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A radical concept: The GM Task Experience Table


Champagne-1 by / Marcello Terraza
Score highly in this test and you too will feel like celebrating!

On twitter the other day, one of my regular contacts (Rising Stars Press) posted a meme that read something along the lines of “All right folks, give yourselves 500 xp for surviving 2016” and an image of Gary Jackson. And, as sometimes happens, one stray thought had a whirlwind romance with another, and before you know it, a highly improbably and quite radical concept was born.

What if players gave the GM experience after each game session for all the things that GMs are supposed to do well?

And what if the XP so received translated into boundaries within which the players trusted the GM, would ‘go with the flow’ and not sweat the small stuff?

But Seriously….

No, I’m not seriously proposing that such a system be implemented. But simply developing one with your players holds benefits that aren’t immediately obvious.

You see, it’s relatively easy to make a list of all the things that GMs should do for, and in, each game session. It’s quite another putting them in any sort of priority sequence, let alone having some means of assessing the relative weight the players collectively place on the different aspects of gaming.

But, if you were to state that the absolute maximum xp to be awarded to a GM was 1,000xp, with up to X points coming from this aspect of the game, up to Y being awarded for another, and up to Z being awarded for a third – and so on – getting the players to reach agreement between themselves over what X, Y, and Z should be tells the GM what their priorities are, and in the process, what areas of his game he should be focusing on.

But even more usefully, the GM gets to hear what the players think as they are discussing it.

There’s no actual need for the players to rate any individual performance by the GM; if there’s something they aren’t getting enough of, they will naturally place a greater emphasis on that, it’s only human nature.

Furthermore, suitably massaged, it can provide a guideline for what the players want the GM to spend his prep time on – which might be radically different to what the GM is actually doing – as described in Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity.

A list of tasks

To get the ball rolling, I’ve come up with a list of thirty-four GM functions, within five broad categories – Concepts, Prep, Execution, Admin, and General. Because the list is so long, I’ve actually placed it in three columns – not something that I routinely do at Campaign Mastery. After the list, I’ll discuss each (relatively briefly).

Spacer Spacer Spacer
  • 1. Concepts
    • 1.1 Engaging Background
    • 1.2 Scope Of Background
    • 1.3 Interesting NPCs
    • 1.4 Fascinating Plots
    • 1.5 Surprising Twists
  • 2. Prep
    • 2.1 Dialogue
    • 2.2 Adventure
    • 2.3 Plot Logic
    • 2.4 Simulation Aids
    • 2.5 References
    • 2.6 Rules
  • 3. Execution
    • 3.1 Player Immersion
    • 3.2 Scope For Player Decisions
    • 3.3 Dynamic World
    • 3.4 Responsive World
    • 3.5 Responsive Actions
    • 3.6 PC Integration
    • 3.7 Difficulty Of Combat
    • 3.8 Tactical Involvement
    • 3.9 Emotional Involvement
    • 3.10 Vicarious Involvement
    • 3.11 Opportunities To Roleplay
    • 3.12 Adequacy Of Rewards
    • 3.13 GM Flexibility
  • 4. Admin
    • 4.1 Experience
    • 4.2 Character Evolution
    • 4.3 Rules Knowledge
    • 4.4 Rules Interpretation
    • 4.5 Campaign Knowledge
    • 4.6 Social Management
    • 4.7 Timing
  • 5. General
    • 5.1 Fun
    • 5.2 Interest
    • 5.3 Eagerness To Continue

Let’s take a quick look at what each of these encompasses, because it’s not completely clear in some cases.

1. Concepts

Concepts are all about ideas and big-picture.

1.1 Engaging Background

Are the players interested in the background, and does the background make a difference, or is it simply hanging behind the action like set dressing?

1.2 Scope Of Background

Is the background too big, sprawling, and complicated for the players to grasp? Has the GM introduced too much too soon? Or is it too small to inspire and give the game world a distinctive flavor?

1.3 Interesting NPCs

Are the NPCs interesting to interact with, or are they meaningless cyphers that the players could care less about?

1.4 Fascinating Plots

Do the plots, in general, hold the player’s interest? Or are they mechanical plodding from A to B?

1.5 Surprising Twists

This section evaluates not just the quality of the perceived twists but whether or not they were actually surprising, or did the players see them coming from a mile away?

2. Prep

Prep is about taking those big-picture elements and turning them into an adventure ready for the PCs to get involved in. All prep questions come in two forms: was there enough prep done and what was the quality of the result?

2.1 Dialogue

Canned dialogue and narrative are essential components of any game. If the players are comfortable with the GM winging it, they may require less prep in this area. But if it’s hard to tell who’s doing the talking, they may want more prep time invested. Remember, this isn’t about how much the GM did, but how well he satisfied player expectations in this area.

2.2 Adventure

How interesting and complete was the basic adventure design? Was it too big, too complicated, too small, too yellow, too anything?

2.3 Plot Logic

Did the plot make sense? What holes manifested, if any? Did the plot seem to emerge from the basic personalities of the characters (both PC and NPC) involved? Or did it seem/feel contrived?

2.4 Simulation Aids

Props and minis – did the GM have everything he needed in this respect, or some reasonable facsimile?

2.5 References

If there were any references that had to be consulted, did the GM have them at hand?

2.6 Rules

How well did the GM know the basic rules? If any unusual section of rules needed to be used, had he read up on them in advance? Or was the game continually interrupted by the opening of rule books?

3. Execution

Prep all happens in advance of play. How well the GM actually performed on the day is the province of Execution, the biggest single category.

3.1 Player Immersion

Immersion is good. How well did the GM make the players forget the mundane world outside the game table? How tangible did he make the game world feel?

3.2 Scope For Player Decisions

How much room did the GM make for players to make their own decisions? Was he prepared to let them flounder until the thought of something else to try, or did he head frustration off at the pass by introducing a new plot development when the players got lost? Could the players simply follow their noses and adventure by the numbers, or were there non-trivial decisions they had to make – and did those decisions alter the outcome?

3.3 Dynamic World

How much did the campaign world feel like it had evolved since the last game? Since the first game? Is the world dynamic, changing around the PCs, evolving and developing new angles and situations that have genuine impact on the choices available to the players and keep the game fresh? Or does the whole thing reset to a static default at the end of each adventure?

3.4 Responsive World

How much does the world evolve as a specific consequence of PC decisions, both past and present? Are there consequences (beyond mere game mechanics) for mistakes – and benefits for smart play?

3.5 Responsive Actions

How much did the current adventure evolve as a consequence of PC decisions, for good or ill? Or did the GM only have to pay lip service to player self-actualization?

3.6 PC Integration

How much did the PCs feel connected to the world, a part of it, and how much did they feel like they were tacked-on afterthoughts? Would replacing any of the PCs with someone of identical skills and stats but different personality have made a material difference to the situation or how it developed?

3.7 Difficulty Of Combat

Were the fights too easy or too hard – or just right – and was that difficulty level appropriate for the situation in-game?

3.8 Tactical Involvement

Did the players have to think about their choices of actions? Or was this a push-button RPG session in which the PCs were algorithms, with a predetermined and predictable response to every situation?

3.9 Emotional Involvement

Did the players feel like their characters were emotionally involved in the game – caring about the things they were supposed to care about, angry about the things that should have angered them, enjoying experiences that they would have found pleasant? How much did the players care about the outcome – and did that match the degree to which the PCs should have cared about the outcome?

3.10 Vicarious Involvement

How much fun was it to be a fly on the wall when not directly involved in the action? Did the group feel like leaves in the wind, each following their own almost-random path but with an overall collective direction, and how much did they feel like they were a cohesive unit, sharing in each other’s successes and feeling each other’s defeats?

3.11 Opportunities To Roleplay
How much scope did the GM give for players to roleplay their characters? Did the players feel like they were their characters at all times? Most of the time? Whenever not confronted by system mechanics? Whenever not in combat? Only when the GM provided a set piece for roleplay? Or not at all?

3.12 Adequacy Of Rewards

Would the PCs have felt adequately rewarded for their efforts? Do the players? Is there a difference, and is that difference appropriate? Were the rewards disproportionate to the situations faced?

3.13 GM Flexibility

When something unexpected happened, how well did the GM bend to accommodate it? If the players wanted to do something he hadn’t planned for, could he cope? Did it feel like he was ready for anything the players might choose to do?

4. Admin

Some admin is almost inevitable. For most GMs, it’s a necessary evil, to be minimized at every turn. The best use it as a future planning tool, and are experts in their own campaigns, able to answer almost any question at the drop of a hat.

4.1 Experience

How much did the character learn from the encounter, and is that reflected in an appropriate amount of XP? Are the characters progressing so slowly that they feel stuck in neutral, or advancing so fast that the players can’t take the time to enjoy what they’ve got?

4.2 Character Evolution

How much did the PCs, both individually and collectively, evolve in the course of the adventure? Were changes to characters as a result of previous game sessions at least signposted within the adventure? Does it feel like advancements made through game mechanics come out of the blue, or does it feel like a natural step on the character’s personal journeys from what they were to whatever they will become (even if no-one knows what that may be)?

4.3 Rules Knowledge

How well did the GM know the rules of the game he was running – and how disruptive was any shortcoming in that department?

4.4 Rules Interpretation

Did the GM seem impartial when adjudicating rules decisions? Was he able to make a decision on the fly when the rules were inadequate or too complicated? Did the game keep moving, or did it bog down?

4.5 Campaign Knowledge

How well did the GM know his own creations? Were there any obvious oversights, and were any of these serious enough to require a retcon?

4.6 Social Management

While the GM can’t dictate player behavior, he is responsible for managing the social situation. Having players be engaged enough that they won’t get caught up in side conversations over the top of whatever else is happening? Rotating the spotlight fast enough? Giving a fair share of that spotlight to each? If any situations arose, did the GM manage them?

4.7 Timing

Did the game start on time, and if not, how much of the blame belongs to the GM? Did the game finish early or late? Did the GM fill the hours that the game was allocated?

5. General

Finally, we have a trio of big-picture overall considerations. It’s not far wrong to say that if the GM gets these three things right, it doesn’t really matter what happens in all the other areas – but the odds are that if the GM does well in these three areas, he would also score high marks in several of the earlier areas.

5.1 Fun

How much fun was it to be part of the game? And make no mistake, a PC can be enduring absolute misery while his player is having a whale of a time! One definition of role-playing vs roll-playing that I’ve come across in the past: Role-playing makes it fun even when your character isn’t having fun, roll-playing implicitly ties a player’s enjoyment to how much his character is enjoying himself.

5.2 Interest

How much food for thought did the game offer? Was it intellectually fascinating, did it offer situations that the players had never expected or come across before? Was it original, or did it feel derivative? Was it so original that it became hard work just trying to keep up?

5.3 Eagerness To Continue

How much are the players looking forward to the next game session? Would they have wanted to keep going if time permitted? Would playing a day earlier be a good thing just because you got to play sooner?

Three systems of approach

There are two basic approaches that can be adopted to negotiating how much each of these categories should be worth. The first is to start with a total and break it up amongst the major sections, then sub-divide to reach each detail item’s worth. The second is to allocate a convenient base number to each of the detail items and then adjust accordingly, letting the broader categories take care of themselves. The third is a “score out of five” system.

Let’s take a look at how each of these would work.


In the big-picture approach, you start with a convenient total maximum award and then break it up amongst the major categories. With 34 categories, 1700 or 3400 seem to be obvious choices, but let’s be a little unconventional and choose 2000. That gives each of the five major categories a base 400 points each – after which, it’s a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

You might decide that the big three items at the end should be worth half the total – that’s as much as everything else put together, by definition. That would certainly be a reasonable weighting, in my personal opinion. So category 5 is worth 1000 points and categories 1-4 are worth 1000 points between them, or an average of 250 points each.

Next, the players might decide that execution should be worth as much as the remaining three categories put together. That means that category 3 is worth 500 points, while categories 1, 2, and 4 are worth 500 points.

Opinion might well be divided over which of categories 1 and 2 are more important. I can even see the balance being different from one campaign to the next, even with exactly the same players and GM. Admin, on the other hand, is almost certainly going to be low dog on the totem pole. Let’s say that the players decide that both categories 1 and 2 should be worth three times as much each as category 1. 3+3+1=7, so category 4 would get 1/7th of the 500 points – call it 70 points for convenience – while the rest (430 points) gets split evenly between categories 1 and 2, i.e. 215 points each.

