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Shades Of Suspense Pt 1 – Eight Tips for Cliffhanger Finishes


Cliffhangers are a wonderful way to end a gaming session because they end play at a moment of high drama that leaves the players anxious to get back to the gaming table, and that tend to be fairly memorable because of the drama. You can think of them as milestones within the adventure.

The primary source of inspiration drawn on is the 1944 Serial “Captain America” which has just been telecast on Public Broadcasting here in Australia. [Quite good, though they overused one of the techniques described below.] But that just got me thinking on the subject.

I had intended to take a break from the Pulp Genre for a while, having just wrapped up the House Rules series, but something that had been called off for yesterday was unexpectedly called back on again at the last minute, chewing up time I thought I would have for getting a head start on today’s article. I needed something quick, and this at least started that way (at least it can be applied to many different genres of game).

But, as I have said before, I don’t do “short” very well. In addition to word-count inflation, a black-out in the middle of writing has meant that this article can’t possibly be finished in one post. So I’ve broken it in two – Part 1 will list eight general tips for Cliffhanger finishes, and part 2 will list 11 techniques for creating and using cliffhangers, with additional specific tips and advice.

1. A cliffhanger definition

A cliffhanger is a scene that leaves the players wanting to know what happens next. The most obvious and common cliffhangers place a character in some sort of peril and don’t show if they survive it, but there are more subtle variations, and a number of different ways to resolve the cliffhanger. The more dramatic the moment of resolution is going to be, the more satisfying the cliffhanger as a punctuation mark within the adventure.

Timing is everything

Your cliffhanger will fall flat if the danger that forms the cliffhanger is less extreme than a danger that was overcome shortly before the cliffhanger takes place. You want the cliffhanger to be the most dramatic moment of the preceding 45 minutes to 1 hour’s play – longer than that and you can usually get away with it. Also, by definition, the Cliffhanger has to come at the end of the day’s play. So part of the trick is aligning these two events. Later, I’ll tell you about a couple`of ways to get the timing right.

The Lead Balloon

Dramatic Final Scenes are only one-half of any cliffhanger. The forgotten half is the resumption of play, when you have to resolve the cliffhanger. Get that wrong, and half your next session of play will go down like a lead balloon – and so will your next attempted cliffhanger. It takes time and repeated success before your players will fully trust that dramatic pause again. For each cliffhanger technique that I offer below, I will also take a hard look at the next-session kickoff – quite often, that’s the only difference between the techniques that I have to offer.

So the first tip that I have is this: Know what a cliffhanger is, in its many forms and permutations – in other words, know what you are doing, and then do it with deliberate intent and gusto.

2. Have a vague idea of where you will be up to

It helps immensely to have a rough idea of the pacing of your adventure, and how far the characters are likely to get by the end of play for the day.

Simply dropping a cliffhanger into proceedings is not good enough; for the cliffhanger to work at anything approaching its best, you need to build up to it. And that, in turn, works better when you have it planned to at least some extent; otherwise, you can find your adventure and your buildup in conflict instead of harmony.

The second tip, therefore, is: Plan to incorporate cliffhangers in your adventure, and position them around your projected end-of-play point.

3. Create more potential cliffhangers than you need

The relationship between adventure planning and a successful Cliffhanger Ending goes even deeper; if you have a reasonable idea of roughly where the adventure will get up to in the day’s play, you can make sure that you build in potential cliffhangers to exploit.

It’s never possible to forecast exactly how far the players will get in a single day’s play, there are simply too many variables. At best, you can get a close approximation. So the best approach is to incorporate one cliffhanger at the point you think the game will reach, plus two more at plus-or-minus 15 minutes, plus another 15-30 minutes before the earlier of those two. That gives you a 45-60 minute “window” to aim for. If the game session is more than six hours long, I would also think about dropping one in at about the four-hour mark, just in case.

My third tip for working with Cliffhangers is: Have more potential cliffhangers than you think you are going to need built into your adventure. A LOT more.

Actually, to be honest, most of the time, I don’t do this; decades of experience, a consistent GMing style, and a fairly stable game prep approach enable me to get fairly close to the mark most of the time. If you, too, enjoy all three of these benefits, then you can probably ignore this tip. Everyone else should take it to heart.

4. Have a way to downplay unused cliffhangers

By the same token, you don’t want the adventure to lurch from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, then go quiet at the start of the next day’s play, until the pattern repeats.

The easiest solution to this problem is to design each potential cliffhanger as an encounter, then plan for it to go in either of two ways – over-the-top (cliffhanger) or “normal”. But that’s additional prep that you really want to avoid, if you can; so a still better approach is to design them all as “normal” encounters, but with the potential to explode.

It’s worth observing that I am using the term “encounter” in a somewhat-broader sense than is normally the case. A character looking through a musty old tome is having an encounter with that tome. A character having an intimate soirée with an NPC is having an encounter of the roleplaying variety. A character querying a database is having an encounter with the computer, and another with the data being accessed. A character receiving a telegram is having an encounter with the information in the telegram. And so on.

The Fourth Tip is: Design your “encounters” within the “cliffhanger zone” with the potential for use as Cliffhangers.

5. Heighten the drama of the cliffhanger

There is a gap in play – it might be seconds, minutes, or more – between the commencement of an encounter and its transmutation into an actual cliffhanger. As soon as you know that this encounter is going to be the vehicle for the dramatic uncertainty that is a cliffhanger, heighten the drama of the encounter. This is your “big finish” for the day, so go all out to make it exciting, interesting, or whatever the dominant tone of the encounter is. Amplify it to lay the groundwork for the cliffhanger itself.

If a cliffhanger is a suspension of resolution, you need suspense to attach to the situation to be resolved. This of course distances the potential cliffhanger that is having that potential realized from all those encounters in which the potential was not exploited.

Hence, my fifth tip: Build up the lead-in to the Cliffhanger.

6. Set notes and Player Choices

Cliffhangers are more effective when the resumption of play matches very closely with the end of play of the preceding section. You want to be able to rewind the clock and repeat the last couple of seconds or more of play – in other words, if you end with a cliffhanger, you start the next session with the same cliffhanger.

This is very hard to do unless you were using prepared narrative and notes. Fortunately, Tips 2 and 3 advise you to prep such material in advance, focusing your efforts on the parts that matter.

The other thing that makes it very hard to do are the players. Player Choices must be carefully documented, and they aren’t allowed to change their minds between sessions even if they think of a better idea. The opening of the next session is not about relating what is happening, it’s about what has just happened.

The best time to do the prep for the start of the next game session is immediately following the last, if not sooner.

Sooner, you say? How is that possible?

By taking notes as the cliffhanger unfolds. A Microphone and a piece of audio recording software connected to a laptop. A dictaphone. A reel-to-reel recorder. A Mobile phone & app. Use something to record the last minute or two of the game session if you can, and take a photo or two of any battlemap showing character positions before and after each character moves, just for that last vital few seconds.

All this then becomes set in stone, immutable, past history. At the start of the next session, you relive it but don’t repeat it.

I also enforce something I call “Cliffhanger Rules” or “The Cliffhanger Zone” or even “Cliffhanger time”. Normally, you want to inform players of the results of their actions immediately they specify what those actions are. In the “Cliffhanger Zone” a player informs you of what their character is doing, but you deliberately withhold the results from your narrative unless they build the drama of the cliffhanger itself. Save those results for the opening sequence next time around!

Quite obviously, this also requires careful notes in some form.

So my sixth tip is: Document the cliffhanger as best you can immediately, so that you can replicate it at the start of the next game session.

7. Improvising a cliffhanger

Even with all this prep, it is sometimes necessary to improvise a cliffhanger. Not all the techniques that I have up my sleeve work well when used in this way; but there are three approaches that work especially well as improvised cliffhangers. For this reason, and the because there are no shortage of cliffhanger techniques that work just as well, if not better, given the correct advance prep, I reserve these approaches for the times when I need to improvise a cliffhanger.

The circumstances need to be appreciated; the only times when you should need to improvise a cliffhanger are when your pre-planning has gone seriously off the rails, or for some reason, simply didn’t get finished or done at all. The first indicates that either the players have gone off in some radically unexpected direction and you’ve been winging it for half the day, or they took a lot longer to get through an encounter of some sort than expected. I once had a game session where the PCs spent half the day talking to an NPC, discussing philosophy, history, and the NPC’s unique slant on the game-world theology, an encounter that was intended to take no more than ten of twenty minutes, game time. As a result, they were nowhere near any of the possible cliffhanger points in the adventure, leaving me with the choices of a low-key end to the session, or an improvised cliffhanger.

The second thing to bear in mind when improvising a cliffhanger is that there is a greater chance of your adventure going radically off the rails at this point than there is at any other time within the adventure. The reason should be obvious: You have the entire adventure planned out to at least some extent, and then you drop in something that is both extra, and dramatic. This is an obvious recipe for an unexpected shift in direction, and can often require the rest of the adventure to be completely scrapped and replaced.

If you use some of the plotting advice that has been offered at Campaign Mastery in the past, such issues can be minimized, but that’s about as good as you can get. The specific advice that I have in mind is, first and foremost, to know what the villains and NPCs are trying to achieve, and to build the adventure elements out of those ambitions and their efforts to satisfy them. That means that when you need to improvise a Cliffhanger, you can construct it from the same foundation elements of the plot on which the adventure is based. The NPC actions have an inherent plausibility as a result, and the overall shape of “the grand plan” better accommodates the addition of the cliffhanger.

The first improv technique: Withholding an outcome

The first of the techniques for improvising a cliffhanger is to withhold the outcome of a critical PC action or choice.

“Jerenkov hesitates for a moment, realizing how long the pumps and pipes have been left to rot without adequate maintenance, and how catastrophically it could all go horribly wrong, and then reaches out with a steady hand that doesn’t reflect his apprehension and pushes the button to start the abandoned geothermal reactor…”

The GM knows full well that the reactor is going to start up with no problems whatsoever because it’s critical to his plot that the PCs have power to run the systems that are still operational in the hidden base, but the players don’t. According to his planning, they simply push the button and the power systems come on-line, one after another, with no more than a host of warnings and reminders of scheduled maintenance that’s overdue.

By ramping up the drama and anticipation and then leaving it unresolved, withholding the outcome of the action, the GM has created an improvised cliffhanger. All he has to do is write down exactly what he said so that he can repeat the performance at the start of the next session and then continue with the outcome, also elevated in drama a little to maintain the established mood.

The second improv technique: Inserting a dramatic development

“Jannick steps silently along the leafy-strewn path, alert to the possibility of an ambush at any moment. As he reaches the next doorway, he feels the earth shift slightly beneath his foot and hears an ominous click…”

The PC has just stepped on a land mine that didn’t exist until the GM needed a cliffhanger. He could even have prepared the entire piece of narrative in advance with the intention of inserting it at the end of the day’s play, whenever that happened. This is an example of inserting a dramatic development.

Normally, you would (or should) forewarn the players that a minefield was nearby by having them spot a crater, or perhaps a mine whose leafy concealment had blown clear. Or perhaps its a fantasy game and instead of a mine, some other trap has just been activated. By foregoing that warning, you negate any opportunity that the players have of avoiding the problem – a minor bit of railroading of plot for the purposes of drama that is only acceptable if there is a clear solution available to the players affected. That solution then gets offered to the players at the start of the next session, so that triggering the trap has no practical impact on their character’s welfare except to offer warning of the possible existence of more traps.

The other point to note about this example is that the GM raised the drama of the scene with a piece of misdirection (the possibility of ambush) and then redirected the drama at the last moment to the real threat – the trap.

Of course, there will need to be some backstory provided in the next session to justify the existence of the trap at that exact place. Who put it there, why, and who was it intended for? If it was reasonable that the PCs would have been forewarned of the possibility of traps, this backstory also needs to make it clear that the information wasn’t given to them because there was no way that the people briefing the PCs could have known about it.

Finally, the GM needs to have a really clear understanding of any extra-normal sensory abilities of the PCs – it’s no good using this sort of cliffhanger if the PC had the ability to detect the mine before he set foot on it. In other words, the “dramatic development” needs to be crafted to fall within the limitations of those involved. (There is a way around this problem that will be shown by one of the more general techniques that I’ll describe later – I’ll make a point of bringing it to your attention when the time comes).

