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Yesterday Once More: A pulp time-travel Campaign


I originally came up with this as an adventure outline for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, but it quickly became far too big and too complicated for that.

Rather than throw it away, I have recast it as the outline of a standalone Pulp Campaign.

The overall premise is The PCs time travel into the bodies of people in the past in order to stop the spirit of an inventor bootstrapping himself into unearned wealth and power at the expense of everyone else in the planet.


The campaign writeup is a little more developed than simple outline notes, but every aspect needs further prep before it would be ready to run.


The campaign background should be a somewhat more optimistic version of our history. The Great Depression should have been shallower and shorter, thanks to bailouts and reinvestment by civic-minded entrepreneurs who foresaw the economic train-wreck and decided to do something about it. These movers and shakers then backed FDR’s reforms as though the bailout had never happened and used the corresponding increase in productivity to recover their investments and make a profit on the side – but it was a risky proposition, and one that they don’t want to have to rely on in the future. As a result, unemployment is down, incomes are up, and the future looks rosy – though the shadows of Fascism and Communism still loom on the horizon. The date should be mid-to-late 1930s.

Adventure #1: All My Yesterdays

I’m serving this adventure in more detail than most because it spells out the premise of the campaign and the relevant game physics. It’s in eight parts, some longer than others. Adventure #1 gives the campaign premise, introduces the campaign Instigator and the Master Villain, tells the players about the immediate Threat, and outlines the game physics relating to applied time travel.

  1. A newsboy is spruiking paper sales, yelling out the headline “War threat rising as German Diplomats recalled from Washington. Prices to rise, new taxes blamed, Mayor burned in effigy at Church, stunt condemned by City Government.” The PCs are approached by a beggar – one of many on the street corner – who asks for help. NB: Scenery described is very dystopian, full of polluting factories, workers as almost slave labor, etc, and NOT what the players would have been expecting from the campaign background described. Be sure to emphasize a couple of times that “everything seems normal to you,” especially if the players comment on the difference between what they were expecting and what they have actually encountered.

  2. Beggar claims to be the ghost of the wealthiest man in the world, come to set right his mistakes of the past.
  3. He outlines a variant history of our world, and explains that he was an inventor working on exotic weapons research during the conflict that occupies half the next decade, when the US Government was desperate enough to try anything. The US had stayed out of the European War until it was almost too late, dragged in only when Japan invaded and conquered Hawaii in the wake of a sneak attack. Facing a potential mainland invasion, US support of the European Theater was half-hearted, and Britain was eventually forced to its knees by lack of supplies. The Germans then turned their attentions to conquering the Caribbean Islands to use as a staging point for an eventual invasion from the southeast while the Japanese had Hawaii to stage from the west. In this environment, what was needed was a super-weapon to make both sides back off, and the DoD spent billions backing all sorts of long-shots in hopes of finding one winner.
  4. His invention was just such a winner – Ectoplasm Time Travel, enabling him to jump into the body of someone else at the destination time and use his knowledge of the future to change history. He arrived before the Yukon Gold Rush and bought up the land where the most valuable gold strikes would occur, earning himself a small fortune and becoming a legend. He then invested wisely, converting the gold into hard currency through the boom of the post WWI era, subverting politicians with bribery and legitimate backing, and knocking the most vehement of the isolationists out of politics. He sold all his stocks over the month prior to the beginning of the Great Depression, converting a fortune that had grown ten-fold in the meantime back into hard currency. When stocks in blue-chip companies reached their minimums, he had bought them up, saving the companies, and increasing that fortune 1,000-fold, until he was the wealthiest man in America and owned 60% of the 100 biggest companies in the country. He then pushed for heavy industrialization and preparations for war, using the political influence he had garnered to steamroller any obstacles, and making the US the unquestioned greatest military power in the world, all in preparation for the inevitable war.
  5. The plan approved by the 1948 DoD was for him to make the US so strong that Japan would not dare attack Hawaii, but instead would accept an official look-the-other-way neutrality with the US in the form of a treaty even now being instigated by his tame politicians. This would give the country the military strength to support England on his terms, crushing the Nazi regime. But his contemporary self has already changed the history of the world sufficiently that his predictions have a serious (and rising) margin of error, and in particular, he needs to stabilize the timeline in which he is wealthy and powerful, or the Grandfather Paradox will turn around and bite him. To do this, he needs to replicate his research and send someone else back in time to do the dirty work that leaves him in control. Only when this world has the power to make the same events occur in history will the timeline become stable.
  6. In the era from which the beggar derives, he understands time travel far more thoroughly and has also seen the consequences of his manipulations first hand. The person selected by his contemporary self will follow the plan up to a point, insinuating himself as the Oracle of his younger self, but all the while plotting to overthrow him and establish himself as a fascist dictator, not for ideology, but for personal power. The future version who’s ghost has possessed the beggar tried to stop the Oracle in the future and failed, dying in the attempt, but surviving long enough to attempt time-travel for a third time in hopes of regaining control over the situation. The Oracle must have pulled the plug on him while he was in transit back to 1895, however, because he ended up here, instead.
  7. He needs the PCs – his greatest known enemies in the timeline from whence he came, excluding The Oracle whom he did not suspect as an enemy – to (1) Seize Control of the Time Travel equipment built by his contemporary self; (2) permit him to modify the equipment, so that he can sent the PCs back to various points in the history in-between just long enough to do what has to be done and then returning them. These changes include: (3) Follow the Oracle back in time and stop him; (4) change history to some middle ground in which the money is funneled not to his past self but to various others who will of their own volition work to oppose the rise of Fascism; and (5) then set up conditions such that his original self is never called on to conduct the time-travel research that starts this whole brouhaha. This will gently “unwind” the changes made to history, restoring time to something approaching its natural course – but there is a fuzziness to the path of history, fringe effects effects will linger, making people aware of the possibilities of a potential future that never happened. This will inspire others to make preparations for future events, strengthening the US just enough to make intervention in the coming war practical without laying the foundations for a new US-based fascist world dictator to seize power.
  8. PCs are given the address of the time travel equipment. They can’t afford to kill the contemporary version of the creator of the equipment even though he is the ultimate villain of the plot; they need to keep him alive until after time has been set right and stabilized. Until then, he has to survive to become the Hero/instigator of the plot to rescue history. Nor can they afford to risk damage to the equipment. They have to get through security that is more than a decade more advanced than what they are used to, beat the armed thugs employed by villain, and try to prevent damage to the machine. They succeed in all of this but fail to prevent the Oracle being sent back into the past. Their only hope is to pursue him and stop him from changing world history in such a way that he becomes a Fascist Dictator before it’s too late.

Adventure #2: All That Glitters

Adventure #2 introduces the Immediate Threat (who the PCs have only heard about in Adventure #1) and establishes the standard format of each adventure. It may (probably will?) also establish further elements of the campaign physics.

Each adventure has both a back-in-the-past element and a here-and-now element. The latter will usually but not always be secondary to the former.

The back-time element also has a fairly standard format: a) Arrive Back In Time, b) Get together, c) Do whatever needs to be done, d) Deal with any immediate fallout, e) Make restitution to the Bodies they are inhabiting and whose lives they have disrupted, and f) return to their ‘now’.

NB: If a PC inhabiting a past body gets killed, they will return to their natural time and can be sent back in a different body. It will make the restitution phase (e) more complicated, though. If their modern-day selves are injured or harmed in any way while the PCs are in the past, improbable circumstances will arise that will deal an identical injury to the body they are inhabiting.

The PCs are sent back in time to early-to-mid-1896 (3-6 months before the Gold Rush begins), arriving at various points in the US and inhabiting the bodies of various people. Each has a solo adventure en route to junking the old lives of their hosts (no matter how prosperous) and heading for the site of the forthcoming Klondike Gold Rush. Once reunited, they have to (1) Identify the Oracle; (2) Sabotage as many of the land deals being perpetrated by the Oracle as they can; (3) Deal with the Hired Thugs sent to persuade them to mind their own business by The Oracle and the puppet behind the scenes, who will be their ally in the far future but who is currently a second enemy and desperate, while permitting enough of the deals to go through to avoid the original timeline. They will also have to do something to compensate the bodies they are inhabiting and whose lives they have disrupted. When these tasks are complete to the GM’s satisfaction (it doesn’t have to be perfect), the PCs will snap back to their present day, strapped into the time machines, where they will discover that more thugs sent by the Oracle have the beggar at gunpoint (Cliffhanger ending).

Adventure #3: Depressing Thoughts

More action, more adventure, move and countermove, and more game physics. This one is also detailed fairly extensively, and will offer still more game physics at the end.

The PCs escape their bonds and fight off the modern-day bad guys. It’s clear that they are going to have to fight on two fronts – the now and the then. Since their enemies know where they are, the smartest thing to do would be to move the time machine apparatus, but it can’t be done; there is a ‘window of elasticity’ to events before they become fixed, and the machine would need to be re-tuned and recalibrated before it could function at a new location – which would take more time than the available size of the window. So the PCs need to find a way to secure the facility, but they can’t take very long to do so.

It will also be discovered that time flows at a different rate within the machine – for every day spent in the past, only about 1 minute passed in the modern day. That means that they can minimize the window of vulnerability during which they are helpless within the machine by not dilly-dallying in the past. NB: The closer to the modern day they come, the closer to sync the two time rates become.

The PCs are then sent back to 1900′s New York City, the turn of the Millennium and beginning of the 20th century, generally viewed with a sense of optimism. The world is more or less at peace and there is a general sense that War is obsolete as a means of settling international differences, though not every country in the world has yet woken up to this fact. Treaties between the great Empires of Europe mean that should one be attacked, others will be drawn in, confronting the aggressor with overwhelming odds, so no-one would dare start anything serious. It is also a period of unparalleled innovation and of technology being taken to the masses – refer to this wikipedia page and this list for more info on what was new and exciting and what was exploding into mass popularity.

Their mission in the past is to create a targeted series of small stock market events that will limit the profitability of the investments that their major enemy is making, while sucking away about 1/3 of his investment capital and setting up investment accounts for their own future use. That requires a two-sided operation, carefully synchronized: a Big Con to separate him from his money, and some careful stock market manipulation through rumors, insider information, and deceptions.

Once again, the bodies they occupy will hail from all income levels and walks of life, and be from all over the west coast – not knowing who they would be, the PCs will have to improvise with who they are.

As usual, once the adventure is complete, the PCs will return to the present, just as unsuspected damage from the earlier fire-fight causes sparks to fly and smoke to erupt from the time-travel machine. The PCs will have to act quickly to put the fire out before the machine is irretrievably damaged, and before someone calls the fire department. End when the fire seems out but before they know how well they have succeeded in containing the situation.

Adventure #4: Over There, Over Then

The fire is out, the fire brigade are not on their way, but the time travel machine is badly damaged. To repair it, The Beggar needs a high-tension electric coil; his past self spent six months building the one that has just fried, time they don’t have. Their only choice is to beg, borrow, or steal one from the only person in this era who would have such a thing – Nikola Tesla. But they can’t tell him what they want it for, or even mention time travel in his presence. In terms of his career, Tesla had hit the high-point in 1928 and begun a slow downhill slide. His reputation as a wizard and wonder-worker remained intact, and he would frequently make the headlines with spectacular electrical light-shows and even more grandiose claims of what his technology was capable of in his hands, but in reality he was heading toward being penniless and had not had a patent approved since ’28. Always proud to the point of being self-destructively stiff-necked, this is a dangerous time to approach the inventor; his pride has been inflamed (he will not under any circumstances take anything even remotely resembling charity), and at the same time no-one serious will back him financially, and the earning power of his patents is beginning to wane.

Remembering that every minute counts (the window of elasticity), the PCs will have to move quickly – on a job that would be difficult if they had ample time at their disposal.

While attempting to gain the part they need, they will come under attack from even more thugs – their enemy has presumed that critical components may have been damaged and knows where they would have to go to obtain replacements. He has hirelings staked out these places, waiting for the PCs.

When they get it back to the time machine and install it, the Instigator will pronounce that it is safe to use – but that he has had to work around other damage that decrease the reliability of the machine. Because of the window of elasticity, they will have very little time to attempt their next mission into the past, and may even fail; he views the attempt more as a final test of the rebuilt machine than as an opportunity to undo the harm that the Oracle is doing in the past.

That mission: it’s the early days of WWI, and The Oracle has invested in many stocks that will boom as a result of the conflict. His puppet, and the ultimate villain of the campaign, now sits on the board of several companies as a junior member, and is wealthy – but no longer amongst the 100 wealthiest in America, thanks to the PCs past efforts. One of the Oracle’s key lieutenants is currently an enlisted man serving at Fort Bliss, where the Eighth Brigade under Pershing is about to be handed the task of securing the US-Mexico border in light of the Mexican Revolution. That future lieutenant will distinguish himself in the 1916-17 Punitive Expedition into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa despite the failure of that expedition overall, but only if his immediate superior takes a shine to the generally unlikeable character. The Oracle is going to achieve this by means of bribing one officer and tainting the career of another with an unproven scandal. The PCs mission is to prevent these developments if they can, exposing the corruption of the bribed officer and clearing the name of the officer who dislikes the future Lieutenant intensely.

The PCs will be (mostly if not all) civilians, they will have only half-a-week or so to get the job done, they will have to face travel restrictions and do most of their work with no authority from positions of hiding, or after stealing uniforms and ID from real soldiers, being careful to avoid blackening the records of anyone who will ever amount to anything important. This would be a difficult job if they had unlimited time, so they should expect to fail – don’t disappoint them.

When they succeed, or time runs out, return them to the 1930s as usual, but don’t have them all awaken at the same time because of the damage to the time machine. Let the PCs discuss this while they wait for the other shoe to drop and get more and more paranoid when nothing seems to happen.

When you (or they) can’t stand it any more, or time is about to run out on the game session, there will be a “ding” from another room, which will contain a large movie-like screen but no projector; instead, there will be a whole mess of vacuum tubes and mechanical mechanisms behind it. The Instigator names it “The Perspectatron” and states that it is something that he has built out of spare parts to replicate a device that he created in the future from whence he came. As an element of the timeline stabilizes as a result of the actions and counteractions of the PC and the Oracle, this machine resolves an image of that change to the timeline at some future point where it becomes critical. It has a limited capability in terms of the number of subjects that it can deal with at any time, is not always reliable, and the information is usually cryptic at best, shorn of context and explanation. Whenever the device senses that it has resolved something new, relevant, and possibly meaningful, the bell sounds – at least in theory, he’s only just finished putting it together.

Just as he says, “lets see what’s going on…” the lights will go out, leaving everyone bathed only in the opalescent light from the screen.

Adventure #5: Feet Wet

Bombs that were placed by the Oracle’s Henchmen in a Niagara Falls power plant during construction have just been detonated to cut power to the time travel device. This would normally have left the time-travel facility helpless, perhaps for weeks, but one of the improvements that the Instigator from the future made was to construct a power reserve. He couldn’t obtain reserve generators with enough power – they just don’t exist in small enough size to be practical in the 1930s, and the process of building one required more advanced tools and materials than were available as well. But he was able to pre-design a backup that could be manufactured quickly using contemporary materials – so he has enough power to run the Perspectatron and for one more time jump to undo whatever has caused the problem. This is a mission that MUST succeed or the campaign is over, with the Oracle winning.

The power plant in question is Schoellkopf Station No. 3C, constructed between 1921 and 1924. The explosives have been built into the liquid-cooled transformer coils, the oil-cooling liquid replaced with a blend of oil and Nitromethane, which was not known to be an explosive until 1958.

With the PCs distracted by the power plant disaster – most of the work of which was done back in the early 1920s – that’s left the Oracle free to make a counterstrike, kidnapping the family of one or more PCs to blackmail the whole group into submission.

Adventure #6: No Need To Get Personal

A rescue attempt is made but ends badly. The team then have to travel back in time to a couple of days earlier and change the circumstances that led to the failure of the rescue. Once they succeed, the team get to roleplay the rescue attempt again, which succeeds, this time.

Adventure #7: It’s Raining Investment Bankers

The PCs are now free to resume dismantling the Oracle’s operation. They are told that the Oracle’s next significant move came in 1929, when he made significant investments – timed to as to counter the various prophecies of doom that triggered the great depression – which delayed the economic cataclysm until 1931, when it was even more catastrophic, but enabled him to increase his “master’s” fortune massively. The team’s job is to travel back to 1927 and bring about a stock market crash that the Oracle is not expecting. This is another of the critical missions that the team can’t afford to fail, or they will be reduced to damage limitation for the rest of the campaign (or so they expect).

Back in the 1930s, the unusual activity at the lab has attracted the attentions of a German industrial spy, who has snuck in, slugged the Instigator from behind, and taken extensive photographs of the installation and the blueprints of the time-travel machine… If he isn’t stopped from getting those plans to Germany, the Nazis will also have the time-travel technology! (cliff-hanger finish).

Adventure #8: The Fifth Column

The PCs pursue the Nazi industrial spy, have a big fight with stormtroopers and members of the US Bhund, and think they have succeeded at the end in capturing the film with the photographs of the time-travel equipment.

Back at the lab, they learn through the Perspectatron that they were only partially successful; while they recaptured some of the rolls of film, a second set that was made while The Instigator was unconscious were left at a drop point, and made their way to Germany. It apparently took until 1964 for the (East) Germans to make sense of them and build a functional prototype, but they got there in the end. Even more surprisingly (from a modern perspective), they managed to hide the project from the Communists. It seems the project fell into the hands of an Anti-Nazi underground faction who want to prevent the Nazis from ever coming to power, but their interference is poorly planned and researched and will have massive negative consequences (cliff-hanger finish).

The following should be converted into briefing notes for the players to read before the next Adventure:

There are many populist myths about the rise of the Nazi party to power, some the direct result of WWII propaganda but more which have simply occupied the popular zeitgeist. Five in particular are relevant: That the reparations following world war I were responsible for the collapse of the German economy in the 1920s; That the anti-semitic and extremist positions that the 3rd Reich came to embody originated with Hitler and his party; That the Nazis gained power because they promised to restore the German Economy and National Pride (a half-truth); That it was Hitler’s party machine telling him what he wanted to hear that led him to his greatest excesses; and that it was the propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels that led to the near-fanatical belief in Nazism by the German People.

Each of these is an oversimplification and in combination, make it seem that Goebbels was the instrument of conversion of the Nazi Party from regional minority political party to national dominance and the direct cause of their becoming the arch-villains that they are now perceived as having been by history.

If anything, this collection of misinformation fails to paint a true picture of how villainous the Nazis actually were. Tackling them one by one:

Reparations and 1920s economic collapse
The roots of the economic collapse can be traced back to the decision of the Germans in World War I to pay for the war by borrowing money. France paid for it’s participation by instituting an income tax for the first time, in comparison, while war bonds raised money for US participation.

The Great Depression caused a cessation of loans to Germany, causing the Mark to be devalued relative to the dollar; this threatened and was compounded by an economy still in recovery from the war, and by an economy that was unstable in general; and further exacerbating the problems were economic practices within the Wiemar Republic – in effect, to print as much money as they needed – and rising unemployment from the resulting depression. It was a perfect storm of economic disaster. With the devaluation of the Mark, England demanded that reparations be paid in Gold or in Goods rather than Marks; at this point, the exchange rate had begun to stabilize at about 60 Marks to the Dollar, from a position of about 9 to 1 at the end of the War.

In order to buy foreign currency, which could be used for reparations, the Germans printed as many marks as they needed, the value of the Mark began to steadily decline before it stabilized at an exchange rate of 320 to 1 in early 1922. A series of conferences seeking a solution to the German problems restored some measure of confidence in the situation, and economics is as much a matter of public perception as it is a reality. When these conferences came up empty, the German economy resumed its collapse, entering a state of hyperinflation. By December 1922 the exchange rate was 800 to 1, and the cost-of-living had increased 15-fold in just six months.

Socialist strikes by workers accelerated the collapse, as did the occupation of the Ruhr by French and Belgian troops in 1923 to force the payment of reparations in goods, signaling that they had no confidence in the stability or capacity of the German Government to manage the situation. In response to this invasion, the workers of the Ruhr went on General Strike, while continuing to be paid by the German Government for “Passively Resisting”.

By November 1923, the American dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks.

Ironically, given that the US solved it’s economic problems (in part) by going off the Gold Standard (something that Germany had done at the start of World War I), on November 16, 1923, the Germans restored their economy by issuing a new currency that was tied to the value of gold but not redeemable for hard currency, wiping twelve zeros off the prices of goods. Because the Germans refused to print more currency than they had gold to back, this new currency succeeded where previous attempts had failed. While the old Marks continued to decline in value, eventually reaching the point in August 1924 where one new Reichsmark was worth 1 trillion old Marks, but a phased conversion of the economy to the new currency progressively brought stability. By the end of 1925, the crisis was over.

The belief that this was one of the causes for the popularity of the Nazi party arise because a government Austerity Programme in 1931 created an entirely separate deflationary event, now known as the Brüning deflation and depression; The Nazis and many other anti-government groups were able to play on fears of a repetition of the 1920s economic collapse. So the period of hyperinflation was only indirectly responsible, at best, for the rise of Fascism in Germany.

Antisemitism and extremist politics
Radical anti-semitic attitudes and political extremism were rife in the Wiemar Republic from the early 1920s. To quote one paragraph of the Wikipedia article to which I have linked,

The German government during the Wiemar Republic era did not respect the Treaty of Versailles that it had been pressured to sign, and various government figures at the time rejected Germany’s post-Versailles borders. Gustav Streseman as German foreign minister in 1925 declared that the reincorporation of territories lost to Poland and Danzig in the Treaty of Versailles was a major task of German foreign policy. General Hans von Seeckt (head of the Reichswehr command from 1920 to 1926) supported an alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union to invade and partition Poland between them to restore the German–Russian border of 1914. The Reichswehr Ministry memorandum of 1926 declared its intention to seek the reincorporation of German territory lost to Poland as its first priority, to be followed by the return of the Saar territory, the annexation of Austria, and re-militarization of the Rhineland.

The list of ambitions in that memorandum should be familiar to everyone – it’s virtually identical to what the Nazis actually did.

Recovery of German Economy
The early 1930s in Germany were marked by a succession of governments appointed by President Hindenburg – four of them in four years, and a succession of failed economic policies which led to mounting unemployment. Hitler was able to parley people’s fears into an opportunity to implement policies that many Germans already believed in or desired, and the primary reason his government lasted longer than any of these others is that the Nazi party did two things – they blocked the opportunity to dismiss them by moving against Hindenburg, and they actually delivered on many of their promises, however grotesque, misguided, or unfair those policies are now deemed to be.

Instead of an economic recovery from the Great Depression, all Hitler really had to do in order to restore the economy was to moderate the Austerity programmes that had created the crisis while inspiring a wave of new confidence and self-pride in the German people. In just the same way as a lack of confidence can create an economic crisis from the smallest of kindling, so confidence can be translated into an economic boom, and so long as that boom lasts, confidence in their leadership will remain.

Hitler’s version of “The New Deal” – which can ultimately be simplified, at least in part, to massive investment in infrastructure – was in re-armament. This created jobs, stimulated the economy, and overturned the austerity policy that had created the crisis in the first place.

It was the delivery of the resulting economic and technological boom in the 1930s that led many in the US and elsewhere to admire Fascism and become Nazi Sympathizers. It seemed to work. And if it could have that effect in nations far distant, how much greater must the effect have been in immediate proximity? So long as he kept delivering the goods in terms of rising national pride and living standards, Hitler and the Nazi Party could do no wrong in the eyes of the public.

Propaganda of Goebbels
Arguably, then, Goebbels didn’t have that hard a job to do. The fact that anyone speaking against the regime was ostracized (at the very least), very probably reported as a subversive, and then taken into custody by the Gestapo or the SS and probably never seen again made his job pretty easy, at least until the wheels began coming off the German campaign, and even after that for a good while.

The more difficult task was in making the party a national political force in the first place, and the people most responsible for that did not include Goebbels. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Telling Hitler what he wanted to hear
By now, it should be clear that Hitler was very much a man of his times, riding existing sentiments and ambitions; the Nazis were a bunch of thugs who simply manifested what a number of people were thinking into actual policy and then implemented it utterly ruthlessly. Those who think that others egged the hierarchy on by telling them what they wanted to hear should remember the penalties for failure, and for subversive or disloyal behavior, which included pessimism about official policy and tactics. From a 21st century perspective, there was a strong resemblance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, insofar as criticism was a crime punished with indefinite punishment without trial or appeal.

The results are a positive-feedback loop in which existing traits are inevitably amplified in a recursive fashion. The system is designed to tell people what they want to hear, and that makes excess in every trait impossible to prevent. Replacing the entire leadership of the Nazi party, if such a thing were possible, without reforming the underlying socio-political system, and nothing would change, save perhaps the ability of the leadership to deliver on the promises they were forced to make – or come close enough to be able to bluff their way through it.

The True Architects Of Misery
It can even be argued that while he provided the ideological foundations, and the demagoguery, Hitler himself was not ultimately directly responsible for the success of the Nazi Party in coming to power, completely lacking administrative abilities; the Nazi Party were a minor force in the region of Bavaria until Hitler entrusted party organization to the head of the secretariat, Philipp Bouhler, the party treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz, and business manager Max Amann. These three created the infrastructure of what would become the Third Reich. Despite their efforts, however, the Nazi Party had received only 3% of the vote in the December 1924 Reichstag elections, falling to 2.6% in 1928. State elections produced similar results. From 1928 on, other nationalistic groups began to fade away, stifled by the ongoing recovery in the German economy that had given them impetus, and were absorbed into the Nazis – who had yet to adopt that name.

