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Creating Partial NPCs To Speed Game Prep


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How much character do you need? Or, to phrase it another way, how much character construction do you have to undertake in advance when creating an NPC?

You could simply have a random character generator throw up something to avoid any character construction, but the results never seem to mesh properly with the situation in which the NPCs are encountered. Actually constructing a bespoke NPC is infinitely preferable – but it’s also a lot of work, especially if you have to do a lot of them,

Today’s article was going to be about a shortcut that I figured out last week for NPC generation – a companion piece to The three-minute-or-less NPC (creating personalities quickly) and last week’s 3 feet in someone else’s shoes (getting into character quickly) – but a lot of what I had to offer was very similar to the technique described in an earlier article on the subject, The Ubercharacter Wimp – and furthermore, assumed knowledge of some techniques that I haven’t yet shared, which would have been awkward to any readers who aren’t telepathic.

So the intent of this article is to plug that gap, and talk about Partial NPCs – and the most important decision of all, how incomplete can they be while still being fit for their intended purpose.

The Continuum Of Construction

First, let’s establish a frame of reference. NPC construction can vary in depth from complete characters, as well documented as any of the PCs or perhaps better, at one extreme, to nothing more than a couple of descriptive notes – an idea for an NPC – at the other. These two extremes form the end-points of a continuum, a straight line with multiple degrees of completeness in between.

Character Concept
Character concepts come in three flavors. You have characters that are there simply because someone has to be doing that job, and the PCs are going to interact with that someone – the Guard at the Palace Gate, for example. You have characters that the GM thinks are a cool idea, or that use a cool ability, or have a cool magic weapon, or whatever, that are essentially a “cool gimmick delivery system” – “A Beholder with Ninja training sounds like fun”. And you have NPCs that are window dressing, on tap and ready to be used the next time the NPCs interact with someone – “Barfly Number Nine” – who are nothing more than a personality or circumstance, but who can be used to flesh out the game environment, interact with the PCs, and perhaps supply one crucial piece of information on occasion.

These three types, when that concept stands alone with no further development, is a character concept, Concepts can be one partial sentence in length or a short paragraph, or just a link to a block of text elsewhere in the case of someone whose sole function is to have a particular magic item.

The Complete Character
A complete character can be even more strongly defined and complete than a PC simply because the GM knows more about the game world (or can create more as necessary) and hence a complete background history can be included, as can notes on characterization, how to get into character, and so on.

The points in between
There are all sorts of points in between these two extremes in which you have a character who has been partially created or defined, but which does not yet reach the full standard, and this is important because creating more character than you need is a waste of prep time.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Creating more character than you need right now is an investment in prep time; if the character is going to turn up time and time again, then time spent now – when you have the character clearly in mind – can be more efficient than doing it later – if you have the time to spare during your current game prep.

Completeness

So the completeness that is desirable and the completeness that is required for immediate purposes are two different standards, with the first being as high or higher than the second. In other words, the target should fall somewhere in between immediate need and complete character, and the differentiating factor is the likelihood of reappearance, because that likelihood is loosely related to future “immediate needs”, but everything that is more bang than you need right now is only “nice to have”, it isn’t essential. It’s something to be done if you can spare the time.

Technique

When I first started generating NPCs for my campaigns, I started with the character concept and then created the character to fit that concept in exactly the same way that I would generate a PC – I’ll go into more detail on that in a moment, because the details will become important. But almost by definition, this will usually create more NPC construction than you need right now, so as I grew in experience I came to realize that it was far better just to do what was immediately needed and then reverse-engineer my way to earlier parts of the character construction process if I needed them for something else later.

This is almost always possible (there are some exceptions, such as original Traveller, but I regard that as being a flaw in the game system design because it forces the GM to do more work).

Prioritizing

This technique relies on the skill of prioritization – of knowing what exactly you are going to need right now, and what might be nice to have but isn’t essential. Decide what you need right now and later you can use the game mechanics to derive how the character gets those immediately-useful scores.

Method 1: Natural Progression

“Natural Progression” is the same sequence of construction steps that you would expect to be carried out in the construction of a PC, which is the same as the way the rulebooks describe the process. As a general rule of thumb, it can be broken into seven steps:

  1. Concept/Personality
  2. Stats
  3. Skills or Abilities
  4. Abilities or Skills
  5. Equipment
  6. Flaws, weaknesses, disadvantages
  7. Personality revisited – history, background, etc

Complete all seven and you have yourself a complete character.

Clearly, if you only need the character to have one specific ability, there’s a whole bunch of work – steps 2, 3, 4, and most of 5 – that is completely wasted. What’s more, some of these steps have subdivisions, and sometimes you don’t need the whole step to satisfy your immediate needs.

In terms of any intelligently-designed Partial Characters technique, this is about as inefficient as you can get. Let me show you a better way…

Method 2: Functional Progression

“Functional Progression” performs character construction by deciding the desired outcome from any earlier steps of the character generation process and worrying about how you get there later. In other words, the steps of character construction are performed in the order needed to deliver the character’s practical function within the plot and nothing more. What this means will become clearer as we proceed.

combat vs roleplay

It didn’t take me very long to realize that two different forms of Functional Progression were needed – one for characters designed to be roleplayed in an interaction with the PCs, but that weren’t likely to be involved in combat, and one for characters designed to fight the NPCs but not to do much meaningful talking.

The Combat Model

The Combat Model of a Functional Progression divides character construction into fourteen steps:

  1. Concept/Personality - the starting point that identifies this as the model to use
  2. Attack & Defense - in D&D / Pathfinder, these are To Hit and AC. In the Hero system, they are OCV and DCV. They define the character’s chance to hit with an attack and his chance to be hit.
  3. Damage Capacity - How much damage can the NPC take?
  4. Equipment/Damage - What does the character use to inflict damage and how much damage does it inflict? In the Hero System, this is also where you decide PD and ED. Note that you don’t care WHY the character has the scores that he does, just the end results.
  5. Key Abilities - Does the character have any combat-related tricks or abilities or superpowers? What can they do?
  6. Key Flaws, weaknesses, disadvantages - Most game systems don’t go in for defining these. The Hero System and GURPS do. I like to enunciate them even in those games that don’t need them. Key Flaws are personality traits that can lead to the character making a mistake in battle, Key Weaknesses are holes in the character’s defenses (which he may or may not recognize) and Key Disadvantages are anything else that might hinder the character in combat.
  7. Key Skills - Any skills the character might have that are likely to make a difference in combat under the circumstances in which the character is to appear? This is likely to be a very short list.
  8. Other Key Stats - Many systems have other stats that you might need in a fight, like Initiative Bonus. Sometimes you need to know a DEX or STR check. Some abilities and game systems might dictate knowing the characters WILL or INT in order to deal with some forms of attack – but you only worry about those if the PCs have those attacks.
  9. Other Stats - Work backwards from the numbers you’ve assigned to derive the stats on which they are based, then set the levels of any remaining stats accordingly.
  10. Other Abilities - fill out any non-combat abilities.
  11. Other Skills - fill out any non-combat skills.
  12. Other Flaws, weaknesses, disadvantages - identify and detail any other manifestations of personality within the game mechanics that apply to the NPC that you don’t expect to make a difference in combat.
  13. Other Equipment - this is where you list any other equipment the character might be using.
  14. Personality Revisited - history, background, etc.

This list strips out just the things that you need to know before the character can fight and does them in a sensible order of priority, one that permits the GM to jump off the list at any point, or jump down to a later item if it is likely to become relevant. By definition, it excludes everything you don’t need to know, and focuses not on the mechanics of getting what you do need to know, but on allocating end results to those mechanics.

The Roleplay Model

You need to know different things when the NPC’s role is to talk to the PCs – possibly to relay information, possibly to react to information.

Bonus Tip: Your combat sequences will almost always feel less artificial if you can include at least one non-combat NPC as a bystander who will nevertheless get involved in the sequence in a non-combat way. Think of the classic Barroom Brawl in The Trouble With Tribbles with Cyranno Jones helping himself to the drinks and meandering through the fight. Think of a dust-up in a restaurant while the Maitre De squawks. Think of the tourist interrupting Superman in the middle of a brawl to ask for an autograph. Think of a seneschal offering snide comments about the combatants during a duel between a disliked courtier and a PC. It doesn’t matter what the fight is, or what it’s about, or where it happens – a non-combat element adds a touch of levity that adds immensely to the entertainment value of the fight, and makes it less about the game mechanics and more about the interaction between characters.

The list of elements in the roleplay model will look very familiar at first glance. They are just organized into a different order. But then you look at the definitions, and little subtleties begin to manifest themselves:

  1. Concept/Personality - Always the starting point, identifies this as the model to use.
  2. Key Flaws, weaknesses, disadvantages - These are all about the character’s personality and not his combat vulnerabilities.
  3. Key Abilities - Similarly, this is about what the character knows and what he can do in an interpersonal / information-gathering situation, and not what he can do in a fight.
  4. Key Skills – By now, the difference between the meaning of the term “key skills” in this model and the meaning of the same term in the combat model should be clear. Knowledge, crafts, and interpersonal skills.
  5. Key Stats - Int, Wis, Will, Cha, etc, depending on the game system.
  6. Personality Revisited - history, background, etc.
  7. Non-Combat Equipment - Anything that might help the character know or learn something or perform some non-combat task, that might help him seem credible in his role, etc. A Hat of Disguise probably won’t help you in a fight, but it’s vital to know about it in a roleplayed encounter.
  8. Everything Else:
        8.1 Other Stats
        8.2 Other Skills
        8.3 Other Flaws, weaknesses, disadvantages
        8.4 Attack & Defense
        8.5 Damage Capacity
        8.6 Equipment/Damage
        8.7 Combat Abilities

You don’t need to be especially observant to notice that the bulk of character construction has been lumped into the “everything else” category. That’s because, unless the character is going to enter combat on a subsequent appearance, and you know it, this stuff need never be done.

Oh, there may need to be the occasional highlight – “He’s carrying a mace painted like a clown’s face and wearing enchanted chain mail of some sort” – but you don’t need to worry about what these magic items actually are. Maybe the Clown’s Face would need some additional explanation, but you get the point…

Partial NPCs

A partial NPC is one in which the entire character construction process has deliberately not been carried out because most of it is unnecessary for this character being encountered in these specific circumstances.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

The Combat Model: Seven grades of NPC completeness

When it comes to combat, there are seven grades of completeness that I employ to decide how much of the character construction process needs to be completed.

  1. Flunkies - Next to no detail needed, and one common concept fits all. Combat Model elements 1-4. Optional but unlikely: element 5 if any; element 6 if unusual; elements 7 & 8 if they are likely to be needed. Same scores for all.
  2. Combatants - Described as an individual, otherwise the same as Flunkies.
  3. Major One-off Foes - Combat Model elements 1 through 7. Optional but unlikely: 8 if they are likely to be needed. Anticipating the likely need for this character to interact with the PCs in a roleplaying sense, I will also complete items 1-3 from the Roleplay Model.
  4. Lieutenants - What the character knows is more likely to be important, as are any limitations, so I will complete Combat Model elements 1 through 8 and Roleplay elements 1 through 6, but without going into great depth on roleplay elements 4-6.
  5. Arch-Enemies - Same as Lieutenants, but with more attention to the roleplay elements. An Arch-Enemy is a recurring enemy of one or more of the PCs, so there will be emphasis placed on the relationship with that character/those characters.
  6. Recurring Enemies - A recurring enemy is one that is expected to make multiple appearances in the campaign, but which is not tied to any individual PC. I treat them the same as an Arch-Enemy but without the relationship focus, and anticipate completing the process of making them Complete over time.
  7. Complete Characters - The only time I create a full character before that character has even entered play is when he is going to be an NPC ally of the PCs and part of their team. I consider it important that these characters be built to the same standards as would be expected of any other PC, and I am usually happy to consult with the best character-creating player on the course of their future development – while keeping some cards close to my chest, of course.

Most adventures will have one representative of groups D through F, maybe two in extreme cases. There may or may not be a couple of representatives from group B. Most of the NPCs who are expected to engage in battle will be group A.

The Roleplay Model: Seven grades of NPC completeness

I use a similar scale for roleplaying encounters.

  1. Casual Encounters - Next to no detail needed, usually encountered singly rather than as a group, though there are exceptions, which I will discuss below. Roleplay Model Elements 1-4, in as little detail as possible.
  2. One-offs of substance - A little more detail needed, so Roleplay Elements 1-4 in full.
  3. Recurring Encounters - More detail again. Roleplay Elements 1-4 in full, plus some quick notes on Elements 5 and 6.
  4. Intimate Recurring Encounters - These are the same as Recurring Encounters but with an important relationship to one or more of the PCs. Roleplay Elements 1-4 in full, a little more detail in Elements 5 and 6, and some notes on the relationship(s).
  5. Supporting Cast - Supporting Cast are NPCs who don’t fight alongside the PCs but who are frequent associates of the PCs. Roleplaying Elements 1-6 in full, and some notes on Element 7. I will also anticipate the possibility that the character will encounter combat at some point and do Combat Model elements 1-4.
  6. Central Interactions - Supporting cast members who are central to the campaign or the plotline, at least for a while, deserve a little more attention. Roleplaying Elements 1-7 in full, and just in case, Combat Elements 1-4, with notes on Combat Elements 5-8.
  7. NPC Team Members & Complete Characters - It’s very rare that full characters are needed unless they are NPC team members who live and fight alongside the PCs. In most cases, I will use the Roleplay Model “complete character” process rather than the Combat Model equivalent because I want these to be more than Flunkies to the PCs, I want them to be people with whom the PCs will interact. But there are occasional exceptions.
The Mob and other groups

As much as possible, I try to think of groups of individuals as a collective NPC. I do this largely without needing to analyze the logic behind the decisions I make, relying on my experience, a little education on group psychology, and a healthy dash of cynicism. What is the strength of a mob? Average plus one for each member able to contribute to one goal at the time. What is the INT or WIS of a mob? If they have no leader, it’s that of the lowest member – but any attempt to influence the mob has to reach all members of it, or they will resist attempts to persuade or dissuade them from whatever they think they need to do. Ditto the moral restraint of the mob. On the other hand, if they DO have a leader, these scores will be those of the leader, plus an X-factor for having the support of the mob pushing them on. And so on.

It’s so much easier to generate one set of stats for the group as a collective.

The Impact Of Game Balance

There are two major game architectures out there – the classic “character class” model, and the “construction points” model. Both the Partial Encounters systems blatantly ignore any attempt to balance characters in favor of fitting the character to the role that he or she is to play within the game, and I make no apologies for that. Ways can always be found to balance the books if you want to obsess over trivia, but there are better things to do with your time as a GM.

But that’s not to say that I don’t bear some reasonable standard of Game Balance in mind. The standard is always one that is relative to the PCs capabilities, and this is a key component of the initial concept. “Worse than the PCs” is a valid standard for grades 1 and 2 of the combat rankings, and for anyone short of full team members in the roleplay rankings. “Worse than the PCs except in their specialty” is another – though it then requires a further statement of the NPCs ability in their specialized field. “Better than the NPCs but slower to improve / advance” is another valid choice. “Better than any one PC” is a valid choice. “The equal of the entire group of PCs put together” is fair enough – for an enemy who is high up in the gradings, or for an NPC whose function is to serve as an advisor / mentor without doing the PCs job for them. The role in the plot is what dictates what I want an NPC to be able to do.

The Role of GM experience

The more inexperienced you are as a GM, the more you should treat NPCs as being one or two grades better than they need to be. It takes a lot of expertise to be able to judge correctly how far you need to go.

I know of one would-be GM who thought that to create an NPC that was the equal of the whole team put together, the right approach was to add all the PCs stats together and use the total. This completely ignored synergistic mechanics within a character’s construction, and non-linear progressions in ability, and a whole slew of other such factors. A far more balanced approach is to take the best score of the PCs in any given stat and add 1 for each PC after the first that he is going to oppose. And maybe +1 or +2 to some things because he is going to be facing multiple opponents simultaneously.

Greater experience also makes you more adept at winging it if circumstances propel an NPC into realms you didn’t expect them to go, so there is less penalty for underestimating the role that an NPC will play in the game.

The Initial Standard & Unpredictability

Even the most experienced GMs will get it wrong occasionally. The players will ‘take’ to an NPC like a duck to water, recruiting what was expected to be a one-shot NPC. A villain will be so much fun for everyone that he has to make a return appearance at some point. A character who was never expected to see combat ends up on the front lines. A character who should have been mincemeat gets a spot of luck and benefits from some clever thinking (on his part) and/or sloppy thinking on the part of the players and gets away, or successfully pulls off a Wizard Of Oz routine that makes him look far more effective than he really is. An NPC turns out to be tougher or more effective than he should have been.

There are so many ways to get it wrong.

The Build-as-you-go solution

As you become more experienced in GMing, if you aren’t already, you will discover the counterintuitive solution: Do Less and Build As You Go.

Even if you think a character is going to be recurring, build to a lower grade – the first time they appear. Then, if your prognostication turns out to be false, you’ve wasted less effort. If you are correct in your expectations, you can always bump them up a grade or two before their second appearance – and then again, before their third, and so on. Always keeping an eye on what you expect that NPC to be providing to the plot in those appearances, of course!

Don’t be afraid to skip ahead on the Model Hierarchy of elements as necessary. Build as much NPC as you need right now and extend on that when it’s warranted.

Flunkies should take one minute to create, two at the outside. Combatants and Casual Encounters should be two, maybe three minutes, at most. Work smart, work efficiently, and work hard – and you will work quickly.

I like to estimate how long generating a complete character to the required standard will take (in real hours and minutes). After the first couple of levels, I divide that into blocks of roughly 10-20% of the total – and that’s how much additional time I will invest in building on the basis of what I’ve done already.

Creating a first-level D&D character should take less than an hour. Maybe 30 minutes to do a complete one – with a full personality, history, etc. Creating a fifth-level character might take 2 hours. Creating a tenth level character, maybe 3. And so on. But those are how long it would take me – you might well be different. So use your numbers to allocate time. Do whatever you need to do in order to have the NPC ready for his function in the next adventure, and then – if the anticipated grade is high enough – spend whatever time remains in working on the next item in the appropriate hierarchy step of the Model. Yes, there will be exceptions to these rules – if you expect a character to be defeated, you might need to do a complete equipment list because the PCs will loot it, for example.

Apply the principle of doing what you need, just in time for you to need it, show a little love regularly to those NPCs who warrant it, and use a little common sense. At the VERY least you should be able to cut your character prep time in half. Or, more likely, to about 10% of what it would be if you created complete characters every time.

Examples

These are taken from the Pulp campaign that I co-referee. While you might not be familiar with the Hero System, it will be clear to anyone who knows that game that this is just about everything you need to know in a basic fight scene. What should be more obvious is the brevity, showing just how little you really need to create in order to manage a complex scene.

The scene is a nightclub with a number of patrons. Two different groups of NPCs, one led by “The Sikh”, are going to have a fight, with the PCs in the middle, not knowing whose side they should be on. The PCs have just rescued one of their number who was kidnapped by the owner of the club. That owner has left the club, leaving the execution of the PC in the charge of her Lieutenant, “The Sikh”.

Combat Examples

THE SIKH: Strongman, Huge 2-handed sword, think Raiders Of The Lost Ark: OCV 7 DCV 7 PD 6 ED 3 SPD 3 BDY 20, each attack can hit up to 4 tgts (one sweep) 2D6 normal + 2d6 HKA, easily distracted.

20 GENERIC TONG FIGHTER UNDER SIKH COMMAND: OCV 7 DCV 7 PD 4 ED 2 SPD 4 BDY 12 1d6 Normal + 1.5d6 HKA, will try to protect customers. Will attack PCs if they come within reach.

24 MARTIAL ARTISTS: Kung Fu style, OCV 5 DCV 6 PD 3 ED 3 SPD 6 BDY 10, 1d6 normal + 1.5d6 HKA, 3 throwing stars 1d6 RKA each, will try not to harm customers but will go through them to reach Tong. Will attack PCs if attacked.

10 POLICE: all armed with batons except Lt. who has a .38 Webley Revolver: OCV 3 DCV 3 PD 3 ED 1 SPD 3 BDY 8, 1d6 normal + 0.5d6 HKA.

So we have one group who behave a little more like good guys, but who will attack the PCs on sight, and another group who behave a little more like bad guys but who will not attack the PCs unless provoked. The Sikh tips the balance in the fight against the Martial Artists, but the PCs can tip it right back the other way – if they help the Martial Artists.

54 Flunkies, 1 Combatant, total time elapsed: <6 minutes.

Roleplay Examples:

Also at the “Jade Palace” tonight are:

  • 22 member Wedding Party: Bride, Groom, 2 sets of Parents (hostile to each other), 2 Bridesmaids, 2 Groomsmen, 12 guests, will panic, bride expects Groom to defend her; he will try but is hopeless;
  • Diplomat & Guests: 1 person from German Embassy, 2 businessmen, 3 female escorts, will overturn table and hide, will use escorts as distractions if necessary;
  • Diplomat & Guests: 2 people from Spanish Embassy, 1 Spanish Guest, 2 wives; most will attempt to flee, wife of diplomat wants to get involved in the fracas because they are ruining her night out;
  • Chinese Military Officer and Texan Arms Salesman: doing an arms deal for a “Pederson Device” which turns a bolt-action rifle into a semi-auto rifle. Chinese Officer will attempt to sneak out, Texan Salesman will pull a pistol and shoot wildly at anyone who gets in his way as he tries to escape; kill with a throwing star.
  • Shady Businessman: Immaculate white suit, 2 Bodyguards (.38 webley revolvers), one Floozy, is convinced that the Martial Artists have been sent by a rival, will attempt to escape under protection of bodyguards.
  • 28 General Customers with wives/girlfriends: Talking, drinking, watching show, etc – 1/3 will duck for cover, 1/3 will try to flee, 1/3 will just panic
  • 18 Patrons at the bar: Will run towards the stage and climb up, looking for a stage entrance to use for escape
  • 4 stage hands: will flee out performer’s entrance and lock it behind them, preventing performers from escaping.
  • 21 Entertainers: Will stay on stage, performing, will fight with patrons from bar – stage magician, 2 comics, an MC, 2 female singers, 8 chorus girls, band leader, 5 piece band, Chinese strongman in leopard skin with weights, big gong on stage with hammer, porcelain statues. Strongman will help the PCs by throwing objects from stage while using Gong as a shield.
  • 12 reserves: from whatever faction the PCs oppose (split evenly if PCs go after everyone)
  • 20 Staff (Generic Tong Fighters): waiters, kitchen staff, etc, all of whom are also Tong providing Club Security;
  • 10 Police: on stakeout outside, 3 rounds to make entrance after fracas starts.

152 NPCs, Total time elapsed: 30 minutes.

And a good time was had by all.

Comments (3)

My Table Runneth Over – An Update


Hungry of RavenousRPG.com has been a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery through his recently-retitled “Friday Faves” column and was kind enough to pen a few words of response to my hypothetical solutions to the problem of too many players since he has real-world experience from both sides of the gaming table. Unfortunately, a problem with the systems here at Campaign Mastery meant that his contribution wasn’t being accepted as a comment. I have appended his comments to the original article, but I’m also posting them here as an out-of-continuity extra post to bring them to the attention of anyone who has already read the original article.
ATGMs-Hungry

Hungry’s Responses

I’ve run games for large groups before. My average seems to be around 6, but I’ve gone as high as 10 players (with most games having 6-8 of them, but sometimes we’d have all 10!)

The advice given here to keep them all engaged is very good. I’ll drop a brief comment on some of Mike’s bullet points:

Planning something for everyone: Usually, with a large group, someone will inevitably not make it. Just be prepared that your key plot point might have to shift to another player. It’s best if you can develop key points that involve 2-3 of the PCs. That covers your GM bases, and gives the players something to chat about during their downtime, which will happen in large groups.

Checklists: I tend to keep a running checklist in who I’ve engaged in a personal bit of role playing and who I haven’t. When I realize that I’ve left someone out for a short bit, I drag them back into the game by having a monster or NPC look them in the eyes and do/say something. This lets the player know that I’ve not forgotten them.

Combat Options: These work really well. I love the “N-1″ option because that’ll be a challenging encounter which will allow the PCs to shine as a group, but won’t leave anyone out until near the end of the encounter when the monsters are dwindling down to 1 or 2 left.

Prepared Tactics: This is a great bit of advice for GMs, especially if the Bad Guys are character-type critters with many abilities/powers or if it’s a monster packed with special abilities. I also flip this around on the players. I use some web-based software I’ve written to track initiative orders. When someone starts their action, I’ll point to the next person that gets to go and tell them, “You’re up next.” This engages the person that’s not actively doing anything, and lets them gear up mentally for what they want to do. This is a real time saver in those large combats.

Seating & Re-seating: I’m not sure shuffling players about the table would be a wise idea because of the time and distraction involved. I did read the ideas about being minimalist at the table, but there are also snacks and drinks at the table at most of my games. The players typically have more than two hands worth of stuff to try and move. It also draws them out of the game world and into the real world while they move from this side of the table to that. The best thing I’ve done for a split party in the past is to run a timer (smart phones are great for this!) in which one group gets a certain amount of time to do their RP, and then focus swaps to the other group. If one group gets into combat…. I wait. Cliffhanger style. I’ll see if the other group can find their way into a combat quickly, then I’ll run the two combats simultaneously. There’ll be one initiative order, but two separate combats going on. Yes, it’s more brain work for the GM to keep things running smoothly, but pulling it off makes the GM feel great.

Divisions in Roleplay: Mike’s take on 9+ players breaking into smaller groups works well, and I’ll take it a step further. Hand some minor NPCs to one group and have the players run the NPCs. This works really well with a little prep on index cards to let the players know what goals, motivations, approaches, and attitudes the NPCs will have. This will take a little load off of the GM, and keep the players engaged.

Caller, Handler, Scribe, Lawyer, and General: If the players want to establish these roles, I’m all for it. However, I (as the GM) will not dictate roles and responsibilities at this level, with one exception. If there’s a player at the table that’s comfortable with the rule book for the system, I might use them as a Lawyer if I can’t recall the particulars of a rule or power.

Assistant and Co-GMs: I’ve seen this done once to good effect, but we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 PCs at the table. I’ve never used them, and I’m not sure I’d want to “remove” a player from the playing experience and have them turn into a referee or rules adjudicator in addition to playing their character… or not playing a character at all.

I’ll make a few broad comment about the system simplification ideas Mike’s presented: These are very effective at speeding things up at the loss of “realism.” I like these ideas, but I’ll counter with the concept of, “If you need to simplify your system, perhaps you need to play a simpler system in the first place.” I’ve had players that can’t add d20+STR+BaB (even when STR+BaB are pre-added) in less than two minutes without a calculator. That REALLY grinds play to a halt. For those players, I make sure they sit next to me, and I do the math for them. I’ve also had players that could roll 24d6 and add it up in under 20 seconds (so long as they were pips, not numbers, on the dice). Many things come into play when picking the “right” system for your group, but that’s off topic for this post.

Table Etiquette: Mike has some great points here. In the weekly game I used to play, the “out of game chatter” was limited to the first 10-15 minutes of the session, then we got down to business. In my monthly game, the chatter runs about 30 minutes and rises up here and there during the course of the game. This is because we see each other so rarely and much has happened in the intervening month. It’s part of the game that I have to accept, but when I feel it’s getting in the way of the game, I step in and ask people to quiet down with the side chatter. We’re all adults, and I’m not mean or malicious about it. I just point out that the side conversations are making it hard for the other players to hear me. They get the point, and quiet down.