So far, then, we have: Category 1, 215 points. Category 2, 215 points. Category 3, 500 points. Category 4, 70 points. Category 5, 1000 points.

Alternative perspective insights

Of course, there are an almost infinite number of alternatives. There would be absolutely nothing wrong with a breakup of 200, 300, 600, 100, and 800 points. Or one of 100, 300, 800, 200, 600 points. Or 300, 100, 800, 100, 700 points. If the objective was to playtest a new set of rules, the breakup might be 100, 800, 800, 100, 200 – placing all the emphasis on this adventure and its execution, with very little regard for the bigger picture.

Because that’s another way to think about the five major categories: 1 and 5 are big-picture, 2 and 3 are immediate, and 4 is the infrastructure that ties everything together.

In any event, we have a breakup of 215, 215, 500, 70, and 1000 points. Now we look at each of the categories and sub-divide. Again, it’s just my personal opinion, but I would start with the smallest total and go up from there.

Category 4, admin, 70 points:

Admin represents 7 tasks, which gives an average of 10 per task. It might be collectively decided that 1 and 4 are the most important, then 2, and everything else in third place. So let’s start by making 1 and 4 worth 20 points each, and 2 worth 15 points, and see what the rest would be worth: 20+20+15=55, leaving 15; divided four ways gives just under 4 points each. To have them be worth 4, we would need to steal back a point from somewhere else, with 2 the most likely candidate. That gives a final breakdown of:

  • 4.1 Experience: 20 points
  • 4.2 Character Evolution: 15 points
  • 4.3 Rules Knowledge: 4 points
  • 4.4 Rules Interpretation: 20 points
  • 4.5 Campaign Knowledge: 4 points
  • 4.6 Social Management: 4 points
  • 4.7 Timing: 4 points

As before, there are many alternative choices that would be equally valid. 10, 10, 10, 30, 5, 0, 5, for example. Or 15, 5, 5, 20, 5, 0, 20, which should tell the GM immediately that he needs to keep a closer eye on his timing (he should automatically always be keeping a careful watch on his fairness).

Category 1, concepts, 215 points:

Five tasks, an average of 43 points each. That’s a slightly awkward number; so ignore the 3 and set a base value of 40 points each, with 15 bonus points to be awarded.

For my money, if I were assessing where I place my priorities, there isn’t a lot to distinguish one of these as more important than the rest. 3 and 4 might be a shade more important than 1, 2 a shade less important, and 5 the low man on the totem pole by a small margin. So, lets say +10 each for 3 and 4, -10 for 2, and -20 for 5, increasing the bonus pool to 25,

That gives allocations of:

  • 1.1 Engaging Background: 40;
  • 1.2 Scope Of Background: 40-10=30;
  • 1.3 Interesting NPCs: 40+10=50;
  • 1.4 Fascinating Plots: 40+10=50;
  • 1.5 Surprising Twists: 40-20=20.
What to do with the bonus pool?

At this point, the players have to decide what to do with those 25 unallocated points. They have several choices: they can simply forget them; they could add +10 to 3 and 4 and +5 to 5, increasing the emphasis on the two major items and diminishing the de-emphasis on plot twists; or they could define some additional skill that fits in the category and give it the entirety of the 25 points. That category might be “Game Physics”, or it might be “Historical Knowledge”, or it might be “Educational Value” (in a game used for teaching students), or it might be something broad like “Creativity”. Or it might be a couple of these, each receiving a share of the 25 points – and possibly triggering a reassessment of the amounts already allocated.

Remember, the point of the exercise is for the players to define the relative importance they place on various aspects of the GM’s role in the game and quantify those results for the GM to use as a planning / prioritization / self-improvement tool.

The other categories

I could work through the other categories, but the above examples really sum up the entire process between them. So, instead, let’s turn our attention to method 2.

Small Picture

The second approach starts with the assumption that all aspects of the GM’s craft are equally important, at least in theory, and then modifies that theoretical result to something that accords a bit closer to reality. There are 34 tasks on the list; if we give each item a base score of 25, that’s 1,190 points in total. If we’re aiming for 1000, we would need to deemphasize some tasks by a collective total of 190 points. Dropping a task from 25 to 10 points in value saves 15 points; dropping about 1/3 of the list would get us close to the 1000 points target.

This really is very similar to the first approach, except that it increases the scope of the adjustments. You could boost “fun” by reducing “plot twists”, or emphasize Dialogue while deemphasizing Rules Knowledge and Dynamic World.

What it often means is that you don’t get the big swings that the first system can produce. Take category 5 of the “big picture” system: we (hypothetically, as an example) gave it a total value of 1000, which means that each task has a value of about 300, with 100 points left over. Compare those values with the ones that we were considering for the tasks in category 1, where we were sweating five-point differences! While the initial allocation of points and emphasis at the big-picture scale seemed reasonable, the results when you get down to the nitty gritty can be quite startling and even carry implications that weren’t intended.

On the other hand, it takes a big task and turns it into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks. So there is a lot to commend it.

Frankly, neither approach is all that ideal. Which is why I came up with a third alternative.

The “Score out of 5” system

Each player rates the importance of the five major categories out of 5. They then rate the importance of each task within the list out of 5. The GM gathers these results; he multiplies each of the tasks by the major category rating, then totals the results from each player to get an aggregate. Finally, he produces a grand total of all these individual ratings; dividing the overall score required (be it 1000 or 5,000 or whatever) by the total gives a conversion factor, which he can multiply the unrounded scores by, then rounded as he sees fit (to the nearest 10 or 20).

Let’s see how it works. I’ve invented 3 “players” with different priorities and preferences, then had them do the “ratings by 5”. The table below shows the results of the whole process (Never fear, I’ll walk you through it!)

Player 1 is a Storyteller, and even the roleplaying of his character is secondary to his engagement in an interesting plotline. Player 2 is a typical roleplayer, whose primary interest is in playing his character, and everything else is measured against its contribution to that end. Player 3 is someone who simply wants to let off some steam at the end of the week by killing something (or at least, beating it to a pulp). As you might expect, keeping this disparate group happy, week after week, would not be easy, with the first two often united in common interests against the third (the secret would be making the combat an integral part of the plot, using the resulting commonality between players 1 and 3 to balance the trend toward plot/roleplay at the expense of combat).

Scores by five table

I’ve also produced this as a PDF, for those who want to study it more closely, or who are sight-impaired and need the data in text form. Click the image to grab it (it’s also helpful to have the lists and the example side-by-side).

The first column identifies the category and the tasks within each category.

The second column has the scores player 1 gave to each category and to each task, out of 5. For example, Category 1 has been given a rating by him of 4 out of 5 for importance, and task 1.1, an engaging background, has also been rated by him as 4 out of 5 for importance.

In the third column, I’ve multiplied each task rating by the category rating – so, for player 1, this is a result of 16, (four from the category multiplied by four from the task).

The fourth and fifth columns give the ratings and multiplied products for player 2 in the same way. For category one, player two gave a rating of 2, and for task 1.1, a rating of three, giving a combined value of six.

Ditto the sixth and seventh columns, which give the results from player 3. Her rated category 1 as a one, and task 1.1 as a two, so the product for his scores for this task is two.

The eighth column is where things get interesting. I’ve added the product for task 1.1 from player one (16) to that for the task from player two (6), and that from player 3 (2) to get a subtotal of 24. At the bottom of the column, I’ve totaled all these scores, and ended with a total of 1,058. Underneath that, I divided 2000 by this total to get an adjustment factor of 1.89. In theory, if I were to multiply each rating by 1.89, they should add up to a total of exactly 2000.

In column 9, I’ve done exactly that (without bothering to check the total). For task 1.1, the subtotal of 24 turns into an adjusted value of 45.36.

I didn’t check the total because in Column 10, I’ve rounded each results to the nearest 5. For task 1.1, that was (quite obviously) 45.

Again, in theory, the total of all the rounded, adjusted, results should be 2,000. Again, I haven’t bothered checking this; from what I noted as I produced the table, the rounding errors appear to be on the high side, though, so the end result might be 2030 or something. In the real world, I would then tweak the results to distribute that error and get an exact total, but that wasn’t necessary for the example.

Superiority Demonstrated

This method combines all the advantages of both the alternatives with none of the drawbacks. Values for any specific task range from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 25. The geometric nature of one number multiplied by another means that relative value rises disproportionately to the size of the small increase in the actual ratings – going from 4 to 5 might not seem like a big deal, but going from 4 times 4 to 5 times 5 is a difference of 25-16=9, or an increase of more than 50%.

At the same time, the effect of totaling the results from each player mean that if there’s something that only one player rated highly, it is the same as all three rating it of medium-low or mediocre significance. Only things that they all agree on get to the really big scores.

It also means that if one player habitually rates such things high, or low, such variations are evened out by the system, removing individual player biases.

Analyzing the example results

So, what was the washup of this theoretical example? The highest score by a small margin was “fun”. Players will forgive almost anything if they are having fun! It scored 115 points.

The only other result in the triple digits was 3.5, Responsive Actions. The players are placing an emphasis on NPCs reacting to PC decisions, suggesting either that this is a weak point of the GMs, or that they want a continued focus on it.

Scoring 95, and coming in in third place as a result, is 3.13, GM Flexibility. There seems to be some concern about plot trains, which definitely ties into the Responsive Actions result.

Almost scoring as highly at 90 points is 3.2, Scope for player decisions. There is a definite theme developing here!

Tied for fifth place, with 85 points, are another two items from the execution category, 3.6, PC Integration, and 3.8, Tactical Involvement. The players want to feel more strongly that their characters are a part of the world, and want combats to be more tactical than straightforward fights; again, the same theme shows up.

Two execution items also tie for 7th place, with 75 points, followed two execution items and the remaining general items at 70.

That means that nine of the top 12 scores are to be found in the execution category, and the other three comprise the general category. The highest score in the concepts category is 50, the highest in the prep category is 60, and the highest in the admin category is a 55. These are roughly half the highest-rated item.

All in all, the picture emerges of a trio of players who are fairly happy with the campaign the GM is running, with just one area needing specific attention.

Wrapping up the bundle

This article was originally subtitled “crawl before you can walk”. I’ve seen too many novice GMs try to run a marathon before they can even crawl. Don’t haul out and use your best idea for your first campaign; it will almost certainly prove to be too big and complex for your level of expertise as a GM. Start with something simple and fairly generic, with a lot of blank spaces; then add to it, week after week, filling in those empty places. This week, they discover a clever twist on Giants; next week, a twist on the relationship between piety, religious faith, and nobility; the week after, do something interesting with the politics of a new kingdom. Master the “just in time” approach and build your campaign using the Baby Steps In Campaign Design technique that I wrote about way back in Roleplaying Tips number 308.

One final application of the “scores out of five” technique merits mention as a closing thought: The GM could always do the survey on his own to assess the priority that he is currently placing on things. Because there is only the one “player” providing scores, the Factor would be relatively high, but the results would be directly comparable with player expectations and requirements as shown by their results, and should be highly enlightening.

This is a simple tool, but capable of producing profound insights. Make of it what you will – but remember that small steps in a given direction can have a big impact; if a campaign is mostly working already, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

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A trio of campaigns for your consideration

Well, that didn’t take long! It seems like only a couple of days since I made noise about the new plans for Campaign Mastery… wait, it has only been a couple of days!

Having realized late in the day that there is absolutely no chance of finishing the first big article in time for publishing tonight, and quite possibly not even tomorrow, it was time to pull a Plan B out of my back pocket – in this case, a slush pile of campaign ideas (which I mentioned having in Monday’s article, you may recall).

Rather than taking the time to more fully develop one of them as a feature in its own right, I have decided to take the quick-and-easy route, and simply post all three ideas as a single article – requiring minimal editing and costing minimal writing time, which can then be invested back into that longer article, greatly increasing the likelihood that it will be ready to publish next week.

These were originally developed as examples to accompany A Vague Beginning, which was written in 2011 and published in 2015. So these ideas are all six years or so old…

The Frozen North – a fantasy / Pathfinder / D&D campaign premise

Snowy Mountain 1 by Tamlyn Rhodes

Image by / Tamlyn Rhodes. Click the thumbnail to see the full-sized original image

The existence of fire Elementals, the Elemental Plane of Fire, and the many creatures adapted to a fire-based existence, raises the question why there are no cold/ice -based equivalents.