In fact, it was only in January 1928, when the Party appointed its propaganda head, Gregor Strasser, to the position of national organizational leader, that the Nazis began to grow from an irrelevance to a national organization. By 1929, the party had 130,000 members; in the September 1930 Reichstag elections, they captured 18.3% of the vote and became the second most powerful party in Germany. The SA was now a definite political force to be reckoned with – from being nothing just three years earlier.

In March 1932 Hitler ran for President against the incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg, polling 30.1% in the first round and 36.8% in the second (against 49 and 53%, respectively). By now the SA had 400,000 members, and its running street battles with the SPD and Communist paramilitaries (who also fought each other) reduced some German cities to combat zones. Paradoxically, although the Nazis were among the main instigators of this disorder, part of Hitler’s appeal to a frightened and demoralized middle class was his promise to restore law and order.

Although Hitler and Strasser (in collusion with Goebbels) had disagreed on policy matters since 1925, the real wedge between the pair began when Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher offered Strasser the offices of Vice-Chancellor and Prime Minister of Prussia in December 1932, hoping to divide the Nazi party. Although the offer was blocked by Hitler, it was at least partly successful in driving a wedge between the astute political management that had brought the party to prominence and the ideologues and fanatics loyal to Hitler personally. How Hitler learned of the offer is unknown.

Strasser was ultimately purged during the Night Of The Long Knives.

Despite the appearance fostered by the twin historical distortions of Allied propaganda and Nazi revisionism, Goebbels was not the most important man in gaining power for the Nazi party, and neither were Bormann, Himmler, or even Hitler himself, in my opinion; I think that even without all of them, the Third Reich would have prospered under the organization of Bouhler, Schwarz, Amann, and the leadership of Strasser. Hitler brought an element of “cult of personality”, and levels of conviction that came close to insanity; Strasser would have brought an icy efficiency and pragmatism to the position. Arguably, things would have been much worse if Strasser was in charge beyond 1932.

Speculation: It seems likely that two factors were ultimately responsible for Strasser’s downfall: the political rift exacerbated by the offer from Schleicher, and the presence of someone to step into his Shoes in the form of Goebbels. It’s even possible that Goebbels learned of the offer and reported it to Hitler before Strasser could decide in which direction his loyalties lay – his party, or whatever ambitions he may have held personally. It was in Schleicher’s interests to make the offer known publicly, so he may have been responsible for spilling the beans. However, it has to be said that up to that point, Strasser had been a loyal servant of the Nazi Party. so it is entirely possible that a slight delay would have enabled him to take the opportunity to prove his loyalty by reporting the offer and his refusal to be bought off by Schleicher to Hitler, healing the rift between them at least partially.

So: The Germans assassinate Goebbels in late 1932, thinking him the linchpin of Nazi success, but doing nothing but delaying Hitler’s discovery of the offer from Schleicher long enough for Strasser to publicly refuse the position, emphasizing his loyalty to the Party and its leadership, and condemning the attempted corruption of the will of the people through bribery. Strasser survives, and those loyal to him are not removed from office, and the Nazi takeover in 1933 is even better organized and effective. This puts Strasser in position to learn of the Rohm-Putsch, better known as the Night Of Long Knives, when Hitler eliminated all his political rivals, in advance – and to stage a coup within the party, on the grounds that the planned Putsch was being disloyal to the party (and suspecting that his name was on the list to be purged). The Third Reich becomes even scarier, because it’s now run sensibly and ruthlessly. A misguided attempt to change history results in things becoming much worse.

Adventure #9: Future (very) Tense

The PCs have to prevent the Germans from completing their mission.

When they return to the 1930s, they discover that the Instigator has made some very dangerous modifications to the machine that might – just might – permit the team to travel forward in time to 1964, and has located the German time-travel machine. They will have to get rendezvous as usual, get across the Berlin Wall into East Germany, destroy the underground time-travel facility (no half-measures, complete destruction is mandatory), then escape and get their hosts back to safety.

Of course, the world of 1964 bears very little resemblance to anything the PCs know… technology, politics, etc, will all be different. Note too that this will be a world in which the primary global conflict is The Oracle’s Amerireich vs the USSR – which (ironically) is closer to the 1930s in terms of personal freedom than North America under the Oracle.

They will also have a very limited time-frame to complete their mission before the changes they made back in pre-WWII Germany ripple up the timeline. If they take too long, the personal histories of their hosts will change and the world around them will suddenly become Nazi Germany, complicating an already-complicated situation.

Note to GM: Make sure this happens mid-mission!

Adventure #10: Whose New Deal Is It This Time?

From this point forward, the focus shifts to the out-of-time portions of the adventures, with no real action in the modern era aside from a little roleplay. This is intentional and should indicate that the campaign has started building toward a climax.

With the German time-travel facility out of commission, and the Oracle’s puppet reduced from being the undisputed wealthiest man in America to merely one of the top 100, the team can focus on derailing the Oracle’s attempts to convert his wealth into political power. He no longer has the wealth to buy that power outright, and so has been forced – according to the Perspectatron – to an alliance with another group with extensive infiltration into Government – the bootleggers and organized crime. Prohibition was made law in 1920 and the distribution of illegal alcohol gave criminals great wealth and a number of allies both likely and unlikely. Some opposed prohibition on ideological grounds, some could be bought, some went along for the ride, and some opposed it for political reasons. Others were induced to cooperate with the bootleggers by means of extortion. Most paid lip service in public – “It’s the law, I might not agree but it still has to be obeyed” – while quietly sheltering and protecting those who violated the law. Attempts to curb the illegal use of industrial alcohol by lacing it with poisons while knowing that the measure was ineffective as a deterrent attracted further opposition to the policy.

Starting by tipping off Capone where and when raids would occur, and supplying intelligence on various politicians who were susceptible to coercion and blackmail, The Oracle spent most of 1926 insinuating himself into Capone’s good books and eventually persuaded him into an alliance. This took place behind the back of his puppet, and marked the first moves against the puppet who was beginning to outlive his usefulness as a front and means of gathering power. In particular, the “official” plan was to recruit and support politicians who would strengthen the US militarily prior to the nation being dragged into the European Conflict that is now imminent, but these politicians would be of only limited usefulness to the Oracle; he wanted people who would propel him into a position of political authority from which to launch his coup. In other words, the people that he wanted were exactly the same people that Capone was targeting, though the Oracle was casting a wider net.

One politician would be key, Speaker of the House John Nance of Texas, who historically was persuaded in the course of the 1932 Democratic National Convention to drop out in return for being named FDR’s running mate. The Oracle made illegal contributions in the names of several of the backers of the (First) New Deal, then provided the proof of those transactions to Nance just hours prior to the attempt by FDR’s managers, James Farley and Louis McHenry Howe, to broker the deal with Garner. Instead of accepting the deal, Nance exposed the corruption and FDR – who had been leading every ballot by a significant majority but falling just a little short of the numbers required to finalize the nomination – was forced to withdraw, his bid in total dissaray. The New Deal coalition collapsed, and the other three contenders scrambled to get the numbers of the disaffected delegates. With advance warning, Garner was successful in picking up 60% of the delegates who abandoned FDR, while Al Smith picked up the majority of the remainder. This gave Garner momentum and he was successfully able to pitch a deal with Smith, despite the hatred the two had for each other, presenting a unified ticket on the fifth and final ballot.

The Oracle knew that the depression had tainted Hoover and the Republicans and that the Democrats could exploit public disaffection with Hoover’s economic management to ensure victory in the 1932 election. Post-election, Vice-President Smith, who had been backed by the Tammany Hall Machine, was put in charge of a full investigation and house-cleaning of the Democratic Party, and traced the corruption and fraudulent donations that had undermined FDR to the Oracle’s puppet, who was arrested, staining his reputation. This placed Smith in a difficult position because the Puppet was also a part of the Tammany Hall operation. Smith delayed releasing his findings to the public and to other branches of the Government while he considered his options, giving the Oracle time to leak it. Accused of attempting a cover-up, Smith was forced to resign. Capone and the Oracle then blackmailed Nance into appointing Capone ally William Hale Thompson to the office of Vice-president, while Capone himself ran for office in a brutal and thoroughly corrupt election to replace Thompson as Mayor of Chicago.

This is the rat’s nest that the PCs have to somehow undo. Step one is to prevent the circumstances, post-election, that led to Smith’s resignation. If they succeed, they force the Oracle into coming up with another scheme and weaken the alliance with Capone. This puts the Oracle on the defensive and buys the PCs time. How the PCs attempt to achieve this is up to them.

Adventure #11: Conventional Ideas Wanted

Win, lose, or draw in the previous mission, the PCs can then attempt to further undermine events by targeting the events at the 1932 Democratic Convention. Again, how the PCs proceed is up to them. If they succeed, they again place the Oracle on the defensive, though at a much earlier point in time, and save the New Deal.

Adventure #12: Gangland Gangbusters

Again, regardless of the outcome of the previous mission, they have a third chance to prevent the Oracle achieving the political subversion that led to all this drama – by preventing the alliance with Capone in the first place. If they succeed at this point, the Oracle’s master-stroke against his puppet will be thrown into total disarray, enabling what the players think is the last adventure in the campaign to proceed.

Adventure #13: Confrontation

Assuming that they have been successful in the previous mission, the PCs have now restored a timeline in which the Oracle has been blocked from betraying his puppet. The final mission is to separate the two once and for all with direct action against the Oracle at a point prior to the putative alliance with Capone.

To do this, they will have to invade one of the most heavily-fortified and defended homes in all of New York and take the fight to the Oracle – without harming the Puppet.

If they succeed, the timeline as modified by the original Instigator will have been stabilized, and the PCs will return to find themselves in the world described in their original briefing notes. Which leaves only the question of what to do with the Instigator and his time machine…

Adventure #14: The Price of Victory

…who will not go quietly, and who cannot be trusted. At least, that’s the judgment of President Ronald Reagan of the year 1982, whose office came into possession of the time travel device following the death of the Puppet of old age. Reagan authorized a Delta Force Black Ops mission back to the 1930s to destroy the machine and wipe out anyone who knew about it. This was a one-way trip for the squad selected. The PCs have just been deemed the bad guys by the future US Government!

How the PCs react to this and what they do about it – long term, and short-term – is up to them. This is the real final mission of the campaign, and it might well be that the PCs decide to agree with future president Reagan, and resolve to destroy the device themselves. They may also decide that the knowledge they posses is too dangerous, and ensure that they are caught in the destruction; or they might decide to form an organization to prevent future meddling by time travel in history. Whatever they decide is fine – but unless they destroy the machine, they will have to look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives…

PC restrictions in past bodies

Anything that is learned knowledge will be retained. Anything that is a learned physical skill (beyond the basics) will not, but may be regained in a week or so of wearing the new body, getting used to the new center of gravity, etc. Physical characteristics will be those of the host body, mental characteristics will be the average of the host and the PC. Any physical skill that the host body has but the PC does not, or has to a lesser degree, can be used by the PC as though they had it, provided they don’t stop to think about what they are doing or going to do – the body’s trained reflexes remember. As soon as the PC thinks about it, he will tend to suffer a catastrophic failure by getting in the way of those reflexes.

Host Body Backgrounds

It may be convenient to take another page out of Quantum Leap and permit the Instigator to identify the host and provide a very basic briefing on who he or she is after the PC has occupied it. This information shouldn’t be available immediately, it should take about an hour to retrieve; the PC will have to blend in on his own for a while.

Click this thumbnail to download a visually larger version (prints at this visual size at 300 dpi)

Click this thumbnail to download a visually larger version (prints at this visual size at 300 dpi)

Yesterday Once More – Coda

So there it is, for whatever it’s worth – a complete campaign outline. Part Sci-Fi, part Pulp, and altogether too ambitious for the existing Adventurer’s Club campaign. It should adapt reasonably well to any appropriate game system from James Bond to d20 Modern to Pulp Hero. It would be a lot of fun to referee, and should be just as much fun to play.

Note that in almost all instances, the background historical information provided is accurate, though there has been modifications to events where a time-traveler has actively intervened.

I liked the campaign logo that I put together as part of the illustration for this article so much that I’m providing a hi-res version (1000 x 1000). This is exactly the right size to print at 300dpi with the same visual area as the thumbnail above, or to be something close to a full-screen image. Just click on the thumbnail above to download.

Credit where it’s due: The image was constructed from clip art made available through from two far more talented computer artists than myself, Lori and Andres – no further details provided. But thanks to them both!

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Alien In Innovation: Creating Original Non-human Species

rpg blog carnival logo

This month’s Blog Carnival is hosted by my buddy (and ex-partner here at Campaign Mastery) over at Roleplaying tips.

The subject is Races and Species and everything that goes with these concepts.

This is the first of two articles I have planned and written for the Carnival.

How do you create an original alien species?

For Sci-Fi and Superhero games you have to do it all the time, and if you change the term to “non-human” then it’s not all that uncommon in Fantasy RPGs, either.

This article will share the three approaches that I use when I want to create a new alien species:

  • Embodiment,
  • Inversion, and
  • Ecological Twist.



Embodiment is the technique of taking some physical, political, or social principle and placing it into a different context to create something new. For example, I might wonder, “What if Twitter were a life form?” or “What if Facebook was a metaphor for the social and biological attributes of a life form?”. Or I might create a life-form that embodies Zeno’s Paradox somehow.

Once I have the basic concept – and none of those examples are anywhere near complete enough to serve in that capacity – I will think about three things: The origin of the species, the biology of the species, and the society of the species – not necessarily in that order, though social functions will probably come last.

I might take a basic piece of chemistry or physics and try to make it central to the structure of the life-form in some unexpected way. For example, why not a series of long-chain polymers in a closed loop which have points to which amino acids and other biological building blocks attach forming something akin to skeleton keys on a ring? Or the same concept as forming cogs in a wheel, with biochemistry happening when the right tooth connects to the right cog slot?

Or perhaps I want to find a new variation on an existing life-form trope. I might want to do something original with heat / fire, for example. In this case, I would start by thinking about the properties of heat and fire, how they work in the real world, and so on. I would do a little basic research, all the while looking for a new twist to put on the concept. For a fire to exist, three things are needed, referred to as the Fire Triangle – Fuel, Energy, and Oxygen. So flame could be expressed as a symbiotic relationship between these three elements if it were a life form. As soon as that occurred to me, my thoughts flashed to Isaac Asimov’s Novel, The Gods Themselves, from which I have repeatedly drawn inspiration in the past. With the concept of three life forms that exist in symbiosis and must come together to propagate the species, I would be ready to start taking a detailed look at the biology involved.

Genre plays an important part in deciding how fast-and-loose to play with the ideas. In a sci-fi campaign, you need to give serious thought as to the way things work; conceptual plausibility in the real-world is very much the standard to aim for. Consider real-world biology in an abstract manner and find analogues for each process. Then translate those analogous processes into behaviors.

In Space Opera and Superhero games, you can play a little looser with the reality. You don’t have to examine each major biological process in any sort of detail, something that sounds vaguely plausible will do.

Pulp games can be a little looser again. You only need think about the most essential biological functions and how this species performs them.

And in Fantasy, “just because” is permissible, if it doesn’t occur too often; having some vague semblance to logic still helps, however.

For example, here’s a creature I devised for the “Fire” Realm in The Cavern Realms Of Zhin Tarn (I adapted the entire “Earth” Realm into the standalone adventure presented in the The Flói Af Loft & The Ryk Bolti), exactly as I wrote it up for use in-game:

   Hot Earth ‘(deep underground environment)’. Horta*-like creatures ‘Hot Spots’ melt tunnels following veins of tar and oil and mineral which contain the nutrients they need. Convection from them keeps air moving through the tunnels. There are very few of these creatures. They are exceptionally tough, placid, and near-immortal. (Asexual reproduction). They each have great intelligence which is segmented, permitting them to think of multiple things at the same time. They use this intellect solely for the playing of mental ‘games’, living a solitary existence; each is of the opinion that they are the only sentient being in existence. Everything that is perceived is the invention of another segment of the mind and represents a game, the rules of which have to be discovered by the main mind through trial and error – they live in a perpetually-changing fantasyland that has no relation to the ‘real world’.
   Game Mechanics: Use a blend of Conflagration Ooze (MMIII) + Bulette (MM)

* The ‘Horta’ was a creature from the original Star Trek episode, ‘The Devil In The Dark‘ – for anyone who didn’t know.


The Great Red Spot as seen from Voyager 1. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


The “Inversion” process means taking some iconic or overused stereotype (in racial terms) and either turning it on it’s head or giving it a twist that completely reshapes the concept.

For example, the website “Sci-Fi Ideas” recently ran an article by Stephen Harrison which asked “Could Life Evolve Inside a Gas Giant?“, prompting David Ball to ask on Facebook how the concept might be applied in an RPG.

So, let’s do just that. I’m going to start with the Gestalt/Group Mind concept, which has become something of a cliché these days; it needs some overhauling to be interesting again, so it’s ripe for an inversion.

A failed concept

My first thought was to have an almost-microscopic disease which possessed not only a collective intelligence and was capable of “taking over” an infected host, but which was also part of a much larger collective mind that was capable of unifying the actions of multiple people hundreds of miles apart to fit a master plan. But then I realized that this was a little too similar in some respects to what I had done with Dopplegangers a while back (Pieces Of Creation: The Hidden Truth Of Dopplegangers), so let’s go the other way and think about a Gestalt between very large creatures instead.

Going in the other direction

I think you can see where I’m going – this is where the Gas Giant creatures come in. So we have gas-filled bags made of living material that are somehow connected into a group mind of some unusual sort. Each life form can function more-or-less as a giant Neuron in the nervous system, a brain cell. It feeds on currents of nutrient gases and even condensing organic liquids; it might also be able to extract liquids suspended in the air through some sort of active filter. This gives them mobility, and that’s a key difference to ordinary brains – these creatures can reconfigure the neural activity of which they are a component – the ultimate in neuroplasticity.

“Cell” communications – emergent intelligence

Thinking about how these entities communicate with one another means taking a closer look at how brain chemistry works. In a nutshell, each brain cell can send an electrical impulse to the next in a great relay, and can connect to several other such cells; the cells learn to route signals this way or that based on conditions within the brain that are, in turn, controlled by other neural elements and by external stimuli such as changes to the chemical resistance that has to be overcome for a signal to make the leap. Some of this stuff is still not clearly understood or is speculative; it’s also a fast-changing field of knowledge, and my information may be out-of-date. So take that process description with a grain of salt.

Each brain cell no more thinks for itself than a single bit in computer decides whether it will be a 0 or a 1, or whether it will be used for storage or for processing, or even sit idle, on standby. There is another process within the overall system that controls configuration and starts and stops processes. The running of a computer application or the thinking of a thought is an emergent property of the system and its structure. (In fact, I know this to all be an oversimplification, but it’s close enough).

Getting back to our life-form, physical proximity and variations in the local environment – a stream of X substance which has a high resistance vs a stream of Y which has low – permits an externalization of the effects at a cellular level within the brain. Thus, by physically moving, the Jovian Brain can dynamically allocate its resources – more RAM here, more processor power there – on a task-by-task process.

This is inherently more powerful than dedicating such things to one function and one alone, the equivalent of hard-wiring components into the computer. Aside from a base quantity needed to maintain essential functions, the potential ceiling for each is 100% of capacity. If you had a device with 10% of it’s memory dedicated to essential functions, with 80% transferable from task to task as needed, you essentially have 90% of the available memory as RAM and 90% of it as CPU – which adds up to 180%. Computer designers figured this out a long time ago, and designed computer infrastructure to use disk space as virtual memory, which is clearly analogous.

Overcoming the downside

But there are mitigating factors to consider. One is that it takes time to reconfigure the system completely – more time than electrically switching device states, because each “giant brain cell” has to physically maneuver into position. Another is that we have made no allowance for the retention of “non-essential” functions, meaning that these would have to be relearned from scratch each and every time, unless some more permanent form of storage exists. Without such dedicated storage, it’s impossible to really conceive of this life-form possessing any sort of higher intelligence, and we need that to make it more interesting. So let’s invent one.

One of the densest forms of information storage is DNA. By encoding each piece with one of four different amino acids (G, A, T, C), it effectively uses quaternary encoding rather than the binary that our computers use. What’s more, the information contained in DNA can be accessed by a life-form incredibly quickly. Is there a way to use DNA as our retained memory?

One idea that leapt to mind right away – far more quickly than the time it took to type the preceding paragraph – derives from another aspect of human biology. We have, in fact, shared our biology with other creatures for so long that we have evolved a relationship that is at least partially describable as symbiotic – I’m talking about the essential bacteria in the human digestive system. Why can’t our Jovian life-form have something similar that consists of a header (with replication instructions for the symbiote) and then a long “DNA tail” that encodes information from the primary life form? Fairly standard cellular processes duplicate the DNA – with occasional errors – a million fold, so if one particular copy gets “consumed” by the act of reading this long-term memory, there’s plenty more where that came from. In practice, parallel decoding would occur – instead of “tell me three times”, which was a safeguard often referred to in early 20th century sci-fi, we might have “tell me 100 times and I’ll accept the consensus”.

This illustrates the geometry of the situation. It's sheer coincidence that the rendering looks like the One Ring and the geometry resembles a Great Eye, I swear!

This illustrates the geometry of the situation. It’s sheer coincidence that the rendering looks like the One Ring and the geometry resembles a Great Eye, I swear!

Super-sized Superorganism

How big could such an organism grow, how intelligent?

Jupiter has a radius at the equator of a little under 71,500 km. For convenience, let’s assume that this is a relatively equatorial life-form, unable to go much further than a latitude of plus-or-minus 30 degrees. That means that the volume we care about is a cylinder open at top and bottom, with curved walls. Furthermore, at the extreme outer edge of the atmosphere, life would be untenable – the top of our cylinder would have it’s top somewhat below the surface, so the radius of the habitable volume would be smaller than that of Jupiter itself. Nor would it extend all the way to the planet’s core; it might be a relatively thin sheet. Humans live work and exist only on the bottom 3% of the earth’s atmosphere, or so I seem to recall – though the definition of where the atmosphere ends has been subject to technical change in recent years (it actually extends beyond the moon’s orbit, it’s just very thin out there).

So, let’s say that 97% of the radius of the cylinder is also inaccessible to this life-form. Below that and the pressure is too much or the winds too strong or whatever. Next, we need to decide how far down the top of our “inhabited zone” is. Earth’s atmosphere is (“officially” – refer to my previous comments). I’m going to select the altitude at which the atmosphere becomes dense enough to produce noticeable effects on reentering spacecraft, i.e. 120 km according to Wikipedia’s entry on the atmosphere.

Since we know Jupiter’s radius, we can now know the size of the our cylinder. Sort of. (I’m ignoring the fact that Jupiter is the least spherical of all the major planets, even though that’s a major source of error).

What's been decided so far

What’s been decided so far

Rj = Jupiter radius = 71,500.
71,500 – 120 = 71,380.
0.97 x 71,380 = 69,238.6. Again, let’s use 69,240 for convenience.
So the thickness of our habitable band in one hemisphere is roughly 2,140 km.

Next, we can decide whether or not to ignore the bulge. Just how big an error might we get? For a baseline of any length, the hypotenuse of a triangle at an acute angle of 30 degrees is 1 / cos (30) times that length. That’s roughly 1.155, or about 15%. So we’re looking at an error of somewhere between 0 and 15% – call it 8% as an average. But, what we gain on one side of the curved cylinder, we lose (in part) on the underside – visually, on the diagram above, it looks to be about half. So that drops our error to about 4-5%.

If we increase the volume we calculate by about 5% we should be in the ballpark. But hold on – the flattening of Jupiter is also about 5% the other way, which will eat up most if not all of that error. The two sources of error just about cancel out – near enough for a rough estimate anyway.

Hollow angled cylinder from two solid angled cylinders

Hollow angled cylinder from two solid angled cylinders

The illustration shows how you can determine the volume of a hollow cylinder’s walls by subtracting the internal volume from the total volume, even though one wall is at an angle.

The geometry, further simplified

The geometry, further simplified

All we need is some basic geometry – the stuff most people get taught in high school. We know e, and we know two of the angles, one of which we have defined as a right angle. In fact, we have two values for e – 71,380 km and 69,240 km. The values we need are d, which work out to 35,690 and 34,620, respectively, and b, which work out to .

With those four measures – inside, outside, and defined top and bottom of 2.140 km, we can get the cross-sectional area of half our toroidal volume:

A = 2140 x (35690 + 34620) /2 = 75,231,700 sqr km. Now we double that for the second hemisphere to get 150,463,400 sqr km. All that we have to do now is multiply by the average radius of Jupiter at the depth we want – midway between 71,380 and 69,240 – to get the volume:

V = 150,463,400 x (71,380 + 69,240) /2 = 10,579,081,654,000 cubic kilometers. Call it ten-to-the-thirteenth power km3.