The third improv technique: Insert a drop-in encounter

“You glare at the opposition and ready your weapons, as do they. One of the blue-skinned barbarians yells something in their untranslatable alien tongue; you aren’t sure of the content, but the tone suggests that it is an insult of some kind. Tension hangs in the air as each of you stares into the eyes of an enemy, and the first mistake will precipitate a general slaughter. Who will blink first? And then there is a whoosh of air from overhead, and a bright light rains down on the battlefield, as a somewhat prissy voice announces, ‘Oh my goodness, no, this won’t do at all!

This is an actual example from my archives; it occurred many, many years ago in my first AD&D campaign. All that my notes indicated was “the PCs encounter a hunting party from the nearby village.”

Everything else was improvised to heighten the drama of the moment, ready for the cliffhanger.

I knew that some tribes make mock charges to demonstrate their manhood – so I inserted that cultural trait into the society of the hunting party in question. The PCs knew nothing of the villager’s society, so they had no forewarning of what to expect; a potential disaster loomed, one that would have completely derailed the adventure, which required the Hunting Party and the PCs to cooperate, as a means of delivering essential briefing information to the players about the situation. I therefore also needed something to derail the potential bloodshed that could easily have resulted from the PCs misinterpreting the actions of the Hunting Party, thanks to the last-minute introduction of that social custom into the mix.

What I did have planned to use as a cliffhanger was an initial encounter between the PCs and the deranged Hologram (my AD&D campaign had a LOT of sci-fi elements in it) who was to be both ally and major villain for the adventure. I had no idea what the substance of that encounter was going to be – I did a lot of improv back then – only that something was going to happen. But improvising the dramatic buildup, then redirecting the tension in an unexpected direction with the appearance of the Hologram, while defusing the hostilities between the two factions, told me exactly how I needed the image to behave.

Of course, if I didn’t need a cliffhanger at that point in play, I would not have introduced that social custom at all; I would have introduced the hunters some other way, such as a bird dropping from the sky and crashing to the ground just in front of the PCs, the unfortunate foul spouting a couple of arrows through its gizzard. Encounter proceeds from there with a lot of gesturing and gibberish, the upshot of which would have been “OUR bird”, or perhaps, “OUR lunch”.

The Seventh tip

These techniques demonstrate my seventh tip: You can improvise a cliffhanger, and there are three ways of doing so – but such improv is even better if it’s prepared in advance!

8. The Mid-battle Muddle

Of course, the cliff-hanger comes to us courtesy of the Pulp-era serials, including such gems as the legendary “Perils Of Pauline” – which, ironically, didn’t actually employ cliffhanger endings.

More often than not, the dangerous situations that form the cliffhanger arise in the course of a battle. And that’s especially problematic for an RPG.

Combat sequences are the most complex situations to interrupt and resume. There are whole bunches of stats that receive temporary adjustments during a fight, such as current hit points, etc. Character’s positions and facings have to be preserved perfectly. There may be spells in mid-cast, spell effects waiting to expire, and all sorts of other complications. Even remembering the immediate goals and ambitions of each and every character and creature on the battlefield is either a pain in the backside or a consumer of vast amounts of time after the game. And that’s a waste of time that could be spent playing – you have to actually end the game early to have enough time to document everything.

Battle may be the natural breeding ground for cliffhangers, but it’s one that should be avoided in RPGs at all costs. Just before combat, or just after, or when something interrupts to bring the combat to a premature end – those are fine. But unless you are VERY sure of the arrangements you have made to preserve the current state of play, apply my final tip:

Cliffhangers and mid-battle scenes don’t mix in RPGs.

So that brings us to the end of my general hints for Cliffhangers. In part 2 of this article, I’ll detail eleven ready-to-implement cliffhanger techniques. And yes, I’ve been told there aren’t really that many. All I can say is that some people will be very surprised. If I can finish it in time, look for it later this week; if not, it will be published by this time next week, all going well.

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On the binding of Wounds – Everyday Healing For Pulp


This is the final part (at least for now) of a series presenting the House Rules that have been introduced into the Pulp Campaign that I co-GM. Today I look at the most recent addition to the rules, relating to the healing of injuries, look at the thinking behind the curtain, and why GMs from other game systems – especially Pathfinder/3.x – should consider incorporating something similar.


Credit where it’s due

As always, Blair Ramage deserves half the credit and half the blame for these rules. This article is partially based on discussions between us, but was written by Mike alone. The sections dealing with applying the principles to other RPGs is also Mike’s solo work.

Damage in the Hero System

The place to start is with a little context.

Damage in the Hero system is divided into two types, Stun and Body. Stun is recovered very quickly and represents shock and the capacity for coherence of thought as much as anything else; use up all your stun, and you are knocked unconscious.

Body damage is physical harm – it can be anything from burns to broken bones to holes being punched in the character by bullets. use up your Body Damage capacity and you are dying; you lose one additional point of body each time you would normally have acted, and when you have lost twice as much as your original Body capacity, you’re dead.

In order to inflict damage, you have to first get through a character’s defenses, which are subdivided into two forms: Physical and Energy. Attacks are classified into these two categories by the nature of the attack, and most are one or the other for simplicity.

Attacks are also divided into two types: Normal and Killing. In normal attacks, damage is rolled on a number of d6s depending on the severity of the attack. The total is the amount of stun – so 3d6 normal inflicts 3-18 points of Stun Damage. At the same time, each dice inflicts 1 point of body damage on a successful attack, -1 if you roll a 1 and +1 if you roll a six on that die when determining the stun damage inflicted. Your defense applies to both body and stun generated in this way.

Killing attacks are nastier. The total that you roll on Nd6 (depending on the severity of the attack) is the amount of Body Damage done, and a Stun Multiplier (usually determined with a separate d6-1 roll) is then applied to that total to determine the amount of Stun that results. Optional and House Rules often impose further variations on that Stun Multiplier, as does an optional Hit Location System (which multiplies the damage done by anywhere from x1/2 to x2). So 3d6 killing will inflict 3 - 18 body damage, possibly more if the hit location optional system is used, and 0 to 90 stun damage, possibly more if the optional system is used. In addition, if using a physical attack like a knife and not a firearm-type attack, the attacker’s Strength adds (or subtracts, if you are puny enough) to the base killing damage done. Furthermore, your defenses only apply to this damage if they have a special attribute applied to represent some form of armor.

Problems with the system

Four glaring problems eventually make themselves obvious to most Hero Games GMs: Killing attacks are either too lethal or not lethal enough; Killing attacks can inflict too much Stun damage; The Stun Multiplier is not granular enough; and Normal attacks are not lethal enough.

Killing Attacks Too Lethal
Other parts of the system permit an attacker to increase the lethality of their killing attacks, but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s look at a fairly typical 3d6 Killing firearm for a second: the average Joe has 10 body. The average shot from such a firearm is going to inflict 10.5 points of body damage. So an average shot puts the character into a dying condition instantly. The average character then has 20 actions to be saved. But if the initial attack did better than average, that twenty-round margin can be quickly eaten into – doing the maximum 18 points of body damage to a 10-body normal person puts them at -8, so they have already lost 8 of that 20-action margin. Three average hits is immediately lethal to the average person, and two average hits gives them only a few seconds – perhaps half-a-minute – to live.

But 3d6 doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuancing the differences between firearms. You can’t reduce the lethality much without making them all the same.

Depending on the genre of game you are running, this can be way too lethal. Of course, most PCs will be superior to the average-Joe Body capacity – but they can still be killed instantly by a single lucky shot.

This effect is due to a systems compromise to make the system more playable. Combat in the hero system is already slow, dividing the effect of a weapon into damage inflicted immediately and damage inflicted over time that might be prevented with appropriate medical treatment would slow it to the point of unplayability.

One solution is to give characters more Body, and that’s the approach that I employed when first creating my superhero rules. One problem with this approach is that this so diminishes the physical damage inflicted by Normal attacks that you may as well not record it. As I’ve said before in other articles, House Rules breed House Rules.

Killing Attacks Not Lethal Enough
As soon as you get into superheroic territory, especially high-end super-heroics, you quickly discover that they suffer from the opposite problem – most Killing attacks simply aren’t lethal enough. The characters are relatively invulnerable, and an arms race soon develops between characters increasing the lethality of their attacks and characters boosting their defenses. But that’s not an issue in a pulp campaign, so I’ll politely ignore that problem within this article.

Killing Attacks do too much Stun
The average Joe is going to have 10 stun. This is absolutely fine when it comes to Normal attacks. But let’s take a typical 3d6 killing attack: 10.5 body, times an average 2.5 stun multiplier, is 26.25 stun, on average. The actual range, as stated earlier is 0-90. So one shot is enough to knock the average person out cold.

The average PC, with a Stun of 15-20, is not really any better off.

One shot and a PC is out of the fight, with a player sitting around twiddling his thumbs.

The problem is infinitely worse in superhero campaigns, because the scale of the attacks increases faster than the typical STUN available.

There are lots of solutions available to this problem. You can increase the amount of Stun people get. You can rule that the character’s defense applies to the stun component of killing attacks. You can lower the variability of the stun multiplier. I employ all these techniques in my supers campaigns. Once again, it’s very easy to get into an arms-race situation, or need to inflate a villain’s capacities beyond something reasonable for their character concept just to make them viable enemies. KOing your villains with one shot is not much of a challenge.

At the same time, it’s easy to go too far.

The Stun Multiplier is not granular enough
If you have a killing attack that inflicts 10 points of body damage, the outcomes from your stun multiplier are 0, 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50. A lot of GMs inadvertently make things worse when using the hit location system by adding the stun multiplier from the hit location to whatever is rolled instead of replacing it – but doing it properly leads to no variation at all.

In a superhero campaign, where an average killing attack might do anywhere from 20 to 50 points (depending on the power scale of the campaign), this problem only gets worse.

One solution that has been employed successfully is to use 1/2 x (d12-1) instead of d6-1. This introduces half-way points – so the 10 points of body damage now has the potential to inflict 0. 5. 10. 15. 20. 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, or 55 points of stun. This makes the “too much stun from killing attacks” problem marginally worse, but provides a lot more granularity to the system. An even better solution for a pulp campaign is to use 1/2 x (d6-1) for the stun multiplier. This not only gives greater granularity, it solves the too-much-stun problem – the possible outcomes from a 10-body killing attack become 0. 5. 10. 15. 20, 25, 30. And an average result becomes 12.5 stun. If you also permit the “defense reduces stun from killing attacks” house rule, you reach the point where an average gunshot will knock a character out for one round by reducing them to exactly zero Stun, and force them to rest for a few more once they awaken, but won’t take them completely out of the game – and it will take a couple of hits to knock a PC out for a similar time frame.

So many design tweaks
At its root, all these problems result from the fact that the Hero system was designed to facilitate low-level superhero combats. The combat system needs to be tweaked to handle anything outside of those bounds. Batman, Green Arrow, Captain America, Black Widow, Daredevil – these characters work well when being simulated by the system. Even the early X-men and Fantastic Four (as depicted in the comics). Don’t try running Iron Man, or Thor, or Superman without changing the system.

And, to a somewhat lesser extent, the same is true of Pulp campaigns. Killing attacks are too lethal, and inflict too much stun, while normal attacks don’t do enough damage, to correctly simulate the genre.

One advantage of the complexity of the combat system is that there is a lot of capacity to tweak one element or aspect of it independently. You can introduce one primary change and easily manipulate away undesirable side effects from that change. The simpler a combat system, the fewer levers you have to change the settings of.

One disadvantage is that you don’t get one change to the combat system, you get a raft of them at the same time.

The Adventurer’s Club Campaign

Which brings me to the Adventurer’s Club campaign. For the most part, this is run using unmodified combat rules. I would like to introduce the reduced stun multiplier House Rule described above, and permit a character’s defense to reduce Stun from Killing attacks, but that’s a subject for future discussion with my co-GM. For the most part, we employ a more cinematic “go around the table” approach to combat rather than tracking each character’s specific opportunities to act, but in terms of the actual mechanics of hitting a target with an attack and inflicting damage, the rules are pretty much as written.