The truth of the matter has been lost in the sands of time, or perhaps was never discovered: that there was once an elemental plane of ice but it was destroyed eons ago in a terrible war when the inhabitants attempted to conquer the prime material plane, bringing forth an unprecedented age of ice. All but a few of the Elementals of cold and ice were destroyed, and today they are a forgotten species.

Unknown to mankind, a few survive, secretly locked away in the Castles Of Ice of the Frost Giants, and in the lairs of White Dragons. It is by drinking the “lifesblood” of these domesticated slaves that these races attain their resilience and adaption to the cold regions they inhabit.

Also lost was the secret of what caused this attempted conquest to fail, but this is a secret that the PCs will need to discover, for one of the Ice Elementals has escaped during a tribal feud amongst Frost Giants, and it has slowly gathered an army of creatures that it has seized, converted into icy versions of their species (Ice-Elves, Ice-Dwarves, Ice-Men, etc). Now it is poised to once again walk the paths of conquest and revenge.

  • Will the PCs suborn the slavery of an entire species – when the alternative is the destruction under walls of ice of their homelands?
  • Will they seek the final destruction of a sentient species, condemning the Frost Giants in the process?
  • Will the people of the warmlands declare war on the Giants – and how will the other races of Giant react?
  • Will the old tribal alliances between them hold firm?
  • What role will the manipulative and evil White Dragons play in these events?
  • And – the biggest question of all – who arranged for the escape of the Ice Elemental and what is their agenda?

There are clearly questions for the GM to answer, but there’s no rush – let the campaign sprout and grow on its own from these beginnings, and wait for the cool ideas (pun intended) to show up!

Echoes Of Tomorrow – a fantasy / Pathfinder / D&D campaign premise

Hourglass by Guilherme Silva combined with Broken Glass by Brano Hudak

This image combines Hourglass by / Guilherme Silva and Broken Glass by / Brano Hudak. Digital editing by Mike. Click the thumbnail to open a larger version.

It is a truism to say “your whole life has been leading to this moment”, but there are those with a different perspective. The Anachrons believe that a creature’s life is but an echo of their true existence in the afterlife propagating backwards in time, and that this destiny shapes the mortal existences that lead up to it. It takes all kinds…

But there is, it seems, some truth to the Anachron philosophy, incomplete and bewildering as it may be, for the Mad Lich Luciferous has conceived a grand scheme to conquer all of existence by altering the past. Stealing and diverting the souls of those about to enter the afterlife with his foul necromancy, he has sent rapists and thieves and murderers to Heaven and the spirits of the faithful to the planes of Hell.

The innocent dispatched to the lower planes are easy prey for the vile inhabitants of those realms, while the gentle fields of Elysium have proven no match for the wanton cruelty of the wicked who were diverted there, and are now all-but-conquered. The Gods, whose province is the natural order, were taken by surprise by the machinations of the profoundly un-natural Lich, and are besieged and all-but-helpless before the Lich and his followers and minions.

And with each diverted spirit, the past history of the world changes, becoming more vile and corrupt, more in keeping with an existence in which the innocent are eternally tortured in hell by demons and devils, and the wicked and cruel are lauded in heavenly revelry, and the temporal power of Luciferous grows.

In desperation, the Gods have banded together to shelter a few privileged individuals (the PCs) from the worst of these changes, a last desperate hope for the past, future, and present of all existence. These privileged few have been largely untouched by the depredations of wickedness, only slowly becoming aware of what seems – to them – to be an ongoing collapse of society into barbarity. They are slowly coming to realize that to everyone else, things are now as they have always been. At last, they are ready to undertake the greatest and most desperate adventure of all time, the overthrow of an evil grown supernaturally preeminent over all of time and existence…

Unlike the previous concept, this one requires a lot of specific details still to be worked out.

What’s the mechanism? Do the PCs have to travel in time to the scene of various climactic confrontations to make sure they come out “right”? Or is the GM prepared to leave all that up to the players to figure out?

While the first campaign would suit a relatively structured GMing approach, like the one I use, this would suit a more improvisational style.

The Currents Of Space – a Space Opera / Sci-fi campaign premise

Original image by NASA

Original image source: NASA, photo-manipulation by Mike. Click the thumbnail to see a larger image.

There are 23 perpetual motion machines with patents approved by the US patents office. Supposedly, one of the requirements is the provision of a working model. There’s a plot in these facts somewhere… but in the meantime, this is about the third time that I’ve used it as inspiration!

In fact, the problem with most such machines is that they consume more energy than they produce, if in fact they produce any at all.

The theoretical problems are harder to overcome, but they all depend on the definition of a closed system. So long as there is some source of energy that lies outside that closed system, perpetual motion – or something that looks very much like it to the layman – is easy.

The sun, for example, emits vast streams of charged particles. It would not be all that difficult to construct some orbital device that employed solar sails to convert some of that “lost energy” into rotational motion, just as does a windmill. The trick would be doing so in such a way as to reduce or eliminate the translation of that energy into movement of the collector as a whole rather than just the “blades” of our windmill – i,e, erecting our windmill on “solid ground”.

The lunar surface seems an obvious solution, as does the idea of placing asteroids into relatively stable orbits around the sun and then “coring” them to turn them into housings for our windmill blades. A relatively minor energy expenditure is needed for attitude control, making sure that the blades always face the sun.

Rotational energy can be converted into electrical power by a simple generator. The next trick is getting that energy to where it is needed – and, until recently, that has been a largely insoluble problem. As our battery technology has improved through research into efficient electric cars, however, it is becoming less of an issue.

This scheme is plausible enough that fifty years from now, if not a LOT sooner, it will be sufficiently viable that a pilot program would be undertaken. Let’s assume that it appears to be successful, and construction begins on a whole heap of these.

But that’s when the fun can begin. What happens to the solar wind? Does it keep going forever? or is it still gravitationally bound to the Sun, able to get a long way out before falling back? Perhaps a great solar current flows from solar equator out to the limits of the solar system before arcing back to re-impact the sun at the poles, twisted and accelerated by solar magnetic fields in a ballet of quasi-stability that has persisted for eons.

Our “windmills” would not only rob parts of the solar wind of some their energy, slowing them and causing them to arc back “prematurely”, causing a short-term increase in the radiation striking the sun, they would also quite likely perturb the smooth “flow”, creating turbulence within these slow-moving streams of solar wind.

There are two likely consequences:

(1) the sun suddenly starts to get a LOT hotter, effectively shortening its lifespan artificially. It would therefore expand in size. But at the same time, these returning particles have a lot less energy than they used to, so they would not be accelerated by the sun to the same degree on their next “loop” through the system – a potential domino effect in which the sun loses energy in the medium-term, slowly making it harder to sustain fusion at the core. A runaway cascade toward red giant status.

Then throw in the turbulence producing additional unstable “hot spots” within the sun, potentially blowing off additional chunks of the surface in solar flares.

Now factor in the human reluctance to grapple with environmental issues until forced, very reluctantly to do otherwise. It might take a thousand years, it might take ten thousand, it may take quite a lot less. It might take decades or centuries to convince the world that there’s a problem beyond the consequences of increased solar flare activity.

Humans have never encountered an energy source that we didn’t become dependent on. It would take rather less than decades or centuries to get to liking this new energy supply – a lot!

Shutting down the solar generators isn’t an option. What’s the answer? I’ll get back to that, shortly.

First, though, there’s consequence number (2). From time to time, at regular intervals*, one of those lower-energy turbulent ‘streams’ of solar wind would strike the earth. The interaction between the solar winds and our climate is only dimly understood at the moment, and the interaction between solar winds and the magnetosphere even less so; there have been some suggestions that this is a factor in the flipping of Earth’s Magnetic Field.

*Actually, it’s my impression that the frequency would rise and fall from an annual peak to an annual trough based on how close the planet is to the sun. But the rate of change would be relatively negligible; the Earth’s orbit may be an ellipse, but it’s a pretty round one, varying on a 100,000 year-long cycle from 0 to about 5%. Refer Milankovitch cycles.

So, what happens if the Magnetic Field flips? That’s not all that big a deal is it? We’re not exactly dependent on compasses any more. Unfortunately, it is a VERY big deal, as this article from Live Science makes clear.

How big a risk of that happening are we facing? NASA has detected dramatic weakening of the Magnetic Field, and believes that the next flip is no more than 1,000 years away – and could commence in less than 100 years (refer NASA Warns Earth’s Magnetic Field Weakening, Poles Shift Imminent). That means that it would already be teetering on the brink at the time of the deployment of our solar windmills!

Between these two consequences, we would be facing a catastrophic situation – one short-term, and one long-term. Suddenly, generation ships searching for a backup habitable planet and relativity-based ships searching for a replacement energy source become engineering necessities.

So, the campaign:

  • Phase one, PCs attempt to build generation ships, battling cynicism and conservatism, while protecting both the ships and themselves from religious fanaticism.
  • Phase two, different PCs (the same players) explore the universe in a desperate search for a solution.
  • Phase three, the first PCs have to save as many people as they can when the magnetic field begins to flip (or begins to flip out, as some have described it).
  • Phase four, PC group 2 encounter aliens who have a solution (steal one from sci-fi) and are captured. They have to escape, steal one of the aliens FTL ships, learn how to fly it, and get the solution back to Earth, where x00 years have passed.
  • Phase five, the astronauts get back to Earth and discover how successful, or unsuccessful, PC group 1 really were in Phase 3. They have to transform this post-apocalyptic society into a state-of-the-art high-tech military powerhouse quick-smart, because the aliens are almost certainly hot on their heels.
  • Phase six is the showdown, as the Astronauts and their newly-equipped soldiers have to fight off the aliens and establish human independence.

An unconventional campaign structure, but one that makes sense given the premise. I would have liked a third phase involving the first group of PCs in between phases four and five, but couldn’t think of one that didn’t violate the relatively straightforward continuity. Nevertheless, the first group of PCs would be with the second group in spirit during phase five, because it’s the choices made in phase 3 that determine what the returning astronauts will have to work with when the time comes.

So there you have it – three campaign concepts that need only a little TLC and creative juice from the individual GM to have them ready to play. The Big articles will resume next week!

Comments (3)

Plotting The Phone Book: A How-To Of Adventure Inspiration

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Photo Credit: Based on / Ksenia Kalinina,
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0. New Year, Old Business

Welcome to 2017! I hope every reader has had a happy and safe Holiday period and is now ready to face the New Year with gusto and confidence, recharged and re-energized. For the first time in, I think, eight or nine years, I took the Christmas/New Period off, completely. No thinking about future articles. No thinking about unfinished articles or series. No work on RPGs of any kind. It was great so long as I kept active doing something, but the itch to write grew stronger when time weighed on my hands. Which is another way of saying that I certainly feel all fired up and ready-to-go.

Though I did find it a little hard to get back into the routine that I had established in the latter part of 2016. I can’t say that I’m all the way there, yet – but, like an old comfortable shoe, that should change in a week or two, as I get back into the swing of things.

For the first few months of 2017 (at least), readers will notice a change here at Campaign Mastery – well, that’s the theory. I’m revisiting something that I’ve tried to do in the past – major articles or parts of a series once a week, on Thursdays, and “shorter” more ad-hoc articles on Mondays. Written using my usual techniques, mind, so they should still make sense and be fairly comprehensive within their subject matter.

In the past, this pattern has worked for a short while, and then floundered when an article wasn’t quite ready on time, or when something came up that took priority over the existing publishing schedule, or whatever. It’s certainly not set in stone!

One reason for that is that in December, Campaign Mastery very quietly celebrated it’s eighth anniversary. Which means that this coming December will be it’s ninth – that’s nine full years of publishing articles completed – and will start what is intended to be a year-long celebration culminating in the tenth anniversary. I have lots of plans for this, but they are all going to take a lot of time to execute – I’m talking months of extra work – so I’m trying to make room for it.

Not all that successfully, at least to judge from today’s article, a 21-section opus on creating plots. This is a subject that I’ll be writing about a number of times in early 2017, simply because I have a number of articles in mind on various aspects of the subject. And, like most of my articles, it started with a short, simple idea – so much so that I wasn’t sure it would be meaty enough to build an article around…

1. New Year, New Business

I used to pride myself on being able to build a plotline around just about anything. Not necessarily a good plotline, but a playable plotline nevertheless. From time to time, I would challenge myself by picking something at random or getting someone else to do so.

