturally loud). Or you could set your own benchmark and adjust a whole range of songs relative to that peak volume, or use a single song as your benchmark. It took time to master, but it amply repaid that effort – just make a copy of your files before you play around with them, some changes can’t be undone! You can always delete the copies when you are satisfied.

But if you want to be able to simply listen to your music most of the time, you don’t want to make permanent alterations to the files just to make them compatible with an application to gaming, and keeping two copies around – one modified and one not – is wasteful and potentially confusing. Once again, the better choice is to have your playback software make the necessary changes, in an intelligent fashion, on the fly. Some players used to do it, I’m sure that some still do.

That’s why I put both these tricks on the shopping list of software requirements that I listed earlier. Yes, you could probably live without them – but they can make life so much easier that you definitely want them if you can find them.


Of course, the ultimate solution is to compose and record your own music, building up a library of unique performances and compositions that perfectly suit your campaign. If you are fast enough, and sufficiently skilled enough, this might be a practical solution. My own experience suggests that few would be capable of it, but I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade – if you think you’re up for it, I wish you the very best of luck!

I was considered a fast composer – I could, when on creative fire, create three or four pieces of music in a single evening. Most pieces took a week of little bits of spare time here and there. Quite often I would load an incomplete piece, spend five or ten minutes noodling around with it, improving it or adding another two-to-four bars, then save it and move on to the next incomplete piece. But it would be a very good week in which I achieved more than, say, eight minutes of completed music. And that’s not enough to be a soundtrack to an RPG.

Again, of course, there is a compromise: create a single original theme for your campaign, and use it as described earlier, then use existing music by others for the rest of your soundtrack. But unless you intend to do it full-time, no other solution is practical.

Ambient / Sound Effects

The elephant in the room is this: Why go for a complete soundtrack when you can achieve most of what you want with an ambient-sound environment? There are a number of these out there for different gaming environments. Why not set the mood with some music and then go for something that’s reflective of the environment around the characters?

Some software will let you “live mix” specific audio effect files with another piece of background content – so you could have a “cave” ambient noise and add a waterfall, and the sounds of Orcs – or whatever you need.

Audio editing software can be used to play all sorts of tricks with these (you should work on copies). Take a Metallica guitar solo, slow it down 1000% and boost the pitch and add some phasing a truckload of echo and hey, presto! You have something that could be ambient sounds within the Negative Energy Plane. Though, given the group’s aggressively litigious history, maybe you should choose someone else, instead. Or maybe a long, drawn-out cello note that fades in and out is how you envisage the Negative Energy Plane. There are lots of free sample files out there that you can play with.


Only one topic remains to be addressed, then, in answering the primary question of today’s article. It’s two-fold: picking the right volume, and the environmental considerations.


The correct volume for any activity is hard to judge, as was intimated under the discussion of Dynamic Considerations. You don’t want the music to be so loud that it interferes with game play, and you don’t want it so quiet that it can’t be heard. Once again, most of this problem goes away if you employ the Limited-Immersion Solution, where you only play the music at “full volume” for a few seconds and then turn it down or otherwise fade it out. The more sound that you add to your game, the more complicated this question becomes.

As a general rule of thumb, for anything more complex, I would set the music to a comfortable listening volume (given the ambient noise), a level at which you can still comfortably hold a conversation without shouting – and then drop the volume by 10dB, maybe more.


The environment in which you play has a big impact on the viability of music, regardless of other considerations. When gaming at home, one of the busiest roads in the city is right outside my front window; we’re just far enough removed from it that it becomes background noise that can be tuned out. So music might be a viable option, but the “noise floor” that results would demand that the volume be turned up – and perhaps, turned up more than is compatible with communication. My working area, where I watch TV and write, is as far removed from that noise source as I can get – and there are still times when I can’t hear my TV for the noise. That’s one reason why I tend to time-shift as much as I can of what I want to watch – it not only avoids missing programs because I get caught up in the creative process, it gives me the option to skip back a few seconds and turn up the volume, if necessary, so that I don’t miss anything.

The other place where I GM is at a games store, which is often crowded with fifty or more CCG players and a couple of board-gamers and two or more groups of roleplayers. There are times when you can hardly hear what someone just across the table has said, and that’s before any ambient music / noise is introduced. Add to that the potential for disturbing those players with your chosen cacophony, and of persuading them to speak up so that they can be heard over your soundtrack, and the recipe is right for a volume “arms race” with no winners, only losers.

If you play in a quiet suburb, or in a basement, or somewhere like that, music can be a viable choice. Anywhere else, and you have to seriously question whether or not it’s worth the headaches.


There are lots of solutions and sources out there to consider. I haven’t used any of these, so no promises. Listed in no particular order:

  • RPG-Soundmixer 1.6 – “A [shareware] tool specifically designed to create music and effect backgrounds for ‘Pen&Paper’ RPG sessions.” It was suggested on the Hero Games forum in 2011 that development had ceased, but the page was updated in late July 2016. The demo version reportedly won’t let you save, the full version costs $19.
  • Softrope RPG Soundscape Mixer – “Softrope brings customizable organic soundscapes like rainstorms, battles and creepy dungeons as well as spot effects such as growls, screams and explosions to your tabletop RPG. Music tracks can also be added to any scene. Softrope allows you to build a collection of sound-based scenes. You build each scene with simple single sound-effects, layered up to create a more complex soundscape.” It’s still shown as being in Beta-test, but it has also been around since 2011, and one of the “donate” buttons on the website looks broken so it may have ceased development; however, it seems to have worked very well for the user discussing the subject on the Hero Games Forum. It’s important to read the user manual for this one.
  • FMOD Studio – Possibly too much software for most people’s needs, it is described in a post on Stackexchange as “a middleware tool designed for developing and mixing audio in electronic games” that can “easily be used to control audio for tabletop RPGs, as well.” “It can design, mix, and control game audio on-the-fly, and (more importantly) … allows you to audition what you create, so you can effectively use the tool as a sort of complicated DJ-ing interface. Plus, it can be downloaded and used free of charge, provided you don’t make any profit as a result.” This sounds ideal for creating mixes in advance for accessing through a simpler interface – I don’t like the sound of DJing “On The Fly” with a “complicated interface” while trying to run a game. Possibly of greater interest, FMOD also offer “over 100,000 high-quality sounds, ready to go” – and you get 50 of them free for signing up with them.
  • Syrinscape – “A cross-platform software package for GMs who want to add believable, immersive sound to their games. The app is available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android, and uses a subscription or downloadable content (DLC) model to provide users with access to a rich set of fantasy and sci-fi soundscapes.” According to the Hero Games forum discussion I accessed, in 2011, there were lots of problems with corrupted installers, but it’s not unreasonable to hope that this problem has since been fixed, or won’t apply to your operating system. The web page which recommended it also lists some alternatives and a number of other useful-sounding / interesting GM tools – some of which I knew of.
  • RPG Ambience – Recommended by Gnome Stew in a guest article by the Author of the software, Jakob Kallin, but only after someone at Gnome Stew had played around with it and decided the world needed to know. RPG Ambience is “a free, browser-based, open-source application” that “lets you create scenes that consist of any combination of images, music, and text. When you’re at the gaming table, you can quickly play scenes by using keyboard shortcuts that you define yourself.” The app “doesn’t require any installation or registration.” All of which sounds really good. You can read the full article at Gnome Stew here. Make sure to read the comments as well.
  • Mixere – is “a free, open-source application for mixing audio files. It runs on Windows NT/2000/XP, and supports WAV, AIFF, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, Flac, and Mod audio files. [It] is optimized for live performance, and especially for creating live sound collage.” It has not been updated since July 2007 and may not work with more modern operating systems. The commentator at the Hero Games Forum says it “isn’t bad” but “can’t seem to load all of my sound effects” – there is no indication of whether or not it’s file format or sheer count of files that’s the problem.
  • Last, but by no means least, we have Battlebards (Disclaimer: I’m friends with someone from Battlebards on Twitter. But I’m friends with a lot of people on Twitter, so don’t hold that against them). Battlebards is a soundboard/mixer that is browser-based but are working on off-line utility. “Seasoned gamers know that scrambling for the right audio file is death at the gaming table; it’s completely unacceptable. The Battlebards Soundboard brings audio closer to the GM than ever before. The soundboard seamlessly integrates audio at the gaming table. Organize it however you like with our audio and with your own personal audio collection (unlockable feature). Create Playlists for your next epic scene or even for frequently used sounds.” This is a very popular system. As intimated in the quote, they also produce custom content, and at current count have more than 800 tracks. “BattleBards audio includes background music inspired by fantasy races, Environmental Soundscapes, Racial Languages, Monsterscapes, NPC scripts written to bring life to everyday character interactions, and a colossal array of bone crushing, spell fire blasting sound effects.” But if you go with BattleBards as your choice, you should consider subscribing to their Patreon account to get releases months before they are commercially available. That’s because they “release Albums that contain multiple tracks along with cover artwork” on the main site, but Patrons get tracks as soon as they complete. Interestingly, you don’t commit to so many $ per month or week, you commit to $X for each file that they release – usually once a month, but if they miss a month, you pay nothing, or if they get creative, you may pay more than once in a month; bear that in mind.

Which brings me neatly to audio providers. I’m sure there are many more than I have listed here – again, in no particular order!

  • Tabletop Audio – “Original, 10 minute ambiences and music for your tabletop role-playing games.” At the moment, there seem to be 99 of them, divided in Genre – Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Historical, Modern, Nature, Horror, and Music – but I notice one entitled “Steampunk Airship” and another called “Super Hero” (the latter described as “Music + Ambience”). So consider those categories to be rather broad in their contents. Their site looks impressive, if the audio is as good, users will be well satisfied.
  • Sound Hammer do everything through their Patreon page, so far as I can tell. (Disclaimer Again: I’m also friends with someone from Sound Hammer on Twitter). Sound Hammer emphasize quality and consistency of style. “If you are using any of our tracks for live streaming, podcasts, youTube videos and anything of similar nature, then … these are all royalty free! For everything else, see below.” No mention of tabletop RPGs there, but they explicitly state that tabletop gaming is one of the core purposes for which their music is made available in several other places, so I guess that’s considered to be of a “similar nature”. Some tracks are free – the last one appears to have come out in April 2016, which must mean that we’re due for another one sometime soon. Patronage is once again per track; $2 gets you 11 or more patron-only tracks, $5 also gets you access to some 10-30 second stinger tracks (which I tend to think of as “audio punctuation marks”). There appears to typically be one of these for each patron-only file posted.
  • Toxic Bag Productions are the first “RPG Soundtrack” producers that I ever heard of. I first came across them at RPGNow, but have linked to their web page. They also have apps for iPhone & iPad. They have LOTS of content encompassing all sorts of genres – I know, because a lot of them are in my RPGNow wishlist!
  • “Tracks Of Cthulhu Volume 1” – Mirye Software – An album of 12 Lovecraftian / Cthulhu tracks for $14.95.
  • Finally, I have another pair of posts from Gnome Stew by Martin Ralya that I want to link to. (Disclaimer The Third: I’m also friends with Martin on Twitter, even though he hasn’t been active there since July last year, have reviewed a couple of Engine Publishing products, and bought one of them). The first is RPG Background Music: 41 Awesome Soundtracks and the relevance should be obvious. This is, in part, an update of an earlier post which is linked to at the start of the first article; Creating Simple, Deep Playlists for RPG Background Music.
Effective Solutions?

How good are these solutions at solving the problems? I don’t know. I’ve given you every caveat that I deemed potentially relevant, including some that I hope to now be out-of-date, so you will have to find out for yourself. I should also note that if you go to Amazon, select the CDs&Vinyl category, search for “Instrumentals” and refine the search to CDs only, you still get more than 400 pages of results.

Some (most?) of them must be useful as Gaming Music.

Coda: The Wrap-up

I’m completely out of time (and then some), so I will have to leave the question about Musical Puzzles until next time – explaining the Part 1 in the title. Besides, I think I might have quite a lot to say on the subject.

So, to wrap up the general question of Music in RPGs: There are a lot of people who swear by it. There are others whose circumstances limit the utility of the proposal. My opinion is that strong>if you can solve the problems and strong>if you can achieve a suitable environment, it can’t help but add to the gaming experience – but those are two very big caveats. Fall down in either area, and you may find that it’s a detriment of devastating impact. The resources are out there; the capacity problem has been solved; its management of the experience, and the circumstances in which you game, that are the problem.

Next in this series: Part 2, Musical Puzzles

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The Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others) Pt 0: The Front Desk


It started with a very simple idea. I had, some years previously, published a list of my top-twenty 3.x supplements (Part 1, Parts 2, 3 and 4, Part 5) – why not do the same thing for pulp reference books?


Because I don’t consider myself an expert on the genre (even after co-GMing a Pulp campaign for over ten years), I called on my co-GM and (after discussions with him), one of our players (and a GM in his own right) to provide expert “muscle”.

Besides, they were both known to me to be collectors and readers of genre-relevant books, which meant that they could provide reviews from someone who had actually read the books being reviewed.

I would be in charge of the organization and do most of the actual writing, as usual, while they were feeding me content and expertise to write about.


The plan was simple – we would agree on a taxonomy (classification scheme), list two or three top contenders in each category, whittle those down using agreed-upon standards of price and availability, and then argue the merits of which books were really “essential” until we were down to a top-twenty, or top-thirty, or – worst case – a top fifty.


And, up to a point, that plan performed flawlessly – that point being the taxonomy, which contained some 45 categories and subcategories and – in some cases – sub-subcategories. At that point, we were looking at a top-100, dead minimum; it was anticipated that in some cases, two or three essentials wouldn’t cut it; comprehensive coverage of the “essentials” might require four or five.


But, warned my experts, a lot of the books we wanted to list would not meet our availability criteria. And so I didn’t object too loudly when they began listing eight, ten, twenty books in each category. In no time at all, we had over 1000 potentially “essential” books listed; even if only one in four hit the target, and we pruned relatively ruthlessly, we might get – emphasis, might – be able to cull it down to a top-200.


It also transpired that in some areas, my experts’ collections were not as complete as I had thought. And there were a number of categories for which we had absolutely nothing listed.


So we started performing searches to pad out the empty categories, and turned to discussing just what we meant by “essential” in all of this – because it turned out that we each had a different idea of the definition that would apply. Did we mean that these were the most useful whatever-number books? Or that these were the books that were essential to a reasonably-completely-prepared pulp GM? Or was this to be a list of the most useful resources in the genre, regardless of how many there turned out to be?


Ultimately, we decided that what we were listing were all the things that we felt, collectively, a Pulp GM needed to know something about, and a list of recommended resources for satisfying that need. The ambition was to be comprehensive, not artificially constrained by the need to fill out a list of any given size – or to cut back to same. The working title of the article/series was “The Essential Pulp Reference Library”, after all. What’s more, every campaign would be different; without knowing the specifics of them all, how could we know what might be relevant or irrelevant to any specific GM? Our job would be to present the options and leave it to the individual to assess merit under their circumstances.

The Long March

That was more than a year ago. As late as August, we were still tweaking categories and thinking of new things that had to be incorporated into it. Between us, more than 800 man-hours of research and writing and reviewing and revising have come and gone. And, far from being a top-anything, the list contained more than 1000 items – many more of which met our availability criteria than we were expecting (though there were some most unexpected holes and gaps that needed to plugged). The whole thing broke down most naturally into a ten-post series. Then we found more books to list….

Victory of sorts

So the research has been conducted, the reviews written, and the results vetted as having been correct sometime in the last six months – we were all very conscious of the depreciation of reliability of availability, and that if we didn’t start to publish soon, it would all be out of date.


For that reason, we have pushed the button without even entering the “cut the list to something manageable” phase originally intended, and for the last three or four months, we knew that would be the case. It’s been a tumultuous journey, but one framed by good will and a readiness to give-and-take on all sides.

You don’t need everything on our lists to be a genre-expert GM – but you should have something from most of the categories.

