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Pickin’ and Choosin’: Cherry-picking RPG Elements

Paint color swatches

When you have so many choices, you have to choose wisely.
(image: / Jenny Kennedy-Olson)

To begin this article, I need to share a story and a recent insight relating to it. Bear with me, and it will all become relevant in the end…

An excerpt from my musical history

When I was growing up, the family lived first 38 miles (61 km) out of, and then within, a small country town in rural New South Wales (as I described in Location, Location, Location: Nyngan). Music was something that was played on the radio, or very occasionally on the TV (two channels), or that came on Vinyl, my aunt Lyn’s 45 rpm collection in particular, and later another Aunt’s 8-track. Live music? No such thing.

This foundation forever colored my expectations and experience of music. Recorded music was all about the LP, the best parts of which (in the opinion of the artist [in my more naive period] / record company [from about 12 years old]) were excerpted to be singles, choices I didn’t always agree with. I was 4 or 5 years old when I got a wind-up record player for Christmas (from memory, it broke fairly quickly) and a couple of LPs – I remember a Ray Brown And The Whispers, though I am no longer sure which – I suspect it may have been their 1968 compilation album “hits & more 1965-1968” but I’m not sure.

Growth in interest

The family had a more substantial record player from about when I was 11, and it was about then that Countdown started on TV and I became more seriously aware of music. For birthdays and Christmas and occasionally from saved pocket money (though most of mine went on Comics), the occasional K-Tel compilation album entered my collection, mostly with lurid names like “Explosive Hits ’73” and “Ripper ’76”. I still have almost all of these!

At about the age of 15 or 16, I got a high-quality cassette player (separate bass and tone controls!) through Reader’s Digest (thanks to my Grandmother), and joined a record club, beginning to buy LPs of my own. But by this point, my conceptual foundation of music was fairly strongly established.

Perceptions Of Music

I viewed albums as a collection of songs from which I was quite happy to cherry-pick the ones that I liked while ignoring those that did not interest me. The rawness of live albums was a turn-off (and still is), not a vehicle for capturing the excitement of a live performance.

The songs on an album were not like the chapters in a book, which needed to be read in sequence to understand the story; they were an anthology of short stories which could individually be taken or left. I even evolved a rating system to guide me in what albums were worth buying, given my limited income – one out of 5 for each previous album by the artist containing at least 3 songs that I liked, and one out of five for every song from the album that I heard and liked; the pass-mark started at 4, and moved either up or down depending on my financial state at the time.

Reactions & Alternate Perceptions

This attitude totally horrified some people that I met online in the late 90s, who insisted that albums needed to be thought of as a conceptual whole with a defined beginning, middle, and end, and could not be properly appreciated in the sort of piecemeal fashion that was my habit. While I was prepared to concede the point in terms of some exceptions, notably concept albums that told a deliberate story in sequential fashion like “The Wall”, for the most part an album simply happened to be the best songs available to the artist at the time, and what I liked was simply what I liked.

It was certainly a very different perspective than that of my more urban contemporaries who grew up in one of the major cities. To many of them, live music was what mattered, and LPs were simply distillations of performances polished a bit for radio consumption. It was only when I began attending university in 1981 that I saw a rock band, live – from memory, it was a free concert on the grounds in front of the university Library, and I’m not even 100% sure of the name of the act. It would be many years before I became even an irregular concert-goer.

The benefits Of Shuffle-Mode

This was an attitude to music that was to yield unexpected benefits at times. I was an inveterate maker of compilations of my personal favorites, and became hyper-aware that some songs worked at the start of an album, some worked at the end, and some could not be paired with each other successfully, no matter how strong they might be on their own.

There have been albums that sounded totally rubbish to me the first time I listened to them. Toto’s “Fahrenheit” and Def Leppard’s “Slang” come immediately to mind as examples. Each contained one song that I thought was OK, and a lot of absolute rubbish. In both cases, it was only when I engaged shuffle mode on my CD player that I was able to listen to the songs on the album without each coloring my perceptions of the song that followed – and discovered (much to my surprise) that each contained 6 or 7 songs that were really enjoyable and interesting. If I had followed the maxim of “the whole album”, these would have been relegated to an undeserved fate on the scrap-heap.

This also mirrors my first experience with The Lord Of The Rings. Someone had checked “The Fellowship Of The Ring” out of the local Library and not returned it, so my first reading of the trilogy started with “The Two Towers”. One of my long-time friends has never read the books; he started with “Fellowship” and found it moving too slowly to retain his interest. Certainly, if I had started in that fashion, I might not have read the whole trilogy either. But, because I picked up the action mid-way through as it were, the relative slowness of “Fellowship” did not have a chance to contaminate my enjoyment, and when I finally read the first book, it was in the knowledge that it was leading to the books that I had already read and enjoyed.

The same thing happened with David Eddings’ pair of trilogies, The Elenium and The Tamuli. I had read and enjoyed The Belgariad and The Mallorean (each a five-book series), but the cover art and blurb for The Diamond Throne gave me the impression that it was a fantasy-oriented romance novel – which held zero interest for me. It was only when I was given a copy of The Shining Ones (fifth book in the double-trilogy) and quite enjoyed it that I became motivated to search out the earlier parts.

There’s a lesson in those experiences that’s worth remembering – if you start reading a book series or watching a TV show that has been very highly-rated and you can’t see what all the fuss was about, skip ahead a few chapters, or to the next book in the series. If you find what you read more enjoyable that what you were initially reading, you will then be motivated to go back and fill in the blanks.

In summary – three Perceptions

So there are three different ways of looking at an album of recorded music. The first is holistically; the whole, indivisible, and an album is only as strong as it’s weakest link; the second is as a polished representation of a dynamic process (live music), which exists only to further that dynamic process; and the third is the cherry-picking approach, where each piece of content stands or falls on its own.

The RPG Parallel – 1

I look at a lot of things from a similar cherry-picking perspective. The rules of an RPG, for example.

There is, in my view, a hierarchical structure to RPG rules: The whole body of rules that are in effect is divided into Mechanics Systems, which may be sub-subdivided into Mechanics Subsystems, both of which are sub-sub-subdivided into Textual Information, Mechanics Operations and Tabulated Data Points, the latter of which may reflect some function of a defined variable.

That might not be all that clear, so let me offer a real-life example from 3.x / Pathfinder:

  • The whole body of rules = (for simplicity) the Core Rulebooks
  • One Mechanics System would be the combat resolution system. Another would be the magic system.
  • The combat resolution system is divided into mechanics subsystems for initiative & surprise, for attack resolution, for damage resolution, for hit point (i.e. damage capacity) and for damage recovery (amongst others).
  • The attack resolution subsystem is sub-subdivided into mechanical operations for calculating Armor Class and another for calculating attack bonus, plus a table of tactical effects and modifiers, plus textual information in the form of feats which, if in operation, can modify the rules and/or their application.

I am perfectly happy to cherry-pick alternatives to any of these, with the scope of the rules layer defining the consequences in terms of affected game mechanics. I might:

  • Change the way a feat works, or add an additional feat; and/or
  • Change one or more of the tactical modifiers, or add some new ones; and/or
  • Replace the armor table with a different one;
  • Change one or more of the mechanical operations, for example changing the way Armor Class is calculated; and/or
  • Change the way dice rolls are interpreted to resolve attacks, incorporating a more lenient critical hit/fumble system for example; and/or
  • Change the way hit points are calculated to make characters more or less vulnerable to a successful attack; or even,
  • Replace the entire combat system with one adapted from some other RPG, for example Rolemaster.

Of course, I probably wouldn’t do all these things; priority would be given to those parts of the system that don’t work very well, in terms of in-play efficiency, such as the rules for grappling. Second priority goes to anything that brings about a desired change in game balance or flavor; and so on.

The rules are a jigsaw puzzle of pieces made of putty, all with the same shape but with different images on them, and by changing the content of some (and, if necessary, stretching it out of shape to make it fit) I can change part or all of the “image” that results.

In other words, I cherry-pick the rules that I dislike or that get in the way of the campaign that I want to run, and cut them out – replacing them with something else if necessary.

And, just as with music, there are are people out there who are horrified by this approach, believing that the rules are sacrosanct, and that making any of these changes means that the game is not D&D / Pathfinder any more; and there are those who go even further than I do, sacrificing the “purity” of the game for a far simpler system that may be less precise but which operates far more quickly, increasing the excitement of a combat by discarding some of the nuance, polish, and detail. Heck, I do that myself on a case-by-case basis, going into “cinematic mode” when the excitement of a situation is worth compromising the reality-simulation of detail for.

Arguing about rules is like arguing over what style of music is best. It’s impossible for anyone to say “this system is the best” because we all use different standards and have different criteria by which we render an absolutely subjective and often instinctive judgment; which means, of course, that as soon as such an opinion is disagreed with, we automatically become defensive and try to justify and rationalize those judgments. What’s more, because this response is so primal, it can lead to people becoming wedded to their positions against all logic and discounting the opinions of anyone who disagrees with them. That’s the ugly psychological truth at the bottom of every edition war that there has ever been.

The RPG Parallel – 2

The adventures in a campaign are full of cherry-picking when you write them the way I do. Readers should have noted the way I synopsized scenes into one-line summaries in the course of Character Incapability: The distant side of the coin last week; but when it comes to a finished adventure, there is a lot of cherry-picking that goes on.

In particular, cherry-picking occurs in three major respects:

  1. The sequence in which a series of scenes occurs;
  2. The entry point into a scene;
  3. The exit point from a scene.

To demonstrate my point, and talk about how and why I cherry-pick events in these respects, I’m going to revisit the plot of the Adventurer’s Club adventure that is currently underway, focusing on the part of the adventure that has just been played. Once again, I’m going to synopsize it, but into less generic and abstract terminology than I did in the “Character Incapability” article. In effect, this is reverse-engineering the adventure as written and as played, because these one-line summaries are essentially the outlines that were used to write each scene in detail. I’m going to annotate the one-line scene summaries with notations like (PC) and (NPC) (so that readers know who’s who) and from time to time interject commentary about the events described, which I will place in a box.

All set? Then let’s begin:

Annotated Synopsis & Analysis of “Boom Town” session 1
  • Adventure prelude – show growth of Manhattan over 50 years through illustrations. Reputation of New York City is world-wide as “The Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps, the financial capital of the world, the economic powerhouse of America, the place where something is ALWAYS happening.”
  • Intro adventure. Note that it is set in early January.

The Prelude highlights one possible interpretation of the title.

  • Scene 1a: The 54th Street Mission (Picture):
    • Remind Father O’malley (PC) he shares the rectory with Father Brian Donnelly (NPC) (Picture).
    • Father O’malley (PC) reading the newspaper. Loud crash from the kitchen, breakables break.
    • Dialogue from Father Donnelly (NPC, Irish Accent) – “I’m OK”, “it was a huge rat”.
    • Briefly roleplay interaction and decision of action by Father O’Malley (PC).
  • Scene 1b: At The Adventurer’s Club:
    • Stefan (PC) is having breakfast in the Dining Room (Picture)
    • …is interrupted by loud yelling from Trish’s (NPC, Picture) Office, demanding Exterminators act immediately. Mention of American Heart Association’s Tenth Anniversary Dinner which she is organizing.
    • Briefly roleplay interaction between them.

A couple of notes:

  • While each of these scenes only has one PC present, they are “public” and conducted within the hearing of all the other players. This enables me to cherry-pick scenes on the assumption that the other players have heard what is going on.
  • Because the scenes all share the one narrative purpose, they are “1a”,”1b” and so on, and not “1”,”2″, etc.
  • The American Heart Association’s 10th Anniversary Dinner will be a connecting point to other, later scenes.
  • And these are all considered part of the one larger Scene 1 in that each establishes where the PCs are and what they are doing at the start of the adventure.
  • Scene 1c: At The Adventurer’s Club:
    • Dr Hawke (PC, show picture for the 1st time) is in his room (picture), reading the newspaper.
    • A knock on his door; it’s Roger Deitz (NPC, Picture), the official administrator of the club. Asks to consult.
    • Roger wants advice on an effective rat poison that is safe for humans to be around, especially in food preparation areas.
    • Briefly roleplay interaction between them.

This reminds the players (especially the player of Dr Hawke) of the PC’s levels of forensic expertise and again mentions rats, forming a recurring theme common to each of the PCs.

  • Scene 1d: At the Docks that afternoon:
    • Captain Ferguson (PC) watching arrival of Antares (his ship); what the Antares has been doing.
    • Ferguson starts up the gangplank to board the ship. “Grey explosion of fur” erupts from sewer drainpipes and swarm of rats runs up the mooring line toward the ship. Overload the Vermin Shield, rats get aboard.
    • Briefly roleplay his actions/dialogue with ships’ crew (NPCs).

By now it’s obvious to the players that there’s a rat problem being established within the city at this point in time. This scene acknowledges this and suggests that the problem may be larger than anyone expects. It also progresses the timeline.

  • Scene 1e: At The Adventurer’s Club
    • Eliza (PC, picture) is in her room (picture) preparing to bathe.
    • Encounter with a large rat standing on the side of the tub.

Intros the last of the PCs and develops the theme established so far.

  • Scene 2, narrative introduction:
    • Newspapers that evening are full of reports of the rat plague. Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia promises swift action, makes light of the problem.
    • That night, a winter storm dumps 3 feet of snow overnight. Snowploughs clear the streets by piling the snow into drifts 5-8′ tall alongside the footpaths, reducing most streets to single-lane traffic.
    • The next day is unseasonably warmth. Storm drains flood.
    • A number of churches hold special services to thank God for the snowfall-and-sunshine combination, which seems sure to have drowned the rats plaguing the city.
  • Scene 2a: Father O’Malley (PC) is asked to preside over 3 of these services, the heaviest ecclesiastic workload he’s had in years. Briefly roleplay.
  • Scene 2b: Captain Ferguson (PC) is inclined to refuel Antares and go elsewhere, but can’t because many other boat owners have the same idea, over-stretching capacity. (interact with player) That afternoon, as the storm-water drains empty into the harbor, the outflow is accompanied by wave after wave of dead rats (action decision by player).
  • Scene 2c: Stefan (PC) is approached by Roger Deitz (NPC) and asked to inspect the drainage in the underground car park which is flooded. Roleplay until he agrees, then cut to:
  • Scene 2d: Eliza (PC) is asked to see Trish (NPC) and asked to run an errand and check on preparations at the Algonquin Hotel (about 1 block from the club) where The American Heart Associations Tenth Anniversary Dinner is to be held. Mention effects on travel arrangements because of the snowfall. Roleplay until she agrees.

Scene 2 advances the timeline still further.

The narrative introduction was deliberately designed to segue naturally into the first PC sub-scene.

There are two NPCs who have a second appearance.

Again, each of these serves the same narrative function within the plot so they are all considered part of the one scene: Establishing each of the PCs being affected by the situation (bar Dr Hawke). We could have done a little sub-scene for him, too, but that sequence was cherry-picked out of the adventure because Dr Hawke gets a big chunk of spotlight time shortly in the adventure and it didn’t add anything new to the plot.

Instead, we seamlessly continue following Eliza.

  • Scene 3a: Eliza (PC) at the Algonquin Hotel: Show hotel (exterior & interior) to establish that it is top-quality. Intro head waiter, Thomas Mitchell (NPC, Picture). He reports that the stored linen has been eaten by rats and the usual linen, while washed, might not dry in time. And he’s a bit concerned over the unusual state of some of the rat corpses. CUT TO:
  • Scene 3b: Father O’Malley (PC) is between services. Father Donnelly (NPC) congratulates him for choosing such a successful poison for the rats. There’s only one problem: Father O’Malley has not yet done anything about the rats. Roleplay, let Fr O’malley confirm with his own eyes. CUT TO:
  • Scene 3c: Captain Ferguson (PC) in the New York Harbor-master’s Office (Picture) negotiating with the Harbor-master (NPC, picture) when he notices a dead rat on the floor. It seems to be in an unusual state of advanced decomposition (picture). Ferguson knows the Harbor-master to be fussy about the office being thoroughly cleaned, daily – the rat could not possibly have been there long enough to decompose in this fashion. Something *else* is going on. CUT TO
  • Scene 3d: Stefan (PC) at the Adventurer’s Club: In the club basement (picture). Stefan’s professional assessment is that it’s flooded, and needs pumping out before a professional could look at improving the drainage. Mention Dr Tesla (who has a lab in the Club) just for the color. He spots a rat floating past, quite dead, but something about it seems strange – he can’t quite put his finger on what it is. A medical inspection might provide answers. Roleplay, let him “capture” the floating rat to get it inspected by Dr Hawke.

A deliberate acceleration of pace, quickly interchanging between the different PCs, raises the intensity of the situation and connects each sub-scene to the one that follows it.

We also chose to start the Harbor-master scene mid-way through the encounter between Captain Ferguson and the Harbor-master for pacing reasons – in effect, cherry-picking just the second half of that scene, which is the only part that is relevant to the adventure. This further quickens the pace.

Similarly, we didn’t pay attention to any preparations Stefan might have made for his inspection (though the player mentioned them) and did not require any engineering check to get his assessment of the situation, joining the character after the inspection had taken place.

Dr Hawke is again name-checked but not featured. By now the players can tell that we’ve just about finished establishing the particulars of the situation and are gradually loosening the reigns and permitting them greater freedom of action; once that process is complete, the players will have total control over what their characters say and do about the situation. Nor do we tell the player of Stefan

Observe that the narrative in each scene extends the overall plot just a little – something strange is reported without specifics in 3a, a strangeness about the circumstances is indicated in 3b and reinforced in 3c, which also contains a description of the strangeness, which leads to the obvious course of action in 3d. Having established the beginning of the adventure, with the PCs apart living their normal daily lives, the next step is to gather them all together to tackle the problem as a group.

  • Scene 4a: Eliza (PC) at the Algonquin Hotel: being shown a rat that seems to have died quite some time ago – days, if not weeks. And that seems very unlikely given the state of cleanliness of the rest of the hotel. There’s something *wrong* about it. It might be a good idea to have Dr Hawke take a look at what’s left of the rat. Roleplay briefly.
  • Scene 4b: Captain Ferguson (PC) is thinking along similar lines. Roleplay briefly.
  • Scene 4c: Father O’Malley (PC), you also are contemplating the professional services of the good Doctor. Roleplay briefly.
  • Narrative intro to scene 5: The order they are most likely to arrive in is: Stefan, Eliza, Captain Ferguson, and lastly Fr O’Malley; Stefan is in the same building, Eliza has two blocks’ walk, Captain Ferguson is at the Turtle Bay Docks, about 8 city blocks away, and Fr O’Malley is almost exactly a mile from the club premises. Show them where these locations are, relative to the Club.

While these sequences are short, they help establish the game world and give the players travel times to the club (under normal conditions), information that they can use to base future decisions on. Many of these details had been left vague through the 23 adventures that had preceded this one.

  • Scene 5a: Dr Hawke (PC) in the Adventurer’s Club Dining Room is just finishing lunch (Spaghetti Bolognese). Stefan arrives with his captured rat corpse in a toolbox. Roleplay – they decide to take the remains to the Zoology lab (next to Taxidermy) on the 6th floor.
  • Scene 5b: Intro the Lab Assistant, Winston “Gus” Osgood (NPC). Roleplay.
  • Scene 5c: At first glance, Dr Hawke can ascertain that the rat appeared to have died about a week ago, give or take – rodents aren’t his specialty.
  • Scene 5d: Closer inspection (and a successful Forensics roll at penalties) shows that the rat died from drowning in fresh water. Problem: there wasn’t enough fresh water to drown the rat until this morning, yet it’s been dead a week or so.
  • Scene 5e: Eliza arrives with her rat (on a silver platter covered by a closh). It appears to have died a week or so ago. Examination (Forensic Medicine roll) shows that it died of a broken back after someone with big feet stepped on it. Problem: Week-dead rats don’t normally appear in the middle of cleaned rooms a week after being trodden on.
  • Scene 5f: Captain Ferguson arrives (with rat in an old shoe wrapped in newspaper). It appears to have died a week or so ago. It’s fur is still wet with Salt Water. Examination (Forensic Medicine roll) shows that it also drowned in fresh water. Problem: week-dead rats don’t normally appear in the middle of cleaned rooms, and they certainly don’t do so recently enough that their fur is still damp.
  • Scene 5g: Father O’Malley arrives (with rat in an old shoe-box). It appears to have died a week or so ago. Examination (Forensic Medicine roll) shows that it died from poisoning of some sort that Dr Hawke has never seen before. Problem: Father O’Malley can state with certainty that nothing of the sort has been present in the Mission’s Basement.
  • Scene 5h: Roleplay the PCs discussing the issue.

Captain Ferguson was one of the key drivers of this discussion; his visits to various backwater pacific ports had left him acquainted with the problems that dead rats could cause, and the player asked a couple of critical questions about the drainage in Manhattan (from the middle outward in all directions, rather than predominantly from one side).

  • Scene 5i: Taking a closer look (with a magnifying glass or microscope) reveals that each rat is decaying at a far faster rate than normal, for reasons unknown, from the inside out – it has evidently been exposed to something unusual, probably through consumption. Furthermore, there is no strong odor of decomposition, suggestive of a chemical process and not a biological one. This was further indicated when Dr Hawke examined one of the dead rats further and found that flies had in fact lain eggs in the body, but whatever had killed the rats had also killed the unhatched larvae, and found that fleas on the hotel and Mission rats had died before having a chance to leave the corpses. Plague was not going to be a problem.
  • Scene 5j: Roleplay discussion of this finding.
  • Scene 5k: Prompt further discussion by pointing out that the same substance X has appeared in three distinctly separated parts of the city. Even if the PCs discount the docks because the rats have come from elsewhere through the sewer, that still leaves a large area affected by whatever is happening – and if it can affect people, it puts a lot of people at risk.
  • *** Using what they know of where storm water drains empty, the PC with the highest City Knowledge: New York City (this turns out to be Father O’Malley) can assess the absolute minimum area affected by whatever caused the rats to decay on a successful roll – show map of the minimum affected area. Prompt concerns that should affect each PC while leaving it up to the players whether they do or not, and how they are going to react:
    • Dr Hawke, there are a lot of people who live in that area, which should worry you.
    • Captain Ferguson, there are even more who work in that area. Including your crew.
    • Stefan, the area affected is just a block or two away from the Hospital in which your daughter is going to be treated when she arrives, and where Dr Hawke is scheduled to perform surgery on her in just a few days – and you don’t know the full extent of the problem yet.
    • Father O’malley, many of the people residing in the affected area are amongst the poorest in the city, including the congregation that you and Father Donnelly minister to. They can cope least well with an additional burden, and are less likely to report a problem and receive medical attention. And that doesn’t even count Father Donnelly himself.
    • Eliza, if things are as bad as they look, the US economy might well tank again, and spill effects would devastate *your* homeland’s economy (a reference to a potential recurrence of The Great Depression).
  • Roleplay further discussion until the players decide what to do. Answer questions and provide context and background as requested.

There was recurring discussion of Zombie Rats, but that was dismissed – for now, I’m still not sure the players are 100% ruling it out. Discussion of the worst-case scenario involved the need to evacuate and quarantine a band 8 or so blocks deep and right across Manhattan indefinitely, but even doing so temporarily as a precaution would be catastrophic. There was discussion of whether or not the American Heart Association Dinner was being targeted, but the problem was too widespread and indiscriminate for that.

As expected and anticipated, the immediate problems came down to three:

  • Immediate Problem #1: Does whatever did this affect humans the same way? How were they going to find out?
  • Immediate Problem #2: How much bigger is the affected area than the minimum? How were they going to find out?
  • Immediate Problem #3: Who are they notifying and what do they want them to do about it? Who were they going to call?

Discussion of these issues led to a plan to deal with each of them, and of assignments for each member.

Stefan was to get the staff of the Adventurer’s Club library searching for records of anything similar that had ever occurred, anywhere. Leaving them to the task, he was then to gain access to the sewers and attempt to locate a cause. Dr Hawke was to go to the city Morgue and examine bodies from as many different parts of the city as he could manage, looking especially at those cases with no obvious cause of death and any bodies that exhibited unusually rapid decay. Father O’Malley and Captain Ferguson were to bring Mayor LaGuadia into the picture and secure his assistance; police and emergency services needed to be warned, and plans made to implement the worst-case scenario. Eliza (who originally wanted to be on the ‘Mayor’ detail, but who would have been counterproductive as a Canadian) was to go to the hospitals and look for anything strange in their recent cases; the team knew that hospitals would not release medical information unless it was an emergency, and that only pressure from the Mayor’s Office would bring them to accept the urgency. The team were to meet back at the Adventurer’s Club in four hours for an update and to make new plans.

En route to these assignments, the team stopped in Trish’s office to tell her what was happening and get her to use her social connections to smooth their entry into the Mayor’s Office; at best, they would be told to ‘make an appointment’ otherwise, and knew it. Just as she hung up the phone after calling the Mayor’s office, “Gus” Osgood burst into the office with an urgent update: on a hunch, he had re-examined the body of the first rat, which Dr Hawke had preserved in Formaldehyde, and discovered that the process did nothing to halt the accelerated decay of the corpse; what was occurring was clearly a chemical process of some sort – and that posed a threat to the entire city if whatever it was got into the drinking water. With that news, and with a slightly clearer idea of what they were up against, the PCs split up and play concluded for the day.

Sidebar: You may be thinking that this sounds most unlike a Pulp plotline, and so far, you would be somewhat correct. But neither the readers nor the players yet know what is causing the problem, nor how big it really is. They are still grappling with effect and have not yet got any clues as to cause.

As you can see, there have been times where pacing and emotional intensity were enhanced by starting scenes part-way through, and times where the encounter was seen to develop naturally as a result of two characters being in the same place at the same time. There were times when we chose to leave an encounter before it was concluded in order to “check in” with another character. There have even been occasions where we were able to take a scene’s occurrence for granted, and skip over it completely because nothing interesting happened, joining the story later.

These techniques were especially useful when we had multiple PCs all discovering essentially the same information in multiple locations, more or less simultaniously – a situation that could have been incredibly tedious and repetitious if handled any other way.

Quite often, based on information on their daily routines obtained in the course of earlier adventures, we were able to tell the players what their character was doing before anything prior to any event of interest, letting those routines feed the PCs into the adventure in a seamless way until, at the end of the day’s play, the players are calling the shots for the PCs completely.

The sequence in which characters got their slice of spotlight exposure was no accident at any point, but was deliberately designed to share attention out equally, keep the plot developing, and segue naturally from one scene to another.

Each of the PCs made key contributions to the group’s understanding of the situation and its scope either by virtue of who they were and where they were based or through having skills that the others either lacked or did not have as much expertise in.

This session of play was built equally on what the characters could do (Character Capabilities), what they could not do (Character Incapability), and who they were as “individuals”.

This is a recipe that we will continue to employ throughout the adventure – cherry-picking the scenes that give the players a chance to play their characters and to progress the plotline. No scene was wasted; they all set something up for later in the day’s play if not contributing directly to the story.

That’s what Cherry-picking really is: selecting what matters from what doesn’t. And that’s why it’s a vital skill for the GM to master.

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Boogie to the tune of the hidden Mastermind in your ranks

Image by Barun Patro

It all starts with three NPCs…
(image: / Barun Patro)

You don’t have to read Campaign Mastery for very long to realize that I advocate careful planning, strategically targeted, in everything that I do.

That can become a problem when you want to have a villain who is smarter than you are and whose primary objective is not to be noticeable over the background chaos of events.

Well, I’ve already told readers how to run a Mastermind – I guess it’s about time I told them how to formulate a Mastermind’s Grand Plan.

I utilize a very different approach to what people might expect, one that plays a slow, organic buildup of the Mastermind – in reverse – so this might be something of a surprise…

The growth and nurturing of Masterminds

Masterminds develop and grow their power in a predictable pattern.

  1. Initially, they have nothing and are nothing, and are usually “broken” psychologically, socially, politically, or personally in some fashion. They may be an object of pity or reviled but are powerless and considered relatively harmless, possibly due to confinement.
  2. They then vanish into obscurity, and may even adopt an entirely new persona and/or name. They start gathering influence in small, local, ways, and initially do nothing but test their capabilities. Note that “local” must be interpreted in context; in the modern era, “local” might mean a small facebook following distributed quite widely in geographic terms.
  3. Their initial moves do nothing but alleviate their personal discomfort to some extent – this may be a little or a lot depending on their personality. The discomfort may be financial, physical, social, political, or psychological in nature (amongst others); it could be gaining free/cheap/discounted services, lifestyle accouterments like furniture, or ego-boosting “likes” from incipient followers. This phase establishes who they appear to be to the outward world – entrepreneur, clerk, playboy, recluse, whatever.
  4. They then start accumulating levers and resources. They may or may not have a grand vision in mind, but even if their ultimate ambition is clear, they don’t yet know how to achieve it.
  5. At some point, a critical threshold is crossed when they will evolve a definite plan to achieve their goals. Many Masterminds come a cropper at this point, setting this plan in motion as soon as it is devised; the smartest will wait for it to mature.
  6. The plan will utilize some of the resources they have gathered, and will mandate the acquisition of still more resources for specific parts of the plan. Any resources not allocated to the plan will be directed towards attaining those specific requirements. Once again, many Masterminds fall at this hurdle; for the first time, there is a pattern to their activities, and a pattern is detectable and traceable. Any resources that can’t be used to gather specific requirements and aren’t needed for the main plan are tasked by the really smart Mastermind with covering up/concealing the more serious activities.
  7. It’s during this period that the Mastermind comes to recognize the flaws and limitations of his early pawns, and that they know entirely too much; he has climbed up the mountain on their shoulders, but their usefulness is at an end, or is not worth the security risk imposed. The early underlings are eliminated in a way that leaves the Mastermind’s hands clean. He will often take the opportunity to reinvent both his identity and that of his organization. This step may need to be repeated two or three times. Each time, like a snake shedding its skin, a layer of the unwanted will be discarded. Each such purging carries risks, however, as they are hard to conceal. The Mastermind may even need to mothball his entire operation for a period of time in order to evade discovery during subsequent investigations. When the career of the Mastermind is examined in hindsight, this often marks the first time that he shows his true colors, the butterfly emerging from his formulative cocoon.
  8. This is a busy period for the really clever Mastermind. Not only must his basic plan be tested for flawed assumptions, but contingency plans must be made and the necessary resources assembled. One of the first – and another mistake that many Masterminds who have come this far make is leaving this too late – should be for his escape should something come unstuck, and right after that comes a plan (or several, if necessary) for handling public scrutiny should his organization be detected. Some Masterminds even construct a new organization around the first to provide a more palatable veneer that is then fed into the public consciousness in a carefully-controlled manner. It is also normal for Masterminds to disavow former associates and their policies (at least publicly) during this period of reinvention.
  9. Finally, during this phase, a backup plan should be designed, or if necessary, one for each possible way in which the primary plan could fail.
  10. Only when all these plans are complete, robust, and have all the resources they require, will the Mastermind push over the first domino. And if he has made no mistakes, and each part of his organization performs its function, success should – will? – follow automatically.

The Most Common Mistake

Quite obviously, this outline is broadly generalized. The mistake that many GMs make is that they attempt to follow the blueprint step by step in creating their Masterminds and their organizations.

While that creates a robustly detailed organization with a rich history, it forces the GM to jump through hoops to ensure that the organization doesn’t come to the attention of the authorities/PCs prematurely, and makes sense in the context of both their activities and events within the campaign.

It is far easier to work backwards from whatever stage the plot has achieved to meet the GM’s story needs. If, for example, he wants this Mastermind to get noticed just before all the pieces are in place, it’s far easier to create an organization at that stage of its development and work backwards.

The Seeding

Of course, for this type of organization to be credible, the GM has to create the impression that the organization has been lurking in plain sight, had anyone seen the pattern.

I solve this problem by seeding the campaign with Mastermind-plot elements without trying to create any sort of unified vision behind them, a fair distance removed from the culmination of the plot. I start with three NPCs. These should be seeded into the campaign naturally, and show up one at a time rather than in a group. One of these will either be, or have a direct connection to, the Mastermind, another will be a cats-paw being set up to be the fall guy should something come unstuck prematurely, and the third is simply a smokescreen, but I don’t know which is which.

I then identify at what point in the the Mastermind is at within the ten-stage growth pattern outlined above, and therefore what sort of activities will be required of the NPCs at this stage. I also make careful note of the number of growth stages between now and plot culmination; I need to “advance” the organization at appropriate times along the way.

The final part of the seeding is to identify a number of scenes in which these NPCs can make an appearance. These should be completely innocent of any connection to the Mastermind or his plans and have no purpose other than to establish the NPCs as an occasional presence within the campaign.

The Manipulations

Once the NPCs are established, I round-robin them being affected in circumstance by the Conspiracy/Mastermind. The actual effects on the NPCs are dictated by the point in the 10-point development cycle that the Conspiracy/Mastermind organization currently occupies.