One last point that I’d like to make is that each player added to the table is a multiplier in effort, not an additive in the equation. From my experience, it’s not an exponential explosion in effort, but it’s probably 3X where X is the number of players. Before expanding a group, be prepared for this.

I hugely appreciate Hungry’s efforts at putting a real-world perspective on my musings, and apologize again for the (still ongoing) problems with comments!

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The Best Of 2010


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2010 was the year Campaign Mastery started really hitting its stride. We hit the Watershed numbers of 100,000 hits in total and 10,000 readers every month. Our style started to settle into place – My deep and analytic articles balanced with Johnn’s shorter, more digestible offerings, and the hybrid that was Ask The GMs. By year’s end, we had only missed our twice-a-week target once, establishing a reputation for reliability that continues to this day. There were some great series started, and some articles that still draw in a steady trickle of readers.

I started my occasional “Lessons From The West Wing” series, and the still-ongoing “We all have our roles to play” series, and a series on characterization. There was the trilogy of articles on Time Travel, and Johnn’s pair of articles on being a confident GM, and the series on Psionics. And, toward the end of the year, the first rumblings of hints about the forthcoming Assassin’s Amulet began to be heard.

2010 was a great year, and 2011 looked like being even better…

The Best Of 2010

Man, was it hard cutting this list down from the 108 initial contenders to the very best articles of a great year. Several personal favorites among the articles fell by the wayside, and even then, the list is too long at 20 entries – but I can’t shrink it further without cutting some really valuable material. So it is what it is.

In order of publication:

In the next part, a month or so from now: The best of 2011!

And don’t forget, you can see the complete list (still in development) by clicking on “The Best” Button at the top of the page, or this link.

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3 Feet In Someone Else’s Shoes: Getting in character quickly


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Some images have so much expression that you can base an entire personality around them. Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.

It’s not easy being a GM. Not only do you have to create dozens or hundreds of characters for every one PC, but you have to create adventures and encounters that bring those characters to life in an entertaining way for the benefit of the players – all while refereeing a complex simulation of a reality that never existed. What’s more, where a player has just one character to play, the GM has to flit from one NPC to the next without pause, sometimes assuming the role of several simultaneously.

Where the players have the luxury of walking a mile in their character’s shoes, the GM has only three feet to travel, and yet, because they are the center of attention at the game table, they are expected to be able to roleplay these characters better than the players do – because each NPC should seem just as vibrant, just as deep and complex and fully-rounded, as the PCs do, if not more – even though each NPC has less screen time to show themselves.

So here’s the question: How do you slip into the character of an NPC quickly and successfully? What’s the secret?

Well, I can’t speak for any other GMs, but here’s how I do it…

The Full Treatment

I have three different processes that I employ, depending on how much time I have to get ready for play. The first assumes that I have fifteen-to-thirty minutes the night before, and is employed when I know that a key NPC is going to appear. Subsequent appearances by that NPC tend to require far less such prep, down to only five-to-ten minutes, because most of the decisions have been made. Note that this time is entirely separate from character creation / development. The aim is to abstract the character into a more-easily captured “digest”.

The other two processes are essentially cut-down versions of this full process, or when the NPC is to be the focus of much less attention in the course of the game.

The Night Before: Step 1: Character Synopsis

My character creation process is aimed at producing the game mechanics infrastructure and personality profiles needed to define the character as a unique individual, ready to interact with the game world around them. The process being discussed today assumes that character creation has been completed in advance (even if it has only just finishes) – though my preference is to complete creation at least 24 hours before play so that I have time to clear my mind of the creation process. All I want in “active RAM” is what I need to roleplay the character, everything else is a distraction from running the game, to be recalled only when necessary.

The first of three steps carried out the night before is to read the character’s description and background, initially aiming to establish in short-term memory a summary version of the answers to three questions: Who is the NPC? What is his background? What can he do?

I know that I have completed this step when I can clearly distinguish this NPC in my head from any others of similar expected standing in the next day’s play. That is sometimes as straightforward as reading over the character writeup prepared during the generation process, sometimes requires focusing on the key differences between the characters (which will need to be highlighted during play so that the players can distinguish between the NPCs), and sometimes can even require expanding or extending the background and associated notes – effort that is not budgeted into the thirty minute total because it doesn’t happen all that often.

The Night Before: Step 2: Character Profile

Once I feel I have a handle on these three broad questions, at least in summary, I create a profile synopsis. This is step two of the “night before” process, and involves answering ten specific and (reasonably) simple questions about the NPC. While, in a pinch, I might not take the time to actually write down the answers. failure to do so requires the full process to be repeated before the character’s next appearance. Given the time savings stated earlier (from 15-30 minutes down to 5-10 minutes), it should be clear that if the NPC is expected to make three or more appearances during the entire campaign, it’s worth the effort of writing these answers down, now, because it will save time in the long run.

The ten questions that comprise the character profile are:

  1. What does the NPC want, overall?
  2. What does the NPC not want, overall?
  3. What is the NPC’s motivation -what drives him or her?
  4. What is the NPC’s base emotional state going to be when he or she is encountered, what mood will he or she be in?
  5. What makes the NPC angry?
  6. What other emotional states might be triggered and how?
  7. What does the NPC want from the current situation?
  8. What does the NPC want to avoid in the current situation?
  9. What does the NPC want the PCs to do/not do?
  10. How does the NPC connect with the scene in which he appears – what’s his plot function?

Not all of these are necessary, all the time; experience lets me cherry-pick the answers that I need to provide, reducing the time required for this step. For example, if I have the character sufficiently defined in my mind, the answers to questions 4, 5, and 6 will follow automatically from that knowledge, just from considering the current circumstances surrounding the character at the time – which leaves me better able to cope if that situation is different from what I expected (often the case when PCs have been involved). And it certainly makes me better able to cope when a PC does or says something unexpected. (“He’s a murderer and a monster, and a suspected mercenary.” “I signal my desire to parley.” “What!?” – the synopsis of a recent real-life example from my superhero campaign). However, the more the NPC is going to recur, the more likely I am to make the effort to complete the whole profile, as an aid to consistency.

Until GMs who are unused to the system get used to it, I recommend giving featured NPCs the whole treatment.

The Night Before: Step 3: The Determinant

When the profile is complete, I turn to the most important step of the entire process, creating or identifying what I call “The Determinant”. This is a single sentence that sums up the entire character profile, and it always gets put in writing. Not the character’s abilities, though they may form part of it; the character’s personality. The key is to define the character specifically, without using clichés. Often it is sufficient to use a stock profile and enunciate the differences between that cardboard cutout and this character.

Another way to look at it: The Determinant is an answer to the question “Who is the character?” – not “What can the character do?” but who are they? What is their personality – in a nutshell.

Prior to play: The Strongest Determinant refresher

Just before play, I will read over The Strongest Determinant again, just to make sure that it’s fresh in my mind. If I expect it to be several hours, game time, before the NPC makes his appearance, I will usually call a break for five minutes and carry out this step during that break; I’ve found that three hours is about the maximum time that it will stay fresh in memory. You may find that your recall is better or worse, and – furthermore – that your abilities will change with practice, with experience, and with circumstances – everything from what you’ve had to eat and drink to how well you slept the night before can have an impact. Again, over time, you learn to judge these factors and adjust your game plans accordingly.

Prior to Play: Finding a voice

The other thing to done before the NPC first enters the game is to find a voice for the character. There are three techniques that I use to achieve this, either singly or in combination:

  • The TV / Cartoon / Movie archetype
  • From a picture
  • One Key Phrase

The TV / Cartoon / Movie archetype
The TV / Cartoon / Movie archetype means selecting one or two characters that you know well and using them as a role model for how the NPC expresses themselves. The key is selecting a role model that fits the Determinant, and it’s done as much by instinct as through any logical process. This isn’t a literal interpretation of the source material; if I choose to channel Bugs Bunny for an NPC, that doesn’t mean that the character will go around saying “What’s up, Doc?”, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean that the character will have a Brooklyn accent. But it does mean that character will be relatively unflappable, will have a somewhat nasty sense of humor, and tend to take whatever comes his way without too much thinking in advance. At the same time, he will only let himself be pushed so far before “Of course you know, This means War!

I have also had some success using archetypes from comics for some characters – “Gremlin” from my original Champions campaign had a very distinctive personality that was a blend of Daffy Duck, Mr Mxyzptlk, and Ambush Bug, with the Duck strain predominant (there was also a tip of the hat to the Cheshire Cat). Nominally a mischief-maker, he was nevertheless more often on the side of the PCs – so long as he could extract humor from the situation.

And one of the most memorable renditions of an NPC that I have ever achieved was blending Dr Zarkov from the Flash Gordon movies with overtones of Doc Brown from the back to the future movies! Whether I wanted to or not, I found myself throwing a far greater physicality into the performance than is usually the case.

I have found that characters from Novels rarely work as well, at least as the dominant character element. The voice you hear in your head is never quite as succinct when you speak aloud, and even less so when the dialogue isn’t verbatim from the source material; the characterization is usually relatively limp and useless.

From a picture
Some images capture so much mood or personality that they can form a touchstone around which the entire expression of characterization can be constructed. The goal is to express the emotion of the image in a way of speaking. This technique can take a bit of practice to get right, and no two uses of it are ever quite the same; some work better than you ever dreamed they would, others seem to fall flat. I find that it often helps if I can find some excuse to show the image to the players within the context of the game – whether it’s a painting on the wall, a news bulletin, an image in a magazine that the NPC (or one of the PCs, or a bystander) is reading, or the scene where events are taking place, or – once – the set for a play that was to be performed that night. The image itself conveys some of the personality of the character, gets the players minds going down the right track.

A less-frequently successful variation is to derive this expression from the mood of a piece of music, but this can occasionally be effective. I’ve found that the Eagle’s “Hotel California” is especially good for a somewhat mysterious Wizard, for example, and some of ELO’s material also works well. The problem is that you can’t play that piece of music, either to yourself or to the players; so you have to somehow abstract it into your head, and use it for the character’s ‘theme’, and that’s a lot harder to do on demand than it sounds.

One Key Phrase
A technique from Babylon-5 can also be useful: Peter Jurasik found that to get into character at the drop of a hat as Londo Mollari, all he had to do was say “Mister Garabaldi” in the faux-Hungarian accent that he chose for the character a couple of times, even just to himself. The trick is finding that magic phrase. You can say it either mentally or sub-vocalize it a time or two. Accents aren’t necessary (they can both help and hinder).

To some extent, it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong – so long as you don’t tell the players who you were trying to channel, so long as you keep using the same foundation, the character will be unique.

One word of warning: Avoid doing impressions of the character/actor that you are using as a foundation. Don’t use catchphrases that they made famous. The idea is not that the NPC is an impersonation of the source character, it is that the NPC’s mode of expression is inspired by the qualities and characteristics of the source character but is an individual in their own right, with their own things to say.

In Play: Getting inside the NPCs head

When the NPC actually enters the game, I use the profile and strongest determinant as a touchstone to restoring that concrete visualization of the NPC and his thought processes in mind. The Determinant is the key to unlocking the profile, and is the behavioral guide if the circumstances have changed from what you expected.

Incomplete Characters

Often, you won’t have a full workup of the character that you need to express in roleplay. I divide characters into three tiers of preparedness: Full, Incomplete, and A-La-Carte. Full characters are what I’ve been discussing so far. A-La-Carte characters are those who drop into the plotline as window dressing to serve a specific function and then leave again. Incomplete characters are somewhere in between these two extremes. Think of them as recurring window dressing, or “temporarily important”; they will be the focus of attention for an important piece of the plot, but won’t matter afterwards.

They are called “incomplete” because you know something about them, but have not wasted time doing full character generation.

In an ideal world, there would be no such thing, and anyone who ever appears in the game with the potential for a recurring appearance would get a full workup. In the real world, it isn’t going to happen.

Before Play: Step 1: Foundations

What do you know about the character to be roleplayed?

If you know them, stats can be your starting point. What single stat has the highest score? What has the lowest? Do you want to play to type, or against type? Is there a character that you know well from a media or literary source that you can use as a model? (Watching part of such a source the night before can be very helpful – it only has to be five or ten minutes long to refresh your recollection).

Another good starting point is to ask yourself what eccentricities the NPC has had the opportunity to indulge in. Because they are points of distinctiveness, they work well for this purpose.

The best techniques are those that actually give you a personality quickly and easily. But one way or another, you need to establish a foundation for the character.

Before Play: Step 2: Answer the Profile Questions

Thirty seconds to a minute should then be spent answering the ten key questions in your head. Don’t use a “question and answer” format; require yourself to state the answers as full sentences, because that associates the purpose of the question with the response. “This character wants to…” “[Name] gets angry when…” You want to be able to remove the questions entirely and have the responses be a self-evident description of the personality.

Thirty-to-sixty seconds is not a lot of time. The answers will be relatively superficial, without a lot of nuance. They will often be the first thing that pops into your head. Nevertheless, do your best to avoid clichés.

Before Play: Step 3: The Determinant

Using the Profile and foundation, produce a Determinant. Time pressure probably means that this will be less-developed than one that you had more time to develop, but that’s all right because the character is going to have less spotlight, anyway.

Before Play: Step 4: Find a voice

The less character development you have done in advance, the more dominant the results of this step will be, so it is just as important to choose carefully. Nevertheless, you don’t want to agonize over it; make a choice and get on with it.

In Play: as above

All told, two minutes before play should be enough to get you ready to play the character the same as you would any more developed NPC. That makes this a very powerful and useful technique. At this point, I should also point you to an earlier article, which couples with this one to make a great one-two punch: By the seat of your pants: the 3 minute (or less) NPC. And no, I haven’t forgotten (again) that I was going to develop a worksheet for this process – but I want to integrate the techniques described in this article into that worksheet.

Post-Play: make notes

If the character was a hit with the players (and survived the experience) you might want to bring him back. The information you have collected can easily be used to reverse-engineer a full description – but only if you get what is needed down on paper while it’s still fresh in your mind. In particular, the character may have evolved in the course of actually roleplaying him – that happens more often than many GMs realize. So it’s important to make notes, especially in terms of the character as he actually was during play, rather than the way he was on paper.

If the character wasn’t so successful, it’s still important to make notes – so that you don’t use the same unsuccessful combination in the future. A moment of introspection on why the character fell flat can also be useful.

A-La-Carte Characters

A-La-Carte characters are the ones who pop up without warning. “I pop into the nearest bar and ask the bartender about…” While such encounters can often be handwaved, and should be, if playing them out will alter your planned emotional ebb-and-flow (refer Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 1 and Part 2), or will slow the adventure down too much, when you have the opportunity, you should roleplay them – if only so that your players can play their characters!

The other time these characters pop up is for combat encounters – which might not seem like an obvious time for roleplay, but is. The NPCs personality should impact their decisions in battle, how hard they will fight, who they will target, and so on. And all that even before considering the possibility of conversations in the course of the battle! Take a look at any combat sequence in the movies: it’s always noteworthy and deliberate when there is no conversation in the course of the fight. That means that you need to be equipped and ready for such conversation – even if the conflict is the result of some random happenstance.

One of the characteristics of these encounters is that there is no time for prep. That means that an even quicker solution is called for – a tall order, given that the last version took only two minutes, but it is what it is. The target this time is thirty seconds or less.

The Starting Point

Start with the only things known about the character, whatever they might be. That could be an occupation, or a couple of stats, or the weapon they are carrying, or where they are being encountered. You will always know something about the character, and that is your foundation. Use no more than five seconds thinking about this, and less is better.

The Model

The next step is to pick a model based on a character you know from media. Choose one that has acceptable levels of incongruity with the circumstances. The amount of incongruity you can tolerate depends on how creative you are and how well you can think on your feet. Voldemort as a bartender. Why not? Homer Simpson? Why not? Avoid characters that are hard to play, no matter how iconic they may seem – it takes a lot of effort to channel Jack Sparrow, for example. The one thing to avoid is the obvious answer, because the result will be a cliché – unless that’s what you deliberately want, but it will be forgettable.

Representatives of Ability: an alternative Model

The character, in order to be successful (or just to survive) where they are or what they are doing, presuming them to have been doing it before, must have certain abilities or skills. Pick one, and then think of some other occupation or circumstance where that ability would be useful; then use a representative of that occupation or circumstance as your model. A Brimstone-and-fire lay preacher as a bartender? Why Not? A Used-car salesman? Why not?

Choosing a model by either method should also take less than five seconds.

The Determinant

Half the time or more, the choice of model will give you the Determinant. The rest of the time, take five seconds to answer the question, “What makes the NPC interesting?” – that answer is your Determinant.

The most urgent Profile questions

Using the determinant, skim through the list of Profile Questions – the things you need to know right now. I can’t actually narrow the list for you, because which ones matter will depend on circumstances. But spend no more than fifteen seconds on this step.

The Voice

One way that you can separate the Model from this interpretation is to choose a Voice that stems from a different source than the obvious. But I only bother with this when the combination of current activity/location and Model are not sufficiently striking.

Go for it!

Make sure that the character, when encountered, is actually doing something and not just waiting passively for the PC to walk in. And make sure that the first thing they say is something memorable.

  • The bartender extends his arms and proclaims loudly “Bow ye head, you sinners, and pray for the forgiveness of the Lord!”
  • The bartender releases the safety on the crossbow pointed at you and says in an icy calm voice, “I knew you were trouble when I saw you turn down the street, maggot.”
  • The bartender polishes the brass on the counter as you enter, and grins ear to ear as he announced, “Ooh, fresh blood! We’re going to have so much fun together… Lock the door boys, we don’t want him to get away”, he adds, addressing the three burly men quaffing vile green beer at one of the tables.
  • The bartender looks up from his accounts tally and beams, “Customers! Have I got a bargain for you – the best prices in the city, that’s my promise, or my name’s not Fat Tony! – Have a seat, two-drink minimum, got a special on fermented frog’s ears, or perhaps you’d prefer an ale with optional salted peanuts, today’s lunch special can’t be refused, second to none, Roasted haunch of Mastiff with buttered parsnips – Alba! Two lunch specials!”

See what I mean? These characters have done one thing and said one thing (in the last example, quite a long one thing) and already they have come to life.

Finishing Touches

There are a number of finishing touches that can be applied. Some of these can wear thin with repeated use, and/or be hard to document, however, so use them sparingly, and only when you need that little extra to complete the character.

Props and Mannerisms

You can use something more than your voice to express the character. Props and Mannerisms work well in light doses, or when taken completely over the top – but once used for one character, they have limited availability for other characters, so choose carefully.

Also bear in mind the difficulty of adjusting or removing a prop repeatedly when roleplaying a conversation between two NPCs. An eye-patch may work wonderfully when playing a Pirate Captain, but it gets tricky when you have to perpetually put it on and take it off throughout a conversation with the first officer.

In general, mannerisms are easier to work with.

Slang and Colloquialisms

Virtually everyone uses slang and colloquialisms at times, and they are always diagnostic of a character’s background, but there is a huge range to select from – for example, take a look at this list of Australian Colloquialisms – it’s Bonza, by Crikey! There are some expressions on this list that I’ve never heard before, and I have lived here all my life; it follows that everyone should employ language just a little differently.

Carefully-selected slang expressions can elevate a character’s portrayal that extra step (and can even be a clue – Drow in my campaigns often misuse such terms, the result of their isolation from contemporary society).

Overlapping Modes Of Address

This is a particularly difficult trick to master. It involves thinking one thing while saying another so that your natural phrasing and accent get muddled to give the impression of a strange accent. It’s common, for example, for there to be a rising inflexion at the end of a question – so if you ask a question in your head at the same time as saying the character’s dialogue, you can place that inflexion at a strange place. This is the equivalent of adding and subtracting punctuation in unexpected places – something that’s easy to do if you’ve written the dialogue in advance, but far trickier to do without a script to follow (and some practice).

A lot of the time, this will just be confusing, or may deliver some unintended statement, but practice improves avoidance of those issues. It’s also VERY easy to overdo.

The Release Mechanism

It’s just as vital to find some release mechanism to get you out of character as it is to have a mechanism for getting into character in the first place. I find that counting silently “one – two – three – four” usually does the trick for me, and that I only have a problem with releasing from “in-character” mode when I am really deeply in character, anyway. But others have more difficulty, especially when they employ techniques for getting into character more effectively – at least for the first few times, until they get used to it. Everyone is different, and needs to find something that works for them. But it needs to be quick.

That’s a wrap!

Improved expression of characterization in roleplay benefits everyone, and everyone should be able to benefit from this technique. Use it, show it to your players, and bring your characters to life!

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Ask The GMs: My table runneth over (too many players)


Most ATGMs questions I can at least start to answer right away. This is not such a case (which is why it’s taken so long). I simply don’t have any experience in the particular problem being addressed – so, while I’ve done my best to offer as comprehensive an answer as usual, it’s all strictly theoretical from my end. Take the advice that I offer with a grain of salt…

Ask the gamemasters

The question comes from GM Joel, who (at the time) was struggling with the problem of too many players. He wrote:

“After a couple years off, I decided it was time to run another campaign. The group I’ve run with for the last 20 years is always family, mostly cousins. When I offered to run a game and made the regular invites, they all wanted to invite their significant other. I also invited my oldest daughter. Suddenly, we have 9 players. Due to the difficulty in scheduling a group that size we only get together every 4-6 weeks. I thought people would drop out, but we still get every player out for every session. We are going on our 5th month of the campaign.

“I only had a couple of players that even submitted character backgrounds. Since we have 3 first time players I left them off the hook. The bulk of the backgrounds I got were very weak. We used to often do some play by email stuff between sessions, but only one player is doing any of that so I stopped even sending stuff.

“So I have two problems.

“First, combat takes FOREVER. I have them go two at a time, and one of the players that is very rules-savvy helps me keep track of various things, but it still takes a while to get to each player’s turn. I hear this complaint every time, regardless of what kind of combat encounter I throw at them.

“Second, dialog based encounters are basically run by 2-3 players. They will occasionally try to include the new or quieter players, but for the most part, 6-7 people are just sitting there the whole time.

“I’ve asked for feedback from the players several times, but I never get much from them. I asked this question in the Roleplaying Tips discussion group before we started the campaign and got a few good replies, but am wondering what you suggest I do for this campaign?

“How do I craft encounters that are engaging for a group this large?”

The largest group I’ve ever GM’d was six, and I found that to be a bit of a struggle. Four-to-five players is my personal optimum. The Pulp campaign at one point had eight players, but that was a co-GMing situation, which spread the load. But I think that both these questions are symptoms of a single, simpler question:

“How do I GM a larger group than I am comfortable with?”

Let’s start by assuming that you must be doing something right, or the campaign would never have lasted as long as it had. Nevertheless, it’s my experience that each additional player added to a game carries an overhead in terms of GMing difficulty over and above a simple numeric increase, and that this overhead increases in size with every player added.

Blair-atgms

Blair’s Contribution

I talked about this problem with Blair Ramage, my Pulp campaign co-GM, because I remembered him telling me of his early RPG days (D&D first edition) and the number of players that were involved in those early sessions (8 to 10). He reported experiencing, as a player, the same sort of problems that GM Joel describes, and all came down to too small a fraction of screen time. The solutions employed to the problems were less than completely effective, but they did help somewhat.

  • Roleplaying: The GM made a point of going around the table and ensuring that each player got input. He broke any dialogue scene up into multiple smaller dialogues that were occurring simultaneously. Only a few people could participate in any one of these dialogues. Quite often, one group would get information while the others would get context within which to frame that dialogue.
  • Combat: Given that the game being played was early D&D, the GM tackled combat by class: All the fighters and fighter sub-types acted simultaneously, then all the clerics & druids, then the rogues, then the mages, and so on – in order of combat capability, in other words. Each person had a limited window to state their action or they simply missed out for that turn – which meant that you had to have decided what you were going to do and be ready to make any rolls required as soon as your name got called.

I also discussed the question with one of my players (part of both my superhero campaign and the co-GM’d pulp campaign), and a GM in his own right of a larger group, and he offered the following thoughts:
ATGMs-Saxon

Saxon’s Thoughts:

One of the roleplaying groups I game with has been in existence for something in the order of twenty five years or more. This is a group of friends rather than a formal club. There has always been a certain turnover in membership. Sometimes this was because of people moving away, sometimes it was because of work-, family- or other commitments, and sometimes because of interpersonal conflict. There was a lengthy period when the number of members was so low that there developed a de-facto policy of open invitation to new players that continues even now that the group has eight members.

The thing is that non-gaming commitments have long interfered with the timing of gaming sessions and the availability of members in general, and these limitations have gotten more stringent as the members have gotten older, gotten married and had kids. The group has almost always tried to schedule for every two weeks on a mid-week evening, even though this allows for barely two to three hours for most sessions, plus recent attempts to add some all-day meetings on weekends two or three times a year.

The comparatively large number of current members does have the advantage that if some of them cannot make it at certain times, the group still has enough players to continue rather than canceling all together. This in turn means telling the missing players what happened while they were away. For a very long time this was done from memory of the players who had been present. Only relatively recently have players actually started keeping notes, usually typed up on laptops during play. (Although recently when comparing the notes of two different players from one session it was found that they wrote down slightly different summaries, then had no recollection of the overlooked incidents.) Additionally and most usefully for us, just under a decade ago we started sound recording the game sessions and then uploading them as a podcast for the absent players to listen to later.

Managing to keep all the players at the table engaged in the game has always been a bit slapdash. The group rotates through gamesmasters, who run different campaigns with different game systems of their own preference. Actual engagement in combat is good for making sure everybody gets a turn, but depending on the gaming system combat can be rather slow. (One gamesmaster has gone heavily into streamlining the system he uses over the years to make it rules light and quicker. Another has been using various fan-made computer apps for Dungeons and Dragons to speed up combat). However, almost all the games we have ever played have had a hefty amount of non-combat role playing involved. At that time the extroverted people who enjoy playing extroverts – such a diplomats, paladins, or con-men – have tended to dominate the game play, while other less dominate player personalities have tended to sit back, and in extreme cases simply read on their iPhones. This includes people playing characters such as police and military officers, who should by rights be taking a more active role in handling events than the civilians.

The later phenomenon is something we have never properly gotten a handle on. At some point or other gamesmasters have realized that they should make a point of focusing on the people who haven’t been participating as much – but that usually happens during a lull in the action when the extroverted players have stopped talking. I know I’m guilty of this, since in the last adventure I ran I made a mental note to myself to ensure that all players participated – but still allowed myself to get distracted by the enthusiasm generated from cool and/or weird game play. For next time around I’m toying with the idea of have a tick sheet – something like what can used to keep track of character actions during combat – and applying it to character actions in response to set non-combat events.
ATGMs-Mike

Mike’s Thoughts:

Armed with these contributions, I was able to start thinking clearly about the problems – from a strictly theoretical standpoint, as I said earlier. And it seems to me that in order to make a large group practical, you need to pull out every trick in the book. The problem is larger than simply having difficulty crafting suitable encounters; that’s only a symptom of the bigger issue of GMing such a large group. To really solve it, we need to go beyond crafting encounters to look at every aspect of the GMing. Unique requirements call for unique solutions.

My advice falls into four categories (with the occasional overlap): Planning, Division, System Simplification, and Table Etiquette.

Planning

Proper planning would be, I think, essential to handling a large group of players. The fewer players you need to accommodate in a game, the easier it is to get innovative and game on-the-fly; with a large group, even one as large as five, my experience is that someone gets forgotten. I shudder to think how bad things would get with still more players.

Roleplaying: Something for everyone

One of the absolute essentials would be making sure that there was something for everyone in each day’s play. Each character should be sufficiently unique that something – be it a key conversation, a roleplayed situation, a personal relationship or reaction, or just the interpretation of a critical clue – can be laid at their feet. And for each of them, ideally, you should have a “plan B” in case that individual simply can’t be there for that game session.