Along the way, we’ve discovered books that none of us knew even existed, and we lost books that we thought we knew – there have been books making false promises, frauds, and undiscovered gems. It’s been a ride every bit as wild as a pulp adventure, in fact!

For the non-pulp GMs

One comment that was made more than once in the duration of this project was how many non-Pulp GMs would find this or that useful. Its’ not an exaggeration to state that none of us can, at this point, think of a genre that doesn’t have something of direct or indirect value listed somewhere in the series – sometimes quite a lot of somethings.

Availability Criteria

We used set criteria to say yes or no to an entry’s inclusion fairly strictly – most of the time.

  • We had to be able to say why it was being included (with a few exceptions that we thought were self-explanatory).
  • We deliberately excluded most space opera unless the offering was especially “Period Pulp” in nature (it just happened to happening in a strange place), and completely excluded works of pulp fiction – this is a reference list. A book about Doc Savage would have been fair game; the hundred-plus Doc Savage novels were jettisoned from consideration early on.
  • We deliberately restrained ourselves in the “inspirational media” section – I still think that the Die Hard movies should have been listed, but they weren’t judged Pulp Enough.
  • Books must be as broad & general as possible within its subcategory.
  • Books Must serve as a pointer to more specific information.
  • Books must be considered an essential reference for a pulp GM / Player by a majority of the participants.
  • Books must be generally available at a reasonable price, which we defined as at least 20 copies available and the cheapest copies had to cost at most US$15 for a paperback or $30 for a hardcover. We made the occasional exception, but were careful to make a note of it when that happened. Some of the books we’ve listed have hundreds of copies available at a price of just 1 cent (plus postage and handling)!
  • An e-book under US$20 counted as 5 copies. Not everybody likes e-books and not everybody has the necessary hardware.
  • Where insufficient copies were the only reason for a book to be excluded, it was placed in an “Honorable Mentions” category. Contrary to the dire warnings of my co-authors, this happened a LOT less often than expected.
  • DVDs were not bound by this restriction but we excluded anything that had a price-tag per disk that we considered too high. In most cases we did not include links to blue-ray editions, which may or may not exist. If we couldn’t find a DVD, we looked for a streaming service, preferably international; if we couldn’t find one of those offering the item, we looked on YouTube.

So, those are the ground rules. Like good GMs, we varied them at need – but had to convince the other two that it was justified, each time. Sometimes that was quick and easy – on other occasions, debate took quite a while. Everyone had to compromise their opinions at different times.

The Series Structure

The series is now 14 parts long, not counting this introduction. Yes, you read that right (and it will be news to my co-authors who were expecting ten). But when the counts were tallied up, that’s what came out as most practical. Each will be named using “Library Shelves” as a metaphor.

Each part will generally consist of 5 sections:

  • An introduction, which will include a taxonomy of the contents;
  • The Recommendations (generally 35-40 of them, sometimes more), with details, comments, and links;
  • A Documentaries section (counted in the tally given above);
  • A very selective “For Dummies / Complete Idiot’s” section, with a blanket caveat, the only exceptions to which we thought important enough to promote to the main list of recommendations);
  • A wrap-up/afterword on each category written by one or more of the authors.
open book, more standing, globe, glasses

Image courtesy / Ove Tøpfer

The Series Taxonomy

Okay, so to the meat of what’s going to be in those 14 articles:

  1. People I: PCs & Heroes
    • PC Archetypes & Heroes
    • Character Background Skills
  2. People II: Villains & Notable NPCs
    • Villains & Antiheroes
    • Famous real people
  3. Places I: More-Ordinary Places
    • General/broad areas incl. Period area maps
    • Exploration
    • US
    • Europe
    • Asia
    • Egypt & Egyptology
  4. Places II: Stranger Places
    • Elsewhere including Australia
    • Strange & Exotic Places
    • The Bermuda Triangle
    • The Hollow Earth
    • Lost Cities & Civilizations
    • Atlantis & Lemuria
    • The Florida Coral Castle
    • Picturesque Places
  5. Hardware I: Weapons, Things, and Science
    • Era inventions
    • Currency & Valuables
    • Weird Science
    • Fringe Science
    • Accepted Science
    • Weapons
  6. Hardware II: Vehicles
    • Cars
    • Aircraft – commercial & military
    • Air Routes & Commercial Aviation
    • Sea Power – commercial & military
    • Trade
    • Commercial Shipping & Passenger Vessels
    • Trains
    • Tanks etc
    • Zeppelins & other Airships
  7. Life In The Pulp Era I: Civilian Life
    • Everyday life
    • History & Historical Events
    • Politics
    • Hollywood & Cinema
  8. Life In The Pulp Era II: Courts, Police, Crime, & Militaria
    • Courts & Police & Detectives & Crime
    • Military Installations, Forces, and Campaigns
  9. Mysticism & Religion I: Religion, Nazi Occultism & Cthulhu
    • General Religion & Philosophy
    • Nazi Occultism & Nazi-related Fringe Theories
    • The Spear Of Longunus
    • The Ark Of The Covenant & Holy Grail
    • Cthulhu Reference
  10. Mysticism & Religion II: Secret Societies, Myths, & Legends
    • Secret Societies & The Knights Templar
    • Mythology
    • Urban Legends
    • General Mysticism, Superstitions, and strange stuff
  11. Odds & Sods I: GMing
    • General Books & Tools
    • Names
    • Writing
  12. Odds & Sods II: Fiction, Games & Practicalities
    • Pulp Fiction
    • Period Sci-Fi
    • Pulp Games & Supplements
    • Tactics and Techniques
  13. Movies & Pulp Serials
    • Movies
    • Serials
  14. Honorable Mentions

Some items could get placed in multiple possible locations within that taxonomy – for example, you may find one or two books about the Mafia in the “Villains” section, but most will be in the “Crime” section. We’ve always attempted to choose the best location given the content of the item and the usage we expect a GM to get out of it.

While most of the categories listed have been consistent since the beginning (with a couple of minor revisions, like moving Egypt out of the ‘Elsewhere’ section and into “Egyptology’) there have been last minute tweaks right up to publication, so there may be some minor variations when each part actually appears. These are most likely to involve the addition of new subsections (there are still a few hours of research left to do).

Afterword – by Mike

If these are going to be included in every part of this series, I may as well get in the habit now.

Based on my experience with the series that I linked to at the start of this introduction, there is no way in god’s green heaven that I would tackle anything involving 40-or-so recommendations in each and every article if most of the text hadn’t been done in advance. I’ve clocked it – it takes fifteen-to-twenty minutes or so to write each descriptive paragraph. For 40 recommendations, that’s about 700 minutes. Except that it requires such intense concentration that after about 4 hours, I’m completely stuffed, to use the Australian vernacular. Plus there’s all the framing text to write – another hour or so (less I hope). And a lot of formatting (probably another 4 or 5 hours of work).

Put it all together, and I’d be lucky to get one done a week – doing nothing else.

When doing those articles on d20 supplements, it took twice as long to do ten reviews as it did one “ordinary” 4,500 word article. Doing four or more times that much? Every week? Not going to happen.

Fortunately, the collaborative approach to this series mandated that the text be prepared in advance for my co-authors to review and – from time to time – amend. That’s what has made the series possible at all, never mind infinitely better than I could manage on my own. All credit to my co-authors!

Who are they? When they contribute to an Ask-The-GMs item, I run a capsule bio. I’m not going to do that for every part of this series (it’s going to be more than long enough as it is), but for this introduction, I thought I would include it.

One final note

Before I get to that, I should add that this series is NOT going to completely take over Campaign Mastery. My schedule calls for three “shelves” a month to be published. Parts 1-3, September; Parts 4-6, October; Parts 7-9, November; Parts 10-12, December; and Parts 13 and 14 in January. That leaves about 27 other articles to appear over those 5 months, so even if you aren’t a pulp GM and don’t find anything of use to you in one of the parts, there will be plenty of other material to keep the diversity level rich. But I would hope most people will discover something of interest!

Meet The Co-Authors

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


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


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

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The Other Side Of The Camera: Depth in RPGs

Narcisismo by Frederico Harald Ganss

‘Narcisismo’ by / Frederico Harald Ganss

I was watching an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” (a show that has inspired other articles here at Campaign Mastery) in which a number of photographs featuring the grandmother of the central focus* of the episode were presented, with the observation that his grandfather appeared in none of them (* I watched a lot of episodes at the same time, so I’m not sure which one this was).

That, in turn, reminded me of the key personal revelation for Téa Leoni’s character, Jenny Lerner, in Deep Impact – in which she and her character’s father appeared in all the photos and home movies but her mother was never in any of them, because she was always the person behind the camera, taking the pictures.

And it struck me that there are always two parties to any record, visual or narrative – those portrayed, and the witness documenting the scene – and that it seemed to me that people, perhaps distracted by the content of what they could see, didn’t pay enough attention to the second of these, to the person on the other side of the camera, be it real or metaphoric.

That’s both a phenomenon that the GM should be aware of, and one that he can sometimes take advantage of. So, today I’m going to examine as many aspects of this phenomenon (or should that be ‘these phenomena?’) as I can come up with, in the context of gaming.

The Camera Of Self: A presented image

The most obvious application of the principle is showing the players a photograph or image and telling them, “this is what your character sees.” This seems completely objective at first glance, with no relevance to the principle that we are examining.

Deeper consideration renders this simple premise quite a but murkier. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

moon in mountains at night

Image obtained from sxc before they became, photographer unknown

The Camera Of Implication: A witness statement

A witness describes a scene, while those hearing the story mentally construct the image that they are describing. The result is a ‘virtual’ photograph, one that is sure to have several gaps containing lots of missing detail, and even the occasional error. In fact, the unreliability of witnesses is now beginning to change the legal system itself. To quote from Wikipedia’s page on Eyewitness Testimony, “Memory recall has been considered a credible source in the past, but has recently come under attack as forensics can now support psychologists in their claim that memories and individual perceptions can be unreliable, manipulated, and biased. Due to this, many countries and states within the US are now attempting to make changes in how eyewitness testimony is presented in court.” In fact, the whole article, and several of those linked to at the end of it, make fascinating reading.

But the fact is: any witness will inadvertently color his recollections somewhat, and it takes expert training in logic and cognition to avoid this. Few witnesses in an RPG will have had such training, so the default assumption has to be that there will be some unintended errors in any testimony. The issue is one of determining the extent of such error, and whether or not it is significant in terms of evaluating the situation being described. If two witnesses describe identical scenes except that one remembers one gas station chain being on the corner and the other, a different one, and the specifics about the gas station are not relevant to the events that they are relating, their stories are identical in every key respect, and both would have to be evaluated as reliable eyewitnesses to the events being described.

A shortcut to trouble

Things grow even more confused when the GM seeks to shortcut this rather dry element of the game (especially if the witness is an NPC describing what he saw to a PC) by simply showing the players a photograph. Is this image a reasonably accurate depiction of what the witness saw, or has the GM chosen an image that deliberately includes errors on the part of the eyewitness? In other words, is the image objective, or subjective?

The GM can seek to make this explicit by “painting out” parts of the image using Photoshop, leaving them an appropriately neutral color, or by some other technique that is obviously visually-representative of details being left out; clearly, if the image were objective, that information would be present. It isn’t, and so the image has to be considered subjective, and unreliable to at least some degree.

The problem with this technique is that players don’t know that this is what you (as GM) are trying to communicate, and – what’s more – even if they did, the GM would then face pressure to be consistent in the degree and subject of the distortion.

Some may seek to get around this by presenting an image as seemingly objective and then giving the PCs a roll of some kind to evaluate the testimony, but this seems entirely too random; it does nothing but tell the players that they can’t trust what the GM is telling them, which has all sorts of repercussions, none of them all that productive.

Solutions that work

In my experience, there are only two solutions: Make the depictions as objective as possible, and have the players safely assume that they are objective except in any areas that the GM chooses to highlight or that are entirely implausible (such as the presence of a completely inappropriate late 20th century vehicle, or the occasional air conditioner, or telephone line, or TV antenna); or emphasize an awareness of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony while presenting an apparently objective view with characters with appropriate expertise able to identify (without rolling) parts of the testimony that they consider potentially inaccurate. In fact, the GM should determine such areas of potential inaccuracy based on what the characters can identify, i.e. their relevant skill levels.

Either way, it’s then up to the players to speculate on, make assumptions about, the errors and possible omissions and plan accordingly. To me, this puts the onus where it should be: on the players interpreting the game world presented to them by the GM through the eyes of their characters.

The solo PC: All bets are off

All that said, when only ONE PC is to hear the report, there are occasions when all bets are off. Players have to evaluate any information they are given, from any source, for plausibility – even if that source is the GM via another player. On some rare occasions, I will present one player with a radically different or amended image – such as was the case when one of the PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign began subconsciously seeing eyes watching her and inadvertently painted the same onto a picture of a bowl of fruit that she was working on, and then onto a recalled mental image being relayed telepathically, and then a third time onto an image being ‘live shared’ in the same manner. In all cases, it was seconds or minutes before the character in question was even consciously aware of the eyes – which was the hook connecting an incidental encounter (in plot terms) with the main plot of the adventure.

The bottom line

The bottom line, then, is that the observer cannot always describe accurately what they have seen, and the person behind the “virtual” camera will always influence any report of what they saw. Even if it’s only because they are more aware of the things that they have been trained to observe, this will be true. To get a military assessment, you send a military-trained scout – and take any mentions of anything else with a grain of salt. Players and PCs should always assume that there may be an unnoticed elephant in the room, and the GM should both be aware of this, and take advantage of it when it suits his adventure needs.

enhanced-color mountain

Image obtained from sxc before they became, photographer unknown

Now, back to the presented image question

All this makes very murky the validity of any image presented to the players with the statement by the GM that “this is what you see’ – because what was being described as a completely objective representation is, in fact, potentially subjective. Most of the time, such presentations should be reliable, perhaps omitting something, or taking into account an appropriate like-for-like substitution – ignore the Mitsubishi parked in front of the house, its’ actually a Ford, or a camel, or whatever is appropriate to the genre and time period of the campaign/adventure – unless the GM goes out of his way to point out the anachronism.

The witness always misreports the totality of a scene, despite their best efforts, even when that witness is a PC and the witness ‘report’ is being delivered first-hand and concurrently with the event being witnessed.

The Camera Of Reflection: The outside looking in

This same line of thought also offers a potential insight into self-portraits, both verbal and image-based.

Verbal self-descriptions are obviously susceptible to distortion by self-perception and psychology, so much so that they can be diagnostic. An obviously-thin person describing themselves as chubby or overweight clearly suffers from an eating disorder, to choose an obvious example. GMs and players are usually well aware of this factor, and usually ‘tweak’ such descriptions according to the self-image of the subject.

Verbal descriptions of someone else often fly under the radar, but these are also subject to the same effect, thought often to a lesser degree. A character who is racially prejudiced will ‘edit’ descriptions of Asian people to make them just a little shorter than they really are, quite subconsciously, unless the person being described is extremely, unusually, tall – in which case the opposite effect will usually take place, and their size will be exaggerated. I am always careful to apply the same effect whenever a member of one race describes a member of another – and make a point of noting the differences when a more objective observer encounters someone they have heard described.

But none of that applies when an objective image of a character is provided, right?