2. Take A Phone Book…

Take, for example, a phone book or directory. What could be done with that? Well, by inserting coded entries that someone else knew to watch for, you could pass vital intelligence – once a year – just by registering dummy corporations and setting up some sort of phone bank for all them. On the face of it, the flaws in that technique makes this not a very good plot – but it will be by the end of the process, I assure you! But I want to take readers through that process, step-by-step, so that means starting off from my first thought.

3. Function/Purpose

I reached that initial concept by looking at the selected foundation – a telephone directory – and analyzing its purpose, its function. In this case, it’s about associating specific information about an individual or business by name with numeric information (a phone number).

4. Adaption

Right away, codes and hidden messages leaped into mind (actually. its use as a cypher key leapt into mind but was immediately tossed aside because it wasn’t immediate enough, wasn’t dramatic enough, even though it’s more plausibly realistic). Why? because it’s a twist on the usual purpose of the phone book – a message with a “different” payload and intended recipient.

If we were talking about a vending machine, the purpose might be to dispense small quantities of snack foods, and pharmaceutical experimentation on unsuspecting subjects is the twist that comes most readily to mind.

If it was a packet of cigarettes, the first thought would be as a top-secret distribution mechanism for some life-saving serum back in the 40s, 50s, or 60s (when just about everyone at least tried smoking, and the cigarette companies worked very hard on getting members of the public to do so) without causing a mass panic. Why? Because, as the government never stops reminding us, they are bad for you, so why not a twist that makes them at least temporarily good for you at the same time? Perhaps there was good reason for the secrecy – an accidental release by a Russian Agent during the cold war, the US accepts the evidence from the Kremlin that release was accidental, but knows that if the truth is ever revealed, the public will go fully-paranoid and demand a nuclear retaliation for this “act of war”. Heck, even Congress couldn’t be told! Hmmm, that all holds together reasonably well – which brings me to the next stage of the process:

5. The Credibility Test

It’s easy to mess this up, to fall in love with your own ideas. The test isn’t to approve or reject ideas, it’s to pinpoint any and all flaws and weak points in your idea so that you can fix them.

In the case of the vending machine, the problem lies in tracking the effects of the pharmaceutical. Solve that by running a competition with the biggest prizewinners being the ones exposed to the new product – thereby giving them an incentive to provide their details to the company behind the snack-selling ‘front’.Beyond that, you need to think about why this method of testing would even be contemplated, let alone put into practice, compared with all the other ones available to a drug manufacturer. Lab tests of the chemistry, animal testing, even legitimate and properly-monitored human trials all have to be ruled out, or to have already been conducted with enough success to bring them to this point – and the potential benefits must be pretty significant, too, to both the company and the individual receiving the ‘treatment’. Tracking dosage can be built into the ‘contest’ rules by making it look like a marketing exercise – and that has the added benefit of being a superficially valid reason for the contest, an effective smokescreen.

In the case of our phone directory, the flaws are threefold. First, phone numbers are the logical place to encode information and those are assigned by the phone companies; my first-glance idea solves that by putting the encoding in the company names. Second, there’s the once-a-year nature of the method, and third, there’s the limited scope of the amount of code that can be delivered. And – an afterthought – fourth, it takes time and money to set up that many shell companies, and someone might notice and investigate.

All these problems except the once-a-year problem go away if you are the company subcontracted to produce the phone book. You can insert as many false entries as you want to, and even pretend that someone with authority ordered you to do so, like an obscure and secretive government intelligence agency, though that might pose additional risks, so save that for if someone asks questions and won’t be deflected.

You can even solve the once-a-year problem in the modern world of online telephone directories. Heck, you can even invent a non-existent 51st state (in the US) and list as many phone numbers as you want – and, because the code groups are so short, and only the intended recipient knows the intended sequence of names in which the numbers should be interrogated, the code would be practically impossible to break. And, because the phone numbers are not valid, anyone discovering one by accident and using it by mistake will get a “your call could not be completed, please recheck the number and dial again” message from the telephone carriers. You could even add to the credibility of the whole thing by calling your additional (fictitious) state “test” and claiming the whole data block is used for testing new display arrangements, new search protocols, and the security of the database.

What’s more, you can change the “hidden content” at will – names, addresses, and phone numbers – so you have a HUGE dump of information. You lose the cold-war relevance and immediacy, but solve all the practical problems with the idea – a trade-off that’s more than acceptable.

6. Correcting The Flaws

This is an excellent example of “Correcting The Flaws”. You can change who, you can change why, you can change how, you can even change what they are doing. In fact, you can change just about anything so long as you protect the original idea (or come up with an even better variation, and solve the flaws you identified.

7. Making it unique/A point of failure

In order to use this as a plot, you need some reasonable way for the whole dastardly plot to unravel when the “right” string gets pulled. You need a point of failure that hasn’t been anticipated, and that it is reasonable that the people behind whatever is going on would not have anticipated. Serendipity can work but is often viewed as the lazy way out. So is a turncoat spilling the beans, though you could use the latter by making the actual adventure about getting the prospective source out of wherever he is. But that can introduce new credibility problems in the case of our phone book example – this secret would be VERY highly classified, and the likelihood that anyone privy to that level of information becoming a defector is really, really slim.

The other thing that you need to do is make sure that this plotline is sufficiently original and unique. That’s not a problem in the case of our telephone book example – I’ve never heard of anything remotely like it, despite its now-obvious plausibility – so, to look at that, and a few other aspects of the process, we need a fresh example to work with. So lets take one of the most basic of all plots – boy meets girl.

7a. Boy-Meets-Girl with a twist

How can you make your plotline or story different from all the other ones that use the same basic model? Core concept or backdrop or characterization can all be your point of uniqueness – but just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean that it necessarily should be done.

But this is gaming, and things that for various reasons would never fly in Hollywood can be completely acceptable in a smaller audience market. Boy-meets-girl – on Mars. Boy-meets-girl – but one of them is an AI (that one’s been done). My initial thought: Boy meets girl – but one of them is a demon, and the two have to (literally) overcome heaven and hell to be together. This would be a story all about redemption and changing the unchangeable for someone you love – or trying to do so and failing. It almost writes itself – but Hollywood would never make the movie, the religious subtext is too controversial. That makes it perfect for gaming purposes because it’s something that can’t be done anywhere else (okay, maybe it would work in comics).

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you just need to decorate it differently – and maybe use it in a different terrain.

8. Connecting to your PCs

In a novel, or a movie that isn’t part of a franchise, it’s so easy – because your protagonist(s) are, by definition, the ones most suited to being in the heart of the plot.

For a TV show, or a movie franchise, you need to work with an established cast and somehow integrate them into the plotline. In a game, you need to connect your players with the plot.

Sometimes that’s easy to do, sometimes you have to be indirect about it. You could add an element of potentially unrequited love (heightening the tragic content if the quest is to ultimately end in failure) by having an NPC demon fall for a PC and attempt to reinvent themselves for them (hang on, this is sounding a lot like some of the plots from Buffy and Charmed – maybe Hollywood would do it, after all!) That leaves the PC in total control of his role in the story while still involving them – up to their neck. But the story becomes far more dramatic if there are tender feelings (or more) on both sides of this unlikely match, so it might be better to make them both NPCs and to cast the PC in the role of the arbiter or enabler to whom they turn for help in dealing with the resulting challenges being thrown at the ‘happy couple’. Because the PCs are all going to be different, the best choice will vary from one game to another. But you need someone who isn’t a complete fatalist, and who is a bit of a romantic, to really make this plot work.

It would work for me as the player of a PC because my profile is both of those things. I always tend to hope for the best (while preparing for the alternative) and have definite romantic inclinations – I can look at a relationship (and have in the past) and predict with confidence that it will never work out, even while doing everything I can to make it a success, even at personal cost. And my only regret will be that I wasn’t able to do enough to make it a success-against-all-odds.

Others may be more pragmatic, or more half-hearted, or more unwilling to put themselves out over such an improbable long-shot; that’s their prerogative, but it means that no matter what the inclinations of a character under their control might be, they won’t be the perfect target of such a plotline.

The better you know both your players and their characters, the more effectively you can connect them to a plot. And, if your understanding in either of these areas is lacking, the more you can learn by analyzing their choices of reaction to such a plot. The trick in the latter case is sometimes to separate the player from the character and correctly attribute the reactions. But that’s a subject for some other time.

9. Subthemes and side-plots

A really good plot will involve everyone in some way – in the case of an RPG adventure, that means all the PCs, not just the one that is the focus. Everyone should have some reason to react and interact with the plotline beyond simply being there. One character might have no personal feelings on the subject and even care less about it – but the couple and that PC have a mutual antagonist, inclining him to be “on their side” despite his personal lack of empathy for the situation – that introduces a subtheme of “the enemy of my enemy”. A romantic might be disposed to be supportive. A strongly religious person would have strong objections, as would anyone who is more practical than romantic in inclination. A character with feelings for the target might be jealous, and even motivated to doing things they normally wouldn’t countenance. There’s a strong vein of “redemption” as a theme for the adventure, which might tie in with other characters and their own needs for redemption. Various characters might recall and even decide to do something about their own estranged relationships as the focal one strikes rockier ground.

If you haven’t already covered everyone (or perhaps even if you have), you can also look to give them subplots and side-plots to explore aspects of the situation. That religious character might need to confront articles of their faith – specifically, can anyone be redeemed? What of someone who is so ideologically opposed that they commit acts that directly contradict their usual policies.

10. Resolution

Before you can begin to plot the specifics of your adventure, the other thing that you need to think about is the resolution of the storyline. These come in four major categories.

10a. Consequences

What are the consequences of success? What are the consequences of failure? Which of these are mutually incompatible, and hence will leave the GM with an either-or choice in the advent of a partial or limited success?

10b. Ramifications

What are the ramifications of the question being raised at all? In the case of our boy-meets-girl plot, the very fact that a Demon can fall in love with a mortal and even attempt to change their nature is front-page headline news in terms of the campaign background, shedding light on who and what Demons are and why they behave the way they do. Simply being involved may make the PCs new friends – and new enemies, catalyzing further plotlines.

In the case of the “Telephone Directory” plot, the are a raft of security questions that arise over who is permitted to offer an internet service, and how you can stop them. A draconian over-reaction is certainly a possibility, and (if one judges by past history) even a probability. That would have ramifications.

I have a deep and abiding love of plotlines and conundrums built around the engagement of the legal mechanics of society and super-heroics. Superheroes routinely violate legal protocols, for example, which could cause every crime to be thrown out of court because the criminals rights were violated. There’s the whole question of secret identities, in the legal sense – it doesn’t matter what law you make about this, I can get a plotline out of it (All this, of course, is a subdivision within the whole “I can get a plotline out of almost anything” attitude). But my players don’t share that love, and non-weekly play isn’t conducive to such plotlines (Non-fortnightly even less so), so I rarely get to scratch that itch.

In the original Champions campaign, I got four adventures out of a law protecting secret identities – one putting the nature of sanctioned vigilantism under the spotlight, leading to the law itself, one in which testimony was thrown out as potentially tainted by the PC’s anonymity, and two in which a hero and a villain, respectively, were hoist upon the petard of the law, leading to it being changed.

Eventually, I might get the chance at a fifth, exploiting the loopholes and/or flaws and/or ramifications of the revised law – and there are all of those things present. It’s a situation in which there are no perfect solutions.

10c. Parachutes

It doesn’t matter how much you think you players will love a plotline, there are no guarantees until you actually start play. Again, the better you know both players and characters, the better you can anticipate and stack the cards in your favor. Worse still is the situation in which the players have already done everything they can think of about a situation and it wasn’t enough, and are now getting tired of the frustration. And then, there’s the situation in which the players make all the right moves but luck turns against them.

In all these circumstances, you will want to think about a parachute – a way to get out of a plot as quickly and painlessly as possible, wrapping things up in a nice, neat bow. And, potentially, a lesser parachute to get them past any particular challenge that they can’t solve – preferably without simply handing them the solution on a platter.

In fact, it’s entirely possible to write a plot that consists of nothing more than the introductory sequence and the desired resolution and a whole raft of parachutes. I don’t recommend it – it places maximum flexibility and responsibility before and on the players, and maximum stress on the GM’s ability to Improv – but it can be done.

10d. Measures of satisfaction

For any given adventure, there should always be at least two possible resolutions, and sometimes anything in-between is also a possibility. Normally, on most things, I am a strictly neutral GM, neither favoring nor hindering the PCs unreasonably, and letting the dice fall where they may; in most campaigns, though, I yield that neutrality to protect the lives of the PCs if the players are still enjoying playing the character and I still have plotlines that require that character. Losing a PC is traumatic at the campaign scale – another subject for another day – and not something that I do lightly, and definitely not something that I do without as much advance planning as possible.