Answering the question

If the total environment each brain-cell beastie needs is a cubic kilometer, including its own volume, that’s 10-to-the-thirteenth specimens. The human brain has been estimated to contain 15-33 billion neurons according to Wikipedia – but here we run into a problem: is that an American Billion or a British Billion? In other words, is it 15-33 times ten to the ninth or times ten to the 12th? The Wikipedia page on “Billion” suggests that it’s the first of these, so we get (worst case) 3.3 x 10^10 brain cells. So our Jovian beastie, collectively, is as smart as 320 people concentrating on a single task. Now we allow for the super-efficiency and increase this to 180% of the total to get 577.

That’s not a lot, but a cubic kilometer is a LOT of space per beastie. If they only needed 25m space (in all directions)we get 11,754,547 people concentrating on a single task. And if they need only 10 cubic meters, 183,664,804 people. At human size – roughly 1 cubic meter each – we could have as many as 183 billion people – all working in perfect harmony.

Even allowing for their environmental handicaps, that makes this beastie anywhere from a large human research team to frighteningly super-intelligent.

So, what’s it good for?

The answer is not very helpful – “it depends”. Think of this beastie as the world’s most powerful supercomputer. It’s tethered to it’s environment like very few others ever could be. Or is it?

Postulate one of these cells taken on-board a human vessel in some sort of pressurized life-support container. It gets fed information from the on-board terrestrial computer and sends them back to Jupiter via radio link, where a cybernetic “implant” takes the place of the cell that’s been removed. Perfect storage and intensive analysis of everything that’s ever been discovered. Oh, and it’s effectively immortal.

The plot potential should be fairly obvious – there’s the discovery of the intelligence, first contact, establishing diplomatic relations, the discovery of potential mutual benefits, and so on. Humans are sometimes untrustworthy, but I doubt this beastie’s collective mind would ever learn to lie – it wouldn’t even have the concept, because there is no-one to lie to. How long would it be before someone did something greedy, stupid, or both – and the beastie decided it needed to take over for our own good? Especially if it’s somewhere near the higher limit of potential intelligence?

You’d have to at least wonder if we wouldn’t be better off under “new management”. It’s easy to imagine a human civil war over the question – a war that the side backed by Jupiter would probably win (there’s that brain-power again). But having fought a civil war over the question, and lost, would those who opposed alien control of humans give up quietly? Again, I doubt it.

Whatever this beastie turned its attention to would make great strides. The question is, who decides what questions to ask it?

Unanswered Questions

Personality is a big question. At least part of the answer would come from the solution to another: what stimulus led to the development of intelligence in the first place? What did it use it’s super-colossal computing power for before humans came along? Are there others like it in other Gas Giants?

We already know that Jovian Gas Giants plus are all over the place. Of the solar systems we have discovered beyond our own, they ALL have one – that’s because they are much easier to detect, in relative terms. Jupiter-beasties could be the most common form of sentience in the universe.

But one is enough to force a close look at all sorts of human questions, about who we are as a species. If you view humanity as a single organism, complete with all its contradictions, what conclusions would you reach?

How to roleplay it?

I would take a hard look at the Thuriens from James P. Hogan’s Giants series, especially the first three or four books, because they share a lot of the characteristics that I would expect to find – a lack of understanding of human deception and violence, curiosity, advanced intellect, and so on. I would throw Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud straight on the reading list as well, since it features a profoundly non-humanoid intellect and its perspective. You can’t look past the Moties from The Mote In God’s Eye by Niven and Pournelle, and the sequel, The Gripping Hand, also known as The Moat Around Murcheson’s Eye. And lastly, I would add Diane Duane’s Spock’s World for its examination of how Humans might react to such a non-human intelligence and how we might influence each other. (These are all old favorites for the reasons cited and more).


Ecological Twist

The final technique that I employ is to construct an exotic ecology, fill each of the major environmental niches, and then employ stepwise refinement to evolve the whole into something exotic. This was the approach that I used in creating all the Cavern Realms except the first, and there is no clearer example than that of the Water Realm.

Step One: Describe environment

I use as many key words as possible and avoid complicated sentence structure and parsing. This represents my initial stockpile of ideas. For the water realm, the list was: Liquid Ice Solid Cold Boils Surface Currents Impurities Drifts Fish Coral Reef Storm Hurricane Elemental Algae Plankton Barnacles Leak Drip Raindrop Swim Whale

Step Two: List Ecological Niches to be filled

These definitions should be as brief and functional as possible. For the Water Realm, the list was:

  • Biological Energy Source (The equivalent of the sun)
  • Energy Distribution (the equivalent of sunlight)
  • Plants, subdivided into
    • Small e.g. flowers
    • Algae
    • Medium e.g. vines & bushes, and
    • Large e.g. trees
  • Herbivores, subdivided into
    • Small
    • Medium
    • Large
  • Carnivores, subdivided into
    • Small
    • Medium
    • Large
  • Carrion Eaters
  • Recyclers

Note that many ecologies would also have omnivores as a category.

Step Three: Generate & Revise Ideas

Using the key words, assign a concept to each ecological niche in a manner that suggests the core of an idea. Don’t fret about any unused keywords, don’t be afraid to change your mind, don’t necessarily start at the top. Go through the list several times, refining and replacing things that don’t fit the emerging ecological concepts. Bear in mind the prey-predator dynamic, the evolution of natural defenses against predators (including the defenses of plants against herbivores), the competition between predator species, the natural pyramid of species (i.e. the larger the creature, the fewer the number of species), and the potential for micro-climatic variations.

Unfortunately, this was mostly done on scratch paper, so I no longer have the list of keyword allocations in the case of the Water Realm, though some can be reasoned by working backwards from the species that populate that niche.

Step Four: Create the species

Work from the bottom of the ecology up. If you get stuck, go from the top down. Convert your raw ideas into species concepts. We’re not worried about game mechanics yet; we are still designing the ecology and its constituents conceptually. When you have the whole populated, work in the opposite direction to check your logic, and don’t be afraid to make tweaks to the ideas. Original and unique ideas are to be preferred over old or clichéd ones, but consistency and logic are even more important. If you come up with something that sounds “cool” or “interesting”, try adding it to the appropriate species, but be prepared to take it back out if it doesn’t work or it destabilizes the ecology too much.

Then look at the ecological pressures on each creation and how they would tend to change as a result. Advance each species an evolutionary step or two. Now reassess your ideas. It’s possible that this will lead to a depopulation of a species except perhaps in sheltered micro-climate pockets; when this happens, look for the neighboring species in either size or in category with the same size, and determine whether or not a variation on that species would evolve to fill the empty slot.

Repeat this process as many times as necessary to evolve unique ideas for each slot – these will tend to happen without active prompting, simply because the stimulus in – evolution – stimulus out chains are going to be unique.

In the case of the Water Realm, once again this work was carried out in a scratch document and does not survive.

Step Five: Finalize descriptions

By now, you should have a clear idea for each species and an evolutionary history. Some vestigial features may remain from past variants. The concepts should be rich, detailed, and original – or at least variations on the normal.

Here are the creatures that I came up with for the Water Realm (slightly edited for clarity, expanding some descriptions with additional notes):

  • Biological Energy Source -
    Acidic Solution providing electrical potential flow, i.e. electricity. Gravity is always towards the center of the Realm where one pole of the resulting Battery is located.
  • Energy Distribution -

    Veins of Metal run through cavernous walls, electrically charged; Salt “Towers”; current varies with metal conductivity.

  • Plants:
    • Small -

      Coral Bridges form natural structures connecting different strands of metal when they are close enough. The Coral gains energy directly from the electrical charges that derive when they connect two different types of metals. In effect, each colony consists of a cattle-prod with a living coral ‘handle” (would actually be “H” shaped). The Coral also fixes Nitrogen, each colony expelling clouds of “fertilizer”. The Coral is therefore an animal colony performing an ecological function normally handled by plants.

      Ion exchange means that the metal veins are perpetually dissolving/corroding away and being replaced through electrolytic salt deposit – they twist and gnarl and change shape over time.

      An Iron Loop which leads to the center of the “droplet” gets very hot because of electrical resistance, melts other metals which drift too close (breaking down veins) & boiling the water in vicinity – creates atmosphere of “steam” in the center of the environment.

      Heat breaks salts down into pure metal+water vapor+oxygen + hydrogen.

      Turbulence creates frequent electrical storms of ‘massive’ scale, which in turn strike the iron loop (which effectively surrounds the storm at all times), which generates the heat, which boils the water, which creates the turbulence.

      Electrical current travels through the iron bar and arcs to any metal that gets too close, which splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen. While some of the gas will then dissolve into the water, maintaining the acidity of the solution and oxygenating the water as though it were a fish-tank, most will bubble toward the “surface” where the passage of lightning causes hydrogen explosions.

    • Algae -

      Algae colonies consume the “fertilizer” and all dead creatures (would also infect any wounds). Clouds of algae therefore form a halo around a coral colony, trailing with the water currents. The Algae in turn form the fundamental food supply of the ecology, in symbiosis with the

    • Medium -

      Floating giant “clover” 1m across trap rising gas bubbles, breathe the oxygen and use the hydrogen to give them “jet propulsion” to carry them up to where they are struck by lightning, destroying the individual plant but scattering seeds all over the surface.

    • Large - None in this ecology.
  • Herbivores:
    • Small -

      “Glass Bubbles” 2m in diameter that appear to be filled with foam. The “Glass” is soft to the touch and will be attracted to the exhalations of creatures and to any concentration of algae such as that surrounding burns or wounds that have become ‘infected’. They contain various digestive juices (count as acid attack).

    • Medium -

      Snake-like creature 4m in length with blunt, peg-like teeth for chewing up the remains of exploded “clover”. These are therefore always near the surface. The will only attack to defend themselves and use constriction.

    • Large - None in this ecology.
  • Carnivores:
    • Small -

      Grasshopper-like vermin which attack in the hundreds at a time. Swarms of these amphibians “fly” through the atmosphere from one clover-leaf to another and prey on any Snakes that come too close.

    • Medium -

      None in this ecology.

    • Large -

      None in this ecology.

  • Carrion Eaters -

    Algae (refer above).

  • Recyclers -

    Algae (refer above).

Step Six: Game mechanics

With enough experience, you can re-skin existing creatures with whatever game mechanics are required to simulate your conceptual creations on the fly. If you aren’t comfortable doing that. the next step is to assign whatever values you consider necessary to get the job done.

And don’t forget to write up a description of the environment for the PCs, now that you know what is going to be there. Here’s the one for the Water Realm:

Environmental Description / Player Introduction:
Surprisingly, you have a definite sense of “up” and “down”. The water is slightly acidic, stinging any exposed flesh. Veins of pure metal twist and wind back and forth like arm-thick ropes. Different colonies of coral form bridges across different veins of metal. Surrounding the coral is a “halo” of specks which trail off with the current. A dim light can be perceived radiating in the distance ahead. The surface around the water is mud-like and composed of fine silt with numerous rocky outcrops. Bubbles of gas rise from the surface of the veins of metal, which shows considerable signs of pitting and erosion. The metallic veins are twisted and gnarled and in constant (if slow) random motion, and form an ever-changing maze. Sparks frequently jump from a metal “vein” forming part of one coral colony to a “vein” of a different metal belonging to a different colony.

Three Answers

So, there you have it – three different ways of generating original non-human species: One that builds on a single central concept or idea as a variation on what has been done before, one that works by twisting or defying expectations and clichés and the established patterns, and one that views the creature as a product of its environment and ecology. Don’t rely on just one approach, mix it up for best results.

If you want more advice on generating societies that “fit” the species, I refer you to one of the first series here at Campaign Mastery, Distilled Cultural Essence.

Creating new species and new creatures is always lots of fun, so stretch those creative muscles and don’t let the players think they know it all just because they’ve memorized the Monster Manual (or equivalent)…

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“I know what’s happening!” – Confirmation Bias and RPGs


I was watching a documentary the other week. (I know, it seems like I watch a lot of TV. I actually watch less than it might seem, but I’ve gotten a number of articles out of what TV I do watch.)

Anyway, the subject in this case was the investigation of the crash of a Singapore Airlines jet in which – under extremely adverse conditions – the crew had attempted to take off from a runway which was closed for maintenance, when a very telling statement was made by a Human Factors expert interviewed for the show.

He said “The human brain is always trying to convince itself that it has a complete picture of what is going on, and so … when contradictory information comes in, there is a tendency called Confirmation Bias to ignore it, and to concentrate on what you think is happening.”

My first association, on hearing these words, was with the way in which many optical illusions work, with the mind seeing part of the picture and filling in the rest of the “story”; and the second was with the way in which witness statements can be flawed, unintentionally overlooking things that don’t fit the preconception of events. And the third was with the way Confirmation Bias explained and identified a phenomenon that I have observed a number of times as a GM:

The players come up with a theory as to what is happening, which either fits all the evidence that they have gathered thus far, or explains away contradictory evidence. So convinced are they by this theory built around an incorrect picture that they ignore or reject, as attempts to mislead them, subsequent contradictory evidence that should expose the flaw in their logic.

Has this ever happened to you? I’d lay odds that it has. It has certainly happened to me several times.

When Confirmation Bias strikes your game table, your options are limited, but perhaps more far-ranging than you think – though some come with steep price-tags. In fact, I’ve identified nine possible ways of handling the situation:

  • Option #1: Do Nothing
    • …until new evidence is found
    • …until they spot the error
    • …or an NPC figures out the truth
    • …until the last possible second
    • …until the 13th hour
  • Option #6: The Players Are Right
  • Option #7: Correct the error Immediately
  • Option #8: Die Roll Saviors
  • Option #9: Complicate the mess

This article is going to examine those solutions, the compromises and price-tags that they carry as baggage, and the pitfalls of each.

A necessary assumption

It’s necessary to assume that the solution the GM has in mind makes sense and has no logic holes. This, unfortunately, won’t always be the case; if the players’ logic for rejecting that solution seems compelling to the GM when it gets made, he has a whole different problem to deal with: fixing the hole in his logic, and only then seeing which of the solutions offered below will be the most effective way of patching the adventure with the logic upgrade.

A matter for serious consideration

Note that most of these solutions imply that they will be consistently employed in any similar future circumstance as a matter of campaign policy. While this policy is subject to change under different circumstances, establishing one in-game approach as the default and then not employing it on some future occasion is either a great big hint to the players (if they notice) or a potential undermining of their trust in the GM’s fairness.

This choice is not one that should be made lightly; it can have ramifications and consequences that go way beyond this individual adventure or even this particular campaign.

Options #1-5: Do Nothing

This basic solution is reflective of a particular gaming philosophy, that can be stated:

The players are in control of the PCs and make the decisions for them. If the players make a mistake in interpreting a situation, the PCs make the same mistake, and both sides have to live with the consequences. This option is the price that has to be paid for giving the players total freedom to play their characters as they see fit. If they are the ones making the decisions, then they also have to take the responsibility for making those decisions the correct ones.

There will be a lot of people who agree with that fundamental philosophy, at least in general terms. Others might argue that the GM knows the game world better than the players, and that the PCs have different capabilities to those of their players, and hence this hard line needs some watering down, some softening. What’s more, the GM has a much better view of the big picture, while the players have – at best – a distorted, compromised view, as explained in Monday’s article, Layers Of Mis-translation.

Finally, it can be argued that the GM has a responsibility to the campaign to save the players from themselves because a campaign that collapses is no fun for anybody.

So far as I am concerned, these are all valid arguments to at least some extent and that is why this is such an important, even defining, decision in terms of the campaign. I always give the question thought when creating a campaign and – at the very least – drop hints as to what the policy is going to be within a campaign, if it isn’t stated explicitly. I tailor the choices employed within any given campaign to the design of that campaign. And I will occasionally vary that choice based on in-game circumstances.

But, even if the core philosophy is to let the players make their own mistakes and live with the consequences, there remain options for softening this hard line to varying degrees. That’s where the terminus variations within this general option come in.

Option #1: …until new evidence is found

The softest variation is to let them continue in their erroneous thinking until they discover a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit, then use it (through an NPC) to cast doubt on their theory, hitting them over the head with the logic error until you break through the Confirmation Bias. This leaves them with two viable theories – the one you started with, and a variation on their flawed one with appropriate adjustments and corrections to plug the wound made in it, but no certainty as to which is correct.

This solution suffers from a very human problem: it ignores the fact that the players are people with human feelings and deliberately humiliates them to some extent whenever they make a mistake. While some players may be fine with such treatment, most will dig in their heels and resent it. There are two solutions to this related subproblem: water down the “hit them over the head” part of the proposal, risking the effectiveness of the solution to the original problem, or taking this option off the table except in unusual circumstances.

Option #2: …until they spot the error

Players can sometimes break through Confirmation Bias all on their own, especially if something that doesn’t fit is forcibly brought to their attention (a-la the “new evidence is found” sub-option) and they are left to draw their own conclusions. If you can somehow drop a hint that some NPC is deliberately trying to make them (and anyone else) think that the PCs original conclusions are the truth, the combination is sometimes enough to eventually break through the Confirmation Bias.

This is often a good solution to employ in conjunction with one of the other options, because it gives the players the opportunity to fix their mistake while still erecting a safety net of some sort. It’s big flaw is that it doesn’t always work; the players might assume that the apparent deception is in fact a deception being used to double-bluff them into thinking their solution is not the correct one. Engaging their paranoia just enough is only a hair’s-breadth line removed from going way too far. You can actually end up doing more damage to the campaign than if you had kept your mouth shut.

Option #3: …or an NPC figures out the truth

One such safety net is having an NPC figure out that the PCs have made a mistake. The question then becomes, what will they do about it? The NPC can’t just up and lecture the PCs – that’s just another way of humiliating the players using the NPC as a proxy. No, the NPC needs to make one of the PCs aware that he thinks something may have been overlooked but doesn’t want to make a fuss about it until he investigates, then have the NPC try to verify the real solution and get in over his head.

Eventually, his absence / lack of messages will alert the PCs that there was at least some merit to his concerns, or he will be badly injured in the course of his solo wanderings (same result) or whatever – something will happen to him that lends credibility to his alternate theory of what’s going on.

This is entirely fair game, establishing the philosophic principle that if the players get their sums wrong, other people will suffer, and this can include friends and allies. In other words, there is a price that they have to pay, albeit indirectly, for being wrong. (This is a lot more effective in some campaigns than others). Genre, PC personality, player personality, empathy for NPCs – there are a host of factors. But it’s definitely worth considering.

Option #4: …until the last possible second

If you’re going to make the truth a revelation because the players have blinded themselves to truth, why not go the whole hog? “The last possible second” is defined in this case as the last point at which the PCs can undertake the correct action to stop whatever is really going on. It only takes a slightly overconfident villain leaping up at that moment and exclaiming “You were so easy to deceive, until now, it is too late to stop me, Bwahahaha!” and the problems resulting from the Confirmation Bias go away.

The problem with this solution is that it requires the right mental attitudes on the part of the players, because they have to be able to figure out the solution to their problem without being fed it by the GM. If they are in a mental state that says “Yeah, you got us good, there’s nothing we can do about it anymore,” then the whole adventure, and possibly the campaign, will collapse in a heap. If they are strong-willed, determined, problem-solvers who will take that pronouncement as a challenge, then this option can work, and work brilliantly – up to the point where it becomes overused.

It’s vital that the villain’s pronouncement be the final event in the day’s play so that the players have until the start of the next game session to reevaluate the situation and come up with a plan. The GM can hint at the solution but can’t deliver it on a silver platter.

And there should always be a cost involved in last-minute desperate solutions. If there’s no pain for their characters as a result, the players will learn nothing from the error. An adventure post-mortem is definitely called for – perhaps partially in the form of a player-GM bullring, in which the causes of the mistake can be looked at from a metagame level, followed by a roleplayed partial in-character post-mortem, possibly built into the start of the next adventure – though tacking it onto the current one, and ideally onto the adventure play session which includes the climax is probably a better option.

Option #5: …until the 13th hour

Let the PCs make their mistakes until it IS too late and the villain wins. Then segue into an adventure in which the PCs undo the victory at the 13th hour. This lets the players take the frustration, anger, and humiliation that has been dumped on them by the NPC and return the favor – leaving the GM in the clear.

It’s vital, when employing this technique, that the solution be timed properly, and that afterwards it be emphasized that the PCs got lucky in that there was a way back from the abyss – they might not be so lucky the next time.

I didn’t have to use it, but for one Zenith-3 adventure I carefully prepared an outline of a solution to just such a problem in case it was needed. (I’m going to leave the details vague because I might retool it for use some other time):

  • The first hour of the next session would have been consumed by the PCs escaping, convinced that there had to be a way out of the mess.
  • The following 30 minutes was going to be a synopsis of three months under the heel of the victorious dictator while the PCs were on the run – not played in-game – and the cost to innocent bystanders and allies of the team.
  • Finally, the conclusion to the second hour was going to be the villain making his first major mistake and the PCs realizing that he had made a mistake.
  • An hour or so of planning and investigating how best to take advantage of that mistake, deciding just what their objective had to be, then one-to-two hours of putting that plan into action.

There were actually going to be two ways to take advantage of the mistake – one was more certain but left the last three months events (game time) intact, the other an alternative that was riskier but could undo everything all the way back to the 13th hour and prevent the original victory by the villain – at a price.

I would have expected the PCs to attempt both plans simultaneously – a problem of coordination of efforts, but worth the effort, giving them two simultaneous bites of the cherry.

I was then going to put the villain into a position where he could attempt to stop ONE of the two plans, and make his second mistake – he would underestimate what the time-travel option could achieve and block the contemporary-events targeting group. Upshot: the PCs find themselves back at the moment of total victory for the villain with one slim hope of stopping him.

Note that none of this was going to come easy for the PCs, this was not a deus-ex-machina, it was something they were going to have to sweat bullets to pull off. I was going to give them a chance to correct their mistake, not an easy way out, and with no guarantees of success. I also had contingency plans to extend the in-the-future segment by another game session or even two, if the players found themselves getting into it.

That’s how you structure a 13th-hour solution.

In the past, I’ve had such solutions in place for other adventures.

A possibility at one point was a KGB mole taking over the President of the US with Mind Control, and being stopped just as he begins the nuclear launch sequence after re-targeting the nukes at US targets. All but one of the missiles would be harmlessly self-destructed, that last one could be stopped by one of the PCs, depriving her of her powers at least temporarily in a “radiation accident”, but leaving the President hopelessly insane, elevating a corrupt Vice-President to the oval office, and leaving the US vulnerable to nuclear attack from the Soviet Union unless the PCs acted immediately. There is always a price to be paid for a 13-hour solution.

The biggest downside of the 13th-hour solution is that you can’t employ it all the time, and there is always a risk that the PCs will fail in their 13th-hour bid for victory. Other notable dangers are the effects of the price to be paid – it has to cause real harm to the PCs capabilities or it’s not a deterrent, but that can impact other adventures down the track. It’s often an all-or-nothing throw of the dice for the campaign. It’s wise to have a plan C in case the PCs fail.

Option #6: The Players Are Right

So far, the alternatives have all been variations on “The players are wrong and will eventually come to know it”. It’s time to cast a wider net and consider more radical solutions.

One obvious choice that I’ve used a couple of times is to rewrite the rest of the planned adventure, on the spot, in such a way that the players are right. When I like their theory better than the plans and motivations that I employed to determine the events on which their theory is based, and in particular when it opens the door to one or more future adventures that I hadn’t even considered, this is one of the first options that I consider.

The problem with this solution is that you usually have very little time to make up your mind. As Johnn Four wrote for Campaign Mastery some years back, “Say Yes, but Get There Quick.” The trick to being able to make a reasoned snap judgment is two-fold; (1) Know what is going on, according to your original plan, and how the events that the PCs have discovered fit into that sequence of events; (2) consider each element of the players’ theory as they develop and expound it, looking for both flaws and plot potential. By staying only a heartbeat behind the players, and developing pro- and anti- arguments as you go, the GM is in a position to render a quick decision while still investing considerable thought on the question.

Every fact always has three possible explanations: it’s a true fact, a mistake, or it’s a deliberate deception by someone for a reason. Employing this logic to retroactively change the status of events and “facts” uncovered by the PCs, it is always possible to construct an alternative theory as to the cause of events, and what is going on. All that needs to be done to switch from one scenario being “true” to the other is to recast the conflicting points of information as errors, incorrect assumptions, or deliberate deceptions.

That beings about a secondary problem, however; the deception has to make sense to whoever is responsible. After all, the adventure has just gone from a case of one stream of events and an interpretation of those events by the players to one stream of events plus an active deception – one set of real events has become two. It doesn’t matter how much sense the players theory makes if the hypothetical deception is so improbable or counterproductive or nonsensical that it would never occur. This is one of the most significant assessments that the GM has to make in evaluating the potential of the player’s theory, and this is what the GM should pay the maximum attention to.

You can trust the players to police the internal logic of their theories, at least to some extent. You’ve hopefully prepared the internal logic of what you originally intended to happen, in advance. So it should be possible to focus your concentration on the player’s theory and whether or not the surrounding events hold logical water. This is one of the most important criteria to employ in determining whether or not this is a viable option.