Healing & Recovery in the Hero System

With two types of damage comes two healing/recovery sub-systems.

STUN is recovered quickly. Characters have a separate stat call Recovery, which is how much Stun they get back in a turn. For the average character, this is 10. Heroes and superheros will have more. What’s more, so long as they aren’t stunned or unconscious, the character can rest for a phase instead of acting, and get an extra recovery. Provided the problem of Killing attacks doing too much stun has been addressed in some way, characters tend to be in an all-or-nothing STUN state – they are either at full capacity or close to it, at worst losing a little over time (provided they can rest when they need to), or they have virtually nothing left and need to rest immediately. Giving up a couple of actions is enough to get them back close to maximum capacity again. The only way to prevent this is to inflict a lot of STUN damage at the same time, in multiple attacks if necessary.

BODY is a different story. You get your Recovery in BODY back in a month. This is doubled if the character is resting in a hospital and receiving appropriate care. So the average person will get one body back every 3 days, while the average PC will get one back every 2 days. If you came very close to death – say to -18 body for a normal person, or perhaps -28 for a heroic PC – you will not get back to full capacity for 84 and 86 days, respectively – halved in a hospital setting. This not only takes you out of the current adventure, it may take you out of several adventures to come. These are quite reasonable results.

Even boosting recovery rates to 1 per day, 2 in a hospital setting, it is still slow enough that running out of BODY to any degree sidelines a character for entirely too long – for a PC. I would argue that in a pulp campaign, the rates should be REC every week or perhaps every 5 days – reducing those time frames from 84 and 86 to 20 and 21 days (7-day recovery) or 14 and 15 (5-day recovery), respectively. Instead of three months, we’re talking either 3 weeks or 2 weeks – and that’s resting at home, not receiving Hospital Treatment. I would even happily argue in favor of PCs and NPC Pulp Heroes & Villains getting the 5-day rate and ordinary people getting the 7-day rate. Or perhaps 7-days and 15-days would be more appropriate, or 10 and 15 – the exact numbers will be specific to each type of campaign and how quickly the GM wants a PC to be back to normal and back on his feet.

(NB: These numbers all assume that the average person has BODY 10 and REC 10, while the average Pulp Hero has BODY 15 and REC 15.)

But there’s something missing from the system: Surgical intervention and repair. Inflicting damage to speed the recovery process. Unless you assume that this is the reason for the more rapid recovery. Do stitches help a cut heal faster? Absolutely – and they also reduce the chance of infection of the wound. Can a surgeon repair internal damage, even if they inflict a little more damage in the process, boosting the recovery rate? Absolutely. Do these skills exist in the Hero System? Absolutely. Do they have any such benefit? Not on your Nelly.

But I’ll come back to that in a moment.

The Psychology of Woundings: Why change the rules?

Players are well aware of their character’s vulnerability to death, and how slow BODY recovery is. Becoming helpless on the battlefield is an open invitation to a quick termination of life-signs, usually with extreme prejudice. So, when a character is reduced to a low amount of remaining BODY, they will want to pull back, or even pull out of the adventure. That’s not especially heroic, and it’s a long way from being Pulp, where the assumption is that you will keep going – which implies the underlying assumption that you CAN keep going.

Take Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. No matter how badly beat up he is, he is not only able but is willing to keep going.

Take John McClane in Die Hard. He’s like a Terminator – he won’t let anything stop him until he gets the job done.

Both of these roles are very, very Pulp in outlook.

The last thing you want in a Pulp Campaign is a PC deciding the risks are too great to continue. And that requires the players to have confidence that their characters can survive and can contribute – without taking away the risks of death and danger entirely.

Reducing the damage done, as a general principle, reduces the danger, but also reduces the sense of danger within the game (reducing the Stun Damage done is a special case relating to keeping a PC active and able to act instead of sitting at the table unable to do anything). An alternative is needed, and the place to look for it is in the untapped potential of Medicine that I mentioned in the preceding section.

Beyond the Doctor

There are all sorts of medical skills available through the Hero System. None of them are adequately defined in terms of the abilities they confer on the character who has them.

We ended up listing four, and getting specific about what they do, adding in abilities as necessary. Note that one or more PCs within the game had these skills already, and that the Doctor PC within the group had already operated on a character to save his life – requiring us to ad-hoc a game subsystem on the spot.

Types Of Medical Assistance

The four are: First Aid, Paramedic, Professional Skill: Doctor, and Professional Skill: Surgeon. And the only one that the official rules mention and give game mechanics for is Paramedic.

  • “First Aid” is cleaning cuts and abrasions and applying bandages. It may extend to applying stitches to close a wound.
  • “Paramedic” is stabilizing a dying patient and emergency surgery to delay death by applying makeshift repairs. It includes temporary setting of bones, providing blood to offset internal bleeding, and definitely includes applying stitches. It also includes applying anti-venom and such emergency treatments. The official rules lump both First Aid and Paramedic together; we broke them apart again.
  • “Professional Skill: Doctor” is actually specified as a Science Skill in the game system and is useful for diagnosis and treatment with medications only. The Hero System assigns it no practical applications or benefits. We considered the skill to the equivalent of GP training, and gives the character the expertise to do anything that a GP can do that is not explicitly covered under Paramedic, and also permits the permanent setting of simple fractures and so on. Both Doctor and Paramedic permit the application of CPR if that technique has been invented (Modern CPR techniques begin in 1962, but precursors go back as far as 1767 – see The History Of CPR at Wikipedia). Simple surgical procedures are also covered, such as operating to remove an ingrown toenail.
  • “Professional Skill: Surgeon” deals with anything more invasive. We apply a general knowledge as to the state of the art in terms of what can be achieved. In a modern-day campaign, we may require more specific definition, e.g. “Professional Skill: Cardiovascular Surgeon”. As a general rule of thumb, the dividing line between non-specific “surgeon” and a mandatory specialist designation is completely arbitrarily placed somewhere in the 1950s.

One outstanding point of indecision is whether or not paramedic is sufficient to permit successful amputations, or whether that should be a capability of Surgeons. Since an amputation might well mandate the retirement of a PC, we hope never to actually reach the point of having to decide.

In almost all cases, despite the absence of realism in terms of practices and outcomes, we treat medical procedures as they would normally be depicted in television and media.

The Additional Healing Rules

The actual rules we have put in place are:

House Rules for Medical Treatment:

PDF Icon

Click the icon to download the Healing Rules as a PDF

  1. Successful use of Paramedic Skill to stabilize a dying patient may halt the decline in BODY of the patient, restore the character to zero BODY, or do something in-between, at the discretion of the GMs, based on the nature of the injury.
  2. Treatment by a Doctor will restore up to 7 HP per adventure to a character without requiring a skill roll.
  3. Use of a skill roll may restore additional hit points on a successful skill roll but will inflict additional damage on a failed roll:
    • First Aid: 1/2 d6 round up
    • Paramedic: 1/2 d8 round up
    • Medicine/Doctor: 1/2 d10 round up
    • Surgeon: (1/2 d12)+1 round up
  1. Which skill is employed is up to the treating character. A +2 skill bonus will be applied if the skill and corresponding treatment is appropriate to the description and cause of the injury.
  2. Some injuries may be specified by the GMs as requiring treatment with a specific skill or series of Skills e.g. Paramedic to stabilize a patient before surgery can commence. One character can only apply one Healing skill to a patient for one injury other than using Paramedic to stabilize a dying patient.
  3. Skill penalties may be applied for procedures carried out in hostile circumstances, difficult conditions, and/or using inadequate or improvised tools.
  4. Multiple healers may work on a single character, resulting in multiple rolls for additional healing, but a single healer cannot repair more than the 7 BODY per adventure healing to a single character. A single character cannot apply multiple healing rolls from different skills to treat one injury.

    e.g.: Character #1 has Paramedic. Character #2 has Surgeon. Character #3 has taken 12 points of BODY and has 2 BODY remaining.

    Character #1 succeeds in his Paramedic roll and rolls a 6 on the d8, repairing 4 points of damage. He can, on a subsequent occasion within the same adventure, use Paramedic skill again to repair an additional 3 points of damage before reaching the cap of 7 points for the adventure.

    Character #2 succeeds in his Surgeon roll and rolls a 9 on the d12, healing a further 6 points of damage. He can, on a subsequent occasion within the same adventure, use Surgeon skill again to repair an additional 1 point of damage before reaching the cap of 7 points for the adventure.

    Character #3 now has 2 + 4 + 6 = 12 BODY out of his normal total of 14.

These can be downloaded as a PDF by clicking on the icon above.

A Note to players Of The Adventurer’s Club Campaign:

This draws together house rules from several different adventures, and expands slightly on the existing rules, which is why they are a little more extensive than the version furnished in your last adventure. See Below.

Discussion & Notes

The first thing that will be noticed is that these are pretty short and sweet, as House Rules go. They are very simple, and designed to get characters back on their feet quickly. But there are a few subtle nuances that are worth noting.

Rule 1: Up From Zero

This lets us distinguish between serious wounds resulting in internal damage and a succession of smaller wounds that cumulatively have carried a character below the zero BODY threshold, or some combination. If all a character has received is “minor” wounds, stabilization will bring the patient back to zero BODY; if the damage all results from one major wound like a gunshot or impaling, stabilization will simply stop the losses, freezing the character’s BODY at whatever level it had deteriorated to; and if the result is somewhere in between, we can choose to ignore the minor injuries to evaluate what the character’s BODY level is actually restored to.

This means that the healing benefits from Rule 3 aren’t all used up getting the patient back up to zero BODY.

Rule 2: Back On Your Feet, Soldier!

Before you have to start worrying about the fancy stuff like skill rolls, you get to use this quick-and-dirty resuscitation. With some characters who are only moderately injured, this is enough to restore them to full health, but more often it will simply give them enough to get back on their feet, or increase the benefits that can be obtained from more serious intervention. If not still in a combat situation, it can often be better to save this quick “shot in the arm” against later need.

Rules 2 & 3: Delaying The Inevitable

This healing isn’t like “Cure” spells in D&D/Pathfinder. There’s a limit to how much healing one character can get, and a limit to how much healing one character can provide. This delays the danger of death or convalescence, enabling the character to continue in play, but doesn’t remove the danger of death or serious injury, especially if the patient takes foolhardy risks.

Rule 3: The Healing Rates

This is one of the more clever parts of these House Rules. First Aid doesn’t give much healing, and hence will take a long time to reach the 7-point cap. Paramedic does more, and hence will reach the cap more quickly. Doctor is still better – and reaches the cap more quickly as well. Surgeon is the most beneficial skill to apply – but can use up the entire cap in a single stroke. What’s more, all these skills come off a single cap – you can use 4 points from Doctor and 3 points from First Aid and that’s the entire 7 points gone for the adventure, for that character.

Rules 4, 5, and 6: Appropriate Course Of Treatment

Healers are more likely to succeed if they use the correct course of treatment according to the nature of the injury. For certain injuries, the GM can dictate what is needed, or state that a certain skill is not appropriate. This stops people from treating a gunshot with a band-aid and expecting to get any benefit from it. Finally, it isn’t stated explicitly, but it’s a reasonable assumption that the more invasive the course of treatment, the more strictly the GMs will look at adverse circumstances. Applying first aid in a fast-moving vehicle traveling over rough terrain is not as difficult or dangerous as attempting surgery under those conditions.

Rules 5 & 7: Many Hands

Not part of the original rules, but something that has subsequently been identified as needing to be addressed was the subject of multiple characters working together to heal one patient. So one character can use surgeon and another can use something else, but both can’t use surgeon; and one healer can’t use both First Aid and Surgeon to heal the same injury. Each character gets one shot at the healing.

A standard rule permits multiple characters to assist another, giving the assisted character a greater chance of success, so that’s how a surgical team works – one lead surgeon and one or more assistants.