The other factor that can cause me to yield my position of neutrality is anticipated player satisfaction over one resolution vs the alternative. I have no problem with the PCs losing if it merely sets the stage for a big comeback in a follow-up adventure. Similarly, I have no problem with the PCs solving a problem with which I had hoped to bedevil them for some time to come.

But, when one outcome is clearly going to be less satisfying to the players in the long-term, taking into account any subsequent come-back, I become very quietly partisan. Sometimes that means heaping complications on their shoulders (preventing too easy a victory) even if they have thought of something I had overlooked, sometimes it means shading the odds in their favor.

My goal is always to make sure that I am telling a story that the players enjoy being a part of, and a participant in. Every other consideration is subordinate to that goal.

So, for example, when my players encountered Mortus (better known to them as a variant Thanos), even though there was an easy way to resolve the encounter but not the long-term problem that the character represented, when they thought of the solution to the long-term problem, I was fine with them pre-empting a far-distant plotline (in terms of my campaign plan) to put their solution into place. Having done so, I then simply had to find a way to parachute the character out of the campaign so that he didn’t provide an easy resolution to other challenges that lay in the players’ future, in other words to park him until I needed him again. If I had been unable to think of a way to do so, I would have delayed their success, making the current problems too difficult for them to solve (they were already at a higher level of complexity than anything they had faced before or since) – but, once I had my parachute, the priority goal of giving the players the maximum hard-earned satisfaction possible took control.

There were occasions in the preceding Zenith-3 campaign when problems that they should have solved quickly and easily lingered because the players hadn’t yet found the right question to ask. Short- and medium-term low levels of frustration only yielded a greater degree of satisfaction when those problems were ultimately resolved.

No campaign plan survives contact with the players unscathed. The purpose of such plans is not for you, the GM, to get your literary rocks off, it’s a planning tool to facilitate the goal. For that reason, you invest the minimum possible time into such planning – just enough for it to fulfill its purpose, no more – so that no plotline ever seduces you so much that you become incapable of an objective assessment of likely player satisfaction.

11. A Second Credibility Test

We’ve added a lot of material to the basic outline since our initial credibility test, so with that final architectural block at the metaphoric plot construction site, it’s time for a second one before things get cemented in place. This works exactly the same as the first, but ultimately will be far more detailed in content and in the changes that get made at this. the 11th hour of plot design. This is also when any basic research needed should be done.

For example, if you had decided in the phone directory plot to go with the “get the turncoat out of danger” option because it provides a more action-oriented plot with more opportunities for the various players to participate, this is where you have to address the credibility problem raised earlier. The background and motivation for the source’s change-of-heart need to be rock-solid, and (at the very least) to motivate the PCs to be sympathetic toward him. You will want to test their ability to keep him alive to the maximum, and that requires their very best efforts – something that won’t happen if they are doing it all dispassionately, “by the numbers”. Especially since, for reasons of credibility, you will need to present the NPC “warts and all” in the course of the adventure.

In fact, it would be ideal if there was some history of the NPC being a known enemy of the PCs. Establishing his bonafides in this way in advance – even if there are adventures that have no other big-picture (metagame) purpose – buys him credibility in his position that can’t be obtained any other way. And it adds an element of both sides needing to overlook past animosities, always a great source of good roleplaying.

12. Big Bang or Many Little Bangs?

You have one final decision to make before you can execute final plot creation – dole this plotline out as a series of subplots and encounters in many adventures, or have it all happen in one big plotline? Or a third choice, using subplots to foreshadow the main plot?

For example, there might be those adventures to establish the NPC as a villain; an adventure in which things go pear-shaped because the other side had better intelligence; and perhaps even an adventure somewhere in the middle in which mutual interests forces the PCs and NPC to set aside their animosity, showing the character as not being all dark and evil, and giving the GM the chance to establish his motivation for eventually becoming a turncoat (this should be in the middle so that the character can re-establish his villainous bonafides afterwards).

These adventures don’t just buy credibility, they buy shared history and player engagement when the real plotline rolls around.

13. Refining The Plot

So critical is this decision that when you have made it, you should turn right around and go back to step 1, reexamining everything in light of how best to execute it. If you are going to make the NPC the focus of several prior adventures, for example, it becomes important to establish his capabilities and past history, and to ensure that this doesn’t produce any credibility gaps. In fact, you may need to go through the entire process a number of times, refining the plot and trying variations, before achieving a satisfactory result. Fortunately, it’s fairly quick!

13a. Spotlight Issues

One of the things that you definitely want to look at in the course of this refinement is the balance of the spotlight on the various PCs involved. I talked about that, and about introducing unrelated subplots purely to share the spotlight around a little more evenly, in late 2016, so I won’t go into it here in great detail – consult Ordinary Lives In Paranormal Space and Time, Ordinary Life in an RPG, and Paving Over Plot Holes: A Masterclass in Adventure Creation for information on the subject, and Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign? for some of the fundamental concepts (which should have been included in the list of links at the end of the “plot holes” article).

13b. Linking and Conflicting Plot Threads

The other thing to specifically look at – and this may need to be done some time in advance – is how to tie other campaign plot threads into this plotline, and whether or not there is a conflict with any of them. For example, you might need this spy-turning-traitor to be the architect of the system for information smuggling that is the background focus of this plotline so that he knows enough about it to spill all the beans, but realize that having him do anything more would violate the premise of a planned future adventure by compromising his former intelligence service too much. That leaves you with two choices: revise that future plotline to incorporate the consequences of this one, or add a final act to this one in which, having stilt the beans on the Telephone Directory (and put the cat amongst the pigeons), a double agent from his former service kills him (protecting the future adventure at the price of compromising the satisfaction levels of this one).

I would choose between these by first trying to employ option (a), revising the future adventure; but if I couldn’t find a way to do so that didn’t excessively weaken its credibility, I would reluctantly choose option (b) – but then boost the satisfaction levels some way back to where they would have been by enabling the PCs to kill or capture the assassin. A minor flunky, he knows very little of value – certainly nowhere near as much as the now-deceased spy-master – and therefore poses far less danger to that future adventure.

In fact, I specifically aim to make this easier by having the different plots involving “villainous agency X” listed as a discrete plot thread so that it becomes obvious that a future adventure will rest on the resolution of this one. You may spend most of your time and effort pruning and shaping the tree in front of you, but being able to easily step back and see the shape of the neighboring trees can be invaluable to keeping one eye on the bigger picture.

14. Creativity Is A Muscle

Well, not literally, but certainly figuratively – the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. As I’ve commented before in any number of articles, I create campaigns and adventure concepts that I know I will never get to play simply for the exercising of my creativity (and for the pleasure I get out of it). Usually, these get thrown away, or filed away for future use when I need something on short notice (a lesson I’ve learned the hard way – ALWAYS have a campaign on-tap, however unfinished it might be). Since starting Campaign Mastery, I’ve gotten in the habit of sharing these from time to time – for example, in Yesterday Once More: A pulp time-travel Campaign.

There’s no better way to get better at writing and executing adventures than by doing it. There’s no better way to get better at Improv than to start small (limiting the damage you can do) and doing it regularly. And there’s no better way to become more creative than being creative. Treat this approach as an exercise in creativity, even if the adventures you come up with have no relevance to your current campaigns.

Look around you, once a week or once a day, pick an object or an advert on TV or a random page from a sourcebook or reference book and build a plot around something you find. Don’t spend a lot of time; ten minutes, say, at most. Save the results (and index them) – you never know when one will come in handy – and in 6 months or a year, look back at the earliest ones and marvel at how far you’ve come.

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Risk Assessment For GMs

Image Credit: / J. Henning Buchholz

Image Credit: / J. Henning Buchholz

This article was started way back when I was submitting articles to Roleplaying Tips, in fact, more than ten years ago, but it was never finished – until now. So “recently” means “relative to 2006″…

I recently read a book describing the calamities that befell Lloyds of London in the early 80s and 90s and it got me thinking back to the days when I was an insurance clerk, and what I had learned then about how insurance premiums were calculated. And I suddenly realized that some of what I had learned back then had not only started to make more sense in the decade or so since, but this new understanding had applications in the world of Gaming, in enabling the GM to adopt a whole new approach to some aspects of his craft. Does it work in practice? That we’ll have to wait and see.

Understanding Risk

Insurance premiums are set by calculating the risk that the insured party will have a claim of value “X” in the year, and then the risk of a claim of value 2X, and then the risk of one of 3X, and so on. Multiply each risk by the claim value and add up the results and you have the total risk of the insurance, ie (in theory) how much the premium should be for that particular driver or homeowner or whatever.

For example, let’s say that there’s a 1 in 100 chance of a $5,000 claim, a 1 in 1,000 chance of a $20,000 claim, and a 1 in 5,000 chance of a $50,000 claim, per year.

  • 1/100th of $5,000 = $50.
  • 1/1000th of $20,000 = $20.
  • 1/5000th of $50,000 = $10.

So if those are the only risks to worry about, the average claim per year per customer would be $80. Set your premium for that, plus a share of your administrative, operational, & infrastructure costs, plus a profit margin, and all will be well.

In theory, you don’t need insurance – you just need to save $80 a year and you’ll have enough saved when the time comes, even without interest on those savings. But in practice, that’s not the case, as anyone who’s rolled dice knows – that 1 in 100 chance might come up on the first roll, the 15th, the 80th, or the 131st. The likelihood that it will hold off until the one-hundredth, when you will have saved the $5000 to pay the cost of repairs is vanishingly small.

How small?

Compound Risks

Well, for technical reasons, it’s a lot easier to work with the chance that something won’t happen.

  • In the first year, there’s a 99% chance that the first event won’t happen, or 0.99.
  • In the second year, there’s a 99%x99% chance that the first event won’t happen, or 0.9801.
  • In the third year, there’s a 99%x99%x99% chance that the first event won’t happen, or 0.970299.
    …and so on.

Right away, you’ll notice that the chance that something will happen in those three years is smaller than you would get by just adding three lots of the 1% chance together. In the 100th year, the chance that it won’t have happened yet is still 36.6032341273%! Or, to put it another way, the chance that it will have happened at least once by this point is about 63.4%. And, the chance that it will have happened at least two times in that 100-year period is going to be a smidgen less than 63.4% of 63.4%, or 40.2%. There’s a significant chance that this once-in-a-century event will have occurred at least 5 times in the course of a century – just over 10% chance, in fact.

For most people, probability is inherently counter-intuitive (and yes, I’m one of the majority). This shows quite clearly that an insurance company who relied on once-a-century items only happening once a century would go out of business in short order. In fact, there’s a significant risk that the company would have to pay out $5000 five times in the course of that century. To be adequately prepared, the premium would have to be more than five times the $80 a year.

Risk Leveling

Except that this is impractical and unprofitable. Insurance companies make their product more attractive by dividing that risk by the number of insured that are not likely to have any claims in the year in question, and then insuring themselves against catastrophic events that would cause more people than normal to make claims. So if only 1 in 5 will actually have an accident in a given year, then you can divide the “true premium” by 5.

The Insurance Risk Assessment Shortcut

That’s all well and good in theory, but in practice it’s way too fiddly and it takes too long to be entirely practical. There are far too many combinations; it would take weeks if not months to calculate a single individual’s premium.

Instead, most insurance companies assume that they will have enough customers that they will encounter every possible outcome in the course of a year (within the scope of their coverage, at least) – in other words, that their customer pool represents a statistical universe.

They then use statistical tools to determine the average value of claims expected in the year and simply assess the risk of any given car having a claim of that size; they can then determine the premium to charge (plus a share of expenses and a profit margin). To make things easier for their staff, they use a points-based system to calculate an estimate of that risk – staff simply look up the total points scored on a table and compare it with the value of the insurance to get the premium (or have a computer system do it for them).

This means that staff can determine premiums without being taught really understanding the underlying complexities.

The same approach can be used by GMs for a number of types of Event and Occurrence in RPGs. Wandering monsters, weather, plot complications, etc. The result is a table showing a die roll on one side and an outcome based on the risk.

Why this would be an advantage over the traditional methods of creating such tables are the ability to incorporate a multitude of factors that normally have to be handwaved due to the complexity of calculating probability combinations, as will shortly be seen.