  1. This more or less guarantees that one of the three NPCs is the Mastermind. Give two of them some baggage from the past – a youthful indiscretion of some sort – that comes back to haunt them. Let these NPCs then rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of the PCs & authorities. Quite obviously, you can’t have these incidents follow each other too quickly, so I put a “normal” encounter featuring the third NPC in between. This gives me two choices for who the Mastermind will turn out to be.
  2. One of the NPCs will receive a favor or benefit of some kind. For example, NPC1 does a favor for NPC2; if NPC1 turns out to be the Mastermind, this is to put NPC2 into their debt, if it’s NPC2 then this is a result of his manipulating NPC1, and if it’s NPC3 then this is just test of his abilities to orchestrate events. One of the three will then have a small win in a lottery or raffle, or receive a gift of some sort – it doesn’t matter which of the three it is.
  3. Each of the three NPCs will do something that earns them approval or a minor success outside of their professional capacity, perhaps after a failure or two. This could be anything from stand-up comedy to voicing a popular political opinion or getting their 100th twitter follower to getting a short story published. It’s something that overtly wins them supporters of some kind.
  4. One of the NPCs will work on behalf of a charity; one will help someone caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time evade punishment for something that they were only partially responsible for; and one will ‘accidentally’ learn a secret and give their word to keep it under their hat, so to speak (and will keep that promise).
    • NB: If “now” is at or beyond this point, each of the NPCs should also be given some huge ambition or desire. In the case of one, that will be his Mastermind ambition; in the case of a second, it will be sheer fantasy, shared with no-one; and in the case of the third, it will be the means by which the Mastermind gains control of them. These ambitions need not be sinister in nature; the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And sealed with greed.
  5. You can’t put it off any longer – once the Mastermind/Conspiracy reaches this point you have to pick one of the three to be the Mastermind, and another to be his patsy. I generally look for the most interesting fit between their ambition, how it might go wrong if it is altruistic in nature, and the plot in which the Conspiracy is to be resolved (I’ll talk about that a little later). The only overt change in behavior is that one will stop disagreeing with the other – though he may bitch about him or her behind their back. This should represent a minor change in their behavior.

    All three NPCs should also become increasingly busy at this time both in their professional capacity and outside interests; they should stop attending social functions (making their apologies) and lose touch with friends. People should start covering for them, doing them favors, etc. The third NPC (not Mastermind, not patsy) should suddenly find their world collapsing on them, driving them to the point of doing something desperate, thanks to the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Mastermind. The Mastermind then rats, with “heavy heart”, on the third NPC, and then feigns shock at the severity of the consequences. This is a calculated move to reinforce the appearance of solidarity between the Mastermind and the PCs.

  6. It’s during this phase that there should be some sort of setback to the Mastermind’s plans. This is when the Mastermind is most active with least protection, i.e. most vulnerable; something needs to go wrong to demonstrate this in hindsight, but (unless this is the phase in which the whole plot is to be resolved) whatever the problem is, it should not be irrecoverable after a bit of scrambling. Right now, the Mastermind is actively gathering specific resources that his plans require, whether they be loyal underlings in certain positions, control over corrupted authorities, finances, technologies, general manpower, or intelligence. Any of these can be the focus of the drama. Note that everything possible should be delegated to the patsy/flunky, who now becomes the figurehead. I can’t be more specific without knowing the details of the plot and the ambition – but here’s the magic: so many of these things are generic activities that you can have them taking place without knowing what the end purpose is. Masterminds gather secrets and followers like magpies! This is also a great time for an absolutely innocent encounter with the PCs that is completely unrelated to the Mastermind/Conspiracy plotline.
  7. Time for a good clean purge or two. If clumsily executed, this might lead to the exposure of the patsy; note that if this happens, the Mastermind can’t afford for the patsy to answer questions. It is for this reason that he ruined the third NPC; he arranges for that NPC to discover that the patsy was responsible for his ruination, and for the NPC to have an opportunity to take his revenge. Just in case that NPC can’t go through with it, or messes it up, the Mastermind has arranged for someone else to do the job for him, leaving evidence that implicates the victimized NPC. To the PCs, it should look like this is what you’ve been building toward all along; it’s important that you seem to bring the saga of the NPCs to what appears to be a closure.

    It may be necessary to reveal the existence of a plot or conspiracy of some sort, for several reasons, not least of which being that fear makes people far easier to manipulate. Some villains might have whole branches of their organizations that exist for no other purpose but to be discarded when it looks like the authorities are getting too close.

    A key principle is that the Mastermind will have any resources that he needs for any purpose other than actually achieving his ambition. If he needs to throw a pseudo-organization to the wolves, with a base of operations and a ‘mystery leader’ who none of the members can identify, the GM simply invents one – base, personnel, equipment, identity, goals, etc.

  8. With almost everything ready for the big reveal, this is another dangerous period for the Mastermind. Sheer scale and number of moving parts creates its own vulnerability, and it’s also easy to get so close to the finish line that one rushes to reach it, making a fatal mistake (for the plan) along the way. It’s time for another setback, something that teases the fact that the organization dealt with in the previous phase wasn’t the whole thing, and at least part of it survived.
  9. Suddenly, things should go quiet. While the op-tempo of the organization may have increased so slowly as to not be noticeable, the sudden calm should be fairly obvious. What’s more, this calm should not only affect the PCs; all sorts of other groups should pick up on the “vibe” of something big being in the wind. The ambitious should start nosing around for a way to get in on the action, if there is anything in it for them, for example, while more cautious groups might go to ground.

    Your goal at this point should be to build tension.

  10. Everything is ready – it’s time to put things in motion. If things get this far, there will of course turn out to be something that the NPC has overlooked, a hole through which the PCs can crawl, reducing the grand plan to tatters in the process.

The Master Plan

The great advantage of having everything that happens be defined in generic terms is that you don’t need to define the plan until the PCs discover it. When they do, you know how close to “ready” the Mastermind is, and can simply determine from that what resources the Mastermind has for the PCs to discover (sometimes the hard way).

It is critically important that the preparations that the Mastermind has been putting in place are what he needs to achieve his ambition, whatever it is. Work backwards from the goal and work out what the Mastermind needs, then assume retroactively that he has obtained however much of whatever he needs is indicated by his “readiness to proceed”. You neither know nor care how he got them; the fact is simply a fait accompli.

The Real Master Plan

I’ve stated that the ultimate plotline for which you need the Mastermind should be a driving factor in all your decisions. Do you want the plot to fail at the final hurdle because the Mastermind has overlooked something, or because there is some new factor that he has not taken into account? Do you want him to abandon his plans and ally with the PCs in the face of some still-greater mutual threat? Do you want NPC3 to crawl back out of the campaign’s history and blow the whistle at the 11th hour, probably by accident? Do you want an ambitious underling to overthrow the Mastermind (or try to)? Do you want an overeager member of the conspiracy to trigger things prematurely? Do you want a culture of only telling the higher-ups in the conspiracy what they want to hear to have undermined readiness – the “garbage-in, garbage-out” principle applied to conspiracies?

It is usually easiest to start by defining how you want the Master Plan to fail, then working backwards from that point. Be sure to build interesting plot twists into the story, and a little irony always works well in these cases!

I once used a conspiracy in which the Mastermind reached the point where he had everything he needed except a defense against one key factor, and knew it; the Mastermind then became convinced that no-one had access to the thing he had no defense against, and made his play. At the last minute of the 11th hour, the PCs discovered this vulnerability, and recognized that they had access to exactly what they needed to unravel the entire plot. In the course of that unraveling, it was discovered that one of the victims that the Mastermind had ruined and discarded along the way was about to come into possession of the very defensive mechanism that he needed; if he had been a little less ruthless in his early days, his entire plan would have succeeded, but he had thrown it all away years earlier….

There are huge advantages to this approach. How can the PCs figure out what is going on when even you don’t know? How can you waste prep-time on the conspiracy when you are assuming that all the activities are generic in nature or occur completely under the radar – meaning that you don’t actually invest any prep time?

Actually, viewed from that perspective, this is just another expression of my usual advice: careful planning, strategically targeted. It’s just that the strategy is not what most people would expect…

Before I close today’s article, there are a couple of crowdfunding campaigns that I want to draw to people’s attention.

Help Send A Canadian Home

RA Whipple is a Gamer who has been trapped by circumstances in Poland. Unable to afford the airfairs to get his family back to Canada, and unable to find work because his Visa has expired (and it wasn’t exactly plentiful or well-renumerated before that), he has been forced to swallow his pride and ask for help. You can read more about his situation at Please donate something if you can, and publicize the campaign whether you can donate something or not.

Interactive Dracula Solo Adventure publish the game book series “Random Solo Adventure” (our first book are available at They are currently running a Kickstarter campaign for a larger, more complicated game book than their previous offerings, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Designed using the original text and interactive, this product will come with art by Macedonian artist Greenhickup.

I like to think that RPGs are international in their appeal. If you like that idea too, there aren’t many better ways to show it than by helping a Polish-Canadian family and backing a Swedish RPG product using a Macedonian artist – at least in the opinion of this particular Australian and his US-based blog…

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Character Incapability: The distant side of the coin

Flux Capacitor vector illustration with background

“This is everything you need to know – you DO understand Temporal Regression Engineering, right?”

Flux Capacitor by GDJ for Back-to-the-future-day 2015 courtesy,
Background Graphics Provided by Vecteezy users Sunshine-91, freevector, and onomonopeea
Click on the thumbnail for a larger image

Last week, I wrote about creating adventures based on what a character could do. This week I’m going to look at the far more difficult proposition of basing a mini-adventure on what a character can’t do.

This task is much trickier; just because a character is incapable of the action that would resolve whatever problem is the focal point of the situation doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable for the character to be considered helpless. No, they still have to have at least one and preferably several courses of action open to them that will resolve the problem.

At first, you might think “No problem, they can simply go to an NPC who has the appropriate skill to get around the handicap.” But that in itself raises a problem, in that the PCs are supposed to be the stars of the show, and not some GM fiat.

Nevertheless, there are simple solutions to consider:

  • Using an NPC but providing a challenge that the PC can solve before the NPC will assist, i.e. a substitution of challenge;
  • Using another PC who has the required skill, i.e. a substitution of challenger; or,
  • Providing another path to a solution for the unassisted PC.

Each of these is a viable solution, each has its virtues, and each poses its own difficulties and challenges for the GM to overcome.

Substitution Of Challenge

This works, in principle, at the cost of increased playing time; effectively, you are adding a new scene to the mini-encounter. However, there’s a complicating wrinkle: doing so also increases the spotlight time for that PC.

The simplest way to redress this imbalance, at least in theory, is to also add an extra scene or complication to the plots surrounding the other PCs. Oh, if only it was that easy…

How Long Is A Scene?

One of the questions that I very carefully avoided getting too caught up in while working on the standard terminology article for Campaign Mastery was “how long is a scene?” The answer is almost as meaningless as asking “How long is a Fahrenheit?”

But that’s not especially helpful.

I’ve written and run scenes that last for 2 minutes. I’ve written and run scenes that – excluding combat – lasted for about 20 minutes. That’s an incredibly wide variation, and is the source of the trouble.

One way of making some sense out of the situation is to measure it by the degree of interaction that the PC(s) have with events. This is predicated on the notion that it takes a relatively short space of time – measured in seconds – to read a line of narrative. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1 second or 3 or somewhere in between, it’s such a small contribution to the total scene length.

What really takes the time is interaction between the player and the GM – whether that’s the PC doing something (which needs to be interpreted), or the PC talking to an NPC (i.e. conversation between the player and GM in their respective guises). That’s because these tend to be open-ended in duration: a conversation can be brief or extended, one action may follow another, and either of these can contain additional lines of narrative interspersed.

If you rate the degree of interaction between player and GM within a scene on a scale of 1-10, then estimate about 2 minutes per point of rating, you won’t be too far off the mark. The reality might be 1.5 minutes or 2.5 minutes each, but the degree of error is relatively small – and certainly close enough for practical purposes, because there will be other factors influencing the total real-time duration of the scene that will more than swamp the resulting margin of error.

Estimating Scene Length In Advance

With a little experience, you can directly perform such a rating based on the notes in your adventure in a lot less time than it takes to read and analyze the content to assess a rating.

Here’s a breakdown of one “scene” from last Saturday’s adventure in the Adventurer’s Club campaign:

Narrative, locates PC1 in Location 1.
Interaction with NPC.
Decision by PC1, outcome not described in this scene.

In fact, there were four scenes with different PCs that all match that overall description – all that would change would be the PC “number” and corresponding location.

The narrative doesn’t count as an interaction, and because the decision is not interpreted within this scene, only made and announced by the player, it doesn’t count either. So these scenes each have an interaction rating of 1 – indicating an estimated length of 2 minutes. Some were a little longer, some a little shorter, but that average was about right – probably closer to 1 or 1.5 minutes, in reality. These scenes were, in theory, occurring more or less simultaneously; quick changes of scene like this is a technique that we commonly use to rotate the spotlight when this is the case.

Concurrent with these four scenes was another, slightly more involved scene:

Narrative, locates PC5 in Location 5.
Interaction with NPC.
Trivial Decision by PC5.
Narrative, relocates PC5 in Location 6 as a result of the decision.
Interaction with NPC.
Narrative resulting from Interaction.
Decision by PC5, outcome not described in this scene.

You will note that this introduces a new term, “Trivial Decision”. This is essentially asking a rhetorical question, and proceeding with the scene based on the answer. In effect, it excludes the decision from counting as “interaction”. Excluding the narrative section,and the decision-without-an-outcome, this scene effectively has an interaction count of 2 – the interactions with different NPCs – so I would expect it to take about twice as long, and guess what? It did.

The story then picked up on the other PCs, one after another:

Narrative relating the result of the decision.
Decision by PC1/2/3/4, outcome not described in this scene.

Normally, narrative doesn’t count as an interaction, but because this narrative involves the deferred interaction with the GMs relating to the earlier decisions by the player, this does – so each of these scenes also have an interaction count of 1.

When you add them up, PCs 1 through 4 had two scenes each with an interaction count of 2, while PC5 had one scene with a longer interaction count of 2 – the spotlight was effectively shared equally amongst them all. In terms of the overall adventure, each of these scenes served the same single plot purpose, with only the PC being affected by that purpose changing. Effectively, this could be considered a single scene taking place in 6 different locations involving 5 different PCs simultaneously – a total rating of 10.

When writing the adventure, each line given in the structure above was dealt with in an individual paragraph. Narrative text has no prefix; Interactions, canned dialogue, and any narrative that results from an interaction are preceded by a triple asterisk (***); and any decisions, rolls required, notes about interpretations of results, and any resulting dialogue or narrative, are preceded by a triple “>>>”. This makes it a trivial effort to count the number of paragraphs in a scene that have *** or >>> in front of them, giving a total interaction rating at something close to a glance.

Pacing doesn’t always work exactly as planned

We use this arrangement to structure the adventure and plan the pacing, including the optimum time to take breaks in terms of interrupting the narrative, in accordance with the two-part Swell & Lull article on emotional pacing (Part 1, Part 2). It permits some estimate of how much material we will get through in a day’s play – at least, once any unusually lengthy narrative passages, and unusually difficult decisions, and any combats are taken into account.

But there’s a lot of scope for variation on the day, and things don’t always go as planned. In this case, I accidentally left at home the plastic bag containing all the cables and extras that go with my laptop, including the external mouse. That meant that I had to struggle with the built-in pad, which meant that one piece of preliminary business took a LOT longer than planned. We attempted to compensate by keeping the dialogue with NPCs a little more brisk than usual – and, as is often the case, over-compensated. We ended up finishing the day’s place about an hour ahead of schedule, despite the initial delay, meaning that we could have taken the time for lengthier interactions.

So it’s not a perfect tool; but it’s a lot better than nothing.

Substitution of Challenge – the bottom line

If your adventure anticipates the need for a different approach (and it should), then you can thumbnail a reasonably scene breakdown like the examples described above during your planning. That means that you can determine the resulting interaction level of the scene that will actually take place, and from that, keep an eye on how much spotlight time each PC is getting within your adventure. The interaction planning “tool” that I have described makes Substitution of Challenge practical, by overcoming the difficulties experienced without it.

Substitution Of Challenger

The second approach is to recruit someone else to deal with the situation for which the PC is so ill-equipped. The downside is that the second PC takes up some of the spotlight time that should – in theory – belong to the first.

There are a number of strategies that can be applied to correct this problem, which essentially come down to different ways of making sure everyone either has a similar loss of spotlight time – so that what you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts. The most obvious of these strategies is to put everyone into the same boat, so that the PCs effectively play a game of round-robin with the challenges. The problem with this technique is that it can only seem coincidental once; after that, it feels artificial and forced. Coincidence remains one of the hardest things to sell in any form of narrative expression, whether that’s cinema, television, politics, literature, or gaming, as I pointed out in The Conundrum Of Coincidence.

The second basic variant on the overall strategy to solve the problem is to restrict the “swapping” of headaches to just one or two PCs and equalize things for the rest (more or less, there will always be a little variation) and simply to add an extra complication or encounter of some sort to the other PCs mini-adventures.

Another complication that has to be carefully managed is that combat notoriously takes up a LOT more game-time than non-combat. That imposes another restriction on the nature of any complications or extra challenges.

All in all, there are so many complications that this is a very challenging solution for the GM. That makes it all the more satisfying when you do pull it off, but demands much greater detail of planning to achieve.

The Solution to (most of) these problems

Luckily, there is a solution – the same one that was used to handle “substitution of challenge”, in fact. Break the adventure into smaller slices until you get it down into scenes, count up the scenes that feature each of the PCs by interaction rating, then balance those values so that everyone gets the same total.

The differences in interaction scores tell you exactly how big an additional plot sequence the PC handing off the challenge requires to give them an equal share of the spotlight.

For example, let’s say that PC1 has a plotline with an interaction score of 4. PC2 has a plotline with an interaction score of 2. But, after 2 interaction points, PC1 realizes that they don’t have the required abilities or skills to resolve the challenge they face. Instead of claiming the third interaction point, he or she instigates an unscheduled one that is shared with PC2 – so that counts for both of them. PC2 then claims the 3rd and 4th interaction points allocated to PC1’s plotline. The totals are:

  • PC1: 2 + 1 = 3;
  • PC2: 2 + 1 + 2 = 5;

and the difference between these totals is 2. So PC1 needs an additional challenge or problem to deal with that is worth 2 interaction points – another 3-to-5 minutes of plot.

No matter how convoluted your plans get, this enables you to balance expected play over all the PCs.

Supplemental scores

At least, it would, were it not for a complicating wrinkle or two, that can be summed up: “Not all scenes or scene elements are created equal.”

There’s a basic assumption in the simplicity of the system described that narrative doesn’t go overlong; that conversations are all the same length; that non-trivial decisions all take the same length of time to make; that there’s no combat; and so on.

It’s actually not all that difficult to take each of these problems into account, solving them one-by-one by allocating Supplemental Scores to adjust each PC’s share of the spotlight.

  • Any narrative that is more than 6 lines long is “extra long”. Every 5 lines, or part thereof, beyond that adds 1/4 to the interaction total for each PC who is supposed to pay attention to the narrative. So if a PC isn’t there, they get nothing extra; if they are, they do – unless you are intending to shortcut later events by assuming that the PCs who are present will bring the PCs who aren’t up to speed when the time is right without actually roleplaying a conversation that is nothing but recapitulation, possibly erroneous.
  • Conversations can basically be described as call-and-response exchanges. A typical conversation is 2-to-5 half-exchanges; AB, ABA, ABAB, or ABABA (assuming only two participants – more complex conversations have more complicated patterns). For every 2 additional full exchanges, add 1/2 to the value of the scene element; and if two or more of the participants are PCs, add an extra 0.5 to the total for each PC after the first.
  • Decisions can be tricky, but 2 minutes is a long time, and that’s what a full additional point is worth. That means that a scale can be set up: trivial decisions and rhetorical questions (“Are you going to try and prevent the zombie apocalypse?”) are worth zero; ordinary decisions are worth 1; difficult decisions are worth 2; and extremely difficult decisions are worth 3. If there are any decisions needing more than about 5 minutes, the game has stalled, and the players have no idea of what to do; the GMs may have to resort to skill checks, hints, and/or intelligence saves to get things moving again.
  • Combat is THE trickiest problem. You can try to estimate how long the fight will take – but such estimates are notoriously unreliable. A better solution is to arrange the sequences of events so that every character has some sort of combat or pseudo-combat encounter at the same point in the scene, then run them as one big fight taking place in multiple locations, or to employ a more cinematic technique. A brief cinematic combat will take 2 minutes or less (rating of 1); a more substantial cinematic combat will take 4-8 minutes (rating of 2-4), while a really big cinematic combat will take 10+ minutes.

distribution comparisons

Distribution Of Spotlight

Whenever you split up your PCs and let them act independently, you need to plan carefully to avoid a situation in which a player is just sitting around for a long period of time.

That problem is depicted in the example above, in which PC1 is in blue, PC2 is in green, and PC3 is in Red. On the left is a poor distribution – PC3 has to wait quite a long time before receiving any GM love, and then becomes the focus of attention for quite some time while the others sit around. The distribution to the right is more balanced, but also fairly predictable; though that is better than the alternative. With a little work, it’s possible to craft solutions that are both less monotonous and balanced.

You might appreciate the principle of a balanced distribution of spotlight, but be wondering why unpredictability is such a virtue.

The simple fact is that if a player doesn’t know whether or when you are going to throw the spotlight in his direction, he is more attentive and focused. Quick rotation of focus, as described earlier, has the same effect. It isn’t easy, but with appropriate planning of the spotlight, you can have each PC doing something entirely independent of the others while still feeling part of the group.

Once again, these arrangements become a little trickier when the lengths of scenes begin to vary. Perfect solutions are rarely possible, but these are nevertheless something to be striven for.

Of course, your goal might not be to equitably distribute the spotlight as you would for an ensemble cast; your campaign might operate on the principle of the revolving star vehicle, in which each PC in succession gets a disproportionate share of the spotlight. In the long run, it therefore evens out, but in terms of any one specific adventure, it can be heavily biased. Those interested in this aspect of game philosophy should read Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign?.

Low Road vs High Road

The third approach is the hardest of all – finding an alternate path to success, adapting what the character can do to get around the limitation of what they can’t..

It can be either the most- or the least-satisfying of all three options, largely depending on whether or not you (as GM) have to feed the solution to the problem to the player or if he comes up with one without GM prompting.

Quite often, a player has to look at the challenge before their PC in just the right way for a solution to present itself, and the slightest variation in nuance can be enough to derail the creative process.

To some extent, permitting players to brainstorm, even if only for a limited time-frame, can solve that problem – but it can also send players off down an entirely incorrect tangent, especially if someone makes assumptions, offers interpretations of theory as fact, or simply missed a key fact offered by the GM.

How much assistance?

Some people question the extent to which the GM should be permitted to hand-hold the players when they are fumbling around in the dark. There is a reasonable argument that players should be free to make mistakes, and that the GM should be more concerned with what the players do or don’t do than with what they should do.

There is an equally-valid counter-argument that players are not their characters, and it’s part of the GM’s job to help them bridge the gap.

There is also a valid point to be made that fumbling around trying to work out what the PCs should do to solve their problem is absolutely no fun, and that it’s more important to keep the game moving.

I take a lot of the sting out of these problems by putting an NPC amongst the PCs ranks as an ally. While my first goal is always to play that character faithfully to his restrictions and limitations, it does permit me an in-character mouthpiece to interject food for thought, sound appropriate cautionary signals, and offer ‘helpful’ suggestions. Occasionally, when it is in-character for the NPC to have the insight, he or she may come up with the right answers (after the players have crashed and burned) – and occasionally, when it’s appropriate, the character will throw misinformation, mistakes, or flawed reasoning into the discussion.

The NPC isn’t a magic mirror revealing the perfect solution, or no more often so than any given PC does; but they are a tool to at least keep the conversation moving. Everything they say has to be filtered through the players’ assessment of the NPCs personality and capabilities, and sometimes given weight and sometimes not, as a result.

The best signal that I’ve found for when I want to take the NPC out of my back pocket is when the players have discussed the situation from all angles, touched on the correct solution, rejected it for some reason, and begun to repeat themselves. That’s when there is a risk that positions will become entrenched and confirmation bias will set in. As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that the moment something is stated for the third time, the statement takes on a life and reality of its own. Which means that as soon as you hear a second recitation of the exact same thing from a player, you are treading on dangerous ground.

I wasn’t able to find any credible information connecting frequency of recapitulation of information and confirmation bias, or I would have cited it. What I did find is that there is a wealth of anecdotal reference related to “tell me three times”. Portions of two articles in particular were of interest:

  • Tell Me Three Times: A 3-Pronged PPC Balance System by Howard Jacobson, published on Search Engine Watch, 10 July 2012, in particular the introduction and the first section (entitled “Tell Me Three Times”); and
  • Tell me three times: The importance of quality assurance, by globalPMguy, published on Boss Logic Sept 30, 2013, in particular the opening section.
  • The most reliable reference that I could find is a section in an article published in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations in 2007 (pp 239–256) by Lyn M. Van Swol of Northwestern University, entitled (deep breath) “Perceived Importance of Information: The Effects of Mentioning Information, Shared Information Bias, Ownership Bias, Reiteration, and Confirmation Bias“:
    quote start 45

    Other researchers have investigated this ‘reiteration effect’ (Hertwig, Gigerenzer, & Hoffrage, 1997) or ‘validity effect’ (Arkes, 1993; Boehm, 1994). Hasher, Goldstein, and Toppino (1977) veri?ed that repetition of information increases the perception that the information is true, valid, and reliable. Repetition may be used as a heuristic to the truthfulness of a statement when there are no other indicators of the statement’s validity, and this effect of repetition is often automatic and uses few cognitive resources (Alba, Chromiak, Hasher, & Attig, 1980; Hasher & Chromiak, 1977; Hasher et al., 1977; Hasher & Zacks, 1984).

That last quoted statement is telling, if I understand it correctly; it states that if you repeat a theory or statement often enough, or hear it repeated often enough by others, especially from different sources, you are more likely to accept the theory or statement as truthful without people actually thinking about it.

There are several other factors that can overwhelm this tendency or reinforce it. Critical dismissal or refutation of the statement by a trusted authority falls into the former category, for example, while critical dismissal or refutation by a mis--trusted authority reinforces both the belief in the theory and the prejudice against the authority (as an aside, the natural selection of preferring like-minded sources, when coupled with these facts, explains the modern phenomenon known as the Social Media “Echo Chamber”).

Bottom line: I was unable to find any definitive research on the effect on perception of validity of different frequencies of repetition, and the research paper cited was unable to verify that the effect even occurs except under very restricted circumstances where other validity triggers were also in effect. That suggests that the “echo chamber” effect only amplifies any pre-existing bias towards confirmation. Nevertheless, my personal experience is that both confirmation bias and repetition bias are real, and that a third repetition is often the trigger point.

Identifying the Low Road

The biggest problem with expecting a problem to be solved via an alternative path is that the player has to find that solution. Sometimes, that’s easy, and sometimes that’s hard.

The second biggest problem is that before the player can find that solution, the GM has to have found that solution; otherwise, he risks throwing a problem at the player that he and his character are unable to solve. Helpless PCs are never fun to play, and so insoluble problems have to be avoided!

Quite often, the best technique is to deliberately build the alternative into the encounter. You do this simply choosing another skill (this time, one that the PC does have) and deliberately creating circumstances within the encounter that make it a viable substitute.

Some examples:

  • A PC doesn’t know how to disarm a bomb safely, but does know electronics and therefore how to stop a digital timer, preventing the bomb from going off.
  • A PC doesn’t know where to find a specific biblical verse, but does know how to use Google Search – if there is an appropriate device on hand.
  • A PC doesn’t have Negotiation, but may attempt to use Persuasion or Intimidation to force an NPC to do what the PC wants him or her to do (NB: in theory, Seduction can also be used in this way, but it often has undesirable and unintended consequences and complications) – if those interpersonal skills will have the desired effect on the target.
  • A PC doesn’t know how to Shadow someone without detection, but might know how to Track them. Or how to use Sleight-of-hand to plant a tracking device on the target – if they have one. Or perhaps the PC is able to fly, and can follow the target from overhead – if the local buildings and route being taken by the target permits it. Or perhaps the PC can use a Crystal Ball or other form of scrying – if they are able to obtain something personal from the target through which to focus the spell.

None of these are likely to work “by accident”; the GM has to recognize that the ideal or simplest solution to the problem he is posing the PC requires a skill that the PC doesn’t have, and deliberately incorporate into the encounter a less-ideal solution based on a skill or ability that the character does have.

The trick is then to get the player to recognize this alternative path to success. You may need to drop a hint. For example, if I expected a character to use the “follow from above” solution, I might (a) have the target wear a wide-brimmed hat; (b) have the character complain about a sore neck (implying that they may not be able to look up very easily); and (c) offer a hint of some sort that the target is new to the intrigue business and a little unskilled by highlighting behavior that the player knows is inappropriate under those circumstances, like arguing with a waiter instead of trying to blend into the surroundings. If I forewent (b), I could also have the target look over their shoulder repeatedly, very obviously, and quite clumsily. “You spot your target as he enters the square. Spot him? It’s hard to miss him, the way he has his cloak draped over his forearm which he keeps raised in front of his mouth and skulks melodramatically as he slips from doorway to behind a stack of baskets, then to a pillar, then behind a wagon, before arriving at your table. Taking a seat, his face still covered, he leans conspiratorially towards you, and in a loudly whispered voice, offers the code-phrase you were told to expect.”

By playing this scene for laughs in this way, I establish that the target is going to be ridiculously easy to follow – so much so that the player might well smell a rat, and wonder if the target is concealing his true skills beneath this amateurish veneer.

Unskilled Skill Use: The Fly In The Ointment

There’s one perpetual risk when designing an encounter or plotline around an ability that one or more characters don’t have, and that’s the facility offered by many game systems for attempting a task Unskilled.

The problem is that you are using the character’s lack of skill to steer events in a more dramatic or compelling direction; successfully shortcutting things with unskilled Skill use violates that plan.

There are two things that GMs have to do in their planning and preparation to be ready for this issue to arise. The first is to ensure that there is a significant penalty or downside to making such an attempt and failing and that the player will be aware of the risk. This can’t be a bluff by the GM; he has to be fully prepared to back up his implied threats. The second thing is a consequence of this; the GM must also have a plan in place to salvage the situation and keep the plotline moving towards a resolution.

The idea is to make the notion of looking for an alternative more attractive to the player than taking the risk.

As a general rule of thumb, I usually consider a successful Unskilled use to yield an inferior result to a successful Skilled use in some major respect. A critical success Unskilled yields only what a successful Skilled use would achieve. And a failure, unskilled, is always far worse than a failure, skilled. The exceptions happen when I need the player to succeed in order to keep the plot advancing, or when the need for the unskilled check is because of some mistake in planning that I’ve made; under those circumstances, I’m a lot more gentle as a GM!


I thought about developing a simple checklist-style process for creating this sort of mini-adventure, but the results were either so horrendously complicated because of the three different alternatives that they were useless, or so generic as to be valueless. I thought about doing a larger example, in the same way that I did for the Character Capabilities article, but found myself short of time – because there are the three alternatives and they are so very different from each other when you get down to the nitty-gritty underlying them. And besides, because I had inserted key (smaller) examples throughout the text, I didn’t see the utility of doing so.

All that remains, then, is to wrap the discussion up. Basing a scene around an ability that the PC doesn’t have is a lot more difficult than the converse, but there are three approaches that make it possible, each offering the player a different way around the problem. Each of these carries its own set of complications and caveats, but there are ways of making these wrinkles at least manageable.

And it’s always good to challenge your players from time to time.

Comments (3)

Character Capabilities: An often-forgotten source of plots

Jamie's Sky by Amber Edgar via

Jamie’s Sky by / Amber Edgar

Recently, for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, my co-GM and I had to construct a number of small plotlines – one for each character – simply to mark the passage of a period of time in which the PCs should be doing something. We employed an old technique of mine – but one that has never been written up here, at Campaign Mastery, or anywhere else that I’m aware of.

That’s a shame, because it’s really quite elegant and simple. Today’s article will redress this situation.

First things first: this technique is neither game system nor genre dependent; it works for any campaign that has PCs with defined capabilities, but it does require the GM to have a copy of the PCs character sheet. I always prefer to have one of those, anyway; the number of times players have forgotten their character sheets vastly outnumbers the one or two occasions when I’ve forgotten to bring something important, like the adventure.