Checklists

One of the easiest ways of making sure that no-one is overlooked is a checklist of the PCs. In fact, you will want to use these things for so many purposes that you may as well make a whole bunch of them at the same time. They don’t have to be anything fancy; the simplest design would be a table with the PCs names down the left hand side (and the player name underneath, perhaps), space for a couple more names under that, and a whole bunch of unlabeled columns running across the top – unlabeled so that you can label each column as you use it.

I would use such checklists for adventure development, for making sure that everyone got a chance to roleplay, for making sure that everyone got to do their thing in combat, that… well, you get the idea. It wouldn’t surprise me to use a page of these or more in a game session.

Combat Option 1: Percentage Of PCs

Designing combat encounters would be a whole different headache when you have so many characters to corral. There are two different options that I would consider, in terms of designing encounters; the first is “Percentage of PCs”, in which each creature encountered represents a given power level relative to the PCs. For example, if I wanted an encounter that was 70% of the PCs power level (which would be a relatively easy one), I might simply take the stats, HP, etc of one of the PCs and multiply by 70% to get a creature equivalent to that PC – then move on to the next one.

That would be a lot easier if you used a page or two of “the checklist” to list the stats of each PC. Use one column for STR, one for DEX, and so on.

The big advantage is that this produces a bunch of opponents that is as varied in capability as the PCs. The big disadvantage is that it produces opponents that are just as varied as the PCs. Quite frankly, there are better ways, which I’ll get to in due course, to use most of the time. But there are times when this is the easiest possible solution.

Combat Option 2: Differentials

How about if, instead of using a percentage, you simply applied a fixed modifier to the PC’s stats. “Everything is at -2″. If done correctly, this yields a specific variation of this approach called the “Unity Option”, and which I’ll talk about in “System Simplification”. Right now, I just want to put the option onto your radar.

Combat Option 3: Duplication, one exception

The first alternative would be for each encounter to consist of (N-1) identical critters, all of whom have exactly the same stats, and one “Boss Monster”. This would speed combat because you would always be working from the same calculations. I’ll also have more to say on this subject in “System Simplification”.

Addition, not subtraction

Addition tends to be a lot faster than subtraction. Unless you’re using an app/utility (again, something I’ll get into later), always arrange things so that any calculation is in the form of addition. I never track how many HP my monsters have left in D&D – I track how much damage they’ve taken and know that at a certain total, their behavior will change, and that at a subsequent total, they are dead. To keep things simple, that threshold is usually half, round up to the nearest 10, because that’s something I can calculate at a glance.

Efficiency

I would also strongly recommend that you read The Application Of Time and Motion to RPG Game Mechanics and apply its principles ruthlessly to absolutely everything you do. Not just to game mechanics, but to every action and interaction at the table that you can.

If it takes one second to name a character (asking for a response or an action, because it’s that character’s turn), and half a second to point at them, and you have to do so for five rounds of combat for 9 characters, that’s 45 half-seconds that you can save, per combat. Figure that such a combat will last for about 9 minutes per round (1 minute per character), real time, that’s 45 half seconds in 45 minutes. Assume that you have to call on other characters at about 1/5th this frequency outside combat – so that’s 45 half-seconds in 3.75 hours. If there’s one 45-minute combat to each such period, that gets us to 45 seconds every 4.5 hours of play. Doesn’t sound like very much, does it?

Those numbers are wildly unrealistic. If there are six steps to combat, plus 6 steps for each enemy, per combat round, saving half-a-second on each for 9 PCs gives 12 x 9 x 0.5 = 54 seconds per round of combat. Five rounds of combat – that’s 4.5 minutes saved. 45 seconds per character per round is a more normal sort of number, if you’re trying for speed – so thats 4.5 minutes in 30 minutes of combat. Assume like savings in non-combat, we get about 2 hrs 50 minutes of Roleplaying time to get another 4.5 minutes saved. That’s just about enough that you could have two roleplay sections and two combats per game session – so those half seconds add up to 18 minutes saved, per game session. Now, let’s assume that you can find four other such savings in the way you do things – those 18 minutes are suddenly an hour-and-a-half of extra play.

An additional implication is that you’re able to move the spotlight from one PC to another more frequently. That’s the sort of thing that makes a reduced net share less obvious – and the reduced share of the game spotlight is the number-one complaint identified by all three GMs who have experience with GMing this many players.

Prepared Tactics

The more you have to deal with players in a combat situation rather than managing your own side of the battle, the less time you are going to have to think on behalf of the opponents, whoever and whatever they may be. You’re already at a disadvantage because you have to keep several characters in mind at the same time; this only makes it worse. As soon as you add in a complex set of options and alternatives, a range of powers and abilities, the effectiveness with which you can handle these encounters declines markedly.

The solution is to have as many tactics prepared in advance as possible, with predefined triggers. “If X happens, the opponent will do Y. If not, move on to the next decision.”

Get Inside the Enemy’s Head
The key to mapping out tactics in advance in this manner is always to get into the head of whoever or whatever the enemy is. How aggressive are they? How Cautious? Is there something to which they are especially fearful or vulnerable? If so, a more aggressive creature will target anyone using that type of ability first, while a more cautious creature will be more easily driven off. Most creatures will fight until they reach a threshold of damage – as I mentioned earlier, the normal level I use is 50% round up to the nearest 10, but I might deduct 10 for a more aggressive creature (who will stay in combat a little longer) and add 10 for a cautious creature (who will attempt to retreat more quickly). What are the enemy’s strengths? How could he apply them to a perceived weakness on the part of the PCs? Is there something he can do to give himself an obvious advantage?

Always On effects vs triggered effects
The other cheat that I employ is to favor “Always-on” effects over triggered ones, even if they are less powerful. By taking decisions and complexity off the table, you make it easier to focus on simpler decisions. That alone can save bucket-loads of time.

Division

It used to be a truism – don’t divide the party. I used to lead the chorus against doing so. Over the last few years, I’ve changed my mind, and the larger the group, the more benefits you can derive from following my lead. (I know I’ve written an article here at Campaign Mastery in which I expound on the techniques I use, but do you think I can find it to provide a link? No chance. Be that as it may…)

Splitting a large group up into smaller groups, each engaged in a different activity that is relevant to the overall plotline not only gives everyone a shot at the spotlight, it acts to prevent a few more dominant personalities from monopolizing the roleplay and conversational prospects. Add to that, smaller combats are far easier to balance, and the advantages just keep adding up.

But, of course, there are some other ways of dividing your problems into more manageable chunks…

Seating & Re-seating

I’ve written a quite extensive article on seating at the game table. Most of it goes out the window when discussing large groups. Instead, make table seating work to your advantage in dealing with the sheer size of the group and the benefits obtained will far outweigh the other impacts.

There are three ways that I would suggest organizing players at the table to be of practical benefit.

Rotating Table Order
Instead of letting players sit wherever they want, assign seating – and deliberately rotate the positions so that each player gets a turn at being next to the GM. This would work especially well in roleplaying situations (as opposed to combat).

Group subgroups together
If you accept the advice about splitting the party up, have players move so that the members of each subgroup are sitting together. The advantages should be obvious.

Initiative Order
There are clear advantages in a whole-group combat situation to having the players sit in the initiative order of their characters. This enables you to start to your left and proceed clockwise, or start to your right and proceed anti-clockwise. It takes no thought to work out who you have to talk to next in a combat round.

But this is useless if you adopt some of my later advice and junk initiative to make combat more manageable.

By Character Type
If you do decide to forget the Initiative system of your game – something I’ll talk about a little later – getting the characters to sit together by character type makes a lot of sense. There are two ways of organizing this dividing principle: by character mobility (most to least) and by attack type/capability.

The first permits the characters with the greatest mobility to move first, followed by the next most mobile, and so on, down to the characters who are slowest to move. This can greatly simplify combat.

The second groups characters who use ranged weapons together, then those who use physical strength and melee weapons, then characters who are more jack-of-all-trades, then characters who use rays and spells and so on, then those who use stealth, and finally, anyone who should stay out of combat entirely.

Rearrange Seating On The Fly
To obtain maximum advantage from these options, you can either make your choice based on the activity that you suspect will dominate the day’s play, or you can get your players to change seating as the in-game activity changes. If it can be made practical to do so, the latter is the best answer, but that’s one heck of a caveat.

Practicality
I have two suggestions to aid that practicality. The first is to recommend that you permit minimal accouterments at the table – dice and character and pencil, full stop. Everything else should be on a separate side-table.

Secondly, to enable players to pick up and move their dice quickly, you should make a set of dice trays, each with the names of one player and their character prominently displayed. This enables them to serve as a nameplate as well as a quick dice caddy.

Old tissue boxes covered in self-adhesive book covering material or even kitchen bench contact (which is essentially a heavier-duty version of the same thing) would be ideal, and relatively easy.

Divisions in Roleplay

Nine players falls naturally into three groups of three, or one of five and one of four, or one trio and three pairs. The group is large enough to be in multiple places at the same time, making multiple simultaneous steps to further the plot. This eases if not eradicates the problem of a couple of dominant players hogging the roleplaying spotlight – it’s hard to steal spotlight time when your character is not there and is in the middle of a completely different encounter.

Every character is a gestalt of the personality defined for the character, the player’s ability to manifest that personality, his natural ability to roleplay, and the dictates of the relevant rules structures. It follows that the combination of character and player that participates in a roleplayed encounter may be less effective at producing a satisfactory outcome from the encounter than one of the more vocal, dominant, roleplayers. Over time, the group will learn the parameters of what individual combinations can and can’t do, and alter their groupings accordingly. I know one player who has two favorite characters – one he loves because he finds it a very difficult character to roleplay, and the other because the character’s personality meshes with his own so naturally that he can adopt that role effortlessly. The second is well within his capabilities but doesn’t challenge or grow those abilities; the other is only barely within reach, and is nothing but challenge and growth.

Any inability to roleplay the character should be considered part of the character’s personality, even when its the player who is having problems. If the player has trouble making up rousing speeches on the spot, that’s a foible of the character. If the player is not good at haggling, and routinely overpays for goods and services as a result, that’s part of the character’s profile. The character is a blend of the theoretical construction written on the character sheet and the capacity to express that construction in various ways of the player.

While initially, characters may be assigned certain tasks by the group based on that theoretical construction, they will soon learn that such typecasting doesn’t always work, and should modify their task allocations accordingly.

It follows that any discussions of whether or not character A should be sent to do B in future should be conducted in character and not at a player level – and this should be enforced by the GM.

Divisions in Combat

The same technique yields more manageable combat situations. Instead of one big combat, think of them as multiple small combats occurring simultaneously. The side-effects of all the other battles are nothing more than changing environmental conditions for the combat that the PC that is your focus at the moment is engaged in.

Of course, you can’t dictate how the players will subdivide their ranks in response to the apparent challenges set before them, for the most part. Some things can be predicted – this is a creature of magic, so the mages are best to deal with it; this is a creature of supernatural evil, so that’s a job for the clerics; this is a creature of stealth, so it belongs to the sneaky of the party. So long as you match each overall mini-combat in power and effectiveness, it doesn’t matter how the PCs rearrange themselves in response, the overall battle will remain balanced.

Handler, Scribe, Lawyer, and General

There are certain tasks that can be allocated to different players in order to assist the GM in handling so large a crowd. I’ve identified four of them, as shown in the heading above, but want to start by dealing with a fifth, and the only one that is actually official in a number of game systems, the Caller.

Caller
I don’t like Callers. I’ve never known them to be necessary with a small group (five or less) and never known them to be effective or efficient with larger groups (five or more). The idea is that the caller gets told by the other players what their PCs are doing, or trying to do, and the Caller then serves as intermediary and single point-of-contact between the players and the GM. In my experience, it simply adds to the potential for confusion (the caller misunderstands what a PC wants to do, or misinterprets what the GM tells him), ill-will (the player wants to do one thing and the caller disagrees and so overrides the player’s choice), and duplicated effort (player A tells the caller who then tells the GM). So I don’t use them and don’t recommend them.

Handler
When you’re using miniatures, on the other hand, it can take an age for every player to maneuver themselves to where they can lay hands on the figure representing their character, move that figure appropriately, and then get out of the way for the next player. I’ve seen groups as small as three or four players struggle with this. Designating one person as the miniatures ‘handler’ and creating a strict protocol for the communication of moves can be a lot more efficient – and the larger the group, the larger the savings.

The basic protocol is direction of movement, number of spaces, turns, and facing. “North, five inches, turn west, five inches, face east.” This requires that each map have some clear compass points regardless of how the map orients on a larger scale. Because that larger scale also uses north, south, east, and west, confusion is possible; you have the same terms representing two different things. That was one of the reasons why in my Fumanor campaign, the compass directions used by the society are “Sunrise, Sunset, Dexter, and Sinister” – which frees me to employ the traditional East, West, North, South compass points for battlemaps exclusively. In my Shards campaign, the locals use the traditional compass points, but my battlemaps use Alpha Bravo Charlie and Delta, or sometimes Alpha Beta Gamma Delta. Or I will carefully place key landmarks at the compass points – “Bridge, Tree, Statue, Windmill” then becoming the directional axes on the map.

If it comes right down to it, using the terms “towards” and “away” permit all this to be chopped down to just a pair of compass points. So the handler is a practical, time-saving solution to the problem.

Scribe
The Scribe documents things for the players. This is invaluable, especially if the GM has access to those notes in between sessions, because that is one less thing that he has to do at the table.

The requirements are speed, legibility, and judgment. I think faster than I can speak, and speak faster than I can type, and type much faster than I can write – so I would make a poor scribe. But unless you all know shorthand, speed is the number one requirement, and you can never be fast enough. That’s where judgment comes in; if you have to summarize and document selectively, good judgment is essential in terms of what to record and how to abstract the rest. The faster you write, the easier these judgment calls become, so judgment – in an editorial sense – is not the most important characteristic required of the player Scribe, but it is a close second. The third requirement is legibility. We can all write quickly but the legibility normally suffers massively when we do so. Using a laptop ensures perfect legibility, but may not be as fast as handwriting at top speed.

Stephen Tunnicliff was always the natural scribe for any group he played in. His judgment system was simple – he recorded what happened to his character and what his character did and learned; but that was often enough for his notes to trigger recall on the part of the rest of the group. He wrote very quickly, so he had the number one and number two requirements down pat. Legibility was the big issue; there were occasions when he could not read his own handwriting! Nevertheless, he could usually puzzle most of it out, and I was often able to interpret the rest when he had trouble.

The more players you have, the more important the function of scribe becomes. You don’t want the GM using up to half his time documenting what happened, you want him to be free to get on with running the game.

Some people may not consider the role of Scribe to be that important, especially if the GM performs comprehensive game prep. This is flawed reasoning. First, the GMs prep reflects the way he expects the adventure to develop, not what actually happens. The two are hardly ever synonymous; in my 30+ years as a GM, I think I’ve had exactly three game sessions that went exactly as expected. They usually start off in close accord, but at some critical juncture the PCs will make the wrong choice, or have a clever insight, or come up with some crazy interpretation of what’s going on and act accordingly, or simply prioritize differently, say something clever, or say something stupid. From that point onwards, the adventure as played begins to diverge from the “script”, and oftentimes never recovers. So GM prep is insufficient.

Relying on memory is fraught with danger. Players are more likely to remember their pet theories and interpretations as fact, and forget anything that doesn’t fit those theories. On top of that, you have the proven unreliability of eyewitness testimony, even when people are doing their level best. If you have nine players, you have nine different recollections of the game session. Throw in any distance of time, and things begin to drown in noise very quickly. Documentation is essential, and the GM needs to be able to correct and annotate that documentation after the game session. So either he makes the notes – or you have a designated Scribe.

Some groups record their sessions – if you have decent microphones, this can be quite successful, I’m told. That automates the Scribe function, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

Lawyer
One person may be tasked as the group’s lawyer, the only person at the table permitted to look up rules. When there is a disputed call, rather than halting play, this person finds the relevant rules while the GM deals with the next player in line; the GM is then presented with the rules and can either affirm, amend, or reverse his earlier decision. There are even times when the GM can tell the Lawyer in advance, “look up the rules for X”. This permits the GM to get on with running the game, most of the time.

If the GM is confident that he has taking everything into account in reaching his decision that he should, the players have to accept his call and should assume – if the rules seem to contradict the call – that there is some factor in play that the GM knows but the players don’t.

Having a single lawyer is essential, because it limits the number of disputed calls that can be processed to just one at a time. But there can be limited exceptions – whenever a PC casts a spell, I require them to have the rulebook open to the spell description so that the effects can be properly interpreted. I may not need it, but it saves time when it’s at the ready. Beyond that, everything is left in the hands of the lawyer.

It might seem that one of the primary requirements of a Lawyer is an understanding of the rules. This is emphatically not the case. What you need is someone who is good at knowing where in the books a particular rule is written. Even being able to narrow it down to two or three places and then checking each of those to find the right one is good enough. What you don’t want is the lawyer citing his interpretation of the rules as “the way it works” without having the documentary evidence – because the players may not know everything that the GM is taking into account, and the lawyer’s interpretation of the rules may not be the same as the GMs.

General
The final position to discuss is that of the General. This is the player who formulates the overall strategy and tactics for the group, a strategy that the group then attempts to carry out. The fewer the players, the less essential this role is. With a large group of players, I can see it as being absolutely essential. This does not have to be the owner of the character who is the natural leader or strategist, or even simply the designated tactician of the group.

Here’s how it works: The player who is running the character who naturally would lead the group determines what the objective is. The tactician – who may be an entirely different player – then devises a plan to achieve this, and offers it to the group as though it had come from that natural leader. So long as the natural leader is not engaged in the battle, the tactician can modify and amend the plan to cope with changing circumstances; when the leader-character is busy with more immediate problems, the general can’t do anything except run his own character.

The GM should be aware of what the leader has specified as an objective, so that he can monitor the plan offered by the General for bias or self-interest or any attempt to alter the specified goal to one that the General thinks more important; that’s not his job, he’s there to achieve what the leader wants to do.

The more characters you have, the more anarchy you will have on the battlefield. This approach replaces that chaos with a more orderly approach, greatly simplifying the GMs workload and speeding up combat as a result.

Assistant GMs

As a step up from these “helper” positions, the GM with a large group may entertain the notion of appointing a couple of them as assistant GMs. “A, B, and C are buying provisions for the group. Dave [C's player], here’s the personality of the vendor, here’s his price list, go over to the corner and roleplay it for them.”

Dividing a large group into smaller groups and appointing an assistant GM from amongst those groups enables the GM to handle the group whose encounter is the most significant while the others get to roleplay scenes that might otherwise be hand-waved. If a PC does something unexpected, the Assistant GM can always bring the group back to the main GM or seek clarification from him. Because everything is being done according to the GMs script, he remains in overall charge of the adventure.

This can work in combat situations as well. It’s a way for the overall GM to be in multiple places at once, which (of course) enables a lot more play to happen, and a lot more players to get a share of screen time.

The ideal choice would be a player who is also a GM in their own right. Failing that, the simplicity and narrow confines of the Assistant’s remit can be a good way of giving a potential GM the experience to eventually step up to the screen.

The key is for everything – initial situation, location, personalities, and desired outcome – to be handed to the Assistant GM who then acts as the primary GM’s proxy for that encounter.

It might even be that the primary GM chooses not to take any one of the three groups for himself, but instead adopts a supervisory role and coordinates things. He can even stop by and drop a bombshell into the middle of events that the Assistant was Not briefed to expect (“It’s at this moment that there is an Earthquake that knocks you off your feet for a few seconds. Carry on”) – and only later will they discover that one of the other groups had an encounter that resulted in someone casting an Earthquake spell.

Co-GMs

A further step up is for one or two of the players to become co-GMs. The big difference between an Assistant GM and a Co-GM is that the first has no input into the plot or story; the latter is an equal participant in all aspects of the game and the planning.

Co-GMing is something that I do know first-hand. In some respects, it makes game prep a little slower and more difficult; you have two or more people throwing ideas into the pot, and a consensus has to be reached, which can sometimes take considerable discussion. The world becomes a shared world. But there are other times when having multiple participants brainstorming can take a lot of headache out of the planning-and-prep process, and it really helps at the game table. You can read more about the difficulties and benefits of co-GMing in my article on the subject, An Adventure Into Writing: The Co-GMing Difference.

You can take everything that I said about Assistant GMs and the benefits that they offer and elevate them a notch when thinking about the advantages of co-GMing. The key is to make sure that the objectives are spelled out in advance, so that both GMs are on the same page going into any divided experience.

System Simplification

Let’s face facts: most game systems aren’t designed to cope with eight, nine, ten players, and the result is a significant contribution to the difficulties GM Joel describes. While the suggestions made so far can help, if they aren’t enough (and they won’t be), you have to grasp the nettle and simplify the game system itself.

Initiative

Most initiative systems (and especially the d20 one) don’t carry a whole lot of overhead. Nevertheless, this is the first rule that I would junk. The reason is that several other economies only become possible once it is removed; it functions as a roadblock to those options, which all revolve around handling other aspects of combat in bulk, and which I discussed earlier. If you handle the fighters as a group, and the creatures attacking them as a group, and the clerics as a group, and so on, you can really speed combat up.

Attacks Option 1: Unified to-hit scores

Another choice to think about is always choosing creatures with the same effective to-hit score. Use magic/tech enhancements as necessary to achieve this, and don’t tell your players; they will assume that heaviest magic is on the stronger creatures (which would be sensible) and not on the weaker ones (which gives a practical benefit to you). So long as you aren’t blatant about it (giving a goblin the same attack roll as a dragon might be a touch obvious), this can greatly simplify the bookkeeping that has to be done for every attack in every round of every combat for every enemy.

Nine creatures, 2 attacks each, five rounds of combat – a saving of 5 seconds from this (which is the very minimum that I would expect) adds up to 9x2x5x5=7.5 minutes saved per battle. At ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds or even thirty seconds (all more realistic numbers) those savings come to 15 minutes, 22.5 minutes, 30 minutes, and 45 minutes, respectively!

Attacks Option 2: Unified chance-to-hit margin

An alternative that requires a little more prep but which I favor is to ensure that the creature each character attacks (or is attacked by) has the same AC relative to the PC’s highest To-hit so that all the creatures effectively have the same chance-to-hit, when all is said and done. This works with just about any game system, only the names change. If you know (because that’s how you’ve defined the participants in the encounter) that each of them have to roll 13 or less on d20 to hit, you can roll a whole heap of attacks all at once, and process them in bulk – all the opposition in one hit.

Roll as many attacks as your creatures have. Your dice will scatter; simply line them up starting with the leftmost and then the next leftmost, and so on. Then go around the table, counting off the number of attackers on each character, and in no time you’ll be able to announce “Three hits on Ernie, Two hits on Fred, Four hits on Gary, they all missed Hank, One hit on Ian,” and so on.

Combat Modifiers & Complications

An awful lot of these should get dumped and replaced with something simpler. The easiest approach I’ve seen is the +1/+2/+4/+8 approach, which replaces every tactical, conditional and environmental modifier (aside from magic) into one simple question: the relative degree of advantage one combatant has over the other. +1 is a minor advantage, +2 is a strong tactical advantage, +4 is a VERY strong advantage, and +8 means they have an overwhelming advantage. If one side gets a +1 to their attacks, the other side gets a -1 to theirs, and so on.

This is something of a hybrid between 3.x and the D&DNext Advantage mechanic, but in a lot of ways it’s a lot simpler because this is a succession of flat modifiers, while at the same time, retaining some of the finesse. The big advantage is that you don’t have to add up a whole string of modifiers, you simply make an overall assessment of the situation and plug in the number.

Defense: Unified ACs, Unified to-hit margin

The same principles apply. You can tweak the enemies that you present so that they all have the same AC, or can match ACs to PCs so that the players all have the same chance to hit. This will be a LOT more obvious to the players, though, and they get to do the math, so it’s less beneficial to you, so I recommend these options be kept for a last resort.

Damage Tracking: Spreadsheet or Game Utility/App

It’s very easy to set up a spreadsheet that does nothing but add up part of a column of numbers and then subtracts it from a number in the first row of that column. I have minimal spreadsheet skills and could do that in two minutes or less.

In the top row, you put the HP of the enemies in the encounter. Each time one gets damaged by a PC, add an entry beneath that for the damage done. Instantly, the total damage done, and the HP remaining, get calculated for you.

There are gaming utilities and apps out there that work in exactly the same way. Find one that’s quick and easy to use, then use it!
comparison 18d6 vs 248d6

Mass Attacks: Base Roll plus variation

“He shoots a 24d6 Fireball at you.”

How many GMs and players would insist on rolling all 24d6?

There’s a much faster technique. In fact, there are a couple of them.

1. Assume average results on half-to-three quarters of the dice, roll the rest.
24d6 – so assume that 12 of them roll an average of 3.5 and just roll the other 12. Or assume that 18 of them roll 3.5 and just roll the remaining 6.

Every pair of “3.5″ results gives a total of 7. So these options yield 42+12d6, and 63+6d6, respectively. This technique is not perfect – there is a small probability on 24d6 of getting a result that lies outside these ranges of results. But it’s pretty tiny: The chance of getting 53 or less on a roll of 24d6 is 0.01%, and the chance of getting 68 or less on 24d6 is only 3.18%.

These are trivial compared to the other compromises that are being made.

2. Assume half of the total of average results plus a die roll of appropriate size for all but 5 of the dice. Roll the five dice.
This one’s a little more complicated, but it gives a better result. For the 24d6 example, we roll 1d6 and average the result with 3.5, then multiply the result by 19. Then roll and add the remaining 5 dice to the total.

This restores some of the capacity for very high and very low results, but the differences compared to rolling all 24d6 are still fairly minimal. It’s a compromise between option one and rolling all the dice. The example yields a results range from 41 to 111, which is not a lot different from the roll half and use averages for the other half. But it’s rarely worth the extra effort.

3. X dice times Y plus X dice. X is any number that divides evenly into the total. If necessary, increase the number of dice rolled by 1 or 2 to get a larger Y.
More complicated again, yet strangely simpler in execution.

24d6: 4×6=24, so either roll 4 dice and multiply the total by 5, then add another roll of 4 dice; or roll 6 dice and multiply by 3, then add another 6d6 roll.

37d6 (for some reason): 4 nines are 36, so roll 4d6, multiply the result by 8, then roll 5d6 and total.

This is the shortcut technique I use most often, or a simple variation on it based on ten dice times X plus Y dice. Much faster than rolling them all.

248 d6 (just for the sake of an extreme example): (24 x 10d6) + 8 d6.

Ideally, I prefer the second number of dice to be higher than the first, so I would probably use (23 x 10d6) +18d6, but it’s not really necessary; the differences between these rolls are tiny. The odds of rolling all ones, or all sixes, on 18d6 may be massively greater than the odds of doing so on 248d6, but in both cases they are so tiny that it’s a non-issue – relative to the time saved.

Simultaneous Saves

If there’s some effect that has to be saved against, have everyone make their saving throws at the same time. It takes more time to chop and change and then go back to one mechanic in battle than it does to process multiple results using the same mechanic at the same time.

Alternative System Selection

The ultimate technique for simplifying your game system has to be choosing a different one with simpler mechanics. With more than five or six players at once, you are pushing game systems way beyond what they were designed to do; some will adapt to that better than others. As general rule of thumb, I think that a lot of older game systems like AD&D, original Traveller, etc, scaled a lot better in this respect – perhaps because they had not been optimized for the typical group size so successfully. Others may hold different opinions. But if you’ve tried everything else that’s been suggested, this is the only option left to you.