Wandering Monsters & Other Chance Encounters

Every game system, whether it’s level based or points based, has a method by which the power level of an encounter can be measured. In points based systems, it might be set multiples of character points in the encounter, for example 100, 125, 150, and so on. In level based systems, it’s levels. But levels are not a linear measurement in most systems; it takes more experience to go from level 17 to level 18 than it did to go from level 7 to level 8. This distorts things, because it means that there will be far fewer encounters of higher levels than the straightforward “by level” system would allow for. The answer (again) is to use the experience-point equivalent of the level, instead of the level directly: 1000, 2000, 3000, and so on. D&D 3rd Ed (and 3.5) uses an Encounter Level system to allow for the non-linearity.

Because most people will be familiar with it, I’ll be using the D&D / Pathfinder model for this discussion.

Encounter Table Structure

Most encounter tables assign specific encounters to entries on their encounter tables. I think that’s actually counterproductive, because it means that the table contents have to be continually revised as characters increase in levels.

A better approach would be to employ a more abstract system that doesn’t need such revision.

For example, you might list on the table:


You will have noted the empty column – we’ll populate that shortly. Right now, it’s the entries on the right that we’re interested in – the first of them is EL-3/- which should be reas as “Encounter Level minus three, or less”. That’s followed by EL-2, EL-1, EL, EL+1, and so on all the way up to “Encounter Level plus three or more”. The term “Encounter Level” in this table refers to the EL of the PCs, collectively.

The table functions as an index of encounter levels relative to the level of the party, so “EL+2” means the “encounter level value of the party, plus two”. As a general rule of thumb, encounters should rarely be less than 2 below the party’s level or more than 2 above, according to the DMG.

Using this table requires and assumes that you have a separate record, possibly even a completely separate document that lists all the actual encounters that you have prepared, and that meet the specified encounter level; the first page might be labeled EL0, the next EL1, then EL2, and so on. On each page you list encounters, an entry for each monster type that exists in your campaign world that can meet the EL target. The first entry for EL1 might be “1 Orc”, then on page EL3 would be “2 Orcs”, EL4 would have “3 Orcs”, EL 5 “4 Orcs”, and so on.

In the 3.x system, EL rises with numbers as a multiple of the square root of 2: 1, 1.4 (no such thing), 2, 2.8 (call it 3), 4, 5.6 (call it 6), 8, and so on. One representative of a given creature will have its base EL given in its writeup as its CR, or Challenge Rating. You keep going until the numbers no longer make sense to you, as in “there is no way that many of them would be found in one place”.

Depending on the creatures, that might be 1, 2, 3, 4, or 32. That’s up to you. The beauty of this system is that you can keep adding to it as you go, and you can populate the lists with as many customized encounters as you like. If you decide that a creature that is normally CR2, such as a bugbear, becomes CR4 if it has this ability or that equipment package, you know that EL4 should list one creature with that package, EL6 should list 2 of them, and so on.

As a very rough rule of thumb, for example, you might decide that if you total the magical plusses of armor and weapons that a creature wields, you get the increase in the creature’s CR. You might also decide that increases in Hit Dice follow the same 1.4-factor progression, so that a CR4 creature with 4 levels in a character class is a CR 9, as shown below:

You can get a larger version of this chart without the markings and against a plain background by clicking on the image.

You can get a larger version of this chart without the markings and against a plain background by clicking on the image.

The top row is the number of creatures of CR1 that are needed to reach the EL designated in the third row, after appropiate rounding. The middle row shows the real values with a decimal place, the “raw data”. To permit the chart to be a reasonable size, I’ve split it into two triple-rows – the first deals with ELs 1 to 10, the next, ELs 11-20. (If I were doing this for real, I would extend it to at least EL30 and possibly 50).

Some of the “rounded” values have a + symbol. If you look closely, you will see that if the raw value is something-point-two, or in fact anything less than something-and-a-third, it has no plus symbol and is simply rounded down; if there is a decimal higher than 2/3, it is rounded up. The plus is there for those in-between values like “1.4” and “5.6”.

The “+” symbol also confers some kind of advantage to the creatures – so a group of creatures whose EL has a + next to it needs a minor advantage beyond the number of creatures encountered and any other form of EL adjustment.

As you can see, character levels are really easy when you make the assumption described earlier – simply find the cell with EL that has everything else taken into account and move to the right 1 space for each character level. (Note that you don’t have to use this shortcut method if you don’t want to, it is NOT canon. My experience is that it comes pretty close to “reality”, though, in terms of relative effectiveness in combat).

Or perhaps the table is telling you that you need eleven creatures of a given CR to reach your target EL but you want fewer creatures and to give them a couple of character levels instead – just count one space on the table left for each character level on the top line to find how many of the modified creatures should be encountered. Two character levels, two spaces left, so 11 to 8 to your choice of 5 creatures with an extra little “+” advantage or 6 creatures without.

The chart can be used in a host of other ways. Suppose you were to have a group of 8 CR2 creatures who you wanted to take up to EL10. Look across the top row until you find 8, then down to the third row to get the CR of 8 CR2 creatures – a seven. That means that you need to give each of them +3 CR’s worth of advantages. Those advantages can be the same for all, or you could decide to give this one +3 STR Bonuses (i.e. +6 STR), that one +3 CON Bonuses (+6 CON), a third gets +3 in magical weapons and armor, a fourth gets three extra hit dice, and the other 4 receive 2 class levels each – in different character classes. Your eight CR2 creatures start to look like a population of individuals and not a homogeneous, generic, monster “with benefits”.

Event Likelihood

Okay, let’s turn our attention to the empty column. What we want here starts off as a dumbbell probability curve, such as you might get from 3d6. But we want one that gives us some multiple of 7 result categories, because our table has 7 slots to fill.

A few minutes playing around at (my go-to site for this sort of thing) gives me the results as percentages. But there’s some messy rounding involved – the numbers are 1.16%, 8.56%, 23.84%, 32.87%, 23.84%, 8.56%, and 1.16%.

That curve is a little sharp for my tastes, though. I’d like to roughly halve those percentages and apply a flat +7% to each. 7 plus-7-percents is 49%, so the curve component is providing 51% of the roll, so that’s what those numbers have to be multiplied by, as shown below.


When I did the calculations, as you can see, I ended up with a 3% error unaccounted for.

I flattened the top result 1% more to make it an evenly divisible 4% error, and then gave 1% each to the two values on either side of the peak to arrive at the final numbers in the table.

Encounter Probability – base chance

So far, it’s all been fairly conventional going, but here’s where the risk assessment element comes into play.

Most adventures simply assign a percentage chance of an encounter. Surely we can do better than that?

Let’s start by saying that there’s a base chance of an encounter that we want to assign based on the levels of monster inhabitation in the area.


Right away, that incorporates the climate and the levels of non-monster population (who would drive hostile creatures away) and a host of other factors. From there, it’s all about conditional modifiers.

Encounter Modifiers

Those modifiers all go in another table, one with a whole bunch of headings. There are three possible types of adjustment: An increased chance with an increased risk, an adjusted chance (up or down, evenly balanced) with an bias on the encounter table, and a straightforward encounter chance adjustment with no increase in risk.

Every time you think of a factor that you want to track individually to tweak the results, all you have to do is add another set of lines to the modifier table.

For example, you might want to track time of day. Monsters are more likely to be active late at night if nocturnal or in the early morning and late evening if not. At first, it might seem that only unintelligent monsters would follow this pattern, but for that very reason, intelligent monsters would be out hunting at that time of day. Noonish is typically the quietest time of day.

Right away, there’s a complication: nothing we have so far distinguishes nocturnal from diurnal creatures. Our list of potential encounters certainly doesn’t. So, we either complicate our nice simple process, or we use risk assessment techniques to balance the books. No normally nocturnal creature would operate during the day unless they were desperate, or had some advantage that made them diurnal instead, one that most members of the creature’s race don’t have. Similarly, diurnal creatures don’t operate at night unless desperate or they have an advantage at night that most such creatures don’t have.

Instead of a straight adjustment to the encounter chance, we are better served by converting some of the adjustment into an increase in risk posed by the encounter. +1 EL worth is the standard, and it’s worth -5% in my book.

Using this information as a basis, I created the following:


Let me walk you through the table and the process that it demonstrates.

  • I started by breaking the day up into eight of broadly-defined time periods. That makes it easy to make symmetrical “probability curves”.
  • I populated the Nocturnal Modifiers column with a peak of 12%, diminishing to a minimum of 0%. Then, because there were two Diurnal columns, I doubled those values, and finally, because those two diurnal columns were going to be distributed without a lot of overlap, I reduced the nocturnal values to 3/4 of their interim values.
  • That scaled the nocturnal readings to match diurnal peaks of 12%, so I added them – one with a peak in the early hours and one with a peak in midafternoon. I reasoned that more creatures would stir in the very early morning than in the afternoon because those who had already found what they needed would not be active; this bias shifted the morning peak to earlier in the day.
  • Adding those up gave me the first subtotal column.
  • Next, I allowed for normally nocturnal creatures becoming diurnal because of an advantage and vice-versa using the “-5%” column – I’ll talk a little more about that in a moment.
  • Another subtotal.
  • ..Which was needed so that I could calculate a relative adjustment. Because our base value incorporates the overall impact of every variable, the average modifier needs to be +0%. If you total the values in the second subtotal column, you get 83%. 80 divided by 8 gave a base adjustment of -10%; I then tweaked the after-dark adjustment to -9%, giving me a total of 4% to deduct. Two of it was allocated to the Evening timeslot to make it more closely resemble the “after dark” total, while the other 2% were split up and applied to mid-morning and “noonish”.
  • Adding the Relative Adjustment and second subtotal together gives the final adjustment values. But note that five of these adjustments refer to creatures with an added advantage and three don’t; so this table is a mixture of straight adjustments and adjustments with an increased risk attached.
The Increased Risk adjustment

These represent an increased capability in exchange for a reduction in likelihood to occur. In this case, I applied them to those time periods when nocturnal variations of day creatures were most likely to be operating, and to when diurnal variations of traditionally nocturnal creatures would be most likely. I also took into account the increased competition and danger that would be faced during the time periods when the greatest number of the “normal creatures of opposing type” would be active – that’s why there is no pre-dawn adjustment when one would otherwise be expected.

What do these values mean? Well, I wouldn’t write this whole table in my modifiers table; just the conditions and the final scores. Those that got a -5% adjustment for increased risk would be marked with an asterisk.

If it’s, say, Midmorning when I make my encounter roll, then the base chance of an encounter is down 7%, but if an encounter does result, the creature has +1EL relative to whatever the encounter table says. When I select from my list of appropriate encounters, if the creature is normally diurnal, I can choose to use that to “flip” their orientation; if not, or I choose to have them at a disadvantage in respect of the time of day, I can use it for something else.

That’s how you can take a specific condition and turn it into a general one so that there’s no need to differentiate between them in your encounter lists.

How Often should checks be made?

It’s important to realize that if you wait long enough, any given level of encounter will eventually take place. The risks being assessed are the risks in a specific time frame. In roleplaying terms, this should be the risk of whatever time unit is next highest compared to the frequency with which you are going to be making die rolls to check against the risk, on average. If your checks are to be daily, then your base levels should be the risk of such an encounter in a week; if hourly, then in a day; and so on.

This means that you can produce a different base chance chart for each of the major time-spans that you might want to hand-wave. One table – the one I showed earlier – would be reasonable for a week’s, or perhaps a month’s, travels. That’s why there’s such a high risk shown for the “Extremely High” habitation level; daily, it would probably be only half or even a third of that amount, despite the population “density”.

Most of the time, nothing happens.

Other Modifiers to consider

ANY condition that might impact the chance of an encounter can be taken into account.

Are the PCs carrying torches, advertising their presence and potentially attracting diurnal creatures?

Or are they using some form of Infravision to get around without so advertising their presence, which reduces the opportunity for other creatures to flee a potential danger?

The first would increase the risk of encountering high-level creatures who have enough confidence that they aren’t frightened off, while reducing the risk of encountering low-level creatures who don’t have that confidence.

The latter increases the likelihood of low-level encounters and removes the opportunity for high-level creatures to be attracted to the PCs – by the time the relative adjustment is made, the high-level encounter likelihood is effectively reduced. So this would be a case of a modifier with a bias to the encounter chart. In some cases, it would be a reduction in encounter chance, in others it would be a reduction in encounter chance and a bias toward low results on the encounter table – perhaps a -10% or a -20%.