I don’t particularly like the shape of my chin, so I wear a beard that I carefully trim to give the impression that my chin is a completely different shape to the reality. I’m not particularly bothered about other aspects of my appearance, so I dress for comfort, not style – but other people I know think carefully about what they wear, and what goes well with their skin tones, and whether or not their clothes will go with a new hairdo or hair tint…

Appearance is something that all characters have some influence over – the amount varying with circumstances, culture, and setting – and from whatever starting position they have from those factors, the psychology and the image that they want to project are then applied as a modifier. I always try to think about what self-image the character has, and how that might influence his appearance. But it also works in the other direction – whenever I provide an image of a character, it will be chosen to reflect one or more characteristics that I know the character needs to convey, but beyond that, I always ask “what else does this image say about the character?”

view from the staircase

Image obtained from sxc before they became, photographer unknown

The Camera Of The World: The inside looking out at the world looking in

One of the most complicated questions I’ve ever seen on an employment application was “If he were here, what would your previous manager say about you behind your back?” It’s such a loaded question in terms of assumptions that you have to make. You have to assess your own situation in the previous job you held, your manager’s expectations, his or her personality, the way you and he or she interacted, whether or not anything that was said to you was between clenched teeth or unsaid. And, at the same time, there’s the matter of whether or not you answer truthfully, or gild the lily, or try to evade the question. I could certainly see why it was asked – it was so open-ended that no matter how you responded, the interviewer would learn something; they simply needed to employ other responses to place that information into context. At the very least, how you answered said something about your personality – and how you responded under pressure!

The question, “How do you think others see you” is always revealing, for the same reason. It’s not just about how the world really does see you, it’s how you want them to see you, and how effective you think your efforts in that respect are, and how you think, period.

An RPG Interpretation

Once again, in terms of the perspective being examined within this article, we’re talking about a virtual image being conjured by the words that the speaker employs in response. But the question is probably a bit esoteric for direct use in play within an RPG.

In order to answer it, though, you have to be able to get pretty deep inside the head of a character. That makes it a useful self-administered test for a GM to determine just how well he understands the personality of a character that he is about to depict in play. It’s similarly useful for a player to use, though they live in their characters’ “skins” so much more that it should be relatively easy for them to answer. Early in a campaign, when you are still getting a handle on your new PC, it might be a bit more useful.

When you get really familiar with the way your character thinks, and what they feel, you can kind of relax and simply ‘react’ appropriately to whatever the situation is; when you don’t have that immersive depth at your disposal, you have to pause and ponder everything – or occasionally fail to actually play your character. And, arguably, the early phase of a campaign is when it is most important to play your character well; as a character gains in experience, they gain in abilities and power and expertise. That means that in the early phase of a campaign, personality forms a larger part of the definition of who the character is than at any other time. Abilities can’t overshadow the personality, and who they are should shine forth a bit more clearly.

Then, too, this is the period when the other players are getting to know your character. Again, the clearer your understanding of that character, the more clearly you can convey that to them. Having a test of the depth of your immersion in the character can therefore be very useful in determining how hard the character should assert his personality.

A useful tool, that. On both sides of the GM screen.

'Camera' by Mustafa Pi?irici

‘Camera’ by Mustafa Pi?irici courtesy

The Modern Spin: The selfie

Some social phenomena are so new that we’re still figuring out what they mean. Two of these seem relevant – the first of which is the selfie. While the term appears to be Aussie in origin, at least according to Wikipedia, self-portraits go all the way back to the invention of photography. However, the concept of uploading such photographs to the internet also appears to be an Australian invention in the form of a website for the purpose that came online in September 2001. Hand-in-hand with the rise of social media, the concept grew and took hold as a social phenomenon, a response to the ease with which changes in technology enabled the pictures to be taken and shared. In more modern times, the concept has become a focal point for more important issues such as body image, gender issues and stereotypes, censorship, and privacy.

But the primary purpose remains one of taking (shared) ownership of an event by proving that you were a participant or witness. This function is absolutely predicated on the speed with which the images can be shared; any sort of delay mitigates or denigrates the value of the image for the purpose, because the technology has rendered such delays unnecessary, and therefore tinged with suspicion, in an age in which a photographic record is so easily tampered with.

The current wave of opposition to the photoshopping of celebrity images in magazines etc has its roots in the selfie and the demand for authenticity in order for the selfie to have its social currency. As photo-manipulation has become easier and slicker, people have come to distrust what they are shown, another social development whose ultimate effects are still to be recognized. It’s simply a trend in the world that we now live in; like all such, no-one can tell where it will lead in the long run.

Ancient Analogues

In the absence of such technology, one finds, with only a little thought, analogies in historic practices. In the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, people claimed ownership of an event with a photograph of the event that had not been printed, or with a first-hand account. The first was considered objective, and the publicly-perceived ambition of the second was to achieve the same standards of objectivity and accuracy; this is why phenomena and concepts such as the Potemkin Village, and other forms of falsification of image, were so shocking and fascinating when they were first revealed. Manipulating what was there to be seen, fooling the eye, was fascinating, politically revolting, or entertaining – or some combination.

Such practices can be logically followed back to the fascination held by optical illusions and stage magicians from the time of the ancient Romans, if not even earlier.

The Impact of the Fantastic

The more fantastic the world that a character lives in, the more likely a character is to accept any event in a story or narrative, especially one packaged as a first-hand account, no matter how extraordinary. In the real world, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, evidence of the highest standards of verisimilitude. It is usually in the smallest of details being depicted inaccurately that falsification can be detected (whether present or not) – my mind keeps flashing back to the Mythbusters episode disproving the conspiracy theories regarding the falsification of the moon landings. It is in this context that the claim that a “big lie” is more easily accepted finds some explanation; a concept of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, and probably the Nazi ruler’s most substantial positive contribution to world society, he described it as a lie so ‘colossal’ that no one would believe that someone ‘could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously’. The distortion of the big lie is so egregious that the listener has no referent for what the ‘small details’ should be, countering the listener’s capacity for critical appraisal of what they are hearing.

In order to be effective, however, the big lie must be internally consistent and swarm with small details that support the primary distortion; the listener would be aware of their absence.

Application to gaming

All this has relevance to gaming in terms of the achievement of a suspension of disbelief sufficient for players and GM to respond to the game world as though it existed in actuality. The GM, like the novelist, movie-maker, and play producer, is aided by a willingness to be ‘seduced’ into the plausibility of the scenario being depicted by the GM, provided that there are no jarring failures of logical inconsistency to jerk them out of the shared suspension of disbelief.

At the same time, the divide between player and character is enough to keep the fantasy world of the adventures at arms’ length, permitting their critical faculties to appraise what they are told their characters see, hear, and otherwise experience. It becomes more important that the GM achieve a reasonable standard of verisimilitude in gaming than in any other medium, and this is at its most important when the events being described are fantastic.

The smart GM, being aware of this, is able to draw upon other elements of popular culture to present their scene more vividly. A character name may invoke recollections of a movie or television experience, bringing associations of personality and nuance into the minds of the players, and wrapping the events in a cloak of derived verisimilitude by bringing small details into play that the GM himself never has to impart personally. “Picture John Wayne as the Lieutenant” produces a congruous association that makes the character of “the Lieutenant” more credible; “Picture John Wayne as King Henry” produces an incongruous association that makes the character of “King Henry” seem less believable.

Images, illustrations, photographs, and recognizable sounds all function in the same way, adding credibility and immediacy to the events being described – or subtracting from them. This is a tool that the GM can exploit. Heck, even humming a few bars of music from a movie can create manipulable associations – most people can manage the theme from Jaws and Darth Vader’s theme, for example.

Photo by Unsplash

Sometimes, people seem to come out of nowhere.
Image courtesy of and copyright Free Range Stock, – photographer Unsplash

The Modern Spin II: The Photo-bomb

It was probably an inevitability – the rise of the selfie in turn gave rise to the practice of someone inserting themselves into the background of someone else’s selfie.

In the old days, this was so much simpler – one simply had to assert that “I was there, I saw it all” – and unless there is some logical barrier to credibility, the statement has to be taken at face value. If I state that I was present at a fundraising effort aimed at fighting the University Of New South Wale’s attempts to reduce the power of the student union, you would have no trouble accepting it, especially if you knew that I had attended that institution. On the other hand, if I state that I was a first-hand witness to the lunar landing, you make the immediate assumption that I am speaking of the images televised around the world – and if I attempt to convince you otherwise, the logical barrier to credibility becomes insuperable (unless my name is Buzz Aldrin, of course) – but it isn’t.

There is a psychological need in many people to conform with the group mindset to at least some extent that can lead people to genuinely believe that they saw something that they didn’t, and couldn’t possibly, have seen. Consider this report of an air disaster in Amsterdam which took place on October 4th, 1992. According to the Wikipedia article on Eyewitness Testimony that I linked to earlier,

quote start 120

“Though no cameras caught the moment of impact on film, many news stations covered the tragedy with footage taken after impact. Ten months after the event, the researchers interviewed people about the crash. According to theories about flashbulb memory, the intense shock of the event should have made the memory of the event incredibly accurate. This same logic is often applied to those who witness a criminal act. To test this assumption, participants were asked questions that planted false information about the event” [in the minds of those interviewed]. “Fifty-five percent of subjects reported having watched the moment of impact on television, and recalled the moment the plane broke out in flames – even though it was impossible for them to have seen either of these occurrences.”

While a first impression of the practice of the Photo-bomb does nothing but reveal the immaturity of the photo-bomber, these lines of thought reveal a deeper value to the practice. First, it increases the immediacy of the image being photo-bombed, and second, it adds to the occasion a correlationary witness who was not intended to be one of the subjects of the image, enhancing the credibility of the event as a true record.

For a while there in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, there was a social trend in some circles of photoshopping yourself (or someone or something else) into a historical record – a photograph. The ultimate expression of this technique and technology remains Forest Gump, but long before that movie came along, this was a sure sign of a nerd.

Now, apply all of these to a fantasy milieu. A sufficiently vivid first-hand description of events can be enough for listeners to connect the events described with some similar experience of their own, leading them to falsely believe that they too experienced the events. This is especially the case when the person would have been a small child at the time, whose memories are fragmented by time and youth.

My earliest recollection is from a time when I was no more than two or three, possibly even younger, when the steering wheel of my father’s car came off in his hands. I once mentioned that to my mother, and she had no recollection of the event at all – yet it was something that she should recall vividly. I can only conclude that it was probably a nightmare experienced while driving – we lived, at the time, quite some distance out of town, and on one such trip I must have drifted off. Yet it remains a vivid recollection in my mind, even today, and absolutely real – even if it never happened.

The more dramatic a recent but somewhat distant-in-time event, the more people will remember having seen it, even if it is completely impossible for them to have done so. The more people remember an event, the more real that event will be – even if it never actually occurred. Experienced propaganda plays into this duality to distort the attitudes of people, magnifying in significance incidents that correlate with the propaganda while diminishing and obscuring those that do not. That’s why propaganda works. These facts can be manipulated by the GM in his storytelling efforts.

Green atmosphere forest

Image obtained from sxc before they became, photographer unknown

Reflections Of Cultural Change: Presented images with implied content

Another way that the GM can take advantage of these phenomena is when presenting photographs as illustrations within his campaigns, because every period image carries with it implied cultural baggage. The image can thus convey more than the information content for which it was chosen. Where this subtext conforms with the expectations of the viewer of the period, it reinforces the verisimilitude of the entire campaign, not just the immediate scene being illustrated; where there is a clash, it doesn’t just undermine the image being presented, it undermines the entire campaign to a certain extent.

Most of the campaigns that I run or co-run are affected by this phenomena, but in quite different (and yet strangely similar) ways.

The Adventurer’s Club

It is for that reason that even though players are willing to forgive the occasional anachronism in an image, I still work hard in the Adventurer’s Club campaign at erasing them from visual existence. Painting out telephone lines and TV antennas; copying and pasting an empty window to hide the air conditioning units, and so on. I can’t always get rid of cars, though.

The practicalities of what photo-manipulation may be required and what can practically be achieved in satisfying that requirement (in a reasonable time-frame) is always a consideration when selecting an image to represent some aspect of the campaign.


Half of this campaign takes place in an alternate world in which the date is 2056. But this isn’t any 2056 – it’s a technologically advanced 2056, closer to 2100AD in technological terms. The usual problem is that most images aren’t futuristic enough in content. There are some areas that retain a 2016 look, but many don’t. One of the smartest things I ever did was set the primary location for the team in a city that values its’ history, and that has experienced substantial rebuilding in recent times, New Orleans. This gives me a wide palette to draw upon is sourcing images to illustrate the stories. Telephone lines are tolerable in an image for this campaign, as are air conditioning units. But television antennas? Domestic satellite dishes? No, to both – everything is carried by the internet. The phone lines are really fiber-optic cables.

It’s relatively easy to choose images without people (“anachronistic” clothing would be a dead giveaway). But its a lot harder finding images without inappropriate advertising and without cars that look too “now”. Fortunately, there have been lots of sci-fi movies over the years – stills and excerpts from those can often be doctored to produce the imagery that I want.


Most images of castles and the like either have too much in the way of “modern” incidentals, or are too ruined in appearance, but persistent searching has produced results over time. But there are lots of wilderness photos available, and these have proven quite useful. The occasional “modern” element has to be removed, especially hikers and climbers, but that’s usually manageable. One of my favorite tricks is to take such an image and slice it in two, vertically. I then add a castle or whatever into the background of one half, using the vegetation to hide anything that’s unacceptable (damage or anachronistic); this gives me one image to use before the ‘destination’ comes into view and a clearly-related image to use when it does.

In fact, I’ve used a number of such images to illustrate this article.

d20'by janet galore from seattle

‘D20’ by janet galore from seattle – licensed under CC BY 2.0,

The map is not the country: Character Sheets as ‘images’

When I was making a list of all the possible interpretations of the the phenomena to be discussed, one somewhat inobvious notion came to me – and yet, on reflection, the same thought will probably have occurred to many readers, so I don’t intend to get into too deeply.

Perhaps the ultimate (in RPG terms) expression of forgetting the person behind the camera because you are distracted by the image on display – speaking metaphorical – is the player-PC-GM relationship, or its’ converse, the GM-NPC-player relationship.

The player: the ultimate face behind the camera (PCs)

A character, especially a PC, is shown to the world through its character sheet, the dry facts and game mechanical numbers that are used to define it – and yet, that is the barest fraction of the reality. It leaves out the contribution of the player, the perception of personality, the reaction to and interaction with the world.

I never forget this because I have seen the changes in a character when it is yielded by one player and another takes control – but that’s hardly a commonplace situation, so I doubt too many others have experienced it. Analogous to that is something that might have been experienced however – running the same adventure with the same fixed PCs for multiple groups at a convention, permitting a direct comparison of the differing interpretations of a character at the hands of different players.

When a GM is planning, all too often his planning focuses entirely on the character as presented. If the GM is a good one, he or she might go so far as to make allowances for the character that has been experienced in roleplay – its reactions, priorities, and psychology. The best GMs will also think about how the person behind the “camera” thinks and reacts, what they like and what they don’t. Aiming your adventure at the PC alone yields a workable campaign, which aiming exclusively at the player does not; aiming to satisfy both is far harder, people don’t come with character sheets and (in some game systems) psychological profiles, and are infinitely more complex than a PC, but the yield is a far better adventure, and a far better campaign.

The GM: the ultimate face behind the camera (NPCs)

Players face the opposite problem: they never get to see a character sheet for the NPCs that the GM depicts, if one has even been generated. Instead, they only get to see the mental image that they synthesize from the compounding of all the elements that the GM depicts – which at best will be a visual representation, a description, some personality traits, some dialogue, and a little narrative.

Just as the PC is more than just the character sheet, so the NPC is more than the sum of these parts, or should be; each of these is a reflection of a more complete entity, chosen by the GM because they reflect that aspect of the NPC (given the circumstances in-game). Too often, players assume that what they can experience through these channels is all there is, forgetting that not only will these fit together coherently and still be an incomplete representation, but that there is a central conception of the NPC which has been used to select those aspects that are on display.

This leads to NPCs being treated like cardboard cutouts by the players when they can be as dynamic and complex as any PC. Again, the better the GM, the richer these NPCs tend to be. In the case of a casual encounter, they might not be as complicated as a full PC, but they will still be something more than a wooden dummy draped with appropriate clothing.

In both cases, there is more to the characters than can be perceived on the surface.

And yes, this is another aspect of the reality of the game experience that the GM can manipulate so as to enhance the entertainment and enjoyment produced by his campaign.