Table Etiquette

Table etiquette is important all the time, but far more so when you have so many players. The number of ways players can combine increases geometrically with each additional seat at the table. And each of these combinations carries the potential of manifesting in breaches of player etiquette.

Side-conversations

Probably the biggest single breach that is likely to occur comes in the form of side conversations, especially since GM Joel has a number of husband-and-wife players at his table. There are so many players that he can’t focus on all of them at once, and that is an open invitation to those not directly participating to chat amongst themselves.

I treat tolerance for side-conversations as being another emotion to be paced within the adventure. There are times when I’ll be permissive, and times when I’ll be intolerant. After a climax of some sort, it’s good to let the players blow off a little steam; when things are approaching such a climax, I’ll be a lot firmer in keeping people on track.

Normally, an imminent climax grabs and holds player attention, so there is already a natural tendency towards this behavior; I simply encourage it.

Player-out-of-the-room takes the PC out-of-the-room

A rule that I rarely enforce at my table, this principle becomes more important with more players. If you need a rest break, or want to get a drink, either ask for a five minute recess, or assume that your character will wander off while you aren’t there to control it – and there will be times when the only direction in which they can wander is into trouble.

Reward in-character conversations

This is something that is good practice at any time, but it becomes even more important with many players – simply because conversations in character are not unrelated side conversations. The rewards don’t have to be massive or game-changing – but they will add up.

Penalize unnecessary out-of-character conversations

The other side of the coin. Speaks for itself, really.

Yield a certain amount of control

Finally, it may be necessary at times to let the PCs argue over the steering wheel of the campaign, wrestling it out of each other’s hands. Unless strong discipline is enforced by them, so many voices will tend to ride off in six different directions at once. If you’re comfortable improvising, that can be fine; but if you have a strong preference for more organization and unity amongst the players, this can be a real problem.

One point that should be emphasized because I had not consciously realized it myself until I wrote the preceding paragraph: this factor is also game system/campaign dependent. I am more prepared to cope, or more able to cope, with anarchy amongst the PCs in some campaigns than in others. So if this is an issue, try switching to a game that is less mission-oriented and more casual, more lassoire-faire.

The Wrap-up

This answer has probably come far too late to help GM Joel. By now, he will almost certainly have either found his own solutions or trimmed his players to manageable proportions, possibly by splitting his campaign into two. But, on the off-chance that he is still struggling with the same issues, and in the certainty that others will encounter similar problems in the future, this advice is offered with the best of intentions and the hope that it helps.

I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights. While I seem to have done most of the talking in answer to the question, I had virtually nothing other than the section on Assistant GMs until the others put in their two cent’s worth. Blair & Saxon: Much appreciated!

About the contributors:

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

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

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

An Update:

Hungry of RavenousRPG.com has been a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery through his recently-retitled “Friday Faves” column and was kind enough to pen a few words of response to my hypothetical solutions (above), since he has real-world experience from both sides of the gaming table. Unfortunately, a problem with the systems here at Campaign Mastery meant that his contribution wasn’t being accepted as a comment. I have appended his comments to the original article, and I’m also going to put them up in an extra, out-of-continuity post for the benefit of anyone who’s already read the original article.
ATGMs-Hungry

Hungry’s Responses

I’ve run games for large groups before. My average seems to be around 6, but I’ve gone as high as 10 players (with most games having 6-8 of them, but sometimes we’d have all 10!)

The advice given here to keep them all engaged is very good. I’ll drop a brief comment on some of Mike’s bullet points:

Planning something for everyone: Usually, with a large group, someone will inevitably not make it. Just be prepared that your key plot point might have to shift to another player. It’s best if you can develop key points that involve 2-3 of the PCs. That covers your GM bases, and gives the players something to chat about during their downtime, which will happen in large groups.

Checklists: I tend to keep a running checklist in who I’ve engaged in a personal bit of role playing and who I haven’t. When I realize that I’ve left someone out for a short bit, I drag them back into the game by having a monster or NPC look them in the eyes and do/say something. This lets the player know that I’ve not forgotten them.

Combat Options: These work really well. I love the “N-1″ option because that’ll be a challenging encounter which will allow the PCs to shine as a group, but won’t leave anyone out until near the end of the encounter when the monsters are dwindling down to 1 or 2 left.

Prepared Tactics: This is a great bit of advice for GMs, especially if the Bad Guys are character-type critters with many abilities/powers or if it’s a monster packed with special abilities. I also flip this around on the players. I use some web-based software I’ve written to track initiative orders. When someone starts their action, I’ll point to the next person that gets to go and tell them, “You’re up next.” This engages the person that’s not actively doing anything, and lets them gear up mentally for what they want to do. This is a real time saver in those large combats.

Seating & Re-seating: I’m not sure shuffling players about the table would be a wise idea because of the time and distraction involved. I did read the ideas about being minimalist at the table, but there are also snacks and drinks at the table at most of my games. The players typically have more than two hands worth of stuff to try and move. It also draws them out of the game world and into the real world while they move from this side of the table to that. The best thing I’ve done for a split party in the past is to run a timer (smart phones are great for this!) in which one group gets a certain amount of time to do their RP, and then focus swaps to the other group. If one group gets into combat…. I wait. Cliffhanger style. I’ll see if the other group can find their way into a combat quickly, then I’ll run the two combats simultaneously. There’ll be one initiative order, but two separate combats going on. Yes, it’s more brain work for the GM to keep things running smoothly, but pulling it off makes the GM feel great.

Divisions in Roleplay: Mike’s take on 9+ players breaking into smaller groups works well, and I’ll take it a step further. Hand some minor NPCs to one group and have the players run the NPCs. This works really well with a little prep on index cards to let the players know what goals, motivations, approaches, and attitudes the NPCs will have. This will take a little load off of the GM, and keep the players engaged.

Caller, Handler, Scribe, Lawyer, and General: If the players want to establish these roles, I’m all for it. However, I (as the GM) will not dictate roles and responsibilities at this level, with one exception. If there’s a player at the table that’s comfortable with the rule book for the system, I might use them as a Lawyer if I can’t recall the particulars of a rule or power.

Assistant and Co-GMs: I’ve seen this done once to good effect, but we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 PCs at the table. I’ve never used them, and I’m not sure I’d want to “remove” a player from the playing experience and have them turn into a referee or rules adjudicator in addition to playing their character… or not playing a character at all.

I’ll make a few broad comment about the system simplification ideas Mike’s presented: These are very effective at speeding things up at the loss of “realism.” I like these ideas, but I’ll counter with the concept of, “If you need to simplify your system, perhaps you need to play a simpler system in the first place.” I’ve had players that can’t add d20+STR+BaB (even when STR+BaB are pre-added) in less than two minutes without a calculator. That REALLY grinds play to a halt. For those players, I make sure they sit next to me, and I do the math for them. I’ve also had players that could roll 24d6 and add it up in under 20 seconds (so long as they were pips, not numbers, on the dice). Many things come into play when picking the “right” system for your group, but that’s off topic for this post.

Table Etiquette: Mike has some great points here. In the weekly game I used to play, the “out of game chatter” was limited to the first 10-15 minutes of the session, then we got down to business. In my monthly game, the chatter runs about 30 minutes and rises up here and there during the course of the game. This is because we see each other so rarely and much has happened in the intervening month. It’s part of the game that I have to accept, but when I feel it’s getting in the way of the game, I step in and ask people to quiet down with the side chatter. We’re all adults, and I’m not mean or malicious about it. I just point out that the side conversations are making it hard for the other players to hear me. They get the point, and quiet down.

One last point that I’d like to make is that each player added to the table is a multiplier in effort, not an additive in the equation. From my experience, it’s not an exponential explosion in effort, but it’s probably 3X where X is the number of players. Before expanding a group, be prepared for this.

I hugely appreciate Hungry’s efforts at putting a real-world perspective on my musings, and apologize again to him for the (still ongoing) problems with comments.

Next in this series: Making Drow (and other races) feel different. It’s not as simple as it sounds…

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It’s Not ‘Just A Game’: The legacies we leave


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This is not the post that I expected to write today (an ATGMs article), nor is it the backup idea (about getting into character) that I expected to use next week but was ready to bring forward – look for those next week. A confluence of completely independent events has sent my thoughts surging down a different avenue, and one that deserves to be explored.

People die all the time. It’s shocking at the time, and painful for those left behind. Most of the time, those passings are unremarked by the wider world, no matter how strongly the departed has touched or influenced the lives of those in their immediate circle. Sometimes, though, the individual who has passed on has achieved some measure of fame, has influenced others with their lives, and then the grief is a more widespread. Sometimes, the manner of their passing is such that it touches the lives of many who never knew the fallen as individuals; it is the event itself that lends larger-than-life meaning to their passing.

Every person who dies in an aircraft accident that is properly investigated contributes in some measure to the improved safety of the aviation industry for those left behind. Ample blood has been spilled in retaliation for those tragically killed during the 9/11 attacks to ensure that they will never be forgotten as a group. Even when death has not yet occurred, when the circumstances are a slow and tragic ongoing struggle, as with Michael Schumacher, still in a state of near-death after a skiing accident that should not have had consequences of the severity that has resulted (at least in the minds of many), a legacy of achievements means that they will not soon be forgotten. These people did not set out to leave a lasting legacy for the world; many, if not all, of their achievements were for personal benefit. But that’s often the way the world works – you do something for yourself and find that it touches others along the way, inspiring them to make the lives of people richer, safer, or more fulfilled. This is certainly the case when a celebrity passes, however minor a celebrity that person may have been.

Sometimes, people leave a legacy that reaches out from beyond the grave to touch others, as was the case with a Western Australia teen that I was reading about this morning who – after passing away from an especially aggressive form of cancer – left an inspirational message written in texta on the back of her mirror for her family to find after she was gone (You can read the story at this website, at least for now – I don’t know how long it will stay up).

But, as is often the case in such circumstances, these events may prompt those who are left to think morbid thoughts about what legacies they will leave behind when their time comes.

My personal legacy is secure and very satisfactory – not that I expect to shuffle off this mortal coil anytime soon. I have touched people with my music. I have helped others discover the will to live when they lacked it, or contemplated bringing themselves to a premature end. I have received more than enough feedback to know that I have inspired many with the articles that I write at Campaign Mastery. I know that I have deliberately harmed no-one, and accidentally harmed few, and done my best to compensate those injured along the way through my misjudgments. I have given what I could to aid others in worse circumstances along the way. And I know that I have inspired others through my games.

I am not a major celebrity by any means, and I am not sure that I ever would want to be. But I’m not just a statistic, either; I can honestly say that I feel I have made a difference to others in my lifetime. It was never something that I consciously did in order to leave my mark on the world, it happened as a byproduct of living my life day-to-day as the best person I could be.

The makers of Star Trek never set out consciously to create a legacy, either. They were actors, they needed work, and this was a job like any other. Nevertheless, the idealism and optimism that the show contained was inspirational to others, and that rubbed off on the public perception of those who appeared in it. Some of them struggled to come to terms with their unexpected roles as near-messianic inspirations – “I Am Not Spock” by Leonard Nimoy makes that very clear. But what we do, day by day, touches those around us, and can have effects far beyond the purpose and intent of those daily activities.

Very few ever set out to become famous. Celebrity is something that happens as a byproduct of living their lives and doing what they do. That does not elevate the celebrity to sainthood, but it does impose the burden of living up to the public perception – and sometimes that proves too difficult to sustain. Celebrities are people, too, and just as capable of being flawed as anyone else.

And so it is with RPGs and GMing. I’ve learned something from every GM that I have ever played under. Any success that I have at the gaming table is, in part, due to those lessons. They never set out to teach the art of being a good GM – they just wanted to have fun. For that matter, I never set out to become a great GM (and I’m certainly nowhere near being the best) – I sought improvement in my craft because being better at the job made it more fun, both for myself, and vicariously through my players.

In the early days, some family and friends were dismissive, thinking that Gaming should occupy a lower place on my scale of priorities. “It’s just a game”, they would say. Thinking back on those comments now, they remind me more than anything else of various actors and musicians saying “It’s just a job” or “I was just having fun”. The Beatles and Elvis Presley, arguably the prototypes of the modern celebrity, never set out to change the world of entertainment, either. They got a bull by the horns, and they rode the whirlwind as far as it could take them.

There are many scientists who were inspired to earn their degrees by exposure to Star Trek. That was never an ambition of the creators of the show, who just wanted to create something entertaining because that was what they were being paid to do. And yet, every member of the cast and crew shares part of the legacy being created with every discovery made by those who chose science as a result.

Similarly, any legacy that I leave behind is, in part, shared with everyone who ever inspired, educated, or shaped me as a person, and in turn by those who inspired, educated, or shaped them, and on back throughout history. Every person who games, or games better, because of me is part of that legacy too, and at the same time, they are a conduit to passing that legacy on to others. I didn’t set out to leave a legacy behind; I write for self-gratification, because it’s something that I enjoy doing. I GM for the same reason. But in the process, I have nevertheless created a legacy, and now face the responsibility of living up to that legacy.

It’s not just a game when it can and does inspire others to become entertainers or GMs or players. They assume these roles for the same reason that I do the things that I do, for personal pleasure and satisfaction. But in the process, they too begin to craft a legacy for themselves, and it doesn’t matter how many concatenations of chained inheritance that the legacy passes through. Eventually, it will make life better for someone, more fulfilling or satisfying or just more fun.

That’s not such a bad mark to leave on the world.

My concluding point, then, is this: it doesn’t matter how good or bad you are as a GM. It doesn’t matter that you sit behind the screen for your own satisfaction, pleasure, or gratification. Just by being the person you are, and doing what you do, you shape the lives of those you encounter, directly or indirectly; you share a measure of any success they enjoy and a measure of the price of any failures. Being a GM means that you inherit the legacy of everyone who has sat at the table before you, and pass that legacy, with your own additions, to those who will sit at the table after you.

It’s more than just a game, or a sport, or just having fun, when it inspires others – even if neither of you know that it is doing so at the time. Legacies are the byproduct of ordinary people living their lives; they happen, whether you intend them or not, whether they have intentional meaning or not. It doesn’t matter how big or small they are; that’s something beyond your control. All that matters is living up to the responsibility that they carry – by being the best GM, player, entertainer, or person that you can be at the time, for your own satisfaction, and the rest will take care of itself.

And if anyone asks what you do for fun, tell them that you inspire others in your spare time. What could be better than that?

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Domino Theory: The Perils and Practicalities


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I love a good domino theory. They keep things nice and tense within the campaign, are a fertile source of adventures as people try to break the connection between desired action and undesired consequence, and are almost guaranteed to blow up spectacularly in due course. But that doesn’t make them easy to do, never mind to do them well. In this article, I’m going to look at how to create the most spectacular domino-theory chain reactions of events within a campaign, what can go wrong, how to use them to create adventure seeds, and – ultimately – how to ride the whirlwind as the dominoes start to tumble.

Creating Domino-theory chains

I’m going to start by looking at how to create a domino-theory chain – and I’m going to begin by asking the very basic question: just what are they?

What is a domino-theory chain?

When a force within the game – be it an individual, a race, a society, or whatever – wants to carry out some act for some reason, but cannot do so because of an undesirable consequence, they can be said to be connected to that consequence. When a second force – be it a group, an individual, or whatever – wants to do something for some reason but can’t because the undesirable consequence of doing so will be to remove the inhibition upon the first force, then that second force can be said to be chained to the first – if the second force do what they want, there will be a chain reaction (albeit a small one) that ends with the first force doing what it wants. So A does B which makes C do D which makes E do F which makes G do H which…. and so on. Each Domino triggers the next one in a chain reaction that ultimately can only end in disaster, or redemption, or – at the very least – change.

These aren’t as easy to put together as they might at first appear – not if you want a really lovely interlocking web of triggers and consequences. Any hack can put together a simple chain like the one above – but putting together something more interesting is a lot harder.

Creating your initial state of tension

The place to start is by defining your initial state of tension. This is your initial “A wants to do B but can’t because C”.

  • The first step is to create an initial force (A) and decide what action they want to do (B).
  • The second step is to create a reason why they can’t do what they want (C).
  • The third step is to decide what they are doing about this problem (D).
  • Finally, decide what they are publicly doing in the meantime (E).

Those five facts are the things that need to documented for every force or faction that is part of the domino-theory chain: Force Name, Objective, Hindrance, Plan, and Cover.

If you want to be especially complete, you could add things like Motive and Reputation but while they might help characterize the Force, they aren’t necessary to the construction of a domino-theory chain. It’s far more important to make sure that the logic of (C) is absolutely iron-clad.

Creating your initial connecting link

(C), (D), and (E) – Hindrance, Plan and Cover – are what I think of as “loose ends”. These are threads that can connect to other forces and other groups without forming part of the primary chain. “Loose ends” work to form secondary chains, which are what really make a great domino-chain so much fun. So important are they that I’ll come back to them in a later section.

The next step is to create a second group – one that is blocked from doing what they want to do because of one of these loose ends. The best approach is to decide which of the loose ends you are going to use and then choose all the other parameters of the group to fit. Again, the critical thing is that the logic be ironclad.

  • If the force one Hindrance (C) is also the reason Force two are blocked, the two groups have the potential to eventually form a working alliance, or to compete with each other to be in position to take advantage of their goals when (B) eventually becomes possible.
  • If the force one Plan (D) is the reason Force two are blocked, then the two Forces are in opposition, but only Force 2 necessarily know it. Remember the old saying, “before you can stab someone in the back, you first need to get behind them?”
  • If the force one Cover (E) is the reason Force two are blocked, then the two forces appear to be in opposition, but in reality, force one is exploiting that apparent position to disguise their true goals. If force two recognizes this, there is scope for a secret alliance of convenience between the two while they maintain public opposition; if not, force two will genuinely oppose force one, while force one takes advantage of force two.

primary chain

Adding further connecting links

Continue adding links branching off from the initial chain. That means that force three should be linked to the Hindrance, Plan, or Cover of force two, and then force four to force three, and so on. For every group, you get three loose ends and use one of them, so if you draw it as a diagram – an approach that I encourage – you can draw your initial chain as a long vertical strip with the unused links hanging off each side from each group.

The image to the right illustrates this. It shows a primary chain of 9 Forces (numbered), with 1 connected to 2, which is connected to 3, which is connected to 4, and so on, leaving two links – labeled a and b by number – to each side of each of the groups. Note the unused third connector from group 9.

Personally, I don’t recommend chains anywhere near this big. Four or five links in the primary chain is plenty. I also recommend that at this point you draw up a matrix with each force across both the top and down the left so that you can document the relationships between the additional forces as you go (using the example offered in the previous section).

When you feel that the primary chain is long enough, it’s time to start adding Secondary chains.

Secondary Chains

A secondary chain is exactly the same as the primary chain in its construction except that it hangs off one of the unused branches of one of the primary chain and will use one more of those unused branches for one of its other connections. If you are really creative, you might be able to use all three connections from the new group to cross-connect, but two is good enough. Keep adding secondary groups until all the chains have a force relating to them. It will often be the case that you will need to build a group that connects from one secondary group to another in order to achieve this.

Think about what that means for a moment. Every Force that forms part of the resulting complex matrix is connected to three other Forces, each of which is also connected to three Forces. All of them have an agenda, something that is preventing them from acting overtly on that agenda, a plan to overcome that problem, and something else that they are doing in the meantime.

The Web Of Catastrophe

I call this a “Web of Catastrophe”, because any change (perceived or actual) will bring the whole structure crashing down as a chain reaction, one domino falling after another. Enter the wild cards: the PCs. If this describes the state of affairs within the campaign, whether we’re talking about the internal politics of a single noble Court or the relationship between multiple rival nations, or something in between, any change will have repercussions felt a long way away.

Critical Mass

As a general rule of thumb, I find that having as many Forces involved as their are players, or less, enables the players to grasp the totality of what is going on, often before the GM wants them to. Having more, by one or two, makes the totality easily-grasped, but not immediately obvious – but it can still come out before the GM is ready. So I recommend, as the minimum number of Forces, three more than there are PCs. This is analogous to achieving a Critical Mass of plotlines within the campaign.

It’s also easy for there to be too many factions, something that confuses the players and causes them to blur one group with another. In my experience, most players can cope if there are somewhere between two and three Forces at work per player – with the exact number varying from individual to individual. This number is often reduced dramatically if a player has not been present for the entire campaign – though it can sometimes be increased by the external perspective that comes from not have sat through the events, and being presented with an overview.

Once a Force has done it’s “job” within the plotline – something we have yet to generate – if there seem to be too many cooks for the players to keep up with the recipe, feel free to annihilate that Force. Purge, Zap, Delete – they have performed their role in the cosmic scheme of catastrophic chain reaction, and are now superfluous. If you can make the PCs the instruments of that destruction, so much the better – a victory now and then does wonders for player morale!

A segment of example

This might not be totally clear from the abstract description of the process that I have provided, so here’s a small piece of a small example to try and clarify matters.

  • Force 1: The Incarnum, a conspiracy amongst mages in the Kingdom of Truleth.
    • Goal: Ban Clerics and Clerical Magic from the kingdom of Truleth.
    • Hindrance: They have the political connections to do so but cannot employ this power because the NGaryth secret society of Demon-worshipers would gain ascendancy.
    • Plan: Construct a Divicula, an arcane device theoretically capable of driving out demons.
    • Cover: Advisers to the court of Truleth on all matters arcane, and strong proponents of law & order.
  • Force 2: The Ngaryth Secret Society
    • Goal: The resurrection of the mad God Dwarla to subjugate the other faiths of the Kingdom of Truleth.
    • Hindrance: They need the Ring Of Tyanthomath, a lost clerical artifact, to find and awaken the Mad God.
    • Plan: Use demons belonging to the Demon Prince Chasis to search for the Ring in return for the society’s aid in Chasis’ war with his rival Plicianth.
    • Cover: A secret society within an association of mercantile leaders.
  • Force 3: Dirim Harzer, Commander of the standing army of the Kingdom of Truleth.
    • Goal: To invade the neighboring Kingdom of Coalinth.
    • Hindrance: The Elvish Army allied to Coalinth.
    • Plan: Bribe the Troll Gaurdurk and his Army to invade the Elvish Forest to distract the Elves
    • Cover: Invent a Necromantic Secret Society to justify increased funding for the army to cover the diversion of funds from the military budget.
  • Force 4: House Matron Zilvani of the Drow
    • Goal: To use the Army of the Kingdom of Truleth to wipe out the Elvish Forest without risk to her own forces.
    • Hindrance: The Kingdom of Coalinth are historic enemies of Truleth and the alliance is too strong for Truleth to defeat alone; furthermore, they are more likely to attack Coalinth.
    • Plan: Leak intelligence to the Kingdom of Truleth suggesting that Gaurdurk The Troll is about to secretly ally with Coalinth, forcing them to attack the weakest flank – the Elves – before Coalinth becomes invincible.
    • Cover: Mentally dominate the Princess of Coalinth and cause her to send emissaries to Gaurdurk so that the alliance looks like a Coalinth idea.
  • Force 5: The Servants Of Dwarla (Half-elves and the real acolytes of the mad God)
    • Goal: Resurrect the Mad God to “purify the impure”
    • Hindrance: They need a Divicula whose purpose has been corrupted during construction, and don’t have the expertise to create one.
    • Plan: Trick the wannabe worshipers of Dwarla, the Ngaryth Secret Society, into retrieving the Ring Of Tyanthomath and attempting to use it, corrupting the Divicula being constructed by The Incarnum according to plans “fed” to them by the Servants.
    • Cover: Use Plicianth The Demon (clever but without high rank) to trick Prince Chasis (not clever but with the rank Plicianth thinks he deserves) to find and retrieve the Ring.

That seems like a deliciously-tangled web. It actually shortcuts the process a bit – there really should be an entry for each of the Demons – but it’s quite complete enough to yield plenty of fun and games.

Frayed Ends

The other thing that I would note, if I were preparing to GM this, is that everyone has their actions circumscribed by their circumstances, with one exception – the Troll Gaurdurk. Outside of the PCs, this is the only character with any freedom of action – and he’s being Feted by two different sides, while being manipulated by a third. If anyone deserves an entry of their own, he does! As things stand, he is a frayed end – pull on it and the whole carefully-knitted structure will fall apart.

On the other hand, having him at loose ends makes him a Trigger. Whichever side the PCs ally with, Guardurk can either ally with the same side or with the enemy, whichever looks like creating the most fun. So the occasional frayed end can sometimes be useful.

Source Of Illumination

With the construction process detailed and illustrated, let’s start talking about using this structure as a source of adventures.

The Status Quo

The collection of cover stories represent the apparent status quo within the campaign. So the first adventure or two (or more) that you derive should be only indirectly connected to the Domino Chain, and should establish and educate the Players as to whom the in-game players are.

Secrets Have A Way Of Getting Out

Additional adventures should be scheduled to bring any secret groups or organizations to the PCs awareness, even if they don’t know what the objectives of such groups are.

Warning: If any of the groups have a desire or need for secrecy as their Hindrance, these revelations may trigger the chain reaction if the GM is not very careful in planning those adventures. In particular, he needs to ensure that either the secret group don’t realize that their secrecy has been compromised, or he needs to ensure that the PCs have reason to keep the existence of the group secret and that the secret organization knows it.

Reactions To PC involvement

Whichever group the PCs interact with, the allies and enemies of that group should notice, and react appropriately. Each of those reactions can form the basis of a subplot running through a subsequent adventure. What’s more, some of these can then become the foundations of spin-off adventures.

There will be all sorts of forces not articulated in your chain reaction. The example makes no mention of the Dwarves, for example. If the PCs become affiliated with the Elves, or with the Kingdom of Coalinth, in the example, then the other of those two allied parties can ask the PCs to look into rumors that the Dwarves are allying with the Kingdom of Truleth (which seems to be where the money is). In fact, the Dwarves might be up to nothing of the sort.

The Direct Plans

Each and every Plan listed then becomes a potential adventure as it is put into motion or begins to work its way towards fruition. The question is, in what order should they occur?

Damped Reactions
Some of the chains of dominoes eventually run out of steam, come to a conclusion that leaves some of them still standing.

Explosive Reactions
Others cause one imbalance after another, creating the explosive reactions that will plunge the game world into chaos – unless the PCs intervene.

In other words, you can yield the entire plot potential all in one big bang, or you can dribble it out a bit at a time and get multiple smaller adventures instead of one all-or-nothing potential cataclysm.

The choice is up to you, but if I had put that much work into setting up a finely-balanced infrastructure like that, I would want to get as much bang for my buck as I could. Just as the PCs deal with one problem, the repercussions of that resolution should knock over the next domino, and bring about the next adventure. In other words, we want an explosive reaction – but not one that proceeds too quickly. The goal; is an controlled explosion.

Because we have kept the number of Forces to a manageable number, it’s not too difficult to set up theoretical trigger events and see what happens. A trigger is one of three things:

  • A Direct Plan succeeds
  • A Direct Plan is discovered by the PCs and stopped, forcing the Force behind it to come up with a New Plan (and possibly exposing them);
  • An internal schism occurs within one of the Forces when someone gets a clever idea that promises a quicker success.

Three possibilities for each Force.

  • Start with the first one, and with the first possible outcome of their plan, and see what happens. Does A set off B, which sets off C?
  • Then look at the second possible outcome, and see what happens if the group gets revealed or taken out of the picture, presumably by the PCs. Does that release B to act overtly, which sets off C, and so on?
  • The third possible outcome from the first group should then get assessed. Same question.
  • Then repeat this three-step examination with the second group, and then with the third, and so on.