Use your imagination a little. The PCs have a lot of magic with them? Then they are more likely to encounter beings that can detect that magic. They have captured some rare artifact? Then they are more likely to encounter beings that have an interest in that artifact. Both of these suggest an increase in the encounter rating. The PCs are currently engaging in, or have just had, a battle? The noise generated must increase the chance of another encounter, but it will reduce the risk of a low-level encounter (which is more likely to run) and increase the risk of a high-level encounter (which feels secure enough to investigate) – in other words, it would be an increase in the chance of an encounter and a bias high on the encounter table.

Check Frequency Revisited

It gets even more entertaining when the time comes to use the table.

First, vary the frequency of die rolls according to the risk the party are taking. One roll in camp on the way to an encounter per night is enough; maybe 2 a night on the way back. Perhaps you might increase the risk of a low-level encounter if they have no campfire, or the risk of a high-level encounter if they light one.

Instead of a roll every hour when they are exploring the dungeon, make one every 3 hours – but make an extra roll at the start of combat to see if an unexpected encounter will take place during, and another one afterwards to see if one is drawn by the sounds of battle.

By doing this, you let the circumstances help you to determine the nature of the encounter – (What type of encounter would be brave enough to show up in the middle of the fight? Or perhaps the extra is cowering in a hidden lair within the room – until the fight crashes through into their living room. After the battle, looters and carrion eaters are more likely) – and use the history of what the PCs have been and are currently doing to compile modifiers as you need them and as you think of them.

Remember, because of the “Base Chance” system, any factor you haven’t specifically included a modifier for is automatically taken into account. All of them.

The Net Effect

There are obvious advantages to this approach. Not only are you assessing the risks of encounters based on the behavior of the party, encouraging clever game play, but you are adding realism. You are also increasing the risks when the party have more to lose (and hence making the party more interested in the outcome) but you are increasing the risks when they are freshly-weakened by battle. In short, you are making your random encounters more interesting, more relevant, and more appropriate.

Application II: Setbacks And Plot Complications

When originally conceiving of this article, the Random Encounters portion was as far as I intended to go. But in the course of writing it, I began to catch glimpses of other ways of utilizing the same basic approach.

For example, scenario generation – plot twists always happen about 2/3 of the way through the story or later, right? That gives the players time to understand the situation, to have wasted efforts and resources going down the wrong path, to be committed to “X” when they suddenly find that “Y” is what they should have been trying to achieve all along, and still have time to reverse course and achieve a last-minute opportunity to turn things around.

But setbacks and plot complications can occur ANYWHERE in the story, provided they are not resolved until the end. You can work out a table of likelihood of a complication occurring at each given point in a scenario in exactly the same way as I have done with encounters, and roll for them according to how quickly the party are getting through the scenario. If your campaign has strong continuity, you don’t even have to explain them in the course of the scenario – you can just leave the events a mystery for a later occasion.

The PCs are receiving their mission briefing when their car explodes in the parking lot (a medium level setback).

The PCs are about to board their flight to the adventure location when they discover a mistake with their tickets (another medium-level setback).

The PCs break into the vault to recover the stolen crown jewels only to discover that they have tracked down the crown jewels of a completely different Kingdom – which may or may not have been stolen (a high-level setback).

Another favorite trick (if not overused) is to make the triviality of the encounter proportional to the level of paranoia of the party. I once had a group obsessing for hours about a flower, much to my entertainment; a young woman approached a member of the party, took a flower out from a bunch of them that she happened to have with her, and pinned it to the lapel of one of the PCs, simply saying this would look better on you, and then walking away, casually tossing the rest of the flowers in the garbage… (she had just broken up with her fiancé, who had given her the flowers. The PC reminded her for a moment of her boyfriend) – (a low-level setback).

The more of this sort of thing that you can come up with on-the-spot and leave to be explained later, the more dynamic your plots will be as actually played. Some of your best ideas will be spur-of-the-moment and I’ll-explain-it-later. If YOU can’t predict when these things will come up, neither can your PCs – and they will never be completely sure of the significance of any encounter. Your players are more than capable of complicating the lives of their characters with no help from you – given enough rope – and this helps massively when it comes to avoiding plot trains.

Application III: Weather

Another area where this sort of risk assessment approach is useful is in the determination of the weather. Assume an average day and then roll for deviations from it. Here, the risks are unlikely to be modified too much by what the PCs are doing or have done; the basis of the risk is the combination of local geography and preceding weather conditions.

As a trivial news item within one campaign, I once mentioned that a Weather Wizard had escaped from custody while the PCs were on their last adventure, and a large reward had been posted. By sheer chance, every time they passed through a certain small town thereafter, it began to rain. After 4 or 5 such occasions of sudden shifts in the weather, they became convinced that the Weather Wizard was hiding there. He wasn’t, but an economic war was being waged in the vicinity using weather magic, true enough. Why? Because when they went looking for the Wizard, I decided that they should find SOMETHING for their troubles. Meanwhile, the Weather Wizard was safely tucked away in his glacier, putting the finishing touches on his plans to trigger a new ice age, and carefully NOT doing anything to give away his location….


These basic examples show how the principles of risk assessment, as used by insurance companies the world over, can be applied to RPGs in a number of interesting and beneficial ways. But these only scratch the surface. Tactical situations can be described in terms of minimizing risks, for example. There has been no real effort to treat different kinds of risks separately. Even combat can be considered in terms of the level of risk of taking damage given the conditions, defenses, and armaments involved.

And if a really fun idea occurs to you, as GM, you can always fudge the dice. The risk of a powerful artifact disguised as something trivial that everyone wants to get their hands on being mistakenly sold to the PCs for a silver piece must be pretty low… “But he gave all the right recognition signals and code phrases!”

Have fun…!

This is the last post at Campaign Mastery for 2016. I had hoped to generate Christmas/New Years Greeting and schedule publication in advance, but time (and Christmas planning) simply won’t permit it. For the first time in about 10 years, I’m taking the Christmas/New Year period off (aside from ongoing maintenance of the site, of course). So let me take this opportunity to wish every reader a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! See you in 2017…

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Paving Over Plot Holes: A Masterclass in Adventure Creation

This image combines a texture by / sundeip arora with a jigsaw image by / erik araujo

This image combines a texture by / sundeip arora
with a jigsaw image by / erik araujo

I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of weeks working on the next adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign, and the techniques employed have enabled me to illustrate some of the techniques that I’ve written about in the past.

Normally, I would not post an article on the subject until after the adventure had been played, because I know that several of my players read Campaign Mastery regularly if not religiously, but since my intent is to generalize a fair bit, that shouldn’t be a problem in this case – and it’s usually better to write these things when thoughts are fresh in your mind and recent experience.

Because I intend to touch on a range of issues, this article might seem a little less organized than usual. You have been warned!

Adventure Structure

The basic structure of this adventure is as follows:

  1. Real Life of the characters I (for 4 PCs and 2 NPCs)
  2. Incident
  3. Real Life of the characters II (for 4 PCs and 2 NPCs)
  4. Murder Mystery
  5. Investigation
  6. Complication/Setback
  7. Solution

The Blank Page

One of the advantages that I didn’t mention in my various posts on the Real Lives of the PCs but that was presented to me fairly forcefully in the writing of “Cold Cases” is that it provides an easy icebreaker. There was very little blank-page angst; I was able to just dive right in and start writing.

It’s never that simple.

I had a list of subplots and pieces of real life that I was supposed to touch on in the course of the two Real Life segments, but for the most part they were sufficiently vague in content that they could go anywhere. I had the basic outline of the mystery and complication segments in a fair amount of detail but nothing more than a wealth of possibilities and no idea how they would all go together into a coherent form. As a result, I hit writer’s block almost immediately.

More than anything else, two particular tools are my go-to solutions to this problem: the Adventure Title, and the Adventure Theme.

Adventure Title

I strongly believe that names matter enormously, even if the title’s relevance is going to be vanishingly obscure to the players, or not even revealed to them. Not just adventures, but characters, and places, and campaigns. They are a crystallization of the thought process of the GM, especially when they apply to the totality of the thing being named. That’s why I wrote a major series on Names a few years back.

Ideas for the adventure title in this case began flowing very quickly and easily. In short order, I had a dozen – I’ll quote some of them because trying to understand them won’t give my players any real clues: “What if they held a Zombie Apocalypse and no-one came?”, “Always In The Kitchen At Parties,” “CSI: Arcanum,” “A Bad Moon Rising,” and “Hallowed be thy name.”

Picking a name helps because it lets me examine each of the minor plot points to be incorporated from the perspective of linking it to the title in some way. When there is only one title that really sums up the major part of the plot – items 4 through 7 on the list in this case – as was the case with “The Monster Makers,” the adventure that’s about to wrap up and which I have written about extensively over the last 6 weeks or so – that provides context that can be used to generate ideas and expand the vague list of items into situations that enhance or reinforce the heart of the story.

Take, for example, the “Incident” phase of the plot. This is just an encounter that has no direct bearing on the plot. I had a character name but no real concept for either the character or the way that character would produce a situation for the PCs to have to resolve; it was just window dressing, present to show the team doing the things that superhero teams do, i.e. take down a bad guy. If I had chosen “Zombie Apocalypse” then I might have picked some other interpretation of the phrase “Zombie” and built the incident around that. This in turn would make “Zombie” or “Loss of self-control” or “Slave to whatever” the theme of the adventure and away I would go.

In this case, the title was no help – I had too many titles that touched on part of the main plot without really summing it up. So, I turned to plan B: the Adventure Theme.

Adventure Theme

Again, this is a conceptual touchstone about which everything in the adventure should revolve in one way or another. But themes are rather more slippery than a title; they can be abstract, or literal, or conceptual, or metaphoric, or several of these things at the same time. And, right now, my adventure didn’t have a theme – it was just a bunch of stuff that was going to happen.

I tried thinking of one. In fact, I thought of about half-a-dozen – none of which really fitted. To clarify and refine my thoughts, and give my subconscious something to chew over, I took another look at what I did know about those personal life incidents. I noticed that one event was a character attending an autopsy. That seemed to connect with the Murder Mystery angle. Thirty seconds more thought gave me a theme that perfectly fitted based around the synchronicity of these two unrelated events. Another thirty seconds showed me how each of the other planned incidents (and several that were empty spaces waiting to be filled) could be an expression of that theme.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the theme was; it reveals entirely too much about the adventure. But it finalized the choice of title (to something that wasn’t even on the list of possibilities that I had created), and gave me the nature of the Incident. It also made that incident rather more important in the context of the campaign.

Character “Real Life” I

The theme gave me about 75% of the particulars of these incidents – what they were, why they were happening, and so on. A number of minor plot threads would progress. In most of these cases, they were things that the players had said they wanted their characters to do or learn, in others they were outgrowths of that activity. Once I had the theme, I really did just dive in and start writing.

The events in this phase were tagged with the unofficial names “Premonition”, “Showman”, “Industrial Relations”, “Self-Image”, and “Fitness”. These are all of the variety, “what were you doing when the incident started?” Player involvement is minimal and primarily consists of “these is what you are doing and a reminder of what’s been on your mind lately” so that players can decide what their character’s head-space is like at the moment. What’s their mood? Their emotional state? The primary purpose is to enable the players to decide how their characters will react to “The Incident” when it begins, given this context.

The Incident

A recurring subplot that started in the last adventure or two was that magic had gone wild. When a mage cast a spell, they suffered a compulsion to exhaust their mana reserves (which power spells in this game system) and as much more as the mage can suck in from the surrounding environment, dumping it all into the spell that they were casting, which is horrendously over-powered as a result. A “flare” spell sucked the PC mage dry, was visible over half the North American continent, and blinded the pilots of three aircraft coming in to land who were too close to the spell (and could have been much worse).It’s important to note that I know why this is happening, but the players (and characters) do not.

In the course of “The Monster Makers,” an NPC who claims to be a mage (a Voodoo Priest, to be more precise) made a discovery that only spells which affected the world around the mage were subject to this problem, and passed the information on to the PCs. So long as the spell only affected the mage, it would work just fine.

I had more particulars about the nature of this effect to be revealed to the players as circumstances warranted. The Incident, given the shape it assumed by making it relevant to the Theme and the title, became the perfect vehicle for providing some of that information. But it also presented the next roadblock in writing the adventure – because I needed to come up with a unique and original fantasy world as background to the characters at the heart of the Incident, as the cold case that one was pursuing suddenly spontaneously combusted.