Final Reflections

In this article, I’ve considered a diverse group of phenomena for which the “person behind the camera” is either a direct reference or a metaphor. What they all have in common is that they all say, one way or another, that there depth to any game than is superficially apparent from examining the ingredients and components that are the interface through which the campaign is experienced; and that the better the GM is at his ‘job’, the greater will be that depth. It will show in all aspects of his campaigns – from depth of personality to depth of plot – in varying degrees, depending on the individual.

If you want to improve as a GM, if you want to deliver more entertainment from, and generate more interest in, the games you run, that’s the takeaway message. No matter how deeply the players look, there should always be more depth, more thought, more to experience. Like the person on the other side of the camera, they won’t always be aware of what those depths contain – but their mere existence will add form and substance to the experience of playing the game.

All else is merely technique, which can vary from one GM to another, and which can change and evolve from time to time. And, while improvement in technique can be a laudable goal in and of itself, technique alone is shallow and superficial. It is never enough.

A GM who is aware of depth, and where he can most profitably create it, exploit it, and display it within his games, will always run a better game – so always remember the principle of the person on the far side of the camera, in all its gaming permutations.

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The Yu-Gi-Oh Lesson: New Inspirations In Pacing and Style

Temple at Luxor in Egypt

Temple at Luxor in Egypt, photo by Pixabay / famhud. Public domain image licensed through CC0. Only marginally related to the article but it looks awesome!

I’ve been aware of the CCG, “Yu-Gi-Oh”, for some time. Collectible-card games are a staple of the games store to which the NSW Wargamers migrated when circumstances made the nearby venue we had been using for over a decade unavailable to us (shout-out to Good Games in Burwood – thanks for giving us a home when we needed one!). But this article is only indirectly about the card game.

A couple of years after noticing the card game (but having no idea of how to play, and certainly never having played it), I also became aware of the children’s cartoon advertising the game (both based on the same manga series). My interest level in both immediately declined sharply; in my experience, such television is rarely worth watching.

But, over the next 5 or 6 years, I caught a few minutes of an episode here and another there, and found that the TV show was a lot better than I had ever expected. Even more unexpectedly, I started recognizing interesting things about the pacing, especially noticeable in the first series.

If you study the Wikipedia page listing the episodes, you can see part of what I’m talking about, but it’s not very obvious – you have to dig for it; and even if you do, it won’t tell the whole story.


The pacing of the Classic Yu-Gi-Oh series (also known as “Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters”), especially in season 1, is like nothing I’ve ever seen in televised fiction before. Let’s break down season one, based on the Wikipedia page entries I mentioned a moment ago, to show you what I mean.

  • Episode 1 introduces the protagonists and sets the plot in motion as a ruthless tycoon kidnaps the hero’s grandfather in order to get a rare “Duel Monsters” card in “Grandpa’s” collection. The episode is essentially a standalone introduction.
  • Episode 2 begins the main plot as the main villain, Maximilian Pegasus, steals “Grandpa’s” soul to force the hero, Yugi Moto, to enter the tournament that Pegasus has arranged. An important plot point is Pegasus using the power of his Millennium Eye (a magic item) to gain an advantage.
  • Episode 3 gives the story of the trip to the tournament and shows the underhanded lengths that some of the participants will go to in order to win.
  • Episodes 4 and 5 are a two part episode in which the player whose conduct was so underhanded in episode 3 gets defeated. The two episodes comprise a single Duel. Several more victories will be needed before the two friends who are participating, Yugi and Joey Wheeler, can claim admission to the final rounds and a confrontation with Pegasus.
  • Episodes 6 and 7 are single-episode plots as both Joey and Yugi achieve further victories and which carry the time-frame forward to the end of the first day on Pegasus’ island, scene of the tournament.
  • Episodes 8, 9, and 10 are a three-part episode detailing two related duels, and reintroduce Kaiba, the duelist that Yugi defeated in the first episode, and Kaiba’s younger brother, Mokuba, only to reveal that the Kaiba that we see this time around is a fraud perpetrated by Pegasus.
  • Episodes 11, 12, and 13 are individual episodes that collectively form a three-part plot detailing two duels and conveying more information about the ‘Shadow Realm’ (where Grandpa’s soul was taken by Pegasus) and the Millennium Items.
  • Episodes 14 and 15 are a single two-part episode which continues the reforming of Mai Valentine, a character who was initially vain and selfish.
  • Episode 16 is a single-episode plot which reintroduces the real Kaiba, who delivers a psychologically-crushing defeat on Joey. This brings the plot to the end of the second day on Pegasus’ island.
  • Episodes 17 and 18 are the first official two-part episode in the series and comprise a single duel plus introduction and conclusion. The introduction deals with the consequences and aftermath of Joey’s defeat in the previous episode.
  • Episodes 19-21 are a three-part episode detailing a two-on-two duel and features, as a subplot, Kaiba making his way to Pegasus’ castle, gaining entrance, and being confronted by Pegasus, who traps Mokuba’s soul in the same way that he did Yugi’s Grandfather. The trilogy begins with the cliffhanger ending to the previous episode and ends with Pegasus giving Kaiba an ultimatum – Kaiba must duel Yugi and win in order to secure his brother’s release.
  • Episodes 22, 23, and 24 are another three-part episode. At last, both Yugi and Joey have qualified for entry into the final rounds, but before they can settle in, Yugi is forced to accept Kaiba’s challenge, and loses his nerve when the spirit of his millennium item appears willing to sacrifice Kaiba’s life in order to win. Furthermore, as a consequence of the duel, Yugi no longer qualifies for the later rounds. Rather than enter without him, all the companions turn aside.
  • A single-part plotline occurs in episode 25 in which Téa Gardner, a mutual friend to Joey and Yugi, wins enough star chips to enable Yugi to enter the castle from Mai Valentine, after Mai’s offer to give Yugi the star chips she has in excess of her needs is refused.
  • In episodes 26 and 27, The companions enter Pegasus’ castle, where, true to his word, Pegasus duels Kaiba. Once again, Pegasus uses the power of his Millennium Eye to his advantage, and eventually wins by playing a card so powerful that it was never put into circulation.
  • A single-episode plotline follows in episode 28 in which the structure of the tournament is decided, one of Yugi’s companions (Ryo Bakura) reveals to the viewer that he is plotting against both Yugi and Pegasus and poses a hidden danger.
  • In the first semi-final bout, Yugi faces Mai Valentine in the course of the two-part episodes 29 and 30. Yugi overcomes the doubts inflicted by his bout with Kaiba to win.
  • Another two-part episode (31 and 32) follows in which Joey defeats the fourth qualifying semi-finalist, despite his cheating. This episode brings to a conclusion a subplot that has threaded multiple episodes, starting in episode 3, the rehabilitation of Mai Valentine.
  • The final bout between Joey and Yugi takes place as a two-parter in episodes 33 and 34. Yugi wins the tournament, permitting him to duel Pegasus for the soul of his grandfather.
  • A five-part plot occupies episodes 35-39 which tells the story of the duel between Yugi and Pegasus while the rest of the companions attempt to rescue Kaiba and Mokuba. When Pegasus is defeated, he releases the souls he has imprisoned and slips away.
  • Episode 40 deals with the aftermath of the duel, answers some more of the mysteries surrounding the Millennium Items, and reveals to the audience that the hidden threat has made good on his plans to capture Pegasus’ Millennium Eye. This plotline is then left hanging, not to be mentioned or developed further in season 1.
  • Episodes 41 and 42 appear to start a new plotline, are set after the return of the party from the Island on which the contest took place, and deals with how Yugi’s grandfather came to posses the rare card that initially earned the attention of Kaiba, which established Yugi’s reputation, and led to the entire conflict with Pegasus. In reality, this plotline simply fills in some of the background that should logically have been presented earlier in the series; it feels ‘tacked on’ as a result. However, the resolution can only take place after the main plot.
  • Episodes 43 to 45 are a three part plot in which Kaiba is trapped in a virtual reality by his duplicitous board of directors (who had been allied with Pegasus) and Yugi, Joey, Mai, and Mokuba Kaiba combine to free Seto Kaiba. This plotline deals with subplots initiated during the main part of the season, cleaning up loose ends.
  • Episodes 46-49 are a standalone 4-part plotline in which the psychological issues exploited against Joey in Episodes 16, 17, and 18 again feature, reconfirming the friendship between the two, which in turn was the jumping-off point that started Episode 1. They also show both Yugi and Joey dealing with the fame that they have accrued through their success in the tournament. While (in terms of the dramatic action) the series peaks in Episode 39, and has its denouement in Episode 40, this final piece of “cleanup” brings the story full circle, back to where it started – the friendship of Yugi and Joey. This provides closure and a sense of completion for the series. The post-tournament episodes also have the cumulative effect of showing that life goes on for the characters. Personally, I suspect that the series was originally intended to conclude with Episode 40, and these additional episodes were added when it became clear that there was going to be at least one more season of the show. But I might be wrong.

The first season leaves a number of questions unanswered, which are resolved in later seasons.

scroll scrap with hieroglyphs

I thought about displaying the Yu-Gi-Oh Logo, which I found on Wikipedia Commons (click the link to view) but I chickened out (copyright, trademark). Instead, I’m showing “Hieroglyphs” (artist unkown) which is a public-domain image licensed under CC0.


There are two major points to be drawn concerning the pacing revealed in the course of this season.

First, the major plot points are whatever size the plot requires them to be. One episode, two-part episodes, three-, four-, and even five-part plots take place.

Second, while the show is not afraid to compress time when absolutely nothing is happening – while the characters sleep, for example, or in the period of time between the end of episode 2 and the start of episode 3 – these are the exception and not the rule. Beyond this, while some time compression takes place, the show makes great efforts to begin each episode where the previous one ended, and to fill the time with events rather than simply hand-waving the interval between significant plot points. Instead, it introduces or furthers subplots, explores relationships and backstory, and even lays foundations for what will later turn out to be substantial plot developments.

In terms of actual plot, for example, less than 1/4 of episode 28 does anything to advance the main storyline. Three quarters of the episode or more deals with character issues and reactions to earlier events, and even though those seem to have been resolved by the end of the episode, they are still in force, however weakened, at the start of the next major plot element. Viewed one way, 1/4 of the episode matters, and the rest can be considered filler; but that ‘filler’ content is then referenced in the next episode, when it becomes vitally important.

The bottom line is that the series never permits substantial time to pass without something happening, even if it’s something that won’t pay off for a dozen episodes – or even in a later series.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar? That’s right, the pacing sounds like that of an RPG, with “Adventures” of different lengths (when measured in terms of Game Sessions).

The target audience

I suspect that the pacing may have more than a little to do with the target audience. The Yu-Gi-Oh series, first and foremost, is intended for kids, and they may have been perceived (rightly or wrongly) as having a weaker concept of abstract time. Adults are more accepting of the notion of nothing happening for a while.

Try telling a story to a young person, dropping in the phrase, “A week later…” and most of them will immediately want to know what happened in the meantime. “It takes a week to travel to…” works in exactly the same way. They simply can’t accept that nothing happened for a period of time.

Most television series compress time routinely, or disregard it completely. This one is different – and, as a result, the time interval in terms of major plot developments is also quite variable. It doesn’t matter, for example, what order you screen Bugs Bunny cartoons in. The almost diary-like notion of having something to say about each and every block of time and the events therein, adding more events as necessary, is most unusual.

Interestingly, while many of the pronouncements are suitably melodramatic, there is no sense in season one that the show is talking down to the viewer – which is an occasional flaw in season 2. It’s as though the first series was pitched a little ‘high’ in age bracket for a cartoon’s typical audience, and there were some deliberate attempts to redress this in season two even though the latter is much darker and more adult in tone in many other ways.

replica of tutenkamuns treasure

Image of a reproduction of tutenkamun’s treasure by Pixabay / Bluesnap. Public domain image licensed through CC0. Again only tangentially related to the article.

Content I: The character Point Of View

Another element of the series design that is particularly noticeable in the first season is the focus on the main characters. While the antagonist frequently gets to gloat for the audience, that gloating rarely amounts to anything of plot substance. In fact, you can count on one hand the number of plot developments that he (or anyone else) is involved in and that the audience become aware of before the protagonists do. For the most part, when they find out about something, we find out about it – and not before.

This also has an impact on the pacing of the show. There’s less time for tension and drama to develop, so the creators have to achieve it by other means – specifically by focusing on the cat-and-mouse strategies of each opponent in one of the Yu-Go-Oh duels, and by having the PCs become aware of a threat or a problem with no immediate opportunity to deal with it, and without enough specifics to even engage in anything but the most general long-range planning.

Notice anything familiar about that? Again, with rare exceptions which are the equivalent of an omniscient narrator teasing the audience with out-of-character knowledge, this is exactly the way in which campaigns unfold in an RPG – as though we (the audience) were players in an RPG and the protagonists were our characters!

Content II: The primary plot

The primary plot is framed around the Yu-Gi-Oh game, called “Duel Monsters” within the series. The premise is that in ancient Egypt, powerful sorcerers did battle using magically-created creatures in duels with very specific rules, threatening to eventually wipe out the entire planet in their quest for power. Several mystic artifacts were created to house the power and dispersed so that no-one could summon the real creatures from the ‘Shadow Realm’, an extra-planar reality. Ultimately, the power-mad sorcerers were stopped by a mysterious Pharaoh. Since the fall of Egypt, these events have become legend and myth. The rules of these duels, and the images of the creatures employed, were preserved in hieroglyphs that were used as a source of inspiration by Maximilian Pegasus, who created the modern-day game of Duel Monsters. Eventually coming into possession of one of those artifacts, the Millennium Eye, he discerned part of the truth behind the myth and set out to reclaim the other Millennium Items so that he could use their power for his own purposes. While not inherently evil, Pegasus was prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his ends, and “villains are as villains do”.

One of the millennium items is a puzzle, reassembled by young Yugi (something no-one else had ever managed to do), and the central plot of the first series concerns Pegasus’ attempt to take that item from Yugi by staging a duel tournament. He kidnaps the soul of Yugi’s grandfather and exiles it to the Shadow Realm in order to force Yugi to participate, because the magic of the item will not work unless it is won in a duel. Of course, were it not for this last requirement, Yugi might well have traded the Millennium Puzzle directly for the return of his Grandpa, and there would not have been much of a series. It is this one ‘metagame’ plot point that propels the entire plotline.

With only minor alterations, this could easily be the plotline of a pulp campaign, or a D&D / Pathfinder campaign, or a superhero campaign, or a Call of Cthulhu campaign.

The series introduces the game and the protagonists, brings in a minor villain (who will serve in the same capacity in series 2) on the pretext of an attempt to claim a rare card owned by Yugi, and then introduces the main plot using this foundation to justify Pegasus learning of Yugi and his millennium puzzle as a result of his victory over the minor villain. It then takes advantage of the period of travel to the tournament to introduce many of the enemies/rivals that will have to be overcome by Yugi in order to reach the final confrontation with Pegasus. Most of the first season is the story of the tournament, with the heroes experiencing both successes and setbacks, confronting enemies with who employ direct attacks of great power, clever strategies, or psychological manipulation in their attempts to win the prize for themselves.

The ‘virtual game environments’ in which these struggles take place mean that even though there is relatively little physical travel involved, a variety of environments are experienced along the way.

This is exactly the sort of trick that a GM would use within an RPG campaign, overcoming the inherent restrictions of the ‘tournament’ framing device (and, not coincidentally, keeping the series visually interesting).

Content III: Flashback backgrounds

One of the greatest problems a GM faces is how to deliver background and backstory without spending hours as a talking head in the middle of the campaign. The series solves this problem in a rather interesting way.

Backstory is never presented until it becomes relevant, though it may be referenced earlier. In most cases, those earlier references are simply taken for granted by the protagonists – for example, it is established in episode 1 that Yugi, Joey Wheeler, and Tristan Tailor are friends, it isn’t until much later that the backstory of how such disparate individuals came to be friends, as the psychological pressures inflicted by the tournament take their toll.