The Technique

The technique itself is very simple:

  1. Go through the character sheet looking for a skill or capability that hasn’t been used in a while, if ever.
  2. Think of one or more ways that the skill or capability can be used.
  3. Think of a situation in which the character might want to use the skill or capability in that way.
  4. Construct a sequence of events that puts the character into that situation.
  5. Determine the outcomes of the usage, especially in terms of success and failure.
  6. Complete the mini-adventure outline, or, if working on a larger adventure, apply the same technique to a new PC on the basis that they have to then take the adventure further.

An example, Step One

Let’s see how it might work in practice. We need a PC – so let’s invent a hypothetical one named George. We need George to have some skills or abilities; let’s assume that the game system is Pathfinder, and that George has Appraise +7 (ranks plus stat modifier) but has never used it.

The example, Step Two

So, what might you be able to do with Appraise?

In KODT #119 & 120, there was a two-part article Making The Most Of Your Skills by Jim Davenport. I talked about this article, and how I had adapted and extended it for my Shards Of Divinity campaign, as part of The Nimble Mind: Making Skills Matter in RPGs. Here’s the list of applications for Appraise:

  • Estimate the value of someone’s wardrobe to see if they are actually wealthy or are faking it
  • Determine whether or not a unique non-magical item is the genuine article or a fake
  • Identify the era of manufacture or age of an item ±25% error
  • Identify the workmanship of a notable craftsman
  • Identify the distinctive style of a particular Kingdom
  • GM may make a secret check to permit a character to notice a fake when not even looking for it. Spot gives a +2 synergy bonus to such checks.

For the sake of example, let’s select the 4th application – identifying the style of a particular craftsman – and build an adventure around it.

The example, Step Three

Under what circumstances might a character use his appraise skill in this way? One possibility is when discovering what appears to be an unknown work by a famous artist. Already this starting point has my mind ticking over.

The example, Step Four

Let’s say the character was passing through a small village fair when a painting catches his eye. With his keen eye and minimal level of training, and a skill check, he thinks it might be by a famous artist – and worth a great deal more than the asking price. It might be a forgery (but it looks legitimate), or he might be mistaken. We don’t want to give away too much unearned loot, so let’s say that it’s very small and carries a 10gp price tag – and might be worth ten times that much, or 100gp.

The example, Step Five

Normally, this step maps out the alternative paths the adventure can take, depending on whether or not the PC succeeds in their skill check or not, but I already have an idea in mind and to get to it, I want the player to succeed whether he rolls a success or not.

It’s never a good idea to give something away unearned – and that includes success or failure at a skill check. So if I’m going to let the character auto-succeed at the actual appraise check, for the sake of the plot, I need to reinterpret the situation of the check so that a failure will manifest in a different way than simple failure.

Remember: the proposition and alternative outcomes of ANY in-game-system test are always what you want them to be, within reason.

In this particular case, where something extraordinary has taken place, I think that making the appraise test without being obvious about it – and thereby attracting unwanted attention to the painting – works well as an explanation. Normally, to appraise something, you have to pick it up, turn it over, examine it closely, etc.

You may need to weigh it, or look at a candle-light through it, or drop it into a beaker of water – or acid – or any of a dozen other tests, depending on the commodity being valued – though those tests aren’t normal for paintings. You would normally need to take a painting out of its frame, and examine the back of the actual canvas, and the edges, and the material, and type of knife used to cut the canvas. That’s because, in part, you aren’t just valuing the artwork; you are also authenticating it, in your own mind.

Valuations of untested art

Art, like many things, is ultimately worth whatever someone will pay for it. If an artist is popular, the value goes up. If he’s out of style, the value goes down. Skill and Rarity are factors, as is the quality and condition of the artwork. Having a good story to attach to it can also drive up the value. But the number-one commodity is verifiable authenticity, and part of that is the history of the artwork, also known as the provenance. Who was it painted for? What happened to it? Hoe did the current owner end up with it?

Ultimately, you need enough evidence to convince an expert to stake his reputation that the artwork is authentic. Valuations therefore need to be based around two or three different values: one if the work is certified as genuine (AND not stolen), one if you can’t convince the expert, and one if it is conclusively determined that it is not genuine, because sometimes a good (or notorious) fake can have it’s own level of cache and hence value.

Let’s call these A, B, and C. Valuation D is for any common painter imitating the style of a famous artist. A very rough set of ratios to use as a guideline is

  • (10-100)xC = (3-5)xB = A, assuming the C value carries some notoriety, and
  • (2-10)xD = C if it doesn’t but is nevertheless very well done.

If the routine price for a home-painted artwork is (say) 1gp if it’s well done, then being sufficiently close to the style of an ancient master to require authentication as not being by the great painter raises the value of the painting to 2-10 gp. If the expert isn’t sure whether or not it’s genuine, then the price is a fraction of whatever it would be worth if it IS genuine; let’s say 10,000gp for A, so 20-33% of that until its fate is decided, one way or the other – 2,000 to 3,300 gp. If it is subsequently proven to be a fake, but has gained notoriety for fooling some expert, then the value is between 100 and 1,000 gp.

In terms of the treasure values listed in various sources – modules, the Pathfinder Core Rules or D&D DMG, or whatever – there are two ways to interpret the values. The first is to assume that this is the maximum value that the painting MIGHT be worth; the second is to use the ratios given to attach an artist and a story to the artwork.

Method One

Let’s say that the source lists a painting as being worth 3,000gp. Under method one, to actually get that much out of it, it has to be by a famous painter (but not a great master), and it has to be authenticated as such. Until then, it is actually only worth 20-33% of that – 600gp to 1000gp. And, if it turns out to be a fake, it might be worth only 30-300gp, depending on the story that can be attached to it. This method has the virtue of simplicity for the GM, and provides further opportunities for roleplay down the line.

If the source lists an artwork as being worth 300gp, under method one, it’s a very pretty painting by no-one famous.

That’s because method one assumes that the value being quoted is the value if the painting is genuine, and is therefore the maximum that you will get for it.

Method Two

If the source lists a painting as being worth 3d6 x 1000gp, or something along those lines, or simply states a figure in that sort of price range – let’s say 12,000gp – then the value tells you that the painting has to be one of two things: either a lost masterpiece by a famous but not legendary artist; or it is a damaged work (reducing the value) by a more famous artist that cannot be authenticated for some reason.

If it were to state a value in the hundreds of gp, you have a range of interpretations open to you under this method; that gives the GM flexibility at the price of making things more complicated. It might be a genuine painting by someone who isn’t very famous; or an obvious fake purporting to be by a famous artist; or even an unverifiable painting by an artist of fame somewhere in between this range. The value tells you it’s not a lost masterpiece, but also that it’s not a common painting – it’s noteworthy in some respect.

Choosing between the methods

I generally let the appraise skill check make the determination for me. If the character performing the “field appraisal” makes his check successfully, I will use method two; if they don’t, I will use Method one. Why? Because Method 1 leaves the true value of the treasure in doubt, while Method 2 yields a definite result.

Complicating the picture

But art is worth what someone will pay for it, and any valuation is only an estimate. The reality might be that it doesn’t come close to that value when actually sold, or that a spirited bidding war pushes the actual price received up. The latter is less likely. To find out, I roll d% and add the appraise skill of whoever has authenticated the painting. If the total is 100 or more, then the value received is between 90 and 110% of the appraised value. If the total is 90-100, then I multiply one tenth of the actual price by d10 minus d10 plus the square root of (total-90+d10-d10), cubed; if the result is a negative, reverse the d10s. If the total is 50-90, then the artwork sells for that percentage of the estimated value; if the total is below 50, then it sells for between 10 and 50% of the appraised value – or possibly fails to make the reserve, i.e. doesn’t sell for enough to have the sale go through, and the characters have to try again to sell it on some other occasion, in some other market; the people who were there on the day didn’t want it.

For example:

Let’s say that the appraised value is 10,000gp, and the appraiser rolled a skill total of 17. At the time that check is made I will make a d% roll and add it to the total, determining the actual value offered the next time the PCs attempt to sell the artwork.

  • If I rolled a 93, then the total would be 110, and I would then roll a d20 and add 90 to get the % of the estimate that the painting actually fetches when sold. An 18 on the d20 gives 108%, so the sale price would be 10,800gp.
  • If I rolled an 83, then the total would be 100, and I would do exactly the same thing. If, on the other hand, I rolled an 82, the total would be only 99, putting the sale into the narrow window for a bidding war. 99 minus 90 is 9; 9 cubed is 9 x 9 x 9, or 729; the square root of 729 is 27. I add one d10 roll to the result and subtract another; let’s say, 5 and 9,respectively, so 27+5=32, and 32-9 is 23. One-tenth of the appraised value is 1,000gp, so the artwork sells for 23,000gp.
  • If I rolled a 74, the total of 91 is still in the bidding war range – but just barely. 91-1 is 1; one cubed is 1; the square root of 1 is 1; add one d10 and subtract another (2 and 10, respectively) to get 1+2-10=-7. That doesn’t work, so I reverse the d10s: 1+10-2=9. So the artwork sells for 9,000gp despite the bidding war – telling you that the original appraisal missed something (or that the people participating in the bidding war didn’t really want to buy anything by that artist, but were caught up in the moment).
  • If I rolled a 65, the total would be 82, putting me into a wide band where the price paid is less than the estimate – in this case, for 65% of that, or 6,500gp.
  • And, if I were to roll 32 or less, the total would be below 50, so the artwork would either sell for a (relative) pittance – or fail to sell at all, if the owners had placed a reserve price.
Reserve Prices

I don’t know how these work in the real world. In my campaigns, however, I have a definite protocol based on the auction house making a profit, no matter what, for their efforts. If they sell something, they take 10% off the top. If they accept something for sale, they also charge and amount – it might be 1gp or 10gp – payable only if the item fails to sell. In effect, this is a fee charged to recover the item from the auction house. Finally, if the owners want to make it harder for the auction house to sell the item by imposing a reserve, or a minimum acceptable price, the auction house charges an up-front fee of 10% of that reserve price on top of anything they get from actually selling the item.

Anyway, getting back to our plotline…

The Example, Step 4 (redux)

Now that we know the middle part of the mini-adventure we can backtrack and fill in the start of the story in more detail.

To start with, we need George to have a reason to visit the fair. There are many possibilities, but one of the simplest is to have something that it can be assumed that he possesses – a water bottle, say – break and need replacement. Normally, I wouldn’t bother tracking that sort of detail, and the players know that, so explicitly stating the failure and the need to buy a replacement is, in effect, GM-to-player shorthand for “this is where to find today’s adventure”.

Next, we need to work out what happens at the fair itself. A bit of local color to bring the event to life. So we throw in a juggler raising money for charity, a wandering troubadour having trouble hitting his high notes, and an apprentice blacksmith who has just gotten drunk for the first time. The juggler will tell the PC where to find the leather-worker’s tent for a donation, a transaction eagerly watched by the merchants; if the PC is overgenerous, the word will spread that he has money, and prices will go up, but be flexible; if he’s charitable. but not excessive, prices will be normal and NPCs will expect to haggle; if he pleads poverty, prices will go down a little, but be declared firm; and if the PC is rude or dismissive without donating, the prices will go up 50-100% and be declared firm, take it or leave it.

Unless the PC pled poverty, the troubadour will then attach himself to the PCs vicinity until he is paid to go annoy somebody else – the length of peace and quiet being dependent on the scale of payment offered: a minute for a copper, 5-10 minutes for a silver, an hour for a gold. Once again, the merchants will watch these transactions like hawks, while trying to pretend that they aren’t, and use them to confirm their first impression of the PC.

When the PC reaches the leather-worker’s stand, he will find the leather-worker busy dealing with the drunken apprentice. While waiting, the painting will catch his eye amongst a stack of bric-a-brac on a neighboring tent.

The Example, Step 6

What else do we need? Well, we should have a convincing line of patter about the artist and the painting, and we need to work out a conclusion to the situation, which is nothing but roleplay so far, without a lot of interaction or scope for player input.

The artist: Craffel Dentro of Lostown Downs was a landscape painter about 70 years ago who became well-respected for the dramatic qualities of his sweeping brush-strokes and colorful use of clouds as an emotional subtext to the subject of his paintings, which often featured recognizable buildings or landmarks, enabling him to make witty and sometimes biting social comment about the owners of the featured landscape without actually offending anyone by voicing criticism too publicly. This “code” only became public knowledge late in the artist’s career when he confessed it to the Abbott of Monkton. A minor part of the Expressionist movement, which focused on energy and capturing motion within paintings, it was the inclusion of this hidden subtext that began to elevate his reputation. Many have tried to emulate his style since, and while some have come close to the overt expressionist characteristics, none have successfully captured the whimsy or satire of Dentro. (NB: this is all completely invented for game purposes – there is no such art movement and no such artist.)

The painting: 14 inches by 8 inches, something of an odd size. A sunset, a distant storm cloud, and a sense that the rain has just stopped; several of the leaves glisten and there is the occasional droplet of falling water. An overgrown estate and an abbey in a slight state of disrepair. A graveyard next to the abbey, with one grave cleared of overgrowth; the headstone is adorned by a Bishop’s Mitre. Party-goers frolic and dance around the grave. Unfortunately, only the side of the Abbey can be seen, and there is not enough detail to be able to identify the location. The painting is unsigned.

The PC suspects that it might be a Dentro which was originally much larger, and that it was cut down in size for some reason, excising the part which would have held the artist’s signature. The dancers “mourning” the death of a churchman who had let the (possibly symbolic) abbey fall into disrepair was the sort of sly wit that Dentro was famous for. If it were complete and an authentic Dentro, it might be worth one hundred times the asking price of 10gp; in its current state, if it could be authenticated, it might only be worth 2-300gp, and possibly less.

If the PC questions the seller, Marit Hewnshaw, she will tell him that her father was an art collector who bought lots of damaged paintings cheaply and reframed them to hide the damage. Notoriously poor at his record keeping, it was impossible to substantiate his claims of having one or two really valuable items in his collection, which she has been selling off a little at a time ever since. This was one of his favorites, and sentimentality has left it to be amongst the last of the collection to be sold.

The PC then has a choice: he can buy the painting at the asking price and try to have it authenticated, making a substantial profit if he succeeds; he can tell Marit that he thinks it might be a more valuable painting and offer a fair price for an unauthenticated Dentro, taking some risk himself but still making a profit if he’s right; or he can take sympathy on Marit and attempt to get the painting authenticated before she sells it. Or he can even hope that it doesn’t sell and try to steal it after the fair; it would be too awkward to attempt to do so now.

Unless the PC is both very careful in what he says and how he says it, AND succeeded in making his Appraise check (DC 18, so he needs 11 or less), a couple of members of the local thief’s guild will overhear enough to convince them to steal the painting. They are based in the cellar of the Blighted Unicorn, a nearby tavern of disreputable character. There are four rogues in total in the village. They aren’t very successful because there isn’t a lot to steal in these parts, and they aren’t very skilled.

Wrapping up the example

Where this adventure ultimately goes is now up to the player. He has a very diverse set of options, and so does the GM. If the thief’s guild twig that he has supporters/allies/fellow PCs to back him up (perhaps after a failed attempt to get the painting), one of them might make contact with a more competent cousin who is part of a larger thief’s guild in a nearby city, posing a somewhat bigger challenge. Depending on what the PCs decide to do, the GM can decide whether or not the painting really is a genuine Dentro or is a fake. What matters more than the outcome in terms of authenticity is the story of getting to that point.

Expanding the example

The GM could have another member of the party add substance to the theory that this is an undiscovered Dentro by getting a historian or priest to speculate on the incident that it comments on. The abbey might actually have entered a state of disrepair, or might be a metaphor for the Bishop’s flock. The party might have to travel to the nearby city and persuade/hire an expert to come and authenticate the painting. The expert they hire might be unscrupulous and deny it’s authenticity – while planning to steal it for himself. There might be a lost treasure involved, if the Bishop was greedy – and there might be a clue in the painting, when it is closely examined. There could be rival heirs, one nice and one nasty, and allegations that the painting was stolen (whether it was or not). Perhaps there’s a curse involved.

Or perhaps the legend of the PC at the village fair will grow and take on a life of its own (because it’s a good story) and forever after, he will be plagued with people bringing out their paintings for him to take a look at, “do you think it’s worth anything…?” Which would be ironic – choosing a skill because the character hadn’t used it very often and making it a recurring theme of his life.

How much you get from the technique is up to you, as is how big to make the resulting adventure. The one thing that is certain is that you will show off a side of the character that doesn’t get a lot of air-time, and get a decent mini-adventure. Anything more is a bonus.


On a completely unrelated subject:

Berin Kinsman dropped CM a line the other day to tell us about his latest project in hopes that it would be interesting to me, and that I would do him the favor of promoting it. I thought I would pass on the favor to my readers. Beren’s been a longtime supporter of my writing, from even before Campaign Mastery came alone, so any opinion I might offer could be viewed as tainted – so I won’t, I’ll leave readers to make up their own minds. Except to say that people like Beren, Lucas from City Of Brass, and Fitz (aka Brian Fitzpatrick) from Moebius Adventures are the sort of people that we want to encourage within our industry!

So anyway, here’s what Berin had to say:
quote start 45

For the last year I’ve been pouring my life into a new project called ReadWriteRoll, a roleplaying game based on the way stories are told. Now I’m launching a crowdfunding page to publish it.

The IndieGoGo campaign page is here: [or click on the image] and there is a free 9-page Preview at Drive-Thru RPG. You can read more about ReadWriteRoll here:

It’d mean the world to me if you’d help spread the word! Let everyone on Twitter and Facebook know, and keep talking ReadWriteRoll up in groups and forums! If you mention ReadWriteRoll on a podcast, vlog, or blog, let me know so I can share some reciprocal link love! Thanks!
– Berin Kinsman

I like the premise, and look forward to seeing what the finished product looks like. You might, too. If you do, the only way to make it happen is to back the project, so give it some thought!

Comments (5)

Support Your Local Hero

business superman 4 by Piotr Bizior

business superman 4 by / Piotr Bizior

Heroism is part and parcel of most fantasy campaigns and certainly central to Pulp and Superheroic Campaigns. In fact, most campaigns, driven by the need for drama, will incorporate heroism in some fashion, whether that be from greed/opportunity, enlightened self-interest, or the real deal.

How can heroism stem from greed/opportunity? Heroism is doing the right thing despite the risks and dangers that you are exposed to in the process. So the question is whether or not there is any reason why greed might lead a character to do the right thing despite danger – and there is an obvious yes answer to that question. It might be as simple as playing the hero as camouflage, or to eliminate potential rivals, or because you need to stop a mutual enemy. The Shards Of Divinity campaign was all about characters being forced to do “the right thing” because at every step, they were compelled to do so for their own benefit or advantage.

Heroism can only exist where there is opportunity for it, and those opportunities come in three distinct varieties. There’s local heroism, also sometimes referred to as “street” heroism; there’s migratory or “passing” heroism; and there’s uber-heroism, which deals with international and cosmic-level threats. A good campaign will contain a balanced mixture of all three – but everyone has a different balance point.

Today I’m going to take a look at the three brands of heroism and the whole question of balance – and, if all goes well, I will blur the boundaries between them quite a bit. Which is, of course, the opposite of what most people try and do when analyzing anything – but bear with me, and it should all make sense in the end.

But we start with the bedrock…

Primal Heroism – Us Vs. Them

When you’re defending yourself, can it be counted as Heroism? Sure it can – all you have to do is expose yourself to greater risk than the average citizen, and that happens automatically as soon as you actually do fight. This is Heroism at its most primal, because it bypasses so much social and moral baggage that is normally associated with the term.


As soon as a character determines that he and his cronies are “the best people for the job”, i.e. those most likely to succeed, even if it puts them at temporarily greater risk, you’re into a primal heroism situation. Now, that’s normally not a good enough reason for non-altruistic individuals to actually put themselves at risk – but there can be all sorts of motivational variations that plug that gap. It might be that if the characters don’t take advantage of this opportunity to act, they will have no opportunity to escape the danger if the mission fails – which means that they are actually minimizing their long-term risk by accepting a greater share of it in the short-term. Or it might simply be that they are control freaks and can’t abide critical decisions that affect them being taken without their input. Or maybe they think that the potential gains are greater than the risks – others will risk less but gain nothing – and greed is the decisive factor. Or it might be greed for authority, or respect, or fame. Or any one of those might be a stepping stone to something that the characters want to achieve.

Regardless of the reasons, this sort of conflict is the bedrock of RPGs. Only the furniture changes.


As such, it’s very easy to integrate this type of heroism into a plot – it’s often their without being recognized as Heroism, per se. All it takes is a gunslinger from out of town who starts shooting at anyone who gets in their way, or the cultural equivalent.

Even if players are not initially inclined to put themselves at risk, it can be relatively easy for the GM to apply psychological manipulation to the situation. “So are you really willing to risk your life to someone else’s attempts to deal with [the emergency]?” “Do you really trust them not to turn the rewards of success into an additional handicap for you to overcome?” Heck, even a simple “Are you really sure you want to do that?” can be enough to get players second-guessing a decision not to get involved.

Any time a situation can be described as “Us vs [x]” with the characters at risk due to that conflict – and GMs try very hard to put the PCs at risk in any in-game conflict, because it gets pretty dull otherwise – you have a situation in which the PCs are forced to behave heroically.


That said, there are a myriad of different tones that can be adopted. The tone depends on a combination of factors: How the players really feel about getting involved, how they seek to actually portray their involvement, how the enemy are perceived, how the enemy respond and react – and what happens. Anything from desperation to outrage is possible.

There’s a great danger in the ubiquity of this form of conflict, and that is that it can feel meaningless and empty at the game table – just another ho-hum combat encounter. To avoid that, you need the tone of the conflict to not only be strong and clear, but interesting and richly complex – and extremely distinctive from other such encounters that may have been experienced recently. You have to make the PCs care about what happens in some way.

Roleplay Opportunities

Players don’t often spend five minutes having their characters psychoanalyze themselves at any point in a combat encounter. At best, the player might articulate a broad general summary of what their character is thinking and/or feeling, so as to justify a decision and have NPCs react appropriately – especially if a decision might seem out-of-character.

The same is true of any story which is not told in the first person, to at least some extent.

As a general rule of thumb, our primary conduit to what a character thinks and feels is to see it demonstrated to us through their interactions with others. In an RPG, that happens through roleplay.

Opportunities to roleplay before, during, or after a conflict encounter don’t happen by accident. The GM has to create them intentionally. In particular, many GMs (myself included) find it hard to integrate natural in-game dialogue with combat – so much so that I have a strong preference for employing cinematic combat techniques whenever I think dialogue will be important within the encounter.

It’s part of your job as GM to make it happen when interaction – verbal or non-verbal – is called for by the situation.

Picture Framing

The GM articulates the tone by the manner and content in everything he says that is not being stated in character. The terminology that he uses, his tone of voice, his body language, the other senses that he engages or represents to the players – these are his tools. Context is also important; the context has to match up with the other tonal elements or the GM is sending mixed messages to the players.

If you are threatening the PCs with an enemy who has been victorious in every encounter it has had (at least until now), doom and gloom are the order of the day. Cracking jokes, even out-of-character, means that the tone does not match the context. If the PCs are motivated by greed, then the GM’s descriptions of anything indicating wealth should be fulsome, while descriptions of anything suggestive of poverty should be scant. Even poverty itself should be treated as “the absence of a display of wealth”.

In Primal-heroism encounters, the GM has the widest possible latitude in terms of the choices that he can make with respect to his language; but that diversity comes with the necessity to be clear and focused or the encounter will seem dull and trivial. Once you select a narrative theme or style, you have to stick with it.

Social Conscience vs The Profit Motive

There are those who feel that actions cannot be heroic if they are motivated by profit, or even primarily by self-defense; that true heroism is both altruistic and in defense or rescue of others. To a certain extent, I even agree; but reality is more complicated than that. Certainly, those qualities describe the most noble and pure form of Heroism; but that does not mean that characters cannot be heroic in their absence.

One of the debates that has ranged in comics circles since the 1960s is the question of whether or not Green Lantern, a man without fear, can ever have his actions deemed courageous; the argument is that courage lies in the overcoming of fear. Indeed, there are those who questioned whether or not a man who did not feel fear could plausibly achieve his “civilian” career as a test-pilot; surely he would have been grounded long before as a danger to himself and others? Test a new jet aircraft? You shouldn’t even let such a man get behind the wheel!

The solution to that particular argument is relevant to our question. First, the outward perception of an inability to feel fear – a calm head at all times, a methodical, dispassionate, and almost clinical appraisal of every situation in which the character finds himself is exhibited by test pilots and astronauts all the time, and was almost certainly the inspiration for the Hal Jordan character. That perception was then fattened into hyperbole by the editors and writers, trying to get things across to the reader in the most direct and abbreviated manner possible so that they could get on with the story. You can feel fear all you want to – but if it doesn’t cause you to hesitate in a crisis, and never interferes with your clarity of thought, then you can be said to be “without fear”. And that makes any assumption of personal risk to benefit or protect others just as courageous – just because you’re willing to accept the consequences (whatever they might be) doesn’t mean that you aren’t aware of the risks. Courage is therefore something broader than simply overcoming fear.

In exactly the same way, Heroism is something broader than that noble ideal; it can be tarnished and tainted and still be heroic. Heroism for venal reasons – “I’m getting paid very well to rescue you” – is still heroism. It might be a different kind of heroism – a more pragmatic, dispassionate kind – but it’s still Heroism.

Just thought I ought to clear that up.

Local Heroism

As soon as you take direct self-protection out of the equation, you’re talking about something more complex in terms of the form of Heroism. There are many different varieties of this more universal Heroism, but the dominant factor, as I implied earlier, is scale of threat. Things get a little more interesting when you examine the characteristics of these different forms of Heroism.

The simplest of them is “Local Heroism” or “Street Heroism”. It gets that name because that’s where it manifests.


A bully is pushing some local around, and our PC decides to do something about it because he simply doesn’t like bullies. That’s street heroism. A gang is forcing the local businesses to pay protection money, and one or all of the PCs decides to do something about it before they attract unwanted attention to the district – that’s also Heroism, though it may be tainted by the benefit that the PCs expect to gain. Both are examples of Street Heroism, and they both highlight the dominant characteristic of this form of Heroism: the motive.

In the first case, the PC might be Heroic, and this is one aspect of his personality; he might be villainous, and this is a redeeming quality. Or he might be neutral, and this is one aspect of the character that is more altruistic – but it’s balanced by others of a darker nature, such as opportunism. In an “Us Vs. Them” situation, motivation doesn’t matter, though it may color the events; in Local Heroism, it does, and needs to be taken into account as a primary influence by the GM in the way he handles the encounter.


The Hero System makes it easy – any regular deviation from enlightened self-interest is described by a Psychological Limitation which specifies its nature, its scope, and its intensity of influence over the character. There is, in effect, a “button” that the GM can push, and there is a quantified degree of influence over the PCs or NPCs behavior.

Things are more open in other RPGs, more subject to the definitions of personality employed by whoever is running the character. As a general rule of thumb, players and GMs can be guided by alignment, but this is an abstracted and simplified expression of a far more complex phenomenon. The most Lawful Evil can have a redeeming quality; the most Anarchic Chaotic can decide to help a stranger on a whim. Or not. So alignment is only the start of the story, defining whether or not the behavior of the character in this specific case is part of a pattern, or is an exception to that pattern.

In games without predefined “buttons”, all the GM can do is put a potential encounter in front of the PCs and let them decide how to react. So plot-wise, these also tend to be relatively small and simple.

That’s not to say that they are necessarily quick. One of the first problems to be tackled by Zenith-3 was the local Capo, Johnny Luca – who had total control over the local and state courts, had several members of the Police Force and even a few FBI agents under his wing, was the biggest single contributor to the Mayor’s and Governor’s most recent election campaigns (and had his thugs ‘fix’ the results, to boot, because that meant that his donation only had to make the outcome seem plausible to lull the public). It took a year of gaming and gathering evidence and allies before they succeeded in ousting Luca and cleaning up the city in which they were based, Boston. (It took another 5 years of gaming to achieve the same thing nationally. Even that didn’t completely erase the apparatus that organized crime had set up; it simply forced those who they had corrupted to resign, following the capture of incontrovertible proof against them).

Nor do these plots have to be free of broader ramifications. If the problem is contained within a single locality, its’ Local Heroism if the PCs act against the problem despite a risk.


The tone of these adventures/encounters is far less unrestricted than was the case for Primal Heroism. That’s because motivation is a player-supplied factor, and it dominates all the other criteria that dictate tone. At best, the GM might have a limited palette to draw upon; at worst, that palette will contain only a single shade, and the tone of the encounter was fixed by the context, circumstances, and participants, from the moment it was conceived.

Roleplay Opportunities

There’s a big difference between paying lip service to a motivation, effectively using it as nothing more than a justification, and actually making that motivation a demonstrated trait of the individual; the first feels tacked on, skin deep, and rings more than a little hollow; the second uses the motivation as a spotlight to illuminate the personality. But demonstrating a trait requires more than simply acting in accordance with the motivation; it requires the player to manifest the trait in a roleplaying context, to give it substance within the game.

The more strongly removed from the norm for the character, the more it needs to be roleplayed because it is an exception. The more symbolic of the entire personality it might be, on the other hand, the more it needs to be roleplayed for that reason. Only if the motivation or action is neither highly unusual nor representative of a broader personality does it not need to be roleplayed – leaving the character free to interact with others who have stronger motivations, in the form of roleplay.

In fact, many conspicuous examples of local heroism do not require combat at all, and are handled entirely within an in-personality in-game context. Take that bully example once again; while the PC could initiate combat, he could also simply intimidate the bully, or bribe him, or summon the authorities, or organize a street coalition against the bully. Only one of those options calls for full combat mechanics; the others can be handled either by roleplay or by a more cinematic combat resolution technique.

Picture Framing

Greater restriction in one aspect of the encounter leads to reduced capacity for variety in the tone and language that are used to describe the encounter. With the player taking the lead, via his character, in terms of how this type of encounter will be perceived, you need to follow that lead; this makes this one of the more difficult types of encounter to handle well (it is so ubiquitous that practice leaves it relatively easy to actually handle).

A safe default is often to use almost intimate tones and language, though it might be unclear to what part of the experience the character is relating. Specifics will need to be resolved in terms of the context of this encounter and recent history, however. “It feels good to be able to stretch yourself, to exert yourself in a cause you know is worthy with no doubts or hesitation to cloud the issues.” “You exult inside as your foe quails before your remorseless fury.”

An alternative that also works on most occasions if prepared properly, and not over-used, is to cast everything in terms of a metaphor. One of the most common (and hence the hardest to excel at – the bar is higher) is Dance. “Your foe shuffles to one side.” “Staccato footsteps leave your target uncertain of the direction from which your next attack will come; he steps nimbly back, and sweeps low in a grand gesture, trusting in the knowledge that you have to be somewhere.” “You whirl to face your new ‘dance partner'”.

Any activity that occurs in a patterned manner can be used in this way, though some may be more work than others. Weather metaphors often prove easier than you expect. I once used the construction of a building as the central metaphor for a combat – ironically, one that took place in a crumbling ruin.

Requiring the most prep work, and the greatest knowledge of the PC, is to use his or her life as the metaphor. “He presents as large a target as Fat Willy.” “He lumbers like Big Jim Deakon, and hits as hard as the ox on Jim’s farm”. You can sometimes approximate this by generalizing – if the PC was reared on a farm, a generic “farm boy” perspective might be close enough to get you to a narrative touchdown.

Also, while all the examples offered above are taken from combat, the same metaphor should extend into the pre- and post- combat narrative as well.

Finally, it is very easy to overuse the simile in these cases. I make it a rule of thumb to avoid them except in the case of the PCs life experience as the metaphor. A simile uses comparisons as descriptive technique – “Blood gushes as red as a rose”, “He might as well be in the neighboring village for all the chance he has of hitting you”, “His armor is polished like a prized trophy”. Save these for when nothing else will do, or when you get extra mileage from them – that’s why I employ them in the most personal of the metaphors, because its a way of making the characters’ background more accessible to the players at the game table.

One final technique for advanced GMs that is rarely useful, but can be incredibly effective when it is relevant, is the inverted role. When most GMs first start out, they use loaded terminology in their descriptions – positive/light for the heroic PCs and their actions, negative/dark for the evil NPCs. The inverted role simply reverses these – describe PC actions in grim and menacing terms, and use lighter, more positive and enthusiastic language for the NPCs. This is especially effective when the crowd aren’t sure who they should be barracking for, or are supporting “the wrong side” from the perspective of the PCs, because it employs the perspective of an onlooker. You can even embed dynamic shifts in the narrative as a subtext, for example the crowd getting swept up in the sport of the battle, and losing partisan perspective in favor of simple blood-lust, or starting off supporting one side and slowly transferring their allegiance to the other by virtue of the gallantry and other qualities shown on the battlefield. Villains can reveal their true natures to the crowd by low blows and other forms of “cheating”, for example. Do this right, and you never actually have to announce that the crowd are now supporting the other side to their initial loyalties; it becomes self-evident from the narrative language you are employing.