Option #7: Correct the error Immediately

One reason why the decision about Option #6 has to be made so quickly is because it is mutually exclusive to this alternative. The best time to dispel Confirmation Bias is immediately you become aware of it. “You’re trying to convince yourselves, but something just doesn’t ring true.” “There’s something you’ve overlooked.” “You’re reaching.” “Interesting speculation but it relies on too many unvalidated assumptions, so don’t lock your thinking in stone.” “Wishing won’t make it so.” “It seems over-complicated as theories go.” “That seems too simplistic an explanation.” Any of these phrases can be used to puncture the theory as a hypothetical description of reality, but only if they are delivered before players convince themselves and Confirmation Bias gets locked into place. They are all shorthand, polite GM code for “You’re talking nonsense”.

Option #8: Die Roll Saviors

Players are not their characters. The environments in which players and characters are trying to make sense of events are completely different. The same logic used to justify Option #1 can also be turned to permitting characters dice rolls to work out when the players are putting nonsense into their mouths and minds.

While I have an aesthetic dislike for this solution, it is a viable option that has to be considered, and that I have had to employ on more than one occasion. It’s especially appropriate when there is a great disparity between the intellectual capabilities or life experiences of players and characters; but it has the tremendous drawback of letting a die roll replace ROLE-play.

After all, if you’re going to let die rolls decide everything, what do you need players for?

Option #9: Complicate the mess

Douglas Adams wrote, in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Universe”, “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.” This option is offered in the same spirit.

Essentially, it assumes that as soon as the players lock their minds in stone about what is going on, both their theory and the plot from which the GM has generated the events about which the players are theorizing become equally invalid, replaced by something even more complicated, and the first thing that the GM has to do is elevate the state of confusion.

For example, let us presuppose that a family heirloom – a diamond necklace – was broken down and sold piecemeal because the artistry of the setting was particularly bad and detracted from the overall value of the piece. Now the son who sold it off without his family’s knowledge to solve his gambling debts is stealing back the gems to reconstruct the necklace before its theft is discovered. So he steals a piece of jewelery, removes the stones from their setting, keeps the one he wants, and dumps the rest at the scene of subsequent crimes in order to confuse the authorities about what is happening.

The players figure out that the thief is stealing to obtain specific gems from each item, but are at a loss as to the significance of those gems until one of the players notices that one of the gemstones is “3 carats” and another weighs “1.4 grams” and a third is “0.027 inches in diameter” (all randomly chosen numbers) and evolves the theory that mystic numerology is involved relating to the embedded digits of pi (3.1415927), and therefore the next theft will involve a stone which contains some measurement with a value of “15″ or “1.5″ or something along those lines. From there, the speculation moves on to the mystic significance, an answer is contrived involving opening a portal to a hypothetical other plane of existence, and before you know it, the PCs are looking for a sorcerer and numerologist.

As soon as that happens, the GM rules (in his own mind) that both explanations are spurious and the truth is even more complicated. Back when they were part of the same necklace, a secret formula for the unlocking of great power was micro-etched by laser into the surfaces of the diamonds as a means of smuggling that research out of the hands of the foreign power who sponsored the research for use as a weapon. He got the necklace out, but was captured and has spent the last twenty years in prison. Finally, he effected an escape, but in the meantime, the jewels were broken up and sold piecemeal – his artistry in designing the setting left something to be desired. He has spent a further five years in tracking them down, and now has only two more to find.

But his M.O. is about to change. One of the gems has been re-cut, and in a rage, he is going to kill the jeweler with the victim’s own gem-cutting equipment and then steal his entire stock in order to buy what expensive equipment he needs to replicate his research that he is going to be unable to steal. And the PCs, in the act of investigating, are going to encounter the son of the jeweler, a fine red herring, who has been secretly smuggling blood diamonds to his father for re-cutting, and an uncut stone will have been given to a witness, a streetwalker, in an attempt to buy her silence; when she attempts to sell the diamond, it’s provenance will be immediately recognized and she will be detained. At which point, the deal she made with the jewel thief is off, and she will attempt to make a new deal with the authorities for her freedom. Next, the criminal needs to find a buyer for his loot; he sells some of it in a pawnshop, but is long gone by the time the connection is worked out, and makes contact with the Russian Mafia in an attempt to sell them the rest.

He makes the mistake of telling them too much, and they decide to back his research – whether he likes it or not. So the diamond robberies stop, and a new series of brazen and violent high-tech robberies by the Russian Mafia take their place. Meanwhile, from the description provided by the streetwalker, including information about accent and unfamiliarity with American slang, the PCs identify the thief and establish the provenance of the original series of stones – this builds the path to the original solution to the crimes into the new plotline. By now, the original theory of the players, to which they were becoming wedded, has been blown apart; there are too many things that it doesn’t explain. They identify and recover the last two of the original stones and discover the secret to unlocking the hidden code micro-engraved within them, and enabling them to start figuring out what’s now going on.

Meanwhile, an FBI deep-cover mole within the Russian Mafia connects some of the dots for the PCs, and they start putting together the real story. They determine that the hidden code has something to do with the angular momentum of charged spinning black holes, and are able to deduce the rest from the list of equipment stolen. By constructing an artificial microscopic black hole, with a charge, and spinning it by transfer of angular momentum while feeding it just enough high-energy fast-moving particles in a fixed directional stream with an electron gun (as used in any old-style TV set) to keep it “alive”, energy can be siphoned from the black hole by firing a second string of particles to just graze the edge of the event horizon; the particles are spun at incredible speeds, tearing them apart; some components are absorbed by the hole, but the rest leave with more velocity than they arrived with because of the transfer of angular momentum, carrying enough energy to initiate a small fission-fusion reaction in deuterium atoms, splitting apart hydrogen atoms and colliding the parts with enough force to cause them to fuse into helium, releasing heat energy which can be turned into mechanical work.

What happens from there depends on the genre. So far, the adventure could be superhero, neo-pulp, super-spies, sci-fi, or cyberpunk. The researcher, under pressure to deliver results from the Russian Mafia, is about to make a second mistake by incorrectly replicating part of the original formula, but what the outcome will be is dependent on the genre. All you can do without that information is characterizing it as a danger and an immediate threat. Naturally, this will occur just as the thief is distracted by the PCs raiding the premises in order to arrest him, then turn him states’ witness against the Russian Mafia. But whether the villain gains superpowers by his machine running amok, or it becomes a bomb on a short fuse, or it really does rip a hole into another continuum, it still provides a suitably spectacular ending to what has turned into a much bigger and more complicated adventure than the original very human and low-level story of perseverance in the face of incredible adversity that the GM had in mind.

This example was included to make a point as well as illustrating the process. The unexpected development jars the complacency that sets in as a result of Confirmation Bias, the confidence that the PCs know what’s going on, but it also makes the adventure bigger. In order to overcome the Confirmation Bias, it’s not enough to throw unexpected plot developments at the PCs, there needs to be some sort of escalation beyond what they were expecting, and that in turn needs a more over-the-top conclusion as a pay-off to the bigger build-up. Without that escalation, the players will waste time and effort trying to integrate the unexpected development into their pre-existing analysis – something that’s always possible by ruling the unexpected item as an attempted deception to throw authorities off the scent. It’s only by making the unexpected development too important for such a minor function, ie escalation, that the cracks in the Confirmation Bias can be wedged permanently open.

I know what’s really happening!

Confirmation Bias is a very real problem for the GM, one that he will encounter repeatedly, but it can be overcome. Just remember the usually-misquoted line from Shakespeare and let it be your guide: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The players may think they know what is happening, but you really do know what’s going on – even if you change your mind!

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Layers Of Mis-translation: RPGs and Dubbed TV


I was watching a repeat of Iron Chef the other day, and (not for the first time) ruminating on the evident personalities of the three chefs. Sakai always comes across as the friendliest of the three, Chen with an impish sense of humor, and of course, Michiba is the oldest, and in many ways, the most venerable. While still approachable, his personality seems more paternal than the others.

And, not for the first time, I wondered how much of the personality being expressed derived from the men themselves and how much from the voice-over men who dubbed their words into English.

While an interesting question, it’s one that seems incapable of complete solution without actually meeting and getting to know the men personally. So, as is usually the case, I was about to set it aside and think about something else, when it unexpectedly connected with another association, one that holds direct relevance to Campaign Mastery.

If the Chefs are the equivalent of the personalities described on a character sheet, the voice-over artists are analogous to the players!

Struck by this thought, I decided to spend this article examining the concept…

Personality on the page

A character sheet for many types of RPG is completely devoid of personality. Some systems, like the Hero System, include quirks of the psychological profile of the character, but these typically don’t define the character, and don’t express why these traits form part of the character’s makeup. At best, you can get some idea of the influences on the personality.

Racial Profiling can be applied in some cases to get a first-draft of the personality that completely ignores any possibility of individual variations. Other forms of stereotyping can also be applied in a similar manner.

It takes a player to put all these ingredients together and integrate them into a coherent persona, one who belongs in the environment from whence he derives; this is often more difficult at the start of a campaign, when the player doesn’t have sufficient context to connect the character with his native environment.

The Limits Of Interpretation

I have written several articles, and read many more, on the subject of interpreting characteristics and other dry facts on the character sheet. But while many aspects of behavior may be dictated by the character sheet, the most important elements are always provided from a source other than the dry facts; they need to be interpreted by the player, in the same way that a script has to be interpreted by an Actor or Actress.

In the world of television, this is a saving grace; it means that several different writers can provide scripts, each of whom have their own perceptions of the character, and by filtering these scripts through the perspective brought by the actor, something reasonably coherent can emerge and be recognizably “this character,” week after week.

To some extent, actors have an advantage over players in an RPG, in that they often have an incomplete set of facts about the character, and hence have greater freedom to be creative. In other ways, players have twin advantages over actors – they not only have concrete statements of the character’s ability in various ways, but they get to create the characters from start to finish, instead of simply interpreting someone else’s creations.

But both have restrictions and limits the their respective interpretations.

Personality within the game

Things get even more complicated when you consider that no personality can exist in isolation; personality is revealed only in interaction with other characters, with the environment in which the character exists, or with both in combination. That means that, at least partially, a player is not enough; he needs the GM to provide situations in which aspects of the personality can be expressed, to furnish the context within which a player’s choices of words and actions can be interpreted into a personality.

The Gestalt personality

In many ways, then, the player character is a gestalt of many different sources – the Campaign World and stimuli provided by the GM, the foundations deriving from an interpretation within the world-context of the raw numeric measures of the character sheet, compounded with the genre elements that shape all of the above, and all coming together in the “hands” of the player.

Yet, there is little or no sign of this multiplicity of sources and influences when any given character is discussed or considered. So ubiquitous is the filter and interpretative power of the player that all else is diminished or dismissed completely in any discussion. At all times, it is the player who is given authorship, acknowledgement, and ownership of the character, even though it is everything else that makes the character important.

Campaigns have changed game systems before, and the normal measure of successful implementations of this type of transformation is the degree to which the concepts, manifestations, and expression of the player character becomes compromised. If the change results in little or no impairment, it is deemed successful, or at worst, neutral; if it results in the potential for further avenues of expression of the original character and further depth and refinement of persona, it is a definitive success; and only if the change impairs one or more modes of expression of the character’s individuality, impairs the rendering of the persona by the player or worse yet, forces a change to the central concepts that underpin the persona, it is deemed a failure.

There are other ways of measuring the success of such implementations, such as the GM’s ability to craft adventures that the players find interesting, but these ultimately manifest themselves in terms of character expression, so the same criteria can usually be employed; the only distinction is between primary and secondary causes of the impact.

Similarly, characters can experience an out-of-genre adventure, or even a complete transformation of genre, and continue unchanged, or even be reinvigorated as a result; or can migrate from one campaign to another, under a completely different GM, with great success, provided that enough supporting infrastructure remains unchanged to permit the character as he was to connect to the new campaign.

The Interpretation Spin

It is thus the singularity of perspective of the player that is central to the definition and depiction of a character. This can be demonstrated in real-world terms by the differences in persona demonstrated by the character of Blackwing in my Zenith-3 campaign, which has had three different players (You can read the full story, highlighting the differences in interpretation, in the section “Example: The Blackwing Evolution” within The Moral Of The Story: The Morality and Ethics of playing an RPG, about 1/3 of the way down the page).

Each interpretation is radically different and distinct, and yet, they are all reflections of the one character. In creating adventures for the group, I react to the persona displayed by the player, so it is the campaign, and the game world, which is transfigured by the player, not the other way around. The relationship between player and GM is a two-way street, and in many important respects, the player is the dominant element of that relationship.

Side-note: Why do the words “let me tell you about my character” create such universal dread and loathing amongst other players and GMs the world over? I would argue that it is because the character is presented bereft of the context provided by the game world, and thus the usual recitation is of flavorless game mechanics and anecdotes without relevance – leaving only the most boring and disinteresting elements of the gestalt. Don’t tell me about the character, tell me about the world he lives in, how he interprets it, and what he has done to make that world his own. How has the environment affected him? How has he affected the environment, the history? How does he reflect the underpinning philosophy of the world? What makes him interesting?

The player’s interpretation of all the other ingredients that contribute to the character thus “spin” those elements into a character-driven context.

Which brings me back to Iron Chef and the original thought it inspired.

Perception and “Reality”

The only “cast member” of Iron Chef that I have ever seen in any way outside of the context of the show is the time Hiroyuki Sakai appeared on an episode of Masterchef Australia in Season 2. Unlike the episodes of Iron Chef that had been translated and dubbed by the Cooking Channel in the US, Chef Sakai spoke English for himself.

It was a very strange experience, and responsible for first raising the question given at the start of this article in my mind. It was as disconcerting as having Hugh Jackman opening his mount and the voice of George Burns issue forth, reading Jackman’s Lines. No matter how appropriate such a blending might be for any given role being portrayed, the incongruity has to be overcome before you can wrap your head around what you are hearing.

In terms of the actual experience, what I noted was that the content of what he was saying, his philosophy on food, was largely consistent between both sources, but the characterization and emotional content were just a little different, though with some resemblance. What I have realized after much reflection is that everything that could be read from tone of voice, and analyzed therefore from the subjective viewpoint of the listener, was the result of a hybridization of the personalities of the two individuals involved – Sakai’s personality generated the original responses, which were then interpreted by the voice artist who dubbed the English translation. The emergent personality expressed on Iron Chef was a hybrid of the two, and a hybrid that could only exist within the context of the circumstances generated by the directors of the show.

The parallels between this situation and the description offered of a character in an RPG are pretty clear.

Extending the metaphor I

So an RPG is like a TV show or movie dubbed into another language. While an insight worth something in it’s own right, it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of practical value. Perhaps if we extend the metaphor, we can find other aspects of resemblance between the two that will be of more worth in a practical sense.

The Game World on a page

The first thing that comes to mind is the difference between the game world as it appears in the GM’s notes and as it is in actual play. Here it’s the players who are the transformative element; not only is the world perceived through the eyes of the characters that they play, it is filtered through the capabilities of those characters. Furthermore, the world – as it is experienced – is also a function of what the players choose to explore and how, and what they choose to ignore; and a fourth function lies in their assumptions and the context placed on the world by their experience and real-world knowledge. Throw in the constrains of Genre and the fact that everything they perceive comes as a communication from the GM, adding his capabilities in expressing the “ideal” world in a tangible way, and the restrictions imposed by the adventures that he writes, and it is very clear that no matter how well delineated a world might be on paper, it is going to be a lot more inchoate and vague once play actually starts.

This is like a game of Chinese whispers. You start with a clear written description, but it is interpreted by the GM for the creation of an adventure. The game world is also interpreted by the GM to provide descriptions to the players which are, in theory, what the PCs can perceive. But the players have to take those descriptions and integrate them into a coherent world-view in order to understand what is going on and what options they have to intervene or take advantage of. The words go from the printed page (or digital analogue) to the GM to the PCs to the Players, with Genre and Game Mechanics – and the understanding of them – impacting the process at both the GM and the player stages.

Described in this way, it becomes utterly amazing that any coherent view of the world is even possible, let alone one in which the players and GM agree as to the fundamentals. There are simply so many failure modes that it’s impossible to guard against them all. It is therefore a certainty that the players will have an incomplete or incorrect understanding of at least some aspects of how the game world works.

There are several ways in which the Iron Chef Dubbing can be used as a metaphor for this circumstance.

You could describe the game world as being the original dialogue, and the GM’s descriptions of the interactions with that world as the dubs, highlighting the fact that the world as perceived by the players is a synthesis of many perspectives and elements, Equally, you could ruminate on the differences between a theoretical description (the one in writing) and the reality, arguing that the world on paper doesn’t matter, it’s the world as experienced that’s significant.

You could talk about two different GMs taking the same published setting and interpreting it in two completely different ways, neither more valid than the other.

Manifestations Of Misunderstanding

All these become vitally important when the players make a decision that the GM thinks is wrong or foolish. Before treating it as such, and penalizing the players or their characters for a mistake, the GM needs to be certain that the decision is not rooted in an incorrect or invalid understanding of the game world – tricky to do without dropping hints that the players are doing something they will regret.

One way of circumventing this problem is to insert test problems where the results of failure are non-critical. This enables the GM to test the player’s understanding of one or more critical aspects of the game world before they are forced to make a more serious decision based on that knowledge.

Another choice is to explicitly assume that the players don’t necessarily know what their characters would know from living in the game world. Thus, when a player makes a bad decision, the GM can simply announce, “[Character X] would probably think that was a bad choice because…” – that “because” is all important because it connects the misunderstanding with a correct interpretation. But, while this deals with the immediate problem, it subtracts from the player’s opportunity to make decisions that he knows are bad but that he thinks his character would think correct.

To get around this issue, there needs to be some understanding between the player and GM concerning who decides how much of the world and its workings the character understands, and that’s not a simple question to answer. Or perhaps the GM and player can develop a protocol by means of which the player can communicate to the GM, “I know this is a bad idea, but it’s what I think my character would do.” Part of this protocol should be an understanding that when this happens the GM will punish the character but not to the fullest extent to which he is capable; the character should be given the opportunity to learn from a mistake made voluntarily by the player for roleplaying reasons.

In other words, if the GM thinks the bad decision is being made because the character misunderstands the world, he should refrain from bringing the full load of bricks down in the character in question, but should not intervene to correct the decision. If the GM thinks the decision is flawed because the player misunderstands the game world, he is obligated to speak up and to intervene before the decision is final. And if these decisions were as black and white as this makes them seem, all would be well. Frequently, though, decisions will fall into a gray area in which the GM is uncertain as to which of these policies should apply.

The only solution at such times is to pose the question rather bluntly. “If you are doing this because your character thinks it right while you know better, I’ll require the decision to stand. But if you genuinely think this the right thing to do, then I will give you the opportunity for a do-over while explaining whatever it is that you haven’t understood about the game world.” And if that means that the GM permits the players to make mistakes and be punished for them less often than should be the case, that’s just bad luck on his part – coddling the PCs that little bit is far better than the alternative.

These problems generally become less frequent over time, as the players gain a more thorough understanding of the game world.

Extending the metaphor II

That’s not the only direction in which the metaphor can be extended. There is also the question of announcer Kenji Fukui, whose dubbed voice (by Bill Bickard) is one of the few that doesn’t appear to fit the appearance of the original performer; but Bickard’s voice is so unquestionably a part of the show, bringing an element of over-the-top humor, much of which originates with him, as this compelling interview makes clear.

And so we once again revisit the same questions, with some additional data. Once again, the performer we hear is improvising his performance based on a translation of what the original announcer said in the original foreign-language broadcast, but is explicitly adding things to that performance, resulting in a synthesis between the two that is neither one nor the other.

This precisely parallels what happens when a GM reads flavor text or other narrative from someone else’s adventure. What players may not realize is that even experienced GMs find themselves doing the same thing even when they read from their own script: a touch more explanation here, an attempt at a defter turn of phrase there, a change of emphasis, or the insertion of some parenthetical comments, either as part of the narrative or as a metagame intrusion into them for added context. The same thing often happens when encountering prescripted encounters, especially if the players don’t follow the “script” that the encounter lays out for them.

All of these changes bear a striking resemblance to the humorous turns of phrases that Bill Bickard inserted into his dubbed narration for Kenji Fukui, which in turn has a striking effect on the overall character of the show.

It can also be described, in the GM’s case, as the difference between a live performance and a studio rehearsal. Ideally, it transforms scripted but lifelessly dry narrative into something that is more spontaneous, more dynamic, and more responsive when it reaches the ears of the audience – in this case, the players. It blends a literal recitation of planned statements with communications between GM and player to produce something that is a synthesis of both. If the spontaneous, dynamic elements go too far – and it happens – the adventure also begins to diverge from the script. Sometimes, this is for the better, because the GM is responding and modifying his performance based on the reactions of the players, sometimes it is not because it diverges from the internal logic of the plotline contained within the adventure in ways that may be unrecoverable.

A good thing can become a bad thing, in other words, if not employed judiciously, with restraint, and with an awareness of the effect that it has on a multitude of levels of experience.

Great GMs will know instinctively how far they can go and not exceed that restriction. Professional GMs will understand the plot and the motivations of the characters and know through experience and judgment how far they can go, and will usually not exceed the restriction imposed, but will permit as much freedom within those boundaries as possible. Good GMs will exceed the restrictions regularly, but be adept enough at their craft that they can get things back on track, or simply find a resolution to the in-game situation that results.

Of course, there are other talents that GMs bring to their craft beyond this single criterion; a GM may be only ordinary in this respect but a genius at expressing distinct NPCs, employing different voices and accents at will. Others may be adept at painting a visual image with words, or at creating magnificent props, or any of a dozen other areas of excellence. (I regard myself as a good GM who works hard to bring a level of professionalism in this respect, FYI).

The biggest trick, in this area, is knowing when you’re about to go too far in improvising. Quite often, the limit isn’t obvious until you’ve already crossed it; the challenge then is to get the adventure back onto a course that has some internal logic without forcing decisions onto the players.

Example: The Jimmy Fingers Story

In the early days of the Zenith-3 campaign, I introduced an NPC by the name of Jimmy Fingers. This character existed to serve a defined and definitive plot function, but the players decided – based on a hint that I inadvertently dropped during my improvising – to use him as a source of intelligence on the world in general, and kept him around. That meant that I had to expand on the original defined role in a hurry and improvise a depth of characterization that wasn’t required of the original function that he was to serve.

So I improvised reactions to each of the members and began to develop relationships between him and them. This expanded role immediately disrupted the planned next step in the adventure I had worked out, because the way that the PCs learnt certain facts was supposed to actually be the trigger for the main adventure. I literally had to rewrite the rest of the adventure on-the-fly in such a way that this NPC could function as a conduit into it.

Once started down this road, natural progression kept Jimmy turning up in adventures. In particular, he developed an entirely-improvised crush on one of the PCs, which led him to get himself in over his head trying to prove his worthiness to her as a suiter. Because he didn’t come out and reveal his affections, having a massive inferiority complex – ordinary teenaged boy vs superheros – it took a long time before the reason why he would never “look after himself and keep himself safe”, no matter how often she lectured him about doing so came out.

Several times, he became the conduit for making the PCs aware of a situation of vital interest to them (ie a plot hook they couldn’t ignore) as a result. Eventually, he left with the undeclared intention of making himself worthy of her love and got himself caught up in something that was way over his head, re-entering the campaign in the worst possible way. This pattern repeated itself a couple of times before it began to show signs of stagnating; he was seriously injured a number of times, and came close to death on one occasion. As soon as it started to become predictable, it was time for him to inadvertently (while incoherent) reveal the motivations that had been driving him for years.

After that revelation, which forced the PC to reevaluate many of the encounters between the pair, he took advantage of an opportunity to travel space and time in pursuit of superpowers of his own. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since, but it’s a certainty – now that the PC in question is in a relationship with another PC – that he will eventually return and a complicated love triangle will emerge. They’re all waiting for that shoe to drop – and very aware that if they say or do the wrong thing, he might become a vengeful super-villain, one privy to a lot of their secrets. That shoe hasn’t dropped yet, but everyone knows it will eventually happen!

This NPC worked because I was prepared to let the PCs exceed the bounds of the plot, and was then able to expand on the personality in such a way that his continued involvement in the campaign (which is what the players wanted at the time) was justified. He went from streetwise delinquent to hanger-on to lovesick teenager to self-declared intelligence operative to victim to potential ally or obsessive enemy in the course of play. The character, the relationship, the adventure, and the broader campaign were all reshaped as a result of an off-the-cuff comment that the players decided to make central to their approach to the adventure in which he first appeared.

With Jimmy Fingers it worked out well. There have been other occasions on which I have had to scramble to correct some piece of improv that’s gone awry!

Extending the metaphor III

There remains one final interpretation of the gaming experience that can be perceived from a new perspective using the “Iron Chef” experience as a metaphor, and it is possibly the most complex of them all.

A player in an RPG doesn’t perceive the world directly, he receives a description of that world from the GM. But that description then has to be interpreted; the player has to filter the description he receives through his awareness of the restrictions of his characters perceptive capabilities, his understanding of the game world environment, the context provided by game history, recent game events, and his past experience as a player. To this he adds his own education and experience of popular culture, everyday reality, and genre, to arrive at a unified perception that is a synopsis of many sources.

No one player’s understanding and visualization of a scene will ever quite match that of any other player, and none will ever accord precisely with the understanding and visualization of the GM who furnished that description.

Each player’s interpretation of a scene is unique, and therefore even if they each had the exact same character to play, the way each such character would be directed by their player act and react to any given scene would also be ever so slightly different – though those differences might never be publicly discovered.