And, when backstory is presented, there are two mechanisms employed: the first is simple narration by one of the protagonists – either the subject explaining himself, or one of the characters present telling the main cast what they know about the backstory, or some combination. This does little to delay the main action of an episode and is often integrated into it. The other device, employed when the main protagonists would all know the story (but the audience don’t), or when there is no way for any of those present to know the backstory, is the flashback.

While flashback sequences and backstory narrative passages are both equivalent in a gaming context, there are three lessons worth absorbing by GMs from the TV series.

The first is to present minimal backstory except when it’s relevant; and in fact, several of the subplots exist (from a meta-perspective) purely to justify the presentation of backstory in order to raise the stakes in future main-plot action.

The second is take the existence of backstory that has not been presented for granted, on the assumption that it will only receive exposition if and when the details (and not the outcome) become relevant.

And the third is to schedule such backstory exposition as a way to fill in “quiet periods” between main action beats.

A number of times, backstory is promised for later, so as not to interfere with the main action – providing context after the fact for behavior exhibited in the main plot.

The result is a flexibility in which backstory rarely intrudes excessively, and is presented in a flexible manner based on the required pacing of the main plot and the availability of ‘real time’.


The RPG Relevance: Zenith-3 and the merciless calendar

In the Zenith-3 campaign, activity falls into two primary patterns. In the main-plot sections, time is compressed as necessary, and side-activities only roleplayed if they are relevant in some way; the rest of the time, they get little more than lip service. Wrapped around that main action, subplots and side-plots are used to fill in ‘gaps’. Sometimes, this will involve presenting details of events previously related only as a mention during the main action.

The foundation of this is a merciless calender. Most events in the game are not locked to any particular point in time, but are instead in a logical progression that increments one of the plot threads. However, some game events are seasonal, and others are locked into particular in-game dates; and there are other events that are locked-in, relative to those in-game dates. So some parts of the campaign plan are “locked”, while others are not, and are simply arranged around the ‘locked’ material however they will fit. Gaps are left to provide flexibility, and those gaps are filled at the last minute (real-time) with subplots and side-encounters and character development.

I try very hard to derive inspiration for those subplots, side-encounters, and character developments from the themes of the adventure in question. This gives everything that is going on a relevance to the main plot, even if that relevance is not initially apparent. At the same time, it ensures that every adventure starts on common ground: the characters simply living their lives.

I also work hard to integrate anything that the players have said that they want their characters to do, actively looking for ways to integrate those activities with the themes of each adventure. I am aided in this by the creation of an overzealous bureaucracy which is discovering elements of Japanese management techniques (in a game world without Japan, I should note). They have noticed, for example, that creative people tend to find solutions to problems, and so have mandated that all personnel within their purview should spend a (paid) hour a week pursuing some creative outlet. They have noticed that those with an appreciation of music correlate strongly with empathy for the situations and problems of others, and are in general, happier personnel; so they mandate a (paid) hour a week of listening to music from some genre other than those the individual would normally choose for themselves, and so on. And, of course, there are forms and paperwork to track these things,

These activities are calculated by me (as GM) to do three things: give the characters a rich tapestry of experiences; provide a means to sneak little bits of game background into the plot; and provide lots of opportunities for the characters to interact with the game world, providing hooks into adventures, and so on. In fact, there’s so much going on in their lives that it is quite clear to everyone that I am cherry-picking which parts to actually roleplay, but everyone gets something, every adventure.

I also employ these ‘fillers’ within any gaps in the main plot, though these are rarely roleplayed. This also enables me to manipulate the pacing by making it seem that the main plot has come to an end when it hasn’t.

While not 100% the same as the Yu-Gi-Oh approach, there is a great degree of similarity between the two – which is probably what led me to notice the pacing of the TV series in the first place.


The RPG Relevance: Intermissions, subplots and introductions in The Adventurer’s Club

Th relationship between the Zenith-3 campaign that I referee and the Adventurer’s Club campaign that I co-referee is an interesting one in terms of the narrative structures employed. I’ve detailed the first above, and discussed the latter in a number of recent articles – for example in Encampments and other In-Character Opportunities, in the section “Everyday Life Creates a sense of reality” (in a nutshell, we look into the character’s ordinary lives until the main adventure starts, and when it starts, it is initially indistinguishable (most of the time) from another of those ordinary life episodes).

I had developed a similar technique in the previous Zenith-3 campaign (“Zenith-3: Earth Halo”), but it has fallen out of disuse to some extent as the campaign approached its’ big finish – in other words, as the characters’ capacity for having an ordinary life diminished. It was nowhere near as well developed, of course. That development took place in the latter years of the Adventurer’s Club campaign.

Until Adventure 14, the drive was to get the PCs into the main adventure as quickly as possible, mentioning anything else they might have been doing only in passing. Adventure 14 was a set of simultaneous mini-adventures – essentially all ‘personal lives’, and was quite well received at the time. Adventure 15 fell into the old format – get the PCs together, mention briefly any personal developments, and then bring in the main plot. The difference in the player’s reactions was noticeable. Adventure 16 broke the mold, because it was deliberately designed and intended to start slow and focus on just one of the PCs, and we needed (in the interests of giving everyone else their fair share of screen time, and not making it too clear where the main plot was coming from) to show what the other PCs were doing. So they had their own personal lives development which led into their own mini-scenario, while the main plot was bubbling away, relatively unnoticed – until it came to a head, and the whole group became involved.

This technique not only hearkened back to Adventure 14, “Scenes From The Balcony”, but worked so well in terms of making the players feel their characters were alive in the pulp world that from Adventure 17 onward. it became our standard pattern. Adventure 16 was an anomaly; written largely to write a character out of the campaign with dignity and respectful remembrance following the death of his player, it again parachuted the players straight into the main plot – mainly because it was written before Adventure 15 was played. (Right now, we are playing adventure 24, “Boom Town”, but writing adventure 26, “The Secrets Of Magnus Maximus”; adventure 25, “Lord Of The Flies”, is “canned” and ready-to-go).

It was while we were playing Adventure 18, I think, that the Zenith-3 campaign folded into it’s own sequel, “Zenith-3: Regency”, and the capacity once again arose to look at the adventure structures of the campaign. Naturally, I started with the “state of the art” as it then was, and from that point on, one has evolved in technique and the other has then ‘caught up’, and eventually pushed the boundaries still further. We are now at the point where the opening day’s play of most adventures includes just the cliffhanger intro to the main plot; the rest of the day is spent on the characters’ personal stories.

While the two campaigns are not in competition, in evolutionary terms they might as well be; each spurs the other on in its development. And again, while the adventure structure isn’t quite the same as that of the Yu-Gi-Oh TV series, there is more than a little similarity.


The RPG Relevance: Coordinating two Fumanor campaigns

There is a particular challenge involved in running two simultaneous campaigns in the same game world with at least some players in common. That challenge can be stated in a single two-word summary: Synchronizing Plots.

There were times when one campaign was inevitably going to influence another. That meant that (in order to give the campaign to do the influencing a chance to catch up to, and synchronize with, the influenced campaign, there needed to be space inserted for filler between them, for variable time factors under my direct control as GM. Because I knew that one campaign involved a lot of relatively slow travel over great distances, and the other involved relatively short and quick travel over much smaller distances, I knew that “One Faith” needed to start a long time before “Seeds Of Empire” in game time (but not in real time). The two would then synchronize when events in “One Faith” caused the “Seeds Of Empire” campaign to come into existence.

The next point of synchronization would come when “Seeds Of Empire” began to reshape the political landscape within “One Faith”. There was a lot of adventuring in the former between those two points, and even allowing for the two to have started at the same time in the real world, it wasn’t going to be enough. So I came up with a mechanism by which the campaign would divide into two strands, theoretically simultaneous, but played sequentially, with different characters in each run by the same players. One would contain a string of mini-adventures, while the other contained chapters in an ongoing saga; by adding or subtracting from the mini-scenarios, I could make sure that the “One Faith” campaign meshed, timeline-wise, with the “Seeds Of Empire” campaign. When the time was right, these two strands would recombine, and the changes wrought in the “Seeds” campaign would take effect, and then the “One Faith” campaign would again bifurcate until all was in readiness for the grand finale of both campaigns.

Things were further complicated when one of the Key players in “One Faith” passed away – yes, the same player that I mentioned earlier.

Quite frankly, it was a logistical nightmare that required (and will require) flexibility and a lot of detailed planning, and I never want to have to do that again if I can help it – but it worked, at least up until the point when both were shut down. Not abandoned, however; they will eventually restart. The major blockage at the moment is the ill health of the grandmother of one of the common players; he can only take so much time away from caring for her, and the others involved (including me) agree completely with his priorities. Or, to put it another way, I didn’t invest nearly 1000 hours in the “Orcs And Elves” series – all campaign background being revealed to the characters in the “Seeds” campaign – just to throw it all away!

Anyway, the point is that here was a quite different plotting problem that was essentially solved by a variation on The Yu-Gi-Oh lesson (at least, it would have been; that has the temporal relationship between events inverted). What took lots of planning and skull sweat would have been solved relatively quickly and easily, in exactly the same way, by observing and analyzing the TV series.

Closing The Books

That makes three different campaigns (four if you count the Fumanor campaigns separately), each of which is now on a surer footing for my having observed the Yu-Gi-Oh TV series and its’ unique approach to pacing. More than enough evidence, then, to state that it’s worth sharing.

Novels work best by compressing time between significant events. Comic books and movies, even more-so. But, as in so many other ways, RPGs are a breed apart from anything else. Make them just a little more real-time by inserting subplots, events, and interactions, and you gain an exceptionally useful tool – one that lets your players explore the lives of their characters, and at the same time, enables you to further manipulate the pacing of your games. I’ve written a two-part article (Part 1, Part 2) and an additional 4-part series (Further Thoughts On Pacing) on the importance of that subject and the techniques that I employ, and despite all this effort, the Yu-Gi-Oh TV series has still given me a whole new tool or two, and a whole new insight, that I can exploit in the quest to make my games as entertaining and fulfilling as they can possibly be. And that is news worth sharing.

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The Energizer Bunny: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 4

Based on Knight With Shield Michal Zacharzewski

Image from / Michal Zacharzewski
Background by Mike

This is the fourth part of a very intermittent series that is examining alternatives and possible implications to the standard spell storage solutions built into D&D, Pathfinder, and, in fact, most fantasy games. Today, We look at Permanent Magic Items.

Permanent magic items are like the energizer bunny, they just keep going. That makes them qualitatively different to every type of magic device that this series has considered so far.

Key Characteristics

There aren’t a lot of defining traits to these items; they tend to be relatively simple. There is a simple reason for this: there are so many closely-related varieties of such item that there are very few characteristics common to all, or even most, of them. That suggests that armors should be treated separately from weapons, and so on, that the category should be subdivided; but, at the same time, the few commonalities that do exist are so compelling that a piecemeal approach would not tell the whole story.

The traits that I have identified as sufficiently common are:

  • Persistence
  • Immutable State
  • Charges (inconsistently), Commands, or Continuous
  • Usually Worn or Wielded
  • Usually a Buff item
  • Mass, Momentum, and Weight?

In addition, there is one characteristic that such items should posses but sometimes – perhaps all too often – don’t.

  • Limited Power/Complexity

The magic in the item is usually not consumed when the effect it contains is released, or instantly renews itself, and either way, the item itself survives.

As a GM, this can be a little understated. Why not give magic items a sensory impact of some sort when they function? I’ll talk about this idea further a little later. Heck, why not go further, and explicitly show the “instant renewal process” – an item does it’s job, instantly rusts or sublimates or something, and then instantly renews itself? Make it clear that the item has done whatever it does. This works especially well when an NPC is wearing or using such an item and there is no discernible effect that the PCs can spot/identify, providing a fertile ground for paranoia!

Immutable State

It’s very rare for these items to change in any way. One of the most common visual clues given out by GMs, especially early GMs, is that these items don’t rust or decay; they are almost always immaculately clean and polished, and any dust or detritus like spiderwebs fall away with hardly any effort.

Charges (Inconsistently), Commands, or Continuous

Most of these items function continuously, or effectively so if you utilize some of the special effects suggested earlier. A few either only work or have additional powers that have to be commanded into operation in some manner by the user. A very few of the latter type have a limited number of self-renewing charges.

So why not require ‘continuous’ effects to be commanded into operation even if they don’t consume some form of “charge”? That magical plate mail functions as ordinary plate-mail until commanded to protect you – which it then does, for a limited amount of time. Of course, as soon as it shuts off, the power can be invoked again – unless you also throw in some kind of “recharging delay”.

Usually Worn or Wielded

While there are a few items of this variety that have to be held, most of them have to be worn, or have to be wielded as a weapon. Even magic items such as Horseshoes can be considered to be “worn” by the mount.

Usually A Buff Item

Most of these items add a bonus to some numeric value, though some provide characters with additional abilities, such as Hats Of Disguise.

Oh, the fun that you can have with this trait and just a little creativity. Why not an unusual ability? A suit of plate mail that starts singing a bardic song every time you enter battle (too bad if you’re trying to sneak, but at least you get the benefit of the Bardic Song). Why not shoes of Dancing that add to your charisma when tripping the light fantastic on the dance floor? Why not a series of miniature Portable Holes in a money belt – just big enough for coins, or sling bullets, or arrows, to be stored and retrieved? Why not a crossbow with an “Unseen Servant” spell that retrieves any bolt that survives after being fired and striking something? Why not magical sling bullets that scream in terror when fired (a literal “terror weapon”)? Any effect that you can think of can be built into such magic items, whether those effects exist as a spell or not.

Mass, Momentum, and Weight?

Another trait that is often common to such items, however unofficial, is that they weigh substantially less than the unenchanted varieties, enabling characters to move more freely, attack more adroitly. In many cases, this is an attempt to explain “how” the magic achieves its game mechanical effects, i.e. define what the game mechanics are simulating. This is largely color, used to enhance narrative within a combat situation, though some GMs then make the ramifications part of their campaign worlds. If magic armor impairs movement significantly less than normal armor, for example, then characters can presumably swim while wearing it – at least as well as they could wearing wet clothing, say.

There’s nothing wrong with this interpretation, or with a GM adding verisimilitude to the game world by being consistent in applying the effects and logical consequences.

Others walk a finer line – only in combat does the magic truly ‘come to life’, the rest of the time, armor and weapons are just like their mundane counterparts. This is also fine.

The most important thing is to be consistent within the campaign in terms of your explanation and interpretations. That requires such decisions to be made pro-actively, before play actually starts, which is why this is worth mentioning.

Limited Power/Complexity

“Cool! A +5 Vorpal Frostbrand Holy Avenger!” Yes, that is a real-world quote from a completely real gamer who really was being handed such a magic item by his GM.

Most of us know better, but still make items far more powerful than is desirable, given that a lot of these effects are permanent and continuous (even if you need a critical hit to activate the goody).

Hey, if swords can have powers that are only activated on a critical, why not armors that have a special power that only activates after the wearer is subjected to a critical hit? Heal, or Invisibility, or Cure Poison?

Here’s the way it’s supposed to work, as I understand it: All magical weapons have a specific “plus” that is their attack and damage bonus and also their capacity for special effects. Each special effect, like Vorpal, or Holy Avenger, has a rating to indicate how much of that capacity gets consumed by incorporating that special effect into the weapon.

Why don’t armors and shields have a list of special powers that work the same way?

Limiting the power: Option 1

One possibility that I have heard suggested in bull discussions amongst GMs is that incorporating a second ability into one item consumes an additional slot. So a +5 weapon could have two powers – one worth +3 and another worth +1, or both worth +2. Or, of course, one power of +4 or +5 value. This has the virtue of making combinations of powers more manageable from the GM’s point of view, i.e. limiting the synergies involved.