It will soon become apparent which thread to pull – which chain gives the greatest combination of length and control. Ideally, the choice should be one that will trigger the next event in the chain whether the PCs succeed in stopping the current plan or not. But there is a caveat, which brings me to:

The Perils

The biggest peril that you face when creating such a web of concatenated consequences comes in the form of a premature detonation. Each time you introduce the players to another element within your grand scheme, you run the risk of someone pulling a Sampson and bringing the house down – with the campaign inside it.

This danger can never be completely avoided, but it can be mitigated. The easiest preventative measure is to introduce another Force into the picture – one which exists to maintain the status quo, stamp out potential explosions before they happen, and who view the PCs as disruptive, meddling, troublemakers. That last is very important, since eventually you want the dominoes to fall and the PCs to have to deal with each of these groups “making their move”.

Nevertheless, having a group that can parachute last-minute assistance in for the PCs to use to deal with whatever problem they have set off, can be a game-saver.

The second biggest danger is the wet firecracker. This occurs when the order in which you set off the chain reaction is not right in another respect: it’s no good having a full chain reaction if later explosions are an anticlimax. No, you want the stakes, the difficulties, and the drama to continually rise with each domino.

To some extent, these things are scalable. The ultimate confrontation of the example might be the PCs vs the Mad God, or the PCs vs one of the Demon Princes, or War between the two city-states, or war between the Mad God and one of the Demons, or even War between the two Demons with the PCs holding the balance of power – and their home base as ground zero. If the Demons aren’t in the ultimate fight, you can dial them back to more individual efforts and make it a Mano-e-Mano confrontation between them (with the PCs in the middle, of course) rather than hordes of subordinate Demons battling it out. The Mad God can be scaled back by only releasing one of his Foot Soldiers – the plan to release the Big Guy can fail. And so on.

But if scaling won’t work – and for some items it won’t – you need to ensure that things happen in the right order. Your first choice for the chain of events might not fit this criteria – in which case, you need to junk that starting point and look for another, continuing the three-step assessment of direct plans, and possibly even compromising the length of the chain reaction.

Conflagration

Once you have the basic outline of events – “A does B to C, which enables D to do E to F, which…” – it’s time to tie the whole bundle together. Remember how I said that each Force you had identified would react to what the PCs did? Well, they are also going to react to whatever any of the other Forces do, too.

Again, the best way to organize this is with a table. Across the top, we have the names of the factions, while each event in your domino chain gets listed down the side. The Force performing the action just gets a star in it, unless you think that they might have a range of internal responses. Factions within a single Force have proven the undoing of political parties and governments in the past, and will again, and it’s not exactly unknown for an organization to have a coup when the current leadership is betting the farm on a pair of sevens, either.

It’s important to note that you have to make an assumption about the success or failure of the action. As a general rule of thumb, if the PCs are in a position to intervene, I assume that the action will fail; if the PCs are not, I assume that the action will succeed unless I don’t want it to for plot reasons. I note the assumption in brackets at the end of the action description which will be in the left-hand column.

The group responsible for the next link in the chain is designated the primary reaction – just put an asterisk in their column, because you have already defined how they are going to react. I then work my way through each of the other groups.

  • Are they threatened by the action?
  • Do they benefit from it in some way?
  • Is there some other change in their circumstances because of the action? – An alliance broken, or an alliance strengthened?
  • Is there a way for them to further their own agendas using the action?
  • Is there a way for them to inconvenience or disrupt an opponent using the action?
  • Can they at least ‘spin’ the action to generate propaganda for their own agenda?

Only if the answer to all these questions is “no” do I write “none” in the appropriate space on the table and move on. If the answer to any of them is “yes” then the group have to react in some way to the event.

These also assume that the group knows about the event. That sometimes gets forgotten, we’re so used to instant news in the modern world. Everyone is constantly acting and reacting to yesterday’s news – or last week’s, or last month’s. Smart people will tend to take that into account, while ideologically-driven people will tend to assume that things will work out according to their ideological interpretation of the world.

It also assumes that the news of the event is accurate, and that can be a bigger deal than people realize a lot of the time. Accidental error, exaggeration, rumor, and deliberate misrepresentation of the outcome are all possible. But this is the correct assumption to make, as you will see in the next section.

Color-Coding the entries

I also find it useful to use some legible but distinct color for events that have not yet occurred in-game, and the reactions that they produce. Blue would be my first choice in this context.

When a planned event actually occurs, the text gets changed in color either to Black or to Red. Black means that the outcome was as expected, and the reactions and subsequent events can unfold into their next step as planned. Red means that something unexpected has occurred (and that usually means the PCs have somehow gotten mixed up in things), and that means that every subsequent line of both the plan and the table of reactions needs to be reevaluated.

As mnemonic device, I will usually change the color of those subsequent lines of the table to Fuchsia and change them back to blue, one by one, as they get updated.

Updates to allow for the unexpected

The first question that always needs to be asked is whether or not the unexpected outcome alters the next step in the domino chain. If it does, news of the event needs to be misreported or misrepresented.

Any of the reasons previously listed will work, but my first preference is to look for some group that might deliberately distort the reports of the outcome for their own benefit. A deliberate act by someone is always more plausible than any sort of coincidence or random chance that just “happens” to keep the GM’s plot running. And my second preference is to invent someone to deliberately cause the misrepresentation of the news.

Any such misreporting represents a complication of the situation that the GM can take advantage of. Groups can react to either the truth or to the erroneous reports – again, whichever creates the most fun. You can even have some groups having it both ways: “if the reports are true, then… but I think it more likely that…”

Why This Is Not A Plot Train

It should be observed that despite the domino chain representing an overall plotline assembled by the GM, it is not a plot train, or at least it doesn’t have to be. The PCs have complete freedom of choice – this plan is all about NPCs and what they plan to do. The PCs can alter the outcome of individual events – and the GM simply updates his plans to accommodate those changes.

The “Orcs & Elves” Connection

Anyone who went to the effort of reading the lengthy “Orcs & Elves” Series – I know some did and some didn’t – will recognize that the Elvish History presented therein is very much this sort of chain reaction. “A happened, and the Orcs did this as a result, and the Drow did that, and the Dwarves did the other, and that caused the Elves to do this other thing, and that meant that when the Orcs did their next thing, the result was an opportunity for the Drow to do their next action,” and so on. That story was all about opportunities: making them, seizing them when they occurred, and guarding against others having them. Several times the Elves seemed to have everything under control, their lives as good as they got – only for them to be blindsided by something they didn’t see coming. Very little happened in a vacuum, it was perpetually about the intersection between past experiences, future goals and ambitions, and the opportunities that arose in the present.

If anyone wants a more substantial and complete example of this plotting process, that’s where to find it. This article is, at it’s heart, a formalization of the plotting process that was used for that mammoth slice of campaign background.

The Aftermath

The dominoes have fallen, and lie strewn all across the table. A chain of events have led to an apocalyptic finale. It’s human nature to ask, “what happens next?”

You have two choices: an Aftermath within the same campaign, a denouement to wrap up plot threads and loose ends, a coda to the cataclysm; or a sequel campaign (part one of a how-to), part two is here.

Either way, the starting point is still the same:

  • Which Forces survived?
  • How have their agendas changed?
  • What opportunities exist for them to further those agendas?
  • How has their public perception changed?
  • What are their immediate problems?
  •    …and so on.

Half the work has already been done for you. You still have your list of Forces, and you have established what they wanted and how they went about getting it. They will learn from their mistakes and try again, if their agenda has survived intact. “They all lived happily ever after” might be fine for a fairy tale – this is a Roleplaying Game. So line up the dominoes, and let them fall…

Finished at last! It’s a little late, but here it is… I actually wrote this article from start to finish (in my head) on my way to Gaming over the weekend (a trip of about 25 minutes by bus that completely wipes out my back for the following day). It seemed a lot shorter until I actually started putting words on digital paper…

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Prodigious Performances Provided In Due Course


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The approvals process in my 3.x Fantasy campaigns

Back in “Exceeding the Extraordinary: The Meaning Of Feats” (April 2012), I promised that a future article would discuss the approvals process for feats, prestige classes, etc, in my 3.x Fantasy campaigns. It’s been a long time coming, but here at last is that discussion.

Why?

In a perfect world, there would be no need for any sort of approvals process. Any feat or class that a player desired would be open to them, regardless of source.

The balance problem

In the real world, things are not so simple. The same good idea might come to many different producers of game materials, resulting in overlapping stackable bonuses, to the point where a game mechanic breaks. Game “balance” and “fairness” are always tricky and touchy subjects, but they are also very real considerations in most games. Some ideas simply won’t fit the campaign. And opportunists can always try to exploit broken rules and mechanics.

Some form of approvals process is necessary to guard against these problems.

The continuity problem

Furthermore, I’ve long been a proponent of the notion that the rules should evolve to match the campaign (from a common base: the published rules) and that the campaign should not be hamstrung by the limits of what the rules support or permit. That also entails some sort of vetting process, though that affects subjects other than feats for the most part.

But here’s a hypothetical conundrum to contemplate: Postulate a master of his craft, whatever it may be, confronting an enemy, and winning (or losing) after an epic battle. Now imagine one of your players pointing out that if the “master” was all he was cracked up to be, he would have had feat “X” which would have enabled him to do “Y”, defeating the enemy quickly and easily.

This is “easy” to guard against; all the GM has to do is memorize the mechanics of every feat ever published and its impact both in combination with other feats and with every combination of class and prestige class that exists.

Okay, now that most of my readers have had a good belly-laugh, there are only two practical solutions: either Feat X does not exist in the game in its current form (i.e. it needs to be modified so that it no longer provides an unacceptably easy solution to what was supposed to be a dramatic and pivotal moment in the campaign background) or it did not exist at the time.

The evolutionary solution
The latter solution opens up a whole can of worms, because it implies that characters can invent and develop Feats in the same way that they can spells. On the face of it, that’s not a wholly unreasonable proposition, because it provides an avenue for ongoing development within the campaign in terms of tactics, strategy, training, education, etc, etc. Fundamentally, this raises the question of what exactly a feat is, at an in-game level? But there is no mechanism for doing this within the game rules, not even a hint of one. Heck, there isn’t even a common standard to what a feat should or should not comprise, as I pointed out in The Meaning Of Feats.

But, setting that to one side for a moment, postulating that such a mechanism has been devised and incorporated into the house rules, I can’t see any GM blindly accepting every proposed feat submitted by his players. There would still need to be some sort of vetting/approvals process.

The potential abilities solution
The alternative is to assume that Feats represent inherent capabilities that training and experience can manifest as in-game capabilities, benefits, or enhancements, and that as such the feats that are available within the game have always existed as potential abilities, even if they were not accessible in the past. This represents an evolving “state of the art” (neatly solving the hypothetical problem of “X”) while giving the players a known rules foundation to work from, and is the solution that I have always – well, taken for granted until writing this article, to be honest, the alternative simply never having occurred to me!

But here’s the important part: assuring consistency with that state of the art once again demands a vetting/approvals process.

Sauce for the goose

Another of the key assumptions that I have always employed is that the rules are the same for both PCs and NPCs. If something is available for a PC to use, it must also be available to any NPC who has the capacity and would benefit from it – whether that’s access to a feat, a spell, a prestige class, a magic item, or whatever. The one exception that I have usually made to that rule lies in restricting player races to those who can integrate into and participate in society within the game, and excluding those creatures that are deliberately unbalanced in game mechanics terms to ensure that they pose sufficient challenge – so no Demigods, no Gods, no Dragons, no Golems, and no Beholders (amongst others).

The result is a vaguely-defined standard that restricts both sides of the table to something approximating a reasonable game balance. If I want something for an NPC, I have to be willing to have that capability in the hands of a PC. If a player wants something for his PC, I need the capability to give it to my NPCs.

Absolutism vs the soft touch

When it comes to enforcement of restrictions, there are two approaches that can be taken. The first is an absolute No, where something is simply taken off the table, possibly with a review date based on in-game circumstances where the denial is rooted in some in-game development – an approach that I have taken quite a lot with my Shards Of Divinity campaign, where ability in certain skills is capped until in-game “technological” breakthroughs. There is virtually no such thing as planar travel, for example – so there are very limited and vague concepts of the Planes, Planar Knowledge is capped, and various feats and classes that pertain to Planar Travel are simply not available – yet. Likewise, certain creatures are encountered far more infrequently.

The alternative is to permit a modified version of the capability in question, reducing its capabilities (or increasing them in some cases), changing the character levels at which abilities are gained, adding, increasing, subtracting, reducing, or otherwise modifying requirements, and so on. Rather than an absolute no, this is a qualified and restricted ‘yes’. But it does impose an additional requirement: before any such changes can be made, the class, feat, or whatever, has to be in an editable format.

Practicality means that I could not hope to type them all up myself – so the fundamental requirement of my players is that if they want access to something before I am going to get to it, they have to type it up for me.

The Approvals Process

Those are the fundamental considerations that evolved into the approvals process that I employ in my 3.x fantasy campaigns. It doesn’t matter whether I’m talking about D&D 3.0, D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, or any other variant of the d20 rules system (simply because I don’t use the game system for any such campaigns doesn’t mean that I’m going to rule out doing so at some future point in time). Nor would it matter if I were to change to D&DNext – the same process, or an appropriate variation on it, would apply to anything in a non-core game supplement.

The general approvals process is as follows:

  1. A physical copy of content the must be provided to the referee for conversion to an editable computer-based document. Where this is provided by the loan of the sourcebook to the referee, the “computer version” will be generated by the referee when time permits and this must be done before this step is considered complete. Players wishing to accelerate the process may choose to submit an electronic copy ready to be edited and then copy-and-pasted onto the approved list. PDFs of the source which do not permit copy-and-paste are considered the equivalent of loaning a sourcebook, because the work required is still the same.
  2. Background Justification: The referee will review the content from a standpoint of campaign background fit, and make any adjustment deemed necessary, or refuse to approve the submission. If the submission is not rejected as unsuited to the background, it then proceeds to step 3.
  3. Comparative Justification: The referee will then review the content from a standpoint of game balance, and make any adjustment deemed necessary, or refuse to approve the submission. If the submission is not rejected as unsuited, it then proceeds to step 4.
  4. Rules Justification: The referee will then review the content from a standpoint of uniqueness, logic, and necessity, and make any adjustment deemed necessary, or refuse to approve the submission. If the submission is not rejected, it then proceeds to step 5.
  5. The referee will then review the requirements to ensure that they reflect the considerations of steps 2-4 above, and make any adjustment deemed necessary, or refuse to approve the submission. If the submission is not rejected, it then proceeds to step 6.
  6. If approved, the submission will be noted for inclusion on the the official Approved lists.
  7. When time permits, the referee will act on that note and add the approved version to the official Approved list. If time is short, he may include the submission as an addendum to the official list; this qualifies as approval.

Documentation

The astute reader will have noted mention of an official “approved list”. I use a set of tables in a HTML format (keeping the size of each file down to a practical limit) because that was the fastest and most flexible approach; you could use a table in a word document, or in a star office document, or however you wish.

Feats are organized according to a standard taxonomy, dictating which table they get listed under:

  1. Personal Development Feats - let you do things others can’t
  2. Battle Feats
    2a: Initiative Feats - add to your initiative
    2b: Attack/Weapon Feats - add to your attack total
    2c: Defense/Armour/Shield Feats - improve your AC
    2d: Tactical Feats - add combat options
    2e: Strategic Feats - only work in a group or in the long-term
    2f: Ranged Combat Feats - specifically for ranged combat
    2g: Other Combat Feats - whatever’s left
  3. Metamagic Feats - enhance or adjust specific spells at the penalty of occupying a different spell slot or vice-versa
  4. Task-Oriented Feats - bonuses and alterations to skills and skill uses
  5. Item Construction Feats - construction of arcane and unusual objects
  6. Other Arcane Feats - enhancements to spellcasting in general, some only available to Wizards and others only to Sorcerers, including Necromantic feats
  7. Spiritual Feats - for Clerics & Druids
  8. Unholy Feats - inherently Dark feats used for purposes other than Necromancy
  9. Miscellaneous Feats - enhancements for everyone else (including monsters)

Feat Types were also expanded with some additional subcategories added:

  • General: feats of use by a variety of classes
  • General (Evil): feats of a specifically evil nature, of use by a variety of classes
  • General (Heritage): feats relating to your ancestry. You can only ever have one heritage feat.
  • General (Tactical): feats specially designed for massed troops, usable by any class
  • Item Creation: used to create magical or unusual items
  • Metamagic: used to alter the power of spells while altering their spell level
  • Necromantic: feats relating to death, the dead, and undead
  • Necromantic (Evil): feats of a specifically evil nature relating to death, the dead, and undead
  • Special: available only to specific classes, races and/or in specific circumstances
  • Special (Bardic): available only to Bards and not to Bard variant classes
  • Monster: normally available only to monsters and non-humans, often restricted to a specific member of those groups

Feats were arranged alphabetically in the list to make them easy to find. Feat descriptions consisted of five columns, the fourth of which contained multiple sub-items on separate lines within the table cell:

  • Name - Some feats get renamed for various reasons, including two different sources using the same name for two different feats. I also tend to rename feats if they are substantially changed. Renamed feats will have the original name in the Source field. Feats that have been renamed because of modifications made will also have an entry under the original name showing (in the summary field) that the feat has been replaced by a modified version named [x].
  • Type - from the categories listed above. Different campaigns may have additional types.
  • Source - The name of the source and the page it is listed. I use an m-dash to indicate an original feat. If the feat has been modified from the original, this is also noted in brackets.
  • Summary - The amount of content varies from a complete description to a brief synopsis listing the essentials.
    • Prerequisites - If there aren’t any, I always explicitly state ‘none’.
    • Effect/Benefit - Always present, stripped to the essential game mechanics.
    • Special conditions/rules - Present only if relevant. I have a tendency to be specific here about what any modifiers deriving from the field will not stack with.
    • Normal - again, only present when appropriate.
    • Notes - rarely used, and only present when there are some. Because I treat ‘flavor text’ as rules, this sometimes contains specific notes describing the impact of that.
  • Approved - A simple Y or N. Entries that have been rejected (or replaced with alternate versions) are in bold and red, and with a slight red tint to the cell color to make sure that this fact is obvious.

I have two illustrations to offer. The first, possible only because I did not use a fixed width table, shows a set of entries (from the Personal Development Feats list) under G, gives some actual examples of entries on the table with the text at a legible size:

feat summary

The second gives an idea of how the list looks when printed, this excerpt showing the “I” entries from the same table of feats. It isn’t expected to be legible because the horizontal space available here at Campaign Mastery is much less than a printed page width, so I’ve had to compress the image size. As you can see, most feats don’t take up very much room – three lines would be typical, six or seven lines occasional, and more than seven lines unusual. I think the longest entry is about 10 lines in length when printed. “Good Eye” (shown above) is 5 lines long when printed – and that’s counting a full li456ne for “Prerequisites: None”.

feat summary1

Some feat-specific house rules

Within the same document are some house rules and clarifications that relate to the approvals process and its enforcement as it specifically applies to Feats:

  1. Feats
    • Feats which are not included on the official “approved” list generated by the referee are not available until they are approved and so included.
    • Past reviews by the referee indicating the acceptability of a given feat are NOT considered Approval of the feat until it is placed on the Approved list, they merely indicate that Approval will probably be forthcoming when the feat is submitted for Approval.
    • Any character who has an un-Approved feat listed on their character sheet will lose both the feat and the feat slot it occupies, and the feat in question will be banned from the game from that time forward regardless of whether or not it would have been approved had it been submitted properly. It is therefore in the player’s best interests to submit any desired feats for approval in advance of choosing the feat for their character.
      If the offense recurs, harsher penalties may additionally be required.
    • Any feat which is on the approved list may be taken by any character provided that any background considerations and other requirements are met.
    • Feats are not just game mechanics, and the descriptions are not justifications of the game mechanics. e.g. “Thug”: You know how to get the jump on the competition and push other people around. While others debate, you act.” Those can also be described as “Impulsive” and “Aggressive”, and the referee is entitled to misrepresent a situation from time to time to entice the character to enter combat prematurely.
    • Most of the problems with feats stem from the failure by players to submit a copy that the GM can retain for use during the game with his NPCs.

There are similar sections for Prestige Classes, Spells, Magic Items, PC Races, New Monsters, and new uses for skills. But they are all variations on a theme.

Not So Draconian

You might get the impression from the above that I take a very hard line on respecting the approvals process, in fact that I am positively draconian in laying down the law and enforcing it. While I want that option up my sleeve for use if necessary (and hence have adopted such a tone in the house rules listed), the reality is that I am a bit of a softy who rarely exercises the prerogative to be really harsh. I’ve been known to permit Feats and classes into the game before they have even finished being written, never mind approved, for example.

At the same time, not knowing what to expect gets under my skin; too much provocation in the form of liberties taken (especially liberties taken without my prior approval) eventually results in an explosion. So, while I recommend that GMs issue similarly hard-line dictums, they should also be fairly relaxed at granting temporary exemptions, especially in the face of untoward circumstances.

In fact, this formal approvals process and the harsh penalties were the result of the last such major explosion, way back in February 2006. Although I’ve vented a couple of times since, that was the last time I was sufficiently angry that I tossed around words like “ultimatum” and “non-negotiable”. I like to think that at least part of the reason for that has been the existence of a clear approvals process. It’s also worth noting that back then, I was able to dedicate three or four days a week to my campaigns, if not more so, aside from the occasional interruption for a stand-alone article Roleplaying Tips. I have much less time available, these days, so some measure of practicality has to be accommodated.

Approval? Respect.

A carefully-crafted approvals process for the inclusion of material from outside sources should be part of every campaign, whether we’re talking Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Space Opera, Pulp, or anything else you can point a d6 at. Implementing such a policy is a matter of mutual respect between players and GM. Not doing so calls for blanket bans on third-party sources, on player input into the game mechanics, and (in fact) on player input & creativity in general. Failure of the players to adhere (as much as possible) to such a policy clearly creates more work for the GM and is disrespectful of his efforts towards the game.

Any RPG is collaboration between players and GM. An approvals process is not about dictating terms, or shouldn’t be; it’s about how best to integrate the elements that the players want to have on the table with the campaign that the GM has and is creating. It can be a bone of contention, or it can be oil upon the waters, defusing the potential for conflict between players and GM.

It can even be argued that such a process is not necessary if sufficient respect exists at the game table, and I would have a hard time disputing it. But in the real world, rules are often necessary, and these are the rules that I have evolved to maintain the integrity of the campaigns that I run – when I need to enforce that integrity.

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Stream Of Consciousness: Image-based narrative


Paris Street by mialman

This image of a Paris street by mialman (Javier Rodriguez) can be the basis for a Martian city or a medieval village. Let me show you how…

GM: “You see a stream through the fields.”
Player: “What does it look like?”
GM: “Ummmm, a stream, and fields to each side…?”

Has that ever happened to you? Or this:

GM: “There is a bend in the river.”
Player: “Describe it.”
GM: “Ahhh, there’s a river, and it bends to the left…?”

Or how about this?

GM: “The trail leads up into the mountain range.”
Players: “How steep is it? How wide? Are there any tracks?”
GM: “Ummm…”

These things, or something similar, have certainly happened to me, and I’ve seen them happen to enough other GMs to think it’s fairly common.

Players ask the darnedest questions

These occurrences, and many more like them, are examples of players asking for a detailed description of something the GM didn’t expect to have to describe in detail.

It’s almost impossible to prepare descriptions of everything; practicalities of prep time almost always mean that there are more useful areas in which to invest your time.

Consider that before you can describe something, you have to visualize it, and more importantly, you have to find the uniqueness that distinguishes this particular scenery from a hundred others.

If you were writing a novel, you could take as much time as you had to in crafting and polishing your description, That’s just not possible when you’re writing to a deadline, and game prep is always writing to a deadline.

What we need is a shortcut, a way to take most of the effort out of the process, and a shorthand to compress the results to a manageable level.

The Shortcut

My shortcut comes in three steps: Geography, Season, and Image search.

Geography

Whenever I define a geographic region, I will always nominate a real location as a basis of similarity. To do this, I dig out an atlas and look for a region somewhere in the world of similar climate and terrain to the region in question – it doesn’t have to be an exact match, just something that’s roughly similar. I also note any major differences between this basis location and the geographic location.

I employ this technique with plains, mountains, foothills, rivers, etc etc – as well as cities and anything else that might be useful. I might be describing a futuristic city to be emplaced around a star many light years from earth, or a medieval city to be emplaced in the elemental plane of fire; it doesn’t matter. I select an analogue that I consistently use as my primary springboard.

I do nothing further until the location in question seems likely to pop up in an adventure, at which point I will proceed to the next step.

Season

The first thing to note is the time of year, and any climatic effects that will need to be incorporated. If it’s winter, will there be snow? Will the ground be frozen? In spring or autumn, perhaps there will be hail, or heavy rain. In spring, there may well be mountain runoff swelling the watercourses. I don’t try to second-guess the climate; I either know it, or I look it up, or I define an analogue with which I am familiar.

Image Search

And then I do an image search. The first term is the specific feature I’m trying to describe; the second is the season; and the third is the name of the analogue. If that doesn’t produce satisfactory results, I will remove the season, and make any adjustments myself. I then pick the three or four images that look most interesting, or iconic, or unique, or typical – all I want are relevant images that look reasonably easy to describe verbally.

These images then become the description that I document using the shorthand – which I’ll get to in a moment.

The Shortcomings

The technique has a couple of major flaws or shortcomings. The first is that this ignores totally the impact of climate and geography on society and sociology; it assumes that these are all independent of each other, at least substantially, and that the society can be whatever I want it to be regardless of the chosen analogue location. The second is that there will usually be some interpretation necessary, and that can sometimes require some effort. The third is that the images may not precisely match the desired target.

Google image search works by displaying one or more images from any web page that uses the search terms within its content. It pretty much completely ignores the file name, but it will place emphasis on any caption or metadata associated with the image, as well as other factors, which are used to assess the probability of relevance to the search query.

In particular, when multiple search terms are used, priority is given to those images whose reference points (including page text) match all the search criteria; then those that meet one fewer terms; then those that meet two fewer; and so on, until either all the images that match at least one of the terms, and other search parameters, are met, or an arbitrary limit is reached. (I think Google currently operates on a 1,000 results limit, but I won’t swear to that).

For each search, my preference will be for “large” images, but if that gets me nowhere, I’ll look for “medium” images. I tend not to change the other parameters. These options are currently accessible by clicking “Search Tools” on the search page menu – that is, the results page.

In general, if you don’t have a result you can work with in the first couple of result pages, you’re not likely to find one – but it only takes a few seconds to scan a page of results and cherry-pick those that meet your needs.

The Shorthand

Once I have three or four images displayed in separate tabs in my browser, I will move on to the shorthand phase. What I want first is an overall impression, especially of anything the selected images have in common. This will get written down as the starting point of my narrative. I will then follow with any specific elements from each of the images that I want to add to my description. In both cases, of course, I have to adapt what I am describing according to any differences between the inspiration images and the actual location.

There are three rules to the descriptive narrative:

  • Every non-essential word will be left out.
  • As many vowels as needed will be left out.
  • Punctuation will be left out. A Dash is used to separate descriptive elements.

I won’t refer to “jagged mountain peaks”, I will write “jggd pks – ” and then move on to the next descriptive element.

I generally find that colors need to be fully spelt out, almost everything else can have the heck abbreviated out of it.

The Fourth Rule

A fourth rule that is invoked whenever possible is to employ descriptive, emotive, vivid language as much as possible. This permits each word in the resulting description to conjure up many more, and to create a more vibrant impression.

Decompressing the shorthand

The results are treated like a bullet point summary when I get called upon to describe the location. I extend and extrapolate as much as necessary from these starting points.