Sidebar: How Small is Too Small?

There can be a very fine line between battles that are too small and trivial to qualify as heroic and those that are a microcosm of a much larger or more significant contest. The question of “how small is too small” is one that varies with a great many other factors.

Nevertheless, the odds have to be either strongly against the character, or the numbers alone have to be overwhelming, or the conflict has to be extraordinarily epic in some other fashion, before an action can be considered Heroic.

A small group against a dragon, or an army? Those are heroic. Make it a kitten, or an army of geriatric old men, and suddenly it presents a different impression. If anything, the scale of the danger posed by these latter examples undercuts the drama of the conflict to become almost comedic.

Passing Heroism – the hero as wanderer

It’s a tale as old as the concept of heroism – wanderer comes into town, vanquishes the evil that is lurking there, and wanders off in search of the next adventure. This is certainly part of the conceptual bedrock of fantasy gaming.

And yet, due to its simplicity and elegance, it is often forgotten in the modern rush to create greater, more layered, more complex, more textural experiences and stories. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your campaign is to reset the bar of complexity with just such a simple, elegant, situation. Think for a moment of all the things that such a plotline can do for you: it gives the PCs a breather from complex and difficult moral decisions; it gives them a chance to be heroic; it gives them a holiday from complicated and often interlinked problems, permitting them to recharge their batteries; and it permits a clear and resounding victory with none of the strings that a broader campaign-orientation attaches.


In every way except that of scale, this can be considered the opposite side of the coin to “Local Heroism”. By definition, the situation is not local to the Hero. But, where there were questions over what can be considered heroic at the local scale, there are none at all with this form of heroism because the characters can simply keep going and not get involved; it follows that any risk at all is a risk they do not have to take, and by definition, is therefore heroic to at least some degree. Even the risk of delaying something more important is enough to justify this as an example of Heroism.


The recipe for this type of plotline is simplicity itself – PCs arrive somewhere, discover that there is a problem, and decide to solve it rather than standing idly by, or moving on. The problem is self-contained, small enough to be purely local (though it may be symptomatic of a wider problem), but involvement poses some risk to the PCs. The degree of heroism depends on two factors: how great the quantifiable risks are, and how much of the risk is unquantifiable and unknown. The final ingredient is that the problem has to be large enough that the locals cannot overcome it of their own accord, even should they band together to do so.

Almost any menace can work effectively as the antagonist in this type of plot – accidents, extremes of weather, natural disasters, misguided intentions, or outright malice. I find it good policy, in general, to make the problem as different to the established normal as possible, for one simple reason: until the PCs discover the complications, the normal plotlines, with their campaign=level complexities and over-arching narratives, all look like this sort of situation.

Favorite examples include officiating at a difficult wedding, reuniting two star-crossed lovers, resolving a property dispute, and so on – all simple, small problems. I don’t care, as a general rule of thumb, if dice are never picked up in such a game session, and everything is solved by talking; that in itself can be a change-of-pace. I then throw in sufficient challenge to keep everyone in the PCs party involved, even if that requires an unrelated problem to coincide with the first – though I will always look to connect the two. Take that difficult wedding between two families who don’t like each other very much – a McCoys-and-Hatfields who have finally established a truce and are looking at this wedding as a way to bind all parties to that truce – all you need is someone bent on stirring up trouble for their own benefit, or an assassin who has confused one of the parties for someone he has been contracted to hunt down (and who escaped a previous encounter with the assassin through good fortune), or something along those lines, and you have plenty to make for an interesting diversion from the routine.

I look upon this sort of plot as a “palette cleanser” for the campaign, and it is this application that I alluded to as a way of “resetting the bar of complexity” in a campaign. You can grow over-familiar with anything, given enough exposure to it; when players stop seeing the richness of detail within a complex plotline and begin to find the convoluted layers of significance and interlocking of plotlines tiresome, you are overdue for such a “campaign cleanser”.

There are other applications that are worth considering. Such simple plotlines are a great way to give the PCs a “health report” on the game world – what are the locals concerned about? How have they been affected by recent events? How does the big picture translate to the small scale? It’s a reality check, and a form of R&R for the players, at the same time.


Simplicity and clarity are paramount to this style of adventure. Beyond that, you want a contrast with your normal campaign style, the better to balance the overall campaign; so, if “grim and serious” is the normal tone, I might go for “romantic” or “slapstick”, or even both.

Roleplay Opportunities

This type of adventure typically explores entirely different aspects of a characters’ personality from the norm. That means that roleplaying opportunities abound.

I once had a combat junkie as one of my players; he was never completely satisfied unless he got to flex his character’s muscles in the course of an adventure. He was a good roleplayer, but was never happy unless this itch was scratched routinely. When the time came for a “Passing Heroism” holiday in that campaign, I thought long and hard about how meet this need within the context of the adventure. The answer: a county fair, with a rigged strength-testing machine and an unscrupulous carnival barker. The player absolutely loved it, and got into the spirit of the whole thing, first despairing at “the wasting away of his manliness” and the “withering of flesh” that would inevitably follow his strength deserting him; a near-total collapse of confidence and creeping apathy and despair; then an accidental encounter with a runaway bull, which showed that his “virtue” was undiminished; and then roping the party cleric into a scheme as a fellow conspirator in a private quest to prove the game was rigged, and punish the unscrupulous Carnie. None of which had anything at all to do with the main plot of the adventure (gophers attacking the town cemetery), but which entertained not only the participants but the entire table.

And the heroism? It turned out that the gopher tunnels were a means of accessing a mass necromantic ritual which would raise the entire population of the cemetery as a new form of undead, one which only had to touch another dead body to also raise it as undead. “Viral undead” as it was. Of course, it wasn’t the creepy old recluse who was responsible, it was a young shepherd boy who had stumbled over a vile shrine while tending his master’s flock…

Picture Framing

Contrast with the norm is also the guiding principle when it comes to narrative. Complex and rich descriptive passages should give way to elegant and simple, for example.

It would be nice if this were also a break for the GM, but alas, this sort of adventure often needs more game prep than normal, simply because most of it is a one-off. But it is a different type of adventure, and a change is often almost as good as a holiday, as the saying goes. In particular, simple and elegant can be a lot harder to prepare and make effective and interesting than more flowery alternatives.

Some of the most fiendish writing exercises I’ve encountered stem from this challenge. “A man sits at a table. Now, make it interesting. 50 words.” “A woman walks through a doorway. Now make it emotional. 100 words.” Things of that nature.

I knew as soon as I quoted those challenges that someone would want me to include my responses to those writing exercises. In fact, the idea was that you would repeat the challenge for twenty days in a row (with weekends off) and could never utilize the same plot device a second time. The first time tends to be easy. The tenth time is tough. The twentieth time is sheer hell, because all the easy answers have been taken; so there’s not a lot of value in presenting my answers to the challenges. Besides that, I’m not 100% confident of getting this article finished in time as it is.

Passing Heroism II – something wicked this way comes

The third side of the coin – to get all existential on you – is where the opportunity for heroism comes to the character, and not the other way around.


Once again, this is an opportunity to contrast the usual fair with something different.

One of the greater challenges to this mode of heroic adventure is distinguishing it from Local Heroism and Primal heroism. The trick is to confine the threat to the individual PC or PCs affected while making the situation an indirect threat, so that self-defense is not invoked. That is best achieved by having a concurrent plotline in which the quality being threatened in the first is essential to a successful resolution of the second. For example, the threat might be to the character’s reputation, just as he has to use that reputation as leverage to a tricky negotiation of some sort, or to offer a character reference to someone in court.

Because the plot is coming to the PCs, this can actually be an opportunity to develop one or more of the main plotlines of the campaign, as you can see from those examples. The opportunity for Passing Heroism becomes the challenge that has to be overcome in order to achieve the larger campaign goal, even though the only commonality is the PC or PCs.


My favorite use for this type of adventure is a heavily supernatural or horror-based plotline, but there are times when “the fastest gun” is a viable alternative. “My uncle thinks I’m a wastrel, and won’t let me inherit the mill until I beat one of you at something, fair and square. So, [PC name], I challenge you to…” and the day after, it will be something else, and the day after that, something else again, and so on. At first, these challenges will be simple, and things that the NPC is used to, but he will make poor choices of opponent; but, like the writing exercise earlier, by the time he begins choosing opponents more cleverly, all the simple challenges will be used up. (This idea came from the first season of Survivor, which gives you some idea of the nature of the challenges).


Tone is dependent on the nature of the adventure. For a horror/supernatural plotline, I will go full-creepy on the players; for the fastest gun, it might be tragic, or a light-hearted romp, or (something very alien to my usual milieu) Western.

Roleplay Opportunities

While there are some of these inherent in the basic concept, this type of Heroism doesn’t lend itself to more intensive roleplay than usual.

Picture Framing

In terms of narrative, the style of the plot and the overall tone of the adventure are dominant, and leave little scope for alternatives.

You can occasionally get creative; I once ran the entire adventure as though it were a tale being told around a campfire, from the perspective of an NPC, making the players both participants and audience, and filling the narrative with Noir-ish first-person asides to them. Only at the end of the story, when the (unidentified) listeners had departed, did the tale-teller arise and reveal himself to be someone else completely to the person the players thought they were dealing with. Only then did it become clear that the NPC was warning another (who would shortly become a major threat) against continuing in a course of action that would bring him into conflict with the PCs. Of course, the warning was not heeded – but this had the metagame effect of telling the players of this threat on the horizon without the characters knowing about it. They spent most of the next adventure jumping at shadows and waiting for the other shoe to drop… It worked well at the time, but it was very stressful to GM in that fashion, because the game system wasn’t really geared to interactive retro-active storytelling by the players; it was difficult to integrate the past-tense of the storyteller with the present-tense of the PCs. So I haven’t been in any hurry to repeat the exercise; this is definitely an advanced technique.

Uber-Heroism – the national/international threat/crisis

Most campaigns will, most of the time, consist of the preceding types of opportunity for Heroism, and exceptions tend to be confined to specific genres and sub-genres. This category represents a clear escalation in scope, and as such, is often reserved for the grand climax of a campaign. In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, few adventures take place at this scale, though many have the potential to escalate to this scope if villainous plots are not stopped in time, though there have been more exceptions than would be normal for most Fantasy campaigns. This level of threat is more common in the Zenith-3 campaign, but even there, many adventures are smaller in scope – though with global ramifications.


Opportunities for Heroism clearly rise with the increase in threat level posed by this class of adventure. In terms of structure, the defining characteristic lies in how advanced the nefarious plot is when the PCs are able to do something about it (they may have known it was coming for quite some time).

In truth, confining threats this large to a single adventure is difficult unless they are treated as being “just part of the furniture”. More commonly, an entire campaign is devoted to the purpose, or – at the very least – a campaign phase (refer to Definitions and the Quest For Meaning in Structure if you aren’t clear on what I mean by the term). The threat is accepted as too large for the PCs to solve except from time to time in a more localized way.

That’s certainly how the Nazi apparatus is viewed in the Adventurer’s Club. When that campaign started, the Nazis were dominant in Germany, and were admired for the economic progress the nation had made; few saw them as a threat. Over time, the awareness has slowly crept in that eventually there will be another European War, and various efforts have been made to defuse or allay that threat; but, by and large, the PCs have dealt with individuals and individual operations. Fascism itself is too broad a problem to fall within the purview of the Adventurer’s Club. As our plans currently stand for the campaign, World War II will be about to start just as the campaign ends – several PCs are from Commonwealth Nations, who will expect to get called up almost immediately War is declared, effectively tearing the Club (and the campaign) apart. I’m not even sure, off the top of my head, whether or not Austria has been annexed yet (but I don’t think so).


In general, these adventures either start small and escalate as the scale of the threat becomes apparent, or start with a bang when the villainous plan is already well advanced.


These adventures lend themselves to drama; they tend to be bigger than life, over-the-top in one or more respects. Whatever tone is to be adopted is necessarily an overtone within that range.

Roleplay Opportunities

Heroism tends to imply action – there’s not a lot of passive resistance in RPGs. Action tends to drown out roleplay, unless the GM makes special efforts. Quite often, roleplay exists only to deliver context and background to the PCs in this type of adventure; they tend to be far more about going somewhere and doing something. However, it’s always possible for the players to throw a surprise in your direction; for example, when we ran Amazon Nazis On The Moon in 2015 (the Adventurer’s Club campaign, of course), the players decided to disguise themselves as Nazis to get as far into the Amazon City as possible before making their move. The result was that we had to invent additional Amazonian society and infrastructure on the spot, and quite a lot of what might have been combat encounters was in fact roleplayed.

As a general rule of thumb, though, that choice is out of the GM’s hands. The plot is a boulder rushing downhill; once it starts rolling, all the GM can do is get out of the way and wait to see how the players will respond.

Picture Framing

The other truism that will be noted is that as GMing options decline in terms of plot control, so the choices of tone and narrative style also shrink. At this scale, the dominant factors are the plotline and its context and the response of the players.

Uber-heroism II – the global/cosmic threat

Top of the tree when it comes to threat, and therefore, to opportunities for Heroism, is the threat to all existence, or so it might seem at first glance. But these threats are so colossal that the specter of actions taken in self-defense again rear up before us. That doesn’t mean that there’s no scope for heroism in this adventures, just that they are more of a minefield than it might initially appear.

At the primal level, the questions were of a threat of sufficient scope to make heroism possible; at this end of the scale, its whether or not anything is or can be achieved by heroic action.

If there is a cosmic threat that the PCs can successfully oppose at little personal risk, incurring a high level of collateral damage, or can oppose more uncertainly with far greater personal risk and the potential for a much lower level of collateral damage, the latter course is heroic.


Despite the scope of the threat, it is a common characteristic of all cosmic-level threats that they have some PC-scale focal point, enabling the PCs to act effectively against them. Quite often, the general plotline is one of investigate, survive, and take opportunities as they present themselves until that focal point can be identified. Quite often, it is not a direct action that ultimately resolves Cosmic threats, but an action that starts a string of progressively larger dominoes falling. “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world” to quote Archimedes; these adventures are all about fulfilling those requirements.

In the meantime, characters tend to deal with second-order effects – consequences – and with localized manifestations of the bigger problem. If there’s an army of demons invading, you fight them one demon, or small groups, at a time, to buy yourself time to solve the larger problem, and that holds plenty of scope for heroism.

It’s not a Deus-ex-machina if it only happens at PC instigation.


If it’s rare for a national crisis or international threat to be resolved in one adventure, it is even more rare for a cosmic-level threat to be so isolated. It does happen – my players will remember the World of strange lines, and the adventure set there, “Reflections Of Strange Lines” – I discuss the meaning and relevance of the title in Hints, Metaphors, and Mindgames: Naming Adventures (Part 2). In brief, the PCs stumble across a cosmic-level threat that is poised to escape the prison in which it has been bottled up, and re-lock the prison gate. It’s not a permanent solution – the threat is still out there – but all the immediacy has been taken out of the situation.

But that’s an exception, not the general rule. On almost all other occasions that come to mind, cosmic-level adventures that are resolved in the scope of the one adventure were unsatisfying because there wasn’t enough scope to make them as epic as they should have been.


Cosmic almost demands melodrama; Cosmic-level threats are always over-the-top in at least one respect. There is some scope for nuance, but for the most part your focus has to be tickling an increasingly-jaded sense of awe and wonder.

Roleplay Opportunities

Surprisingly, there can be quite a large capacity for roleplay in cosmic-level plots, because for the most part, characters can’t deal with the whole, only a small segment of the bigger picture. Even resolving the primary threat means reducing it to character-sized chunks – and that, in turn, makes it small enough for character interaction.

Picture Framing

One of the other problems that will be faced is that cosmic-level threats tend to be complicated and technical. Clarity in description has to be your primary goal, and what little scope remains for descriptive tone is more than consumed by the mandatory tonal requirements – awe and melodrama. What little tonal differentiation is possible must be achieved within the scope of those requirements.

That represents a special challenge for the GM to overcome, and can lead to the impression that all Cosmic-level threats are tonally identical.

The solution to this problem is to ensure that there is a consistent tonal quality when the action focuses on the smaller scale sub-problems, where you have greater latitude to pick and choose. The dominant tonal themes in such passages of “Reflections Of Strange Lines”, for example, were curiosity and reflection (in the emotional sense).

Comparing the opportunities

When I first began planning this article, I expected a relatively orderly progression in the characteristics of each type of Opportunity for Heroism. In some respects – tonal freedom, for example – that was what I found. But in others, such as roleplaying opportunities, and even whether or not actions could qualify as Heroism, a far more complicated picture emerged. Cosmic level threats exhibit some of the same problems in this respect as primal Us-Vs-Them situations, for example. There are similarities across all the examples at a given scale of Heroic Challenge – but there are differences as well. Each classification has at least one parameter in common with another. Taken as a whole, there is very little consistency and yet there is a general cohesiveness to the overall picture that emerges.

Conclusion: Heroism Is As Heroes Do

GMs are always looking to confront the PCs with challenges. Unless each and every decision is taken on purely self-interested grounds, that automatically manifests in opportunities for Heroism; alignment doesn’t matter, nobility is irrelevant, altruism or its lack makes no difference, except to the scale and “purity” of the Heroism; and even when all decisions are based in pure self-interest, there is still scope for reluctant heroism.

The opposite of Heroism is villainy (not cowardice) – and, since an opportunity for Heroism is also an opportunity for Villainy, thinking about your adventures in terms of the opportunities for Heroism that they provide is a very useful tool. The next time you are doing campaign or adventure planning, give it some thought. In particular, contemplate the significance of any absence of such opportunities, and make sure that your PCs aren’t in the adventure purely to plod from A to B, in plot terms.

Heroes are characters who make a difference. Villains are characters who take advantage of opportunities to be Heroic, for their own gain. You want the PCs in your games to be one or the other – a mealymouthed wishy-washy character somewhere in between benefits no-one.

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New-player Character Immersion Issues: Gambling To An Answer

Skydiving by Piotr Dorabiala)

(Image: / Piotr Dorabiala)

A Guest Article by Jack Hank
You’re a GM in charge of new campaign featuring a group of novices that aren’t quite sure how to assume the guise of a character. So what’s your next move?

Ingratiating new players into a game in the hope of building a successful campaign is never easy and there are myriad of reasons why a novice might not be able to gel with their teammates.

When we explored the idea of overcoming a mental block and getting players to go against something they believe in (such as supporting the KKK in the Sons of The Serpent plotline of the Adventurer’s Club campaign), the solution was to think around the situation, and look at aspects of the history of patriotism which could be used to justify the support of white workers in the Deep South (You can read more about that problem and solution at ‘There Is A Hole In Your Mind…’: Solving Mental Block).

Similar principles can be applied to the problem of teaching new players how to step into character.

July Midnight by Myles Birket Foster

July Midnight by Myles Birket Foster, used in 1858 to illustrate “The poetical works of Edgar Allan Poe”.

Become a More Poetic GM

Having the ability to look beyond the scenario and come up with a creative way of building it into a game is a crucial skill every GM needs to hone. In fact, when we outlined our top tips for improving your descriptions of locations and scenes, I advised you to add a poetic element into your descriptions and keep them as concise as possible.

Taking this approach will not only add a new element of entertainment and depth to any game you control, but allow each player to become more immersed in the action. This will make the players more invested in the game, and in turn elicit more emotional responses from them. This is crucial when you’re playing with novices as they often tend to look at scenarios in a literal way and fail to fully embrace the fantasy element.

Indeed, the concept of hyperreality is one that’s been kicking around for a while in the RPG world. It basically refers to how fine the line between the game and a person’s perception of reality is. As a GM your goal is to thin that line as much as possible, but it’s not easy. Props, miniatures and visual media, such as photos in the Adventurer’s Club and Zenith-3campaigns, can all be used to make your games more immersive.

Poker Chips, Cards, and Dice by Steve Roberts)

(Image: / Steve Roberts)

Using Gambling Games to Enhance Immersion

But what about when this isn’t enough? One technique that’s useful when it comes to helping new players sink into their roles and play as their characters and not themselves is introducing mini-games.

One gaming arena where persona is king is the casino world. Games such as poker, blackjack and craps all require a certain mindset and, for the humble novice, this mindset is often guided by suave gamblers such as James Bond. Taking the psychological elements from the gambling world, you can actually enhance your own GM skills and, moreover, the experience of your players.

Of course, if you’re going to initiate a mini-game of blackjack in attempt to make players more immersed in their characters, you need to learn the rules of the game first. Even if you’re familiar with the game, you need to do your session preparation, as you will be acting as a croupier or inn-keeper who guides the characters and manages the game. Make sure you know about options like splitting and doubling down, which allows for doubling of a player’s initial wager under specific circumstances.

Do make sure you read up on the basics of blackjack, as you’re going to be embodying a NPC who is already very seasoned in this game. If you are not that cruel a GM, you might even want to give players a chance to “surrender”, a blackjack mechanic which allows for a player to forfeit their hand to take half their initial bet back.

Blackjack 2 by Tracy Scott-Murray

(Image: Blackjack 2 by / Tracy Scott-Murray)

Become a Better GM with Casino Games

Let’s take a look at a few scenarios from the gambling world that you can use to improve your GM skills when you’re playing any one of theleading tabletop RPGsor even their less massive counterparts.

The natural starting point for any GM wanting to host a mini-game is craps. Because you already have dice at hand, you can set up an impromptu game and encourage your players to compete in a way consummate with their character. In a nutshell, craps is a casino game that requires the player to correctly predict the outcome of a dice roll. So it’s a sweet and simple mechanic to introduce, while you’re encouraging your newbies to take active part in the storytelling, role playing experience as their characters rather than themselves.

Prepare the setting: An inn they visit after an adventure is a classic, for good reason. Someone challenges them – the innkeeper, another patron. Make him or her a well-rounded character with his own mannerisms. Now, the bets the players place have to be consistent with their character. If someone is supposed to be a courageous Warrior, they have to place bold bets such as hard totals. In contrast, a Half-Orc who was naturally drawn the short straw when it comes to intelligence should make unreasonable bets, for instance staking 45 gold on single roll when they only have 50 gold available to spend.

Roller coaster 2 by Vicky johnson)

(Image: Roller coaster 2 by / Vicky johnson)

Excitement Creates Better Characters

Because of the way our brains react to situations where the outcome is uncertain, we naturally attach a greater significance to the thought process that precedes any action we make. When we gamble, it creates a sense of anticipation and excitement and these natural highs produce certain physical responses.

As the endocrine system kicks into life it increases oxygen and glucose to the brain and this creates a sense of arousal that makes us more likely to act on an instruction. By creating a mini-game that focuses on gambling, you can stimulate this excitement response which, therefore, makes players more likely to follow your instructions and lose themselves in roles they (or you) have created.

Taking this a step further, you could take the game of blackjack and apply a similar process. After outlining the rules of the game, you can then instruct your players to assume their character’s persona and play as they would.

An intelligent mage could therefore study the odds, take note of the dealer’s face card and make moves based on solid game theory. Conversely, a reckless rogue could abandon all sense of logical strategy and simply play on impulse (i.e. relying on luck), or a seasoned fighter might rely more on his ability to “read” the opposition’s facial expressions and body language. The process of fusing gambling excitement with role playing should help put the players in a more malleable state and, therefore, more likely to sink into their roles, especially if said roles are new.

Role Playing Gamers at the Burg-Con in Berlin

Role Playing Gamers at the Burg-Con in Berlin (Image: Sargoth, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Embrace Risk in Your Next Campaign

As you can see, gambling mini-games are a great way of helpingWorld of Darknessor Fate players improve their role-playing skills. It can also be a very enjoyable experience, if we judge by spinoffs such as The Red Dragon Inn, which bases much of its action on gambling, with its 5 games and 16 expansions that have inbuilt gambling games and have proved popular in recent years.

Operating on the principle that an in-game element of risk and uncertainty are can enhance a campaign, gambling games can be introduced at any time to make players to sink deeper into their roles; gambling has the effect of pushing players into a new state of mind. Accomplish that by hosting your own mini-game or having your players participate in mandatory in-campaign games.

You’ll find that games such as blackjack and craps are a great way to help beginners become better players.

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 6: Challenges

Frame by Billy Alexander Dice Image by Armin Mechanist

Frame: / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke

I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the last part of the current block of three articles; the series will then take a break for a month or so.

I’m attempting to write this as though there were no problems with my laptop, in hopes of being able to post it as usual. If that doesn’t work, I have a plan B – and then a plan C

…which is exactly as far as I got before my system crashed once again – after working perfectly all day. As soon as I tried to type at anything approaching normal speed, the system died. All of which supports my current working theory that there is a crack in the circuit board – hit the wrong key too hard and bang!

So I am now on plan B, which involves an old USB keyboard – one that I haven’t used extensively for years, and that was a bit clunky (sticking keys etc) even before that – and the system is not crashing. It doesn’t prove the theory, but it goes some distance toward confirming it. Meanwhile, a longer-term solution is in the works, thanks to some generous friends and my upcoming Birthday.

The upshot is that I can still write, but with nothing even remotely resembling the speed and fluidity that I had achieved. Efficiency is down – and will be, for a while.

But enough about me, let’s get to the subject at hand…

One of the most controversial articles I’ve ever written was on the subject of challenges. That article was about the challenge-balancing architecture within the D&D game mechanics.

Every game that I can think of has something of the sort, either overt or embedded beneath the surface.

Certainly, a lot of other people have written on the same topic over the years. A Google search for “encounter balance” yields 123 million results. If you could read one a second, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, you would reach the end of them in about 11-ad-a-half years – assuming no more were written in that time. “Encounter Level” is another 123,000,000 results (it’s possible but unlikely that there would be 100% correlation between the two searches). “Challenge Rating”, which is intimately connected to the afore-mentioned D&D game mechanic, lists 145 million results.

That tells me two things: first, that a lot of people find the subject difficult; and second, that there are no shortage of people who think it’s important, or even essential.

Why is it so difficult?

Every group of PCs is different. They have different abilities, different stats, different imperatives, and different personalities. The differences between characters at different experience level is only a subset of this larger problem. But even if all these things were exactly the same for every PC group in existence, all over the world, every group would still be different – because every player is different, perceives things differently, has different priorities both in- and out-of-game, and every GM is likewise an individual.

Now quantify all those differences and boil it all down to a single numeric value that tells you what opposition is appropriate, under a universal set of circumstances.

When you put it like that, the whole idea seems ludicrous, doesn’t it?

Why is it so important?

It’s no fun going up against characters and situations that you can solve with your eyes closed and one hand tied behind your back. It’s no fun going into a situation knowing that you have absolutely no hope of any sort of victory.

The fun in an RPG is directly-connected to a measured and equitable degree of difficulty, whether that difficulty is mechanical (needing good die rolls), narrative (coming up with a good idea to advance your cause), impersonative (roleplaying a specific character as an individual and an exemplar of his type in the many, many ways characters can be classified), or logical (here’s a puzzle – solve it).

To be sure, there can be fun beyond these things – the social interaction, for example – that can be present even if the game fails to entertain in every one of those game-related respects. But I doubt anyone would dispute that games are better when every box is ticked and you don’t need to rely on that social interaction as the sole source of fun – I doubt games where that happens last very long. You would play something else, instead, or choose an alternate form of social activity.

Is it essential?

So it’s important that challenges – no matter what form they take – be at least somewhere in the ball-park of the right answer. But is it essential that you get it exactly right, even most of the time?

The answer is, not really. If you overestimate how strong the Four-armed Gargoyle with the Mace Of Flesh Eating should be by a little but, you’ll underestimate the next encounter, and over time, your errors will average out – provided that you get somewhere close enough to a reasonable answer.

Is it even Realistic?

Actually, the answer, once again, is “not really”. In the long-ago days of AD&D, one of the primary distinctions between dungeon encounters and wilderness encounters is that the former were “managed” and “metered” to provide opposition reasonably appropriate to the characters, while wilderness encounters were more concerned with paying lip service to the concept of an ecology. Because creatures were free to come and go as they pleased in the open-air environment, a particularly unlucky set of PCs could run into Smaug on their first night out-of-town.

A lot of the advice (and some of the most interesting articles) in the early gaming magazines was directed at imposing rationality on both of these facets – from making sense of a dungeon’s ecology, stratification, and construction to creating more rational and balanced ecologies in the wilderness (or attempting to rationalize and justify the imbalances).

Over the years, it became unacceptable for a GM to permit such a lopsided-encounter to take place, and stratification of challenge levels became ubiquitous, for all the reasons enunciated in the discussion of importance. And yet, it would be hard to argue with the notion that the old-school was more realistic in that you could never know what was around the next corner; the world didn’t censor anything outside an acceptable Encounter Level or Challenge Rating.

The best campaigns imposed a rationalization that restricted the power level of oppositions to something within reasonable bounds – “semi-tamed” wildernesses and the like became the state of the art, and – arguably – the most realistic compromise of the lot. So much so that the concept even began to infiltrate the more controlled adventuring environments.

This, de facto, is a rejection of the premise of precisely balanced and metered challenges; instead, a reasonable spread centered around character capabilities became the goal. The 3.x/Pathfinder experience mechanics are a tacit acknowledgement of this, by providing a means of determining rewards based on relative ease of an encounter as actually experienced in-game, even though it was still a secondary determinant to relative Encounter Levels.

Subsequent generations of game system do their best to embed encounter balance and challenge standards into the mechanics themselves, making it more and more difficult for GMs to exceed reasonable limits without deliberately trying to do so. And yet, something was lost in the homogeneity of the resulting game mechanics – leading to the edition wars of 4e D&D. What emerged was tuned to a parity with player capabilities that was no more realistic than the original stratification model of AD&D.

An Old-school Technique

There’s an old-school technique that I learned when I first began to GM AD&D (you can read about other aspects of the experience and what I learned in Bringing on the next generation, Part Two: Gamemaster Mentors, in which I argue that it is a responsibility of experienced GMs to train the next generation, or should be, using my own experience as a template). It’s also full of good more good advice for beginners.

It’s this: mentally tally up the number of “significant advantages” the opposition have over each PC, then balance that tally with a like number of “significant advantages”. That might be increased levels, improved stats, greater numbers, a tactical or environmental advantage or disadvantage, whatever.

It didn’t take me long to refine this technique by incorporating the advantages of group flexibility/capabilities and formalizing the process but the basic principle stood unchanged until 3.x promised a more sophisticated approach. These days, I’m more-or-less back to the same approach in both the Zenith-3 and Adventurer’s Club campaigns, and they are the better for it – but the modern-day approach is far more refined. Scratch the surface, though, and this principle is still lurking underneath.

The Transfigurative Revelation

The key word in that principle is “significant”. I didn’t use any algorithm to decide what was and what wasn’t “significant”; instead, I applied the metagame approach of what “felt” significant. Again, if I missed something, or rated something as more significant than it was, it didn’t matter so long as I got the balance somewhere in the ballpark of correct.

I’m not sure when it happened – post-2010, for certain, but beyond that, I can’t be certain – but over time I realized that what I had really been doing in my pre-3.x methodology was imposing an idealized and incomplete formality on the more basic and generalized question:
“How hard should it be?”

I was already in the habit of making minor tweaks and corrections to challenge difficulties to ensure that they posed an appropriate level of struggle for the PCs; this revelation permitted me to take a still more liberal, narrative-based, and informal approach to the whole question.

The Narrative Alternative

“How hard should it be” – for a good story, an entertaining narrative, a plausible situation? That has become my silent mantra when designing challenges. “This NPC detests being interrupted with trivial disturbances, so he has made it very difficult to reach his inner chambers – and, he therefore treats anyone who does so with an appropriate level of respect and wariness.” “This NPC has an ego second only to his self-confidence, and enjoys humiliating opponents, so he makes it easy to reach him, lulling invaders into a false sense of security, then coming down on them with as much overwhelming force as he can muster.” “This NPC is cautious and paranoid; he will always have an escape route at hand, and will strive to delay characters more than overwhelm them to give himself ample warning to use that escape route after an initial test of threat level.”

After profiling the style of the architect of the opposition that the PCs will be facing, I next look at the overall narrative that I have planned. Is it essential that the NPC make an escape – at least this time? Is he a dead-end, his story having no further impact on planned events? Is his continued presence a threat to what I have planned?

The third stage is to decide, in general terms, how to transform the initial assessment of challenge to the desired outcome. At this point, I also factor in player satisfaction – just because I ultimately want them to succeed is no reason to make it too easy for them. Just because I want them to fail to permanently stop the NPC this time is no reason to extinguish all hope of doing so.

My usual technique is to build a flaw or vulnerability into the encounter’s preparations that will not be immediately obvious to the players or their characters and an equally-inobvious way that the encounter might have overcome that vulnerability. I then let events proceed as they will – increasing the effectiveness of opposition if things look too easy, reducing it if things look too difficult, playing that vulnerability “card” if the PCs don’t think of it first or the opposition is really too tough, or pulling the surprise out if things become too easy. Often, both will involve some change in the environment or circumstances.