Rule 7: Skill Justification

The final point worth emphasizing is that characters need to justify the skills that they have. It’s easy to get First Aid, just about anyone can take that. It requires professional training to have the Paramedic Skill. Our Spy might be able to justify it, and maybe the Ship Captain; the Priest and Engineer PCs certainly can’t. It takes even more education to become a Doctor, and still more to become a Surgeon. No PC except the Doctor can justify those.

The Captain’s Cook NPC is also the on-board medic, and a specialist in Chinese Medicine; he could justify both Paramedic and Doctor, but not Surgeon, because traditional Chinese medicine is non-invasive. We might let the character have a limited amount of Surgeon though, for the setting of badly-broken bones and the like, with the caveat that they would not heal perfectly.

Sidebar: The Irony Of Application

The first (and so far only) character to have been seriously injured since these rules were introduced was, ironically, the Doctor, who was shot through the hand. We permitted him to assist the character who was treating him sufficiently to protect his ability to perform surgery – stretching the rules – and between prescribing himself a painkiller and antibiotic, and the first aid/paramedic ability of the other character (I forget which was used) he recovered enough to continue in the adventure, and take part in the subsequent battle with the Tong “Ninjas”.

But it’s still ironic. Doctor, Heal Thyself…!

The Clerical Problem: healing in other game systems

Graham McDonald, a player, GM, and Friend who passed away a few years ago – I commemorated his passing in the unexpectedly appropriate Missing In Action: Maintaining a campaign in the face of player absence – could rail for hours about the “Holy Drip-Bottle” as he termed Clerics whose primary party function was to cast Cure spells all day. In a nutshell, the problem is that every other contribution that the class could make is either overshadowed by this ability, or the cleric is thrust into greater prominence than any other character if both aspects of the class are given prominence. The Cleric is supposed to be a Warrior Of God (or of ‘a’ God, or of a Pantheon, however your game world works it) while the Healing role demands the character operate from a protected back line for maximum tactical benefit – i.e. making sure that the Healer is alive to do his job at the end of Combat.

It doesn’t help matters that the Paladin & Blackguard classes frequently intrude into the non-Healing part of the Clerical Domain, further minimizing the Spiritual Guide & Guardian aspects of the class.

This problem existed through all versions of the D&D system and its offshoots until the release of 4e, which – I am told – finally succeeded in addressing it by spreading healing capacities amongst the other characters while limiting the healing that the cleric could provide. Earlier attempts to solve it in Second Edition AD&D and 3.x were only partially successful at best.

The Clerical Straitjacket

To some extent, this problem exists in most game systems – the healer has to be protected for practical reasons, and hence has limited engagement in any other aspect of the game. I’ve seen it in Star Trek The Roleplaying Game, I’ve seen it in Traveller, and I’ve seen it in Paranoia! It isn’t quite as significant in Call Of Cthulhu because the predominant damage form is to Sanity, which isn’t conducive to medical intervention; physical harm is usually a very secondary consideration. And it didn’t matter as much in the Klingons campaign I once played in, because the warrior ethos of the Klingons didn’t place the same emphasis on character healing and survival.

Nor does it impact on my superhero campaigns much, purely because I deliberately introduced a technological means of quick healing – or, more accurately, not only didn’t make it difficult for one of the PCs to come up with the gadget, I deliberately refrained from doing anywhere near as much with the idea plot-wise as I could have. I wanted characters to be able to rely on it, and the long-term benefits of doing so far outweighed any short-term benefits from exploiting flaws in the concept for plot purposes the way I did with just about every other convenience they came up with.

But this “Clerical Straitjacket” is not the only problem to be addressed within the context of the Healing System.

Realism vs Player Confidence

The other major difficulty that persists to some extent in all games is the old one of realism vs playability. Specifically, in order to make a good game, you want the characters to be willing to take chances and say yes to adventure when it knocks on the door. This is at odds with the principle of realistic inflicting of damage and the psychology that it inflicts on players. This is one respect in which you can be realistic or you can be fun, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to be both at the same time.

The result is a continual stress on the GM to get the balance right between these two elements – the potential damage to be done, and the ability of the PCs to heal and recover from it.

There are no universal “right answers” to this conundrum. Most GMs who become aware of the problem consider themselves lucky if there is a temporarily right answer for any one encounter that doesn’t have to be ringed with conditional elements.

As already indicated, solving this issue in the Adventurer’s Club campaign was the direct cause of these House Rules being introduced. And where it works for one, it will work for other genres of campaign.

Applying The Healing Rules To Other Systems

There are benefits and some practical problems involved in applying the Healing Rules to other game systems. Since the skill checks yield a simple succeed-or-fail result, it doesn’t matter what the skill mechanics of the system are, but that’s where the easy answers stop.


Simply spreading the Healing Capacity around to other characters automatically de-emphasizes it for the Spiritual Guide, leaving him free to explore the religious and theological elements of the game world. The tactical problem becomes less significant when other PCs can use their Healing ability to get the Cleric back on his feet. So the system will automatically confer all the benefits to any game system to which it is adapted.

Alternative Anatomy

The first real problem that has to be considered is the application of the technique to alternative anatomies. Aliens and non-human races abound in games – does the one skill cover all? Is Veterinary Medicine more applicable (a dodge that has been used any number of times in Science Fiction). Do you need additional House Rules to cover this situation?

I can think of several forms that such additional rules might take, but none of them are especially compelling. There is no universal “right answer” to the question, and each GM should decide for themselves in their own campaigns, if and when it becomes a problem.

The Inflatable Hit Points Problem

But the biggest problem to be overcome when adapting this system to other game systems is the dichotomy between fixed and inflatable hit point measures. In the Hero System, and many other game systems, the number of hit points that a character has is relatively fixed and won’t change much over the life of a character. In other game systems, increased capacity to absorb damage is a fundamental part of character growth, and poses an additional hurdle to be overcome if the system is to be adapted.

I have two alternatives for consideration, either of which would work with 3.x/Pathfinder/d20 game systems, who are the leading proponents of the Inflatable Hit Points game mechanic structure.

Scaling Recovery: Method 1: Multipliers & Skill-based Caps

The first option is to multiply the Hit Points recovered through these healing methods by 1, +1 for every 2nd character level possessed by the Healer. At level 2, the character heals twice as much as shown for the Hero Games system; at level 4, three times; at level 6, four times; and so on. This means that the capacity for healing is inflating at roughly half the progression in hit points.

The Cap also has to inflate from its initial seven points, and possibly be given a smaller starting value. I would drop the initial level to 3, and then increase it by one for every skill rank devoted to the healing skill in question. Four ranks – possible at 2nd level – would lift it back to 7. Eight ranks – possible at 4th level – takes it up to 11.

This results in a very tight cap, which may be less effective than desired. This is a problem because the increase is linear, while everything else is going up in geometric progression. I would solve this by applying a geometric factor, say x1 +1 for every 3rd level. This means that not only does the cap scale with healing expertise, but the cap also scales with the number of character levels – but at a slower rate than the deliverable healing, requiring the character to keep putting skill points into their healing skill as they advance in levels.

While indexing the cap to skill level results in a degree of realism, it also produces a more complex subsystem. If you wanted to, you could simply multiply the starting cap of 3 by the same factor as you apply to the healing method, or even simply by character level or – restoring the indexing – by total skill rank.

Scaling Recovery: Method 2: Percentage Of Harm and Healer Level-based Caps

The second approach I have to offer is even simpler, in many respects. Multiply the Cap (with an initial value of 3) by the Healer’s Character level or by his total healing skill, and multiply the healing shown by the rolls as given by 5 or 10 and call the result the % of the total hit points inflicted that are recovered.

So, first aid – nominally 1/2 d6 round up according to the rules – becomes 5x(1/2 d6), round up, per cent, or 5d6 per cent respectively, of the hit point damage the patient has suffered.

Setting The Boundaries

In addition to the specific controls incorporated into the system for the GM to use, there is one other that deserves some specific attention: the rather loaded phrase “per adventure”. Exactly what constitutes a discrete adventure? Is it a single game session? Can it be less? Or is it More? Is it every time the GM hands out experience points? Or every time a party returns to home base to replenish their stores?

Every GM will have his own thinking on the subject, and doesn’t have to explain how he reaches his decisions to anyone. However, if he is not at least consistent in his approach, he may face a player rebellion.

We use the term to refer to a single narrative plotline. When our PCs went to China to rescue some archaeologists, there were actually four separate adventures along the way in addition to the main plot. The adventure synopsized in the first part of this series, “Heir To The Throne” (Who murdered M and who would be his successor) has led to an entirely new adventure, “Infernal Gambit”, in which the PCs pursue the Demon responsible into Hell itself.

You may use a different definition. This gives you great control over how frequently the caps refresh.

Other Healing/Damage Variants For PFRPG/3.x:

Of course, this is not the only variant damage system that has been presented here at Campaign Mastery. GMs might also be interested in these entries (excepted from the Blogdex):

  • Too Much Life for The Living: March 2011 Blog Carnival – My second contribution to the March 2011 Blog Carnival asks if Healing is too easy in D&D, which leads to proposing an alternative combat system for 3.x / hPathfinder Based on concepts within the TORG game system. It was quite well received at the time. There are additional suggestions and clarifications in the comments. If you want to make your combats more life-and-death dramatic, this might be worth your time.
  • All Wounds Are Not Alike – Part 1: Alternative Damage rules for 3.x – What are “Hit Points”? I have encountered many different definitions, and each – carried to its logical conclusion – is best exemplified by a different set of house/variant rules for Damage and Healing. Each part of the “All Wounds Are Not Alike” series examines one in detail, from game theory through to implementation and consequences for game play. I didn’t actually gather them as a series because I wanted them to stand alone – you don’t need this article to understand/use the next in the series. This first one defines Hit Points as “a numeric index of the gap between healthy and helpless”. The results are great for bringing a High-Fantasy game back to earth, grounding it in realism. Don’t skip the comments for some perspective on the possible pitfalls.
  • All Wounds Are Not Alike Part 2: Bone-breaking damage for 3.x – The second definition that I consider for the concept of “Hit Points” is “An index of soft-tissue damage” which requires a rules extension to deal with broken bones. The results are interesting, to say the least, and offer lots of potential for new magic items, for differentiating between Paladin laying-on of hands and clerical magic, and for reinventing selected monsters with a slightly tweaked flavor. This option strikes a balance between high- and low-fantasy.
  • All wounds are not alike, part 3a: The Healing Imperative (Now Updated!) – An unmistakably high-fantasy approach, and the first variant offered that I actually use in one of my campaigns. Instead of making the differential between different wound types a function of the character’s total hit point capacity, it distinguishes types of injury by the amount of damage inflicted in a single blow, with thresholds based on the efficacy of Healing Spells. More variants and some really interesting discussion in the comments, which were unusually voluminous for this post – but read them in conjunction with the second half of the article, which was simply too big to finish in time.
  • All wounds are not alike, part 3b: The Healing Imperative (cont) – I finish the unfinished variation – with five sub-variants for users to contemplate. There’s some clarification in the comments.

Genre and Style

The healing rules presented in this article rules work for Pulp because they better facilitate the simulation of a reality that matches the Genre and Style of a Pulp serial, which is essentially part of the action-adventure family. They distance the campaign from “Grim & Gritty” and move it closer to the “non-stop frying-pan-to-fire action” flavor that we are trying to encourage. If that’s the direction you want your campaign to head in, I would urge you to consider adapting them to whatever game system you are using.

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Things That Are Easy, Things That Are Hard

map excerpt

Part of the map of the village of Etrien. Cartography by Stephen Garrett Rusk.

There are lots of things that are hard to do, or at least to do well. This article is about two of them, and a Kickstarter project that looks like a serious attempt to do both to a very high standard.

Challenge The First

The first is low-level adventures.

Many GMs find these difficult to create because the number of options available to characters are restricted, constrained to something closer to what is possible for a realistic individual to achieve.

This restriction makes such adventures very sensitive to the difficulty levels of tasks and opposition, a further constraint on the options available to the GM.

Beginners frequently exceed these limits, especially in cases where some theoretical means of balancing encounters is employed that may be relatively insensitive. In D&D terms, increasing the number of HD of a species by one can have a substantial effect on low-level encounters.