It takes a little practice, but most of the time I can fit a full paragraph of description onto a single line or less – and that line got written about as fast as I can type.

Why it works

The goal is to conjure a sufficiently vivid image in the minds of the players to enable them to interact with their surroundings. I neither know nor care whether or not the mental image that player 1 generates bears even a superficial resemblance to the imaginings of player 2.

Remember, I employ this technique for generic locations; if a specific location is needed, I will craft an appropriate specific description, using the general model as a starting point.

A cheat or two

The occasional employment of lateral thinking can go a long way to extending the usefulness of this technique. If I need to layout the stalls in a market, I will look for a store guide to a shopping mall – then translate the shops into in-game period equivalents. Furnished office space layouts work well as the basis of a prison – cubicles becoming cells – or a hotel. The aisle layout of a hardware store can give you a handy analogue for an entire manufacturing district, showing where certain factories are located (the aisles themselves become streets). If you want a more “progressive” style of building, the layout of a theme park or resort can give rise to an entirely more futuristic building concept – but the internal logic of the original still maintains a rationality to the design. If I need to populate a tower block with offices, I will sometimes use the internals of a multi-story department store.

If what you need doesn’t exist, or is likely to be hard-to-find for some reason (like the internal layout of a prison), get creative.

Example: The stream through the fields

Here are three Google image searches to illustrate the diversity of results that this technique can yield (click on the image for an updated search, and note that irrelevant search results have been heavily blurred):
 

capture1

Google Image Search: Stream Fields Spain


 
capture2

Google Image Search: Stream Fields Bundaberg


 
capture3

Google Image Search: Stream Fields Peru


 
Capture4

Google Image Search: Stream Fields Columbia

The first thing that I notice is that in most cases, I have a stream or I have fields, not both. That’s fine, if I have to, I can perform more specific searches.

Rolling a d4 at random to choose between these – under normal circumstances, I would have only one set to work with, anyway – I get “Stream Fields Columbia” as my example. In some ways, this is the trickiest one because – as you can see above – I immediately tagged seven images as being potentially relevant. I quickly prune that list down to three, operating as much by instinct as anything else. By coincidence, these are the three images on the right:

capture4a

I liked the look of Number 2, but it was clearly from a different season than the others. If I specifically wanted a winter season, it would have been one of the more important choices.

Looking at the three images that I have chosen, I quickly exclude the first one; on closer inspection it is a glacier and not a stream. From the other two (one of which is technically not actually Columbia and the other of which is technically a lake) I note the following description:

flat bnks – dprssd sfce – cnstnt wrggle b&f – crstl clr – cool – snwcppd mtns mid-dist – trs in sml stnds – rushs stp wtr edg – no fnces – v lng frrws b strgt – rghly pllel to bnk

that quite literally took just seconds. I doubt anyone will have too much difficulty translating it, but what it says when decompressed is:

“The riverbanks do not rise noticeably above the surface of the ground, which simple falls away into a depression filled with water like a smooth-edged crack running through the fields, the edges undulating back and forth. The water is crystal-clear and cool. Snowcapped mountains seem to erupt from the ground in the middle distance as though someone had forgotten to include foothills between here and there. The flatness is only broken by the occasional small stand of trees, isolated in clumps of three or four. Rushes and reeds mingle with the grasses of the fields near the water’s edge, but do not grow into the water, coming to an end as though the river had been cut from them with a giant cookie-cutter. There are no fences to interrupt the long straight furrows of the fields, which extend as far into the distance as the eye can see, dead straight, and roughly parallel to the bank of the stream.”

This result is a synthesis of my impressions, used as the building blocks of a description that is internally consistent, and extended through the mental images that the compressed narrative conjures. It’s a lot of description for only a couple of lines of notes that took rather less than a minute to compile. Neither of the source images are the whole story, but both are undeniably a part of the finished description.

One final tip

Once you have a description of one location, descriptions of the surrounding regions tend to be a lot easier to create. This description is all about the stream, but I would have no trouble describing the stands of trees, the fields and farms, and the base of the mountains from this one passage.

Six months from now, that might not be the case. I would still have the compressed description but time would have erased the memory of the visual context – unless I tagged the shorthand description with a date, time, and the name of the fictional location, and saved the source images using the same tags (copy and paste is your friend!).

That couple of extra seconds of effort makes it possible to recapture completely the scene as it was in my mind anytime the PCs return there in five or ten seconds. I just read the shorthand, and look at the pictures, and then read the shorthand again, and I am instantly transported back to the fictional place of my own creation – utterly unique, and yet completely natural, and so vivid that I could reach out and touch it – not to say being able to instantly visualize whatever is happening there, and describe the scene to the players.

Conclusion

Even in a game session that’s all about traveling from A to B, it would be unusual to need more than a half-dozen to a dozen such locations, assuming that the GM can extrapolate what lies between. Allowing for the time to conduct the searches and select the images required, that should involve about 15-30 minutes of prep time. That’s a very small price to pay for never being caught short by a player’s unexpected demand for a description again!

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If Then Else or Maybe: Witchmarsh and Plot Interactivity


4beffa59f01c654725378a451b3570c7_large

I received a really quite flattering and complimentary email the other day, asking me to take a look at the Kickstarter fundraising campaign for a new video game that was inspired in part by my writings here at Campaign Mastery. It read, in part,

 

 


From: Luciano Sgarbi

I’ve been a huge fan of Campaign Mastery for over a year now. As a video game designer focusing on Western RPGs your site has proved a treasure trove of inspiration and guidance.

I know you don’t normally feature Video-game Kickstarters, but as so much of your content can be applied to the medium, I thought it was worth a shot.

Here’s our RPG, if you like the look of it, it would be wonderful if you passed it on. We’ve learned so much from your articles: I’m constantly firing your links around the team and saying “This got me thinking about something in Witchmarsh.”
Fantasy Games

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1027299776/witchmarsh

Well, it’s true that Campaign Mastery is all about tabletop RPGs and not Video-game RPGs, but I play computer games (when I have the time) so I decided to take a look anyway, and I have to admit to being impressed by what I saw.

Witchmarsh

Witchmarsh is an action RPG set in the Roaring 20s, featuring a team of investigators in a story-driven supernatural mystery. Right away, that ticks a lot of the right boxes for appeal to a tabletop RPG player – “a team of investigators”, “story-driven”, “mystery”. Some of these can be rather tricky to pull off in the video-game world, but that only boosts the appeal if they look like pulling it off – and they do.

Then there’s the theme: 1920s supernatural mystery. Describe that to most RPG players and one of two genres will leap out at them – Pulp and Call Of Cthulhu, both of which have sufficient overlap that often game materials intended for one are useful for another, and both of which get mentioned a fair bit here at Campaign Mastery.

The game action itself is side-scrolling, one of the simplest mechanisms – there’s a reason why that was the game mechanism of choice for so many of the early video games – but the action itself reminded me more than a little of the original Diablo. This is not a bad thing; there’s a reason why that game became a successful franchise. This confers major two advantages to the designers, in my opinion: first, it makes the action fast to execute, and second, it leaves more room in the computer code for story. There may well be other advantages, as well, but those two are enough to be going on with.

Fast

there’s nothing worse than an unresponsive game. So long as you can fight in “semi-automatic” mode, real-time gaming is tolerable even for those who aren’t fans of the style. I have to confess to a preference for turn-based games, myself, but that ship sailed a loooong time ago.

196e1b621323f4174fa6bc7d4e2de52d_large

More Room For Story

That’s gold. So many RPGs of the past have had the feel of being relatively pre-scripted plot-trains – to get to the solution, you have to go through the same encounters, find the same clues, and solve the same puzzles, which lead to the same encounters. At best, you might have some pretense at dialogue functioning through multiple choice responses. In other words, they played like a find-your-own-adventure book read. There have been occasional exceptions, w3hich have all been lauded for being exceptional in the degree of interaction between player and plotline.

But if you keep reading the description of what the designers are aiming for Witchmarsh to become, it only gets better from an RPG point of view: “The game features online multiplayer, extensive character creation, countless ability and item combinations, and rewarding boss encounters.”

Online Multiplayer

I can take that or leave it, but it requires a great deal more flexibility in the number of ways that players can interact with the world around their characters, so I guess it’s a good thing. I do hope that the game can be played solo, though, so that you aren’t hostage to other people being available. But the success of MMORPGs is undeniable.

The other benefit is that you need to build in less “AI” if all the player characters are independently controlled. So that, too, leaves more room for story. So it’s by no means not without a silver lining, even if cooperative play is the only way to go.

Extensive Character Creation

That’s been around since the early TSR games for AD&D, which I quite enjoyed. Every player of those games that I’ve spoken to has had his or her own philosophy of team design, and that in turn impacted on what the group could defeat easily and what they struggled with, which in turn – in the best of the games – influenced gameplay outside the combats. Modern video-game RPGs can essentially be divided into two camps: those with pregenerated characters that you have to use, and those with Extensive character generation.

Countless ability and item combinations: this is fine so far as it goes. The question is whether or not those combinations will make a difference outside combat. I’ll come back to these two points: character creation and ability/item combinations – in a minute.

Rewarding Boss Encounters

Here’s where I start running into problems. The gameplay itself (horizontal scrolling) is already reminiscent of an old-style arcade game; “Boss Encounters” smacks of the end-of-level beasties that used to be sine-qua-none for such games. And they weren’t RPG in any way, shape or form.

You can’t have an RPG without the potential for combat. And you certainly can’t have an “action” game without it. But I had to wonder whether or not the “action” arcade-style gameplay was going to leave enough space for roleplay. The whole term “boss encounters” serves as a red flag to me.

 

 

Game Features

The next section of the project description lists the game features, and these not only assuage those concerns, they ramp up the excitement and promised potential of other features that already had a thumbs-up.

  • A mix of modern and classic RPGs, with branching dialogue and responsive, tactical combat.
  • Play singleplayer or with friends in 2-4 player Co-op.
  • Dripping with Jazz Age style, featuring music by Francisco Cerda, composer on Gunpoint and Jamestown.
  • A massive character creation sandbox with over 50 unlockable abilities* across five spellbooks. Mix and match attributes, perks, items and weapons to create a unique team of adventurers. Or simply use one of the many templates to dive straight into the action.
  • A game for seasoned RPG fans as well as players new to the genre. Optional bosses and challenges for those brave enough to seek them out.
  • Over ten playable characters. Watch your choice in personalities result in conflict, friendships, wisecracks… romance?
  • A dynamic hidden item system ensures no two trips to Witchmarsh are the same.

I’m not going to go through all of these, but I do want to cherry-pick a couple of these game features for mention.

Branching Dialogue

This sounds to me like the multiple-choices style that I referred to earlier. But it also implies that there is no one “right path” through the dialogue, that it exists within the game to do more than frame the parameters and location of the next battle sequence, and that would put Witchmarsh a step ahead of most games using such systems, making this a means of interacting with the world around the characters – a hallmark of a true RPG.

Singleplayer or multiplayer

I’d already identified this as being a big bonus in my book. Say no more!

Soundtrack

I don’t know the composer, or his work. I’d love it if the designers made available a snippet of the soundtrack that could be downloaded as an MP3 for potential backers to sample (it doesn’t have to be a full track, just a minute or so would be enough. Or perhaps they could provide a full sample track – at a £2 backer level). Nevertheless, this – coupled with the availability at many of the backer levels of a CD of the soundtrack – means that there is potential value for any tabletop RPGs set in the 1920s or even the early 1930s. So this becomes a big incentive for tabletop RPG players and GMs to back the project.

Unlockable Abilities

This reminds me of the logic behind feats in D&D – in order to have the choice of obtaining a feat, you have to “unlock” it by achieving its prerequisites. Since these appear to be more than combat abilities, they have the potential for further expanding the degree of interaction between world and characters. Even if they are just combat abilities, the greater the capacity for customization of characters, without their being any “necessary” or “right” choices, the more it amps up the genuine RPG attributes of the game.

Mix and match attributes, perks, items & weapons

And this only reinforces that impression.

Dynamic

Dynamic has two meanings – one is fast-moving, action oriented, excitement; the other suggests that the world changes in response to the actions and choices of the players. In this context, the designers could mean either or both; based on the other game features they promise, my money is on the latter.

No two trips are the same

And this final statement only reinforces that expectation.

Leads, Clues, and Dynamic Plots

A clue as to the RPG integration with the game comes from this section of the project description. The designers use the term Leads to refer to plot signposts that direct the characters to locations where mysteries and events are unfolding. These may prove relevant, or they could simply be a red herring, yielding only EXP and treasure. Clues “fuel progress in the game’s main storyline, and how you choose to interpret them will impact on your team’s reputation. Did the embalming fluid come from the crypt, or are the local bootleggers brewing up something nasty? Dig around for information before throwing your weight around,” the designers write.

So, you customize your character, which leads to differences in both combat and in the way the character interacts with the NPCs, which leads to your being directed toward different encounters than would be the case with another character construction, some of which will enhance or alter your character’s reputation and capabilities, all of which will lead to different steps being taking in the solving of the main plotline. That sounds more like an RPG to me than any video-game that I’ve ever heard of before.

Multiple Paths to Multiple Outcomes

What interested me most was the promise of multiple paths to multiple outcomes. Some of this promise has been stated outright, some has been inferred. A computer game, by virtue of having fixed logic built into it, is inherently sandboxed, so this got me to thinking about how such a game would work, at a programming level (the natural result of having been a professional systems analyst myself). And, in particular, I started to wonder if maybe there wasn’t a lesson or two in RPG adventure design to be extracted from such thoughts.

basic logic

The basic unit of logic

The illustration to the right depicts the basic unit of logic in programming. There are nuances and variations, but this is what lies at the bottom of them.

It’s called the If-then-else statement. The computer program reaches the point in it’s logic from two paths in the illustration – one where choice A has been made, and one where choice D has been made. These choices have been made earlier in the game by the player and the choice recorded. When you reach the branching point of the logic, the program has a choice: If the earlier choice was A, the program directs this subsequent interaction to B, if not, then it directs it to C.

This can be summed up quite succinctly in plain English: If A then B, else C, which means “If A has happened then do B, if it hasn’t then do C”.

A could be anything, from an element of character design to having said one thing and not another to a previously-encountered character, to having found a particular item or followed a particular clue. An RPG video-game can consist of hundreds of thousands of such statements, assembled into a web that creates multiple paths from the start to the finish.

All roads lead to Rome

When there is only one solution, the adventure has only one outcome, and all those paths eventually funnel down to that single resolution of the plot. This is the basic structural logic behind the simplest of adventures.

Fairly elementary, but now imagine that instead of one possible outcome, you have four, depending on whether or not you have also done E, F, G, or H, respectively. And now multiply that basic if-then-else by a hundred more. The result is called a decision tree, and you can end up with hundreds of combinations of outcomes and decisions. That’s why such patterns are called “decision trees” (even though the tree is upside down if you use the normal convention of starting at the top and putting branches underneath).

Tabletop RPG adventures are full of decision trees. “If the PCs do [x] then the plot does [y].” Some are small and self-contained to that encounter or scene, others can dramatically reshape and restructure the whole adventure from that point forward.

  • “If the PCs feed the goblin, he will warn them of the mad Troll in the forest.”
  • “If Marlon sings with Lorelei, she will tell him of the secret passage past the watchtower.”
  • “If Tolmand picks the lock on the chest, he will discover that it is linked to the lock on the outer door, locking the PCs in the room.”
  • “If a PC activates the navigation system without resetting the ship’s computer, the stardrive will engage at maximum acceleration.”

In the simplest of adventures, though, the plot eventually funnels down to the one possible solution. When we’re talking about Mysteries, these are most commonly built by starting with the solution (“Who did what to whom”) and working backwards to “How did they try to hide it” and then to “who might have done the deed”. Eliminate these other suspects one by one and permit the PCs to discover the hole in the cover-up and you have your mystery plot; it doesn’t especially matter which suspect they clear first, just who is left standing at the end, and how can they prove they did the deed.

1 Decision Tree,46 Branches,12 outcomes

1 Decision Tree,
46 Branches,
12 outcomes

Not all roads lead to Rome

But just last week, I showed that it was possible to use the same basic structural logic to lead to multiple different outcomes, in The Pattern Of Raindrops: A chessboard plotting technique. In terms of mysteries, the “parallel plot” technique described at the end of The Butler Did It: Mystery Plotlines in RPGs and illustrated with an example (“The wounded monarch”) in The Jar Of Jam and The Wounded Monarch: Two Mystery Examples gives a clear approach to building consistent mysteries with more than one solution, leaving the PCs free to discover their own path within the game.

There can be multiple possible endings and outcomes based on decisions of the player, with the “correct” outcome for any individual game selected by the choices made in the course of the game each time it is played.

The key is always ensuring that the solution is consistent with all the clues that the PCs have uncovered en route to that solution. And there’s no reason this approach can’t be implemented in a video-game; all it requires is that the switches between the different solutions are identified early enough in the gameplay that the identity of the true culprit changes NPC behavior appropriately.

A current mystery plotline

The PCs in the Adventurer’s Club campaign are currently trying to solve the mystery of who killed “M”, the head of the British Secret Service (never mind that MI5 and MI6 weren’t actually brought into existence until a later date in real-world history).

They started with a number of suspects, based on the assumption that the murder was probably either the consequence of something M was looking into at the time of his death, or that it was a subordinate. Each of the groups suspected had their own agendas and were doing their own thing, and several had reason to be “interested” in the death, so there were a number of encounters with each of them. Of their five initial suspects – a Tong engaged in the hostile takeover of another Tong’s activities in London, Opus Dei (the “secret service” of the Catholic Church), a former PC formerly employed by the British Library and now turned rogue agent in opposition to Opus Dei, a notorious crime family (the Kasugi Clan) with whom the PCs have had run-ins before, a known Yakuza Boss trying to organize a trade deal, and the former assistant in question, three have now been cleared, and another added to the list from left field – an assassin in the employ of the Chinese Government engaging in some risky political maneuvering of Britain.

In plotting this adventure, Blair and I were at pains to make each suspect a plausible culprit. While we had our solution in place (and I’m not giving away who that is), that plausibility enabled us to change horses in mid-stream if the directions the PCs took in their investigations led them down a different path. If the PCs chose to do something different to what we had anticipated, we were prepared to change the adventure to accommodate them. Have we put any of those plans into force? They will never know!

The Lessons For Tabletop GMs

The biggest lesson for tabletop RPG GMs to take out of all this is that you don’t have to have just one answer, or one path to the answer, to any puzzle or mystery in the game. So long as the solution is consistent with what the PCs encounter and get told, and the personalities are consistent throughout, it will be satisfying to the players.

Write your adventures with “If then else” statements built in, and instead of railroading your players, you shunt them into a rail switch-yard, where the courses they choose to take evolve the game around them. This makes the players collaborators on the adventure, whether they realize it or not.

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Witchmarsh for the tabletop

That’s what I hope the creators of Witchmarsh have done with their game design. Multiple possible perpetrators, with the different solutions all internally consistent, and the choice between solutions based on character actions and interactions with the NPCs of the world. If they have embraced this, the game could be a next step in the evolution of Video-game RPGs.

Value for tabletop RPGs

The most obvious value in terms of tabletop RPGs is the possible utility of the soundtrack. The game itself and the other add-ons that might come with it would be a bonus on top of that.

But there’s the capacity for more, and I’ll get to that in a moment.

The prospects

Since the fundraising campaign started, it’s been going great guns; it seems to have touched a nerve. If the current investment rate continues, it will achieve its initial funding goals in another two or three days – in other words, within a week of the campaign commencing – and ultimately reach a target of more than three times that initial request, just enough to achieve the highest of their stretch goals. It certainly holds a lot of promise, and I would be VERY surprised if it were not a very big success.

Witchmarsh The Licensed Property?

Six months or a year after the game comes out, I would hope – based on these results – to see the creative team ready to fund-raise for a sequel. But more than that, I would love it if they licensed someone to adapt the game into a traditional RPG adventure. It could be for Call of Cthulhu, or d20 modern, or whatever; that isn’t so important.

Because it sounds like such a brilliant adventure, and so much closer to a tabletop RPG in structure than anything I’ve seen before, it could bridge the gap. This would no doubt entail a separate kickstarter effort for whoever took up the license, and would be a close collaboration with the games creators; and, importantly for all concerned, it would open the door to cross-promotion if the creative team were also promoting their sequel at the same time.

I have no idea whether or not these possibilities have occurred to the games developers – hopefully, if not, I have just put them on their radar.

You see, in any development project, there are ideas that don’t work out, that get cut for one reason or another. Those notes – alternative solutions, alternate plotlines – are often tossed aside after considerable development. Such a collaboration would have the potential to breathe fresh life into these leftovers.

Everybody wins from such an outcome.

So if you want to see this as a possible eventual outcome, or you simply want to put your hand up for a very affordably-priced video-game RPG that might just redefine the state of the art in terms of interactivity, check out their campaign at Kickstarter, and tell them Campaign Mastery sent you!

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Growing Plot Seeds Into Mighty Oaks


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Johnn Four may no longer work on Campaign Mastery, but we still keep in touch from time to time. When he announced his recent plot seed contest for Roleplaying Tips, he asked if I had any links to articles on the subject at Campaign Mastery.

Of course, I responded in the affirmative, providing a number of links to such articles, but looking them over, I realized that there was not much on the site about how to use an idea seed, how to take it and turn it into a great adventure. I’ve nibbled around the edges of the question in articles such as Amazon Nazis On The Moon, and even more so in the two-part article on sequel campaigns Part 1 Campaign Seeds and Part 2 Sprouts & Saplings, but never tackled the subject in detail.

So let’s correct that omission right now…

Seed Planting

Let’s start with the absolute basics. You’ve picked an Adventure Seed – it doesn’t matter where it came from. The first step to transforming that seed into an adventure that is everything you want it to be is to identify exactly why this particular seed has appealed to you. Not only do you want to be sure that you don’t mess with that in the course of developing the idea, but the resulting adventure will be all the stronger if you design it to use that quality as the central theme of the adventure.

I’ve identified ten possible reasons, which either individually or in combination should usually define the appeal of a particular seed:

Inspiration

A plot seed can be more than the idea it presents, it sparks new ideas of your own. Inspiration is a powerful reason for building an adventure around an outside idea. It can even extend, clarify, or reveal fundamental aspects of the campaign’s foundations – whether those be game physics, campaign philosophy, or campaign mythology.

Excitement

A plot seed can be exciting, it makes you eager to play it out and see what happens, or it promises to be spectacular. Sometimes, it is simply that you know you have the right props and accessories to elevate a particular plot seed to a higher level – for example, an plot seed that takes place aboard a ship when you have some other game or game supplement that gives you a set of really cool blueprints for an appropriate vessel.

Connection

A plot seed can connect with ideas already in place within the campaign, bringing them out into the open or advancing them to the next step, or it can be the bridge between what the GM already has planned and what he wants to have happen next; in other words, it can connect with plots or background already planned for the campaign.

Ramification

A plot seed can have ramifications for the future, creating the right environment for a renewal of a campaign that is growing a little tired or stale, or simply creating (either temporarily or permanently) the appropriate conditions for new adventures to take place – adventures that would not be otherwise possible because of contradictions to some established element.

Environment

A plot seed can take the players into an interesting environment that the GM would like them to explore, but for which he has had trouble coming up with ideas of his own. Or it can alter an existing environment in some way that is especially conducive to new adventures. Or it can simple be that the PCs are going to be crossing a particular environmental region and the GM has no ideas for what is to happen on that part of their journey; there are, after all, only two options: you either simply mention the geography in narrative (and expect it to be quickly forgotten), or you do something significant to make is memorable.

Opponent

A plot seed can introduce an opponent that the GM finds intriguing, or can provide a plotline for an existing opponent.

Style

A plot seed can move the style of the campaign in a direction that the GM finds desirable, or can represent a variation on the usual style of the campaign. Variety, it is said, is the spice of life – and it’s as true of variety in adventures as it is to anything else.

Theme

A plot seed can match a theme that the GM wants the campaign to have, or at least to touch on. It’s sometimes said that to consider something a theme, it has to recur at least three times before it becomes established – which can be a problem if the GM has only two ideas for showcasing that theme before it becomes important to the campaign. Or perhaps the theme was established a while back, and the GM simply wants an isolated example to make sure that it remains front-and-center in the players’ minds.

Opportunity

Sometimes a GM will throw a treasure into the game off the cuff – it happens to all of us – and then have absolutely no idea what to do with it. Other times, a GM will find that a treasure is far more overwhelming than he thought, and needs a way to “get rid” of it. On still other occasions, the campaign will need a particular set of circumstances to come up in order to make a future plot viable or just more dramatic. A plot seed can provide any of these opportunities. And sometimes, the plot seed itself will simply offer an opportunity that the GM had not previously considered, or had thought impossible to achieve, given everything else in place within the campaign.

Wow Factor

Some ideas just have a jaw-dropping WOW! factor that can’t be denied, it’s as simple as that!

Fun

And finally, another of those very straightforward values: some ideas just sound like being too much fun for them not to be used.

Beware The Clever

A brief side-note: I’ve seen and employed a number of plot seeds because they seemed like a clever idea at the time. These adventures never seemed to deliver on their promise; they were, ultimately, too contrived. So if the reason you like a plot seed is because it seems clever, maybe you should reassess your choice.

Roots

So, you’ve chosen a plot seed and identified what it was about that plot idea that you want to focus on, that makes it appealing to you. The next step is to lay down foundations connecting that plot idea to various aspects of the campaign, in other words to integrate the plot seed with the campaign.

There are two aspects to having the plot seed put down roots. The first is the way the appeal of the plot seed can connect to various aspects of the campaign; and the second is the way the specific content of the plot seed connects to those aspects. The first is general, the second is specific.

While it’s better than nothing if these connections are also generic, the more specific they are, the better. What you are defining is how these campaign aspects will relate to the plot, and how the plot will relate to the campaign aspects.

I’ve identified five attributes common to all campaigns that might serve as the basis for such a connection. I think of these as analogous to the nutrients that are going to feed the adventure; the more of them that there are, the better adapted the resulting “plant” – the adventure – will be to the environment of the adventure, i.e. the broader campaign.

In Characters

If you think of the plot seed as the outline of a script for a TV show, and the PCs as the stars – with the contractual capacity to rewrite their parts as they see fit within the limits imposed by the executive director (the GM) – you have a reasonable analogy for the situation in most RPGs. The Executive Director can over-rule any specific script change, and can enforce some consistency of characterization, but if he pushes the stars too far (and they can sometimes be prima donnas) they may well walk. You’re pitching the plot to the stars of the show, and the first thing they are going to want to know is “how does my character fit into this story?” The more characters who can be given an answer to that question that is unequivocal and uncontrived, the better,

I use a fairly structured process to look for answers to this question. Passes one and two seek explicit answers; Passes three and four look for possible implied answers; and Passes five and six look for general answers. Each pass involves working down a list of the PCs and major NPCs in the campaign and asking the question, “how does this character connect to the plot in terms of [this way]?” – and making notes next to the name.
 

  • Pass One:: What connections are there between a major character and explicit content within the adventure seed?
    • The plot might involve slavery, and one character was an ex-slave. Or it might be about magic, and one character being a mage – or being suspicious of mages. You want as many of these specific connections as you can get. But because most adventure seeds are minimalist – to say the least – you probably won’t get too many of them.
  • Pass Two:: What connections are there between the “liked element” and the major characters?
    • Again, the technique is to go down the list of characters. Where you already have some notes, this helps put them into context; where you don’t, you have the basis for additional plot elements that can connect the character to the plot, when they weren’t by virtue of existing specifics.
  • Recording: Passes one and two produce answers that aren’t likely to change, so I write them in pen.