This is not that far removed from the compounded perception of the dubbed TV show, in which phrasing, emotional content, nuance, clarity, performance, and even body shape can be suggested by voice alone. Multiple voices can deliver the same lines and give a completely different impression of who is speaking, why they are saying it, and what the speaker is thinking and feeling. Cultural context and subliminal cues also play a part in these interpretations; that is one of the challenges of translation, for what is not stated explicitly and yet is required for full understanding must be conveyed by the translation. This would be all but impossible if it were not for the capability of incorporating an appropriate cultural subtext for the audience hearing the translated version into the translation itself.

“Somehow, it reminds me of a tale one of my aunts used to tell about how she encountered a human in a faraway land and inquired if he were a native. ‘I ain’t no native!’ she was told. ‘I was born right here!’ I quite agree with her that the only proper response when confronted by such logic was to eat him.” This brief passage from M.Y.T.H. Inc. Link by Robert Asprin clearly illustrates the point I’m making; what is described as ‘the only proper response’ makes no sense to us (because we aren’t Dragons) but obviously makes perfect sense to the Dragonkind of the series of novels. In the novel in question, it is used to emphasize the differences in cultural values between humans and dragons, played for shock value and humor. When speaking of the dubbing of Iron Chef, the cultural cues on film are Japanese, which gives them a closer resemblance to those of the audience hearing the dubbed version, but there will still be differences and nuances that would not survive a direct translation.

Did the original show have anything approaching the sense of humor and lightheartedness overlayed on the serious competitive aspects of each episode? Or was it more akin to Iron Chef America (which took itself far too seriously in the only seasons to be aired on Australian Free-to-air TV, or seemed to,) or Iron Chef Australia, which mixed that seriousness with the occasional element of humor that fell completely flat? I will probably never know – the only clues I have are the two appearances outside the show that I have encountered, the appearance of Sakai on Masterchef Australia and the interview with Bill Bickard linked to previously, and they suggest that the original was indeed far more serious than the dubbed version. This opinion is reinforced by the final season or two of the show, after Bickard retired; the dubbed version lacks the same added “punch”, the game show quality that he brought to the gestalt. It’s far dryer, more serious, less exuberant – and less entertaining.

It’s easy to demonstrate the power of the voice to add nuance. Take any famous line of dialogue by Darth Vader and “dub it” yourself with an accent of some sort; it will just feel wrong (and will often be funny as all get-out). Or try it with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous line, “I’ll be back” – without his Austrian accent, it changes completely.

Getting back to the RPG sphere of activity, there’s many an occasion when I have given a description of a scene or circumstance to the player whose character was the only one to perceive/observe the salient details and then had them report their observations back to the group. On every occasion, there were critical omissions, frequently there were insertions of new material, and the message was usually garbled almost beyond recognition.

This occurred because they weren’t stating what had been described to them, they were relaying their understanding of the scene they had observed. The gaps in that understanding created the omissions and the interpretations and assumptions were reported as what the characters had supposedly observed. They were “context added” – with the player’s interpretations reported as fact every bit as solid as the actual scenes witnessed. It’s a direct result of their individual synthesis of the many sources of material compounding to compile an overall perception. They “see” the game world through the eyes of a gestalt of sources, part player, part PC, and part GM-derived.

Visual aids like illustrations, photographs, battlemaps, props, diagrams, and more extensive and detailed narration all serve to unify perceptions of a scene or situation in various respects, driving those differences in interpretation into the shadowy recesses of irrelevance – most of the time.

A shared activity (conclusion)

Gaming is a shared activity which relies on communications between the players and GM, communications which are inherently fallible. Both GM and players have to interpret what is communicated to them from the source material through a number of filters and synthesize that interpretation with other material to romanticize the partial picture into a holistic “reality” within the imagination. The entire process is error-prone, and can catastrophically impact on the logic of perceived situations. Remaining aware of these factors is vital to rational choices of action on the part of the players and interpretation of those actions by the GM.

Whenever the players seem about to make a horrendous mistake in judgment, be sure to allow for the possibility of a failure of communications; if the situation were properly understood, the course of action proposed might well be very different. It behooves a good GM to validate the player’s understanding before applying an iron fist to flawed and erroneous choices.

Make allowances for mis-communications and insert corrective mechanisms into your GMing style, and the results will be a better gaming experience for all concerned.

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Ask The GM: Seasoning The Stew (making races feel distinctive)

Today’s question comes from all the way back in June 2010 – I’m sorry it’s taken so long to answer it!

Ask the gamemasters

The question comes from Brett, who wrote:

“I am an extremely new DM, but I have played for 7 years now. I am looking to put my players in conflict with Drow. At one point in time you said,

‘One of the key objectives that I have for the Drow in any of my D&D games is to distinguish them from Elves. I don’t just mean with attitude and ritual and dwelling and so on, I mean the way it feels to PCs when they interact with the race.’

Why do you do this? They are formed from the same culture that formed elves, should they not be similar? And, can you point me to some good resources about Drow?

The quote is from The Gold Standard: Mike’s Top Twenty 3.x Supplements (parts 2, 3 & 4), in referring to “Drow Magic” by Mongoose Publishing.

So, Why make Drow feel distinctive? How does this reason impact the handling of other races & species in a game? And where can readers find more information on Drow and Dark Elves in general?

Because this question was actually asking me to amplify on a point made in one of my other articles, I decided to answer it myself. If any other players or GMs wants to add something to what I’ve said, the comments section is at your disposal!


Mike’s Answer:

This is a difficult question to answer, because it always seemed so obvious to me that I had never subjected the question to much scrutinity. Breaking it down, we have a specific question about Drow vs Elves; we then have a general case of non-human races in general to consider (or reconsider) in light of that specific question; and we end with a request for resources, and those will fall into four teirs: Drow, Elves, other specific races, and finally, general resources deriving from the discussion, both theoretical and practical.

That’s quite a work order, and I don’t know how far I can get through it, but nothing will get done at all if I don’t get started.

Drow Vs Elves

Americans are exactly the same as Britons. The Puritans were exactly the same as the Europeans from which they derived. Everything that changed as a result of the Norman Invasion made the Englanders of the day exactly the same as the French from which the Normans derived. Drow are just like Elves. The first three are patently untrue, so why should we expect the last to hold water?

American Independance

When the American Colonies rebelled against British Rule in 1775, there were economic and political justifications but the bottom line was that the colonists no longer thought the same way as the people from which they had derived. The act of unforced immigration itself selected for people with a particular mindset; these were either oppressed minorities seeking freedom of expression (or forcibly exiled) or opportunists seeking a better lift for themselves and their descendants. Those who survived the ordeals of colonial life were forced to become more self-reliant and less prone to look to higher authority to solve their problems for them; the movement to a more democratic social and political system was, to some extent, inevitable.

Norman Invasion of England

Similarly, the invading Normans brought French social and political beliefs to England, but these had to compromise for reasons of practicality with what was already there; the result was a hybridization of attitudes that was inevitably a little different from those of Normandy at the start, and grew more divergent with every passing year and generation. England had more space, more people, more resources, was an island nation seperated from the European mainland by the English Channel, and had an indigenous population of Anglo-Saxons. Each of these was a point of difference between the two that could not have any effect other than produce social, cultural, political, and – eventually – religious divergance.

For that matter, the Normans themselves derived from Viking conquerors, and the very fact of their assimilation into France shows that the act of seperating from a parent culture leaves a population subject to change and divergance.

The Puritans

The Puritans were extremist activists that split from the Protestant Church of England who were tied up in the first English Civil War, and who came to America seeking religious freedom. Their social practices and beliefs were immediately divergant from those of their parent culture, because that was the whole point of the emigration!


Which brings us to the Drow. Something led them to split with Elvish Society, and that was a pivital moment in the histories of both. They migrated into a completely different physical environment, which they had to conquer, and which may well have been populated by some other underground species at the time. Their social structure and practices are completely different from those of Elves. They evolved radically different religious beliefs and practices, either before, during, or after the split. There are no shortage of reasons why the division might have occurred, and how long ago, but the fundamental fact is that it happened. No matter how similar or divergant they may have been at the time of division, it’s absolutely inevitable that they think differently to Elves, that they will have radically different goals, priorities, options, standards of behavior, and in any given situation where there is room for a difference of opinion will make choices different to those of an Elf.


I won’t go into details here, but suffice it to say that in Fumanor there was divergance in viewpoints from long before the Division, which led to an act of Genocide against another branch of the Elvish population and consequent exile from the main population. From that point, the differences only grew more extreme.

Shards Of Divinity

In my Shards campaign, the Drow are a radicalized subversive terrorist cult within Elvish Society. There are Drow Enclaves which are extremely divergant from mainstream Elvish society, but most are indistinguishable from Elves as a deliberate act of Subterfuge on the part of the Drow. There has, as yet, been no Division between the two, in terms of their history. They came close at one point, when there was a Civil War between the racial branches, but the Cult was smashed, driven underground, and (seemingly) supressed.

Drow recieve a slightly different education, and recieve specialist training and theological instruction, but the major difference between the two is in the way that they think. They are currently experiencing a resurgance and gathering strength, as a result of the PCs getting in over their heads early in the campaign; they released an Elvish Prince who was Drow – the original leader of the sect, in fact, who had been seduced by Lolth, who had led the attempted coup, and who had been confined for his crimes, a thousand years earlier – and then, under his direction, awakened an Enclave of his subjects who had been confined at the same time. Both had been subjected to a form of Stasis that had slowed time to a crawl for them, so they have not yet done anything with their new-found freedom, but 10,000 radicalized Drow and their once-charismatic leader are now infiltrating Elvish Society.

In other words, the Drow are on the path that will eventually lead them to become the Drow of the game sourcebooks, but who have yet to commit an act so unforgivable that they will become the Mortal Enemies of Elvenkind. Right now, so far as most are concerned, they are nothing but an occasional public nuisance.

Manifesting The Differences

There are three spheres of activity in which these differences should manifest. Roleplayed encounters with individual Drow, Adventuring within a Drow domain, and Battle.

Individual Drow

The first usually casts the Drow in question as a spy, sleeper agent, or subversive element of some kind, formenting trouble for whatever reason. Overtly, their behavior would and should be indistinguishable from those of any other Elf (or whatever they are pretending to be). Until revealed, their “Drowness” lies hidden, and is more about motivation than anything else; when revealed, their true nature should become manifestly obvious because it telegraphs that motivation to the players. His mindset and loyalties should obviously become distinct from those of “ordinary” Elves at that point.

Yes, Drow will always have some characteristics in common with the parent race, but that only means that the points of distinction between them should be emphasized.

In A Drow Place

One of the themes through the original “Magician” by Raymond E. Feist and the subsequent “Empire” trilogy co-written by Feist and Janny Wurtz is the awareness on the part of the protagonists of the collisions of cultures. “You only get to see us as we are in your world, subordinated to your culture; at home, we are very different. If you respect those differences, you will come to value aspects of our culture that would, if replicated in yours, benefit you and your people,” to paraphrase this recurring theme.

If there is anywhere that Drow can be Drow, it’s when they are at home and the PCs are the interlopers. This is where and when any admirable characteristics of Drow Society can be made manifest rather than simply serving as motivation for troublemaking amongst a society that is alien to them.

Why bother going to the trouble if Drow are exactly the same as Elves? You want to emphasize and play up the differences between the two so that the viability of the adventuring environment is manifest to the PCs. The price of obtaining the benefits may be too high for the PCs to countenance, but there should be such benefits that can be respected, and even admired.

It might be the sense of peace that comes from knowing exactly your place in society, your responsibilities, and the rewards that fulfilling them will bring. It might be a deep sense of faith that comes from being convinced that you have all the answers. It might be the efficiency that results from a total ordering of society. In order to be truly arrogant (and Drow are nothing if not arrogant), you have to have something to be arrogant about!

Drow are not Elves. In order to manifest the differences in their society and habitat, you have to understand the points of distinction that differentiate between the two, then emphasize them so that they can be communicated to the players in a relatively efficient manner. Doing so, in turn, helps get into the heads of the individual representatives of the race when you roleplay them.

In Battle

Drow have different abilities, equipment, objectives, motivations, and attitudes to those of Elves. This means that they should behave differently in combat, making different choices that reflect their personalities, which in turn exist within the context of the points of distinction between the two.

Does anyone remember the old “dungeon bash” computer games of the 80s and 90s, where the only differences between encounters were the numerical differences of stats – so big, so strong, so much capacity for damage? “There’s an [X] in the room. It draws its weapon.” – “I attack the [X]!” Same thing every time with different stats.

Why bother? You may as well just play cards, or dominos – they at least have more tactical options.

The big difference that existed between a by-the-numbers computer game and a tabletop RPG were the points of individuality and distinctiveness that characterize each race, and the capacity for interaction and freedom that players had with the game. These days, computer games have become more sophisticated, and are now roughly the equivalent of a “play by numbers” adventure book – they are better at simulating differences in personality on the part of the encounters, and different choices on the part of the player can yield different outcomes in the game. There are often no more right or wrong choices in terms of getting from “A” to “B” within the adventure. But you are still dealing with either a random element, or with a set of fixed plotlines, no matter how well hidden; the capacity for the players to influence the style and direction of a campaign remains the greatest point of distinction between computer RPGs and tabletop RPGs.

That’s why World Of Warcraft became such a huge success; most of the encounters were with other “live players” and the results of these encounters were always unpredictable; multiply them ten-thousand-fold and they can reshape the game world. In effect, the gsme software and those responsible for it became the GMs, with thousands of players.

Unless you properly distinguish Drow from Elves, encounters with either will be more shallow than it could be, and so will your game.

The Bigger Picture

Four aspects of the bigger picture, i.e. the entire campaign, are directly affected by this reasoning: Longevity, Creativity, Background, and Adventure Potential.

Campaign Longevity

One of the reasons why my campaigns last as long as they do is that they have enough depth to support many years of play without the players getting bored. They are complex, rich in detail and ideas, and designed to offer opportunities for adventure. Why? Because those are the types of Campaign that I like to play, and like to GM. This philosophy manifests in an imperative to distinguish one race from another as clearly and succinctly as possible. If you don’t, the campaign won’t last. And that general statement is exemplified by being able to differentiate between Drow and Elves as readily as you could Dwarves and Mermen.


I’m always looking for ways to exercise my creativity in creating campaigns. The differences between races is an obvious avenue for exploration. Even if you use exactly the same map for every campaign, they can all be rendered astonishingly different by interpreting the races differently. But that won’t make any difference unless those interpretations manifest in differences in play, so that the players can percieve and interaction with the differences.

Campaign Background

The split between the branches of Elves is one of those pivotal iconic moments that is so profound, in terms of making a difference to the current status within a campaign that it must always be considered. Yet it offers so much room for variation that it can reflect even the most abstract differences in campaign concept, through changing the reasons for the split, how it occurred, and how those abstract and philsophical distinctions manifest within the game that it can be used as a cornerstone of the entire campaign – it’s an event with concrete outcomes that is sensitive to nuances in campaign concept and background.

It’s always possible to have a campaign concept that has absolutely no impact on the campaign background or on the day-to-day circumstances exprienced by the players. It’s always possible to have a background that doesn’t reflect the concepts apon which the campaign has been based, or that makes no difference to the environment in which the adventures take place. Both waste the potential of these ingredients, so I am always looking for intersection points where these things will yield tangible differences within the game. The differences between Elves and Drow are one of the few such that are always “there”, so it makes a natural starting point for connecting game with background for the players. And, as I noted in the preceding subsection, it makes a great jumping-off point for the creativity of the GM, forging a path into the game world for the players to follow.

Adventure Potential

A campaign goes nowhere and does nothing without adventures. The best adventures aren’t tacked on, they grow out of the campaign’s foundations of concept and background organically. The differences between Drow and Elves and inherant potential for conflict between them is an obvious source of adventures within the game, something not to be thrown away lightly, which is what would happen without highlighting those differences.

Homogeneity gains you nothing but blandness. Accentuating the differences creates interest and excitement, a foundation for originality and adventure.


Which brings me to the hard part – resources. Why so difficult? Because I never – well, hardly ever – use them directly, or as written. Instead, I absorb as many ideas as I can from many different sources and then extract ones that go together, matching the general concepts that I have decided to put in place within the campaign.

I have well over 200 RPG supplements and sourcebooks, but there are very few that I can point at and describe as a “Great” sourcebook, especially with topical restrictions. But I’ll do my best….

I started formulating concepts for Drow from long before I ever heard the term with things like Warner Brothers cartoons and Enid Blyton fantasy like The Wishing Chair, Hans Christian Andersen‘s fairy tales, and so on. You see, Elves & Drow in D&D owe about half their natures to stories of the “Little Folk” of English, Irish, Scottish, French and German Myth (see ” Fairy“), with transfusions from Nordic/Scandinavian Myth; and about half to Tolkien, the concept of Orcs as “Corrupted” or “Fallen” Elves, with infusions of the Goblins in The Hobbit.

Put all of that in a blender and push “Puree”, then filter out the bits that were turned into Fey, and all you’re left with is the basic concepts.

In later years, the Elves and Moredhel from Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga also played a major role. Readers might also find value in Feist’s Faerie Tale, though I usually use it for Fey inspiration.

Then there are all the D&D referances – you can start with just about every link on this Wikipedia page (including the page itself); and then there are the pages on this list, which will fill in most of that mythology that I mentioned earlier, and this page on Dark Elves In Fiction, which is the last link on the list I just mentioned.

A little closer to home, large parts of the Orcs and Elves Saga here at Campaign Mastery should give ideas; both Elves and Drow are central to the plot. There are also some specific articles here that I can point at.

In The Gold Standard: Mike’s Top Twenty 3.x Supplements (part 5), I made a fuss over Dezzavold, Fortress Of The Drow from Green Ronan, and in part 2, Drow Magic from Mongoose Publishing made the top twenty.

I used a Drow Spy encounter from my Fumanor Campaign as an example quite extensively in Ask The GMs: Rubbing Two Dry Words Together. And I can’t recommend Creating Alien Characters: Expanding the ‘Create A Character Clinic’ To Non-Humans highly enough when it comes to a process for creating a new interpretation of Drow for yourself.

Elsewhere on the web, a Google Search for “Drow” turns up 1,390,000 referances, no doubt including the Campaign Mastery articles listed above. From the front page of listings, I found nine sites that might be useful, with everything from SRDs to Name Generators.

Of course, the referance that cannot be left out or ignored is Underdark, but everyone uses that as a foundation.

Of course, this list only scratches the surface – if I started listing books and supplements about Elves, Dwarves, and other races, we’d be here all day, and for the most part they don’t matter anyway – because I use those referances in exactly the same way as I do the referances regarding Drow. It’s all just grist for the mill.

The Wrap-up

I started this article with one of my readers quoting me:

‘One of the key objectives that I have for the Drow in any of my D&D games is to distinguish them from Elves. I don’t just mean with attitude and ritual and dwelling and so on, I mean the way it feels to PCs when they interact with the race,’

and asking the question “Why?”

The answer is because making Drow differ from Elves creates far more opportunities than it does headaches, is often outrageous fun in the creative sense, and helps tie a campaign together; and making the differences manifest from the point-of-view of the PCs also makes them available to the Players, and that gives the players a connection through to those abstract, philosophic, and conceptual campaign underpinnings and the campaign background that has resulted. Those are potent rewards for doing something that’s fun.

Of course, there’s another side of the coin, too. I haven’t played in a D&D campaign for a while now, but if I did, one of my first objectives as a player would be to find out how the GM was handling Drow. It’s going to far to describe the “Drow Proposition” as a representative exemplar of the GM’s entire style, but there’s more truth than fiction in such a statement. The first step in understanding how the characters are going to relate to the game world is understanding the GM and where his developmental focus lies, and this is a great tool for at least embarking on such a journey of exploration.

And that’s why, if asked the question, I would have to answer, “Why wouldn’t you!?”

About the contributor:

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

Next in this series: What’s the best way to convey campaign background to players?

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Tourism in Sleepland: Sleep management for GMs & other creative people


If you listen to the advice of the experts, you can spend a third of your life sleeping. If the average life expectancy is 78 years (a number chosen for convenience), and ignoring the first 15 as unproductive due to youth, that’s 21 full years down the spout. Even a 1% saving in sleep required gets you almost 1840 hours more productivity over your lifetime – that’s equivalent to almost 46 forty-hour working weeks, or a full year (not counting annual leave). A 5% saving gets you an extra FIVE YEARS of effort.

Sleep Management is one of the great skills that very few talk about. It’s something that comes naturally to some people and not at all to others. But any improvement yields big results on a cumulative basis. It can also yield huge benefits in the short-term, when you really have to hit a deadline, regardless of whether it’s self-imposed or the result of external factors.

My sleep regime (or lack thereof) is – depending on your point of view – either notorious or legendary amongst my family and friends (including my players in the latter group). When I was much younger, I once put in 7 days continuous effort in campaign and game prep (no sleep whatsoever) and then GM’d for 18 straight hours on the 8th sleepless day. And, at the end of it, the game was concluded not because I was running out of steam, but because my players were. Admittedly, I then slept for 23 hours straight.

I doubt I could do that these days, but the mere fact that this was humanly possible without resorting to illegal substances – or even over-the-counter medications – means that I know a thing or two about sleep, and the lack of it, that I’ve learned the hard way. As little as ten years ago. I would routinely go without sleep once or twice a fortnight on non-successive nights. Sure, I had to sleep a little longer when I did hit the hay – an extra two hours, say – and I did lose perhaps an hour to stay-awake measures and another to sleep-deprived inefficiency – but that’s still an extra four hours of productivity when it mattered.

In this article, I’m going to share some of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years, including some quite recent ones. In some cases, this is backed up by modern medical science, in others it seems to contradict that science, or even not to have been tested experimentally. Which means that YMMV when applying any of these techniques. These are patterns and tips & tricks that work for me, or that I have personally observed as applying to me. They may apply differently to you.

I should state up front that I am not a medical professional, and this should be taken into consideration when assessing the advice and techniques contained in this article.

I strongly recommend that you do not operate heavy machinery or motor vehicles in a sleep-deprived state.

Apply common sense and a safety-first attitude when considering any of the techniques provided before you start, and if you suffer any ill- or unexpected effects, stop and consult your doctor.

restfulness spectrum

Alertness Levels

Something that needs to be clarified up-front is the difference between alertness and being able to function in a low-intensity situation like GMing or performing game prep. Alertness is something that enables quick responses to changing situations and is what you need to operate motor vehicles and the like. Functionality is not enough for such purposes; though it can seem sufficient under ordinary circumstances, responsiveness to any sudden changes in the situation is compromised. The goal of these techniques is to restore sufficient wakefulness for low-intensity purposes; any improvement in alertness levels is strictly limited, short-term, and unreliable.

You can be in a fit state to function creatively without being fully rested if you have to. Your thinking may be slowed, it may take longer and more double-checking may be needed to eliminate errors, but the whole point of a low-intensity situation is that you are able to take as much time as you need to. Only when tiredness reaches the point of exhaustion, bringing a person to a state of confusion where thinking itself is fuzzy and difficult does it become impossible to perform at this level.

This establishes two end-points in an entire range of “tiredness”, from being sufficiently rested to be fully alert to having just enough functionality to get you home and into bed without falling asleep en route. The techniques that will be discussed range in effectiveness from:

  • Methods sufficient to get you past the point of exhaustion and back into a state somewhere in the yellow-green zone for a medium-short period (say, 3-4 hours) despite being in the Red Zone; to
  • Methods of sustaining a reasonable level of alertness for a protracted medium term of a week or two on reduced sleep; to
  • Methods of reducing sleep requirements by a more modest degree over a longer term period.

How Much Is Enough Sleep?

This is an impossible question to answer definitively. There are so many influencing factors – individual metabolism, diet, general health, comfort, long-term exhaustion, activity levels in the preceding wakeful period… there are simply too many variables and not all of them can be adequately quantified.

Nevertheless, collective human experience can be applied to achieve a statistical foundation that will broadly apply to everyone.

How Alert is Alert?

It must also be stated that individual capabilities vary considerably. Some people can be more creative when almost flat on their backs from exhaustion than others seem to achieve at the best of times. Cognition and Reasoning vary tremendously from individual to individual. The more you have, the more you can sacrifice to tiredness while retaining an acceptable degree of capability.

But impairment from lack of sleep is also something that varies from individual to individual. So even that general statement, rubbery and qualified and vague as it is, can’t be relied on as a broad statement, only as a trend or probability, something that’s likely to be more true than not, more often than not.

Objective measurements tend to come in three or four subcategories – physical activity capacity, reflexes and responsiveness, logic & memory, and analytic capacity & problem-solving. There are no agreed standards for what levels of each define which levels of alertness, leaving only subjective statements and personal experiences as general guidelines.

That said, great strides have been made in the understanding of brain activity during sleep, and most sleep research has stepped over these vague but real-world-functional measures directly to definitions based on the easily-measurable and quantifiable measurements of such brain activity, which is then related back to the real world by correlating subjective effects and statements with measured brain activity.