For this reason, many game systems are optimized around relatively low power levels and may break down at higher character levels; an increasing trend in this direction has been evident in all recent versions of D&D.

While the reasons for the phenomenon may not be obvious to GMs, it does manifest in a perception of how much ‘fun’ certain levels of character power are to game or to GM; higher level campaigns can offer too much variety of character response to events, increasing the workload of the GM. Individual perceptions vary, with some GMs suggesting that D&D stops being fun when the characters hit 14th level, others saying 12, and some suggesting 10 or even 8. I have even met one GM who never permits characters to rise above 5th level.

These constraints often result in smaller campaign scope that is more localized in geographic terms, which further eases game prep requirements, but once again exposes GMs to the problem of a campaign with insufficient scope to contain the full scope of their creativity. Some ideas simply will not fit within the constraints very effectively.

Finally, this situation leaves a campaign vulnerable should characters progress in power level at a greater rate than that anticipated by the GM.

Many thousands of words – some of them here at Campaign Mastery – have been directed toward solving or easing these specific difficulties. Few actually consider why the problem arises in the first place.

The Converse Is Also True

Equally, some GMs and campaigns have trouble fitting low-level adventures into their campaigns, because those visions are full of complex cosmological explorations, epic confrontations between cosmic powers, and the like. As I suggested above, low level campaigns can have trouble containing bigger ideas.

The search for simple solutions

In part, these problems arise because players look for simple solutions to large problems. They want to deal with issues directly and move on; single adventures that last a year or more can grow wearing. An effective resolution can be found by breaking larger problems down into more solvable small problems, but these can become tedious if there is insufficient variety in the smaller goals.

The PCs as levers

The most effective solution that I have found is to think of the PCs not as agents of direct change but as levers, capable of setting in motion larger forces. Archimedes reportedly wrote, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” This is great adventure and campaign-building advice when applied to low-level characters.

The worst possible solution is to enhance the PCs capacities until they can employ a direct solution to whatever challenge you have put before them. It is too easy to overstep the mark, doling out XP and magic like candy, and then discovering that to challenge the PCs ridiculously-difficult challenges need to be posed. This is the road to Monty Haulism.

The biggest hurdle to be overcome when employing the “lever” solution is to make the players aware of what specifically can be done about a situation and what impact it will have. What forces are available for them to harness, and how can they go about putting them in place. Quite often this takes so much education in the campaign world that by the time they are ready to implement it, they have achieved such growth in individual capabilities that the restrictions no longer apply.

Or the campaign folds through boredom before they get there.

Another effective perspective

Another way to think about low level campaigns is as acorns, small problems that will sprout and grow into huge oaks if not dealt with promptly, decisively, and correctly. “Plant” more of these in the campaign than the players can possibly deal with before such growth is achieved, then tend them lovingly; let unsolved problems influence other events, circumstances, and NPCs within the game as they grow, and be alert for the ramifications and consequences of the solutions employed creating a fertile environment for new acorns to be planted.

The PCs will deal with some of these problems while they are small, and commensurate with the PCs power levels; they can then turn their attention to some medium-level problems and stop them while they are manageable, leaving only one or two full-grown headaches to deal with when their capabilities grow sufficiently. The resolution of each small problem forms the background and climate in which the remaining problems will grow, and shapes the tools that the PCs can direct towards solving them.

And don’t neglect interactions between problems; some of these will help the PCs by slowing or strangling the growth of problems into something unmanageable, while others may accelerate growth, spinning off temporary new problems. An alliance between two enemies is a good example; the players might not be able to deal with both enemies, but they may be able to break up the alliance. Divide and conquer is a perfectly valid technique!

I never pose a problem for the game world without considering “how will this grow? How might it snowball?”

An alternative

The other technique I frequently employ is to have problems seem too small to be significant, then distract the players with larger and more immediate issues while that small problem becomes a much larger one lurking in the shadows.

Challenge The Second

The second difficult thing is providing multiple routes to – if not success for the players, then at least, to a satisfying conclusion to an adventure. Too many problems get posed in campaigns or adventures that only have a single solution. Ideally, you want a way in which conflict can solve the problem, and a way in which diplomacy can solve the problem, and a way in which stealth and subterfuge can solve the problem, and so on.

More often, though, there is nothing that the GM needs to specifically do to enable multiple solutions to a given problem. Instead, there are things that the GM should NOT do that stifle alternatives. The biggest of these is becoming so attached to the first solution that comes to mind, or that the GM has deliberately built into the adventure, that he actively blocks alternatives.

My technique is always to ensure that there is at least one solution to the problem, on the assumption that where there is one, there will be many alternatives and variations. I document that solution in case the PCs need a hint, but do not actively promote it unless they are completely baffled.

I then let the players find their own solutions. If there is a flaw in their logic, I make sure to bring that to their attention if they are reasonably able to spot it or if their solution locks them into their intended approach – not to rule their solution out, but to pose the flaw as a sub-problem that needs solution along the way. Sometimes, they will decide that this hurdle cannot be cleared, or (more often) that it can’t be done with sufficient certainty, in a short enough time, and will start looking for a different answer; that’s up to them. It’s absolutely critical to be encouraging and supportive, especially if they don’t see an immediate solution. Let the adventure proceed organically in response to PC choices, making darned sure that they know it if an action will rule out other possible solutions before they commit themselves.

There have been times when I have wanted to pose a seemingly-insoluble problem, and this is something that is much harder to do. The best approach is to prevent the PCs accessing a key piece of information until the GM wants them to have it. This is sometimes necessary to prevent problems being anticlimactic. But that alone doesn’t always work; players can always make educated or lucky guesses and assumptions, and sometimes we GMs are more transparent than we want to be. It is always preferable to have an NPC or circumstance actively feed the PCs misinformation that contradicts that key piece of information. It’s not enough not to tell the players something important; you need to find a way for them to get false information so that they don’t perceive the gap in their information and speculate about it. The revelation of the falsehood then becomes the critical first step along the path to resolution of the seemingly-impossible problem.

Without Cheating

But this is all a cheat, a way to permit multiple solutions to problems without actively constructing them with those solutions built-in. That last is much more difficult to achieve, and I salute anyone who successfully does so.

The Book of Terniel

The Book of Terniel, from The City Of Brass, aka Embers Design Studios, is an attempt to do all both of these things, and to do them well, and they might just pull it off – and on a shoestring budget.

This adventure for first-level Pathfinder characters was launched with an initial funding target of just US$500, a target that was achieved on just the third day of their campaign, As I write this, there are still 21 days to go, and they have just cleared the first of their stretch goals, while the adventure itself is close to, or has just, completed its second playtest.

This, to me, is a sure bet. The product exists, it’s just a question of what goodies come with it.

This project has three major sources of appeal to me, and I think it will hold the same appeal to a lot of my readers, too:

character excerpt

A reduced-size image for The Book of Terniel. Art by Monica Marie Doss.

Appeal The First: Resources

You can never tell when a published resource will plug into some gap in your own adventures, and this is offering resources by the bucket-load. There’s the village of Etrien, a region map of Etrien, Old Abandoned Mines, a habitat for Giants called Morrow Home, the ruined city of Solastrace, a new sentient species, the Moguren (living, sentient mushrooms), and a race write up for the sahuagin which will hopefully add some much-needed color to a species that I’ve never really been able to get my head around. Throw in some lovely illustrations and you have something that is absolutely chock-a-block with goodies and inspiration for your game.

Look through the stretch goals, and guess what you’ll find: More and More resources!

Appeal The Second: Techniques

Not only is the adventure being written for low-level characters, it has been, or will have been, playtested at least twice. And the adventure promises to permit PCs to choose between stealth, diplomacy, or conflict, or some blend of these three choices, to bring the story to a conclusion. Since this is something that is very hard to do, let alone do well, potential observations of technique that can be applied to other adventures has a definite appeal level.

But, on top of that, you have the promise of a display of techniques of characterization that might alone be worth the price of purchase: “Effort has been made at every stage to bring the characters and locations to life – from the hobgoblin warlord that makes pottery, to the slug farms deep in the Fetid Bog, to the friendly druid who is almost never at home as she’s out blessing farm fields.” And, of course, these characters are all still more resources for you to use!

reduced-size image of the mines

A reduced-size image for The Book of Terniel. Art by Stephen Garrett Rusk.

Appeal The Third: Creative Commons Philosophy

Finally, as an ardent supporter of both the OGL and Creative Commons, there is a certain level of desire to support the philosophic principle of offering all this material in a way that makes the content accessible to the public.

Quite frankly, I would like to see this project succeed on a huge scale not only because the stretch goals are themselves appealing, but because I think this is the sort of thing we, as consumers of gaming product, should be encouraging. And, as the Australian saying goes, “Money talks, Bull**** walks”.

Bonus Appeal: Nice Guy!

Another point worth considering is that Lucas, one half of the driving force behind Embers and The City Of Brass, is a nice guy who thinks of his customers first, gaming itself a close second, and personal profits a distant third or fourth. I can’t speak to the other half of the equation, who Lucas describes on the Embers/City Of Brass website as having “something like a tinfoil hat that he wears”, but these are the sort of people we want to encourage to participate in the gaming industry for many years to come.

reduced-size image of the ruined city

A reduced-size image for The Book of Terniel. Art by Monica Marie Doss.

Some final pros and cons

There are a limited number of discounted packages for early supporters (9 left as I write this). There are opportunities for participation in the development of still more extras ($25 level), or of advertising your own business or product ($50 level). But the basic level that gets you the adventure and everything I’ve listed above is a mere US$10.

If there’s one thing that I’d like to see done differently, it would be for the $5000 stretch goal to be broken into two or three smaller stretch goals – there’s too big a jump from the $3000 stretch goal, which itself could be broken into a couple of smaller stretch goals. That’s the harshest criticism and “con” that I can find; once past the $1500 mark, which they are currently working towards, there’s a long stretch without a lot of short-term encouragement for supporters.

Of course, I’d really love to see the project hit the $10K stretch goal – two additional cities!! But kicktraq is forecasting an eventual funding level of about $3600 give or take about $1200 – so unless it gets a lot more support, at best, they will fall just short of getting half-way to a success story on that scale.

Let’s see what we can do about getting them over that $10K line! Back This Project for the goodies and the principles, if for nothing else!

To back the project or find out more, click on any of the images in this article!

And, speaking of things that are hard: I’ve recently enabled a plug-in option that promises to make Campaign Mastery more mobile-friendly – and had reports back that it does what’s promised, without having compromised any of the features and utility that I rely on!

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‘I Can Do That’ – Everyman Skills For Pulp


This is part 3 of a series presenting the various House Rules that have been introduced into the Pulp Campaign that I co-GM.

Today I’m presenting everyman skill rules that were developed for the campaign, and long overdue, too.

Although designed for a Pulp Campaign built with the Hero System, the principles apply to almost any RPG.


Credit where it’s due

As always, Blair Ramage deserves half the credit, and half the blame, for these rules. This article is partially based on discussions between us, but was written by Mike alone. The sections dealing with applying the principles to other RPGs was also Mike’s solo work.

What are everyman skills?

Everyman Skills are a very useful idea introduced a long time ago within the Hero System. These are skills that characters get for free because they are considered to be received simply by living in the society of the campaign setting. For reasons Blair and I don’t understand, and that are not explained in the sourcebook, Everyman Skills were dropped from the Pulp Hero rules. We decided to put them back.

By definition, these are skills that the character gets for free, and that means that for the most part, they should not confer the same level of ability as the character would receive if they had expended character creation points on the skill.

Hero System skills in a nutshell

One character point gets a character 8/- (eight or less) in a skill. That means that a character who rolls eight or less on 3d6 succeeds in a task.

A higher price (usually 3 points, sometimes 2 and sometimes 4) gets a character 9+(STAT/5) in a skill, where the stat is defined for each skill as part of that skill’s description. Fractions are rounded in the character’s favor. A character with a DEX of 14, for example, gets 11.8 or less, which is rounded to 12/-.

Where the skill costs 3 or more character points, and where the full skill level is higher than 11/-, characters can spend one point less than the full price to get an 11/- intermediate skill.

Characters can improve their skill rolls by +1 for additional skill point expenditure, usually 2 points, sometimes 1.