 

  • Pass Three:: What explicit possible connections are there between implied plot elements and the major characters?

    • An implied plot element is something that has to be there, but that isn’t explicitly stated in the adventure seed. All plots take place somewhere, for example. They all involve a circumstance or event. They all involve an opportunity for some, and a danger for others. They all involve reactions to those opportunities and dangers based on past relationships and rivalries. Most will have someone who will function as an antagonist to the PCs as a group. And so on and so forth. Any of these not explicitly stated as part of the plot seed has the potential to be an implied connection.
    • You are quite likely to end up with a lot of speculative answers that aren’t yet set in stone, and many of them will also be mutually contradictory. That’s fine – this is looking for possible connections, not definitive ones.
  • Pass Four:: Which of the possible connections between implied plot elements and major characters are reflective of the “liked element” of the plot seed?
    • This is all about selecting which of the possible preferred answers actually match what you liked about the adventure seed. Some of them will, some of them won’t. Eliminate any that don’t satisfy this criterion, at least in part, or that contradict another implied element that is a better fit to the liked element. Cross them off lightly, because you might have to go back to one or more of them.
    • Remember, too, that we have two different criteria. One set of assumptions may yield a number of connections of acceptable quality, while another might only yield a few – but ones that are far more strongly resonant of the “liked element”. And there’s a lot of room in between these two “acceptable” alternatives. Choosing between them can be done by instinct, or it can be done with some additional hard work in prep; my preference is to use the second approach if I think I have the time up my sleeve to do so.
  • Recording:
    • Passes three and four produce answers that are very likely to change (and may already have done so), so I write them in pencil – and as lightly as I can get away with, without compromising legibility. After pass four, any implied elements that I feel certain enough of to lock them in stone – if, for example, only one location survived pass four – I will go over the pencil notes in pen, preferably a different colored ink to those of passes one and two.
    • If you’re producing the documentation electronically, I use pale colors instead of pencil. That usually means that they aren’t actually legible until selected, but that’s something I’m willing to live with if I have to. There are a few colors, notable reasonably light grays, that are still legible though, and I will employ them in preference.

 

  • Pass Five:: What other connections are there (in general) between the major characters and the plotline?

    • Ignoring anyone who has something written in pen in their notes section, or who at least has something in pencil and not crossed out, it’s time to look for and list any vague general connections between the remaining major characters and the plotline including any specifics noted in pen. In particular, I look for a character’s personality and how they will react to events even if they don’t affect them directly. Even if the character is neither particularly threatened or spies a particular potential advantage in the events, they may seek to deny an enemy a potential advantage, or they may have a specific normal response to the unexpected, or any of a number of other possible reactions implicit in their characterization.
  • Pass Six:: What other connections are there (in general) between the major characters and the “liked element”?
    • We’re really scraping the bottom of the relevance barrel at this point, looking for any possible connection to the plotline as it currently stands that we can build on. Ideally, every listed character will have something listed at this point (that isn’t crossed out); but for any that don’t, this is the final chance at this point in the plot evolution to fill any such gap. It’s also always possible that absolutely nothing will come to you; if the character is not a PC and you find yourself in this situation, I then look at whether or not a position of neutrality is unusual for the character, and if it is, I make a note of that being the character’s policy in this adventure. Any remaining key NPCs then receive the notation, “get them out of the way of the adventure”.
  • Recording:
    • Once again, these notes are not likely to change, so they get recorded in pen, or in dark colors. Ideally, I would use a third color of ink if possible, simply to distinguish between the different grades of information; if that’s not possible, then I have to be a little more explicit in my notes.
In History

I employ a similar process to look at the campaign history and how it might connect with the plotline or the Liked element. Having outlined the procedure in detail under the “Characters” heading, I’m not going to go into it once again, it would quickly grow repetitive. Suffice it to say that every key item and individual within the plotline needs to have a history, and some need a connection to that history; but a whole history would be incredibly boring and tedious. This part of the process is meant to extract the relevant high points and at the same time connect the adventure to them. What’s worth noting is that if the GM has done his job right in the past, his PCs and key NPCs are also connected to that History and therefore can be connected to the adventure by means of that common link.

If the plot seed involves a magical artifact, for example, there’s the history of the artifact, its construction, its previous owners, who used it last, other notable times that it has impacted history, and so on.

Each time I add a new notation here, I look back at the empty slots in the preceding sections, looking for secondary connections. If there is a historic connection between impending plot events and elves, for example, or one can be created and inserted, and one of the characters with no notations is an elf, this provides an opportunity to pull that character into the plotline.

Most usefully, this can create different perspectives on the plot within the party. Campaigns often work best when the PCs are a representative microcosm of the campaign as a whole, with divergent views on many of the controversial or central topics within that campaign. This enables the PCs (and hence the players) to interact with each other in a manner that is meaningful relative to the world around them. What might be dull exposition by the GM becomes vital dialogue between the players.

I not only would never pass up an opportunity like that, I will (and do) go out of my way to seek out such situations.

After (brief) descriptions of each historical element of the campaign that is going to be linked to the plotline, I note those PCs whose peoples or professions will have strong perspectives on the history.

It’s especially important to determine what the consensus overall will probably be, what the PCs consensus will probably be, and what the differences are between those. If either consensus opinion is not going to be what is required/most interesting for the adventure, it may be that additional notable individuals or circumstances will need to be added specifically to sway things one way or another.

In Places

As was noted in the section on characters, everything needs somewhere to happen. But some plot seeds call for many places, and transits between them. It’s time to decide:

  • where the initial situation (from the plot perspective) will occur;
  • where the initial situation (from the PCs perspective) will occur, if that is different from the first;
  • where the plot conclusion will play out;
  • where the PCs will be when that happens, if that is different from the plot conclusion location;
  • any way-points where significant events will occur;
  • whether or not the PCs need to be in attendance for those significant events or if they can simply hear reports of them (or some similar contrivance);
  • and, finally, to map out the travels of all involved parties and list any major locations in between.

 
Knowing where the action will take place, at least on a first-draft basis enables a rough map and hence a rough timetable of events to be drawn up. Both are vital to the finished adventure.

In Events

From connections to historical events it is only logical to progress to considering contemporary events within the campaign. A lot of this work will have been done in the previous section, but it always pays to examine what is going on in the game world and how it might be impacted by, or impact on, the plotline. Nor do these connections have to be actual; characters might assume connections and impacts where none actually exist.

For example, if we have a major villain who is opposed by the PCs, and who is of the megalomaniac bent, and the plotline involves the discovery or return of some lost power from the past, is he going to take an interest in it – if he gets to learn of it? You bet your socks he will! The players are likely to assume that he is going to take an interest in developments simply because he’s their enemy, even if there is no interest on his part beyond that. Some events may even make them temporary allies!

But it’s not just existing conflicts. A kingdom or city on the verge of financial collapse will always be interested in any new form of wealth, any new resource, that is discovered. A kingdom or city on the verge of starvation will care about new sources of food, or perhaps in new foodstuffs that can grow where existing crops have failed. There are any number of possible situations that would make the plotline relevant to something already occurring within the campaign.

In Consequences

Not to mention that one of the possible criteria for choosing a particular plot seed can be the way it connects the current situation within the campaign to desired future events!

The final place to look for places to put down roots from the plot seed into the campaign is in the campaign’s future, and how the possible consequences and ramifications of the plotline can play into those. Sometimes, an entire second adventure will be needed to restore the status quo afterwards! The time to determine those basic requirements is now, so that the prep work for anything that needs to occur after the fact can be prepped and incorporated into the current situation. This is also the time to think about the ramifications if the PCs foul up and don’t achieve what the GM expects them to – how can he engineer a 13th-hour chance at rescuing the situation if that should prove necessary? Is he prepared to modify the rest of the campaign to accommodate the fallout from their failure? Or does he need some magic reset button – without incorporating an unjustified deus-ex-machina? If you’ve been reading Campaign Mastery for a while, you’ll already know my view on those. But for those who don’t,

will get you up to speed.

Sprouts

What you have so far is like a set of ingredients for making a really fancy soup. There are some ingredients that you know you are going to use, some ingredients that you might use, and some ingredients that exist just to partner other optional ingredients. You might use a beef stock, and burdock, and white pepper; or vegetable stock, and chicken, and black pepper. But you know that your final soup is going to have carrots, and celery, and leeks, and mushrooms (though you aren’t sure which of the three varieties of the last that you are going to select from your shortlist).

To abandon the soup metaphor, and revert to the general one that I’ve been using throughout, it’s time to plant these copies of your idea seeds and see which set of roots yield the best crop of sprouts.

This is most easily done electronically, due to the capacity to copy-and-paste that comes with that approach.

Another way of looking at the situation, and one that explains the process more clearly than either of these metaphors, is to consider what you have currently as a polympsest in which several different versions of the text have been recovered and are now overlaid on one another on the one sheet of paper. What you have to do now is to extract each of these versions and see which tells the most complete story, which fits best with the campaign, and so on – and then to choose between them, and fill in any conceptual blanks that may remain.

If you are exceptionally lucky, you may only have two or three versions to compare. If you are a little less lucky (because it leaves you without choice), you may have only one. And, if things have gone rather messily so far, you may have many different options and combinations to consider.

The Common Ground

The parts that each combination will have in common are, of course, the notes that you have written in pen. But it’s not a matter of simply recapitulating these; you want to order them in a rough sequence of events. A happens, character 1 reacts like this, character 2 reacts like that, character 3 reacts to character 1, character 4 acts to prevent character 5 from benefiting; B happens, character 3 does this, character 2 does that, and so on.

You won’t be able to synopsize the whole story. There will almost certainly be gaps. We’ll get to filling those in a little while.

The Variations

Once you have the central core of common ground, add some blank lines at the end – about half-a-dozen, so that it’s clear that this is not just a gap to be filled – then copy the whole thing and paste as many copies as you need into the working document. You should create as many copies as you have lines in pencil – even though this is more than you will actually need, because some of those pencil lines will be mutually compatible. Label the first copy “Master” and the rest, “Variation number 2″, “number 3″, “number 4″, and so on.

  • Add the first penciled notation to the first copy.
  • Then look at the next penciled notation. Does it fit everything in the first variation, or is there something that doesn’t make sense? If the former, it goes into variation#1; latter, it goes into variation #2.
  • Look at the third penciled note; does it fit the first variation? If so, put it into variation #1. Does it fit the second? then add it to variation #2. Is it incompatible with both? Then it goes into variation #3.

….and so on, until all the penciled notes have been placed into one or more variations. Note that I use a different font color for the additions so that they are easy to spot and easy to count.

As soon as you have a variation with more than one penciled note added, you run into a fresh complication; future penciled notes may fit one of the penciled notes already added but not the other. If this happens, then you need to create a new variation that contains the new compatible combination, without the older contradictory element.

What you have here is the number of combinations of N elements taken up to N at a time – where N is the number of penciled notes that you originally made. The master will have none, some others will have one, a few will have two, some will have three, and so on.

The Gaps

It should be fairly obvious, reading over the variations, where the gaps are. There will be characters, locations, unexplained events, and plot holes which will be filled in some and empty in others. The goal of this process is to fill in these gaps and come up with a number of variations on the story until you find a few that work, that tick all the boxes. So the first step is to order the variations that you have put together in sequence of most complete to most incomplete. This is easy to identify because of the different color used for the ‘penciled notes’ in the previous stage.

Once you can prioritize your efforts on the most complete ideas, it’s time to fill the gaps. There are three basic sources of material to draw upon, each with strengths and weaknesses.

Brainstorming Ideas
By far the best answer is to come up with your own ideas. They will almost certainly integrate with the campaign more easily and be more consistent with the established campaign, bringing with them some of the flavor of past adventures (and future adventures) that are completely your own ideas.

Resurrecting The Abandoned
Of course, if you have an idea from earlier in this development process that was rejected because you couldn’t see how to make it work, sometimes you’ll have a moment of inspiration to fill that credibility/practicality gap.

Flying From The Outside
The final source is from the outside. Maybe you can steal part of the plot from a published adventure, or from your own unused ideas file (you do keep one, right?) But the first place that I look is wherever I got the adventure seed from in the first place. There are times when two plot seeds can be hybridized to compliment each other perfectly, each filling the gaps in the other perfectly. Back when I reviewed Eureka, I suggested using the idea seeds to construct character backgrounds. That notion can be adapted to service some of the gaps in the plot seed that you are trying to implement here. For example, if your current adventure seed needs a Barbarian, you could look at barbarian plot seeds for ideas to use to plug that gap. If your plot is all about Dwarves and you need an interesting location for some plot development, look at “Dwarves” plot seeds for ideas.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s a tale worth repeating because it takes this approach to an extreme I’ve rarely seen before. In a previous phase of my superhero campaign, I had a rather large plot hole to fill and no time to fill it. The premise and ultimate conclusion were mine, but essentially there was an opportunity for someone to acquire ultimate power and a massive scramble amongst various forces, factions, and cosmic entities to claim it, or to deny it to their rivals – with the PCs in the middle. Throw in a cosmic cataclysm and Ragnerok and you can see how massive the plotline was. The problem was that while I knew who was going to win if the PCs got everything right, and I knew one or two of the contenders, I needed a whole heap more. So I dropped a published adventure from another game system into the hole. But that created another plot hole, So I dropped a couple of connected third-party adventures into that slot – but that created a couple more plot holes. By the time I had finished, 46 complete third-party adventures – some with a bit of rewriting, others with quite a lot, and a couple with virtually none – from six different game systems and six different companies – had been welded together with multiple cross-connections in a complex flowchart to form a single epic plotline. It was just a matter of modifying these outside adventures so that whatever the goal was of the antagonists, it would arguably put them into a position – if they succeeded – to claim the ultimate prize.

I want to reiterate: you don’t want just one answer. You preferably want two or three, and as different as you can make them. More is a bonus.

The Judgment

Once you have a few options to compare, it’s time to assess them. I score the complete plot outlines by eight criteria. Let’s look at each of them:

(i) Compatibility with the Seed
It’s very easy to dilute or over-complicate the original idea. So I score each of the draft plot outlines out of 5 for the purity of expression of the original plot seed – high being very good, low being poor.

(ii) Expression of the “liked element”
It’s vital that the reason you liked the original idea remains strongly expressed in the finished adventure. That’s why I put so much effort into identifying the reason or reasons in the first place. Once again, a score out of 5, with high being good.

(iii) Campaign Integration
It’s also important that the resulting adventure feels like it’s part of the campaign and not a “filler” episode. I rate each idea out of five for campaign integration.

(iv) Star Participation
Does every “star” of the campaign – the PCs and the leading antagonist(s) – have a substantial part to play in the plotlines that you are proposing? A rating out of five is called for, but I measure this against a fairly strict scale. A five is a “yes” to the question. I deduct a point from the score for one major antagonist not involved, or two if more than one are not involved. I then cut another two points off if there’s one PC without a substantial interest in the plotline, or three points if there is more than one. The result is a maximum score of five, and a minimum of zero.

(v) Internal Logic
How well does the plotline hold water? Are there any soft spots, is “coincidence” or some other relatively weak justification needed for anything? Does the reasoning stand up, or is someone doing something the hard way and ignoring an easier option without adequate explanation? I rank the internal logic out of five, with high being excellent.

(vi) Outcomes
Are there likely to be any undesirable outcomes? Is there any adventure detritus that is potentially campaign-wrecking? Is the adventure going to create headaches in the future? Outcome assessment is worth another five points, and I’ll take one or two off the ideal score if undesirable outcomes are possible, depending on how likely they are to eventuate – neutralizing that penalty if I have an idea for a subsequent adventure to undo the potential damage.

But even worse than a potential undesirable outcome is an insipid one. If there are no stakes, what’s the point? They don’t have to be world-shaking stakes, but the outcome of the adventure has to matter. I will absolutely eviscerate the points score of an adventure if the outcome just doesn’t matter.

(vii) Liking The Soup
How much do I like the overall end result? Do the mix of elements create interest? Does the adventure shed light on an otherwise dark or obscure corner of the world, or of the campaign background? Does the climax of the adventure satisfy? A score out of five measures my overall impression.

(viii) The Food Critic
Finally, I’ll run through the same list of things that I might like about the end result as was used to analyze the initial plot seed – and I’ll score one for each tick that I can give to say “this adventure has that”. Ten possible reasons for liking the end result, giving a score out of ten.

Scoring

Since the plot seed is one that you liked at the start, and I’ve made strong efforts to retain that particular quality in the draft adventures, each one gets a starting score of 60. I add up the five-pointers from (i) through (vii) for a possible further 35 points and add the score from (viii) out of ten to get an absolute maximum result of 105.

Frankly, if I get a total of anything less than 85, I’ll cross that draft off the list unless that’s the best score of the lot – and even then, I would be tempted to throw it away and start again from scratch.

A score of 96 or better is good enough to run, so it’s ready for the rest of the process, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first, a score of 85 to 95 suggests that the adventure could be improved – so it’s time for a little remedial action.

Tweaking The Mix

If the score shows the adventure is almost there, but not quite as good as it might be, it’s useful (while the scoring is fresh in mind) to review the adventure with a view to tweaking it to raise up the lowest scoring contribution. It makes good sense to sacrifice one point in one rating e.g. complexity if you get three or four in another, and possibly an extra one in the final section. Adding an extra complication to make sure that every PC has a vital role to play is well worthwhile.

The Selection

Hopefully, you will have ended up with two or three adventure outlines that have confidence-inducing scores. But, even if you only have one that is a clear winner, you can have confidence in the outline that you’ve produced, because you’ve checked that it has everything that matters.

Of course, the process of turning a plot seed into an adventure isn’t finished quite yet…

Mighty Oaks

There’s only “a little more work” involved in taking the adventure synopsis and turning it into a great adventure:

  • Ordering Ideas
  • Initial Situation
  • Educating Players
  • Educating Characters
  • Introducing Characters
  • Geographic Logic
  • Building Complexity
  • Building Suspense
  • Building Drama
  • Setbacks follow Successes
  • Emotional Flow
  • Plot Twists
  • Revelations
  • Clarity
  • Final Stakes
  • Big Finish
  • Ongoing Aftershocks

Yeah, that won’t take very long at all. (it won’t, honest!)

Ordering Ideas

The first step is to get the ideas that comprise your synopsis into order. I start with a rough sequence:

  • Before the PCs
  • PC Intro
  • In-adventure events
  • The path to the climax
  • The climax
  • Aftereffects

These six categories permit me to take the synopsis – which is still pretty much a loose collection of ideas that add together to describe the key events of the adventure, in no particular order – and start putting some chronology into it. This is a trick that I discovered while building a bubblesort routine – ANY type of rough sort will increase the efficiency of the final sorting exponentially.

Once the rough sort is done, I drag-and-drop the notes in each section into a rough chronological order, or – if the note is about the background to events – to the first chronological point at which that note has an impact on the plotline. I will also make some additional notes as I go in some sections, so let’s look at each of them briefly:

Before the PCs
What happens before the PCs get involved? These events will all need to be told in flashback, or told to the PCs by an NPC, or otherwise learned by the PCs as the adventure unfolds. Chronology will be in the order the PCs are to learn of them, breaking ties using the order that they will be noticed by others, and breaking any remaining ties in the order the events actually occurred. Then I will number them according to the order in which they will have actually occurred. I will pay special attention to any event that the PCs may have become aware of without knowing its significance, through some mystic sense or prophetic vision or whatever – I either need to build a prelude into the adventure to accommodate that, or I need to insert the event into a prior adventure, or I need a flashback sequence somewhere in the adventure. The last choice is, by a LONG shot, the least-desirable, because players can always complain that they might have made subsequent choices differently if they had been aware of the event at the time. I tend toward continuity-rich campaigns, so the second option is my favored choice; those who prefer a more episodic approach should use the first as their default.

PC Intro
Notes relating to how the PCs get involved in the adventure. Where does the initial event or encounter happen, what happens, who is involved, and how does it point the PCs at the adventure itself?

In-adventure events
These notes all pertain to the PCs figuring out what is going on while coping with the side-effects of whatever is happening. This can involve a lot of exposition if not handled properly, which is why I deal with it separately in a later step; for now, put the notes into some sort of logical order.

The path to the climax
Once they know what is going on, they have to do something about it. Which means they need to work out what they can do about it. These notes all relate to how the adventure will unfold.

The climax
What’s going to happen at the end? Notes about plot twists and the climax go into this section, as do any revelations that are to take place either just prior to the climax or in the course of the climax, and any information about who the ultimate antagonist is that aren’t in either of the preceding sections.

Aftereffects
Finally, any notes that pertain to the long-term effects of the adventure on the campaign, generally divided into immediate, short-term, medium-term, and long-term. Immediate is fairly self-explanatory, short-term is days or a handful of months at most, medium-term relates to 6 months in duration up to a couple of years, and long-term means the consequence will last for years – all unless something can be done about them, of course. But here’s the thing: doing something about an immediate problem will have consequences that will show up in the medium-term; doing something about a medium-term consequence will have ramifications in the long-term; and so on. Furthermore, wise characters may be able to anticipate some of these consequences and prepare in advance to minimize them. So, as soon as I have the list of direct consequences, I start adding more notes about the reactions and indirect consequences. This can quickly become the largest section of notes about the adventure!

Initial Situation

With the notes ordered and structured, it’s time to actually convert them into plot sequences. I’m going to assume that no prequel is needed; if one is, I’ll tend to leave it until last, anyway, so that I can be sure that it is consistent with everything else in the adventure.

No, I start with an outline of the initial situation as the PCs will experience it – where, when, who does what, and so on. None of the background to the plot seed is to be covered, that is all dealt with subsequently.

This takes the notes from the first section, PC Intro,, and converts them into an actual encounter or event that will kick-start the entire adventure. And I’ll also make notes on what to do if the players don’t take the bait.

Educating Players

Next, it’s time to start work on the second set of notes, In-adventure events. These fall into several categories, and rather than work through the notes sequentially, I deal with each category separately, for two reasons: to make sure that nothing gets left out, and to make sure that the content is spread out through the course of the adventure. What I DON’T want is for all the exposition about campaign history to happen at once, for example. There is too great a chance that it will be forgotten. It’s far better to operate on a just-in-time approach, where the players learn what they need to know just before they need to know it. Where it is logical for the players to get all their information in one lump, I’ll tell them that they have so received it, and even hit the high points at the time of that encounter, but spell out the relevant details using flashbacks to that briefing scene when necessary.

The first category looks at the question, “What do the players need to know?” This is information that their characters supposedly have – well-known bits of history, etc – but that the players haven’t been told about or might have forgotten. I need encounters that will educate the players, divided 50-50 into those that have some accompanying roleplay or action sequence and those that will actually advance the plot.

So I create a list of such encounters and what they are supposed to teach the players. Some will obviously be of one type or another, others are more flexible. What I am actually creating is a list of scenes that will need to form part of the final plot, but I’m not yet attempting to put them into any particular order.

Educating Characters

After thinking about educating the players about what their characters already know, it’s time to look at the information that the characters don’t already have but will acquire in the course of the adventure – especially any that they need in order to get to the end of the adventure!

This information is handled in exactly the same way as the preceding category – encounters, types of encounter, etc. However, very little if any of this information should be handed out on a silver platter; there should always be some sort of challenge to be overcome. That might be winning the confidence of the NPC with the answer, or it might be recovering some lost tome, or doing some task in recompense for the NPCs time, or defeating some enemy, or whatever. I still aim for a 50-50 mix of roleplay and non-roleplay challenges, but I’m prepared to accept a much wider swing in this category.

This also adds to the mix the notes from The path to the climax.

Introducing Characters

Aside from the PCs and the antagonist, there are all sorts of characters now involved in the adventure. Those that hinder, those that help, those that seek to gain, the enemies of any of the above, and those with the answers – and that’s probably just scratching the surface.

Some of these characters will be known to the characters already, but the rest will need to be introduced. These introductions aren’t about the first encounter between the PCs and the NPC in question necessarily – it’s more about how they know that NPC “X” has information that they need.

Geographic Logic

Finally, I think about what will become my touchstone for ordering all of these encounters and introductions – the geographic logic. If you know that the characters are starting in location A and have to travel to location Z for the final confrontation, what lies in between? Which of these encounters can be assigned to a specific location between A and Z? Can any of the encounters travel to the PCs? Can the information to be provided travel to the PCs?

I always try to bear in mind what the NPC will do if he knows he has vital information concerning what’s going on. Very rarely will he sit and wait for someone to come and consult him! The NPCs personality and motives therefore have a direct impact on how their encounter will connect to the plotline. Some may send word that they have information, others will try to act on it, and so on – but they will almost always do something about it, unless they don’t appreciate the significance of what they know.

This forms a central spine to the adventure, one that can be complicated if the players don’t know that Z is their ultimate destination early on.

Building Complexity

With the central spine of the adventure – the geographic logic – in place, it’s time to put all those encounters into the sequence that they will occur in the adventure. It’s important to avoid the semblance of plot trains, or even a trail of breadcrumbs, so the logical sequence is not always the best road to follow, though most encounters will occur in such sequence. From time to time, though, have the encounter precede the reason that it is significant.

I make a copy of the results from the sections Educating Players through to Introducing Characters and then use drag-and-drop to impose a more-or-less logical sequence. I add in false trails, characters who aren’t where they are expected to be, and so on; sprinkle with minor side-encounters that have nothing to do with the main plot; spice things up with encounters that serve to introduce the character of each significant location; and so on.

Building Suspense

With a breakdown of everything that leads up to the climax, in other words everything that is supposed to happen in the course of the adventure, it’s time to read it in sequence. I’m looking for two things: always, does it make sense, and secondly, does it ramp up the suspense before critical encounters? I will tweak the sequence of events accordingly.

Building Drama

Then I’ll repeat that process, this time looking at the building of drama.

Setbacks follow Successes

Every time the PCs score a success, there should be a setback, however minor. The easier the success, the more strongly this rule-of-thumb should be applied. If necessary, I will insert additional encounters.

Emotional Flow

I’ve written a couple of articles on emotional flow. I don’t want the adventure to be emotionally monotone; there should be moments of sadness, moments of nostalgia, moments of tranquility, moments of fear, and moments of excitement. More rearranging. If necessary, more added encounters.

Plot Twists

The majority of plot twists should emerge naturally from play; if you aren’t railroading the PCs, and they aren’t following a trail of breadcrumbs, there will be times when they go off the rails. They will make assumptions, and act on them. They will misinterpret events and information, and act on their errors. They will confuse one motivation with another, and weight the value of the information they receive accordingly (I love putting vital information into the mouth of a congenital liar every now and then). Everyone will have their own agendas, and those can be misidentified and misinterpreted. Priorities can be set incorrectly. And that’s without taking misinformation and misdirection on the part of the bad guys into account!

Whenever any of these happens, I ask myself whether or not the character would know better. If so, I tell that character flat-out that they have made a mistake. When that isn’t the case, I play along for as long as possible. I will revise NPCs to fit the incorrect assumptions. I will revise encounters, likewise. I don’t change the real antagonist, or his motives and objectives, but everything else is fair game.

There are always certain key events that signpost the path to the correct correct solution. Until the adventure reaches the point where the PCs can proceed no longer without discovering the truth and getting back on that path, I let them go whichever way they want. The PCs in my Shards Of Divinity campaign are under the impression that their employer is testing their skills and reliability. Whether or not he is, or the testing stopped some time back and they are now working without the safety net they think they have, remains to be seen!

Every one of these mistakes becomes a plot twist, whether it be major or minor, when handled this way.

What you have laid out so far is the fastest route to the truth. Taking these possibilities into account creates multiple branches for the PCs to choose between. Beyond making sure that any essential information that gets lost along the way is available by some other means, let them diverge from the path prepared for them as much as they want.