The Sleep Cycle

Sleep can be broken into two parts: a 30-minute part and a 60-minute part. These two form a repeating cycle while you sleep, from the moment you actually fall asleep. The 30-minute part is light sleep, the 60-minute part is deep sleep. The 30-minute section can restore alertness temporarily without impacting actual tiredness. The benefits are superficial typically short-term, relative to getting sufficient deep sleep to actually recover.

One question that has not yet been adequately answered is the degree of individual variation in these time-frames. Some people under some circumstances might require only a 15-minute period of light sleep before entering deep sleep, some people might have a deep-sleep span of 50 minutes instead of the full hour, or 70 minutes. What’s more, without brain-activity sensors, it would take many years of consistent documentation of sleep patterns for the individual to determine their own sleep cycle. Since most of us don’t have access to such equipment, the best that we can do is assume that we’re average, and then adjust based on subjective experience and experimentation.

The wake-up window

If you are awoken from deep sleep, you feel tired all day. It follows that the 30-minute part of the next sleep-cycle defines the “window” within which you want to awaken. Some studies have found that the effects of waking from deep sleep are equivalent to foregoing an entire sleep cycle.

This effect grows progressively smaller with each completed sleep cycle. Interrupting the first deep-sleep phase in a night’s sleep? You might as well not have gone to sleep at all. Breaking the second deep-sleep phase of the night is almost as bad. Breaking the third is bad, and the worst result that might actually be considered tolerable – though you will suffer for it all day, and will tend to need an extra sleep cycle the next night. Breaking the fourth is somewhat better, and is experienced frequently by those who – for one reason or another – complain about not having gotten enough sleep, the next day, and being somewhat irritable as a result. Breaking the fifth is a fairly mild outcome, and if the person hasn’t accumulated a sleep deficit prior, can actually be overcome for the full day (or at least most of it) using normal morning wake-up routines. Breaking the sixth is prone to inducing a sensation of oversleeping – it feels the same as having broken the third or fourth cycle.

Furthermore, breaking a deep-sleep has a greater effect at the start of that deep-sleep phase than doing so toward the end of the phase, in my experience.

Determining when your wake-up window will fall is a critical element in Sleep Management. It can actually be better to delay going to bed for twenty or thirty minutes, no matter how tired you feel.

The drowsing offset

You can’t simply state that you want to wake up some multiple of 90 minutes after you go to bed, plus a margin, however, because very few of us go to sleep the instant our heads hit the pillow. Instead, there is a period of drowsiness that precedes our actually falling asleep. This can be restful in and of itself, but we can’t assume that it will be adequate in any way for purposes of rest. What we actually want is to wake up O + n . {90} + M minutes after we go to bed, where

  • O is an offset equal to the length of “drowsy time” before we go to sleep, in minutes;
  • n is the number of sleep cycles we experience in a night’s sleep; and
  • M is the margin we allow for us to come out of deep sleep, i.e. how far into the subsequent light-sleep phase we want to be when we actually wake up to maximize the chances of waking in the light-sleep period.

The problem is that it’s impossible to anticipate how long O will be on any given night. If you’re not tired enough, or are under stress, or worried about something, or have a problem that you are trying to solve, or are uncomfortable, or aren’t breathing properly, or any of a hundred other things, it might be quite lengthy.

You can show, mathematically, that O and M should total 30 minutes by thinking of the Offset as “eating into” the 30-minute light-sleep awakening window. You can also show, mathematically, that with no Offset, M should be 15 minutes to maximize the probability of avoiding the deep-sleep zones on either`side of the Window, and that therefore the perfect M is 15 plus the offset.

You can make an allowance for your subjective impression of how long you usually toss and turn, but such impressions are extremely unreliable. I achieve best results assuming an offset of 5-to-10 minutes and a 10-minute margin.


If you aren’t asleep in ten-to-fifteen minutes, get up and do something for ten-to-twenty minutes before trying again, resetting alarm clocks appropriately, so that you reset the Offset. If you don’t, you risk crowding your wake-up point into the following deep-sleep phase and feeling more tired all day than you would getting one sleep-cycle less.

Seven-point-five hours plus adjustments: A full night’s sleep (5 cycles)

The traditional advice is that you should try for a full eight hours of sleep. Understanding how the sleep cycle works in the real world, with an offset at the start and a 30-minute window at the end, this begins to make sense. However, aiming for a full eight hours means that your wakeup point is crowding the next deep-sleep phase dangerously close, especially if you have a low offset on any given night. That’s because 7.5 hours plus a full 30-minute window totals eight hours; the offset, by delaying the start-point of the window, also leaves a margin of the same size at the end of the eight hours.

If we could be assured of a fifteen-minute offset each and every time, this would be ideal; as it is, for a full night’s sleep, I target 7 hrs 50 minutes.

If I’m extremely tired and want to crowd an extra sleep cycle into the night, the target would be 9 hrs 20 minutes. I’ll come back to this sleep-target later in the article – it is actually significant.

Six hours plus adjustments: Alertness (4 cycles)

Take another look at the Alertness Level graph. If you assume that it represents total recovery from however tired you were to being fully rested, and that this requires 5 sleep cycles, you can estimate the effectiveness of a shorter period of rest. Four-fifths of the way up is therefore an approximation of how rested you will be after 4 cycles. The result is roughly 1/4 of the way up from “Rested, Alert”.

Another way to look at it is in terms of wake-time. If we fit a full night’s sleep into a natural 24-hour cycle, and a full night’s sleep is approximately 8 hours, that leaves about 16 productive hours. In fact, we can usually work on for hours longer than that, but this is still a useful rough indicator; 4/5ths of 16 is 12.8 hours. So, as a rough indicator, going without one cycle of sleep leaves you roughly as tired after approximately 13 hours as you would normally be at your usual bedtime.

If you can normally work – on occasion – two hours beyond your usual bedtime without excessive tiredness, and another hour with some diminishment due to fatigue, adding 13 hours gets you to a full 16-hour working day on one sleep-cycle less. Plus, of course, you get to work for that extra sleep-cycle, a further 90 minutes of productive time.

What this shows is that it’s possible to work 17.5 hours every second day without noticeable ill effect. In a seven-day week, even reserving one for catching up on lost sleep, that’s still 4.5 extra hours every week, or roughly – wait for it – 5.85 extra working weeks a year.

And it’s even possible to use this pattern in a more extensive way, because it never takes as much additional sleep to recover from a lack of sleep as the total amount you are short. Two additional sleep cycles once a week can make up for four or five missed cycles during the week, especially if the loss is diffuse. You could forgo one cycle each for five nights in succession, and then make up the shortfall with one extra cycle on each of the remaining two days, or both on the 6th day of the cycle. That’s a time saving of 1.5 x 5 = 7.5 hours a week, less three, giving 4.5 hours per week, once again, which we have already established as sustainable; it’s just a different way of organizing the sleeping patterns.

But that’s to fully rested condition each week; there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t forgo an extra sleep cycle on top of those, each week, and make up the shortfall once a month or so. In fact, spread out this way, you can gain 3 extra sleep-cycles a month, for another 4.5 hours a month on top of what has already been saved from the sandman – carrying the total saved to more than seven extra 40-hour working weeks a year (or more than eight 35-hour weeks, if you prefer!)

Four-point-five hours plus adjustments: A half-night (3 cycles)

This gets you just above half-way between “Wakeful” and “Rested, Alert”. This is the minimum amount of sleep you should have before being safe to operate machinery – for a while. Using the waking-time analysis shows that you are about as tired after 9.5 hours as you would be after 16 hours effort on a full night’s sleep. Adding the three extra hours on top of that gets 12.5 hours, plus the 4.5 hours or so of sleep, gets a total of 16.5 hours. This is 3.5 hours short of a full 24-hour cycle, which is rather a large shortfall, and more than that 3 extra hours, which indicates that this is not sustainable long-term.

However, if a way can be found to re-energize you enough to get you through that extra 3.5 hours – and I offer a number of such techniques later in the article – then this is definitely sustainable in the short-term, and perhaps even the medium term. If that’s the case, then there should be examples of people using this sort of cycle out there somewhere.

The 8-on-4-off, 4-on-4-off, 6-and-1/3-for-30 patterns

And, in fact, there are. Fishing boats and naval vessels in wartime use this sort of pattern all the time. In fact, there are a number of variations. The best known of these is probably the heel-and-toe watch where people work four-hours-on and then have four hours off.

I’ve only ever heard of this pattern being employed in emergency situations of sustained duration in an acutely short-handed situation, or when cramming for major exams. Even though the proportions are exactly the same as a normal night’s sleep, the four-hours-off phase is insufficient for 3 complete cycles. In essence, this is 2 sleep-cycles twice a day, leaving those who experience it one sleep-cycle short per day. Now, that’s already been shown to be sustainable, but this pattern of sleep cycles has three substantial flaws:

  1. It makes no allowance for recovery time, and so accumulates sleep debt;
  2. It incurs at least twice as much overhead because you have to go to sleep twice as often; and
  3. It almost certainly involves waking from a state of deep sleep, inducing a condition known as Sleep Inertia.

As best I can determine, this pattern was proposed as viable following the determination that astronauts had trouble sleeping for a full eight hours in zero gravity, and consequently suffered varying degrees of impairment as missions progressed in duration. In fact, it appears to be a simplified interpretation of Segmented Sleep (see below) shown to be effective during NASA experimentation based on this problem. This was recommended to me while I was attending University as a method of maximizing study time when under pressure, the suggestion being made that it was much easier and more effective to study for 90 minutes and then take 30 off, repeat four times, then sleep for four hours, than it was to sustain study for a longer time span. The theory seems to have been that this accumulated enough study for the brain to be able to process what was learned during the shortened sleep period, like backing up a hard drive more frequently.

It didn’t work for me at the time, and I can’t recommend it as a technique for the reasons listed above. If things are really that bad, there are more effective approaches.

Heel-and-toe watches were often stood in the World Wars. I don’t know about other times. They are reportedly at their most effective when the “on” part of the cycle involves high stress and intensity of activity, which one would expect to encounter during wartime, because people could not sustain their attention levels to the required degree for longer periods. The “four hours on” thus becomes the operational parameter used to determine the sleeping patterns required. If there were three shifts of staff for each position, a 4-on-8-off pattern would be possible, though I suspect that people would have trouble falling asleep only four hours after waking; this would then become a 4-on-8-off-4-on-8-sleep pattern, which is something close to normality. The unanswered question would be whether eight hours of non-sleep recreation would sufficiently restore attention levels for this approach to work; personally, I would have my doubts.

However, in a military situation during wartime, three shifts is a luxury that can’t be tolerated. That extra shift can accommodate an extra gunner, or fire control officer, or pilot, or whatever. Which brings us back to the basic 4-on-4-off heel-and-toe pattern.

This suffers from all three of the flaws listed in the previous section. 4 hours of sleep might be better than none, but that’s about all it has going for it.

I had never heard of this approach until I saw it on a documentary – I forget which one, it was something that I caught the tail-end of by accident. A week or two later, I saw it tested on Mythbusters in the segment ‘Crab Napping‘. Essentially, it is a 20-minute nap every six hours for 30 hours straight, which is reportedly enough to be twice as good as no sleep at all during a similar timespan. This brutal schedule is routinely employed on Crab fishing vessels by the crew since it totals only 5.26% time lost to sleep over that 30-hour shift.

Astonishingly, as you will see if you follow the link above, the myth that these regular power naps were twice as good as sleeplessness was confirmed by the experiment performed by the Mythbusters team – fully rested, the two subjects scored 100 out 100, fully sleep-deprived, they scored 27/100 and 34/100 respectively, and (after recovering) employing the power-nap method the scores were 64/100 and 81/100, respectively. However, to say that they didn’t feel alert at the time is an understatement, and since confidence is such a large element of successful GMing, I would reject this approach – unless you really, really, need it.

Polyphasic Sleep – exotic Patterns
Of course, these are just a few of the wild and sometimes wacky sleep patterns we humans have experimented with. In fact, there are a whole slew of proposals, each of which has its supporters and adherents, as a read of the rather fascinating Wikipedia page on Polyphasic Sleep will show.

Do they work? That’s a very big question. Let’s just say that they might work for some individuals under some circumstances at some times of the year and leave that surprisingly complicated question at that, okay?

In actual fact, I employed a 3-cycle sleep pattern for many years. It IS sustainable over quite a long period, provided that you accept that inevitably your body will revolt and you WILL sleep 12 hours or so, whether you want to or not. The trumpet of doom won’t wake you, when that happens. On the other hand, once you realize that this is inevitable, you can actually schedule it in advance – say, once every 2 or 3 weeks, you let yourself sleep “until you can’t sleep no more”.

There is a second price to pay: such a lengthy sleep will inevitably throw your body clock out. This can be incredibly useful if you need to achieve this effect – for example, transitioning from an unemployed state to an employed state – but it can be a real pain at other times. In effect, this costs about 6 hours of extra sleep every 3 weeks – but gains you an average of 3 hours a day extra, 7 days a week, the rest of that time, for a net gain of about 18 hours a week. That’s roughly 936 hours extra productivity a year – or more than 23 extra 40-hour working weeks in the year.

It also takes time to get used to, and you can lose that adjustment in a single week of holidays.

Even then, you will eventually need to revert for a solid month or so to a normal 8-hour cycle or suffer long-term effects. You therefore have to ask yourself if it’s worth it? At the time, my answer would have been ‘yes’. At my current stage of life, where my sleep is disrupted by medical issues (unrelated to this practice), it is no longer sustainable, so the answer is ‘no’.

Three hours plus adjustments: The minimum? (2 cycles)

While heel-and-toe and other 4-off methods might theoretically represent 4 hours of sleep, or 2.5 cycles, in practice that could only be achieved if the handover and transition from “on” to “off” was instantaneous. Since it can’t be, what we’re really talking about when discussing such a sleep pattern is a 2-cycle sleeping pattern.

Now, two cycles, three times a day – which is to say, 4-on-4-off – in theory actually gets you one more sleep cycle than you would normally get in a standard 16-on-8-off 24-hour day. That’s probably a small concession, given the disrupted sleep cycle, the potentially-lengthy overheads three times a day, the mental fatigue from periods of intense concentration, etc.

But how about if we take all that high-impact concentration and stress out of the picture? Would it then be possible to cope on a single two-cycle sleep period a day and then put in a full day’s work, or something approaching it?

The answer is yes – with caveats.

This is working an extra 4.5 hours past your normal bedtime in a day, then getting back up at your usual hour the next morning. If you map that out on the restedness graph, you will find that it gets you exactly to the “Wakeful” mark – enough to write or plot or GM, at least for a while, but not enough that you should operate machinery. Using the “proportion of 16 hours” calculation, you wake up as tired as you would be after putting in a ten-hour regular day. That leaves 6.5 hours of regular day before you’re as tired as you normally are when you go to bed, another 2 hours of capacity beyond that, and one final hour of extremely-diminished capacity. But it does mean that over a 48-hour period, you get 30 hours of work done.

Whereas, operating normally you would only get… 32 hours of work capacity?

What this does is sacrifice two hours of activity capacity on the second day to get an extra four-and-a-half hours of work done on the first day. And it does pretty much mandate that you will need an extra sleep cycle on the third day.

In the long term, then, this is actually less efficient than getting enough sleep, and much less efficient than managing to sneak an extra sleep cycle every second day. It’s what you do when you have a deadline that you absolutely have to hit.

My experience is that 3 hours after your usual bedtime you start to zone out, and need to refresh yourself. When you do so, you actually gain more than the 1.5 hours remaining – you usually gain another 3 hours of alert time, if not more. And you can repeat the refreshing process a number of times. You can’t stave off sleep indefinitely, but you can come close to it – for a while.

And that makes this sleep pattern pretty much worthless.

One-point-five plus adjustments: Worse than nothing? (1 cycle)

And if 2 cycles a day is worthless, 1 cycle is doubly so. You wake up in a state equivalent to half-way between “wakeful” and “minimum function” and feel more tired than if you had actually gone without sleep. At best, you awaken as tired as you would normally be three hours before your normal bedtime. This puts you solidly in the red, “Sleep-deprived” zone – so ineffective the next day that you might as well be asleep. And falling asleep is something that you will have to fight against repeatedly, all the next day. You will have periods in which you completely zone out, or actually doze off. Forget it.

No Sleep At All: Not the worst case

Which brings me to the final configuration: No Sleep At All. There are ways of repeatedly restoring you to almost full alertness – say, to a bit above the “rested” mark – at the price of accelerating progress towards the “Minimum Function” mark each time. This also builds up your total sleep deprivation, meaning that when you do finally sleep, you will need extra cycles, probably for a couple of days, to recover.

These methods don’t work as well after 1-2 cycles of sleep, for some reason.

Broken Cycles

Let’s assume for a minute that circumstances require you to get as much sleep as you can, but to wake up in the morning with an incomplete deep-sleep cycle, which will make you feel tired all day – defeating the purpose of the “as much sleep as you can get” notion. This sort of thing happens when you know that tomorrow is going to be a late night, but you have a fixed wake-up time that can’t be altered – which makes it more common an event than you might think.

Recovery from a broken sleep cycle begins with the next complete sleep cycle. However, the second sleep cycle is often deeper and more regenerative than the first. Given these facts, it becomes clear that the plan for being as rested as possible is to have your third sleep cycle be the one that is broken, not the last one of the night.

To determine what time to set your alarm to in order to break your sleep at the right time, count forwards from your expected time of going to sleep by three hours; that’s the earliest point in time. Then count backwards from the wakeup time required by an hour-and-a-half, plus twenty minute waking margin in the middle. That’s the latest point in time. If the two are more than 90 minutes apart, move your “latest” point back another sleep cycle, so that the pattern is cycle-cycle-broken cycle-break-cycle-cycle. You will be far more alert the next day and into the following evening than you would be with a cycle-cycle-cycle-cycle-broken-cycle pattern, even though you have lost 20 minutes sleep in the middle of the night.

That leaves only the question of what to do in that twenty minutes. I recommend (1) use the bathroom; (2) 10 minutes light reading; (3) drink half a glass of water (not too cold); (4) go back to bed. It will probably take you longer to go back to sleep than it did when you first retired for the night; these steps are intended to help you relax and overcome this problem.

Staying Awake

It’s not easy going without sleep for a night. It can be done, and almost all of us have had to do so from time to time for whatever reason, but most people try to avoid it. When I was younger, and the sleep that I did get was of much higher quality, I was a bit of an anomaly because I did this regularly, squeezing extra hours of creativity into the day. Even now, I sometimes get so wrapped up in the creative process that I lose track of time and discover that it’s way past the time I should be in bed.

When you set your own schedule, as I can now do, that’s not a big deal – the worst that might happen is that I sleep through something that I wanted to watch on TV; but when you’re part of the majority with “daytime obligations” – work, appointments, whatever – that can quite often mean that there’s not enough time to actually sleep before you have to get your normal day underway. I used to be part of that majority, and evolved a number of techniques that have gotten me through the day that follows.

The Gray Zone

My experience is that at some point, tiredness will lead you to zone out. If you can get through that period, you will be rejuvenated and able to carry on until your usual bedtime rolls around again – and a couple of nights of normal sleep is all that you then need to recharge your batteries. Alternatively, an extra sleep cycle when you do hit the sack can be enough. So a lot of these techniques can be considered “Gray Zone” survival techniques, where the goal is simply to refresh yourself for long enough to get through the period where you are in danger of dropping off.

None of these techniques will do better than restoring you to “Rested, Alert” status, and you will travel back down the tiredness scale more quickly; if you get through the gray zone before again reaching the orange status between wakeful and minimum functionality, your tiredness will stabilize at the new level. If not, you need to apply one of the Gray Zone survival tricks, successive use of the same technique gives diminishing returns.

Depending on just how exhausted you are, employing one Gray Zone technique may not be enough. Eventually, you will run out of steam. You need to time it so that this happens at your normal bedtime, or exactly one sleep cycle sooner, or your body clock will get out of sync and you’ll have trouble getting enough sleep for a few nights. When that happens, often the best solution is another sleepless night. One of the most effective ways to reset your internal body clock is, in fact, the all-nighter that gets you to bed at the right time.

Adrenalin Rush

Excitement can go a long way. I don’t recommend thrill-seeking as a way of staying awake, but playing a video-game with a lot of action can serve the same function in a more socially-acceptable way. The big problem with the Adrenalin Rush as a Gray Zone survival technique is that it wears off very, very quickly. So this usually needs to be combined with another technique, one that lasts longer. In effect, you are buying time for that slower treatment to kick in and get you through the rest of the Gray Zone.

The Beverage Refreshment

Coffee and Tea can go a long way, especially if they are taken with a reasonable level of sweetener. Drink them black, because warm milk has a soporific effect that can undermine the whole point of the exercise. Use cold water if you need to adjust the temperature of the beverage.

These need to be stronger than you normally take the beverage, because your body is accustomed to that normal level of stimulation. I’ve gotten into the habit of making my usual tea and coffee about half normal strength – a level teaspoon of instant coffee instead of a heaped one, for example – so that I have that margin for a stronger cup when I need it.

Cold drinks which contain caffeine can also be effective when the environment is especially hot or cold, but I find they are less so than ordinary coffee, simply because much of their kick comes from sugar content – and the sugar rush wears off almost as quickly as Adrenalin.

Thermal Impact

The more comfortable the temperature, the easier it is to go to sleep. It follows that – within reasonable limits – thermal discomfort can help keep the Gray Zone at bay. However, heat is less effective in this capacity than cold.

This has given rise to my current “favorite” technique, the Thermal Shock Shower. I take a shower and get the water to a comfortable temperature. I then turn the heat up gradually until it is as hot as I can stand – a value that changes depending on conditions and mindset – and hold it there for a minute. Then I turn the hot water off (or at least way down) with a single movement, and leave it cold for as long as I can stand it, then turn the hot water straight back up to where it was until I’m no longer cold. This “shock treatment” is good for between two and four hours at something better than “rested, alert” status.

The Cold-Water Splash

Splashing cold water on the face and hands, or on the back of the neck, has been a treatment for tiredness for many, many years. That’s because it works, at least for a while.

Food and Sleep

The larger the meal, the more tired you feel. When you’re already heading for the gray zone, this can push you over the edge.

For many years, I did not have a refrigerator. Since I was unable to preserve food, and because it was more economical, I got used to eating one large meal a day – and existing on nothing but tea and coffee the rest of the time. That one big meal, four to six hours before bedtime, got me through the day.

What you eat also has a big effect, second only to the total quantity of food. Some sugar is good for a quick boost, but too much leads to too big a crash when the sugar rush wears off. Too much carbohydrate can also be problematic; it takes energy to actually digest such food, and even though there is a net energy gain at the end, the short-term effects when in the Gray Zone can overwhelm your system. A light breakfast cereal – one that doesn’t contain too much sugar – with ice-cold milk can be very effective at buying you an extra hour or so to get through the Gray Zone, especially if combined with a beverage.

The Walk Restorative

This works best in winter, or late at night in summer. Walk up to the nearest corner and back, or around the block. Dress appropriately for the conditions, of course. It doesn’t have to be a long walk, but most creative activities are carried out sitting down – getting the blood circulating (in combination with a little thermal shock if possible) can be very restorative.

You aren’t walking enough to consider it exercise, except of the very lightest variety. You don’t want to trigger a massive adrenalin rush because that is usually accompanied by a wave of exhaustion when it ends. It’s nothing more than stretching your legs. But it works.

For many years, this was my favorite technique. Physical disability means that even a walk this long is a struggle, and that makes this too strenuous an activity to get me through the Gray Zone except on my very best days.

Light Exercise

This ups the ante on the restorative walk. The idea is to perform just enough exercise to get the heart-rate up and the adrenalin flowing when you find yourself starting to drop off, then return to whatever you were doing. Repeat as necessary. Sixty seconds of jumping jacks, or jogging on the spot, or whatever, can work wonders.

There are a couple of caveats, however; if there is any gap between the end of the exercise and resuming work, your body can take this as a signal to crash. Plan your exercises accordingly. And, number two, it’s very easy to go too far, exercise too hard or for too long. Stop as soon as you feel more alert!

Any sort of exercise that is carried out sitting down, with the possible exception of an exercise bike, is usually less effective than one that involves moving around.

Shampoo Your Hair

Why this works, I’m not entirely sure, but a vigorous shampooing – even of clean hair – can be unexpectedly restorative. I have a number of plausible theories to explain the phenomenon, but wouldn’t bet on any of them being correct, or even being part of the story.

We’re used to not going to bed when our hair is wet. That’s one. Another is that most heat loss occurs through the scalp, and that oily/greasy hair retains more of that heat, inducing greater drowsiness. A third is that the “vigor” of the shampooing is enough physical activity to qualify as light exercise, or is sufficiently stimulating in it’s own right. The truth could be any or all of these, or none of them. All I know is that it works, especially if combined with a shave (for the men) and the Thermal Shock Shower described earlier (which should follow the shampooing for maximum effect).

The Power Nap

A power nap is a short sleep period that doesn’t last long enough to enter the deep-sleep phase. Fifteen or twenty minutes shut-eye can keep you going when all else fails.

Power Nap success hinges on three factors. First, you need to be comfortable, especially in terms of the temperature, so that you can fall asleep quickly. Second, you need to shut out external factors that carry an awareness of the time – travel masks to shut out light are cheap on the internet (my current ones cost just 45 cents Australian). And last, you need a bullet-proof way to wake yourself up – a kitchen timer can work because it can be quickly set to twenty or thirty minutes, but if you sleep through it, you’re toast.