The Everyman Pulp Skills

Now that we’ve established some context, the following are the list of Skills that we have introduced into the Pulp Campaign:

  1. Area Knowledge: Home Country 14/-
  2. Area Knowledge: New York City 8/-
  3. Cultural Familiarity: Home Country 14/-
  4. Cultural Familiarity: Past Major Employers 11/-
  5. Cultural Familiarity: Adventurer’s Club 8/-
  6. Acting 6/-
  7. Climbing 6/-
  8. Concealment 6/-
  9. Conversation 6/-
  10. Deduction 6/-
  11. Persuasion 6/-
  12. Native Language
  13. English (if not native language)
  14. Professional Skill: Past Occupation 6/-

Definitions & Additional Rules

Some of these skills had additional rules attached, and I assume that anyone not familiar with the Hero System will need some explanation of what the skills do:

  1. Area Knowledge – Home Country: Answers questions such as, Where are the major cities? What’s the capital? What are the major geographic features? Which countries does your home country border?
  2. Area Knowledge: New York City: Requires 3 weeks or more non-continuous time spent in New York City, which is the location in which the Adventurer’s Club is based. Answers questions such as where the major landmarks are, where are the central railway stations, and so on.
  3. Cultural Familiarity: Home Country: What’s the lifestyle that you’re used to? What’s the national drink, the national cuisine, how much do things cost, what’s the currency, who’s in charge, what are the popular sports, who are the national heroes, etc.
  4. Cultural Familiarity: Past Major Employers: This covers what the employer does, and their normal procedures for doing it, where the major branches are, who your immediate superiors and subordinates were, and so on.
  5. Cultural Familiarity: Adventurer’s Club: Requires 3 weeks or more non-continuous time spent at the Adventurer’s Club at least part of the day. Who works there, what do they do, who’s in charge, what facilities does the club have, how do you arrange to use them, and so on.
  6. Acting: bare minimum ability to attempt to pretend to be someone else.
  7. Climbing: lets you climb a ladder under favorable conditions without a skill check. Gives you a chance to do something else. Don’t bother trying to climb cliffs or anything else even reasonably difficult.
  8. Concealment: bare minimum ability to hide something in the palm of your hand, crouch down behind a curtain or piece of furniture, or put an object somewhere that is not immediately obvious to a casual glance.
  9. Conversation: bare minimum ability to steer a conversation in the direction you want it to go, usually very clumsily and obviously.
  10. Deduction: bare minimum to put two and two together and get four, metaphorically speaking. Doesn’t extend so far as permitting the character to deduce anything strictly hypothetical or that starts, “just suppose” – you are too busy doing the supposing to figure out what it might mean.
  11. Persuasion: bare minimum to talk someone into doing something they are at least somewhat inclined to do anyway. Don’t try and sooth ruffled feathers or troubled waters, you aren’t persuasive enough for that.
  12. Native Language: You get to speak this “as a native”.
  13. English (if not native language): You get to speak this with a thick accent and without ideograms. For anything better, you’ll need to actually pay for the language.
  14. Professional Skill: Past Occupation: Gives you everything you needed to know in order to do that job – to a bare minimum standard of ineptness. Anything more and you should pay points for this.
Skills In General

Skills can generally be said to fall into one of two categories: Knowing things, or doing things. Knowing things usually implies any foundation knowledge to at least the same extent as the knowledge skill – i.e. engineering includes knowledge of maths and basic material properties.

Applying the concept to other systems

When I was creating the House Rules for my Shards Of Divinity campaign, I very deliberately wanted to incorporate the concept of Everyman Skills. The approach was a little different to that above in that what I was giving players was a subset of a skill that was relevant to their character’s personal experience. I’m not going to go into too much detail, I’ll save that for another article some other time (it’s way too big), but will offer an example.

A Dwarf might not have the slightest clue about the architecture of other races, or even the general principles of architecture, but he would still know the basics of Dwarfish construction. I’m not an architect and haven’t studied the subject, but I still know the basics of typical Australian construction: a load-bearing frame, usually of wood or steel, anchored by a foundation, usually of concrete, medium-angle roofs (say, 30° to 45°). Until the 70s, roofs were usually made of galvanized iron, these days terracotta tile roofs are more common. Windows tend to be large and plentiful to encourage air circulation because of the heat of the Australian Summer. Most are built about a foot off the ground to permit circulation beneath the home for additional cooling, more in the tropical regions. Walls used to be predominantly fibro or brick; sheds and outbuildings often had galvanized iron walls, but these can get very hot. These days, brick is the material of choice, but concrete is becoming more popular.

I didn’t need to be educated to know these things, I just had to grow up here. Simple observation did the rest. At first, I didn’t know the reasons for these building choices; slowly (by looking at the construction of homes elsewhere) I began to grasp the relationship between climatic conditions and practical design.

I doubt there are any U.S. Citizens who don’t know that Washington D.C. is their nation’s capital, even if some of them unfortunately have trouble finding it on a map. They are also likely to recognize the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, Hollywood Sign, and Capital Building without drama. They know where to buy coffee, newspapers, fresh bread, etc, in their local regions, and will have some idea (for the most part) how much they cost. In fact, politicians not knowing the price of milk and eggs has become synonymous with being out-of-touch with the ordinary person – the implicit assumption being that everyone should know these things.

I know basic things about Australian Society and the Australian Economy and how to find a Doctor and so on, just from having lived here all my life. I might not know where every train station is on the suburban network, but I know where the major ones are and which rail lines they connect to. I know we drive on the left-hand side of the road, and that we have a dollar of 100 cents, and so on.

Quantifying is defining levels of ignorance

By specifying that characters have a certain level of skill in these sub-fields, even if they haven’t bought the full skill (and the understanding, experience, and expertise that comes with it), I not only defined what characters knew, I explicitly defined what they did not know without having studied the subject.

The Concordance Principle

All that is need to make this approach really useful is a concordance principle. How similar is Dwarven Architecture from that of Gnomes, or of Halflings, of Humans, of Elves? Defining the degree of difference between these in terms of a skill modifier and cross-listing against the basic DC of the task or question gives a modifier to the DC describing how relevant the character’s basic knowledge is to the question at hand. Some basic principles will remain essentially the same, so this modifier would be +0 DC for very simple questions, but the more advanced the question, the less relevant that basic expertise will be.

Being a dwarf won’t help very much when it comes to understanding Elven Lintels. Knowing what the most common Gnomish recipes are won’t help much when attempting to identify Elvish Honey-cakes, let alone whether or not the milk had turned before they were cooked, or Human Oxtail Soup. If you see “Bear Claws” on a menu, are they a pastry item or is the name meant literally? If you’ve never heard of “Meso” before, how do you know it’s even edible?

In this year’s Masterchef, one of the cooks made the mistake of using tomato flowers as a garnish on his dish because they looked pretty, not realizing that tomatoes are part of the Deadly Nightshade family and the flowers are quite poisonous. Plants don’t grow fruit for our benefit, they do so to distribute their seeds and make more of themselves. Using that fruit on a mass scale for our own nutritional and culinary benefit is down to our own ingenuity. (Actually, many cases involve the fruit being deliberately enticing for consumption, so that animals will eat the fruit (swallowing the seeds in the process and excreting them some distance from the original source). Other species use the edible component as a nutritional head-start for the developing young – the egg approach.

Everyman Wrap-up

Everyman skills give characters the game mechanics to describe and quantify the things that any reasonable GM would consider that a character already had. Some might stem from innate instinct or ability, some from divine gift, some from the culture, and some from practical experience. Defining everyman skills and determining why that skill is an everyman skill for the race, class, and society to which the character belongs defines and quantifies the building blocks of both the character and those world elements that have created them. Your campaign background and game world stop being just words on a page and start making a quantifiable difference to the characters, and hence to the players.

Everyman skills bring the game environment to life. Everybody wins from doing that successfully.

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Stormy Weather – making unpleasant conditions player-palatable

125 Village in blizzard_sm

Following the publication last week of the rules on Windchill and other weather-based environmental effects, I was asked a very profound question by Rob, one of several GMs that I associate with on Twitter:

Any tips on the drama side, Mike? My players have always felt a bit meh about weather – deadly but dull as they put it.

This question, and conversations on the subject with others such as John Kahane, give me the impression that a lot of GMs have similar problems. And I think they all stem from one primary mistake that many of them are making.

A supporting character

The mistake made is a natural one, in a lot of respects. People make bad weather the star of the show instead of a member of the supporting cast.

It might seem a trivial difference between having an encounter in which the weather is the dominant factor while the creature encountered is the icing on the encounter cake, and having one in which the creature is the point and the weather simply accentuates and enhances the danger posed by that creature, but – as I said at the start of the article – it is a profound difference.

“But weather can be dangerous enough on its own”

Yes, it can be. People die in winters, people lose fingers and toes to frostbite. You can be struck by lightning, struck by flying debris hurled by the wind, blinded by light reflecting on the snow, drowned by floodwaters, hurled into the sky by a tornado.

But its not something that the PCs can fight. Always, at the heart of any game, is the question of what the PCs are supposed to do about the situation that they currently face.

There are some climatological phenomena that characters can do something about, even if that something is simply enabling themselves or others to survive, and I’ve been working on an article dealing with those very phenomena. Things like floods and hurricanes. So let’s set those aside for the moment, beyond simply noting that what characters are dealing with are not the phenomena themselves, but with the effects and impacts that they present.

That leaves weather events like extreme cold and extreme heat; storms, heavy rain, snowfalls, and the like.

The first two are environmental conditions, and the others are events. There are obvious differences between them, so let’s consider them separately.

Weather Events

Storms, Heavy Rain, Snowfalls and the like are singular weather events. There’s not much that characters can do about them except take cover from their effects, and that’s not exactly the stuff of adventure. But what if we downplay their potential intensity just a bit, take these events off center stage and simply use them as a backdrop to some other event? What if we treat these weather events as though they were Weather Conditions?

Weather Conditions

Extreme heat and cold can be lethal. But there isn’t much that characters can do about them except hole up. Sounds familiar? It should.

But at times where the weather conditions are less extreme, the characters can be hindered by the conditions and yet still active. That’s what I mean when I say that weather conditions should form a background against which some other events occur, and that the weather conditions should be a supporting character in the story and not the star of the show,

Using Weather

By considering weather effects as environmental factors that hinder or help the characters, they assume an entirely different significance within adventures. The central focus is no longer something that the characters can do nothing about, but instead becomes a means by which GMs can raise or lower the difficulty levels of encounters and tasks. The closer these weather effects come to the spotlight, the more difficult it becomes for characters to deal with anything other than the weather effects themselves.

There are three broad categories of impact on characters by weather events: Perception, Manipulation, and, Damage Capacity.

Perception Effects

Perception effects are things like heat haze, fog, and so on. They alter a character’s ability to perceive the world around them. Rain and snow also have perception effects. These have minimal effect at close range, and grow in significance as range increases, so they isolate characters from awareness of the environment around them. Sandstorms are particularly dangerous because they can damage the eyes themselves, inflicting permanent harm on a character’s perceptual capacities.

In effect, perception effects mean that characters remain unaware of objects and creatures within their environment until they are closer to them than would be the case in less hostile conditions. Creatures which may be better adapted to the environmental effects will be less affected, and so may become aware of characters long before the characters are aware of the creatures.

Adding to this under most circumstances are the natural propensities for creatures to have camouflaging hides or fur. In a snow environment, survival favors white furs for the combination of warmth and camouflage, and so on.

Perception effects can also pose navigational difficulties, taking characters to places where they would not necessarily have chosen to go. This is especially true of heat haze, because it can lead characters away from life-saving water sources, but tropical monsoonal rains and winter snowstorms can also make navigation far more difficult.

Finally, perception problems can make fine manipulation more difficult. The next time you experienced some moderate to strong winds, take a single sheet of newspaper, go out into the wind, and try to read it! Earth and soil color differences become far less noticeable when the ground becomes wet. In particular, it becomes very hard to see the difference between disturbed soil and natural – a decided disadvantage when something may lurk beneath that soil awaiting prey. It’s entirely possible to mistranslate an inscription that can barely be perceived because driving rain or snow as “my hovercraft is full of eels” when it is in fact saying something along the lines of “abandon hope, all ye who enter here” or “beware the jabberwock”.