In short, I do whatever is necessary to the challenge level to ensure a good story that will entertain the participants, inserting rational explanations as I need them.

It doesn’t matter whether the challenge is trying to pick a locked door, overcome a giant mutant alligator, discover why a castle seems to be haunted, track down a possibly-forged painting or free an ally from an enemy’s mind-control – all of which are past examples from the Adventurer’s Club campaign (except one that is still to come). I decide “how hard it should be” to make the shared narrative a good story, an entertaining experience, and then make it so.

Of course, there are some tools that I use to make things easier for myself.

Plotting Within Character Limitations

In 2010, I described a planning tool to facilitate this sort of plotting, in The Ubercharacter Wimp: Plotting within your PCs limitations. This is the first and arguably most important of the tools that I use to implement the principle of letting the story do the driving, because it gives me a means of translating “how hard should it be” into game mechanics.

For example, let’s say that there is a filing cabinet containing some information that I want the players to have, but that the owner of the filing cabinet would not want any unauthorized people to have. What might he have done? Lock the filing cabinet. Hide the information in an innocuous folder within the cabinet. Put the information in a separate safe, but put the combination into a file within the cabinet – in case he forgets it. Place a fraudulent version of the document within the filing cabinet. Encode the original document. Security systems of some sort. Booby traps of some sort.

Any or all of these can be in place to successively ramp up the difficulty of retrieving the information that for story purposes I want the PCs to have.

Let’s rule the booby-traps out on the basis that it doesn’t fit his personality. Let’s rule the coded version out because he needs to refer to this information frequently, or doesn’t fully appreciate how useful it will be to the PCs. Let’s reserve the security systems to a wandering patrol who can rattle the door to the office just as the PCs retrieve what they are looking for, posing a separate but related challenge to them getting away with the information.

Within the boundaries of ensuring that they eventually succeed, I then want to make the challenge as difficult as I can reasonably make it, but not impossible. So I look up on The Ubercharacter Wimp how good the characters are at picking locks, and assign the lock a difficulty that gives them a slightly less than 50-50 chance – but stipulate that the catch itself is flimsy enough that the cabinet can be forced open with a crowbar if the lock-picking attempt fails. Next, they have to find the relevant document in the cabinet – rather than a success-or-failure check, I will use an appropriate skill check to determine how long it takes them before they succeed. If they do really poorly, I will let them simply find the information when they do; if they do really well, I will stretch the encounter by having them first discover a fraudulent version of the document they want, then spot a logical discrepancy that identifies it as a forgery, and THEN discover the safe combination written on a receipt from the manufacturer. That tells them that there is a wall-safe somewhere; next, they have to find it. On an intermediate result, I might delay the discovery of the receipt with the combination, but omit the fake version of the documents. When they do, the combination lets them open it easily, no roll required. At which point, they find the document, and there’s a sudden rattle from the doorknob. But, if the PCs rolled really well, I might tell them that there’s no document with the information they need in the safe (letting them think they’ve failed), rattle the doorknob, and then have one of the PCs spot a sheet of used but fresh carbon paper in the secretary’s wastebasket – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

The key to selling all this to the players is setting the difficulty level of the original roll, making the difficulties to be overcome commensurate to the results of their skill check, but making sure that they can succeed regardless of their initial success or failure so that the overall plotline we are writing advances. Of course, if they give up too quickly, they will need to find another way to get the information they need! And, of course, if they do something stupid, like trying to shoot out the lock on the filing cabinet with a shotgun, they deserve all the trouble that they will get themselves into!

The other big benefit of this approach is that it takes what is essentially a one-character job and shares the spotlight around – it might not be the character that opens the cabinet who detects the forgery, or finds the combination, or locates the safe, or discovers the carbon paper. There’s enough going on there to share the glory – and the fun – around.

A Beginner’s Checklist

The other tool that I have available is a formalization of the procedure for answering and quantifying the question, “How hard should it be?” This is a series of seven considerations that I take into account:

  1. Challenge Concept
  2. One Chance or Many?
  3. Degree Of Difficulty
  4. Environment
  5. Circumstances
  6. Skill/Ability
  7. Opposition Specifications

Well, actually, I don’t articulate the questions or the answers, or perform the process sequentially; I simply tell the story, in the same way that I did the example in the previous section. But for beginners, I recommend that they do articulate the questions and determine the answers, sequentially. It doesn’t take much longer, and ensures that nothing important gets left out.

1. Challenge Concept

What’s the nature of the challenge, the broad description? In the example, it was gathering information from a filing cabinet. This is where you specify the type of encounter or difficulty to be overcome. For example, the challenge might be a combat encounter that forces the party mage into a front-line situation – a fish-out-of-water situation focusing on one particular character, in other words.

How to achieve that? Why not a combat encounter that wouldn’t normally pose a challenge, like a Kobold, with some sort of enhancement that targets one of the primary differences between the mage and the more combat-oriented types – like having a Hypnotoad on his shoulder. It takes him a round to put the Hypnotoad down after enthralling everyone, giving the mage (by virtue of his INT) a chance to regain his wits and recognize his predicament. The Kobold is between him and the toad – he has to beat one (or at least get past it intact) to kill the Hypnotoad and release the others, who will then make short work of the Kobold.

2. One Chance or Many?

A key question is whether the PCs will have to bet the farm on one success-or-failure check, or will have multiple opportunities for differences to manifest. Obviously, you can’t assess this until you have some idea as to the nature of the challenge.

The PCs might have only a slight advantage over an opposition, but if they get multiple attempts to hit, those advantages will accumulate in overall effectiveness. That means that if there are few (or only one) all-or-nothing opportunities for success, greater scope for diversity of challenge rating is acceptable – but will often have a disproportionate impact. Multiple opportunities permit a smaller window of tolerance – you have to get closer to the mark with your estimate of “appropriate” challenge.

If partial success, or eventual success, are permitted even on a single roll, you have greater latitude than normal, there is a broader tolerance.

3. Degree Of Difficulty

How difficult, with everything taken into account, do I want the challenge to be?

4. Environment

If the environment is a factor, does it make the difficulty greater or smaller – indicating that the base difficulty has the opposite relationship to the overall degree of difficulty? Let’s say that the environment poses a significant additional difficulty, that means that a relatively simple challenge under normal circumstances which can take advantage of the environment will present a substantially greater effective challenge – so what I want is a relatively simple base challenge.

5. Circumstances

What are the circumstances? Being rushed increases the difficulty of any challenge. Being under fire might also do so. There are numerous other examples. Again, what you need to know is what this tells you about the base difficulty of the challenge, so that you can get the overall difficulty to the level required.

6. Skill/Ability

What skills or difficulties can one side or the other apply to the challenge? This covers a broad swathe – everything from powers, magic items, class abilities, skills, even character levels if they are significantly different from those of the expected enemy. I don’t try and create a shopping list; it’s more of a gestalt impression and key differences between the challenge and the capabilities that the PC or PCs bring to the encounter.

Exclude everything that’s irrelevant – but be sure to think outside the box; a clear example being the use of physical force to open the filing cabinet in the earlier example.

Once again, you want to subtract from your “working difficulty” anything extraordinary to reach a determination of the appropriate base level of challenge that will – when everything is taken into account – yields the desired opportunity for success or failure, and hence the degree of struggle.

7. Opposition Specifications

The final step is to determine the base challenge and put it into descriptive language that implies the degree of base challenge. This not only facilitates narrative passages leading up to and during the resolution of the challenge, it enables you to assess the value and effects of alterations to your assumptions.

For example, you may have factored the effects of an adverse environment on the PCs into the difficulty of the challenge; the PCs, when the time comes, employ a spell to make themselves more comfortable within the environment, mitigating or even annulling those effects. Because you’ve thought about it in advance, even if it was only by a second or two, you can take these alterations into account without batting an eyelid or breaking stride.

When to assess

There are two different times when it’s appropriate to assess these questions. The first is during the adventure creation process, and the second is at the moment when the PCs (or NPCs – I employ the same process) have to meet the challenge.

During Prep, I won’t necessarily try to think of everything or get too specific. I will have a narrative flow, a basic outline of the circumstances and conditions, written up so that I can describe the situation to the players, and then a brief summary of each of the topics raised above, plus notes on success or failure. The filing cabinet example, if it were preceded by a description of the room and circumstances (“working in the dark by flashlight”) would be a perfect example.

The reader might note that no details concerning the precise challenge levels, in terms of game mechanics, were incorporated within the description; I simply listed all the things that I could think of that might be there, in logical narrative sequence, and then excluded things that didn’t fit the parameters of the overall story, including the personalities involved. Nor, aside from ruling those few things out, did I decide in advance which of the possible challenges the PCs would actually encounter. That is all set aside for the second assessment – in the moment of encountering the challenge, i.e. within play.

Why? Because this process elevates plot over game mechanics. I want to present the players with heroic challenges and the opportunity to overcome them – and sometimes, that can mean “throwing” an earlier challenge in order to ensure that the real challenge is met. Once again, the filing cabinet example is a perfect representation of this approach: I need the PCs to have the information in question, either to increase the drama and significance of the ultimate challenge (by giving the PCs details of what the antagonist is up to) or simply to ensure that the ultimate challenge takes place (by telling the PCs who or where that antagonist is). That means that unless things go very badly awry, no matter how badly they role, they will succeed in overcoming the challenge of retrieving the information from the files.

I mentioned, in passing, the possibilities of doing something stupid, or of giving up prematurely; I will always have a “Plan B” up my sleeve for these eventualities, though that “Plan B” might well confer additional advantages to their antagonist. PCs always have to pay for their mistakes – but there’s no reason why that payment has to be levied at the moment it is incurred.

The Sculpture Analogy

There is a rather neat analogy for describing any plotline from the perspective of a reader (in a novel) or a player (in an RPG). The experience of reading the story, watching the movie or TV show, or playing the game, is not dissimilar to the process of creating a sculpture from a block of stone or clay. I have seen that process described as the art of seeing the finished sculpture in your mind and simply removing all the bits of material that don’t belong.

You start with what is essentially a blank slate, a block of material; little or nothing is known beyond the identities of the protagonists. It might be that the players also know the identity of the antagonist, or they might not – or may think they do (when it’s actually someone else completely). As play proceeds, one unknown after another is resolved, like the sculpture excavating waste material, until – at the denouement – the complete story is revealed, and the “sculpture” is revealed. And, if that story inevitably leads to another, that’s akin to the sculptor taking his finished image and carving a new object out of it (perhaps putting back some of the material previously removed).

In the same way, when play begins, the GM has a broad idea as to the shape of the finished adventure (though few, if any, of the details are resolved), while the players have little or no idea. The process of playing the game slowly reveals the finished story, cutting away unknowns one after another until the “true shape” of the narrative is revealed.

The filing cabinet example shows that individual challenges are a miniature representation of the same process. The initial description of the elements that might form the final shape of the challenge of retrieving the information is the GM thinking of what the final shape of this part of the finished story might look like, but it is only through interaction with the players that the specifics are revealed.

A handful of Do’s:

I have ten rules of thumb to round out this discussion of challenges – five “Do’s” and five “Don’ts”.

  • Do reward cleverness
  • Do reward success
  • Do make corrections as you go
  • Do have an encounter exit strategy planned
  • Do justify deviations from consistency (even if only to yourself)
Do reward cleverness

When the PCs do something smart, even if it doesn’t directly alter the circumstances of the challenge you are presenting, reward them. Either make it a little easier, or give the clever character a little extra reward. Intelligent game play may not make the job of running the game any easier (just the opposite) but it makes the process of adventure design easier and contributes to a more satisfying result all round – and so, should always be encouraged.

If the PCs placed one of their number at the door to listen for approaching footsteps, for example, that has no direct impact on the challenge of getting the information – but I would have the cleverness (or, in this case, the sensibleness) “rub off” onto the challenge, on the principle that cleverness in one area is symbolic of cleverness in general. A lookout thus justifies making the information a little easier to find – maybe it’s in the safe after all.

This should always be balanced with the demands of a satisfying experience, however. It confers an advantage, not a victory.

Do reward success – and punish failure

If a character makes a critical success, they should always be rewarded in some way in terms of plot, either directly or by proxy. Again using the filing cabinet example, another of the PCs might discover a note on the secretary’s desk of the hotel that she has booked the antagonist into. Or maybe the antagonist has doodled some sort of cryptic clue to his master plan on the margins of the document.

Of course, balance then demands that a failure makes life more difficult. This might be a direct or indirect penalty. Perhaps the antagonist has recruited a bodyguard, or has some means of being forewarned that the PCs are going to interfere. Perhaps there is an alarm on the safe after all – one that lights up down in the security office. It won’t do anything to alter the outcome of the current challenge, but the antagonist will know someone has been inside his safe, and can take extra precautions – and it won’t take a genius to put two and two together when the PCs show up.

Do make corrections as you go

Every GM under- or over-estimates the difficulty of a challenge from time to time. Always have a pair of back-doors at hand – one to get the PCs past the challenge if you’ve overestimated the difficulty, and one to throw a roadblock into their path if it all seems too easy. One of the best examples of the latter is simply to have one of them make a die roll, ignore the results, and tell the player “[character name] suddenly has the sinking feeling that this has all been too easy.” Player paranoia, never far from the surface, will do the rest.

As a general rule of thumb, I prefer to have something specific up my sleeve, saving that wild card for when nothing else will suffice. Think of the sequence in “Diamonds Are Forever” in which Bond discovers that there are two Blofelds – one natural, and one a perfect double. This is that sort of twist, which has little overall impact on the plot, but produces a momentary “down elevator” sensation in the pit of the stomach.

Do have an encounter exit strategy planned

The worst thing you can possibly do is have an all-or-nothing combat encounter, or some other sort of “save or die” situation. These are marginally tolerable when it’s a fight with the primary antagonist at the climax of an adventure; the rest of the time, they should be strictly forbidden.

Overestimate the challenge somewhere along the way badly enough, and you can discover, all too late, that you’ve incorporated such an all-or-nothing plot train-wreck into your adventure inadvertently.

Always make sure that you have a way out, for both any antagonist and for the PCs.


Final confrontation with the antagonist. The PCs stuff things up, or the antagonist gets incredibly lucky, or perhaps you badly underestimated the degree of challenge that he would pose; either way, his dastardly plan is on the verge of succeeding, and there’s the PCs can do to stop what might well be a campaign-wrecking outcome.

Time to deploy the golden parachute you have up your sleeve. At the moment he is about to achieve total victory, the antagonist makes a mistake, or a PC realizes that there’s something everyone has overlooked until now, or the villain abandons his plan because this unprecedented success has given him the opportunity to shoot for an even grander ambition – in the process, giving the PCs another bite at the cherry in a subsequent adventure.

What? You don’t have another adventure planned for this eventuality? That’s all right – the PCs don’t know what it is, either. Maybe the villain has the US nuclear launch codes, and is about to seize power by blackmailing the world with the threat of nuclear annihilation – but discovers proof of aliens at Area 51 and decides to seize the opportunity to become a Galactic Overlord, instead. But you haven’t worked that out, yet – so do something open-ended: the villain grabs a briefcase, leaving the nuclear football that until now was his target, and makes his escape. You have until the next game session to figure out what he grabbed, and to raise the stakes accordingly.

Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat is always the sweetest. And hubris can afflict anyone when everything seems to be going their way. Take advantage of these facts.

Example the other:

But perhaps you have made a mistake in the other direction, and the antagonist is too easily overcome. Time to deploy the trapdoor full of high explosives: The antagonist bites down on a hollow tooth packed with cyanide, and with his dying breath, states “Cut off a limb and two will take it’s place. Hail Hydra! The diversion has served its purpose…” Examining the body, the PCs discover that it’s actually their mailman or whoever, wearing a prosthetic disguise to make him LOOK like their antagonist.

What the real antagonist was actually up to, you have no idea at this point; the key point is that this was all a diversion from something. You have until next adventure to make up your mind – in the meantime, listen to your players speculating to get ideas. What they thought was the main course has suddenly turned out to be just the hors d’oeuvre…

Do justify deviations from consistency (even if only to yourself)

Isaac Asimov was fond of quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. Emerson was writing about perceived truth, and how it can change from one day to the next, but the point has a greater validity: consistency for its’ own sake is not a virtue. Neither is capricious inconsistency.

If an early encounter, or part thereof, reveals that you’ve over- or under-estimated the challenge posed by a foe or situation, do something about it – don’t cling to a foolish consistency. And then come up with a plausible reason for the deviation. Their enemy lands a couple of crippling blows at the start of the battle, and what was supposed to be a difficult victory for the PCs begins to look like an unmitigated disaster? Weaken their opponent, immediately. And justify it: “And then his Potion Of Fortitude wears off…” – though you don’t necessarily have to hand-deliver the cause to the PCs so blatantly: “And then he shudders and seems to shrink an inch or two, as though some magic enhancement had run its course…”

Or perhaps it’s environmental and not personal. The PCs shoot at the villain, but they all miss, because you’ve set his AC (or equivalent) too high. It seems there’s nothing the PCs can do to stop him. And then one of them notices that there is a fast-moving “curtain of air” between them and him, looks around and spots the controls.

The most fearsome power armor in existence is only dead weight if the battery pack can be removed.

Make good use of power-ups – if the villain is too weak, activate one; if the villain too strong, have one that was in operation wear off. If the lock on the chest is too hard to pick, maybe the hinges are less secure, or the eyes through which the padlock is threaded.

A few Don’ts:

  • Don’t sweat imperfection
  • Don’t overwhelm the shared narrative
  • Don’t belittle the PCs
  • Don’t assume failure
  • Don’t assume success
Don’t sweat imperfection

I’ve written this multiple times in multiple articles: don’t ever expect to be perfect. You’ll have good days and bad days; use reviews and prep to wallpaper over the bad ones and move on. Assume that you’re going to make mistakes, and have plans in place to recover from them.

It’s astonishing how much confidence you can draw from assuming that something will go wrong and you have a plan to cope with it.

Don’t overwhelm the shared narrative

This is another way of phrasing “don’t railroad your plots”. You can steer the ship, but can’t control the flotsam and jetsam carried by the river on which it sails. Even at high tide, the surf still draws back before the next wave breaks. Make sure that the players have at least an equal part in the shared narrative, both amongst themselves, and overall.

There is an obvious disproportion to the scale of the input that you have, as GM, when it comes to instigating plotlines. That also needs to be balanced, by giving the players a disproportionate level of input into the outcome of an adventure, perhaps diffused through the middle part of the adventure as well.

Don’t belittle the PCs

No matter how great an advantage an opponent might have, no matter how arrogant and boastful, he should never humiliate the PCs. There’s an art to this: go over-the-top and the players will discount the statements, anesthetizing the humiliation that would otherwise be inflicted.

“You pathetic little worms never had a chance; I spare your lives as a measure of contempt for your inability to stop me. You may leave,” is unacceptable.

“You pathetic little worms never had a chance against me, for I am the sun and moon, the lord of all creation, perfection incarnate, master of all that I survey, and so shall it be for all eternity! I spare your lives in the vain hope that you will learn to respect your betters; now, begone, for my patience wears thin!” is absolutely fine.

Why? Because arrogance and overconfidence – even when you have something to be overconfident about, like a humiliating demonstration of prowess – are weaknesses that can be exploited. After the first speech, if I were a player, my inclination would be to give up, because it was hopeless; after the second, if I were a player, I would wink at the other players, bow, and state “I have seen the light, my lord, and wish to remain at your side to render whatever small service could benefit one so magnificent,” – and then start looking for opportunities and hidden weaknesses. Because the arrogance of the second version is so over the top that I can use it to manipulate the enemy; if the GM is even half-way consistent in roleplaying the character, he would never be able to resist such outrageous groveling, and would keep me around as a trophy. The wink, and going over-the-top myself, should indicate to the other players what I’m up to – and they could then signal that understanding with their own overacting: “Traitorous scum, you betray us all! I can never forgive this, there shall be undying enmity between us forevermore!”

The PCs should never have no hope of eventual success. No hope in the short-term? That’s a whole different story. If they can’t win right away, they can look at changing the conditions that make their enemy unbeatable. And if they can’t change the conditions, maybe they can change the question, altering both the definition of victory and the obstacles to be overcome to some combination that can be achieved.

Which brings up an interesting side-issue:

Is one back-door to victory enough?

Given that providing only one route to success could be viewed as railroading, providing only one way out of an impossible conundrum is arguably not good enough. However, it has been my experience that where there is one solution to a problem, there are usually several; and that means that one, plus a willingness to give the PCs a fair chance of success, is probably enough, most of the time.

A related question from the other side of the GM’s screen is “How much of a partial or conditional success is needed before we count it as a victory – at a price?” The answer will vary from group to group and even circumstance to circumstance. There will be occasions when only total victory is deemed acceptable, and no price is too high; there will be the occasional situation in which any concession won is a victory, provided that it costs less than the concession is worth. And there is a very wide territory in between. All this talk of “success” and “failure” puts most things into too harsh a black-and-white contrast; most of life is a shade of gray.

Don’t assume failure

You should never assume that something is impossible; there’s almost always a way if you’re determined enough. Be prepared, as per the boy scout motto.

Don’t assume success

At the same time, no matter how trivially easy it should be, don’t assume that success will be automatic. Even with the filing cabinet example, there were two ways to fail: giving up too quickly and doing something silly. Failure is always an option.

The Experience Connection

There is, in many game systems, a direct correlation between the difficulty of a challenge and the awarding of experience for first attempting, and second succeeding at overcoming, that challenge. By doing away with the numeric indexing of challenges, no matter how flawed and inadequate the system was, I have also broken the XP system.

The Runaway-XP problem

Of course, there are those who would argue that it has always been broken, and all I’ve done is give it a fitting burial. That’s because of an inherently-unstable feedback loop built into the system.

GM underestimates the degree of challenge. PCs get additional experience, PCs use that experience to become more effective in combat. GM needs to ramp up the opposition in future in order to pose a challenge. If he doesn’t, he hands the PCs easy victories – slow but steady accumulation of more experience at minimal risk. If he does, he puts some risk into the equation – but also increases the rewards of success. What’s more, the relationships aren’t linear; the power gains are exponential. Exponentially-exponential in the case of Mages. Fixing this problem was so critical to D&D 4e that the entire system had to be rewritten to house the cure.

A recommended divorce

The best solution is to finalize a divorce between Challenge Difficulty and experience, in effect throwing away the entire XP-generation part of the game mechanics and replacing the whole thing. And, since the new structure of challenge difficulty is narrative-based, it makes a certain amount of sense for the same to be true of the replacement for the system of awarding XP.

Once again, this is a problem that I’ve tackled in the past, in a 2011 article entitled Objective-Oriented Experience Points. Although envisaged specifically in 3.x / Pathfinder terms, it works for ANY RPG that hands out experience points. What’s more, it can easily be adapted to determine the increase in wealth or resources that should accrue from an adventure, if any, pulling the other fang of Monty-Hallism, and deflating any trend to Munchkinism.

Concluding Advice

One of the best ways of looking at a game is as a narrative on which you and the players are collaborating. Think of them as experts in the protagonists; your role is to provide whatever spark of inspiration is needed to keep the story moving, and make sure that the players get to contribute equally.

Ensure your players have an input into the shared narrative on which you are collaborating, remember that little worth winning comes easily, but that the ‘good guys’ should win in the end without ever being handed that victory on a platter, and your game will be successful. And if that means that the PCs fail to achieve the total success that usually completes a story, that simply means that you’ve saved the villain for a sequel – or for another chapter. All you really have to avoid is painting yourself into a corner without an escape route.

External keyboard scoreboard: Zero laptop problems. Which still doesn’t prove my diagnosis, but at least means that I have an effective (if inconvenient) solution…

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A Hole In Your Past: Character Connections With Yesterday

Friends by Gratsiela Toneva

Image by / Gratsiela Toneva

I had a lot of trouble finishing this article – my laptop has started powering down of its own accord without warning, then immediately booting up again. Sometimes, it will run without a problem for hours, on other occasions it will function for only seconds. What it means is that the laptop rebooted multiple times during the writing of the article, disrupting trains of thought and momentum in the writing process. So if the concluding sections seem a little less coherent or more scattershod than is usual, that’s the reason.

We all lose touch with people from time to time; they fall out of our lives with a randomness possible only to the intersection of two chaotic situations. I had a dream last night in which I went on a random train journey, got off at a random stop, and accidentally reconnected with a couple of such people, who by sheer coincidence (and the logic of dreams) just happened to be at that location at that time.

When I awoke, of course, the dream (and that was just the start of it) made little rational sense in any real-world way. And yet, there is an incident that occurred a few years after I first moved to Sydney that I will never forget.

A lesson in the improbable

I come from a small country town, population 2700 at the time.

I was in a city of population 1.625 million.

Going to a store that I had never visited before, on my day off work, I was crossing the main street of the city at a busy intersection, in rush hour. Roughly 1000 other people were cross the street at that exact moment at that exact intersection.

And I ran into someone that I knew from my high school, the class which had been one or two years more senior to mine.

We barely had time to exchange pleasantries, but – what are the odds? I was in a class of 4 my senior year, his was a class of about 10 in their senior year. There would have been no more than 20 people of my generation I would recognize from that time period, and only three or four of them at most would have moved to the city. Four people in 1.625 million? That’s less than 0.00025% chance. Assuming a generous 6 chances of meeting someone specific per day, you would have to wait almost 93 years for there to be better than a 50-50 chance of it having happened.


It was a number of years later. The city had grown in population to about 3.5 million. I was walking down the same street at a different intersection at an even busier time of day. There were easily 3000 people on that particular side of that city block, probably many more. And who should I bump into than one of my old school teachers, someone that I had known for at least 5 years, who was leading a school group from my old home town.

Again, there were probably no more than 20 people who would fall into that classification in all of Australia. The odds were therefore even longer.

Here’s where it gets interesting: This was the third time in a decade that the same thing had happened to me – different teachers, every time. On one occasion, there were two of them. That’s 20% of the teachers that I knew from my high school!

And still another

Fast-forward another 15 years. Central railway station is one of the largest in the public transport network, used by 11.35 million people a week – that’s about 1.6 million a day. Even assuming that half these trips are the same people coming and going, that’s still half the entire population of the city from 25 years earlier. Let’s further assume that only 75% of these are during the peak hour – I think it would be closer to 90%, but this will do: roughly 608,000 passengers per peak hour.

During my time in the city, I had worked for about half-a-dozen businesses or government bodies of various size. So it was greatly surprising when, waiting for my train to arrive, I found on the platform (waiting for a different train) one of my ex-bosses – who was now working for a completely different business, located in a completely different part of the city.

My employment at the time was a 10-month contract; I used that railway station twice a working day throughout that period. That’s about 600 trips. The chance that I would meet an ex-boss on one of them is about 0.1% by my rough estimation. And yet, I beat the odds.

The Moral:

Improbable connections happen. The odds of this event were ridiculously low. But it happened.

Lives are chaotic and unpredictable, and someone from the past can reappear without warning, blown in by those winds of chaos, and sometimes blown out again just as quickly. Soap operas use this coming-and-going all the time.

And that got me to thinking, when I awoke, that this was a tool that could be used by GMs to provide a set of connections between the PCs in their games and the rest of the game world, and used to trigger desired changes in NPC statuses, emotional states, and conditions.

And so, I devised a game technique to do just that.

The Technique

The GM may want to do this for major NPCs, but can wait until he is sure that he wants a specific character to change, then use this as a guideline. No, this is for the players to fill out about their characters, and then turn the results over to the GM for his use in populating the experiences that the characters will have in the future.

The process, from the player’s perspective, is quite straightforward:

List 3 people with whom the subject PC has lost contact.

For each:

  1. How long ago did your character lose contact?
  2. What was their basic personality?
  3. What was the relationship like?
  4. List 1-3 anecdotes of interaction between your character and the NPC from when they knew each other.
  5. What were the circumstances of separation?
  6. How has the subject PC’s life changed since they last interacted with the lost contact?
  7. How have those changes to the subject PC’s life changed his personality since they last interacted with the lost contact?
  8. What does the subject PC/NPC think of the NPC now, in hindsight?

This provides ammunition that the GM can use in various ways, because there is one key variable left under his control: How the lost contact’s life has changed in the intervening period, and what has that done to his or her personality.

In reality, three is a barely adequate simulation of reality – there should be a dozen or more for every period of the character’s conscious life – but three is enough, if, each time one gets used, the player creates a replacement.


At first, I thought that the GM would need to guide the players, suggesting one or more of the above and getting the players to complete the rest. But I’ve since thought some more about it, and realized that any answer can be manipulated by the GM to achieve his goals. This section will show you how.

But first:

Why it works

There is a notable difference between these “lost contacts” and any other NPC. These have been created by the player to be part of his character’s past. That might seem like a little thing – after all, a GM could easily create an NPC of his own that is exactly what he needs, and simply tell the PC “this is someone from your past”.

It doesn’t exactly work out that way.

The difference is that the player is invested in his character, and therefore also in the background of that character, and by getting the player to add this specific information to that background, you are also getting the player invested in the relationship between the PC and the NPC – and that is what you are manipulating, and by extension, how you are manipulating the character from the outside.

If the GM does the work and simply introduces the character as “someone the PC knows from their past”, there is none of that investment, and therefore the player is free to keep his character at arms’ length from whatever manipulation the GM performs. If they go along with something, it’s because they can, not because the internal logic of the character demands it of them.

That also leaves them free to resist it if they so choose, rather than buying into the drama of the situation that the GM creates. And that devalues the utility of the whole concept.

Application: Trouble for a PC

When caught between a rock and a hard place, all characters are capable of putting their own self-interests ahead of those of their friends, no matter how virtuous. “My daughter has a life-threatening condition. They came to me and offered me a cure – what could I do?”

Or perhaps the NPC has gotten in over their heads and come to the PC for help (they need a reasonable expectation that the PC will be able to solve the problem).

Then there is the fall from grace (or worse, the fall from someplace far more remote than a state of grace!).

Heck, simply showing up to visit can be enough to set off fireworks for the right NPC-PC relationship – if the PC’s current partner is the jealous type.

Lastly, there are some people with whom things always seem to start innocent and then get completely out of hand as catastrophe piles on cataclysm.

There are so many different kinds of trouble and ways to get the PC involved in such trouble that this is practically a no-brain-cells-required default for what can be done with characters from the past. Unfortunately, that also makes this usage a little predictable, even soap-opera in some cases.

Application: A victim of fate

Greater benefit can sometimes derive by simply having the NPC be a complicating factor for a while.

Imagine the following: You’re from a small country town, but have moved to the big city. A friend (but not a close friend) from your high school days lobs up on your doorstep with a completely legitimate reason for being in town. They expect you to show them the sights, maybe even let them stay at your place for a couple of days, and maybe to help solve whatever problem brought them here in the first place with your urban-fu.

Now imagine the same situation – when you’re Superman, with a secret identity to protect.

But that’s nothing compared to the problems that the NPC can bring with them, if they have been a victim of fate in the intervening years. We all know stories (and can invent more) of people who failed to live up to their potential – in the most clichéd form, could not handle the pressure of expectations – and dropped, or crashed, out. Similarly, we all know people who seemingly have it all, only for their lives to unravel at the seams. I can’t help remembering the classic episode of the Simpsons in which Homer meets his brother.

That’s because these events rarely happen in isolation; there is usually “splash” on those around them. And that “splash” can be a vehicle for all sorts of character-driven plotlines – from the PC helping the NPC get back on his feet to the NPC getting the PC caught in the middle of something he normally wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.

Application: A good/bad influence

Some people are a good or bad influence over others. Completely without malice, bad influences get others into trouble by getting them to do things that seem just a bit of harmless fun at the time. Good influences, on the other hand, can make characters holier-than-thou and excessively zealous in upholding the law, or some principle. That usually comes right before a fall of some kind; not only is it hard to live up to such lofty standards day in and day out, not only do standards of morality vary from person to person when you get down to the very fine details, not only will the PC have past acts that by the new moral standards are unacceptable, but excessive zeal and black-and-white morality is not in itself a good thing when taken too far.

Application: A trigger for change

This is perhaps the loftiest application of the technique, in which the PCs character is forever changed by the experience they have in the company of the NPC who has (temporarily) re-entered their life. There are three basic ways this can happen: They can awaken the PC to the trend their life is following, often by providing an object lesson; they can force the PC into some sort of act of redemption for the past; or they can so radically transform the circumstances of the PCs present that his future suddenly assumes a completely different shape. There are less common examples as well, but these are the three big ones: an object lesson, a reformer, or a wrecking ball.