The bathtub snooze

I used to use this technique regularly, but my current bathtub is too small. You need a tub of exactly the right size – one that lets you lie down comfortably but with Zero chance of your head slipping below the waterline when the tub is filled to chest height. Run the water hot and just relax. You can doze off if you like – the whole point of the bathtub size is making sure that it’s safe to do so. The water will cool while you sleep, becoming just uncomfortable enough to wake you at the end of a single sleep cycle (at worst) or a power nap, in effect combining the Thermal Shock technique with a power nap. This technique can be good for six to eight hours of further activity, the best of any of the techniques given here; it was the unavailability of this tool that led me to come up with the Thermal Shock shower.

The impact of illness

I don’t recommend using any of these techniques when you’re unwell in any way. Illness makes us feel tired because your body is diverting resources to fighting off the bug, forcing it not to do so will only make matters worse. What’s more, one of the impacts of sleep deprivation is a weakening of the immune system, which is a double-whammy when you’re already under the weather.

Injuries, on the other hand, can be quite useful; pain is a known stimulus. However, it’s also a distraction; what good is it to gain thirty percent more activity time if you are only 50% effective throughout the day? It follows that this is walking a knife-edge between side-benefit on the one hand and negative impact on the other.

It follows that if you are injured, you can try and take advantage of the fact, spinning an existing negative into a positive, however minor; if you aren’t, don’t court an injury, the risk is not worth the reward.

I have a back condition that gives me moderate to severe pain almost continuously; I’ve experienced just one completely pain-free day in three-and-a-half years (and I dread such, because it’s an invitation to overdoing things, making the subsequent day agony). To deal with this pain, I have prescribed surgical-grade painkillers. Because excessive activity makes the condition worse, and at least some part of that worsening is permanent, I avoid these painkillers as much as possible; pain serves as an early warning when I’m pushing my limits. Secondary considerations are that painkillers can be addictive, and that the body builds up a tolerance to them; when I do need to take one, I don’t want it to be ineffective. So I save them for when I really, really need them.

Still, I don’t think this is what they have in mind when they talk about suffering for your art.

Combinations and effectiveness

Some of these techniques are good for a quick pick-up, but don’t last very long. Others are less effective at restoring flagging energies but can produce a longer-lasting effect. But their greatest levels of effectiveness are only realized when they are implemented in combinations, and can’t actually be predicted by their effects in isolation.

While I have no evidence to offer on the point, I suggest that each person will respond differently to both effects in isolation and effects in combination. One point that definitely makes a difference is timing – I try to establish a rhythm or routine. One technique “each hour on the hour”, as it were, is more effective than implementing them at set intervals.

The Pattern of Habits

The human mind loves to construct habits, patterns, and routines. We are wired to do so by evolution because these all enable essential activities to be done by “autopilot” leaving cranial capability available for the unexpected, like noticing the sabretooth lurking in the brush up ahead. In terms of the way our minds process visual signals, this is the basis of all optical illusions, and also relates directly to the flaws in humans as witnesses.

This propensity can be turned to our advantage.

The Wake-up Routine

Having a distinctive wakeup routine for the mornings enables us to repeat that routine later in the day when tired, fooling the mind into waking up again – at least for a while, for example.

My habit is not to lie in bed, but to get up as soon as I awake. I shower and brush teeth, grab the coffee cup and start making a coffee on my way back to the bedroom to get dressed, starting the power-up procedure on my laptop/computer on the way, complete the coffee-making procedure when dressed for the day, and then visit the various websites that I need to check daily in a routine sequence. Only when all these steps are complete, in this fixed sequence, do I start my activities for the day.

The Sleep-ready Habit

In my experience, there are actually two different habits that tell the mind to prepare to shut down for the day. The first is that we get used to shutting down for the day a certain number of hours past our major meal of the day; the mind can sometimes be fooled by replacing that meal with the first of two much smaller, lighter, meals. This habit can also be tricked if we develop a habit of always finishing our meals with a particular beverage, with dessert, or with a specific activity; by skipping that activity, the brain is fooled (for a while) into thinking that the meal is not yet finished, and therefore the clock to bed-time has not yet started counting down.

The second is that we develop shut-down routines. Avoiding these doesn’t help keep you awake, but failure to carry them out can make it harder to actually fall asleep when we do go to bed, and that can in turn play hob with getting the expected amount of sleep, impacting on our wakefulness the next day. That means that whenever you DO call it a day, it’s important to finish your day in the exact same way that you usually do.

Side-tip: Jet lag
I’m lucky, in that I don’t suffer very much from jet-lag, despite not sleeping very much when traveling by plane. It’s just like staying up late, and the same tricks can work. By combining the wake-up techniques with an appropriate time-shift on the sleep-ready routines, it’s not that difficult to manage what jet-lag I experience. That said, my international travel is relatively limited in terms of destination, so I can’t guarantee results. A better and more effective technique is to start to shift your bedtime to what you want it to be in the new time-zone before you travel.

The influence of daylight

For untold millennia, humans were adjusted to a day-night cycle regulated by the sun. Even the invention of fire didn’t change that very much, because away from the fire, it was still dark. Things only started to change with the electric light bulb, when – for the first time – it became possible to bathe the environment in light, shutting out the night.

A lot of people think that we’re still ruled by the influence of this day-night cycle, and that our sleep-ready countdown is actually based on the onset of twilight rather than the eating of the main meal. My experience is that there is an influence, but that the meal is the larger factor, simply because after a heavy meal we’re always a little sluggish and tired. However, this is very much an urban perspective, and I’ve lived long enough in the country to recognize that the degree of impact of this influence varies with where you live.

The way I see it, when it’s dark out and you are surrounded by light, it creates an isolated environment around you. It doesn’t matter how dark it is outside, so long as it isn’t dark where you are; this just hides the environment from your perception.

That said, this pattern, too, can be manipulated to benefit our alertness when tired. My current residence starts to get dark inside relatively early in the day – there’s a wall between it and the afternoon sun – and that can trigger “twilight” in the subconscious. Being aware of this, I turn my lights in the work-room on at about 3 PM each day, replacing the fading light with a subjectively-equal degree of illumination. As a result, I don’t actually experience twilight, and my body continues to tick over in “daylight” until I’m ready for it not to do so. I can trigger “twilight” just by going to my kitchen without having turned the lights on, engaging the secondary habit of “sleep is X hours away”; this is because there is a street light just across the street outside of the kitchen window that provides some light but not full illumination.

In my old apartment, the situation was quite different. It had very good natural afternoon light until quite late in the day, and the kitchen was effectively in the same room as the work-room/living room. Again, I turned the living room light on just before twilight began to fall – about 5 PM in winter, about 6:30PM in summer – but to trigger “twilight” when I wanted it, I used a lower wattage of light bulb in the bedrooms. There was also a lot less illumination from outside.

I’ve also found that a pair of mild sunglasses can be used to trigger “twilight” even during daylight hours.

Designing a “twilight trigger” depends on your individual circumstances, and careful attention to developing the pattern that you want to experience. Complicating things is that sunset moves each day, and the amount of change depends on your latitude, altitude, and surroundings. Nor are the benefits all that clear-cut; they certainly aren’t enough on their own, but by making other stay-awake techniques that little bit more effective, there can be big yields in return for the effort.

The vagaries of body clocks

I’ve heard and read a lot of nonsense about body clocks over the years. I discovered way back in the early 80s that everyone has their own body clock, their own preferences for when they want to sleep. I learned the hard way that if I need to routinely get up early in the morning, I need more sleep the night before; I am a natural night owl. This factor alone is worth an extra sleep cycle per day.

This same phenomenon means that some people adapt to working a night shift more readily than others.

My preferred cycle is to awaken between 10 and 11 AM; that permits me to get by on 4 sleep cycles in complete comfort, and when I was younger, I could routinely get along on three cycles every second day. For every 2 sleep cycles or part thereof that I move this wake-up point back in time on a regular basis, I need to add one cycle to the total amount of sleep per night. Let’s see how that works:

  • Wake at 10 AM – get up after 3-4 sleep cycles of 90 mins each – bed at 4 AM / 5:30 AM alternating.
  • Wake between 8:30 and 10 AM – get up after 4-5 sleep cycles – bed at 1 AM / 2:30 AM alternating.
  • Wake between 7 and 8:30 AM (start work at 9AM) – get up after 5-6 sleep cycles – bed at 11:30 PM / 1 AM alternating.
  • Wake between 5:30 and 7 AM (start work at 8AM) – get up after 5-6 sleep cycles – bed at 10 PM / 11:30 AM alternating, and an extra sleep cycle on the weekends to make up for not-quite-enough sleep during the week.

Let’s interpret that another way: how many non-sleeping hours are in my day, and how many are left after 3 hrs/day on maintenance (eating, traveling, hygiene, etc) & travel and 8 hrs a day work?

  • Wake at 10 AM: 18 and 19.5 hrs, alternating; 7 to 8.5 hrs, alternating.
  • Wake at 8:30 AM (start work at 10AM): 16.5 to 18 hrs, alternating; 5.5 to 6 hrs, alternating.
  • Wake at 7 AM (start work at 9 AM): 15 hrs to 16.5 hrs, alternating; 4 to 5.5 hrs, alternating.
  • Wake at 5:30 AM (start work at 8 AM): 13.5 hrs to 15 hrs, alternating; 2.5 to 4 hrs, alternating, and less 1.5 hrs per week.

Project out that difference over a 50-week working year: ideal, 2712.5 hrs non-working awake time; worst-case, 1062.5 hrs. Productive time lost per year just by getting up earlier: 1,650 hours. One thousand, six hundred and fifty hours.

Now, everyone is different. My mother’s an early bird, for example, and – for that matter – so is my father. I have a friend who follows the same basic pattern as I do – but who needs between 1 and 2 extra sleep cycles a night. Unless you just happen to get lucky, as I did back in 1981, it can easily take six months or more of diligent efforts to find the setting your body clock prefers. The benefits of doing so can repay that effort – unless you are already at, or close to, your optimum window.

Voluntary Waking

One benefit of finding your ideal body clock setting – for me at least – comes in the form of voluntary waking. If I know, going to bed, that I need to wake up at a certain time, and I set my alarm clock accordingly, I will usually wake up just before the alarm goes off. It’s not quite reliable enough to discard the alarm completely, but it has been enough to save my bacon a number of times when there’s been a power failure of some sort and the alarm fails to function.

Oversleeping The Mark

As a general rule of thumb, if you need an extra sleep cycle, you are better off going to bed early and getting up at your usual time. This enables you to step straight back into your usual routines without upsetting your body clock. Quite often, tacking an extra sleep cycle onto the end of your night’s sleep will confuse those internal cycles and you will not only wake up tired for several days after, but will encounter difficulties getting to sleep when you want to.

Too late To Sleep

There are profound implications in that fact for sleep management. When it becomes too late in your personal “day” for you to get the amount of sleep that you need and still wake up at something approaching your usual hour, you have only a very limited margin before it becomes less tiring in the medium term to stay up. Failure to do so will often result in that terrible situation in which you are so tired when you go to bed that you have trouble going to sleep. When this happens, it can result in as much as an entire sleep cycle going to waste, and the near certainty that when you wake up you will still be tired and have a disrupted body clock.

The impact of Age

As we age, our sleep requirements go up (as a general rule of thumb). As you age still further, your capacity for deep sleep changes, and you need more frequent sleep in the course of the day. Instead of 90 minutes, you might find that you get 30 minutes of deep sleep in a cycle that’s anywhere from 60-90 minutes in total. The result is that you tend to repeatedly power-nap during the day, whether you want to or not, because the total minutes of deep sleep don’t actually change, they just come in smaller servings. Again, everyone is different, and there are multiple parameters that vary from individual to individual – degree of impact, degree of responsiveness to changing sleep patterns to accommodate the impact, age at which different degrees of impact take effect, and general health and fitness, to name just a few.

What this adds up to is that what works for you in one decade of your life might not work as well a decade or two later, or might be more effective – and that this assessment will no longer apply a decade or two after that.

Manipulating The Patterns

Once you recognize the patterns that apply to you and how they impact your need for sleep, you can start to manipulate these patterns to your advantage. I’ve already touched on various aspects of this practice, but there is still more to the art of effective sleep management.

On the timing of meals

Meal management is also a part of sleep management. The size and timing of meals plays a big part in dictating when we feel ready for sleep, which in turn is a big part of sleep management. I’ve already touched on the impact that the main meal has, but you can actually add to that effect by manipulating the size and timing of the other meals of the day.

Choosing what and how much to eat when you are actually hungry is the worst possible time to make such a decision. It’s far better for weight management to make such decisions before you reach that point. Similarly, it’s far easier for sleep management to make your timing decisions by counting back from when you want to sleep. You get used to eating your main meal so many hours before you go to sleep, and also get used to eating lunch so many hours before the main meal.

These decisions and needs are also affected by the waking time relative to your body clock, because you consume far fewer calories when you sleep. When I can follow my optimum body clock, I rarely eat lunch, and if I do, I subtract those calories from what I consume in my main meal of the day; but if I’ve already been up and around for 5 additional hours because I’ve had to get up for work, I need a substantial lunch, and because I’m sleeping more, a lighter main meal.

The Use of Naps

Naps throw body clocks into a state of confusion, because they are the same as both going to sleep and waking up. It’s what happens afterwards that “resynchs” the body clock and gives the act context – if you go into deep sleep then it’s a “going to sleep” event, if you go right back to work (or better yet, swing into a repetition of your morning routine) then it’s a waking-up event.

One of the big questions in sleep research is just how much deep sleep you actually need, and how effectively naps can be used to make up the rest of your daily sleep requirement.

To be honest, I haven’t used naps often enough to be able to offer much advice here. The few occasions when I have done so suggest:

  1. that the body has 90-minute “alert cycles” that are the waking equivalent of sleep cycles – an hour of intense ability preceded by 30 minutes of more superficial capabilities;
  2. that it’s easier and more effective to go to sleep in that half-hour window than it is in the hour; and
  3. that a nap restarts the clock on these cycles.

But I would not, and cannot, swear to any of these impressions.

It’s clear that power naps work. So does a siesta that contains a full sleep cycle. Beyond that, and the personal observations given above, I can’t offer any guidance on using naps.


If you wear prescription glasses – I do – clean them when you first start feeling tired. It’s astonishing how much harder the mind has to work compensating for blurry vision.

If you don’t do this in time, your eyes will start having difficulty focusing. It can take as much as thirty minutes for them to recover from eyestrain, and that’s if you catch it early – you can do long-term damage to your vision. If you are experiencing eyestrain but for deadline reasons have to keep working, try using a larger font until the very last step in the writing process. But often you will be better served taking a break and focusing on something at a different optical distance.

Personal experience also says that working on any form of digital artwork involves much greater optical concentration, and is more prone to triggering these problems, especially if you are using a small screen. Take that into account.

Sleep Triggers

When you are really tired, there are a few things that help make you drowsy, and therefore encourage you to drowse off when you are tired. I try to avoid these, or to at least plan around them.

Warmth & comfort
The number one triggers are warmth and comfort; both are bad, and in combination, they are worse. Your first instinct when tired is to put your feet up and relax; and if the room is a comfortable temperature, this can be a recipe for sleep-management disaster.

As soon as I feel like getting comfortable and relaxing for a few minutes, I turn my heater off (in winter) – summer is more problematic – and get a drink that is inclined in the direction of discomfort – a hot drink in summer, a cold drink in winter – and then hold out for ten or fifteen minutes. Or maybe I’ll go for a two-or-three minute walk if it’s substantially cooler outside than in the warm environment inside (again turning the heater off).

So long as it is neither hot nor cold, water is a known soporific. If it is at a temperature extreme that is still safe for consumption, it has a reduced effect, but can still have that function, especially if it moves your body temperature a little more towards comfort.

Warm Dairy Products
Warm milk is another soporific which has assumed almost mythological status, but it really works. Whether that is true of low-fat milks or any of the 99-other variations on dairy product, I don’t know. To play it safe, avoid any hot foods with a creamy sauce when tired!

While exercise can trigger an adrenalin response that wakes you up, when that wears off, you can slide into a lethargic state that leaves you more prone to involuntary sleep.


All these effects can be mitigated with a little advance planning. Have your water in the form of a mild coffee and accompany it with a biscuit for the sugar rush, or have an ice-cold soft drink. Immediately precede your exercise period with a snack that will provide both short-term and longer-term energy, and so on.

Tea actually has more caffeine than weak instant coffee. A LOT more. But it seems to be metabolized more quickly. Plan accordingly.

Supplements & Substitutes
There have been rare occasions when I have resorted to (legal) over-the-counter medications like caffeine pills or Energy Drinks. While these can get you past a bump in the sleep-management road, they suffer from a number of problems – they are not as effective as the other techniques offered in this article, and you have serious problems trying to turn them off when they are no longer needed. Finally, protracted use can cause long-term health issues, and that’s without taking the addiction potential into account. With due care and planning, these can supplement your armory, but save them for last resorts.

The drawbacks are amplified with anything stronger. I don’t recommend it except on specific medical advice – and even then, I would get a second opinion.

There is one other type of supplement that deserves a mention here: Multivitamins. It might be my imagination, but I have noticed an increase in drowsiness 15-30 minutes after consuming a dose, sometimes preceded by a short-term increase in alertness. I can only put this effect down to the product supplying some “urgent” need of the body, causing a short-term regenerative effect but increasing physical comfort and well-being not long afterwards – if it really exists at all.


You may be alert, but there are still consequences to not having an ideal amount of sleep. These side-effects are not dangerous unless perpetuated over the long-term without a recovery period – more on that in a little bit – but they are still worth noting. Always have some plan for compensating or protecting against these problems.


This is a big-ticket item. Insufficient sleep is known to weaken the immune system, and being alert and active for longer periods than usual places additional demands on some of the bodily systems, depending on exactly what activities you pursue. You may require a slightly different diet, for example. Monitor your health closely, take extra precautions against colds and influenza, and be sensible about your health.


When tired, memory functions are diminished in clarity, in function, and in speed of recall. In other words, expect your memory to be a little more fuzzy, for you to be unable to remember some things, and for it to take longer to remember what you can recall.

Less obviously, this also affects recall of any events that transpire while your capacities are diminished by tiredness, even when attempting to recall them after sufficient sleep. It’s as though the mental filing clerks get sloppy at every aspect of their job, including filing new memories away.


It’s called “woolly thinking” for a reason. Your cognitive abilities are impacted by tiredness; thinking takes longer, and is more prone to error. Whenever thinking seriously about something, always build at least one reality check into the process if you are tired. And triple-check any decisions that will have a significant effect on your life if your capacities are in any way diminished. And don’t be surprised if you make some downright silly decisions.

Alertness & Reactions

Reactions will be slower and less precise, more prone to over- or under-reaction. This doesn’t matter too much if all you have to do is roll a dice, but can be dangerous if you’re driving.

This is equally true of emotional and psychological reactions, something that is often overlooked. That’s why humans tend to grow short-tempered when tired, but that is only the most overt response; all emotional reactions tend to be exaggerated. Laughter can be triggered over things that we normally would not find humorous, sadness and melancholy and depression are all also less controllable.

Any pre-existing psychological conditions may also be triggered more easily, amplified, or experienced for a longer duration.


All of this adds up to a greater propensity for making mistakes when tired. Every aspect of cognition is impaired to some degree, and that degree increases as you grow more tired. If you have to make major decisions in these conditions, make them early in the day when you are least-affected.

Dealing with, and preparing for, mistakes is at least as important an aspect of sleep management as any other.


There is a big difference between successful sleep management and sleep deprivation. The goal of the first is to keep you functional on no more sleep than you need without causing the second.

Ultimately, there is no better cure for insufficient sleep than sleeping, and human beings are too variable for long-term sleep management without a safety valve.

The Quality of Sleep

How well you actually sleep at night has a major impact. Any sort of injury or health problem impacts directly on this element, entirely aside from the fact that we heal faster while sleeping than awake, simply because the body can devote more resources to the problem it is`trying to overcome.

I suffer from four long-term conditions, each of which impacts on the quality of sleep that I enjoy, and this is a major factor in my inability to get by on reduced sleep relative to my younger life. The degree of impact can be minor when only one of these conditions is ‘acting up’ to massive (when all four are causing trouble at the same time). The near-certainty is that one or more will be a factor on any given night.

What’s more, insufficient sleep and poor-quality sleep are aggravating factors in at least two of these problems. So one problem can trigger another the next day, which in turn impacts the quality of sleep the following night. The upshot is that I need one more sleep cycle now, most nights, compared to – say – a decade ago.

The limits of Endurance

Everyone has a different tolerance for sleep shortage. As far as I can determine, this capacity in the long-term has absolutely no relation to the short-term ability to function on less sleep.

No matter how carefully you manage your sleep, the combination of variables means that you will slowly erode your capacity, and eventually – usually without warning – you will reach your limits of endurance. All sorts of other factors impact on that capacity – everything from quality of sleep to stress to what you ate the day before.

When you reach that limit, no matter what you do, your body will override your desires and sleep. This might involve simply falling asleep, or it might involve sleeping through alarms. It can be almost impossible to wake someone up when they reach the point of exhaustion.

Plan your recovery

The sensible thing to do is therefore not to let things get to this point in the first place. Every two, three, or four weeks (depending on your personal capacities), designate one night when you will go to bed one cycle early and let yourself sleep until you awaken naturally. This WILL throw your body clock out of sync, so it’s best to make this a Friday night so that you can return to something approaching your normal schedule on the Sunday, ready for work the next week.


When I foreshadowed this article, in a sidebar within Bullet To The Point: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Part 2, I ended with “You will be more creative, more productive, more healthy, and more happy if you get enough sleep.” This remains true, but no matter how necessary and beneficial sleep is, it remains “unproductive time”. Any reduction in that overhead for the maintenance of physical and mental health and efficiency yields big benefits in the amount of productive work that you get done. By a rough estimate, Sleep Management has given me more than a decade of extra productive time over the course of my lifetime – time spent, in part, on improving my work-life balance, and, in part on my campaigns and my craft as a GM.

Are you a better GM now than you were a decade ago? How much better would you be if you had been able to dedicate that decade almost exclusively to improving your skills and creativity?

Sleepland is a nice place to visit, but its not somewhere to linger any longer than necessary. Life, as they say, is too short.

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Super-heroics as an FRP Combat Planning Tool


When you’re designing a battle for an FRP adventure, how do you make it different from every such battle that you’ve had in the past? How do you make it more interesting than a mere dice-rolling exercise? It’s even more difficult than it sounds.

I have a novel solution to offer to these problems, but first I need to explain where this solution comes from.

The Origins of an Idea

It started with a confluence of random circumstances. As part of the process of compiling The Best Of 2012, I had to at least glance over most of the articles published here at Campaign Mastery in that time frame.

Concurrently with that process, I continued to read a book that I mentioned a week or two earlier, “The Superhero Reader” by Hatfield, Heer, and Worcester, and also had a conversation with the co-GM of the Adventurer’s Club [Pulp] Campaign in which we talked (as a side-topic) about the Hero Games series “The Ultimate [X]“, and in particular the PDF he has just acquired, “The Ultimate Energy Projector”, which will complete his set of these sourcebooks.

Fragmentary thoughts from all these sources – plus a couple of web sites about forthcoming movies – came together like a string of tumbling dominoes to present a number of new perspectives on the problem, and my immediate thought was that the notion that derived would make a reasonable article for Campaign Mastery.

I couldn’t get to writing it immediately, and by the time I came to write these words, the idea that I came up with had evolved through several generations to become rather more useful and significant than it was initially. In the process, this article has transitioned from an interesting but abstract theory to a piece of concrete and practical advice. However, I’m not entirely certain how clearly others will perceive the solution and why it should be effective if I offer just that practical advice, so the article will have to replicate the evolutionary path already trodden by my mental meandering.

So that’s what’s on today’s menu: A little RPG Theory, a surprising twist, some practical implementation, and then maybe a little more theory to wrap the whole bundle up and tie a neat little string around it.

Battle Factors Under GM Control

GMs have only a few parameters that they can alter to achieve the goal of making a battle interesting:

  • Antagonists;
  • Environment;
  • Circumstances & Context;
  • Base Antagonist Tactics;
  • Gimmicks.

These deserve a little amplification, principally in terms of the degree of constraint experienced by the GM:


The GM has broad latitude in terms of the antagonists. However, the need to make the battle challenging confines his choices; individual foes cannot be so weak as to fall at a single blow from a PC, and they must be sufficiently capable of inflicting damage on the PCs, which place a minimum capacity on the individual constituents; At the same time, they cannot be so strong that PCs will fall after a single hit, and the collective capability cannot exceed by too great a margin the collective abilities of the PCs. There are also practical difficulties that constrain the number of simultaneous combatants, and finally, metagame restrictions based on the GM’s ability to actually referee the combat.

By the time all these factors are taken into account, the GMs choices in this respect are considerably restrained.


The GM has total control over the environment in which the battle is to take place, save only that it should not be instantly lethal or any participant. Moreover, he can achieve substantial benefits through enabling the antagonists to make intelligent use of the environment to enhance their capabilities and minimize their vulnerabilities.