Manipulation Effects

Heat can make fingers slippery with sweat. Cold can make fingers numb and unresponsive. Wind can push walking characters off course, or simply make it almost impossible to go in the direction they want – search youTube for “morons walking in a hurricane” or “A Guy Walks Against Extremely Strong Winds” for visual proof (or just click on the links).

These same effects can make it harder to attack enemies, especially with ranged weapons. It follows that any enemy that PCs prefer to deal with at a distance is advantaged by climatic effects.

It is important to apply the same hindrances to the enemy, though they may not be affected to the same degree. It is even more important to be seen to do so by the players.

For any given weather condition(s) there will be some creatures who are advantaged relative to the PCs and some who are disadvantaged, in comparison to a moderate-conditions conflict between the two. This enables the GM to utilize a far broader spectrum of opposition whilst maintaining something close to parity with the capabilities of the PCs. He can take creatures who would normally pose little threat and make them dangerous; take moderately-dangerous creatures and make them deadly opponents; or take devastating opponents and make them only very dangerous.

But fine manipulation means so many more things – everything from taking armor or clothing off or putting it on, to disarming traps, to configuring controls, to simply picking something up (or dropping it in the first place). When we’re talking any campaign with magic in it (or some superpowers, come to think of it) the GM has to make a decision about whether or not manual spell components require finger-wiggling or is it enough to wave the arms? Or drawing a precise arcane symbol in the ground? Or measuring a specific number of drops of liquid? In extreme cold (and ignoring the possibility that the liquid has frozen!), all of these might be subject to manipulation problems. Have you ever tried undoing a frozen knot? While wearing thick or heavy gloves?

Damage Capacity Effects

Extreme weather effects can impact combat in a second way – inflicting direct damage and thereby effectively reducing a character’s capacity for absorbing damage. When coupled with the other effects described, the environment can be a pervasive factor in any encounter, critically impacting the PCs capabilities.

The goal is to never impact the characters so severely that they cannot function; it is to constrain and contain their abilities.

Secondary Encounters

Other encounters that would be trivial events in more clement weather might assume new significance under certain conditions. Instead of merely fording a stream, characters might need to construct a temporary bridge – with cold-numbed fingers. This effectively turns the stream into a secondary encounter; the characters can keep trying until they get it right, but that holds them in place long enough for enemy critters (or actual enemies) to catch up with them.

These encounters require some planning on the part of the GM; if a character is in danger of putting his foot into a frigid watercourse, the GM should have means at hand to prevent the character from losing his foot to frostbite. Survival advice should be delivered to the PCs by someone who knows the conditions long before it is actually needed.

Zip icon

Click to download a zip file (412Kb) containing the adventure documents in pdf format.

zip icon

Click to download a zip file (1.4Mb) containing the overall map and chart of blizzard durations described.

An example, in conclusion

I’m attaching a copy of “Worse Than The Disease”, the actual adventure from the Adventurer’s Club campaign for which last week’s climate effect rules were written.

I should probably state up-front that the native names, myths, ceremonies, rituals, and theology are completely fictitious and bear no intentional resemblance to anything or anyone in the real world. We felt it less disrespectful to invent something than to distort and manipulate real beliefs to suit our plot needs. No offence is intended toward anyone.

It won’t be completely satisfying to read, because it is completely unedited – exactly as we wrote it – and I can’t provide most of the 211 images used to illustrate the adventure for two reasons:

  • Most of them are copyrighted; and
  • They total 250.4 Mb! There are 211 of them, all high-resolution…

In fact, I have hand-picked just two: an overall map of the route (showing the with the alternatives), and a chart showing statistics on blizzard durations. In addition, I was able to use one that I had photoshopped the heck out of (adding blizzard weather effects) and shrinking it down to illustrate this article. (For the record, it’s Pic #125, “Village In Blizzard”.

The documents zip contains four PDFs: The adventure itself; the notes to be given to various players at the times indicated in the adventure; a possible family history for one of the characters that factors into an early phase of the adventure; and some medical reference for that character so that the player would know what the character knew about medical treatment and possible conditions that might arise in the course of the adventure. And, BTW, the player loved the proposed family background, and accepted it pretty much whole.

This adventure illustrates a number of principles. We make sure to tell the players and the characters the things they need to know, before they need to know it. We provided a couple of expert NPCs – and then had them disagreeing with each other at key points, leaving the PCs to make the key decisions. Both players and characters had the opportunity to try necessary skills out before things became critical. And, dangerous as the weather was, it was the creatures encountered that took center stage, especially the Tongark…

One final piece of advice

To conclude this article, I have some final advice. Avoid weather clichés like the plague – except when they are the last things the players are expecting, or when you can otherwise turn them to your advantage.

Unexpected Clichés

“It was a dark and stormy night…” Boooorrring! Don’t do it – except when a storm is completely unexpected. Out in the desert sometime, when the last thing the players are expecting is a storm – that’s the time to have one (a dry one, possibly) blow up, shifting tons of sand, half-buying tents, thunder and lightning, the whole nine yards. Maybe have one tent (unoccupied) uprooted by the wind and lost over the horizon, never to be seen again. And around mid-morning of the next day, the PCs discover that the storm has uncovered a long-lost temple, or monument, or something…

When It Works For You

The only other time I would employ such a cliché was when the mere fact that it is a cliché works in favor of the plot. Someone’s going to a great deal of trouble to make an old house seem haunted? As soon as the PCs show up, the night will be a dark and stormy one, and around midnight, the power will go out… the cliché helps support the “haunted house” effect simply because it is such a cliché and you have made it obvious that you aren’t going to use clichés without justification. The more strongly you have resisted temptation in the past, the more mileage you will get out of the cliché when the time comes.

Through The Looking Glass

All right, so there’s one more occasion when I might employ a cliché such as “dark and stormy night”, and that’s when it’s a metaphor for a completely different phenomenon. A passing temporal tornado momentarily fragments time so that past, present, and future are (temporarily) all jumbled up? At the end of such an adventure, I might use the phrase, as in, “It was a dark and stormy night, but all nights have to end eventually. By holding together, you have managed to weather the storm, and as the first light of dawn breaks over the bruised and battered skyline, you realize that today is a new day, full of promise, and hope, and opportunities. As you wearily stand down and head for your beds, you wonder what that new day will bring – and how long it will let you sleep before some new emergency comes knocking on your door.”

The Wrap-up

I’ve kept this article short because, with the PDFs, you’ll have quite a lot to read.

Weather is an environmental tool that the GM should use to provide variety and challenge. It should never be center stage, but when it is on-stage, it should be as fundamentally a part of events as the stage lighting. Use it that way and it becomes your friend and ally, and your players will never go “meh” about the weather again.

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A strong wind blows: Environmental effects for RPGs


This is part 2 of a series presenting the various House Rules that have been introduced into the Pulp Campaign that I co-GM. Today I’m presenting some cold, heat, wind-chill, and altitude tables that were developed for the campaign in preparation for a midwinter race against time in the Frozen Wilds of Western Canada.

Although designed for a Pulp Campaign built with the Hero System, the rules and tables are easily adaptable to any RPG.


Credit where credit’s due

As always, Blair Ramage deserves half the credit, and half the blame, for these rules. This article is largely based on discussions between us, but was written by Mike alone. Note that the rules writeup was also done by Mike alone, after the general principles, approach, and draft rules were approved (and revised) in collaboration with Blair.


Cold and wind-chill are some of the most dangerous conditions that characters can encounter, because they trigger automatic survival responses in human physiology that make every task undertaken – even those essential to continued survival – more difficult. Adding these effects to any encounter vastly increases the danger posed by that encounter. Added to that are the psychological effects of knowing that things are harder, which should create an air of desperation to every such encounter.

And yet, every version of this sort of thing that I have seen falls short of what is necessary to actually trigger the psychological effects involved, never mind accurately reflecting the dangers posed. Frostburn, the D&D 3.0 supplement, is one of the best, but it’s not the most user-friendly system to wrap your head around.

We wanted a system that was simpler to use, but that nevertheless created the atmosphere of acute danger desired, and was a little more robust in terms of the real world. So that’s what we created.


Frostburn was the initial template, but we actually started by researching wind-chill. The actual goal was to have a table that gave us the effective temperature loss due to wind of different speeds, but we quickly found that the real-world situation was more complicated than that.

The tables already present in Champions 6th Edition were intended to be our foundatio°ns, but didn’t go far enough for our needs. So these became our second template.

Researching the subject involved gathering information from multiple sources of impeccable credibility and then trying to resolve them after we discovered that there is no consensus on the subject. Australian meteorology uses a different formula to American meteorology, for example; the US version doesn’t take into account atmospheric humidity.

The more we dug into it, the broader the subject became. We decided early on to cover high temperatures as well as cold and to make the system more universal. We also decided to extend it to cover wind speeds and temperatures that were way in excess of those that might reasonably be encountered in real life – this was for use in Pulp campaigns, possibly in superhero campaigns, and even in Fantasy campaigns, and in all three cases, larger-than-life possibilities needed to be accounted for. It’s fair to say that none of the tables went far enough for game needs.

PDF Icon

Click the icon to download the free 8-page PDF

The Rules

So what’s in the rules?

  • Wind-chill by Air Temperature and wind speed.
  • Altitude effects
  • Humidity effects
  • Perceived Temperature & danger level
  • Game Effects:
    • Low Pressure
    • Rain/Snow
    • Extreme Cold & Heat
    • Wind Velocity
  • The STR table (for easy reference)*

* yes, this is the same one that I presented in part one of this series.

The following is a snapshot and discussion of each of these rules sections.

PDF Icon

Click the icon to download the metric-imperial conversion tables PDF

Wind-chill by Air Temperature and wind speed

This is what we were initially after. Presented in two forms (one in °F, and one in °C) showing quite different information, because we weren’t sure which one would end up being most useful. As it happened, we used the °C version, but kept the °F version because it gave the frostbite times; it has no other value within the rules.

What’s missing is a table converting from °C to °F and vice-versa. Darn it. So I went looking for one to link to, and guess what? None of them go far enough. So I made one, just for our readers. You can find it to the right. You might see holes and gaps in the entries – that’s because I only converted the specific values that show up on the tables in the rules.

Using this section is fairly straightforward: you decide what the air temperature is, decide what the wind speed is, and look up the values on the tables. An Air Temperature of 5°F (-15°C) and a wind speed of 25mph (40 km/h) gives an effective temperature of -17°F (-27°C) according to the top table, which shows that characters are just out of the temperature range for Frostbite.

Note that we aren’t talking about the sort of Frostbite that gives rosy cheeks and a little discomfort; we’re talking loss of fingers, toes, noses, ears, perhaps even more substantial portions of limbs. Dangerous levels of Frostbite.

According to the lower table, the effective temperature is -27°C, which tracks with the upper table – something that’s not always the case – and rates the wind-chill-adjusted temperature as “Cold” (Blue zone), ie in the -25° to -45°C range.

Altitude effects

Temperatures also drop with altitude. I have given these in meters, and have not provided conversions, because most maps give altitudes in metric these days if not both ways.

The values determined in the previous step are sea-level values; at the top of, say, Mount Jumbo in Missoula, Montana, an altitude of 1453m (4768′), effects would be rather more pronounced. That’s a further change in temperature of between -10.1 and -10.8°C – call it -10°C for convenience. Note that you can’t look up this number to get a conversion to °F right away – you have to look up the total. Ten degrees colder than -27°C is -37°C, which the conversions table gives as -35°F. With that added altitude, we have an effective temperature change of 40°F due to altitude and wind.

Going back to the first table, locating the wind speed line and tracking across finds no entry for -35°F; -31° is in the 30-minute Frostbite Zone and -37° is in the 10-minute Frostbite Zone. Going up the column from the -37°F entry shows a -35° entry in the 30-minute zone, so conditions are right on the cusp of the 10-minute zone but aren’t quite that severe yet.