Limiting the power: Option 2

Another suggestion that presents far sharper restrictions on the effectiveness of such magic items is for the item to offer it’s pluses only until they are consumed by adding a special effect. So a +5 axe might have a +3 special effect and confer +2 in combat bonuses. Or even a +3 and a +2 ability, but offer no combat bonuses at all. A Holy Avenger adds +0 combat bonuses but in all other respects and for all other purposes, counts as a +5 weapon. And so on.

Variations Of Ability

There are lots of ways you can spice up the variety of items in a campaign without undue risks of imbalance. Some of these have been mentioned in earlier parts of this series but deserve specific consideration within the topic of permanent magic items.

Feats in magic items

The first variation is one that has definitely been mentioned before. Consider a feat to be a +1 magical effect. Armor that confers the feat “Acrobatic”, for example, or a Helm that confers “Blind-Fight”, or Gloves of “Nimble Fingers”.

Everyman An Expert

One of my favorite applications for this idea only works in a very wealthy society with lots of access to magic. Armor and weapons are utterly unlike most magic items in that you require a specific feat in order to use them (no matter how ubiquitous that Feat might be). Why not build that feat directly into the magic item itself? Fantasy legend and lore is full of armor that transformed the wearers into warriors, of country bumpkins becoming expert swordsmen immediately they pull the sword from the stone, etc. But on the larger scale, this enables a society to turn the effort normally expended on martial training to social purposes – a city of poets and artists (because they have converted the default martial feats into perform feats) who look soft and weak – until they put on their ceremonial armor and gain the benefits of guidance from every forebear who ever had to fight to survive.

Using Magic Item Feats for Flavor

Another idea that I find compelling in a number of ways (mostly related to the flavor that is imparted) is to rule an entire publisher’s line of supplements out of bounds for PCs, and then build the feats and spells from that line into magic items. This takes maximum advantage of the explosion in 3rd party supplements that was the 3.x “Boom”, but it works very well.

For example, you might rule that no feats or spells are available to characters from the excellent Mongoose series of publications, and then make those exclusive to magic items – while stripping out from the treasure lists anything which is derivative of a Core Book spell or feat. Suddenly, magic items have their own unique flavor.

You can take this idea further by deliberately integrating campaign background elements from those resources. For example, if all magic items were the legacies left behind by a past civilization which fell long ago and vanished, leaving behind nothing but ruins and the odd enchanted item, you add massively to the color and substance of your campaign by using the Eberron sourcebooks as your magic item “foundation”, or Faerun.

You can even have two different populations with different legacies from the past by basing the magic items of one on one set of sources and the magic items of another on an entirely different source. “Elven and Dwarven magic is based on Faerun; Human magic is based on Ebberron”.

The redundancy/overlap problem

Implementing any of these ideas means confronting one major issue and implementing a policy to deal with it: that of feats that overlap with those in supplementary sources that you do permit players to draw upon. Some ideas are so good that they occurred to different game companies and were implemented in very similar ways, if not completely identical ways.

For example, at least three different feats from different publishers granted +2 Initiative. One did it as a “miscellaneous bonus”, another as a “Dexterity Bonus”, and a third as a “General Bonus” of unspecified nature.

There are lots of ways of resolving such overlaps, where the intent was clearly the same: you can rule that regardless of the mechanism used to translate the effect into game mechanics, they are all the same bonus, and once you have it from one source, you can’t get it from another. Or you could apply stacking rules (the first one has full effect, the second and subsequent ones that are the same only add +1), or you could adopt an open strategy in which they all count unless the named bonus is exactly the same – in this example, gaining the three different feats could confer a bonus of +6 to Initiative. I tend to lean toward the latter, but always consider whether or not the others are more in keeping with the style of campaign I intend to run.

This becomes more important when one is a feat, and another is in a magic item; while at the same time, the act of placing the “feat” into a magic item naturally restricts availability enough that the more open policy becomes more viable. GMs should make up their own minds, but should definitely think about this in advance of starting play.

Skills in magic items

Another idea that’s been mooted before, but one that merits consideration. Leather armor that contains skill ranks in Stealth? Why not? Or that simply confers a bonus to a skill without conferring any ranks in that skill?

My usual pattern is to look at what bonuses a Feat confers – these usually add up to +4, often spread equally amongst two different skills – and so the existing equivalence mooted above (1 feat = a +1 special ability) means that for each +1, an item could confer +4 in one skill or +2 in two related skills.

It’s in combination with the feats idea (discussed above) that this becomes truly significant. Armor that makes you a better rider? Weapons that impart knowledge of tactics? Robes that improve your spellcraft? Gloves that improve your lock-picking skill?

Swings and Roundabouts

Another favorite idea is to take the basic ideas one step further. Instead of armor that confers +2 resistance to fire-based effects, why not one that confers +4 – but also confers a -2 penalty against cold attacks? Whenever you have something with a logical opposition – and D&D / Pathfinder is full of such – why not exaggerate and hyper-dramatize the benefits?

In and Out

Finally, consider the possible differences in variations of energy flow. Why not a magic item that enhances a cleric’s healing spells by +1 per die – but also reduces the benefits of healing directed at that cleric by -1 per die? Or a magic item that adds +2 fire damage to an attack – but also inflicts 2 points of fire damage (or cold) damage upon the wielder?

The Unseen Squire

Let’s talk about another aspect of complicated armors like full plate. These are incredibly difficult to put on, unaided, and beastly uncomfortable to try and sleep in. In real history, each knight had one or two squires, and one of these squire’s duties was to help the Knight put on his armor properly. Why not build an “Unseen Servant” – in this case, an “Unseen Squire” – whose primary tasks are to help the wielder put on or take off the armor, and to polish, clean, and maintain it while the owner sleeps?

The Leaders and the Led

While the notion of leaders who command from the back lines instead of leading from the front might seem a relatively recent innovation in military strategy, that doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt it to function within a fantasy society – and the implication is that the two roles might have very different types of enchanted armor. Leader’s armors might emphasize tactics, and communications, and clairvoyance;
mid-level armors might emphasize speed and flexibility in combat; while senior grunts armors emphasize combat prowess, attack and defense.

Inverting expectations

One idea that I don’t think has ever been fully explored by magic items despite the plethora of them have been introduced through hundreds of adventures and game settings is the notion of inverted expectations.

Why not a suit of armor that helps you get into position to attack (i.e. confers an attack bonus instead of a defense bonus?) Why not a weapon that enhances your ability to deflect blows (bonus to AC instead of to attack?)


I’ve had a thought that might prove too powerful for extensive use: Why not a suit of armor or a weapon that permits you to roll for success or failure before you commit yourself to an action, enabling you to choose what that roll is subsequently used for? “Okay, I’ve rolled a 19, I’m going to go for an all-out attack.” “Hmmm, I’ve rolled a 3, that’s not going to work as an attack, so I’ll do something where the low roll is a benefit, or at least the failure won’t hurt too badly – I’ll drop a tangle-foot bag at my feet and act as though I were trying to keep him from noticing.”

The only rules would be that you had to do something that demanded a die roll, and had to use the roll you had already made – beyond that, you could customize your actions to take maximum advantage of the results.

It’s not a suggestion that everyone will like. I’m only lukewarm on it, myself. But for some GMs, it might be exactly the ticket for simulating some sort of “future sense” of what is about to happen – something that’s fiendishly difficult to do without the GM railroading events.

Matched Sets

One of the better ideas in the 3.x Epic Handbook was the notion of Matched Sets. This weapon with this armor with this helm combines to give a magic item that is more than the sum of its parts.

It’s a concept that can be taken a lot further. Here are 2 swords, 2 suits of mail, and 2 helms – and every combination of three items (armor, weapon, and helm) yields a different “extra ability”.

An entire campaign could be built around the concept of the “collectible card game” equivalent in magic items.

Variations Of Form

Unlike most magic items, there aren’t too many variations in form to consider. Armor is something that you wear; weapons are something you wield; and so on. Instead, and unlike most magic items, the majority of variation in “form” is actually a variation in materials.

One of the ideas that I tried to implement (with only partial success) in one of my campaigns was the notion of Exotic Materials. I talked about this in some detail in Plunging Into Game Physics Pt 2: Strange Mechanics, so I won’t go into it here.

You might also draw inspiration from my series on exotic spell components, Some Arcane Assembly Required.

But some of the variations in function described earlier are also appropriate to consider variations of form. As with many other aspects of these magic items, it’s hard to draw a dividing line!


Although it seems hard at first to look beyond the basic functionality of most permanent magic items – weapons and armor especially – there are a surprising number of variations possible. Expand your repertoire and never be guilty of “It’s a suit of +1 chain”. Magic items are hand-crafted originals, not products of an assembly line; each should have its individual quirks and color, each should be just a little different than the next. There is no off-the-shelf, so why should such magic items be described as though they came out of a sausage factory?

The final part of this series is tentatively scheduled for mid-to-late September, and will look at the vexed and vexing subject of the ultimate magic items: Relics and Artifacts.

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What Is Magic? Six Answers

dark magic by salssa

Image Credit: / salssa

Magic features in a lot of different RPGs, but very few of them answer this simple, fundamental question – what is it, and how can it be used to achieve the many and various effects that are attributed to it within whatever game you happen to be playing?

Work on the ATGMs question on spell components got me to thinking about the subject again a while back, as happens from time to time. There are no really satisfactory answers – just bits and pieces that are on such uncertain ground that you have to run across it very quickly, lest it swallow you whole.

Well, I’m an experienced GM, and a veteran writer on the subject of RPGs; if anyone is going to be capable of playing tour guide through the different options, I should be able to manage it.

My usual starting point for this sort of research-driven article is usually Wikipedia, but I suspect that it will have a hard time separating out superstitions and religious issues that matter in the real world study of the subject but only get in the way of an RPG understanding. So, instead, I’m cracking out various rule-books.

Based on Magic Sphere 2 by bert8k

Image Credit: / bert8k
Color manipulation & additional textures by Mike

Physics Incognito, Pseudo-Physics, Paraphysics, Metaphysics, Not-really-physics, Mumbo-Jumbo

These six approaches form a continuity into which different solutions can be classified. You might disagree with the order in which they are placed; I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s examine and define each for anyone unfamiliar with the terms and the way that I employ them within this context.

Physics Incognito

“Any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic.” So said Arthur C. Clarke in his third law, and it’s a fun place to start. The most difficult category, this assumes that magic is “sufficiently advanced science”, i.e. science that isn’t understood by observers and which cannot be learned from first principles and simple observation.

This requires Magic to obey certain physical principles (which may be inadequately defined, or not defined at all) but which nevertheless limit what can be done with it. It is usually created by applying the principles of real-world physics to the manifestations of magic in a game reality, such as thermodynamics and thermodynamic inefficiencies.

This answer can be the starting point for endless debates of great entertainment value but little real merit. More often, writers employ this basis of “Magic” to make it palatable to a hard-science crowd. Look for this sort of “Magic” in any science-fiction series or roleplaying game, from Star Trek to Stargate. Babylon-5 occasionally steps into this domain as well, for example in the Season-5 episode “Day Of The Dead” (a personal favorite from that season) though it steers clear of the entire subject much of the time.


Pseudo-physics attempts to mimic a veneer of Physics Incognito without ever going beyond the use of poorly-defined and self-referential buzzwords to actually “explain” the principles behind magic, just as many science fiction shows use technobabble to “explain” the workings of technology. Because it attempts to appear rational, this can sometimes be mistaken for Physics Incognito.

It can be a lot of fun coming up with a pseudo-physics to ‘explain’ magic, but the more detail you invest in it, the more likely you are to trip over the two big bugbears of this approach: consistency and internal contradiction. The most common cause of both is misremembering some principle that has been embedded in the pseudo-physics and then forgotten; the easiest solution is to introduce the concepts one at a time without expanding on the physics beyond that point until the current understanding is mastered. The problem is that this approach is frequently at odds with experienced mages of greater power; this can be accommodated but only if the solution is deliberately embedded into the game society/campaign concept & plan.


In the early 80s, when I started playing, a lot people went in for the notion that “Magic” in D&D was a type of psionic phenomenon, or was to be explained in those terms. Some GMs even modified the rules systems to better reflect this notion. Some also discarded the Vancian system that was the basis of D&D magic in favor of something less rigid, often involving Spell Points of some sort or another.

Fundamentally, if you accept the validity of these phenomena, then this category stands somewhere between physics incognito and pseudo-physics; if you don’t, then this is where it belongs. No sitting on the fence on this one.

Complicating the whole situation have been a succession of Psionics Handbooks; the fundamental assumption is, therefore, that magic is something that exists separate to the phenomena described. This leaves the GM with three options:

  • Rule the psionics handbook out of bounds, and determine that this paraphysics is the undiscovered truth about magic;
  • Scrap the spells in the players handbook and replace them (and any related game mechanics) with the contents of the psionics handbook; or,
  • Rule that magic and psionics (if the latter exists in the game world) are completely separate and unrelated, and therefore, that you have to choose a different answer to the question, “what is magic?”

A metaphysics abandons all congruence between reality and fantasy worlds and introduces some concept (which may be dressed up in pseudo-scientific language, but is more probably dressed up in some sort of spiritual terminology) to explain the phenomena. The prime example is The Force from Star Wars – but this is a Force with a little more flexibility, able to manipulate all sorts of energies in very complex and sophisticated ways. The key is in the consistency with which this ‘explanation’ is used to describe the underpinnings that the game mechanics are simulating; the GM will usually need to come up with “laws of magic” to explain how magic works, and then examine both the game mechanics and every spell description for contradictions.

An early attempt at this sort of thing in the prior campaign that eventually became the Zenith-3 campaign held that magic was a parity swap between the area of the game universe affected by the spell and a parallel dimension that was identical in every respect save that whatever the spell effects were supposed to be had just occurred there of natural (but undetermined) causes. A Lightning Bolt simple exchanged the path that the lightning bolt was to follow with that of a parallel world in which an entirely natural lightning bolt happened to be following that line. Result, so far as an observer in the game world was concerned: a lightning bolt erupted from the appropriate spot in thin air and traveled along the appropriate line to strike the target. So far as a hypothetical observer in the source universe was concerned: a lightning bolt traveling along the indicated path vanished without apparent explanation.

Where this explanation fell apart, in-game, was that I did not have natural phenomena simply vanishing from the game world. It violated reasonable plausibility that no-one would ever cast a spell in which the game world was also the source world. If you don’t make that mistake, you should be fine.

I had rather more success with the concept in Shards Of Reality, in which the universe wasn’t created by the Gods, who were created by the power of mortal belief infusing raw arcane power with the belief that they had done so embedded within their memories and in which all magic was an illusion of some level of believability. Mundane illusions could fool mortals (with a save, most of the time); Fey Illusions could fool all living creatures, even those immune or resistant to illusions (with a save, in the latter case, and a more difficult save some of the time if not, except when actually drawn into the plane of reality inhabited by the Fey); and Magic drew on particles of this raw arcane power to construct illusions so real that the universe itself believed them, and made it so (this was an environment in which everything – including rivers, mountains, trees, etc – possessed some level of sentience and personality). The Creator of the universe had done so out of loneliness, wanting someone to provide company and companionship, and had used part of his own essence to do so; but his first creations (I forget what I called them) were jealous children who turned on him and ripped him to pieces. With his dying breath, the creator infused everything else he created with tiny fragments of himself – every blade of grass, every tree and lifeform – with his own potential to create reality. Slowly, as the magic in the immediate world was consumed, it became unreliable and began to fail. The goal of the campaign was for a PC to use his own body and mind as a template to recreate the creator, and then to face the choice of a world completely without magic or committing the ultimate evil all over again to restore magic to the world. But the players never got that far, and were only touching the fringes of these concepts when the campaign folded.