Application: An unexpected opportunity

Sometimes, the NPC is a victim, or wants/needs to victimize the PC. This usually takes the form of one or both being offered “an unexpected opportunity” that they cannot refuse, only to learn that there’s more involved than they bargained for. This uses the presence of the NPC as a catalyst and delivery vehicle for the opportunity itself. When the player has some change in their PC’s life or circumstances that they want to achieve, this is often the easiest way to do so, and sometimes, the only reasonable way.

Application: Confronting the past

One of the major benefits of this technique is that it makes the character’s past relevant to his modern-day existence to an extent that is possible in few other ways. In particular, when a PC has experienced some sort of personal transformation in between the two parts of his existence – past vs present – this provides a means of bridging the gap between what was and what is, and of illustrating the price of that transformation.

This application can be all about

Application: You’ve come a long way, baby

Most lives transform a little at a time, punctuated by occasional periods of catastrophic change. As these transformative events accumulate, we become someone different in both personality and circumstances, but it’s only when we look back on our situations as they were on some past date and compare with the way things are now, that the extent of the changes that we have undergone really confront us.

The return of someone from a PCs past offers just such a milestone for comparison. This is particularly useful if the point of comparison is between the character as he is, mid-campaign, and how he was at the start of the campaign. This self-discovery can be a cause for celebration, or a cause for angst, or even both, as the character discovers that he has lost part of himself that he liked, and that was to be central to his life – from the point of view of what the player expected.

Expectations vs Actuality – that’s the motif at the heart of this application of the technique.

Application: In need of rescue

Of course, one of the most basic applications is simply as a springboard into some sort of action sequence or adventure. And the simplest of those is when an old friend needs rescuing – and that is then how they reenter the PC’s life, with a bang!

Application: The morality test

Of course, the ultimate application is forcing the character into a difficult moral position – “betray a friend or let him get away with X” is about the simplest of the ways that this approach can be used. Many more sophisticated approaches are possible.

Application In Practice

The whole reason that this technique works is because both the NPC and the PC treat each as though they are still the people they were, even though the world has changed around them, and changed them as a result. This forces them to confront the changes that the campaign has wrought on both them and their circumstances. As a tool for bringing the campaign into focus while making a character’s history relevant, this is hard to top.

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Definitions and the Quest For Meaning in Structure

Old bridge in Sweden by / Owe Sleman

Old bridge in Sweden, photography by / Owe Sleman

Back in Campaign Mastery’s special 750th post, I included some correspondence between myself and Tracey Snow which I reformatted into an interview format. Part of that “interview” went like this:

quote start 45

Do you have a glossary for terms that you use in your articles? Your recent article where you try to define an adventure talks a lot about that specific term but in various articles, you have used many different terms to discuss varying ‘sizes’ of storyline. I’m trying to get a handle on what each term means to you. I find it a little difficult to tell which ones you use a synonyms for each other and which are unique (I can attach my effort to define them if it will help).

My reply was,

quote start 45

A Glossary? Not really; my terminology evolves as my understanding of best practice evolves. That was what actually led to the article on trying to define an adventure! If you were to send me your attempt at definition, I will turn it into an article on the subject of clarifying the terms, if that would be of benefit to you and others :)

The reason I don’t have one is for the same reason that I have poor game-table record-keeping: I’m too busy doing it to stop and take notes! The only difference is that the “it” in question is writing an article instead of running an adventure!

The heart of today’s post is the draft glossary provided by Tracey, with some annotations and some additional entries. But first, I wanted to expand a little on the reasons for the use of so many synonyms. While the primary reason remains the one stated above, I’ve realized since that there is more to the story.

Synonyms and Confusion

Have you ever had someone explain something to you and you simply didn’t follow what they were trying to say? I’m sure it’s happened to all of us at some point; I’ve certainly been on both ends of that type of conversation. When that happens, there are three courses of action to choose from: (1), you can go over the exact same line of discussion again, perhaps more slowly, in the hopes that this gives the person who isn’t understanding you a chance to catch up; (2) you can try different analogies and different ways of phrasing things in the hopes that this will provide a flash of insight; or (3) you can simply give up.

When you’re writing something non-fiction, like these articles, (1) takes care of itself simply by the person reading the article going over it again; there’s nothing that you can do, they either understand what you were trying to say, or they don’t. (3) means that they simply stop reading, and once again you have absolutely no input into the process; as a writer, you’ve already done the best that you can to present your thoughts in an orderly and structured way that makes them accessible. But choice (2) is a more interesting story.

There’s nothing you can do to change the text you’ve already published other than appending a clarifying note, or discussing the subject further in response to specific feedback. But, the next time the subject comes up, instead of repeating yourself using the same exact terminology that you did last time, and which readers may or may not have understood, you can employ variants on the descriptions and labels that you use for various processes and topics that are more relevant to the subject at hand in the hope that the difference in context will open an avenue of understanding, both to what you are writing about in the current article, and in the past article.

This happens all the time, too – I’m sure we’ve all read something and not understood it, but later gone back to it and it’s absolutely crystal clear. It might be the first chapter of a novel, or a textbook, or something that you’ve read on the internet. It might be ten minutes or it might be ten years in between – but you get it the second time and you didn’t, the first. The difference lies in the changed context of what you have read in between the two attempts.

I was about ten when I read, in a second-hand textbook on algebra, an explanation of differentiation as a mathematical relationship between a function and it’s rate of change, and made an immediate and intuitive leap to the concepts of integration and second differentials. I understood it completely. When I got to actually studying the subject in high school, my maths teacher was alternately astonished at how much I already understood and exasperated at the difficulty of the questions that I would hit him with from time to time. It wasn’t until I was studying for my HSC – the Australian equivalent of SATs – that I read what my actual textbook had to say on the subject; in class I had been able to skip right over that and move on to actually using the math. It might as well have been in Greek; it used number theory and sets and trends and limits as the starting points and made zero sense to me except by working backwards from my understanding of the subject. If I had been trying to learn the concept from that second textbook, I might still be trying to understand it today – and failing. That was how I came to the revelation that context changes how you explain things, and something that might be opaque when explained one way could be totally and immediately clear when explained in another.

If there’s an important subject, I’ll tend to have a lot to say on the subject, which usually manifests in a number of references to that subject in the course of different articles. Each time, I’ll try to explain it in a way that makes the primary subject clearer, even if that means employing a different terminology for the same concept; the context is different.

Once you understand the idea being referred to, you can look back at something that talked about that idea but that you didn’t understand at the time, and go “oh, right – that’s another way of describing X, and I see what the author was getting at now.”

But there’s a downside: if you haven’t yet grasped “X”, you can end up even more confused than when you started. This is not a poor reflection on your intelligence, or your level of experience; it simply means that you haven’t understood one of the key concepts yet. That’s more likely to be the fault of the writer, who may have done his level best to explain something but failed, than it is to be a failure on your part (there are exceptions for things like legalese)!

In addition, a lot of the terminology derives from different media outside of gaming, and they sometimes use the same term for different things. The scale of the narrative also changes some meanings, as you will see when you look at the definitions below.

So that’s how you end up needing a Glossary. Which brings me to Tracey’s contribution to Campaign Mastery…


The definitions have been derived from the following articles and annotated or corrected as necessary:

Glossary Of Terms


A “Campaign” is made up of Adventures that may or may not have a larger linking narrative and may or may not impose definitive contextual gaps in between (i.e. has a common attribute of continuity, which may be “serial” or “episodic” or something in-between).

An overarching narrative comprising the sum of many adventures, which normally have one or more PCs in common, also usually connected by commonality of game system. May or may not have one or more themes that influence many of the constituent adventures.


Adventures are a single story or episode within the larger narrative of the Campaign, linked thematically, tonally, stylistically, and conceptually into a single sub-narrative. An adventure may also contain elements (usually referred to as “linked sub-plots” or simply as “subplots”) that violate those qualities but form part of a dispersed wider narrative. One Adventure may link to another in various ways, but each can be considered isolated and self-contained within the context of the Campaign. If the Campaign is a book, an Adventure is Chapter; if a Campaign is a book series, each Adventure is a separate volume.

Adventures are sometimes referred to as “Scenarios” but this is an outmoded expression, deriving from the equivalence “Synopsis = Adventure Outline” or “Adventure Idea”. Early articles will use this term more often than later ones, and for the last 14 months or so I have been deliberately depreciating this usage as obsolete terminology. “scenario” in the lower case might still be used from time to time in the sense of a plot idea suggested hypothetically or speculatively, but this usage is also avoided as much as possible to limit confusion.

A single adventure lasts an average of 2.5-3.5 play sessions. Two makes an adventure seem short, five or more makes it seem long, subjectively.


A Part is a ‘hunk’ or ‘chunk’ of an adventure defined by a shift in focus or tone.

Can be further divided into Acts (see below), or an Act may be subdivided into multiple Parts.

When a Part is divided into Acts, the term Part is used in the filmic sense eg “The Deathly Hallows Part One” and represents the insertion of a new layer of structural relationship not usually present or necessary. In such usage, the term is normally capitalized. Such Parts are often subtitled to further differentiate between them.

When an Act is divided into parts, the term is sometimes not capitalized except when used within a title. Some books divide the content into parts, for example. Subtitles for such parts are not unheard-of but are much more infrequent. This usage generally indicates a subdivision for convenience within the act and shifts in tone are often less radical.

Continuity is usually much stronger between parts than it is between Parts, and it is unusual for significant shifts in time to occur, whereas Parts are more flexible.

Sometimes used purely for stylistic effect as an indicator of thematic or subjective continuity from one smaller adventure to another.


Where there is no major change in tone, but the adventure is deliberately planned to span more than one game session, I will divide it into Acts instead.

Adventures can be divided into Acts in which different dramatic considerations are in play, within the service of the Adventure as a story or plotline.

Acts are comprised of Events and Scenes, each of which may be broken down further into elementary constituents of PC actions/interactions, GM Narration, Dialogue, etc.

Encounter / Event / Scene

Elementary constituents of an adventure or part thereof, such as PC actions/interactions, GM Narration, Dialogue, etc.

As a general rule of thumb, an Event requires a PC action in response, an encounter permits PC-NPC interaction but may be resolved with a PC action response, and a scene contains location and narrative contexts and may also include passages of narrative as well as one or more Encounters or Events.

Campaign Theme

An element or transition of style or content that will recur throughout the campaign. It can usually be summed up in a relatively pithy and very brief statement.

Think of themes as tag-lines that sum up all or a significant part of the campaign – or are intended to. As game play proceeds, the interaction between plot and player, between PC and environment, will generate new themes, some of which may supplant the themes the GM initially had in mind.

Background Element

An essential concept or idea that has been used to construct the campaign background. It can include anything from an interpretation of a race, or a class, or the political structure of the game, or questions about what is considered moral, or the most fundamental in-game answer to questions of (natural) philosophy such as “What is magic?” or “What are the Gods?”.


Roughly synonymous with Adventure, more accurately, “Draft adventure”.

A “treatment” represents an adventure in a planning form, and may be relatively unstructured. A “treatment” is generally an intermediate stage between a single adventure idea (i.e. a single-sentence summary of an idea) and a more formalized structure that is ready to be written as a playable adventure. A “treatment” of the original movie Star Wars might be, “Luke discovers that he is the son of a Jedi and that a beautiful princess needs rescuing. Engaging a notorious smuggler as an ally, he and the last Jedi rescue the Princess and discover that they have been unknowingly transporting the schematics to a terrible new planet-killing weapon with them, which are intended to permit the Rebel Alliance to identify a vulnerability in its design. Armed with the results, Luke and his fellow pilots attempt to destroy the Space Station / Weapon while fighting off the evil Darth Vader, slayer of the Jedi order, murderer of Luke’s father, and captor of the rescued Princess.” This treatment expands the basic idea “Luke Skywalker and allies oppose the Empire and it’s evil representative Darth Vader” to the point where it can be divided into Acts, Parts, and Scenes, i.e. Structured.


Sometimes synonymous with an Act.

More usually, however, this is a general term for campaign-level shifts in tonality or style.


All plots are narratives describing the transition from A to B, regardless of the length.

The main job of a GM is to make the process of transition as interesting as possible.

Plot Arc

An organizational principle that ties together occurrences of a wider plotline together across multiple occurrences within different adventures in a systematic way.

Narrative superstructures that connect a bunch of related plots together into a single super-plot.

Number of Episodes of subplot before that plot arc is resolved:

  • Small: Subplot played out within 2-4 Adventures
  • Standard: Subplot for 6-10 Adventures, culminating in 0-2 Adventures where they are featured.
  • Major: Subplot lasting 10-20 Adventures. May provide the focus for at least 3 full Adventures, not all of which will necessarily occur at the end of the plot arc.

Each plot arc represents one journey of transition or development for a character; some are designed to bring the character full circle, having no direct lasting impact, while others are designed with the cooperation of the player to make some lasting change to the circumstances, psychology, or personality of the character at the heart of the plotline. Most of the plot arcs described in Campaign Mastery are of the latter type (unless I explicitly state otherwise in an article), and I’m not going to specify which ones aren’t in case my players are reading.

Note that some Plot Arcs may target important NPCs instead of PCs. For example, a Plot Arc in which an NPC is first established as a villain and then over a period of time becomes first a reluctant ally and then a fully-reformed individual.

Plot Loop

Synonymous with Plot Arc. I tend not to use this term even though Johnn likes it, because I find it counter-intuitive.


Refer “Adventure” above.


A synonym for an adventure or (more rarely) for a single game-session of play. Used primarily when analogies are drawn between Television series and Campaigns.

Nested Campaign Structure Hierarchies


  • Campaign
    • Phases
      • Adventures
        • Scenes = Narrative and at least 1 encounter or event

Adventure divided into Acts:

  • Campaign
    • Phases
      • Adventures
        • Acts
          • Scenes = Narrative and at least 1 encounter or event

Adventure divided into Parts:

  • Campaign
    • Phases
      • Adventures
        • Parts
          • Scenes = Narrative and at least 1 encounter or event

Acts divided into Parts:

  • Campaign
    • Phases
      • Adventures
        • Acts
          • Parts
            • Scenes = Narrative and at least 1 encounter or event

Parts divided into Acts:

  • Campaign
    • Phases
      • Adventures
        • Parts
          • Acts
            • Scenes = Narrative and at least 1 encounter or event

Phases are generally used only as a GM-planning device. Similarly, parts and acts are rarely announced to players; these are structural reminders to the GM used primarily in planning the adventure. From the player perspective, the structure is simply:

  • Campaign
    • Adventures = Narrative plus events plus encounters

In general, the bigger and more complex your planned campaign, the more structural layers and tools you need to use in order to manage your planning effectively. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the player-view structure (subdividing adventures into Acts, Parts, and/or Scenes as necessary) and letting phase relationships evolve of their own accord. You concede a bit of control over the bigger picture but greatly simplify the sophistication of planning that is required.campaign tree

Adventure Trees

These adopt a less linear approach, and more closely resemble a flowchart. Some adventures are separated by decision forks, which may be treated either as part of the preceding adventure of the next adventure. These represent decisions available to the players as to what the PCs short-to-medium-term activities will be, from which the GM determines what adventure will occur. The major difference between the two forms of the structure is that one gives the GM planning time, while the other does not appear to do so, though planning (at a simpler level) is still possible.

If presented with a choice between three options (a, b, and c), if the players choose a, events from b and c proceed without PC input and may appear as subplots, or the GM may hold them in stasis until the PCs get around to them. In general, it is often beneficial to have them proceed, evolving into B1 and C1 (representing the way the situation has evolved without PC intervention). The diagram to the right illustrates the basic concept.

This is also sometimes described as a “responsive” campaign structure. While theoretically ideal, it is not always practical, because it does not guarantee that the players will choose ANY of the options, which generally forces the GM into random encounters without direction or narrative momentum.


I hope this discussion, and the glossary above, helps any readers out there struggling with the concepts of campaign structure. I would also point readers at

for more information on campaign structures.

While some of these may seem to be more about the content of adventures and scenes than the structure, it has to be remembered that the only reason a structure exists is to deliver that content in a way that is fun, dramatic, realistic, entertaining, and comprehensible, so they are relevant to the discussion.

Once again, huge thanks to Tracey for her efforts in compiling the original version of the glossary, and for being brave enough to permit it to be offered publicly. She said she wouldn’t feel right accepting co-author credit for this article because the words were mine – but the structure and organization of them were hers (until I put my two cents’ worth in). And if there’s one lesson to take away from today’s article, it’s this: Structure and Organization are important. Cheers, Tracey!

On a completely different subject, last year in Yrisa’s Nightmare and other goodies, I gushed about how good Neodygame‘s Magnetic Scenography looked. Well, their kickstarter is up and running, so if you like the look of them (and if any of you have any money left after the massive wave of support for 7th Sea, 2nd Edition), stop by and take a look. At the moment they have a long way to go and could do with a little love from supporters.

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TCCT and N: Excessive Wealth in D&D

gold coins

Photo by “Dry2” courtesy

There are certain topics that are classics, because you never seem to run out of questions being asked about them, or out of different answers with which to respond.

For the most part, Campaign Mastery steers clear of those, simply because so many others have provided good advice on the subject.

But every now and then, I like to take a run at one of these classic topics, just to see if I have some thoughts to offer that aren’t to be found elsewhere; after all, other sites are perpetually coming and going.

Possibly the oldest “classic question” of them all is how to separate PCs from excessive wealth.

Well, my mantra whenever this arises is TCCT and N. That reminds me of my standard solutions to the problem:

  • Thieves
  • Con-men
  • Craftsmen
  • Tax-men
  • …and the Needy

But there’s always a complication or two…


A PC reaches for his money pouch only to find that it contains nothing but pebbles. Another keeps his wealth in a backpack – but he hasn’t noticed that there’s a small slit in the back of it, and his bulging coin-purse with it’s hard-won contents is gone. The mage uses a portable hole to contain his wealth, reference library, and a few other bulky odds and ends (ladders and whatnot). Everything is still inside – except the gold, gemstones, and jewelery. The party, it seems, are the victims of some very professional thieves…

Expect your players to go spare. Potty. Nuts. Incendiary. Meltdown.

And then, they will want to know two things: how, and more importantly, who.

Those are the complications that need to be faced in this manner of draining wealth.

The Manual Thefts

For the first two cases, it’s not all that difficult; in a skill vs skill contest, there will always be a winner and a loser. It just means that the pickpocket was more skilled (rolled a higher total) than the spot skill total of the PC. Normally, you have the player make those rolls, but an exception can be justified when you can’t let the player know that there is something to spot. The GM can even “cheat” by only deciding what skill the thief had based on what total he needed in order to succeed and have the confidence to expect to succeed – which can be a whole other question.

The higher the character level of the PCs, the higher their spot skill – it’s usually a solid survival trait for a PC to prioritize having it as high as they can manage – so the harder it is to justify that such a high-level thief “just happened” to target the PC. On the other hand, the higher the level of the PC, the greater his reputation and likely wealth, so the more reasonable it is that such a thief would deliberately target the PC. It’s not even really “cheating” if, once established, the thief’s skills remain at the level determined – it simply means that you are matching the opposition in the plotline to the PCs abilities. You could have even worked out what skill would be needed in advance – but there are better things to invest your prep time in, when there is such a simple solution at hand.

Those better things are personality traits for the thief, an appropriate legend and backstory (which may be more-or-less the same thing, if the thief tells the truth about his background – but I wouldn’t bet on that), and an adventure in which the PCs set about hunting down the thief.

That’s the most important thing about this solution to the money problem – that it not be accidental or arbitrary (which the players find really upsetting and hard to believe). No, they should be flattered – in fact, you should make a point of trying to puff up the PCs egos; “look at how famous you have become” – because players will ignore the flattery but take it as ‘justification’ for what has happened.

The logical end-point of such an adventure is for there to be a confrontation – one in which the players will expect to get their treasure back, with interest. Avoiding this problem is the third complication to be considered.

The Exotic Theft

The third case is a little more problematic. Paranoid characters (and paranoid players) will take extraordinary precautions to protect their wealth, and after their first loss to a pickpocket, even more balanced characters are likely to jump on the ‘personal security’ bandwagon.

I’m a firm believer that all forms of protection are an arms race with one side occasionally in front of the other. Yet, for as long as I can remember, portable holes, bags of holding, and ever-full haversacks have been viewed as the ultimate form of protection simply because the rulebooks don’t offer any way of penetrating same.

Rulebooks, bah! What do they know? About your world, in particular?

The bottom line: it’s happened. There are three possible solutions to the problem of how:

  1. You come up with a plausible vulnerability in these forms of ‘ultimate security’ – one that’s not common, and is brand new, and that no-one else in the world is publicizing. If everyone of importance is using this technique to hide their wealth (and why wouldn’t you, if you thought this to be the perfect solution) and their important documents, you might well find (eventually) that the authorities have known about it for a while, and been trying to keep a lid on it until they can catch the perpetrator. Or perhaps its a genuinely new breakthrough, and the PCs are about to cause the mother of all economic panics and security scares – if they are even believed.
  2. You can “cheat” and simply insist that it’s happened – and let the players speculate on the ‘how’ until you hear an answer you like. Then adopt it, and proceed as per solution 1.
  3. Or you can “cheat” and have someone figure out a way to make the wealth in such storage invisible or intangible or hide it with an illusion – the wealth is really still there, it just can’t be accessed or spent for some reason. But this suffers from even more problems than the first solution, so unless you have a brilliant “how” up your sleeve, you are better off avoiding this answer.

So, how might such a theft take place? Perhaps Shadows can penetrate into the extra-dimensional space, and the thieves have learned how to turn their shadows into animated servants. Perhaps you can ensorcel a coin to serve as a cross-dimensional tracer, permitting you (or someone smaller, if that’s necessary) to gate into the space. Perhaps there’s a way of making one such bag ‘dimensionally resonant’ with another, essentially creating one ‘larger’ container – for a short period of time.

Where there are three answers, there will be 300; you just have to think of them, or prompt the players into doing so for you. Once you have settled on a solution, your next problem will be: What else can you do with this technique? How will various authorities and groups react once this knowledge becomes known? Might it not be better to ensure that the PCs don’t blab about the problem – permanently?

Perhaps the solution to this “perfect storage” problem has been found several times in the past, and part of the officially (and very secretly) proscribed response is to not only suppress the solution but suppress any knowledge that a solution exists.

Suddenly, the PCs find themselves dodging death squads sent by supposedly-friendly governments…

The ramifications and consequences are the most critical aspect of any particular solution to this problem. Pick one that fits with your future campaign plans (if any), or the one that both sounds most interesting and plausible, if not.

Turning The Tables

So the PCs have tracked down the thieves, and forced open their strongroom after a visiting a violent retribution on them for their daring. Aren’t you back to square one?

If the thieves are foolish enough to store their loot in ready cash, yes. Any form of negotiable valuable is just as vulnerable – and no-one knows better than they do that any security can be breached. If that was the case and it was your money, what would you do?

Well, if it was me, I would convert the currency into something valuable that didn’t LOOK valuable, or that a thief would have a great deal of trouble converting back into cash. In particular, I would invest in things – and then borrow against them for my day-to-day expenses.

And that’s how the Paladin ends up with a 12% shareholding in a seedy brothel somewhere. Because it’s a minority share, his choices are limited – he can’t sell (under the terms of ownership) until the debts are repaid (even though it wasn’t him that incurred them); he can’t openly acknowledge ownership; he doesn’t have the authority to shut it down; all he can do is give the authorities the info they need to shut it down on his behalf, making the 12% share worthless.

Or perhaps the thieves have used the money to buy something it’s illegal to own – an automatic on-the-spot death sentence. Or they have used the money to buy “hot” local merchandise, which they have dispatched to another city with some of their number to exchange for other stolen property/sell – people who will now pocket the proceeds.

On paper, the thieves come with a certain level of wealth; the trick is making sure that this wealth is either in a form the PCs cannot access without great personal risk, or that the PCs cannot access at all. “The label says ‘Chaotic Evil,’ not ‘Chaotic Stupid.'”

The bottom line: the money is gone, from the PCs perspective.


Even better is finding a way to get the PCs to hand over the money of their own accord.

There’s a great deal of variety in the sophistication of con games. Some are blatant, and easily spotted using the proverbial “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is”. Some are even more obvious to an even moderately-perspicacious individual, capable of entrapping only the greedy and truly gullible.

But there are some that are quite sophisticated. Plausible-sounding investments – and I’m not talking about anything as obvious as selling a city-owned Brooklyn Bridge, or a tract of swampland. Making it look like the perpetrator is another victim of some non-existent third party, for example, costing them everything – so much that they have to leave town and start over somewhere else.

The more care and sophistication you put into the planning of the Con, the more likely you are to successfully separate the PCs from their cash. But sometimes it can be as simple as a stock market or real-estate bubble that wipes masses of currency out of existence for whole segments of the populace. Misery loves company – so make sure the PCs have no excuse to be lonely when they are commiserating.

Heres one example: A famous and very well-respected Captain is putting together a trading fleet to ferry grain, ore, and other valuable commodities from one Kingdom to another where they are worth considerably more. He needs investors to help fill the holds with the initial shipments; he already owns the ships, and can even conduct tours of them, ensuring that they completely sound. The ownership papers are impeccable and readily confirmed through the Palace (the former owners). The man’s reputation and honor are equally-impeccable. He expects a cash return of 30% on the investment, though he would rather roll that over into a share in still greater and more valuable future cargoes. The whole thing looks legitimate because it is legitimate.

The night before he is to set sail, the Captain is accosted and replaced by a Doppleganger (or simply someone in convincing disguise). That person (lacking the skills of the Captain) loses one of the vessels en route to the destination (running it aground on a reef) but shepherds the rest safely to their destination (not necessarily the destination he was supposed to reach, mind you) – then sells the lot, pockets the money, and vanishes without a trace. Six months later, the Captain’s lifeless body is discovered…

Or perhaps the Captain is simply tired of being the squeaky-clean poor man, and does the deed himself. His honor may be forever tarnished, but his bank accounts glitter – and he is safe in a country that’s barely on speaking terms with the one from which he departed.

The only thing better than risking your own money is risking someone else’s instead – for a percentage of their profits, if any. Hiding the extent of your personal exposure is such a small deception… and of course, these ventures are called “risky” for a reason.

An added bit of credibility can often be obtained by asking for just a little more than the PCs can afford – but close`enough that if they scramble to raise just a little more, they can get involved in the scheme. Somehow, that always seems more believable than asking for a little LESS than you can afford.

Magic Items: Problem? Or Solution?

There are some things that happen with modern tech that SHOULD have analogues in the magic-equipment of a game environment. One of them is the cheap knock-off that looks good but only works for about three days, or has some other flaw. Now, if you know what you’re getting into, that can be the perfect solution to a sticky problem: a temporary armor upgrade, for example, and who cares if it becomes rusted iron 48 hours after you use it? But when the knockoffs are sold as the real thing, at something close to real-thing prices (a little less because the seller needs the money in a hurry), this is yet another con-job – and yet another way of separating PCs from excessive wealth.

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination: A portable hole with a hole in the bottom of it? That often-forgotten magic item, the Millipede Feather Token? The treasure map who’s X migrates on the page from time to time thanks to flawed divination magic? The crystal ball that can inexplicably only show you what happened in a location 24 hours ago? The 1′ x 1′ area of effect of the Wand of Cut-down Blade Barrier?

Many of these items can eventually prove useful in their own right (just not in the way the purchaser expected), or enhance the flavor of a setting. But they can all extricate gold from otherwise frugal player-characters, too!

Once again, we have an arms-race situation – frauds improve, and then the ability to detect them catches up with the modern techniques, and then someone clever thinks up a new dodge…


Nothing soaks up cash faster than trying to keep current with fashion. Or a craftsman who spots a customer with unlimited wealth. Gaudy up anything the PCs have made for them with everything you can think of – special buttons, exotic materials, special silk for the sewing, a special needle, a more comfortable fabric, etc, etc. Let the PCs pay through the nose for clothes that will last decades instead of years – and then have them become LAST year’s style, worth -4 charisma modifier to anyone who knows fashion.

The trick is to add things to whatever the DMG lists as the basic price – and make sure that the PCs do in fact get something for their extra expenditure. “I used magically-enhanced copper eyelets in your leather armor to make it more resistant to lightning bolts! That leather was polished by hand for three weeks straight using Gershwin Wool and Seal Fat for that extra little bit of pliability, and that deep color – you don’t get that with just any tanning agent, that comes from compressed Moonbus Caterpillars soaked in Beholder Saliva for 23 years, that does!”

And, if the PCs try to demand the basic item listed in the rulebook for the basic price, not only should they be considered socially gauche, but the GM should emphasize that it doesn’t fit quite right, it’s itchy, the seams leak whenever it gets wet, and so on – play on the lack of quality and style. K-Mart vs Versache – in the medieval fantasy arena.

In reality, you will get more mileage from spreading these out. One set are itchy, the next don’t fit quite right, the replacements leak water whenever it rains, then there’s a button hole missing, then they fray really quickly – and persist for as long as it takes to get the message across that if you buy the cheap stuff, you get the cheap stuff, and the prices quoted in the PHB are minimum prices for minimum standards.

Craftsmen are skilled, but if you want quick and dirty, they will prepare goods to that standard, as quickly as possible, and then move on to something that pays a little more for their time.


Not only are greedy nobles always coming up with new taxes to inflict on those who can afford them (and who aren’t exempt, such as themselves), but a few “crafty” craftsmen might see fit to mention a few extras – to anyone who seems able to afford the price. One of the penalties of being forced out of the dirt cheap clothing is that suddenly, you look prosperous, a classic example of the nouveau rich – but without the protections of Nobility.

Tariffs, fees, levies, taxes, “subscriptions” – you name it, and the adventurers should be soaked for it. Whether it exists or not. “Tomorrow is the holy day of Brannoth; if I’m not to be at the temple all day praying, I have to buy an exemption.” And, of course, there is the price of “insurance” – which doesn’t mean that the maker is promising the goods are fit for service, it means that the local criminals have HIM paying “insurance” and he’s passing that cost on. With a money-handling fee.

I’m sure it was once the practice, somewhere, sometime, for vendors to charge 10% handling fee every time they had to give change. The merchant isn’t a money-lender, with stacks of coins to disburse – “those licenses are expensive!

Throw in guild fees and tithes, and the effective tax rate for Adventurers should be around 70%.

Inflation and Devaluation

One price impact that you can’t normally use is Inflation. That’s because it requires a floating currency, which lets the government simply issue more of it any time it runs low.

Instead, the word of the day is Devaluation.

“Silver just isn’t worth as much since the Dwarves of Spring Mountain opened their second mine and started to flood the market.” And because of the taxes, it costs more silver to hire a craftsman for the same job, or the same length of time, as it did last year. And on top of that, you have all that loot being recovered by Adventurers.

The effect should be subtle – only worth mentioning every year or two, game time – but there should be a slow “creep” in the price of things, not because the currency is worth less through inflation and rising costs, but because the currency is worth less through devaluation of the standard.

…and the Needy

Finally, we have the needy. There have always been more worthy causes and greater need than there has been wealth to satisfy those needs. One of the first things a GM should create for their game worlds is a list of thirty or more recognized charitable causes. On top of that, there will be beggars and orphaned children and perhaps even the cultural equivalent of buskers – all of whom can be ignored, of course. In which case, maybe you need to ramp up the impact of the casual curse.

Try telling the 15th beggar today that you can’t spare a silver when you obviously can – and when they have the power to make your life miserable.


Past a certain point, you simply aren’t socially acceptable without servants. First one, then three, then five, ten, fifty… Servants are either slaves or you have to pay them. And in this socially-enlightened year of the turnip, slavery is unacceptable. But it’s not just the wages, which are very dependent on the ability of the servant at performing his role; the master is responsible for the upkeep, feeding, and lodging of his entire retinue. New clothes for everyone! Soon, the logistics will demand still more servants to provide for the ones you already have. And with each step up the social ladder, the need for those servants to be presentable will also increase.

And every time a PC baulks, his best “servant” should receive a better offer from the banker across the street to come and work for him….

Timing is everything

It would be more than a little suspicious if these things all started happening at once, just as the PCs came into money. No, they should start small, and be introduced incrementally. At low levels, characters rarely have “excessive wealth” to worry about, anyway. Be careful with your timing and subtle in your approach and these can become a badge of honor – “My Fighter is so renowned that for the first time, someone tried to con him today” should indicate to the players that these things are a symptom of their success.

I once saw a proposal that increased class levels brought with it sufficient class expectations that actually gaining the level should cost 100 times the square of the level in annual expenses, in gp. This notion lumps all of the above into a general expense, which may work for you too. 2nd level – 400 gp. third – 900. fifth – 2500. tenth: 10,000. And so on.

The problem with this proposal was always that there was no adequate teeth to it; there was no real penalty for a character refusing to pay. But if this problem can be solved, this may be the solution you are looking for. Personally, I think it lacks flavor and ignores the opportunities for roleplay and verisimilitude that are implicit in the more detailed answers.