The table on the right is provided for convenience – it shows the altitudes at which a specific temperature drop occurs. This is very useful when characters are climbing mountains, especially when combined with the boundaries (eg the Frostbite indicator) on the other tables.

Humidity effects

This section shows how to correct the wind-chill adjusted temperature for humidity. There’s no value stated for -37°C, but at -35, we’re talking -2°C for every 5% humidity, so that’s close enough. If the conditions that the PCs were experiencing were, say, 40% humidity, that’s another -8°C onto the effective temperature, so we find ourselves at -45°C (-43°F). This is quite enough to shift table one’s readings solidly into the ten-minute zone, and only 5°F removed from the 5-minute zone.

It would not take much additional humidity to bridge that 5° gap – 15%, for a total of 55%, would be enough.

Perceived Temperature & danger level

Comparing the resulting effective temperature of -45°C (starting with the original wind-chill adjustment (15°C and 40km/h) and moving across the table to the right) puts us right on the edge of going from Zone blue (-41°C) into zone Purple (-48°C). Going across to the next highest value and then up the column shows -45°C to be the very edge of the zone change. If anything at all worsens, conditions will enter the extreme danger zone.

Game Effects: Low Pressure

Mount Jumbo is just below the threshold (1453m vs a threshold of 1525m); that 72m (about 236 feet) are gold, so far as the PCs are concerned.

Flying over the mountain, with a clearance of 250 feet – the absolute minimum I would contemplate as a GM, 500 would be better – puts a character over the limit.

This section of rules is all about effort required, and recovery of damage, and has very limited utility with other game systems. GMs may want to calculate the Pressure number anyway, simply for the utility of rule 2, relating to the ease of starting fires and the effect of fire damage. D&D HP can be considered roughly equivalent to Hero-system Stun points, so the “-3 damage per pressure number” from fire would be appropriate.

The recovery rate can also be applied by a D&D GM for protracted stays at altitude, and the effect on regenerating creatures.

Game Effects: Rain/Snow

This is quite straightforward. The GM decides on a description for the conditions and reads off the appropriate modifiers.

3.x/Pathfinder use: The Perception modifier should be applied to Spot and Listen checks. The Range Multiplier should be used to determine the attack modifier for ranged attacks, and the OCV modifier applied on top of that to all attack rolls. The DEX-based skill penalty should be applied to all skills that are based on DEX.

Game Effects: Extreme Cold & Heat

Now we’re getting to the crux of the system. Indexing the difference between a range that the character finds comfortable, allowing for the clothing he is wearing, and any acclimatization that may have taken place, to determine game effects.

Let’s say we’re talking about a character who is used to cold temperatures; acclimatization gives them a comfort zone of 6°C to 23°C. Yes, I know these values aren’t on the temperature conversion table; if you are used to °F, use 35°F to 65°F as a rough guide.

There are two ways to handle the effect of appropriate clothing; the method described in these rules (adjusting the comfort zone) or the one we came up with in play, reducing the effective number of temperature levels, which is less accurate but much faster and easier.

In our example, we have an effective temperature of -45°C (-43°F).

Rules as written, °C:
Comfort Zone for an acclimated character in several layers of heavy clothing: perhaps -10°C to 7°C. The gap from -10°C to effective temperature (-45°C) is 35°. That gives a thermal level of between -11 (=35/3) and -7 (=35/5). A level of -9 is right in the middle, but the higher range value is more appropriate for a cold-acclimated character, so use a temperature level of -7.

Once you have this number, there are two tables in the rules – one is for hot temperatures, the other for cold. A temperature level of -7 indicates an effective loss of 7 Recovery, -6 to DEX checks, -5 to attack rolls, -6 to all DEX based skills (on top of any other penalties from snow or rain), and 2 END consumed every 5 minutes on top of any other expenditures, just from moving around, breathing, etc.

Rules as written, °F:
Comfort Zone for an acclimated character in several layers of heavy clothing: perhaps 15°F to 45°F. The gap from 15°F to effective temperature (-43°F) is 58°. That gives a thermal level of approximately -6 (58/10) to -3 (58/20). This is quite a bit lower than we got for the °C calculation because the size of the intervals (10-20°F) is wrong. It should be 9/5ths of the °C value (5.4 to 10.8) – call it 5 to 10°F – but… well, there’s no other way to put it: I made a mistake.

Using the CORRECT values gives a range of -11 (=58/5) to -6 (=58/10), almost exactly the same as the °C calculation. Again, an acclimated character should use the smaller of these numbers, the -6.

Quick and Dirty, °C:
Comfort Zone is defined as 10°C to 27°C. Acclimation lets the character reduce the temperature effect by 1 level, appropriate clothing lets the character reduce it by another 4. Difference from effective temperature (-45°C) is -55°. Temperature effects range from -11 (=55/5) to -18 (=-55/3), which is then reduced by acclimatization and clothing to -6 to -13. The -6 is more appropriate for an acclimated character.

This variant takes a vaguely-defined step out of the process, but gives a somewhat broader range of values and skews numbers toward the high end for those not in appropriate clothing. But it’s close enough.

If you want to compensate for the skew, use an interval range of 4-5 instead of 3-5°C to calculate the step size: 55/4=14, which reduces to 13 with acclimatization, and to 12 with light clothing, which is about right.

Quick and Dirty, °F:
Comfort Zone is defined as 50°F to 80°F. Acclimation lets the character reduce the temperature effect by 1 level, appropriate clothing lets the character reduce it by another 4, exactly the same as the °C version. The effective temperature is -43°F, a gap of 98°. Using the correct values gives a thermal effect of -20 (=98/5) to -10 (=98/10), but that becomes -15 to -5. Again, a broader range, and the numbers for those in inappropriate clothing are skewing higher than they should – but you can allow for that by changing the interval size to 7-10°F. But division by 7 is so messy that I would be tempted to double the range and use 15 (effectively a 7.5° value).

On reviewing the article, I realized that this might not be obvious to anyone not used to such arithmetic tricks.

Double 98 is 196. Divide that by three and you get 65 and one third, which can be ignored. One fifth of that is 13, which is exactly what you would have gotten by dividing the original 98 by 7.5.

You could make it even easier: double it twice, and divide by 30: 98->196->392; divide by 3 to get 130 and 2/3, which can be ignored because a second from now it will be 2/30ths, a trivial amount; divide by 10 to get 13.

Oh and for one final trick: it was a lot easier to double 100-2 twice to get 400-8 than it was to do the calculation the hard way.

Game Effects: Wind Velocity

The final section of the rules, it’s fairly self-explanatory – and for a change, I gave wind velocities in both km/h and mph, so that makes it fairly easy to use. And if anyone needs values for anything bigger than an F8, I don’t really want to be there when it happens!

The Impact of Genre

You can’t repeatably give the appearance of danger without posing an actual danger to the PCs. Pulp adventurers are supposed to overcome danger and death in the course of their exploits. These rules were designed to increase the danger level experienced by the PCs while providing sufficient latitude that smart play could minimize those risks.

While this is a focal point of the pulp genre, to a lesser extent it applies to almost all RPG genres. It follows that these rules are also relevant to almost every genre, at least in principle; only the degree of latitude shown in terms of the protection from the elements offered by clothing changes.

One concluding note

If I had access to the original document, I would have edited it before presenting it here, having discovered the conversion errors discussed above. Unfortunately, the editable version is still on my main computer, which I still haven’t had time to get running since it’s total failure last December. It’s only been, what, eight months now? (A Brief Heads-up: Why I may miss posting)

When opportunity permits, I’ll correct the original, upload a revised PDF, and redact this article accordingly. Until then, you’ll have to make manual corrections, I’m afraid. Or simply use the °C methods that were originally designed and tested.

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A tabula rasa – focusing the mind before writing

blank mind

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

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

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

Clearing your mind

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

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

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

Replacing mundane thoughts with relevant content

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

What is the subject?

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

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

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

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

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

What is the message?

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Logical Structure

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

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

Introduction & Conclusion

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

A focused mind

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

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House Rules – For Pulp (and other RPGs)


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

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

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

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

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

The story behind the story

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

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

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

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

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


Credit where credit is due

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

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“The Adventurer’s Club” Pulp Campaign House Rules

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

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

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

    5 AK discounts from Explorer Package

    Most Package deals do not offer any discounts in price.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief discussion of selected House Rules entries

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

Power Level: Rule 1

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

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

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

Stat Maxima: Rule 2

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

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

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

Combat Technique: Rule 3

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

Package Deals: Rules 4 & 5

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

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

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

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

Character Individuality: Rule 6

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

Paranormal Abilities: Rule 8

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

Vehicles: Rule 9

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

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

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

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

Luck: Rule 11

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

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

Membership: Rule 12

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

The impact of Genre

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

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

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

The truth of House Rules

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

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The Best Of 2011

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

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

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

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

The Best Of 2011

AA front cover

Extra: The Assassin’s Amulet articles

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


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

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

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

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Who Are You? – An original character naming approach

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

You never know where your next idea will come from…

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

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

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

But that’s not the clever bit.

The Surname

The Surname consists of two hyphenated parts.

Before the hyphen

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

After the hyphen

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

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

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

But that’s not the clever bit, either.

The Middle name

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

That’s still not the clever bit.

The First Name

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

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

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

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

The Clever Bit

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

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

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

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

Who Does This Suit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clever, don’t you think?

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


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

Past Reference

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

But there’s a lot more to be said…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Core and Fringe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre and Theme

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

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

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

Genre and Concept

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Style and Genre

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

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

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

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

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

Style and Themes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre and Concepts

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

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

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

The Campaign Fingerprint

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

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

Practical Application

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

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

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

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

An example

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

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

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

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

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Fighting The Spam War


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

The real price of Spam

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

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

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

Spam Alert Level: Green

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

Spam Alert Level: Amber

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

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

Spam Alert Level: Red

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

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

These IP addresses are those which originated a spam comment.

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

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

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

Spam Alert Level: Blue

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

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

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

Spam Alert Levels: Violet and Black

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


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


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

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

The nitty-gritty

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

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

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

What This Means For You:

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

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

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

Where are we now?

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

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

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

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

An Update:

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

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

A Second Update:

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

Update 17 July 2014

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

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

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

Update 28 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Penultimate Update: 10 Aug 2014

Things are slowly getting back to normal in terms of the Spam levels. 9 IPs remain blocked and one IP range from which truly horrid amounts of activity were resulting. In some cases we’re talking hundreds of spam attempts in a 24-hour period, in others we’re talking thousands.

I have decided on an addendum to the antispam policy to deal with the possibility that at least some of the blocked activity represents genuine attempts to use the site, however unlikely that might be. When the blocked list stabilizes, in any 24-hour period in which no new IPs are either blocked or released from blocking and in which spam levels are low, I will rank the remaining blocked IPs according to the reported levels of activity, and release the blocks on the least active. If this results in a return to unacceptable spam levels, the IP will be relisted and it will go to the back of the queue. Currently still blocked are (in ranking order least to most active):

1. 162.244.x.x Unknown location 133 hits (down from >400)
2. 112.111.x.x Shanghai, China 178 hits (down from >900)
3. 112.5.x.x Beijing, China 269 hits (down from >2500)
4. 91.200.x.x Ukraine 315 hits (down from >700)
5. 222.76.x.x Fuzhou, China 347 hits
6. 91.200.x.x Ukraine 494 hits
7. 91.200.x.x Ukraine 921 hits
8. 62.210.x.x France 1156 hits

note that the above list has been censored to avoid public identification of the owners of the servers in question, as per previous statements regarding the spam policy.

And it’s probably worth noting that five of these remaining eight were blocked in the initial day or two of the introduction of the new spam policy. Others, such as the French site, are far more recently listed. Others which I thought would be part of this final list such as a certain server in Las Vegas which had over 1100 hits listed against them managed to clear themselves eventually under the existing policies.

The problems and concerns with the current spam policy remain, but all have to be balanced against this: the policy works, at least for now.

I don’t expect to update this article again until I can announce that the last site has been released from blocking without ill-effects, and this particular spam war is over. That could be in as little as 9 days, or it could be weeks. It will be good not to lose a full day each week deleting and documenting spam sources again…

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