This explanation posits that some ancient natural philosophy (“everything is made up of four elements”) held a grain of truth, and those who know how to manipulate these lost principles of reality can achieve effects that the unenlightened would regard as miraculous. Ars Magica adopts this basic approach, for example. I have also seen games in which Zoanastricism is correct, but only in a sense; and worlds in which Cthulhu-physics can be used to override the natural order of things in our world (a Call Of Cthulhu campaign, quite obviously). I’ve seen games in which Devils and/or Demons replaced Cthuloid reality for this purpose, explaining why Mages and Clerics are usually at loggerheads; this is a concept in which magic is a weapon of the enemy that has been usurped by mortals for their own purposes, and which may slowly corrupt the caster – which is why high-level mages frequently seek to become Liches and Demi-liches. In their own minds, that decision is entirely logical, sensible, and reasonable.


The final category is Mumbo-Jumbo, in which all pretense of consistency is thrown out the window and its place is taken by buzzwords without definition but that sound impressive. In essence, the art of spellcasting has outstripped the understanding of those who do it; methods and spells are learned by rote and most variations fail, or ‘collapse’ into a default state. New spells can only be created by trial-and-error, discovering a new stable configuration of the pseudo-energies. In the meantime, because they don’t understand how it works, romanticized and incomplete speculations with as many exceptions as there are holes in a colander make up what is laughingly called “magical theory”. In essence, this holds the game mechanics to be paramount, and the explanation? “Well, there is one, but no-one knows what it is, yet”.

This employs a social model based on the understanding of reality in Western Europe prior to the Reformation – that of the so-called Dark Ages, though that term is currently out of favor with many historians, in which religious speculation was contrived to explain everything.

What’s your poison?

Every game system that I’m aware of either makes no explanation at all (most of them), or implies one of the above, or – very rarely – actually describes one of them in some level of detail as an explanation for how magic works. In reality, most of them are compatible with most game systems, and it’s up to you to select the one that best fits the rest of your gaming world.

But there can be consequences, both good and bad.

colorized version of Magical Forest At Night by Image Credit: Photo by Katerina Štepánková

Image Credit: Photo by / Katerina Štepánková;
Color & Image manipulation by Mike

The Consequences

The impacts tend to cluster around four main themes: Characters, Manifestations (i.e. Spells), Adventures, and Campaigns. Permeating all of these is the increased credibility that comes from being able to give an answer (possibly devoid of meaning) to the fundamental question posed by this article, “What is magic?”.

Character-level consequences

If you define what magic is, you define how the mage fits into the game universe. In most games where the question isn’t answered, the default position tends to orient around the defining characteristic of the mage, his INT score, leading him to be cast in the role of the scientist – but often it’s a slightly ‘mad’ scientist from the 1950s, creating monsters and pursuing experiments in the nature of reality without regard to the morality that might be involved. The contrast is always between the Mage (smart but unwise) and the Cleric (wise but not necessarily smart). Changing the definition of the mage, by changing the (lack of) definition of magic also changes this essential dynamic, aligning the character archetypes across a different conflict.

Obviously, some of the choices have greater influence over this aspect of the characters than others. Some will retain the existing conflict modes but sharpen them, for example the demonic/devilish spawning of magic posited in the “Not-Really-Physics” line.

But it goes beyond that, or it should – a campaign is a jigsaw puzzle, and changing the shape of one piece necessarily changes the shape of all the pieces that surround it. Now, sure, you can stop there – but what a waste that would be; so instead of leaving the outer edges of that collection of pieces unchanged, link another change through logical consequence to the first, and change the shape of the entire jigsaw, one piece at a time – sometimes just a little, sometimes a lot.

Changing what magic is might change what Elves are, or what Dwarves are, or both, and that might change what Fighters are, and that changes what Paladins are, and that changes what Clerics are, and that changes what Demons and Devils and Gods are, and…

Provided that there is an internal logic that is clear and strong in back of these changes, even if that logic (and the causal factor, the definition of magic), those reading the campaign background will absorb the presence of that internal logic without even realizing it. You can tell that there is a reason why things are the way they are, that nothing has been included by chance. There’s a pattern there, it’s just not being spelled out.

There is an inherent pleasure in taking a “noisy” situation and making sense of it, and that’s the central appeal of most mystery stories and police procedurals. Defining magic gives a GM the capacity to layer that appeal on top of everything else that he has going on in his campaign.

But there is a downside: you really need a player to step up and become the focal point of this aspect of the campaign by playing a mage. And not every player will agree to do so if the class has been extensively redefined. “Gee, I wanted to play a Mage, but this isn’t what I had in mind. Maybe I’ll play a rogue instead…” …because what it comes down to is replacing an iconic game element with a home-brewed house-ruled version.

This actually places a much stronger demand on the player’s skills at the table than playing an ordinary mage straight out of the rulebook. There are hundreds of web pages and discussion threads on how to play a ‘real’ mage – and none at all on how to play your revised version. You need either an experienced player of substantial creativity and imagination, or need to make yourself available as a substitute for all that collective reference material in the case of a less-experienced player. It’s a roleplaying challenge, and you need it to be undertaken by someone who will bring their A-game, or who is prepared to invest the effort to make up for it if they don’t have the requisite depth of experience.

That being said, there is an advantage to a relative novice taking on the role, insofar as they have less learned expertise to discard. The role of an Elf in the original Fumanor was taken by a player of more than twenty years D&D experience as a GM; he claimed to be looking forward to stretching his concept of what an “Elf” was, and for a while was genuinely enthusiastic about it. (I don’t remember what the character’s class was, and in any event it was subordinate to his racial profile within the campaign). But as the campaign progressed and more information was revealed about the changes to Elves, he had increasing difficulty translating them into actual play; all too often he would adopt a ‘traditional’ elven reaction to events that was completely contrary to what should have been his social and cultural experience, and in the end he left the campaign because he simply couldn’t get a grasp on the changes and how they impacted his character.

Manifestation- (i.e Spell-) Level Consequences

I’ve touched on this a couple of times in the earlier discussion. Spell descriptions and details may not match the metagame implications of the answer you have selected. That means that they need to be rewritten to accurately reflect the underlying ‘mechanism’ by which spells affect the game world. Not only does that impact on what characters can do – introducing the same consequences discussed above – but it also potentially rewrites magic items, many of which base their effects on the magic system in most games, and can certainly altar the game balance between mages and ‘mechanics’ armed with such arcane tools.

It introduces dichotomies between how the “same” spell is handled for different classes, unless it changes the spell for everyone, and that can impact other classes in undesired ways.

These consequences are not to underestimated.

Adventure Implications

So, what’s the return on all these difficulties and headaches? Because if verisimilitude and a challenge to roleplay are all there is, the price is too high.

The real benefits commence with the potential for adventures based around the (re-?)definition of magic – exploring and discovering the underlying concepts, finding ways to overcome new tactics used against the party, exploring the changed social dynamics that result, and seeing how these all fit into a larger-than-life game world. If you change magic, what impact does that have on creatures that are based on magic, at least in part, like Liches and Elementals and Djinn and… well, you get the idea. Old, familiar encounters suddenly pose new and unexpected challenges.

Of course, you can underplay the whole thing, but that seems a total waste of effort. A lot depends on how much else you have going on in the campaign – if this is a relatively ‘minor’ change, it might be better underplayed, and used simply to add color to these other changes. That’s what I did in the Fumanor campaign – which left the changes free to manifest in new plotlines in subsequent sequel campaigns.

Campaign Implications

Finally, if most of your adventures are impacted by the changes, one way or another, that adds up to a campaign-level influence. Essentially, by defining what magic is and how it works at a metagame level, you are creating a point of distinctiveness about the campaign, a unique identity that defines your game as being just a little different to anyone else’s.

No GM really likes the notion of their campaign being so vanilla that they are considered an interchangeable part.

What’s more, this is a toe-in-the-water in terms of game design. If you have the slightest interest in ever being part of the creative team behind a new version of D&D, or a new computer game, or a new RPG, or a new comic book, or a movie or TV show, this can be a great learning experience; it’s broad enough to give you serious room to explore and develop your creative ‘chops’, but is limited enough to be relatively manageable. And if it’s a quality result, if it works in the context of the game and the adventures you run, the credibility you gain as a creator and as a GM far outweighs the gains in any single campaign.

Opening your mind to new possibilities is always painful, but it is also frequently exhilarating, fascinating, terrifying, and a spur to creativity. It gets your adrenalin pumping behind the game screen, and imparts a sense of mastery of your game.

So, don’t ask why?, ask Why Not? and then answer the question for yourself, for your next campaign: What is magic?

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An Investment Too Far? – Ensuring the future of RPGs


Image Credit: / Carlos Ventura

Although this article is written from a D&D / Pathfinder perspective, since they are the two biggest games in terms of global popularity, the contents should be appliccable to any game system with a little tweaking as necessary.

RPG sourcebooks these days can easily cost $80-$100 or more Australian – $40-60 US. In a conversation a little while back, the thought arose – are books of this price level enough to deter new players from entering the hobby?

The answer is obviously yes – and equally obviously no.

In a previous two-part article, Value for money and the pricing of RPG materials, I argued that perceived value-for-money was a better metric because it incorporated everything from expected production standards to postage and shipping – an important factor when you live on the far side of the world, and then proceeded to break down the production costs that went into game supplements and rulebooks with a view to assessing how each cost functioned as an investment in perceived value for money.

The first part looked at traditional print media, and the second dealt with e-books and Print-on-demand.

Wages growth world-wide has been slow-to-stagnant since the Global Financial Crisis. That’s shown as true in Australia by this article (The Guardian – Is Australia stuck in a ‘new normal’ of low wages growth?) and also this article (ABC News – Fact check: Is wages growth now the lowest since records began?), and this PDF working paper by the I.M.F. shows it to be also true of the US economy. Finally, this report by the London School Of Economics shows the same story taking place in the UK. While there have been a few gains here and there, in general, the best outcome has been a treading of water on real incomes (i.e. adjusted for inflation) and most countries have fallen well short of even achieving that much.

That effectively means that disposable incomes have been getting tighter. Quite obviously, that means that at least some potential purchasers are being put off by the price tags involved. There have certainly been a few items that I would have bought since the publication of the previous articles in September 2012, but the money simply wasn’t there. So that’s a definite ‘yes’.

But, at the same time, D&D 5e continues to sell well, and while Pathfinder sales may have peaked (because most of the people who want it already have the core books), there is still demand for adventures, and there are enough people making game supplements that there is a solid implication of continued popularity. So there is a strong “no” case to be argued, as well – at least according to this recent report (EnWorld – Is Pathfinder “In Its Twilight”? Observations From A Retailer).

gem 1 by CazGDesign

Image Credit: / CazGDesign

A Kickstarter Perspective

Adding to the confusion is the success of Crowdfunding, which effectively adds extra discounts and/or supplementary bonuses that kick up the perceived value-for-money at what is usually a bargain price. Over the last couple of years there have been some astonishing successes (most notable 7th Sea second edition) and an equal number of perplexing failures.

Having looked over several of these, some of which I have reviewed here at Campaign Mastery, it’s my impression that the Value-For-Money impression is now a razor-sharp cut-off. Land on the happy side of it, and even quite high prices are seen as justified and the fundraising campaign succeeds (whether or not a lower price and lower production standards would have been an even greater success is an entirely separate question, though one worth exploring if you have the industry sales knowledge to do so intelligently; I don’t). But land on the wrong side of it, and fundraising campaigns fail catastrophically.

There seems to be less room in the market for an “only just achieved target” result – projects either succeed brilliantly, unlocking several (or more than several) stretch goals, or they bomb out. Though this might not be a correct assessment, that’s my impression, anyway.

This also seems to suggest the ‘yes’ case, but with enough uncertainty to be definitive.

Is Kickstarter moving the goal-posts?

It’s also fair to ask whether or not the Kickstarter fundraising model (with its stretch goals and inherent discounting relative to the prices of subsequent commercial release of products funded in that way) is changing the base-level expectations of the marketplace? In other words, is some degree of price discounting, either directly or in the form of bonus content, now assumed by customers, or are these still viewed as bonuses earned by being an early-bird investor?

Despite their best attempts to persuade people otherwise, most people who back a project through Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding sites feel as though they are pre-ordering a product that will be delivered when work is complete. This is quite evident by the angry responses when a supposedly fully-funded project fails to deliver the promised article, because of mismanagement, or under-estimating the difficulty or expenses, or due to ill-health on the part of a creator, or any of a dozen other reasons, both understandable (but regrettable and legitimate) and unconscionable.

Backing a kickstarter project is a promise to invest in the attempt to bring a product to market in exchange for a copy of that product (and any promised extras) if that attempt is subsequently successful.

Probably the biggest success of Kickstarter fundraising in RPG terms in the last year has been the unparalleled success of the second edition of 7th Sea. 11,483 backers pledged $1.3 million plus US dollars against a target of just $30,000. Part of the reason for that success was the long string of stretch goals which are expected to take years for the authors and artists to complete. I can no longer recall if there were 14 or 15 additional supplements promised, but it was a quite staggering total as I recall – and they had to add more several times in the course of the campaign because the project backing had already exceeded all possible expectations.

Because many of these, if not most of them, were grandfathered into pledges that had already been made, the net effect was a snowballing of the perceived value for money received by backers, something that made it easier and easier for the unconvinced to continue to sign up for the project. It’s telling that the first day of funding produced pledges of about 1000% of the funding goal.

This is obviously an extreme case. No game producer in their right mind would ever launch a fundraising project with any expectation of achieving a similar outcome. But I can’t help but feel that this very extreme success changed the public perception of the publishing landscape simply by showing that it was even possible to achieve that level of success.

I can’t give a definitive answer to the question, but my gut response is that for at least some customers – perhaps half the potential customer base, give or take – the answer is ‘yes,’ Kickstarter and crowdfunding have now raised expectations in terms of value for money. Certainly, people are more acutely aware of what they can expect to receive, all going well, and with the inevitable tightening of belts that comes with ‘soft’ wages growth and diminishing disposable incomes, that can tip the balance between choosing to back a project or not – hence the pattern of great-success-or-complete-failure identified earlier.

What the industry needs (Caution, Speculative)

There is at least one way that the games industry could boost their perceived value for money for most of the world. That would be for someone to start a multinational locally-based print-on-demand service.

Such an organization would then negotiate contracts with ‘trusted local printers’ in a whole host of countries – that’s the “locally-based” part of the description – to fulfill orders placed through the game producer or vendor by means of the central organization and electronic document transfers.

When a customer purchased a physical game product (as opposed to an e-book), the retailer would notify the multinational service of the specifics of the order. The products ordered would be sent by the central point-of-contact of the service to the printer most local to the customer as one or more electronic documents (if they didn’t have them already) who would then print and bind the print-on-demand product and ship the purchase to the customer.

This eliminates one of the biggest overheads faced by the retailer, international postage and customs duties. It’s a single-contact print-on-demand service with – eventually – something approaching a global reach.

It benefits the retailers and the multinational service, too; the larger the operation, the more impact economies of scale have on the overheads of production. So it becomes a lower-cost higher-profitability production option.

But its success would hinge on a return to a lower expectation of production values by the customer – or a technological improvement on the production side. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – if a product is designed to fit this production model from the start, other overheads and production costs can also be minimized or reduced, resulting in an overall reduction in the price of the products, further enhancing the appeal in terms of value for money.

In a world where there is ever-increasing competition for a slice of an ever-shrinking disposable income, the only alternative is for RPGs to risk pricing themselves out of existence by continuing to demand ever-higher production values.

Black Opal by Ra'ike

Image Credit: Black Opal By Ra’ike (see also: de:Benutzer:Ra’ike) – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Prognosticating: If nothing changes

As effective reductions in the purchasing power of disposable income, the knife-edge will grow ever-sharper. A lot of politicians have made a lot of promises to ‘fix the problem’ but so far, no-one has found the magic bullet of policies that will do so. I’m starting to think that it will take a whole new economic theory, some radical change to the fundamental concepts of economic management, just as Keynesian economics was a fundamental shift in its time. Nothing short of that will solve the current distribution-of-wealth crisis being experienced world-wide, and the alternative – one that’s been played out many times in the past – is a violent redistribution of wealth at the hands of a revolutionary mob. The parallels with the French Revolution, and the American Revolution before that, are too clear to ignore. The current US election cycle is a symptom of the growing sense of discontent with the current situation.