That is made a lot easier by having some rough plans in place in advance.

Revelations

When you have a plot twist generated by player error, the truth always comes as a revelation. But these revelations always need some sort of delivery mechanism. That could be a character behaving in a way that makes perfect sense if the truth is known, but that is contradictory to the player error; or it could be some sort of confrontation; or the recovery of vital records and documents. More than once a character has delivered vital information from beyond the grave by means of his notes or diary or records, or even a ghostly apparition.

As soon as I identify a point at which the players go off on a tangent, I begin preparing the plot twist and associated revelation.

Clarity

It’s important that everything make sense in the end. This is especially true when the player confuse themselves, and even more-so because players are more likely to remember their pet theories as the truth, even when it is directly contradicted by subsequent events. A key element of the buildup to the final confrontation is always the achievement of clarity.

Final Stakes

The other thing that’s vital is making sure that the final stakes are both important enough to justify all the effort that’s gone into reaching the climax, and that the stakes are clearly understood by the players.

Big Finish

Next, I outline the big finish. In particular, I want to make sure that the climax is suitably cathartic, suitably dramatic, and suitably balanced. This should be the payoff for everything that’s happened in the adventure.

Character Goals

Whoops, I almost left out something vital. I always check for any possible way to tie in any goals that the PCs might have. I’ll do this repeatedly during the process, as part of each major step in the planning.

The Adventure

The adventure now exists in note form. C follows B which follows A. All that’s left to do is to make notes on the various places and NPCs involved, and prepare any narrative that is needed to describe events, places, and people.

Ongoing Aftershocks

Finally, I prepare an annotated version of my campaign notes that spells out the actual after-effects on the campaign. These are the things that subsequent adventures have to take into account. Until the adventure concludes, I will keep using the old ones; the new versions won’t come into effect until the adventure is complete.

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A note on scale

Some adventures are bigger than others. This procedure is designed to cope with adventures of the grandest possible scale; smaller adventures may not require anywhere near as much development. Some steps can often be done simultaneously, or skipped altogether. At its smallest, all you really need is to know what’s really going on, and how the PCs are going to become involved; everything else can be created as needed on the fly. Knowing what procedural steps can be skipped or shortened is one of the key skills of an experienced GM.

This procedure gives you everything you need to take that one- or two-sentence plot seed and turn it into something as big as The Lord Of The Rings, or as small as a one-room dungeon. The scale of the sapling that sprouts is inherent in the idea seed itself; some ideas are more epic, more sweeping, than others. The time to realize that this adventure is going to be too big for you is before you start play, because that gives you time to start on a different idea.

When I first mooted the idea of Ragnerok in my superhero campaign, I expected it to follow in about a year of real-time, two at the outside. Instead, the buildup took most of a decade; I kept putting it aside, as it grew too large to be completed, and concentrated on building the foundation to it in smaller adventures along the way. Because it’s better to do something else than to perpetrate a half-baked adventure on the players.

Use the tools provided to take an idea you like and expand it to whatever scale fits your available time. If it’s too big, break it into smaller adventures and develop those. You can build a mighty forest, one seed at a time.

Comments (1)

The Pattern Of Raindrops: A chessboard plotting technique


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I’ve been trying to wrap my head around a practical way of engineering the process of writing a different kind of adventure for several years, and think I’m finally starting to get my head around it. There may be a technical term for this type of adventure, but if there is, I don’t know it.

I’m not even sure that I can explain it clearly, let alone offer an example. So you might need to bear with me as I plunge headlong into this exploration of the evolution of patterns in random events.

Random Events

Life is full of stuff that just happens. I’ve written about that in the past (Directed Plots, Undirected Narrative, and Stuff That Just Happens), but for a long time I’ve been thinking about extending the concept but putting some structure into the structureless.

The idea is that you have a series of unrelated events that occur in a completely unstructured way that nevertheless combine to form a broader narrative in a somewhat more structured fashion. Which is like saying “blue is a color” – it doesn’t actually tell you anything useful.

So let me try again: One random event follows another, but no event happens in isolation; the first provides a context for the second, and the second provides a context for a third, and so on.

The Evolution Of Patterns

This seems like an example of the phenomenon where people impose patterns to events not because there is an actual pattern but because humans are psychologically predisposed to see patterns even when none exist. But I want to be able to impose a non-obvious pattern onto these events that only crystallizes into clarity as the final piece of the puzzle falls into place. So there is a pattern there, after all. But how to achieve that without railroading the players? Because it all sounds very contrived.

That’s the dilemma that’s been percolating away at the back of my mind ever since the aforementioned article: how to link these apparently-random events together in a structured and deliberate way that remains opaque to the players until the right time without contrivance, while maintaining player independence.

Snippets In Parallel

The solution began to present itself by thinking about the game of chess. There are a very limited range of choices for any individual move, and the compounding of past moves places a context on those choices that eliminates many of them in practical terms of achieving the goal. Nevertheless, the number of possible configurations of the game explodes into the uncounted billions or more as it progresses while at the same time funneling down into a very few outcomes in an entirely natural manner – a game can be a draw, a victory for white, or a victory for black.

Using all that as an analogy for progress within an adventure began to give me an insight into the correct way of selecting and structuring the “random” events to confer the structure upon the adventure.

For a start, the “random” events would not be random at all; they would be dictated by the overall structure, like pieces in a jigsaw. Each piece in isolation would seem to be nothing more than a random splash of color, but put them together and they form a picture, placing each of those splashes into context. Each event would be a snippet of a series of partial stories existing in parallel with each other, threads in a tapestry, corresponding to the restricted repertoire of individual moves available to the pieces on the chess board at that point in the overall game.

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The Circumstances Lend Significance

The next piece of the puzzle came from contemplation of how these snippets would interact. Each would have to be designed to achieve a certain mental, emotional, or interpretive response; what the actual event was that produced the response was irrelevant to this new style of adventure narrative. So long as each “move” achieved one of a limited set of predictable outcomes in terms of the overall plotline, the events themselves could be completely random, or could even form a separate and distinct pattern of their own.

Further insight came from pattern recognition itself, when I realized that a huge amount of an image can be thrown away and because of our ability as humans to recognize patterns, we could still identify the subject of the overall image. To illustrate how powerful this ability is – and how susceptible we are to be misled by it, as a result – take a look at the series of images to the right.
 

  • The first image is 100% complete.
  • In the second, I’ve thrown away half of the visual information – and the human mind barely notices.
  • For the third image, I’ve thrown away half of what was left – for every stripe of pixels with visual information, there are three black stripes of the same size. With only 1/4 of the original information, we definitely notice – but equally, we have no trouble recognizing the image despite the incompleteness of the information.
  • With the fourth image, I started getting serious – blocking out 1 in four horizontal rows as well as the vertical stripes. There is less than 19% of the original left – but the lake, trees, sky, and mountains are all still readily recognizable.
  • The final image really goes almost all the way. Only 6.25% of the original information is left – for every pixel of information, there are three columns and three lines in both directions that have been blacked out. Thunderbolt: The image content can still be seen!

An interesting aside: notice that color information is lost a lot more quickly than pattern recognition. The last two images are effectively black-and-white to the eye.

The Order Gives Meaning

In part, this is a result of looking at something very recognizable. If the image was very abstract, or something we don’t know very well, we would have rather more difficulty. In part, it’s conditioning – having already seen the image in more complete form, we recognize the elements that we can see and mentally stitch together these fragments to form a more cohesive whole. But mostly, it is because we see all these separate pieces at the same time.

If these isolated pixels were presented to us in random order, we would not be able to make rational sense of what we were seeing. Even randomly ordering the vertical stripes of information from ANY of these images (including the one that is “all there” completely destroys the meaning. We rely on the relationships between the discrete elements that we perceive and fill in the gaps with ‘something in between’ to produce a synthetic composite in our heads of the information that is there and that which is not, then interpret that as a whole image.

Finding Coherence

So there are two relationships that matter between these discrete elements: the relationship with the packets around it, and the order in which they are presented. Both need to be present, and to make sense, in order to have a narrative consisting of discrete scenes form a coherent whole.

If either are missing or obscured, the overall story will make no sense until the missing/obscured elements are supplied. Once that is done, the story begins to make sense as a whole.

States Of Ignorance

How to tell a structured story with none of the elements that connect one piece to another? One way is obviously the move-and-countermove of the chess game, with one side blind to what the other was doing. Picture a situation in which white only knows the position of those black pieces that are in immediate contact with one of his own, while Black can see the whole board.

In a way, that’s an analogy for every adventure, and one of the key pieces of advice that has been offered over the years is not to confuse the omniscience of the GM with the perceptions of the enemy characters. If white were PCs, then both sides should be blind to anything they cannot directly perceive.

But in this case, White is the players, and Black is the GM, wearing his story-teller’s hat. And that’s a horse of a completely different color.

It’s entirely normal for the GM to make clear the relationship between cause and effect, linking one scene in an adventure to the scenes that come before and after, so that the overall plotline is an emerging picture in the minds of the players. Under this structure of adventure, I don’t want that to be the case; I want the events to seem random and disconnected until the whole comes together.

Another way of looking at it is the three blind men trying to describe an elephant – one finds the body, another the ears, and the third the trunk, and all get very different impressions. The goal is to be able to put the PCs into the position of the blind men and the plotline in the place of the elephant. In fact, we want to use a simulated elephant so that the three (or more) pieces don’t even seem to connect, because there are in-between parts missing.

Dismembered pieces of plot

Trying to plan something like this without a preordained outcome from each of the scenes is a total nightmare. It’s hard enough doing so when everything connects seamlessly with cause following effect in a more traditional story structure. Solving this problem was the hardest part of the whole project.

If the PCs only get half the story until the penultimate stage of the adventure, when we want it all to come together, the easiest method is to have the outcome – whatever it may be – of each step in the plot to determine not just which piece of the overall plot they are going to get to see next, but which parts they aren’t going to see.

At the same time, these plot elements are not going to be predefined. The players and GM are to free to let the plot grow organically, so that the player’s awareness of events and their responses to it appear to form a pattern that is sensible to them. Only at the penultimate stage of the adventure will the missing pieces be supplied, so that the players can discover the real story.

The solution to the problem is to define scene Templates, not scenes; then fit the choices of the PCs into those templates to produce the next step in the story as experienced by the PCs. These templates define the pieces of the puzzle – the ones that are present, and the ones that are missing. They permit players to chase after red herrings or instigate direct action aimed at solving the mysteries with which they are confronted. Nested beginning-middle-ending “loops” as Johnn used to call them, or subplot arcs, to use my preferred terminology, define a template and make each scene a complete mini-plotline unto itself.

Defining these templates in fairly generic terms based on a generalization of the disassembled “elephant” permits them to be strung together completely independently of each other. What is then needed is a scaffolding to put the real structure in place.

A structured scaffolding

It was figuring out how to construct the structured scaffolding that was the key to solving the problem, and was the item that has caused the greatest delay. Finally, though, I think I’ve come up with a way of doing so. And it was a solution that was staring me in the face the whole time.

I started out by thinking of the situation using a chess analogy, and that is where the solution lies. Picture this: Turn a chessboard to a 45-degree angle, so that one of the black squares becomes a diamond at the top. This is the initial subplot that launches the whole adventure. From this initial position, you can move to any of the adjacent “squares”, or to any “square” on the same row, defining the plot template for the next part of the adventure. If they stick to the black squares, the white squares would represent the pieces of the plotline that the PCs don’t get to discover.

Alternatively, the PCs can make a different choice and move from a black square onto one of the white squares. That means that they then start discovering the white-squares part of the plot while missing out on the black squares. Changing colors is effectively the same as a plot twist.

In terms of narrative, it’s all move-and-countermove. The opposition or overall problem makes the first move; the PCs respond, dictating which course of action they will be following when the next piece of the plotline happens, and placing the template of the situation into context. The enemy then makes a countermove – this can either be obvious to the PCs (an event on the same color as the square they currently occupy) or can be hidden from them (an event on a square of the opposite color). A player can even have a flash of insight or make a correct assumption and reposition themselves on the board on an entirely different row, from which events then develop. For a while, the number of ways the plot can shape itself grow exponentially. But, as you proceed down the board toward the far corner, your range of options narrows until the PCs are either on one of the two bottom-most black squares and need a plot twist to get them into the final white square, or there has already been a plot twist, and they will be on one of the three white squares that lead to the ultimate conclusion of the plot.

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A three-square-sided illustration

This illustration should make what I’m talking about a little clearer. The possible outcomes from the starting encounter are b, c, or e. From b, the characters can advance directly to encounters d, e, or g, or indirectly to c or f. Note that boards with an odd number of squares do not require the plot twist that changing colors are specified to entail, but if there is a plot twist with an odd number of squares, there has to be a second plot twist to get to the final solution, i.

With that clarified, I can get back to explaining the structure that I had in mind. If characters move to the right as shown (from a to c, for example), it represents a Red Herring (1 space), a diversion or mistake (2-3 spaces), or a false trail (3+ spaces). (From the direction of movement, this signifies something from “out of left field”). The most direct line, a to e to i, will not normally be allowed, because going directly to e means that the characters won’t have the necessary information to enable them to get to i.

So, let’s list the valid solutions:

  • a – b (plot twist) – d – g (2nd plot twist, red herring) – i (3rd plot twist)
  • a – b (plot twist) – d – g (2nd plot twist, red herring) – h – i (3rd plot twist)
  • a – b (plot twist) – d – e (red herring) – g (2nd plot twist) – i (3rd plot twist)
  • a – b (plot twist) – d – e (red herring) – h (2nd plot twist, red herring) – i (3rd plot twist)
  • a – b (plot twist) – d – f (diversion/mistake) – h (2nd plot twist) – i (3rd plot twist)
  • a – b (plot twist) – e – g (2nd plot twist) – i (3rd plot twist)
  • a – b (plot twist) – e – h (2nd plot twist, red herring) – i (3rd plot twist)
  • a – b (plot twist) – c (red herring) – e – i (2nd plot twist)
  • a – b (plot twist) – c (red herring) – h – i (2nd plot twist)
  • a – e – g (plot twist) – i (2nd plot twist)
  • a – e – h (plot twist, red herring) – i (2nd plot twist)
  • a – c (plot twist, red herring) – e – g (2nd plot twist) – i (3rd plot twist)
  • a – c (plot twist, red herring) – e – h (red herring, 2nd plot twist) – i (3rd plot twist)
  • a – c (plot twist, red herring) – e – i (2nd plot twist)
  • a – c (plot twist, red herring) – f – g (2nd plot twist) – i (3rd plot twist)
  • a – c (plot twist, red herring) – f – h (2nd plot twist) – i (3rd plot twist)

There are undoubtedly others as well. These don’t cover the innumerable “flash of insight” options discussed a moment ago, for example.

Every 2nd step, it should also be remembered, represents a countermove or response by the villain or opponent. a-b, a-c, or a-e are all moves by the players in response to the initial move from a.

The Initial Encounter

The next step would be to describe the initial encounter, in basic terms. Because I’m thinking of this in terms of use for my superhero campaign, where each of the PCs has (or is developing) a private life outside the team, I’m deliberately going to use a fantasy-game approach for all examples within this article.

“Thief & known pickpocket bumps into PC Alpha while running from the watch” sounds like a fun opening encounter. So we would have the ‘where are you’ establishing narrative, the collision, and an encounter with the watch. The thief may get away, he may not. The watch will tell the PC who the NPC is, and probably advise him to check that he still has all his valuables about his person. He may do, he may be missing something. That’s the sum total of our opening sequence, space ‘a’ on the board.

Thunderclouds on the Horizon: The initial situation

Having decided the first encounter, with some details still to be decided, we can now establish what the overall plotline is going to be about. The only restriction is that it seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the initial encounter.

“Necromancer/Villain steals magic item to use to twist the spirits of Elysium/Heaven to the cause of Evil.” Not bad. “Businessman attempting to unseat the head of the tradesman’s guild, PCs get caught in the crossfire” probably works better at our example 9-squares scale, though. The first idea would have required too much discovery to fit within the 9-boxes constraint – even though it’s the idea that was lurking in the back of my mind as an example throughout this article!

Little plot threads, all in a row

Next, we count the number of rows of diamonds, both black and white, ignoring box a. There’s the b-c row; there’s the d-e-f line; the g-h row; and finally, of course, the i square. That’s four. (I’d need to check more examples, but I immediately find myself wondering if this count is always one more than the number of squares being used as counted on the side of the board? Never mind, it’s easy enough to count each time).

To each of these, we assign a generic label that describes a step in the plot:

  • b-c: PC attacked
  • d-e-f: PCs investigate a mystery
  • g-h: One enemy neutralized
  • i: Revelation/Discovery, Confrontation, Aftermath

Notice that these are quite independent of each other. We know that i is the conclusion of the adventure, but everything else could happen in any order, and any of these items could be left out without compromising the final plotline.

taking a compass bearing

On any given line, there are only a few possible combinations of entry specification (plot twist, red herring, etc) and event label (PC attacked, etc). What’s more, which of those comes into play depends entirely on the choices the PCs make; each of the above sequences is independent of each other, but they can combine to tell a coherent story. It sounds like we’re all set.

Or are we? It’s all well and good to say “from a you can go to b, c, or d” – but how is the GM to choose? There are no labels to these choices. We know that two of them involve plot twists but that’s all about the plot after the reaction to what the PCs do in scene A.

Actually, there’s one thing more that we know, and it’s that information – in combination with those other factors – that defines the solution to this remaining problem. We know that each square consists of both a PC reaction and an NPC action. We don’t know which one goes first, because that depends on how we get into that square, something that we can’t predict, as the number of valid combinations listed makes clear. In general terms, the antagonist is either responding to what the PCs have just done (a ‘predictable’ choice) or is responding out of ignorance of what the PCs were going to do (a ‘wild’ choice).

In theory, the plot can proceed from its current square to any of the adjacent squares that we haven’t been to before. To try and give the plot impetus and move it toward a solution, we have stated that the preferred direction of travel is downwards, and the second choice is side-to-side, but that’s an ideal.

Expanding the plot

What needs to be done is to further detail the cell contents based on the generic label and the things that we DO know about the cells. That then permits us to choose the action that most makes sense under the circumstances of what the PCs have done and what the antagonist knows about that action. (This is where the true limitation of this small example layout becomes apparent – we don’t have very many choices to fill. It would normally be the case that we would have a lot more choices to fill – as many as eight in a single line if we were using a full 8×8 chessboard). So let’s do that now (my sidenotes on the process are in italics):

  • a: Initial scene. The thief wasn’t trying to steal from the PCs, he wanted to plant something amongst the PCs effects to use the PC as an unwitting mule to carry the goods away from the scene of the crime. This is the opening move of a gambit by one of the antagonists (call him enemy #1) to get the PCs to eliminate his rival (enemy #2) for him.
    • a: After the ‘pickpocket strike’ the PC discovers a small handbook that he has never seen before, filled with numbers, possibly a code of some sort, hidden amongst his possessions. This is actually accounts information, evidence of bribery and corruption on the part of enemy #2.
  • b-c: PC attacked. Which PC is attacked, why, and by whom? Those are the critical questions. In our example, we have two defined factions working at cross-purposes, so this is easy. When you don’t have a predefined solution, or you need more than two answers, you may need to get more creative.
    • b: Enemy #1 arranges for Enemy #2 to learn that the PCs have the stolen incriminating evidence. Enemy #2 sends forces to attack them and get it back. The plot twist is that a potential ally is being cast as an enemy.
    • c: Enemy #1′s forces, disguised as belonging to a third party (enemy #3), attack the party to retrieve the planted evidence. This attack is intended to fail. The fact that the attackers are not who they seem to be is intended to be easily discovered; enemy #3 is someone with the ability/resources to decode the notebook and the authority to remove enemy #2 from power. The plot twist is either that the PCs will fail to penetrate the deception and make enemy #3 an actual enemy, or that they have been successfully manipulated by enemy #1 into acting against enemy #2, a potential ally.
  • d-e-f: PCs investigate a mystery. We now have three factions other than the PCs embroiled in this little plot. The PCs have one three choices to pursue: they can try to decode the book, they can try to chase down the thief (if he wasn’t taken away by the watch), or they can pursue whoever they think attacked them either by going to enemy #3 (requires c) or learning about the rivalry between enemies #1 and #2, then approaching enemy #1, thinking him a possible ally (requires b).
    • d: The PCs attempt to decode the book’s contents either themselves or by seeking out an expert. If this leads to a plot twist, the expert will discover that the book is a forgery. This is the most direct route to the conclusion, confronting enemy #1. …which is why it is the left-most of the options. Either way, the nature of the book will be revealed, telling the PCs part of what is going on, but not who is doing what to whom.
    • e: The PCs pursue whoever they think attacked them either by going to enemy #3 (requires c) or learning about the rivalry between enemies #1 and #2, then approaching enemy #1, thinking him a possible ally (requires b). Ultimately, this boils down to the continued success of enemy #1 at manipulating the PCs, because they are continuing to follow the sequence of events he has mapped out for them. Enemy #3 will be able to identify what the book purports to be, but will not discover that it is a forgery.
    • f: The PCs chase down the thief. Having fulfilled his role in the plot, the Thief is now a red herring. When they catch him, they can interrogate him. He knows that he was paid to plant the forged book on them by enemy #1, but he is scared of enemy #1, and at the same time, sees an opportunity to profit from the situation; he will name enemy #3 as responsible, thinking that he can extort enemy #2 for not sending the PCs after him. If the PCs are any good at their jobs, they will immediately find the Thief to be an unreliable source of information, and not fall for his attempted deception. There are four possible outcomes from this encounter: the PCs can be steered back to enemy #3 (square e), they can be misled by the thief into holding enemy #2 responsible (square h), they can decide to get the book deciphered independently because they mistrust the thief (square d) or they can force the thief to disclose enemy #1 as the manipulator (square g).
  • g-h: One enemy neutralized. There are two antagonists, and we need two entries, so this is pretty straightforward. These squares almost always require a plot twist, unless the PCs are arriving at one of these squares directly from squares b or c. Coming from b means that the PCs have either fallen for the manipulations by enemy #1 hook line and sinker (h) and attacked what is ultimately the wrong individual from their point of view, or they have figured out that they are being manipulated and decide to confront their seeming-enemy (h) – so the nature of the confrontation will change, but not the identity of the person being confronted. Coming from (c) means that the party discovered enemy #1′s attempted deception and have decided to confront him directly without investigating via (e). That in turn means that he would be able to attempt to bluff his way out of it by claiming that enemy #2 is the one attempting to manipulate them, and that they have fallen for it! While this might seem like a plot twist, it’s actually enemy #1 doing more of the same, i.e. attempting to manipulate the PCs. But it’s far more likely that these squares will be reached by way of one of d, e, or f.
    • g: The PCs confront enemy #2. The nature of the confrontation depends on which square they are coming from, as described above. In the course of the encounter, the hostility between enemy #1 and #2 will be revealed/recapitulated. Either the PCs will succeed in having enemy #2 removed from power (just as enemy #1 wanted) or in recruiting him as an ally against enemy #1. If the former, they will discover enemy #2′s real “little black book”, revealing that the one they have is a forgery, and pointing the finger at their having been used by enemy #1. Either way, this leads to the conclusion.
    • h: The PCs confront enemy #1. Enemy #1 can attempt to bluff, and may or may not succeed, depending on how the PCs reached this position. If the bluff fails, enemy #1 will come clean, while still pointing the finger at enemy #2 as being corrupt.
  • i: Revelation/Discovery, Confrontation, Aftermath. There are three ways to get here – from e, from g, or from h. Ideally, the route will be g-i, making the confrontation with enemy #1. If the path is h-i, this will be a confrontation with enemy #2. The GM should not permit the e-i route, instead following the e-h path and reserving the conclusion to the plotline as being an encounter with enemy #2.
    • i: A final plot twist is required – enemy #3 stands revealed as having manipulated enemy #1 throughout in a bid to remove both enemy #1 and enemy #2. He can either be a good guy or worse than either of them – they may have been corrupt, but they stood in his way of implementing the harsh totalitarian rule that he demanded. He will then declare the PCs persona-non-gratis throughout the Kingdom, but give them 24 hours grace before coming after them as recompense ‘for services rendered’. This either leads to the real ultimate conclusion (as the PCs take down enemy #3, who started gloating a little too soon, thinking that his power and position would protect him, or to a sequel adventure in which the PCs work to bring about the overthrow of enemy #3, or simply to a change of circumstances in which enemy #3 has become the power behind the throne in this Kingdom. That’s up to the PCs, but most of the time I would expect one of the first two options to be their reaction. Or, if enemy #2 became allied to the PCs, that’s an entirely different outcome – they’ve done a deal with “a” devil which will no doubt come back to haunt them at some point in the future.

Ripples In Harmony

This plotting technique is a lot more work than writing a straightforward plotline, but it preserves complete independence of choice on the part of the players. There are multiple paths through to the ultimate outcome. Each step of each path creates a knock-on effect on the next step in the path, changing its context and meaning. Each step can be said to create a ripple through the plot structure, changing the shape of events to come so that they always lead to the plot conclusion. The great advantage is that, like a choose-your-own-adventure book, the same plot could be run with the same players a second time and would reach a conclusion that could be quite different – or exactly the same, but by a very different path.

chess-board3

Expanding the plotline

This all stems from one seemingly-random event. Adding more cells enables a bigger tapestry to be woven. The obvious place to start is with enemy #2, who is a very passive element in this outline. That’s the inevitable result of making enemy #1 the antagonist and enemy #2 the intended victim – and the PCs, the patsies.

To give enemy #2 his own scheme to bring down enemy #1, you could eliminate square (a) (moving its content to square b) and permitting two almost-simultaneous plots to be in motion at the same time. But that would be too complex a plot structure to fit our simple 3×3 squares. The minimum would be a 4×4 structure with the uppermost cell removed. You would then have a three-corridor overall structure in which the left represented enemy #1, the right represented enemy #2, and the middle contained the red herrings and the potential for the other two enemies to interact with each other’s schemes.

The obvious plot hole

There is one obvious plot hole that needs to be addressed: what if the players decide to split up and pursue all their leads at the same time?

The answer: let them. (d) says that enemy #1 is behind events, (e) says that enemy #2 is responsible, while (f) points the finger at enemy #3 (but in an unconvincing way). The players still have to make the choice of confronting enemy #1 or enemy #2 (confronting enemy #3 leads to e, which has already been addressed).

Of course, the players might get clever and try to lure enemies #1 and #2 into a direct confrontation with each other, bypassing both g and h, under this circumstance – which is perfectly acceptable as an outcome. And it would even succeed in unmasking the real culprit – enemy #3.

The other obvious plot hole

Finally, what if the PCs decide to do something other than (d), (e), or (f)? They might choose to simply get out of town and let the mess sort itself out. They might decide to take their suspicions to the watch, or to a figure of authority. If this happens, both watch and authority would demand proof – deciphering the code book would be necessary evidence. That leaves the players back with choices d or e, and the plotline back on track. Only if the PCs choose to opt out of the adventure altogether does this plotline not reach a satisfactory conclusion.

The Pattern Of Raindrops

By isolating plot developments in the manner described while keeping a structured relationship between them that is dictated by the overall plot, we create a patternless noise akin to the sound of individual raindrops. But listen closely, and this technique will yield the underlying pattern of the plotline.

To wrap things up, here’s a rotated chessboard for you all to use. Click on the image to open it in a new window, suitable for printing.

chess-board1

One final suggestion: if you summarize your ideas very concisely, you could write them on post-it notes and do your plotting on an actual chessboard. This would cut out all the hassle of using code letters to link your notes with the layout and make the process a lot easier.

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