The one certainty should be that excessive character wealth should be a problem that solves itself, which is to say, no problem at all.

But, if these techniques still aren’t enough to get your loot problem under control (just how much booty have you given away!?), perhaps you need to take the next step and make the loot part of the plot (see also Loot as a plot mechanic and The Value Of Magic).

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 5: Characters

Frame by  Billy Alexander, Dice Image by  Armin Mechanist, Numeral & Compositing by Mike Bourke

Frame: / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke

I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the middle part of the current block of three articles, spaced fortnightly.

Characters are the single most important thing that a GM can create. Properly-created characters create their own stories through interaction with the environment and the PCs; and, furthermore, since we are all (at least in part) products of our environment, reflections of it, characters also embody that environment. Without characters, it’s all just a pretty still picture in the players’ heads. It’s characters that bring it to life.

If you have the characters, then, you don’t really need anything else.

But where do the characters come from? Ah, that’s the rub.

There are five main sources that I can think of, in general terms:

  • Plot
  • Personality
  • Environment
  • Antagonist
  • Concept


The most common origin of a character idea is plot – we need someone to do something, be something, tell the PCs something. From this central purpose, we determine those elements of the character that are logically derivative of that purpose – why the character would choose to do this, or how they become that something, or how they know what we want them to pass on to the PCs, and then those elements that derive from those, and so on.

The results are inevitably less than the whole character. So we then have to figure out what to add in order to complete them. The main goal is to ensure that what we add to achieve this does not inexplicably and inextricably contradict anything that we have already established; it’s fine for characters to be conflicted, and to make choices – even to make mistakes.

The elegant approach is to find the one puzzle piece that “unlocks” the character – that, through its logical consequences and derivatives,
fills in all the holes. The humanistic approach is to start with the earliest piece that we know, and add something to match it – then track that forward. The narrative approach is to find some particular “story” for the character’s history to tell, one that adds context and realism to what has already been decided.

The real truth is this: you can spend so much time and effort on trying to find that elusive “perfect truth” that you can never be completely satisfied in any reasonable time-frame.

When writing a novel, that’s fine; we can rewrite and tinker with characters endlessly until we actually get them close to our vision of “perfection” for their role. When creating for an RPG, there are practical time limits. So we substitute instinct and creativity for planning and go with the best answer that comes to mind – and then move on, to the next whatever-it-is that we have to create.

Both of these approaches are extremes, and they both operate by first denying the existence, and potential value, of a compromise that lands somewhere in the middle. But there is a better way, and it’s not all that difficult. But that’s getting ahead of myself.


Sometimes, the pieces that are missing from a plot-driven creation are all that we do have to go on. That usually means that we have a personality, and that how the character acts within any given story will be a derivation of that personality and how their history and experience leads them to perceive the situation that they are in.

In other words, we come up with a personality, develop a reasonable backstory for how the character came to have that personality, and then drop them into a situation because we expect the reaction to be “interesting” in terms of interaction with the PCs.

Once again, this only gives us part of the story. And, in fact, we have essentially the same set of options available for filling in the missing pieces, plus one more: the mechanical approach is to determine what we want the character to do about the situation they find themselves in, then determine what capabilities they require in order to attempt or achieve those actions.


We need an environment that is shared by the characters in order to ensure consistency. But sometimes, certain characters are a logical outgrowth of an environment. The difficulty is in determining how far to stray from the stereotype that springs to mind, and how the individual will differ from that stereotype.

It’s very easy to say that we want the character to be different from the stereotype in every way, but not all that practical. Stereotypes are associated with particular settings and situations for a reason; there is always a grain of truth, a commonality between them, at the heart of a stereotype, and denying that singular reality produces a character that is so implausibly removed from their reality that they simply don’t seem real. Instead, we need to embrace and transform that commonality and all that it entails – and only apply the kaleidescope of possibility to everything else.

Guess what that adds up to? Incomplete characters – again.


In some ways, an antagonist seems like the easiest character of them all to construct. We already know that they have to oppose the PCs, and that they have to be able to resist the obvious reactions of the PCs to such opposition, so that the two factions can have an interesting “dance”. That usually means pinpointing a point of vulnerability on the part of the PCs and then constructing a character to take advantage of that weak point.

This is akin to using the PCs as a “negative mold” from which the shape of the Antagonist is formed – and, as such an engineering-related description implies, this is ultimately a mechanical technique, all about what the Antagonist can do. Much – but not all – of the rest of the character should derive logically from that foundation – but that’s not enough.

Once again, the character is incomplete – but if any character needs greater depth and more singular effort, it’s an antagonist, simply because they will be subjected to far greater scrutiny than Joe The Barber or Damien the Waiter or Helen, the Astrophysicist, for that matter.

And, once again, the same solutions are available – and inadequate.


The final source of characters is the high concept, where we have some idea that just sounds cool, or interesting. An elf who has lived 10,000 years and still worships the “old gods”. An AI that has been “corrupted” in the human sense of the term, not the computer sense. A character whose entire body has been replaced with nanotechnology and who can consciously direct them to alter that body as he sees fit (I have a villain who will eventually appear in the Zenith-3 campaign who meets that description).

These are all “concept” characters, and they all have obvious holes. Answering the “why” and “how” will usually fill in some of those holes, but rarely all.

Take that Elf, for example: how did he live this long (he might not know himself)? Did anything happen to him to cause his extreme (in D&D terms) longevity? To what does he attribute his longevity? How has this lifespan altered his viewpoint on a range of contemporary issues? What is his personality? What are his goals? Who or what does he care about? What are his skills and physical attributes? What can he do? Who knows of his age? What are his current circumstances? Who are the people around him? What’s his story? What happened to the “old gods” and why is worship of them notable?

Lots of holes. The logical inferences of his concept may fill some of them completely, satisfy others only partially – and contribute nothing at all to the rest. Much depends on who “the old gods” were, and what that means that you can deduce about someone who worships them.

For the rest, you will need to alloy the concept with something else – and once again you have the same inadequate options.

A better recipe

The primary idea, and logical inferences relating to it, can fill anywhere from 20% to 90% of a character. The better the original concept, the higher that percentage will be. But what about the rest?

Earlier I listed a number of different approaches. As soon as I have filled out as much of the character as I can, based on the source of inspiration and a reasonable internal logic, my next move is to decide which of them is going to be the most useful in producing character elements that will contrast and compliment with whatever I have already determined.

There is no consistency as to which of the approaches is the best one to choose; no universal correlation that I have been able to find. Instead, I use a process that enables me to try each of them quickly and contemplate the combination that results. Quite often I will find something that fills most of the empty spots in my character architecture, but that still leaves a few gaps for another idea. As a result, I end up with a character that is primarily exactly what I need, with most of the remainder made up of something that adds depth to the character, and just a hint of something more divergent:
Character Elements

That’s my recipe: Essentials, something Complimentary, and a Contrasting Highlight. Of course, most characters won’t be this complex – I may have gotten a little carried away in trying to illustrate the principle!

There’s something else that’s important to note about the Contrasting Highlight: it should be complimentary to the Secondary, but can be a complete contrast to the Primary.

What do I mean by “Complimentary” and “Contrasting”?

These have been used in the artistic sense. A compliment adds to something without contradicting what’s already there; a contrast is a contradiction that applies in limited circumstances.

A criminal who visits his elderly mother once a week is a contrast, because it undermines the stereotype. A criminal who steals medicine every week for his elderly mother is complimentary, because it adds to this example of the stereotype. You can have as much “complimentary” material in a character concept or background as you like (so long as your primary needs of the character have been met); contrast, on the other hand, needs to be sparingly applied.

There are articles out there which advise to make everything a contrast (using different terms, perhaps) in order to avoid cardboard cut-out characters, ie flat stereotypes. I’ve even written a few of them myself, many years ago. What the above very brief example shows is that contrasts provide interesting characters – but compliments make even more interesting characters, and ones that don’t require so much effort to rationalize and roleplay.

The Technique

I realize that all this might not mean very much without a substantial example, so I’ll offer one shortly. But first, to that technique that I mentioned:

  1. Complete The Primary
  2. Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled
  3. Using each of the techniques listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole
  4. Test each for comprehensiveness
  5. Test each for complimentary nature to the primary
  6. Select the secondary from the ideas
  7. Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness
  8. Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary
  9. Select the tertiary from the ideas
  10. Complete the character

Those steps sound very complicated, but they aren’t, they are very quick in practice. What’s more, once you’ve done one or two characters this way, you won’t even need to write those one-line sentences down; you will be able to formulate a line of description in your mind and assess its value immediately.

Let’s break it down, step by step:

1. Complete The Primary

Every character has a function, described earlier. Creating a character that fits that function leaves gaps that need to be filled, but the nature and size of those gaps depends on the function. The possible game functions are:

  • Plot Need
  • Personality concept
  • Environmental Inevitability/Local
  • Antagonist
  • Concept Fulfillment or Expression
2. Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled

Thinking about everything you don’t know about the character, what’s the one term that clearly applies to most of the empty slots? Is is background, early history, current circumstances, plotline, personality, abilities?

That may not be the biggest hole. There is a secondary factor to take into consideration, which is the likelihood that you will need that information in order to run the character. You don’t need to know about a character’s childhood, for example, except in terms of what it says about the character now. If the character is not supposed to engage in battle, you don’t need his physical attributes – and if you intend to use a more cinematic style for any such battle, may not need the specifics even if he is to engage in battle.

Take that long-lived Elf, again – either he’s unbelievably fit for his age, or he’s unfit for physical combat due to age – and both are completely plausible. Or another example from the same character: Will he be an enemy, an ally, or enjoy a more complex relationship with the PCs? I can see that going in any of the three directions, and producing very different interpretations of the same basic concept.

The biggest “hole” to be filled is the term that the things you will need to know have in common.

3. Using each of the methods listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole

This is fairly straightforward. I’ve implied written answers, but you won’t need those for very long, if at all; the primary goals of writing the answers are (1) to keep the answer concise; and (2) so that by the time you’ve gotten to idea #5 you haven’t forgotten idea #1.

The methods, just to refresh your recollection, were:

  • The elegant approach, finding the one puzzle piece that “unlocks” the character.
  • The humanistic approach, adding to the earliest backstory and forward-tracking the consequences.
  • The narrative approach, finding some particular “story” for the character to be living.
  • The mechanical approach, determining what we want the character to do about the situation they find themselves in and the capabilities they need to have or be acquiring in order to attempt or achieve those actions.

There is also a fifth option which didn’t come up earlier:

  • The personality approach, taking a role model from another source and fitting this character to that expression of character.
4. Test each for comprehensiveness

This barely takes a thought, for me at least; others might struggle with it a little more. How many of the empty “boxes” do you think this idea will allow you to tick? A general sense of “most”, “lots”, “some”, “a few”, or “none” is all you need.

I usually conduct this step and the next simultaneously.

5. Test each for complimentary nature to the primary

How well does the idea fit with what you’ve already decided? Is it complimentary, or contrasting – or wishy-washy?

6. Select the secondary from the ideas

Picking the most comprehensive idea from amongst those that are complimentary to what you’ve already decided is very simple after the two assessments – unless you have two distinctly different candidates of equal value. That doesn’t happen often, but does happen occasionally. When it does, you have three choices: Pick one of the two by some arbitrary standard and go with it; Develop the character both ways and then pick between the two options; or try to incorporate both into the character simultaneously. My first instinct is to try the last option; either it will work, or I will reach a point of contradiction somewhere in the character, giving me more information on which to make an informed judgment between the two.

As a general rule of thumb, the idea that spawns the most ideas in your imagination, or that gives you the strongest sense of the character as an individual, is usually the right choice, and the choice that you will end up making.

7, Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness

You might think that you have already done so, but the goalposts have moved – comprehensiveness in this case means “filling all the holes that the combination of primary and secondary choices have left.”

But it still only takes a moment. Once again, I usually implement this step and step 8 simultaneously.

8. Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary

This is a little trickier. You want something that’s complimentary to the secondary idea that you are going to incorporate, and that contrasts, at least a little, with the primary. You want a choice, in other words, that is both plausible and that makes the character a more rounded individual.

9. Select the tertiary from the ideas

Once the two assessments have been made, it’s time to make your choice. It’s more often that you will get multiple answers of equal probity in this assessment; deciding between them is sometimes a difficult. If the character is plot-based, I will generally choose the option that interferes least with the primary; otherwise, I will go with the one that I think will be most fun for me to play.

10. Complete The Character

Using the selected source material, create a complete description of the character (complete in that it has everything that you think you are going to need) and then use that to construct any game mechanics that are required. Use the shortcuts given below for the latter!

Where do the ideas come from?

It won’t have escaped the attention of most readers that this article has leaned heavily on generalization and general principles. Where are the brass tacks? Where do the ideas come from? Almost at the end of it, those questions have not been answered.

That’s because I have already done so, elsewhere. I direct your attention to the following (partially excerpted from the BlogDex) VERY long list of relevant articles on Character Creation:

Also of value, in this context, may be the following articles:

An example

Time is starting to get away from me, so this might not be quite as comprehensive an example as I originally intended, but we’ll see how I get on. To start with, I don’t have any characters on tap with their workings so this will have to be a new creation. Since I don’t want to tip my/our hand in any of the campaigns I run, this will be for a generic D&D/Pathfinder/Fantasy campaign.

Because it was the first thing that came to mind, I am going to use the Concept approach (besides, I don’t have a plot on tap, and so can’t use the ‘plot needs’ approach; don’t have a specific campaign environment to build from, so I can’t use the Environment approach; most of the character examples I’ve given lately have been of the Antagonist variety and think a change of pace would be a good thing, so I don’t want to use the Antagonist approach; and don’t have any PCs to tailor an interaction with, so I can’t really use the Personality approach. This is what’s left.

Step 1: Primary Creation

My idea is this: a Demon Hunter, sort of a Van Helsing character, but who is part Demon himself.

So, the usual questions: Who is he? Why is he a Demon Hunter? How did he become part-Demon, How did he become a Demon-Hunter – and which came first?, How do these two statuses affect him now and how have they affected his past? Where is he from (in general terms)? What is his personality? and What can he do that ordinary people can’t? Oh, and – What does he do to the Demons he hunts when he catches one? What is his relationship with the PCs going to be like?

But the first question that needs to be answered is whether or not this is part of an existing campaign where Demons have been encountered already (tying the creation more inflexibly to what’s in the sourcebooks) or will this be a new campaign or a first demonic encounter, giving me a much freer hand? I’m going to assume the latter, simply because I think what I come up with will be “more fun” that way.

So, logical inferences:
His being a Demon-hunter has something to do with his being a half-demon, I’m guessing. It could go the other way, but that would be merely an act of will to overcome the demonic influence – for now – and that’s an idea that I’ve done before. So he became half-Demon, or was born that way, and somehow that has led him to hunt his own “half-kind”.

Right away, a story presents itself to me: A bored student – clerical or arcane – and his friends have a go at Demon Summoning. It gets out of hand (that sort of thing always does) and they really get a Demon. It’s on the verge of chowing down on our bored students’ soul (whatever that is), when another Demon Hunter crashes through the door into the basement where all this is happening and slices the Demon in two. The dying demon, in turn, tears his prospective victim in half and uses the matching half of the student to bind his wounds long enough to blast the Demon-Hunter and escape. (In an established setting, with demons already defined, that couldn’t be done). With his last breath, the Demon-Hunter replicates the process to save the student’s life – warning that his existence will always be imperiled until he can get the rest of his body back and finish the job on the Demon who has it.

So, that makes him physically a literal half-Demon instead of Genetically so, and more or less forces him to abandon everything that he had and was – a spoiled student from a wealthy background – in favor of a new career as a Demon-Hunter. How about Morally and Emotionally? To keep him still being ‘him’, the character needs to be mostly human in those departments – but with a Demonic influence slowly tainting his existence. Which implies that the other half of the story is mostly Demonic, but with humanity slowly tainting It’s purity.

That puts some impetus into the story, a ticking clock – the character is a time bomb of unknown delay that has already been triggered. A sense of urgency is always a good thing in a ‘driven’ character.

What does he do with the demons he captures? He kills them, or tries to – the Demon can always flee back to its own realm, but perhaps can’t return for a period of time. Or perhaps demons are immortal, but can be exiled into some nightmare plane from which escape is difficult and existence is tortuous. That idea gives the Demons a much stronger motive for fleeing from a hunter, even a dying one – which helps make sense of that “origin story”.

We can surmise something of his capabilities: he has to be effective at finding and attacking Demons – most humans, even very skilled ones, couldn’t do what this character’s progenitor did with one blow. So we have to assume that he has some sort of enhanced senses, and that his combat capabilities are much higher against Demons than they are against anything else.

That, in turn, raises the prospects of a very interesting variation on the standard cosmology: Demons are more effective against their fellow Demons than they are against the Gods or Celestials or Angels or whatever they are called this day of the week; Celestials are also more effective against their own kind than against Demons or Devils; so, in order to confront each other and play out their philosophic differences, both sides need mortals.

About the only other element that we can get from this concept is that the plotline that brings him into the PCs’ circle is going to have something to do with Demons, or at least that the Demon-hunter will suspect that.

So far, that gets us about 60% of the way to a finished character. We know that the character is a combination of two stereotypes: the tainted soul seeking redemption, and the bored rich kid who got in over his head.

Step Two: Identify the largest “hole” that needs to be filled

Off-hand, I would say that the biggest hole is the character’s relationship with the PCs, which raises a related question of what sort of character we are going to have – a hero, an anti-hero, or a complex character? All we know at the moment is that he isn’t an antagonist, though whatever he’s doing might still put him at cross purposes with the PCs.

Most of the unanswered questions are about the effect that this half-Demonic status has had on the characters’ life. His personality will also hinge on this determination. We have some hints about both of those from the Primary, but don’t as yet have enough information to complete the creation.

Step Three: Using each of the techniques listed, describe in one line an idea for filling that hole

Plot: The PCs come into possession of a ring of Demon-Summoning (or what the NPC thinks is one) and the NPC wants it. Alternative idea: The PCs have an encounter with a demon or a demon’s mortal subject, and wants to test them to be sure that they have not been tainted. Third alternative: both.

Personality concept: The character is far darker and more villainous than the idea suggests, and his tale of being a bored rich kid is a fabrication; he was an elderly man terrified of death, and the demon summoning was to bargain for eternal youth. His wish was granted – at a price he didn’t expect – and he subsequently learned that he was now equally-vulnerable to Demonic attacks. He hunts demons as a form of pre-emptive strike, and always tries to sucker others into occupying the front lines in these confrontations. That’s what he has in mind for the PCs – as soon as he wins their trust.

Environmental Inevitability/Local: Coming up empty on this one. That’s the problem with a generic fantasy environment.

Antagonist: You could argue that the Personality idea qualifies, but the “antagonist” has a different definition – it means a character that is specifically designed to have mechanics and abilities that oppose those of the PCs. Since we have no defined PCs, this is a null item. If I were designing this character for the Zenith-3 campaign, I would be focused on the fact that while the different types of meta-energy in that campaign can’t normally coexist, Resistances to them can – so my focus would be on resistance of all forms. If I were designing the character for the Adventurer’s Club, Father O’Malley would be the center of my attention, and I would reinvent the Lych’s phylactery as a way of making the NPC temporarily immune to the good Father’s spiritual retribution. But I’m not.

Concept Fulfillment or Expression: And we’ve already used this as the primary source of ideas.

Step Four: Test each for comprehensiveness

The plot ideas don’t tell us very much more than we already knew. The Personality ideas add a lot to the character, and its all relevant material – and they even tell us something about the plot usage of the character. Personality wins this test, hands-down.

Step Five: Test each for complimentary nature to the primary

The three plot-based ideas are all more antagonistic than is justified by what has definitely been decided so far – and they are all a little obvious and lame, as a result. There’s only one personality concept, but it produced immediate spin-off ideas – and these are all complimentary to the ideas I already had, adding to them. The personality idea again wins the contest.

Step Six: Select the secondary from the ideas

Which makes the decision pretty much automatic. The personality idea is the secondary, and our character takes a darker turn.

Step Seven: Test the remaining ideas for comprehensiveness

We only have one remaining idea – the plot usage. It doesn’t add much to the character, but it does give us an initial plotline that the character can use for getting close enough to the PCs to tell his (false) sob story, setting them up for the betrayal to come.

Step Eight: Test the remaining ideas for complimentary nature to the secondary

What’s more, while the plot ideas may be contradictory to the primary idea, they are definitely more complimentary and plausible once the secondary “darkening” of the character is taken into account.

Step Nine: Select the tertiary from the ideas

Hobson’s choice, perhaps, but the assembled whole works. So the plot ideas are our tertiary component.

Step Ten: Complete the character

The character description is already more-or-less complete; most of it would be a matter of cutting-and-pasting. So, instead, let’s outline the adventure that has derived from that character description:

  1. The PCs have a demonic encounter and come away from it with a ring.
  2. The Demon-hunter shows up to “test” the PCs. They may or may not cooperate, but he’s not likely to give them a choice. They come up clean, but the ring is demon-tainted, which causes a brief misunderstanding when it corrupts the “test results”.
  3. The Demon-hunter demands the ring. He may try to buy it. He seeks to build trust between himself and the PCs by telling his story. He then warns that the Demon they encountered probably escaped and only appeared to be destroyed, and he intends to make sure of it. He invites the PCs to accompany him on this brief quest and insists that they accept.
  4. The Demon-hunter and PCs track down the Demon (who had simply escaped, because Demons are a lot tougher than the PCs thought), and deal with him once and for all by exiling him to the Plane Of Torment. This gives the NPC the chance to fill the PCs in on more of the background to his existence.
  5. From time to time, the Hunter will turn up when he comes across a nasty demon and ask for the PCs aid. From time to time, they may come across a Demon and find that he is not far away. (Several encounters). Slowly, they begin to form the impression that he hasn’t been completely honest with them.
  6. The PCs come across a half-demon – the half-demon who has the NPCs other half. They contact the NPC who willingly joins forces with them – only to betray them rather than destroy and exile the demon. The true story comes out.

Simple technique, powerful process

This is a simple technique that anyone can use, no matter what your level of GMing expertise. Ideas might come more fluidly, more quickly, to GMs with experience, but anyone who can pose a “what if” can use them. What gives them power is the structured process of filtering the results.

I’ve presented multiple ways of generating ideas in the past. This technique provides a framework for integrating them into a character – and, along the way, I’ve tried to salt the article with hints as to what makes for a good one.

The next part of this series – in a fortnight’s time – will focus on Challenges.

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Ask The GMs: Iceberg Plotlines: Massive Plot Arcs in RPGs

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

Today’s question is asks about something I’ve described using a number of different terms over the years. My current euphemism is “Iceberg Plots”, because 9/10ths (or more) of the plot doesn’t show in any given adventure.

Ask the gamemasters

The question comes from “Onion” of, who I know better as my twitter buddy David Ball (@OngoingWorlds). Ongoing worlds is a hub for play-by-post RPG campaigns of all genres.

“Onion” wrote:
“What do you think of slow-building storylines, ones that develop over time and are always in the background? Do you think they can work successfully in a rpg campaign?”

The short answer to this one has been offered a number of times here at Campaign Mastery (and will be offered again, below), but there are a couple of stings in the tail this time around. First, I have no experience with play-by-post games, so my advice might not translate all that well; since the focus of Campaign Mastery is tabletop RPGs, though, I don’t intend to let that stop me. But the second part of the description throws in a curve ball: “…are always in the background.” And that can cause problems…

Iceberg Plots, a.k.a. Ongoing Subplots

An iceberg plot is an ongoing subplot. It’s not the central focus of an adventure, it’s something that happens in the background, and may or may not involve one of the characters; it could simply be an ongoing evolution of that background, the passage of time affecting NPCs who in turn are relevant to the day-to-day lives of the characters either directly or indirectly.

It’s very useful for verisimilitude that a background not be static, that it evolve over time. I first wrote about that in Lessons From The West Wing: Time Happens In The Background over five years ago.

It also gives the players the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the world is “responsive” – that their actions (and those of NPCs) have consequences that will affect the game world.

But the biggest advantage that they offer is that by breaking the “static background” mindset for the GM, they actually do make the world more responsive to the consequences of PC actions! It’s a much shorter leap from “the world is changing just a little” to “the world is changing just a little because of what you did” – far, far shorter than going from a never-changing static environment to a dynamic one. If the world is changing anyway, all you need to do is pay attention to what the PCs are doing – something that should happen anyway – and include that as one of the factors driving changes.

The difference between an Iceberg Plot and a Dynamic Background Element

An iceberg plot is slightly more than an evolving background element, however. “Plot” implies direction, it implies a story – and stories have structure, a beginning, middle, and an end, at the very least.

You might have a local sheriff whose job is to maintain law, order, and peace in the streets. From time to time, he’s a thorn in the side of the PCs, from time to time he may be an ally, most of the time he’s just part of the furniture and as inexorable as the law of gravity. That makes him a background plot element.

If his attitudes evolve over time, especially in regard to his attitude toward the PCs, and if he slowly gets older and more infirm, and begins training a hand-picked replacement for when the specter of old age finally catches up with him, that makes him a dynamic background element. Instead of being the same every time he gets involved in an adventure, he – and his relationships – evolve in response to events and the passage of time.

If the GM has a plan for the character – if he is to slowly become convinced that the Chancellor Of The Exchequer is plotting against the head of Government, and begins letting that conviction influence the way he does his job, eventually leading to the Sheriff setting up a revolutionary faction for the purpose of ousting the Chancellor before the damage done to the nation is irreparable – then the character is no longer merely a dynamic background element, he is an iceberg plot. The changes from adventure to adventure might be minute, or might be significant, but they have a narrative structure, and the changes are not random – they have a purpose. There might even be times when the Chancellor does something that gives the Sheriff pause to reconsider, seeming to reverse the trend, or even completely doing so as the two come to a new understanding of each other’s postures and positions; that’s fine, too. It’s a story – it just happens to be one happening on the periphery of the players’ awareness, and that doesn’t usually affect them all that significantly.

In fact, from the players’ point of view, there is no difference between a dynamic background element and an iceberg plot; all it means to them is that the character is evolving in the way a person would, under the circumstances. Only from a metagame perspective is there a difference.

It’s All About The Players

At the same time, it must be remembered that the GM’s NPCs are not the stars of the show. That honor is reserved exclusively for the PCs. Iceberg plots only matter if they eventually get the PCs tails caught in the machinery – if the plot becomes significant to the PCs, in other words. There’s that sting in the tail that I mentioned earlier: an iceberg plot cannot “always stay in the background”. Eventually, events have to catch up with the PCs, and become centrally important – until the iceberg plot is resolved, one way or another.

Iceberg Advice: Make It Interesting (but not too interesting!)

There’s not much that’s more boring than trivial gossip about people you don’t know and don’t care about. If the gossip is salacious or juicy, that’s a different story. And if the GM is simply relating news about events that don’t directly affect the PCs, what he’s sharing is, basically, game-world gossip.

That’s a serious problem for iceberg plots, where the whole idea is to keep the plot from attracting too much attention until it’s had time to ripen and mature.

From experience, I can tell you that no more than one in five ideas for iceberg plots can meet both targets, and therefore succeed as plotlines. Probably not more than one in ten such ideas make good iceberg plots. There’s a constant tug-of-war between making it interesting and keeping it submerged.

The best solution is to ensure that the protagonist(s) of the iceberg plot regularly engage with the PCs on a matter completely or almost completely unrelated to the iceberg plot. That frees the GM to carefully plan each step of the iceberg plot using in-game appearances of the NPC as a ticking “clock”.

Iceberg Advice: Keep Up The Momentum

Think about some TV drama that you like. If a background plotline gets mentioned once a year, how much interest will it hold? Twice a year is almost as bad. The iceberg plot has frayed at the end, and snapped.

You don’t have to mention the plot every episode, or every adventure – but you definitely need to keep it as a regular presence, part of the plot “furniture”, and that is best achieved by having one or more of the NPCs involved appear regularly within the campaign.

Nor does there need to be an obvious or significant development in every appearance of one of the iceberg plot’s principle characters, but these need to happen frequently enough that there is a clear evolution taking place over time.

If you’re playing every week, this is easy to manage. A character featured in the iceberg plot can show up because of his “day job” every two, three, or even four weeks – no problem. This both keeps his existence and situation in the back of the players’ minds and keeps his situation from becoming too seemingly significant.

The less often that you play, the harder the tightrope becomes to walk. Playing once a fortnight, a monthly mention generally means roughly every 2nd adventure – that’s fine. Even every adventure can be tolerated, if the involvement is natural – the PCs landlord, for example.

Playing once a month means that every adventure requires an appearance by the character. That very regularity means that his problems become more significant to the PCs, and it is that much harder to keep the iceberg submerged. The best solution that I have found is a second iceberg plot revolving around the same character, so that the plot that you care about becomes just another part of that NPCs ongoing soap opera. Simply by giving you something else for the character to talk about, it deflects attention away from the important plotline.

The Lifespan Of An Iceberg

Tension, like subplots, can only be sustained for so long. There comes a point where the audience – your players in this case – get tired of waiting, when they want you to just get it over with.

If you wait too long to resolve your iceberg plot, it will have no impact, or even negative impact, when you do bring down the curtain. That’s what happened to the TV series “Moonlighting” – to quote TV Tropes, “Moonlighting: This was the whole premise of a romantic Dramedy series starring Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard as private detectives. The whole show jumped the shark in the fifth season when they finally consummated their relationship; the tension was simply gone and it become yet another sitcom. Lampshaded in the series finale, a great example of the show’s frequent Breaking the Fourth Wall: The two detectives come back to the office to find it being dismantled by people working for ABC; an ABC network executive tells them that viewers had enjoyed watching them fall in love, but after they’d already fallen they lost interest.”

(An additional note adds, “In reality the downfall of Moonlighting had a lot of other causes as well. Mostly it was the result of tons of behind-the-scenes problems that plagued the show for the duration of its run, ranging from script and episode delays to a writer’s strike that struck mid-season to the declining quality of scripts to the (infamously combative) lead actors who simply didn’t want to continue working on the show. Bruce Willis launched his film career with Die Hard between the third and fourth seasons and Cybil Sheppard, reportedly never pleased with the long working hours, wanted more time off to spend time with her growing family.”)

One of the benefits of planning an iceberg plot is that you can avoid this fate. First, you can keep the situation developing, rather than a static situation that seems to edge towards development and then falls back into its established rut; Second, you can ensure that the conclusion to the iceberg plot carries enough unresolved plot developments that the game can survive the conclusion of this long-running element; and third, by successfully keeping the plot almost-submerged to just the right degree while it is developing, you can prevent its conclusion from being too important to the ongoing campaign.

The major problem is knowing when a plotline has gone on for too long, and the campaign would be better served by canceling the resolution and leaving this as an ongoing dynamic campaign background element. As TV tropes notes in their section on Jumping The Shark, the telltale signs are only noticeable in hindsight – and at some remove. It’s altogether too common these days to be a prophet of doom and pronounce any change at all to be an example of “jumping the shark” – read this page (but for the love of heaven don’t click on any of the links or you might not escape for hours – TV Tropes is just that interesting a site…!)

On a Completely unrelated side-note, I was once asked why I thought TV tropes was so fascinating. It’s because it’s all about why people like what they like, and don’t like what they don’t like, and why other people don’t like the same things you do, and how those things have changed over the years. It simultaneously confers community upon those who felt alone in their opinions, reassures that those opinions are valid, argues with you just enough to get you thinking independently, and fills in all the spaces in-between with nostalgia. That’s a very heady brew…

The only consistent way that I have found to measure the “breaking point” of an iceberg plotline is to count the number of opportunities to resolve the plotline in the intended manner that have not been taken by the GM. Generally, you can get away with one or two of these in complete safety, but the third time you fail to bring down the curtain puts you into dangerous territory. On exceptionally rare occasions, you may be able to get away with as many as half-a-dozen aborted resolutions, though I have never seen this actually happen except by counting threats to resolve the plotline that never actually eventuate.

Somewhere in between these limits is the normal breaking point, in which interest in the plotline frays so completely that it no longer matters.

But this neat and simple guideline is contaminated by the fact that even solutions to the problem that don’t occur to the GM still count if they are obvious to the players.

So, that’s the foundation of the secondary solution: listen to what the players say to each other about the plotline when they aren’t in character. The major reasons why this is not the primary test is because player personalities are a factor (some players like to complain/criticize/speculate, others don’t share their opinions during the course of the game, or give the GM too much rope, some may simply dislike the specific iceberg plot, and so on), and because player reactions can only tell you when you’ve persisted for too long after the fact, and sometimes not even then.

The Life Cycle Of An Iceberg

Iceberg plots, like all plots, have a natural life cycle. They start with veiled beginnings, progress through a growing significance until they reach the point of ubiquity as a plot element, and then achieve criticality and “come to a head”. Crucially, there is also a fifth stage that is often neglected, but which can be just as important as the others – “After the titanic”.