But hopefully this is all a worst-case nightmare, and the problems can be solved without such radical and unwanted measures.

It’s reasonable to expect that those already in the hobby will continue to purchase new products that excite them. But this is an aging customer base, and one that is shrinking as a result, year-on-year. The challenge currently faced by the industry is one of luring new blood into the hobby, in a way that hasn’t really happened since D&D 3.0 came along.

If you study the sales of comics, you find a very similar pattern. When they shifted from being newsstand-based to being sold through specialist retailers, it enabled a major improvement in production values. This, coupled with an overheating collector’s market, led the major producers to start producing collector’s editions with different covers and all sorts of other sales gimmicks, and for a while this was incredibly successful; but it also meant that prices continued to creep up and up. I got out of comics collecting when they hit a price of Australian $10 a copy, going from collecting 30 or 40 titles a month to collecting none; they had priced themselves out of my range. Nor was I alone; a great many others followed suit over the next decade, and the result was a tremendous implosion in the market. Marvel Comics even went bankrupt. If you look at current sales figures, a successful book these days sells only about a tenth of the equivalent level of success back when I jumped out of the hobby. One of my friends still collects a few titles – but he’s gone from getting 10-15 titles a month to getting three.

There’s a very similar tale of woe from the Music Industry, too. They got greedy and started charging for everything, killing off many of the video programs (and channels like MTV) that used to provide their artists with free promotion by playing their video-clips. A lot of people turned to mp3s as a way of sampling product before investing in a purchase, because the prices of CDs kept going up and up. The music industry attacked them as pirates. When CDs first came out, there was a lot of hype about them lasting forever; when it became clear that this wasn’t the case, people started converting their collections to mp3 format so that they could put the source disks away. The industry labeled them as pirates, too. In a nutshell, the marketing channels available to the industry collapsed and sales collapsed with them, and the industry blamed a symptom instead of addressing the cause. These days, a number one single can sell one-tenth as many copies as was the case in the 80s and 90s, or less. Album sales have collapsed even further – just as was the case back when the Beatles were just starting out, an album is effectively just a collection of singles.

If RPGs make the same mistakes, in other words, if current trends continue, if we ever do reach the point of pricing out the casual new entrant into the hobby, it risks a similar fate.

What the industry needs (Caution, Speculative)

Awareness. Advertising. Marketing. Making the general public aware of a new game product while enhancing the value for money.

It’s a simple prescription – but it’s not that simple. These things cost money. There are ample free channels for people to get the word out to the existing customer base – blogs, and podcasts, and free samples, and Kickstarter (which lets you essentially market a product before it even exists and then use the funds raised to attempt to make the promotion a self-fulfilling prophecy), and social media, and company websites.

Increasing not just the perceived value for money but actually lowering the costs of production, passing some of that on to customers as reduced prices and investing the rest in marketing to people who don’t currently play RPGs would head off all potential disaster and reinvigorate the hobby.

Here’s another way to look at the whole situation: Printer companies make their money on the inks; they sell the printers for next to nothing in comparison. I’ve seen printers priced so low that when the toner runs out, it’s cheaper to throw away the whole printer and buy a new one – a practice that is not very sustainable for the industry. Similarly, mobile phone companies make their money on the data (it used to be on the phone calls, but those are a relatively negligible component these days). The phones themselves are ridiculously cheap unless you buy a state-of-the-art model. I’ve seen one phone company advertise a new phone for A$99 with a free printer for the digital photos you took with the built-in camera! You could argue that D&D 3.x was the success that it was because it adopted a similar philosophy – the core books were expensive, but the cost could be spread amongst multiple players; it was on the additional supplements and adventures that the real money was made. Viewed this way, WOTC’s problem with the generous terms of the OGL was simply that most of this money went to third parties and not to them – and the changes to the OGL in subsequent editions was a response on their part. It both worked, in that a much greater percentage of the profits from 4e went back to the company, and failed, in that the pie being divided up was nowhere near as big. 5e was supposed to be somewhere in between the two in its generosity of licensing – but by then, Pathfinder had come along.

This might be an oversimplification of a confluence of complex issues, and I certainly have no analysis that comes close to being proof of anything – but it’s an interesting perspective to consider!

treasure chest and silver dollars by Renaude Hatsedakis

Image Credit: / Renaude Hatsedakis

A model for the future (Caution, even more Speculative)

Can all of these thoughts be melded into a new model for future game publications that eases the barriers into the hobby for new players?

I hadn’t actually decided to write this article when I thought of one that might do the trick, which is what tipped the balance in favor of pubication. And it’s a solution that doesn’t require a massive multinational printing alliance (though it could benefit from one), or improving low-cost laser printers so that the output looks like it came from a D&D/Pathfinder core book (and which might not be possible); it’s practical today, at least as far as I can see.

The concept is to take a holistic, modular, approach to the entire product line’s lifespan that is designed to maximize the potential to get new players signing up to buy the product.

For Players:

  • A Low-cost (Print-on-demand?) player’s starter book that contains everything a player needs to run one specific class/race combination in table form, without explanations.
  • A mid-priced book (hardcover? softcover?) that contains all the explanations for the content of all the starter books without the tables in the starter books, that can be shared amongst the entire group.
  • A low-page-count glossy art book that illustrates all the combinations from the starter books that can be shared amongst all the players in a group and that serves as a catalog for the starter books.

For GMing:

  • A mid-cost single volume, mostly black and white, with perhaps a section of color plates, with the entire GMs guide.
  • A low-cost starter pack with three low-level adventures using only creatures from the monster starter pack (see below). That means that all you need to start playing is a player’s starter pack for each PC, the GM’s Guide, and a low-cost monster pack (possibly even bundled with the GM’s Guide). Call it US$10, maximum (and preferably half that) – but with LOTS of add-ons available.

Monster Packs:

  • A low-cost stat-block-only starter pack (Print-on-demand?) with only the most ubiquitous creatures and mundane creatures included – minimal art.
  • A larger monster volume that contains stat blocks, descriptions, and illustrations for a wider range of “core creatures”, and – as a bonus – descriptions and illustrations of the creatures in the starter pack without the stat blocks (no redundancy).
  • This one-two package is repeated for themed monster packs – dragons, undead, aberrations, etc, essentially splitting the monster manual up into a number of smaller, cheaper, books.
  • Further expansions follow the same principle – “Undead II”, “Aberrations II”, and so on.
  • Include “Enemies” by character level in volumes of their own – pre-packaged villains and flunkies ready for insertion into campaigns, as though they were a class of monsters in their own right.

Setting Packs:

  • A moderate-to-high central setting reference book with illustrations for each game setting.
  • Small, low-cost expansions that detail individual locations or a group of related locations. This one might detail a city, the next might describe 10 typical villages from Kingdom X, and so on. These would not be lavishly illustrated.
  • A “map book” with illustrations and maps from a group of themed expansions, which also serves as a catalog for the expansions covered within that “map book”.
  • Each expansion and map book to come with a single small adventure set in the location so that you can start using the setting pack right away, after only a small outlay – but, once again, with LOTS of add-ons and expansions to add to the collection.

Adventure Packs:

  • Adventures to be either a collection of 3-5 unrelated small adventures or one larger adventure, entirely stand-alone in nature. Each to specify on the cover which monster packs and setting packs are required – and ONE of those two to be a single volume common to all the adventures. So you might have one pack of “Underdark Adventures” (one common setting book) and then “Undead Adventures” (one common monster book) and then “Trolls, Trolls, Trolls” (a larger adventure with one common setting book). (The core books don’t count and are always considered to be available for use).
  • Adventure packs to be released monthly if not more frequently so that there is always more to play. Some of these can mid-priced but most should be relatively low-priced.

Campaign Packs:

  • These are larger, and each reprints an expanded adventure that’s already appeared in an Adventure Pack, and at least one or two larger adventures that haven’t appeared before, that are designed to integrate into a campaign structure. They would specify which monster and setting packs are required for use, but are not limited to the “one common” rule. They can vary from mid-price to high-price deluxe versions.
  • Each Campaign Pack is designed to take a single party 2-3 character levels, and combine to form a series that details an entire campaign by a single author. That means that they have a single unifying theme or overarching plotline. A key element of each would be how to adjust the contents if characters enter the module under- or over-powered, with a view to getting them back “in sync” with the series by the end of the campaign pack.
  • The goal would be to publish one campaign pack for each campaign series every three-to-six months.

Deluxe Editions:

  • Once the core books are all done, and you’re getting into “Dragons III” and “Undead IV”, and there are at least two or three campaign packs, and so on, it’s time to start compiling and releasing material into “deluxe editions” – these are the equivalents of the D&D/Pathfinder Core Books, glossy art throughout, premium-priced products.
  • Because the deluxe editions relieve the restrictions of earlier campaign packs and adventure packs, this is an opportunity for a whole new wave of adventures and campaigns with wider variety of encounters and content.
  • This “Phase II” of the game system supports overall product sales while material is prepared for the ‘next edition’. Key to success of this next generation is an “adapter book” that gives a clear and functional guide on how to adapt characters, creatures, and adventures from the previous edition and vice-versa. This enables an osmotic transition from one generation of the rules to another, and means that the investment in past material is respected.

The guiding principle: Smaller, cheaper, and more numerous products, not all of which are required, which compile and build into larger collections of related works, ultimately conflating into deluxe editions.

There is so much material to be published that no one game company could do it all. Beyond some form of OGL that permits third-party publishers to put out their own Campaign, Adventure, and Setting packs, the publisher should outsource the production of some of the ‘official’ content, retaining editorial oversight and sharing imprint rights and profits. They should also designate a single line editor to work with third party submissions of variant monster and player packs to ensure compatibility and uniform standards. This would combine the best aspects of the OGL with the greater control desired by publishers, enabling a liberal, even generous, approach toward fan contributions and small game publishers.

Obviously, a secondary publisher who puts out an approved variation on a core class or monster package is more likely to build adventures around those elements, enabling a number of coherent campaign ‘sets’ with a unified promotional effect on the whole. No two campaigns would be the same, but the central rules structure would unify everything.

Over to the industry

It’s long been one of the truisms of my gaming life that where there is one solution to a problem, there are apt to be many. Even if the solution I have proposed is not adopted, the mere possibility suggests that there are other solutions to the problem. Disaster for the RPG hobby is not inevitable. And that’s a cheery thought on which to conclude! But it’s all still a subject worth thinking about.

I’m not a game publisher, I don’t have access to the sales numbers to make definitive judgments. I have contact with a number of such publishers through Twitter, though, and I’d love to hear their thoughts on the matters and proposals raised in this article.

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Three Coins In The Luck Machine: a different take on game control

A guest article by Boris R.

Poker Machines by William Picard

Image by / William Picard

If you think that slot machines and RPG games are complete opposites, you’re wrong. You can enhance your game world by taking a lesson from slots and increasing the unpredictability of your game.

Pure Luck

Let’s talk about Slot machines, also known as fruit machines and poker machines. These have been a staple attraction of Casinos and other gambling establishments since 1891, when the first was patented, but have changed drastically since the Internet came into our everyday lives. Nowadays, your favorite gaming establishment, your favorite game, is always close at hand. And I can’t be calm about that fact, I am beside myself with excitement.

Slot machines are extremely simple. There is no need to follow a certain strategy; you put in your coin and pull the lever. Everything is solved by destiny and you never know if the next attempt will be a winning one – or a losing one. This is exactly the thing that I love most about slot machines: pure luck. You can never be sure about the results and it brings even more excitement into the process. When our parents were young, they had to go to special places to enjoy the slot machines. I’m glad about the fact that casinos are now online; it gives me the chance to entertain myself whenever and wherever I want. You have the chance to tempt fate and see the unpredictable result!

My brother from Germany often loves to tell me: Als ich 18 war, spielte ich spielautomaten kostenlos mit meinen Freunden (translation: “When I was 18, I played slot machines for free with my friends”) Now I can claim that I have continued the family tradition: since I turned 18, I started playing slot machines with my friends just as my brother did. Today we have one more hobby in common: RPGs. And there are some surprising similarities between the two. Interesting, right?

How are RPGs related to slot machines? Well, let’s take a look…


First, they are both social. There is no better way to enjoy your free time than to play an RPG with your friends. I Especially like RPGs with dice of different types, like Dungeons & Dragons and a high probability of different random events. That’s what really spices up the game for me and makes it even more realistic – as real life is always unpredictable!


Secondly, they’re cheap. Well, not all them, for sure. But once you are really into RPGs you can invent your own system together with your buddies. I am pretty sure most of you have tried to do it yourselves. It’s always dirt cheap when you do it yourself. In the meantime, you can always get one set for the entire group since you always play together – and that makes even expensive games a lot more affordable.

Making Your Own

RPGs, unlike slot machines, are totally customizable. Once you’ve created the campaign of your dreams, you can make it even better: put your favorite heroes into the brand new surrounding and see what will happen. Turn your favorite movie into a game and explore the roads not taken.

Rules Are Not Enough

Of course, you need rules. For home sessions, you don’t need to write a whole rulebook with detailed descriptions of every aspect of your game, but you need something every player can rely on. But rules are not enough. A Videogame is all rules, all buried under the surface where you can’t even see them. Yet Videogames rarely make an even passable RPG.

Most video games have a serious drawback: the lack of stories behind the facade. The standard game has restricted storylines programmed into it, with little or no flexibility in their execution – and no capability for change by the GM.

In RPGs the situation is completely different. The narrator can change the story on the fly dozens of times, rewarding players with the most unpredictable twists and turns in the plot. And to bolster their creativity (and prevent subconscious bias), the GM can use random generators, based on dice or cards. Unpredictability makes the gameplay way more interesting for players! It’s one thing that RPGs have in common with slot machines – you never know what will happen, you just have to wait and see.


There is more to both slot machines and RPGs than meets the eye. At first sight, slot machines are based on the pure luck, while RPGs demand the skill of strategic building by both players and GM. Yet, if you look closer, there are underlying principles common to both, like probability and statistics, and RPGs are more random than you think, while Slot Machines are bound by the laws of probability – if they were not, Casinos could never rely on them making a profit.

Blunting the Whimseys Of Fortune

It may be surprising, but understanding how slots function, and why they are popular, increases your RPG mastery.

Many sites propose meticulous planning, but the more precisely you plan as a GM, the more susceptible your games are to disruption by wild mischance on a critical die roll or unpredictability on the part of the players. Paradoxically, the more randomness you have in your games, the more precise your control can be; over many avenues of randomness, the tendency of probability is to the center, the average. Increasing the randomness in a controlled manner makes the game as a whole less random, burying the truly disruptive outcomes behind a layer of probabilistic noise.

The main thing is to add more randomness into the game, in a controlled manner, by adding dice or cards. Just imagine the ocean of options that you can present and explore! Life is anarchy with a trend – and that’s a great philosophy by which to direct a game. Mastering this technique brings an excitement to the game by having a plot that leaves room for random events to disrupt the lives of player characters.

An education in spontaneity

Last, the randomness of slots, when applied to RPGs, make you a better GM. It boosts and stimulates your creativity to whole new levels, keeping the game loose and fun without bogging down in excessive seriousness and grimness. The need to do so on the fly teaches you to communicate more effectively with others and not to be ashamed of your ideas. If this is your approach, keep going, you are on the right track!

There are many surprising connections between the two apparently-unrelated pursuits. And that’s why I love both of my hobbies equally.

Control what you need to control and let dice dictate the rest – an interesting idea, and certainly a very different approach to my own (I treat luck more as a Sorcerer’s Apprentice who can barely be trusted to wash the floor correctly); but that doesn’t make it either invalid or incorrect.

But it would be remiss of me not to include a note to the effect that Campaign Mastery encourages the free enjoyment of responsible gambling.

If you think you may have a problem, even if you are unsure, seek professional help. It’s usually free and completely anonymous.

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