Circumstances & Context

This variable deals with two separate but related elements, incorporating both the explicit reasons why the battle is taking place and what the rewards of winning appear to be prior to the end of battle and subsequent investigation. Both these factors can have a significant impact on the mindsets of each set of combatants, and can also impose additional environmental factors that can be exploited. The GM has total control over these factors as they relate to the antagonists and in some cases will have limited control over the PC side of the battle.

Base Antagonist Tactics

Surprisingly, Fantasy characters are often broader in the range of available tactics than superheroes, who are far more constrained to respect a theme or concept. The tactics that the antagonists employ are completely within the GMs control, though they may or even should be constrained by some of the other factors discussed, such as environment. The original thrust of this article was going to be the benefits that could be achieved by thinking of fantasy characters as “superheros” and thematically constraining them in order to make it easier to make effective choices in the other parameters.


Everything else that constricts combat options or adds additional options comes under this heading, including supernatural “environmental” considerations, gates to other realms, the accessibility of reinforcements, and magic items that give characters additional combat options. There are a bewildering array of such options available to the GM, and this too can be simplified by the principle of “theming” and “categorizing” the participants along the lines of a superhero battle.

The Relevance Of Super-heroics

In many ways, it’s easier for the GM of a superheroic campaign, simply because there are so many decades of past art upon which to draw, and because most of the sourcebooks for such games employ or describe archetypes in terms of the effect of their abilities, their combat styles, and the ways these can interact.

All you have to do to access this past art is to use a known super-villain as an exemplar of the type of combatant that the PC or NPC is, find an opposition who matches their dance partner, and then draw on the fight as depicted in the comic book for inspiration.

For example, if you have a character who is a strong and nimble combatant with relatively few special abilities, and a foe who is much stronger but less nimble, you could draw on a battle between Spider-man and The Rhino (who doesn’t wear a suit of power armor in the comics. Or, if the enemy is a wizard who likes to toss lightning bolts, you might base your battle circumstances on one of the many battles between Spider-man and Electro.

Effectively, this puts every writer and artist who has ever worked on the comics “on staff” as creative consultants to the GM. If there’s a particularly interesting gimmick, tactic, or circumstance in the comic, all you have to do is translate it back into fantasy terms and you’re all set.

Every issue of a comic is likely to contain at least one combat sequence. It’s necessary for the creators of that combat sequence to overcome the same hurdle that you’re facing – the need to make the fight interesting. Why not copy their solutions?

For example, let’s take a cold-based character and a combat sequence in a factory. There’s a furnace for smelting metal, there are all sorts of chains hanging from the ceiling, and so on.

The fantasy equivalent might be a cave with a pool of natural magma at one end that has been dammed, in which the cold-and-ice-wielder has hung many chains from the ceiling, too loosely held by pitons to be used for climbing, and too high to be within reach of the PCs – perhaps with one or two that have been affixed more securely.

The cold character can lob a ball of ice into the magma to create a steam explosion, or many smaller particles to fill that end of the cave with fog. He can surround the ends of the chains immediately above the PCs with a ball of ice until they become too heavy for the piton to hold – turning the chains into boulders raining down on the PCs from above.

As a last resort, he can use a similar technique to collapse the dam, spilling lava out into the chamber. He can ice up the floors to make them slippery under the PC’s foot. He may have carved small channels across the chamber floor containing water that he can rapidly freeze, expanding them enough to shatter the floor underfoot and drop the PCs into another cavern below – possibly one filled with more magma. He could freeze silver strands to form ice javelins with an electrically-conductive core – useful if one of the enemies likes to use a wand of lightning, or if the bad guy has something along those lines up his sleeve.

He may have prepped a huge snowball up a channel, held in place by a chock that he can pull out simply by tugging a rope – think of the boulder in the first Indiana Jones movie. There may be a pool of acid that the PCs have to cross – he can cover it with a thin layer of ice and snow to hide it’s true nature until it’s too late.

There are lots of such ideas – those given above were all off the top of my head, and I have no doubt that I could double that number without too much effort, just by digging out a couple of issues of The Flash in which he fights Captain Cold, or an issue of Batman in which he goes up against Mr Freeze, or any issue of the X-Men in which Iceman takes part.

Some of the ideas may be too far-fetched to be plausible in a fantasy environment, others may be marginal but forgivable if entertaining enough, but if the PCs have to run such a gamut before they can even get to this character, they will know they’ve been in a fight – and they’ll remember it for a long time!

Beyond The Source Material: Superhero RPGs

And that’s where the article was going to end, when I started writing it. But one final thought occurred to me…

Superhero RPG sourcebooks are full of strategies that can be employed by characters of one archetype against other characters of either the same or a different archetype, and advice on how to make superhero battles interesting. Borrow and adapt it to grow your own original tactics using the principles explained already – just equate each PC to an archetype and look at the advice for challenging such archetypes. I would suggest that you first “get your feet wet” using the illustrated examples provided by the comic books to start with, though.

Someone once told me that combat should make up 1/3 of a good game session, as a rule of thumb. While I don’t necessarily agree with that ratio – it depends what else is going on in the adventure – battle remains a major slice of the activities at the game table. Make them more interesting and everybody wins, regardless of the outcome!

A Post-script:

I couldn’t conclude this article without pointing readers to Johnn’s excellent Hazards Of Combat series here at Campaign Mastery – an oldie but a goodie!

And now for something completely unrelated…

…but that should still be of interest to readers: a couple of Kickstarter projects that are of definite interest.


Flat Plastic Miniatures

The first Cab off the rank are Flat Plastic Miniatures by Arcknight, which look absolutely fantastic. With just under four weeks remaining to the campaign, this project has already raised more than 400% of its target! Unlike most Kickstarters, this shows no sign as yet of slowing down and it’s on-track to unlock every stretch goal they’ve listed! A number of different people have contacted me, excited about this project, and it’s easy to see why; it’s that same excitement that is producing the campaign’s success.

For anyone like me who is paintbrush-challenged when it comes to miniatures, this is definitely worth a look. And then a second, and a third – in fact, as many as it takes you to decide to sign up as a backer! You can check out the campaign’s page here or by clicking on the image above.

Tabletop role-playing game (RPG) modules by DigitalD20


From a kickstarter campaign that is going gangbusters to one that could really do with a bit of love from CM’s readership. Paraphrasing the email that I got from Fernando Garcia, responsible for Communications for the operation, DigitalD20 are a group of role players and lovers of new technologies attempting to create a distribution platform for d20 system RPG modules in digital format using new technologies (tablets and smart phones) while maintaining the spirit of pen and paper. The idea is to provide, in a single module, all the information needed to play immediate and easily. With DigitalD20 gamers will be able to share their own modules with the gaming community. Note that I have had to reduce the size of the image above to make it fit my page!

My thoughts: I don’t use a tablet or smartphone, which seems to make me different from about 99% of the population. In fact, I don’t use a mobile phone at all. So I’m not qualified except to say that it sounds fine in theory, looks fantastic, and would be one more incentive to change that status if the project were to get up. There will also be module editor software that runs on a wider variety of platforms such as PCs.

In fact, the more that I read about the planned project, the more interesting it sounds. An interactive real-time map showing the PCs location, and linked to the parts of the adventure that players could reach from that point, facilitating more open adventure designs. An optional “slaved” app for the PCs to use on their devices for tracking the adventure and creation of a campaign “diary”. Immediate access to all the (official) rules that you need to run an encounter that’s part of the adventure, plus illustrations, handouts, and props that can be digitally distributed to players.

Let’s be clear, here: this campaign is to finish the software which is at an advanced design stage, and develop a major multi-module adventure to be distributed with it, incorporating music and art. Back the creation of the module and you also get the software/apps that you need in order to use it, in other words, or back the creation of the software and you get a free module as well as the capability to use it for your own adventures. And, of course, if the system works as advertised, there’s nothing to stop people from making their home-grown adventures available to others. That could mean hundreds of new adventures each month that you can access for ideas.

I think that the potential upsides – if you have access to the required technology – make this worth taking a chance on. Sure, you can view documents on your existing technology without much trouble; but the potential interactivity and capability to avoid needing to go rules-hunting in the middle of the adventure make this approach potentially much more game-friendly.

Take a look by clicking on this link or on the illustration above.

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The Best Of 2012


2012 was another big year for Campaign Mastery. By year’s end, I was running the site on my own (with occasional support from co-Founder Johnn, for which I continue to be enormously grateful) and writing all the articles. This necessitated more of those articles containing my own campaign and adventure development – something tricky to accomplish without spilling the beans when your players are amongst the regular readers! There were three huge milestones – the 300,000th visitor, the 550,000th page view, and the 400th post. And, mid-year, the crowning highlight of the year, the ENnie nomination!

These achievements came on the back of continued strong growth in readers, and they came because the content continued to be very strong.

The Story Of Selection

It only gets harder to cull these down to a reasonable number. This was driven home to me rather forcefully when I examined the list of possible contenders from 2012. After a ruthless pruning, I was down to 46 great articles that I was trying to fit into 20 slots. Unsurprisingly, I just couldn’t do it, but it’s a wonderful problem to have!

I collected two sets of articles into series just so that I could point to the series’ page instead of the individual posts. I trimmed and culled and trimmed and culled some more, and got down to 32 items. I chose 18 must-have articles and series from that list, and had 14 contenders for the final 2 slots. I trimmed and culled a fourth time, and decided to inflate the size of the list to 25 entries, with 12 articles and series fighting to fit into the 8 remaining slots. And that’s where I got stuck.

None of the remaining articles was any more worthy of inclusion than any of the others. None were any less deserving, either. It was all, or none.

I compromised. The original 18, plus one of the 12, went into the official Best Of. And the remaining 11 (plus a ringer) have been placed in an “honorable mentions” sublist that forms a seperate part of the “best of” given below, and which is archived on the “Best Of” page as well, but which did NOT make the list in the RHS nav screen. They aren’t – quite – amongst the very very best of 2012 – but they are all good enough to make a list of “the very best”. If it weren’t for restrictions of practicality, they all would have made the cut.

So that’s how I split some hairs to achieve the list below.

Hey – any year with better than two “best of” qualifiers (counting series as individual posts) and more than one almost-as-good honorable mention (ditto) every month – that’s a good year by any definition!

The Best Of 2012

These are the 19 posts I’ve hand-picked as the best of 2012:


The 2012 Honorable Mentions

And these are the 11 almost-made-its, any of which could have filled the 20th slot in the Best-Of:


Okay, so this article is a couple of weeks later than the schedule I outlined in
The Best Of 2011.

Blame a couple of posts that had to be split up and posted on successive publishing dates instead of as one article, plus the Secrets Of Stylish Narrative series which was supposed to be three parts and ran to 5 plus an extra, out-of-sequence post. Either way, the end of October is close enough!

If all goes according to plan, sometime in mid-to-late February 2015 I’ll post the next part in this series listing “The Best Of 2013″. That should get me on schedule to make “The Best Of” an annual event starting somewhere around June 30, 2015!

If the posts are half as good as this collection, it will be another nightmare (of the kind that’s good to have, of course!)

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There’s Something About Undead – Blog Carnival Oct 2014


Halloween, things that go bump in the night, and all things spooky, creepy, scary, or just plain haunted. This month’s Blog Carnival, hosted by Scot Newbury at of Dice and Dragons is devoted to the subject… and this is Campaign Mastery’s contribution. BWAH-HA-HA-HAAA…

rpg blog carnival logo

I’ve got a problem with Undead, and I think it’s one that every good GM would share. Just what does the world look like to Undead?

You have to be able to answer this in order to choose what undead do when encountered. Even mindless creatures can only respond to what they perceive in the world around them, no matter how simplistic that world-view, and undead run the spectrum from essentially devoid of higher-functioning brains to frighteningly intelligent.

Everything that my body “consumes” in some way is something that I can sense. I can see, touch, smell, and taste food. I can see and touch clean water. I can feel air moving through my mouth when I breathe, especially if I do so forcefully, and can feel the pressure differential when I suck on something, such as a straw. I can feel sunlight on my face. If it’s essential to my continued existence, I have a way to sense it, because without that, survival is strictly a matter of blind chance.

Undead are usually viewed as consuming the life of their victims directly. The implication is that they can see or sense life. So it turns out that the relatively innocuous question with which I opened today’s article is just another way of restating the question. “What Is Life?”

Wow, that escalated quickly, didn’t it? In one of my very first articles at Campaign Mastery A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs, I advocated taking the time to answer the big questions because those answers would manifest in important and practical ways throughout the campaign. This is a perfect example of what I was talking about.

What is life?

So, rather than shying away from this rather tricky question, let’s try to answer it, at least so far as a game is concerned. Note that if you offer a different answer to this rather fundamental question, you may get completely different answers to the corollary questions spilling out of the magic box of speculation!

The state-change from alive to dead

To answer any question this profound, you need an avenue of insight, a way to get a grip on what is presently a very tenuous issue. One of the most useful such avenues that I have found, from a game perspective, is the question of an afterlife.

There are three basic models of the D&D / Pathfinder universe that are differentiated by answers to that question.

  • There is an afterlife of some sort where souls go after death;
  • Souls are reincarnated into new bodies;
  • There is no afterlife, and dead is dead.

If there is an afterlife, then the property of being alive relates to a connection between whatever goes to the afterlife – call it the soul if you wish – and the physical body.

If there is reincarnation, then the property of being alive relates to a connection between whatever gets attached to the next incarnation and the physical body. To all intents and purposes, for the purposes of this particular line of inquiry, there is no difference between these two.

If there is no afterlife, then Life is some form of energy that is present when someone is alive and that is lost or dissipated on death. Whatever that form of energy is will have a profound impact on the question, but however you slice it, this is a fundamentally different answer to the first two. So let’s set it aside, for now, and deal with the more common answer first.

A receptacle for positive energy

D&D / Pathfinder employ the concepts of “Negative” and “Positive” energies without really putting enough salt on the tail of these constructs. These essentially describe energy fields of some sort that can be manipulated directly by various forms of magic, but that form an inherent connection to the motivational force within the body. Life draws vitality from positive energy, while undeath (in most of its forms) draws vitality from negative energy. It is this capability that is lost when the body dies, so this is a property of the Soul or the Spirit or whatever you want to name that part of the person that persists into the afterlife.

By virtue of that ability, the spirit is nourished and sustained by the ambient positive energy within the environment, and – arguably – so is the connection between living being and soul or spirit. Undeath, by drawing upon an opposing ambient energy, is disruptive upon contact with positive energy.

So far, so good. These answers are all fairly conventional as far as the underlying game “physics” of the D&D / Pathfinder universe goes. It’s only when you look a little closer at the specifics that it begins to fall apart.

Equal and Opposite?

I want to plant a couple of thoughts at this point so that it can lurk in the shadows of the conversation for a while. I’ll come back to them later in the discussion, if all goes according to plan!


Most people associate the terms “Positive” and “Negative” with the labels for electrical potential terminals on a battery, and this shapes the way we think about these artificial constructs of the Fantasy World. Superficially, this makes some sense, provided that you treat the battery terminals as being fundamental opposites; as soon as you look at what these ‘battery terminals’ actually are, the picture begins to fail. Specifically, if you slice a battery in half so that each half has only one terminal, the battery stops working. You actually need both types of terminal for anything to happen, and in fact, the process of dividing the battery creates a new opposing terminal; they always come in pairs, it’s simply a question of engineering a connection point between both ends of a potential electrical energy flow from one terminal to the other that creates the other “terminal”.

In other words, the visible battery terminals are simply connecting points, and “Positive” and “Negative” are simply different “ends” of a single potential process. There are two alternative ways to interpret the battery analogy – either it’s correct, or it’s not.

The first holds a definite appeal to the modern mind, because we are used to natural cycles in the processes that make up the world around us. The water cycle – sea evaporation to clouds to rain to rivers to seas again. The Oxygen-Carbon Dioxide cycle that shows animals in symbiosis with plants. The Nitrogen cycle. Why not a positive-energy-negative-energy cycle, with living beings forming the bridge from positive to negative (ie ‘used’) energy?

The alternative also has its attractions, because it is more in keeping with the world-views of the civilizations that existed prior to the discovery of these natural cycles. The water cycle was known, but it was a unique property of that essential liquid.

Not going anywhere with this just yet, just wanted to put it on the reader’s radar as context for other discussions. Personally, I like the confluence of the battery analogy and the reincarnation cycle as an abstract concept, it seems to have some artistry to it, but that’s neither here nor there.


As soon as we start talking about “opposing forces”, there is an inherent assumption that the two must be equal in potential. This notion is appealing; with fewer individuals drawing on negative energy, there is potentially much more available per individual, justifying undead as a kind of super-being. And that’s a proposition that explains why some individuals deliberately choose to become undead. This concept stems from the concept that there is an equilibrium between these forces, giving PCs something to defend and NPCs something to upset. From a narrative point of view, there is a lot to make the notion appealing.

What is alive?

Having planted those two thoughts in the back of the reader’s minds, let’s get back to what’s wrong with the “positive vs negative” concept as an answer to the question of “what is life”.

Are trees alive? Can Undead subside by consuming this life? This question immediately throws the simple model into a state of confusion, introducing the need for some point of distinction between the life of a tree and that of a person – and most of the possible points of differentiation, such as sentience, are rapidly undermined in many fantasy games. If Elves and Druids can communicate with plants, in however limited a fashion, then plants must be sentient in some way, and so sentience ceases to function as a point of difference.

Ain’t Got No Soul

The most obvious answer is that trees and animals have no souls. But this seems to contradict one of the central tenets of the broader “reincarnation” model, so it is only viable in a “with-afterlife” game world.

Concentration Of Life Force

One possible answer exists when one considers the “consumption” of life force by Undead. Living things need food and water and air in addition to the positive energy that makes them alive. Undead need none of these, substituting negative energy at all turns for these needs. This decreases their vulnerability by making them dependent on fewer environmental resources, but at the same time it increases their dependence on a form of energy – negative energy – that can be disrupted without harming non-undead. In effect, they place all their energy “eggs” in the one basket. While this answers the immediate problem, it does so by undermining the appeal of undeath implied by “equal and opposite”. As an answer, then, it is – at best – incomplete.

Rate Of Energy Flow

The “battery analogy” can actually come to our rescue by proposing an alternative solution. Rather than the energy concentration being the reason for the inability of trees and lesser life forms to supply the “needs” of Undeath, perhaps it’s rate of energy flow. Trees, being long-lived and slow-moving (like, not at all under most circumstances) need only a trickle of positive energy. Smaller animals “consume” their energies more quickly, but their small size means that they actually need even less. A tree might have as much overall positive energy flow as a field mouse, for example; much more than an insect, but still minuscule.

Since undead sublimate all their other energy needs into the one “need”, it follows that they must consume more negative energy to sustain themselves than a living being must consume positive energy. The implication is that only larger creatures have enough positive energy flow to satisfy them.

Hold on – Undead consume more negative energy so they need more positive energy? There’s a hole in our logic, somewhere. I’ll come back to this in a moment. But first:

The Elvish Problem

While we’re at it, here’s another curly one: If Elves can’t be reincarnated (which is the state of D&D affairs pre-3.0), do they have souls? If no, why aren’t they immune to the “touch” of undeath; if yes, why can’t they be reincarnated? In other words, are Elves alive? Or are they some manifestation of the forests and environments in which they live?

There are multiple possible answers to this problem. One is to say that elves do not have an individual life force in the manner that humans do, but instead exist in some symbiotic relationship with the collective life force of their environment – redefining the entire species in the process. If the connection between individual elf and the collective can be disrupted by undead, this covers all the bases.

Another solution to this question is to invent some reason why Elves can’t be reincarnated even though they fulfill all the requirements for having that capacity. If their life-force is bound more tightly to their spirits than is the case for humans (stealing a concept from chemistry), that might work, though it should influence their level of vulnerability to undeath.

Still a third possibility is that Elves do not have Spirits or Souls per se, but nourish their living beings directly from positive energy – as though receiving continual positive energy transfusions instead of having to digest their “food”.

Bound up in, but not addressed by, this discussion are the questions of Elvish Immortality and Mortality in general.

Other answers could no doubt be contrived. But these are proof enough that answers to the problem can be devised, so that’s enough for now. Let’s move on.

The Living-Undeath relationship

The breakdown of logic in the discussion of “Rate Of Energy Flow” as a solution to the question of why Undead could not be sustained by the consumption of the life of trees has brought us face-to-face with a major problem, one that threatens to destabilize everything that’s been considered so far.

Some of the analyses of this state of existence have been founded on the notion of undead living on negative energy, and others have implicitly assumed that they stole life force from the living. This elemental contradiction is at the heart of my undead quandary. The central problem is this: what is the relationship between living and undead?

As usual, multiple solutions present themselves to me for consideration.

Moths To A Flame

The simplest answer, and one that works for low-level undead, is that they are drawn to the living as moths to a flame. They contain negative energy, and the living contain positive energy, and the two are drawn to each other because they are opposing forces. The implication of this answer, which many GMs have used, is that the touch of Undeath is as disrupting to the undead as it is to the living, and that simply doesn’t fit the modus operandi of Undead in any version of the game.

This answer uses the annihilation of matter by anti-matter as an analogy for the relationship between positive and negative energy. Which sounds all nice and dramatic, but such annihilation transforms the two states of matter into energy; what becomes of the positive and negative energy that mutually annihilate?

Having failed on all fronts, this view must be abandoned.

Overcoming of Positive Potential

A more complex version might solve the problems, though. What if negative energy did not exist, per se, but instead was the absence of positive energy? This concept has its roots in the Plum-Pudding model of the atom, a positive energy field with negative “holes” in it. As positive energy is consumed by the living, it is constantly replenished from the “universal store” of positive energy, but the transformation into a state of undeath denies that replenishment to the Undead; accordingly, they need to get their positive energy by stealing it from the living. If their net positive-energy “debt” is supplied externally, by clerical magics, the undead cease to exist as “unliving” beings, but simply stealing the life from a living being is only enough to meet their immediate consumption needs; if they steal too much from the living, those living specimens, devoid of positive energy, become new undead, losing their connection to the universal store.

Under this model, low-level undead are instinctively seeking to end their own existence within this state, but the paltry lives they can consume are in no way adequate to their needs because of the greater consumption rates suggested earlier, so all they end up doing is creating more of their own kind.

Low-level undead are analogous to a cancer growing perpetually within the collective class of “living things”. The greatest exemplar of this class of Undead is the lycanthrope, because they retain their native sentience and connection to the replenishing positive energy flow at least part of the time, but remain net energy sinks because strength and invulnerability to normal weapons increases their consumption of energy to a greater level than the replenishment can provide. I would also suggest that the sense of greater power that results might be addictive. Possible links to the moon and the night remain to be explained, as does the vulnerability to silver, but this is at least a working model.

High-level undead – Vampires and Liches – are a different story to the lower types. It can be suggested that they use the negative energy within their bodies to “block”, in part or in whole, the replenishing flow from mortals, diverting the positive energy flow for their own use, Thus, they harvest the living, functioning as parasites. But the potential for many such flows to be diverted to the benefit of the one, conferring great personal power and a limited form of immortality, explain both the great power of these undead and the attractiveness of the condition to certain personality types. What’s more, this positive energy surplus would explain how they are able to force the subservience of lesser undead, including Vampiric thralls.

Light At The End Of The Mausoleum

The preceding holds great promise as a solution to the general questions of “What is life?”, “What are Undead?”, “Can Undead consume the life of Trees?”, and so on. With this as a starting point, it would be possible to backtrack through the earlier discussions, winnowing out those suggestions that don’t fit the solution, adapting those that almost fit, and progressing to resolve questions that aren’t directly answered by the proposition.

It’s not the only possible solution; you can derive a very different set of answers by considering the negative energy of Undead as a waste product that they are attempting to rid themselves of, a set of answers that has less pathos and more villainous overtones.

Furthermore, this answer works even if there is no afterlife; it is broad enough to survive the removal of that concept, though some of the fine details might change.

Where there’s one answer, there are many; this is a principle that underpins most of my adventures, and that I have enunciated many times in these pages. There are enough solutions that each campaign and GM can evolve a unique set of solutions; this particular answer is not one that I’ve used in any of my campaigns, probably because this is the first time that I’ve ever looked at it with the undead question as my starting point before (I usually start with “What is Clerical Magic” or “What are the Gods?”).

The first step is always asking the question. Only then can you construct an answer, whose implications will then shape the campaign around it. The only certainty is that the cosmological model of the standard D&D / Pathfinder game is inadequate and incomplete – and, by permitting differentiation of campaigns and concepts, that’s perhaps a good thing.

What are Undead, that thou art mindful of them?

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Race To The Moon – a lesson in story structure


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

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

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

The Quote

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

The Makings Of A Hero

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

And that’s the end of the story.

The Apollo Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Apollo

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

The Emergency In Space

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

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

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

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

The Sublimation Of Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

The Relevance to RPGs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applying the Theory

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

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

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Memorials To History – an ‘a good name’ extra


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

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

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

All this is a tremendous wasted opportunity.

Foundations in History

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plot Integration

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

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

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

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

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Abandoned Islands – Iconic Adventure Settings


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

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

Abandoned Islands in a Modern setting

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

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

Abandoned Islands in a Fantasy setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using Real Locations

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

Finding Places

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

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

Google Image Search Tips & Tricks:

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

Google Images 1

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

The List

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

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