1. Veiled Beginnings

In the beginning, the significance of the circumstances is not apparent. The iceberg has not even revealed the general shape of the part above the surface, to extend the metaphor. This might be one or more casual meetings between a PC and the protagonist of the iceberg plot, or a series of coincidences, or rumors, or newspaper accounts (or their cultural equivalent); they don’t even cause a ripple in the main plot of the day and aren’t even as prominent as a piece of “plot furniture” – they are wallpaper.

There should always be one PC who is more connected to the plotline than the others, and who should therefore be the focus of the relationship. In the Zenith-3 campaign, St Barbara is the team leader, so almost all political and administrative relationships have her as their focus; Blackwing is an ex-cop, so any relationships with law-enforcement types usually go through him.

That doesn’t mean that an ongoing subplot can’t connect with another PC; it simply makes it a little more noteworthy when one does, prompting immediate suspicion that this may be part of an iceberg plot – even if it’s just some window-dressing to conceal one. For example, Blackwing recently had an encounter with the Press Secretary of the Mayor of New Orleans (in the 2056-game world) and the two had a definite chemistry. He was impressed with her expertise, professionalism, preparedness, and competence; she was impressed with his poise and ability to take direction, even when what he was doing didn’t come naturally to him. Will anything come of it? Possibly, but probably not – her professionalism would get in the way, as would some of the character’s personal issues. However, the interaction will make him more aware of those personal issues (as a character), setting him up for a more significant plot iceberg (plotted in conjunction with the player) in times to come. So, in a way, this could be viewed as the first “glint” off that future plot iceberg. (More on this “real-game” example a little later – I can talk about the planned plot iceberg because the player knows all about – well, about most of it! – at least in general terms).

2. Growing Significance

From that beginning, the overall “shape” or nature of the plot becomes clear, and begins to impact on the characters in minor ways, primarily if not completely outside of the main adventure. For example, this might affect where a character is found when an adventure starts, or what he is doing. Initially, there should be little or no importance to these snippets of “character life”; they should be casual and occasional. Over time they gradually transition to the state of ubiquity, which I will discuss in a moment.

First, I need to revisit the question of how long this phase should last. Specifically, every instance of the iceberg plot should be different, however slightly. There may be a number of discrete “steps” to a relationship, or there may be angst about taking that next step, but there needs to be both development and importance without significance.

Importance vs Significance

The differences between those last two terms often cause confusion when discussing this topic. Importance means that it matters more and more to the character when it happens, and even begins to shape his in-between adventures circumstances; Significance means that it begins to matter to the other PCs for reasons beyond their relationship with the primary PC, and becomes a significant factor within adventures.

That means that you need to have enough variations on the theme on tap to continue the development of the plotline without making it too significant, or prematurely over-important. I’ll talk more about that in conjunction with the example, later in the article.

Evolution, Revolution, and Revelation

Any plotline will contain periods that fall into one or more of these categories, and each one will occur at least once in that plotline. They require different handling, so I thought I would take a moment to discuss each.

Evolution means that an event is a logical progression from whatever happened last time the plot iceberg manifested. It may be necessary that you call the players’ attention to the minor differences that have resulted from this evolution, or it may not – that depends on the circumstances, the plotline, and the individuals. However, you need to be subtle about this, as calling attention to the development makes it clear that you are deliberately progressing this as a plotline, breaking immersion, and undermining all the benefits of having an iceberg plot in the first place. That usually means that you can’t just do it off-the-cuff, but need to spend a bit of time carefully polishing your narrative.

Revolution takes place when some sort of significant milestone is achieved in the iceberg plot. If you aren’t careful, these can be Significant as well as Important, and can even loom as more Important than you want them to be. These problems are best avoided by presenting this as a natural evolution that the characters have been progressing toward for some time – an inevitable result of development. That makes the revolution more about “how far things have come” than about “where things are going.”

Revelations are the trickiest of all three, because by their nature, a revelation demands a reappraisal of everything that has occurred so far. Any flaws in your handling of the other two elements in the past can come back to bite you at this point. I often find it useful to employ a camouflaging smokescreen as misdirection: to prevent focus on the things that I don’t want the PC to pay too much attention to, I will accompany a revelation with some minor crisis or problem of a more immediate and potentially significant nature (the misdirection) and then orchestrate an easy resolution of this minor issue (the smokescreen). The implication is that the “big problem” is solved, or at least shelved, and anything else is minor and not worth worrying about.

3. Ubiquity

Ubiquity is reached when everyone (including other PCs) can assume that the focal PC is engaged in the plot iceberg whenever they don’t know where it is. It’s the point in a romantic relationship when family and friends begin telling each other that they should start making serious plans for an eventual wedding. The relationship is established and shows every sign of having established a new stability, replacing the situation that existed prior to the commencement of the plotline. The status has become quo.

This is a danger point, because this is the last opportunity that you have for tossing your plans and retaining the situation as a new dynamic background element. You also have the difficult question of how long this phase should persist; you need it to be long enough to confirm the impression of a new status quo, but not so long that it becomes unbelievable when you upset the applecart.

4. Criticality

Criticality occurs when the iceberg plot is revealed in its full terrifying majesty, when Important becomes Significant, and the plotline becomes the central focus of an adventure (or, at least, one focus). Criticality may occur in phases as one shoe drops after another and what it looked like you were building towards unravels before the players’ eyes.

Until the iceberg strikes the Titanic, it’s just a hunk of ice. Criticality is the point at which disaster not only cannot be averted, one or more PCs can see it coming – but are powerless to prevent the train-wreck.

5. After The Titanic

The significance of plotlines, iceberg or otherwise, is in how they alter the world, and how they alter the focal character. The aftereffects should mirror the buildup that took place: an immediate life-changing impact, and ongoing consequences that gradually lessen in intensity as a new status quo develops post-event.

The need for an extended after-effects phase is easy to demonstrate: once again, think of a TV show that you enjoy. Imagine that, over the course of a year, a new relationship develops between one of the principal characters that you like and a guest-star. One episode before the season finale, the relationship shatters and the guest-star departs, having wrought havoc on the principal character’s life. And the next week, that character is exactly the same as he or she was before this plotline started.

Such a miraculous recovery does more than strain verisimilitude to the breaking point, it breaks it and then jumps up and down repeatedly on the grave-site.

If PC actions are to affect the world, then NPC actions have to affect the PCs just as strongly.

That is why I felt it important to have Saxon collaborate on the plotline that has been mentioned a number of times as an example, and which will be dissected below.

Re-floating A Sinking Iceberg

There are times when what looked good on paper doesn’t work when playing. This can occur for all sorts of reasons; but the reasons don’t immediately matter. The bottom line is that what you had in mind simply isn’t working.

The character who was supposed to win their trust only to betray it is universally mistrusted from word one. The character who was supposed to die a poignant death was saved. The players see right through the villain’s master plan – and expose a plot hole big enough to pilot an aircraft carrier through.

When something goes wrong, you have three options: Abandon it (as quickly as possible), Alter it (immediately), or Live With It (possibly giving the PCs the opportunity to turn the tables).

Abandon It

Give up on the idea and write the circumstances out as quickly as possible. The character who was supposed to win their trust realizes that they don’t trust him or her and leaves – immediately. The character who was supposed to die will remain alive and well, and you’ll work out how your campaign plans can be salvaged later. The villain abandons his master plan – and begins concentrating on formulating a more devious one. End of plotline, move on.

Alter It

This is a constant temptation, and it’s rarely a good idea. Not only are the players sensitized to the plotline in question, but such “studio executive meddling” rarely has a good outcome. More often, this is taking an axe to a sinking ship’s hull to open a new hole “for the water to run out”.

I was going to say “never” but there is a sub-variant of “Live with it” in which this might work, under limited and exceptional circumstances – the perpetual problem of blanket statements. “Alter it” in this context means to rewrite your campaign plans assuming that the NPC part of the focal relationship always and deliberately intended to fail at whatever they were doing. You always intended for that dying character to be saved – now here are the consequences. The character who was supposed to gain the PC’s trust only to betray it always intended to do so bad a job of it that they weren’t convinced; they were coerced into even making the attempt. Or whatever.

This makes an immediate transition from Iceberg plot to Significance, regardless of the level of Importance that had been attached to it. Whatever the main adventure was supposed to be will have to wait – the PCs have just been handed a new and higher priority.

You may be tempted to do this on-the-fly. Don’t – at least, not completely. Take a few minutes to think through the ramifications and prepare yourself, or what you end up with will have even more plot holes in it than your failed plan proved to have.

Under no circumstances should you contemplate using the dice to overrule the players. This is railroading of the worst kind.

Live With It

My game plans always predicate the risk of failure. I work hard to ensure that whatever I need to happen in order to justify future plots is served by the very existence of the plotline in question; the adventures aren’t how I manipulate the future, they are side-effects of the circumstances that are shaping the future. That means that I have no stake in the outcome of any given adventure or plotline; the outcome is more-or-less irrelevant to the big picture. So let the players have their victory, they have seen through my scheme and earned it. Reward them with some XP and move on.

That’s possible because my plans are always reasonably general – even when very specific. It might be that for plot reasons, I need a manipulative demagogue to take power within the game; if the PCs expose and discredit the NPC I was grooming for the post, that’s fine, I can introduce another – or bring the NPC who does come to power fall under the control of one – or I can simply find another way to achieve whatever the demagogue was supposed to achieve, in campaign terms.

This is all made even easier because I don’t decide on what a villain has planned until after I have decided what the villain’s ambitions and goals are, and how the plan will accomplish them (or at least move his circumstances in the right direction). Knowing that, and his personality, enables me to determine what he will do when his scheme is blocked – and, unless the PCs manage to translate their achievement into a further one by stopping him as thoroughly as they spoked his plans, thats what he sets about doing.

In other words, the plans are never my plans, they all originate with, and belong to, a responsible NPC. All I do is make sure that there are plenty of NPCs out there with plans and ambitions that the PCs will want to oppose, and the rest more or less takes care of itself.

An example from Campaign Mastery’s Past

In The Echo Of Events To Come: foreshadowing in a campaign structure, I offered an example from the future of my Zenith-3 campaign: a detailed iceberg plot of romantic nature centering around one of the PCs (Blackwing) and an NPC Reporter. That plotline hasn’t started yet – the incident that I described earlier involving the Media Liaison / Press Secretary can even be considered to be foreshadowing it, as I noted above.

I would ask my players (other than Saxon, who collaborated with me on the plotline) to stop reading at this point and skip to the end of the article (Control-F and “Revisiting The Question” will take you there).

Everything in a blue box (like this text) from this point on is quoted text from that article. I’m going to interrupt it here and there to comment in terms of the context of this article.

A Big Example

I’m going to wrap this article up with a big example from the planning for my Superhero campaign, an entire character plot arc that will form a subplot for several years of game play before coming to a head. The basic plotline for this plot arc was developed in collaboration with Blackwing’s player, after assessing the character’s current mental and emotional state, and the vulnerabilities that result. In particular, it was decided that the character is currently:

  • Inclined to trust anyone who seems supportive;
  • Inclined to mistrust his own judgment; and,
  • Susceptible to feelings of frustration and doubt.

In this plot, someone publishes a book that would destroy the PCs’ reputations, and they must ride out the media storm that results without making things worse.

I then go on to describe how foreshadowing is used within the plotline, but that doesn’t matter here. Each step in the evolution, each appearance of the iceberg plot, is identified by a code, which I then describe so that readers can understand the significance.

Dismembering The Code:

  • The first two letters identifies the plot arc of which the event is part. In most cases, this will be “BW”, an abbreviation of “Blackwing Plot Arc”. In some cases, it may be another code, indicating that this plot iceberg complicates or interacts with another one, or with another plotline.
  • Each major event or step in the plot arc is then indicated by a two digit number – “00, 01,” and so on.
  • Some events are broken down into sub-steps, indicated by an alphabetic character – “BW03a” for example. These either occur simultaneously or successively – this is usually clear from context. If not, it means that I will decide when I get there.
  • Some sub-steps are so significant that they are further broken down into events, also identified with a two digit numeric code, for example “BW17h01”.

Some abbreviations:

  • “BW” refers to Blackwing. Aside from the team brick, he’s also a detective. And a living dimensional interface, though that doesn’t really play much of a role in this plot arc.
  • “RA” refers to the “Runeweaver Addiction” plot arc in which one of the PCs is found to be addicted to magical power-ups.
  • “St B” is often used as an abbreviation for “Saint Barbara”, the team leader and media spokesman, named for the patron saint of artillerymen and others who deal with explosives.
  • “Champs” and “Z-3” are both abbreviations for the PCs team. “The Champions” are their parent team, and the team’s public profile; to the parent team, this group of characters are known as “Zenith-3”.
  • “V” refers to Vala, a psionic member of the team with emphasis on information-gathering abilities.
  • “IMAGE” are the government agency which has been put in charge of liaising with the PCs. While they have no direct authority over them, the PCs operations would be greatly hampered if IMAGE were opposed to them.
  • “BC” refers to “The Bright Cutter”, which is the team’s (slightly small) starship, and the self-aware computer system that runs it. Another major plotline deals with the question of whether BC is a member or a slave to the PCs – one of several plots relating to the rights of “artificial people”.
  • “De” refers to “Defender”, a Kzin Martial Artist, who hates and mistrusts humans but serves with the team to repay a debt of honor.
  • “KB” refers to Kira, the AI who runs the Knightley Building, the team’s Headquarters. Modelled on a “reconstruction” of Kiera Knightley’s personality as presented in various Film and TV roles, and owned by the Knightley estate, who also developed the experimental building that houses it (2056, remember). The full name “The Knightley Building” is used to refer to the building itself as a location.

I’ve edited the above slightly to make it a little clearer – the original article provided context that this one doesn’t. Okay, on with the example:

The Plotline

  • BW00 – St B meets Reporter Amber Lawrence when both appear on a Talk Show.
  • BW01 – Meet Reporter – after RA13

This is the veiled beginnings phase. It ends when a second chance encounter ends with the reporter asking BW out on a date. You will note that I make notes about the timing of events – “after RA13” for example – when those plotlines are likely to impact on the iceberg plot or vice-versa.

  • BW02 – First Date w/reporter – after RA15
  • BW03 – Second Date w/reporter interrupted by emergency (BW has to leave, reporter tries to convince him to take her with him) – after RA16
  • BW03a – Reporter files story on the emergency & on Champs readiness to go into action at any time – sympathetic piece
  • BW04 – Third Date w/reporter – after RA25 – an emergency right in front of them – she meets rest of team – date resumes afterward – steps up the seduction, first sex (at her place)

The Iceberg Plot has clearly entered the “Growing Significance” phase; you can tell, because it can now be identified as a romantic plotline. Note that any involvement with other PCs is purely incidental at this stage.

There are a couple of milestones (“revolutions”) in these four appearances. The second date can be considered one such, and going back to her place after the interrupted third date is another. BW03a is critical, as it connects with the PC’s “trust anyone who’s supportive” mindset. Note also that there is clear development – an uninterrupted date, a date with an emergency to disrupt it, and a date resumed and a relationship progression in spite of a second disruption.

  • BW04a – The morning after
  • BW05 – “On The Job” encounter, Reporter gives info that helps in a case (Lunar city?)
  • BW05a – Reporter uses [her] insights to give a more thorough report than anyone else
  • BW06 – “On The Job” encounter, reporter gets into trouble trying to “get closer to the story”, was confident BW would rescue her
  • BW06a – Reporter files inside story of the mission – first argument?

In order to submerge more of the iceberg, I then downplay the romantic angle and simply deal with an evolving professional relationship between the two. That comes to an end with a “Lois Lane” moment in BW06, and the slow strengthening of the relationship is demonstrated by the argument that is expected to follow between the two. That is, of course, another milestone; and you can’t have an argument in a romantic plotline without a reconciliation, so that’s what comes next…

  • BW07 – Fourth Date w/reporter – asks for more explanation about something, puts finger on weak point of incomplete St B press conference, sex at her place
  • BW07a – BW’s expanded explanation is used to clarify press conference/official line – second argument?
  • BW08 – Reporter comes across trouble, calls BW
  • BW08a – Reporter files inside story of the mission
  • BW09 – Fifth Date w/reporter, asks BW to spend the night (her place)
  • BW10 – Sixth Date called off (her deadline), Reporter asks if she can meet BW at base later, spends the night in his room

Tentatively, boundaries and professional courtesies are being established between the two, and is an increased level of trust. BW10 is another milestone in the relationship because the team live in a secure environment; this means telling someone outside of the team about the relationship, making it that bit more “real”. This is emphasized by the next step in the plotline:

  • BW10a – The next morning meet staff and computer. NB: NO [news] story follows, builds trust
  • BW11 – Team uses reporter to leak a story to bait a trap – reporter warns there will be a quid-pro-quo sometime
  • BW12 – Reporter again spends night in BW’s bedroom – gets inside scoop on a mission but doesn’t use it, makes a point of that with other team members / base security
  • BW13 – Big story inadequately explained – Reporter calls in favor from BW11 for the real story, manages to spin it to protect the real secret while giving the inside story – trust escalates.

At this point, the romance can be considered an established factor for all the team members. The iceberg plot has now reached the stage of Ubiquity, which means that it is time for me to prepare for the Criticality phase.

  • BW14 – Reporter asks to spend a day “on the job” with each team member, doing an “in-depth” profile for a series
  • BW14a – A day with St Barbara (BW’s reaction)
  • BW14b – A day with BW
  • BW14c – A day with RW
  • BW14d – A day with De
  • BW14e – A day with V
  • BW14f – A day with KB + BC
  • BW15 – In-depth profile series appears, revealing insights into team personalities & history that team might have wanted to keep private, but that might have been identified by a keen observer
  • BW16 – A big story that the team had been hoping to sweep under the rug is exposed by the reporter – focus attention on the ethical conflict the reporter has been “dealing with”.

The relationship has transitioned from Important to Significant, as it now impacts the other PCs directly. BW16 is immensely important; this is my last exit point from the plotline before Criticality occurs. At this point I can still call off what I have planned and let the relationship continue or die as a dynamic background element; what happens next “pulls the trigger” and moves the plotline into the Criticality phase. Note also the use of “misdirection” to obscure the situation (and give me an out) in that final event.

  • BW17 – rumors of a forthcoming book, a tell-all expose being written under a pseudonym, reach the team via a gossip column
  • BW17a – St B is able to verify that there IS a book
  • BW17b – IMAGE ask V & BW to investigate the book to discover what is in it
  • BW17c – V & BW are able to ascertain that whoever wrote it has received a six-figure advance
  • BW17d – V + BW are able to get their hands on a partial galley – revelations are dynamite – BW as a convicted Killer, RW as something akin to a Drug Addict, St B as a sexual predator, De as a human-hating megalomaniac, V as a revenge-thirsty invader of secrets, off-dimensional origins of the team, team as a political tool brought in to shore up support for the Throne
  • BW17e – Reporter asks BW about the rumored book

One final piece of misdirection, necessary for consistency of character, and intended for the benefit of the other PCs since Blackwing’s player co-wrote this whole plotline. One key outcome of the whole plotline is the revelation that the team are from another earth in a parallel dimension – something that the team always suspected would come out eventually, but that they couldn’t find a way to soft-pedal to their satisfaction.

From BW17a on, the train-wreck is inevitable and the PCs can see it coming – but they should not immediately connect it with the reporter, that was the point of the trust buildup in the first place. I will probably run BW17e (above) and BW17f (below) simultaneously, in game time/ real-world time.

  • BW17f – V discovers that the reporter is the author – as she uncovers a new chapter describing the team reaction to the book – does she tell BW?
  • BW17g – Resolve the reporter plotline – she reveals that the sex was great but only a means to an end, “the people have a right to know who and what they are dealing with – I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again”.

The train-wreck happens, Blackwing finds that his “professional” and “private” life have collided. Outside of the impact on Blackwing, this plotline serves two important purposes: first, it comments on the price that the heroes have to pay for what they do (one of the campaign themes of almost every superhero campaign), and two, it gets the “revelations” into the public arena, which is the “big picture” purpose of the whole plotline. If I abort the calamity between Blackwing and the Reporter, I can still achieve this end by having one of the IMAGE personnel be the author. In fact, using this vector for the “metagame plot deliverable,” I can call off the entire plotline at any earlier point and still advance the campaign’s overall plotline.

  • BW17h – The book is published. Effects, aftermath: “The Crucible Of Opinion”

“The Crucible Of Opinion” is a partial quote from an episode of the West Wing, from which part of this plot was derived. It’s there to remind me to review the episode in question as an aide to writing the event.

  • BW17h01 – copies are distributed to all members, instructions to review them immediately, anywhere in the book they are mentioned – we have to know what to expect in fallout
  • BW17h02 – St B reacts to content questioning her morality and trustworthiness
  • BW17h03 – BW reacts to content suggesting that he is a corrupt ex-cop and a homicidal killer
  • BW17h04 – RW reacts to content describing him as a drug-addicted ex-soldier who lives in a fantasy world with little resemblance to reality
  • BW17h05 – De reacts to content describing him as a fanatic incapable of loyalty
  • BW17h06 – V reacts to content describing her as a naive pawn, incapable of self-assertion or critical self-analysis
  • BW17h07 – BC reacts to content describing him as a servile automaton with delusions of independence
  • BW17h08 – KB reacts to content describing it as a failed, even dangerous, experiment in machine intelligence which has been corrupted into thinking itself the equal of a living being
  • BW17h09 – “The staff want you to know that you have our full support. We’ve got your back, just tell us what you want us to do.”
  • BW17h10 – St B reacts to content about the other members
  • BW17h11 – Gov’t reacts to content – “The Champions have our full confidence.”
  • BW17h12 – RW reacts to comments about the other members
  • BW17h13 – Media requests for interviews go ballistic – they weren’t this heavy even when the team first arrived
  • BW17h14 – De reacts to content about other members
  • BW17h15 – Public opinion is strongly polarized by the book. Those who distrusted or opposed the team already now attack with venom, those who supported them defend them with passion.
  • BW17h16 – BC reacts to content about the other members
  • BW17h17 – The initial media response fans the flames of the vitriolic election campaign currently underway – “the timing is simply too coincidental to be plausible” for some. The book is seen as an attempt to deflect attention from the very real political problems of the Empire. Curiously, some attack Z-3 for participating in such a loathsome charade, while others consider them victims of a bureaucracy capable of any extreme.

Lots of people reacting. Some of it deliberately pushes PC “buttons”. All this can be described as the “After The Titanic” phase of this plotline. Note that I haven’t specified, or made room for, Blackwing to react to the personal crisis that instigated all this; how the PC reacts will depend on too many circumstances, but will undoubtedly color and influence those roleplaying opportunities that are listed for him. Such an opportunity is explicitly provided in BW17h21, below.

But my ulterior motive as a GM is revealed by that last item, which both influences the direction of politics within the game world and evolves a further piece of dynamic background – the relationship between the team and the government. Note that if I have to, I can simply have public opinion shift to achieve the same result, even if the team have managed to prevent the publication of the book that was to serve as the “trigger” – or I can have a copy of the book “leak” to achieve the same ends. There are many paths leading to the main plotline that will eventually occur, and I can pick another if this one is blocked; aside from the interactivity between players / PCs and game world, providing plausibility for that plotline is one of the major reasons all this exists as plotline.

  • BW17h18 – KB reacts to contents about the members
  • BW17h19 – A spokesman for the former government condemns the new government for their lukewarm support of the team, describing the official response as “damning with insincere platitudes”. They point out that they were fully supportive, and that the Throne encouraged this; but the reformers first act upon assuming power was to order the team to disband. This latest statement shows that the government cannot be trusted and should never have been elected and should now be impeached.
  • BW17h20 – Protesters begin to assemble at the Knightley Building. Police and security are concerned, caution against inflaming the situation.
  • BW17h21 – BW reacts to content about other members and the knowledge that his relationship with the author led to all this
  • BW17h22 – Media begin showing news footage & photographs of BW and the author together in public. Some suggest that the Champions actively encouraged the book as a ‘safe’ way of leaking things without putting the public offside, and that the new gov’t disbanding the team was a response to learning these secrets and distancing themselves from the team. Others suggest that she has sanitized the book, and there is a lot worse still hidden.
  • BW17h23 – V reacts to content about other members and to their reactions to everything that is going on.
  • BW17h24 – IMAGE (ie the civil service) demands an official media policy & press conference to deal with the book. “Control the message or the message will control you.”
  • BW17h25 – Team meeting about these events to agree on a response
  • BW17h26 – The team hold a press conference
  • BW17h27 – Security report that fans and supporters of the team have started to gather for a 24-hour vigil of support outside the Knightley Building. The police are setting up cordons but things could turn ugly with any provocation – and both sides are doing their best to provoke the other.
  • BW17h28 – IMAGE’s legal experts report that there is nothing actionable within the book; because they are legally-registered eccentrics, they are not covered by or subject to normal libel laws. Legally, public or media can say anything they want to about the team.

Fallout continues – but the last item is worth noting as it highlights a consequence of the “legal framework” in which the team operates that they were previously insufficiently aware of.

  • BW17h29 – Protestors and supporters clash, and the situation around the knightley building devolves into a riot. Police want Z-3 to stay out of it, you would only inflame the situation.
  • BW17h30 – Gov’t (ie politicians) demands an increased media presence by the team over the next few days.

A crisis is always followed by Crisis Management. Interviews are a relatively down-key solution, but that’s because they usually work. The alternative is to go to ground and wait for the media (and public) to find something else to scream about, and that’s dangerous because it hampers your ability to respond to anything else that might happen. Note that there is symmetry to the plot arc, or iceberg plot, or plot loop, or whatever you want to call it: the whole plotline started with interviews and developed with interviews, so it’s only appropriate that interviews are part of the aftermath.

  • BW17h31 – St B is interviewed about the book and whether it represents a breach of trust, and whether or not there’s more and worse.
  • BW17h32 – V is interviewed about her relationship with St B. Interview is constantly disrupted by religious extremists.
  • BW17h35 – De is interviewed about his loyalty and trust issues
  • BW17h34 – RW is interviewed about the allegations in the book concerning him.
  • BW17h36 – BC is interviewed (remotely) about his role in the team and how long he’s been with them etc.
  • BW17h33 – BW is interviewed about his relationship with the author. When did it end? Does he feel betrayed? Does he still have feelings for her? etc
  • BW17h37 – St B is (sympathetically) interviewed about the reasons for secrecy
  • BW17h39 – BW is invited to return serve on the author and spill any dirt she doesn’t want to be public.
  • BW17h40 – RW is asked how his teammates really feel about the book
  • BW17h38 – V is asked how all this looks from an alien perspective.
  • BW17h41 – De is asked what he really thinks of his teammates
  • BW17h42 – BC is asked about his relations with the team and why they have kept him a secret

You can sense the winding down of the whole situation as you read through the above. One round of difficult interviews and media sympathies begin to soften; public opinion will almost certainly be following suit. The curtain has just about finished coming down on the plotline.

  • BW17h43 – St B is informed that the media are beginning to find other news to occupy them, and that the media storm roused by the book is fading. There remain the usual number of requests to interview her (as much because ratings always spike when she appears as because of the current situation), and there are a few requests for Blackwing – normally an unpopular interview subject – because of his close relationship with the author, but that the real media darling to have come out of the whole episode is the Bright Cutter – they can’t get enough of him. Requests to interview him are running two-to-one compared to St B’s normal – they are calling him the “forgotten Champion”. The current expectation is that the book will be a three-day wonder, and this is day three.

I like to throw the occasional twist into the outcomes – and unless they have read this despite my request, there is no way that they will anticipate that this NPC will become a media darling, even though something similar happened to the equivalent member on the parent team years ago.

  • BW17h43a – V, RW, and De are informed that they have no extraordinary media requests for today and can resume their normal schedules.
  • BW17h44 – BW is interviewed, but the focus is on his new-found eligibility as a bachelor. What sort of girl does he like? Or has this whole experience soured him on women? After the interview, the reporter tells him to chin up, he’s almost out of the goldfish bowl – the public are losing interest in the story, and the press will soon follow. And, in case he’s gotten the wrong idea, she’s happily married already!
  • BW17h45 – BC is interviewed about his impressions of the Empire. How much of it has he seen? What did he like? Where else has he been? How did it compare?
  • BW17h46 – St B is interviewed about the difficulties of those in sensitive positions maintaining outside relationships in general. The book is never explicitly mentioned.
  • BW17h47 – BC is interviewed about his perspective on the political questions. He dodges the brier patch with great professionalism while reaffirming an overall moral stance.
  • BW17h48 – St B is interviewed about the coming season’s fashions, and her uniforms, and whether or not she would ever consider letting a professional designer work with her wardrobe choices.
  • BW17h49 – BC is interviewed about his perspective on religious issues. He again avoids trouble without offending anyone. Several church Ministers try to trip him up but it quickly becomes clear that he is VERY expert in theology, has read every Holy Book on Earth-Halo, has perfect recall, and can quote from them at length. He soon has them tied in knots over their refusal to denounce criminal acts (base on West Wing episode I). If he keeps this up, she [St Barbara] might be able to hand over the job of Media Liaison.
  • BW17h50 – St B is advised that the BC has accepted an invitation to be interviewed by one of the most controversial religious right-wing fundamentalist figures on the radio, something every other member of the team has managed to avoid by listening to the advice of IMAGE’s media dept.
  • BW17h51 – BC is interviewed by the radical fundamentalist reporter. He is polite for a while and then takes total control of the interview, publicly humiliating her over her extremist position. (base on the religious critique in the West Wing). It looks like it’s going to be a whole new PR disaster for the team, but at the very end he confirms his support for religious tolerance and the rights of individuals to choose for themselves; he doesn’t have any final answers, and even if he did they would not apply to humans anyway. What he cannot abide is religious intolerance and bigotry and evil cloaked in the pretense of righteousness. He then reminds her that she insisted that he reveal his thoughts on the subject.
  • BW17h52 – BC is finally asked what he thinks about the contents of the book. He systematically tears its credibility to shreds, while maintaining that on the occasions he met “Miss Lawrence” [The reporter] she was not at all biased or deceptive; he is quite sure that the book was reedited by an unknown third party to attack the team’s credibility, putting the most hostile spin possible on every statement it contains.

If you think back to the very beginning, this whole plotline starts with Blackwing being a guest on a Talk Show. Once again, the aftermath is a mirror to the events of the buildup.

A few more things to take away from the example:

  • I’m not an expert on media relations or handling a political crisis. I simply paid close attention to a TV show that featured this sort of thing (The West Wing) and especially the extras, which included interviews with the show’s consultants like Dee Dee Myers, who were.
  • One of the major problems that will have to be overcome is the presence of a Telepath on the team and the potential for premature unmasking of the plot. Countering that meant introducing a new technology into the campaign, and a plotline was developed (and has already taken place) explicitly to do this. It’s only partially effective as a solution, but it should be enough.
  • Most of the buildup was written by trying to decide what would logically and realistically happen next in terms of an unfolding relationship between the PC and NPC who were the focus of the plotline. Notice that most of the non-milestone events can be moved around, hand-waved, or canceled without overly affecting the outcome; no single one of them is critical to the outcome, rather it is their accumulated weight that matters.
  • There has been a lot of thought put into customizing the crisis and its fallout to the individual PCs in my campaign. Should any of them change, the content would have to change as well. But this helps make the players feel like this is really happening – verisimilitude again.
  • While most of the events are presented only as vague general outlines, they are also quite explicit in terms of what I want that scene to achieve, plot-wise.
  • I would expect that all the events of BW17h would form a single “adventure” – they are practically a scene-by-scene breakdown of the plot already, and have to be continuous or simultaneous with each other. (I might even call it “The Crucible Of Opinion”). Other parts will be subplots, located within other adventures or character-driven plotlines.
  • Every PC will be affected in some way, more or less permanently; but outside of specific effects that the plotline aims to achieve, and those character consequences, everything else ends up more or less reset to where it was at the start of the adventure. It’s relatively “contained” as a plotline. Note that at no point do I dictate what a PC will do (other than the things agreed upon with Blackwing’s creator in advance), or how they will react; I simply use NPCs to ask them how they are reacting. Most of the character effects will have ramifications in plotlines featuring those PCs later in the campaign, and can be summarized as ‘airing their dirty laundry in the worst possible light’.

Revisiting The Question

So, if the question is, “can slow-building storylines that develop over time work in an RPG, the answer is an unqualified and demonstrable “yes”; but they can only do so if they matter to the PCs, and that means that they can’t stay buried beneath the surface forever. At some point, they have to explode into the lives of the PCs. Hopefully, this article has given GMs the tools they need in order to use this particular plot type, and avoid the pitfalls that lurk for the unwary.

Next in this series: A Target With Warp Drive: Digital Maps and Minis for Sci-Fi.

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