That took a day or two, but when it was done, writing was again straightforward. Everything to this point was then collectively labeled as Part I of the adventure, and given the title “Fangs Of The Dragon”.

Real Life of the characters II

The ultimate effect of The Incident will be minor – one character will regain some lost confidence, and his teammates will regain some confidence in his abilities to participate in situations when they develop. The game universe will expand a little to contain that new fantasy world, and they will gain an ally – but one with problems of his own, so ‘don’t expect much benefit in the short-term’. That expansion is not an unalloyed blessing; it also opens a new vector for future team problems to arise. In general terms, though, it can largely be characterized as edging the day-to-day lives of the team back towards normality, and getting the adventure started with a bang – assuming the PCs don’t make a meal of The Incident, of course.

But that leads into the first major roleplaying section of the adventure, as life settles down to something resembling normality for a while and the characters go about living their ordinary lives. This is reflected in the title for this part of the adventure: “Business As Usual”.

There are several ongoing subplots that progress in this phase. Characters get to spend time doing the things their players have said they want to do, there’s some cultural reference for them to play with, and some opportunities for roleplaying.

Again, I can’t do much in the way of being specific. But I can offer the following summaries of the events, secure in the knowledge that they won’t tell the players anything I don’t want them to know in advance:

  • Scene 1, “Prussian Blues” advances one character’s social life, enhances the game world, and gives progress in a subplot of that character’s.
  • Scene 2, “Puppet To The Red Tape” is all about the responsibilities of leadership and the personality of one of the PCs, and the price that has to be paid for the privilege. An ongoing theme for the character involved, this continues exploring those key themes of the character and is more about establishing precedents and connections with other plotlines.
  • Scene 3, “A Taste Of Not-Quite Home” permits another PC to touch base with his cultural roots, and marks a distinct change of pace compared to recent subplots for the character. But it also advances an ongoing plotline focusing on that character, and gives two characters the opportunity to advance in hobbies that the players have respectively selected for their characters, enlarging on that personal development subplot, and develops the interaction between the two.
  • Scene 4, “The Holiday is over” gives a character who didn’t get much of a chance to roleplay in this part of the plot the opportunity to do so, and also edges circumstances back to “Business as usual” while enlarging on the consequences of the recent divergence from routine. This develops a PC-NPC relationship and progresses the history of the world beyond the PCs.
  • Scene 5, “Muffin Routine” establishes a new subplot within this campaign for a PC, provides some additional color and verisimilitude for the game world, introduces a new NPC, and advances the relationship between that PC and another NPC while furthering a subplot focusing on that NPC. Furthermore, it touches on the relationship that has developed “off-camera” between two of the major NPCs for the first time in the campaign, signposting a further evolution in the game world around the PCs.

    That’s an important tip, actually: NPC subplots only matter to the extent that they impact on a PC at the time. If there is no such impact, they can be hand-waved until the next time a PC interacts with that NPC. Which means that if there is an important plot development in the life of an NPC, you need to find some way to have it impact on a PC. You can even generalize this further: NPCs only matter within the game to the extent that they interact with PCs. PCs can have solo encounters and plot developments; while NPCs can also have these, actual play of them should be handwaved until the next interaction of NPC and PC.

  • Scene 6, “A different perspective/Anatomy lesson” contains two beats for a particular PC. The first is a continued exploration of the character’s non-human perspective yielding an unusual theory about the observed behavior of humanity, and the second permits the character to learn something she needs to understand in order to achieve a personal development that the player has decided he wants the character to have. It also introduces a new NPC and gives the player of the PC a chance to do some roleplaying.”
  • Scene 7, “Koffee Klatch” advances the social life of another PC, adds a circle of new NPCs to that social life, and touches on the a consequence of the abnormalities of his physical condition that I doubt the player, or the creator of the character, ever thought of. It also teases a future plotline, and advances a subplot belonging to another PC, which should heighten the sense that this subplot will soon be resolved – a “cold case” that has been troubling the PC who is attached to it for some time, and which occasionally spills over onto the rest of the characters. I guess you could say that it actually teases two future plotlines in the same scene.
  • Scene 8, “Fourth corner of the triangle” builds on an NPC-PC relationship that has become a focus lately, adds to the NPCs value to the team, and builds on the ongoing subplot that was the non-immediate relevance of The Incident, further pushing the campaign toward a sense of “getting back to normal”. Depending on how it goes, it could also introduce a new relationship between two PCs and offer three of the four Players a roleplaying opportunity.

These all flowed from the keyboard without pause, except briefly when I tweaked the order of presentation to spread the spotlight around a little more and give a nicer flow from one item to another. Each assumes that the other players are in earshot. And seven of these eight scenes relate in some way to the overall theme and title of the adventure, while the eighth provides a partial foundation for the main plot of the adventure, and so is also indirectly linked to the theme.

The Mystery

That all leads into the major plot of the adventure, a murder mystery of very outré nature. I can’t give any details at all without ruining the adventure for the players, so let’s talk a little in more general terms.

Mysteries are easy to create – all you need do is have something happen, or reveal that something has happened, with no obvious explanation.

Good Mysteries with predetermined solutions are even easier in fiction because the author has a privileged position – he knows what actually happened and why that solution to the mystery is hidden. It’s then simply a matter of leading the investigators one step at a time until the other improbable explanations are eliminated and the truth stands revealed in some suitably dramatic fashion.

Problems arise when the author is forced to induce incompetence on the part of an investigator in order to explain why they didn’t solve the puzzle right away, or makes the mystery so impenetrable that a dues-ex-machina is required to solve the puzzle – something that always leaves the reader feeling cheated, or when there is a flaw in the author’s logic.

One of the most obvious techniques for plotting such mysteries is to start with the solution, consider what the criminal can and would do to cover it up, and then ask “what does the investigator need to know in order to determine the culprit and solve the mystery?” – then work backwards determining how and from whom the investigator gets that information until you get to the initial condition of confusion before any investigation has begun. Then you actually write the narrative from front to back, guided by this outline.

Things elevate exponentially in difficulty when you’re talking about an RPG, for three reasons:

  1. The GM doesn’t know what questions the PCs will ask.
  2. The author has to ensure that the investigator is competent, as explained earlier. The GM has no control over the competence and deductive abilities of the players.
  3. While a strongly linear plot can work for a novelist, players and PCs can’t be controlled by the GM.

Getting around these problems largely means providing several different ways for the PCs to get the information they need, and simplifying the mystery to the point where the GM can be sure that the players will be able to solve it without relying on ultimately-unsatisfactory die rolls to do so. But every such compromise weakens the mystery and the entertainment value that can derive from it.

A long time ago, I offered several “GM’s cheats” for creating successful mysteries in RPGs, and the heart of them all is the GM being as ignorant of what really happened and who is responsible, and operating under the theory that if the investigation continually advances in some way, it will eventually reach a destination. That article has been a very popular one, and is often mentioned on other blogs as the state-of-the-art in creating mysteries for RPGs, which is very gratifying.

The Problem

For various reasons, those techniques simply wouldn’t work in this case. So I had to do an old-fashioned mystery while avoiding the pitfalls listed above. On top of that, one of the PCs is a telepath; I had to frame the mystery in such a way that it followed the rules of “fairness” of a mystery while ensuring that an inadvertent mind-scan wouldn’t upend the apple-cart.

At first, I had no idea how to achieve this second requirement, so I simply ignored it for the moment and assumed that a solution would present itself in time.

The Process

I started by outlining how the mystery would come to the PCs attention, and what the actual mystery was going to be. That gave me several obvious leads that I could reasonably assume the PCs would follow during the investigation phase. It also set up a number of roadblocks and hurdles that would have to be overcome by the PCs in the course of the investigation, and introduced a number of NPCs who would figure into the discovery of what the mystery was. Finally, I was able to introduce an entirely-reasonable-in-context constraint that would prevent the players from getting too creative in their approach or taking too many shortcuts.

Along the way, I also decided on a title for this part of the adventure, one that was tantalizing and appropriate but that didn’t give anything away: “Body of Confusion”.

It was important to ensure that none of those obvious leads could lead immediately to the solution to the mystery, but each one would have to advance the investigation process in some way. So, having written the narrative of the introduction of the mystery, I turned my attention to those obvious leads. For each, I asked “what might be learned that would move the PCs closer to the solution to the mystery? I was also able to throw in a red herring or two and ensure that the herring nature became obvious in due course, and ensure that there was enough going on in each stage that each PC would get a fair share of the spotlight. Finally, I made sure that the featured NPCs never did anything that did not involve at least one PC – following the same maxim as outlined in the sidebar box above.

At this point, I was forced to make assumptions based on the abilities and personalities of the PCs in terms of who would do what. Those assumptions let me write the narrative for each of the initial stages of the investigation, populating it with interesting and colorful characters. At the same time, I made sure that if my assumptions were incorrect, that the critical information would still be learned; the encounters might not have the same impact under those circumstances, because I was pitching the roleplay as much at the players as to the PCs that they controlled, but they would still be interesting enough.

So long as each of these leads either dead-ended or produced a new line of investigation as to what had really happened, i,e, advanced the plot, that was all I needed from them. I would then repeat the process for the resultant next batch of leads, incorporating challenges for the players to overcome and ensuring that failure was always an option, and would not derange the overall plotline.

The combination is a situation in which the overall plot can be shaped and directed, while still leaving room for the players to make their own decisions.

Body of Confusion

So far, then, “Body of confusion” contained the following scenes:

  1. “Prologue: State Of Mind” – links the beginning of the adventure to the previous part by doing the same thing as the events did in “Real Life of the characters I”, establishing circumstances that permit the players to determine the PCs state of mind when the main events start.
  2. Mystery:
    • “Scene Of The Crime” – gets the PCs to the scene of the crime and introduces the person who’s going to drop the mystery into the PCs laps.
    • “Hall Monitor” – introduces an NPC who will complicate and restrict the PCs freedom to take investigative shortcuts and gives him a motivation that the PCs would support, making their cooperation with the restrictions more likely. Also lays the foundations for the mystery.
    • “Discovery of the crime” – tells the PCs how the crime came to be discovered and introduces the NPCs who made the discovery and called in Law-enforcement.
    • “Preliminary Investigation” – tells the PCs what the police discovered in their investigation of the crime scene, completing the particulars of the mystery, introduces an ally in the investigation, describes the source of the road-blocks and shows that the PCs have a better chance of going around them than the police do, which in turn explains why the problem is being handed to them.
    • “Formalities” – sets the PCs involvement in motion and directs the clues to the PCs attention.
  3. Investigation, Wave 1 [note that the PC who featured strongly in “The Incident” does not feature in this phase):
    • “Zuber” – follows obvious lead #1 and introduces a colorful NPC who should be lots of fun for a PC to roleplay with.
    • “Case File” – follows obvious lead #2 and delivers a number of specifics about the case that the PCs didn’t have, opening a second generation of leads to investigate, and permitting roleplay for a second PC.
    • “Arrangements” – makes arrangements for investigation of obvious lead #3 while giving a third PC the chance to roleplay and reintroducing an NPC from earlier in the adventure. This plays on a piece of serendipity that would have been impossible for me as a GM to predict, since it ties a pre-adventure decision by a player to this plot.
  4. Investigation, Wave 2:
    • “Research” – follows up a lead from “Case File”.
    • “Assignments” – identifies a second wave of investigation results and almost-certainly puts an NPC in charge of this part of the investigation. He spells out certain facts that he needs and details the PCs to obtain them, assigning the problems logically according to personalities, positions, and abilities.
    • “General Motors” – two PCs attempt to carry out their assignment, encounter a road-block, get to roleplay and to find a solution to the roadblock which will lead to a subsequent scene.
    • “Council” – another PC attempts to carry out her assignment, encounter a road block, get to roleplay and a solution is hinted at which will lead to a subsequent scene.
    • “Picture of trouble” – fourth PC carries out the first part of his assignment, encounters a major roadblock that is built into the campaign background, gets to roleplay.
  5. Investigation, Wave 3:
    • “Collector” – follow-up scene to “General Motors” in which the PCs from that scene implement their solution to the roadblock only to encounter another one with three possible solutions offered to them (or they could devise a fourth). They get to roleplay and may interact with another PC in the course of it.

… and that’s where I encountered a major road-block of my own. I needed to find a solution to the inherent problem mentioned in “Picture Of Trouble” or be left with a plot hole the size of Jupiter. Everything to this point had simply flowed, requiring little or no pause, but this was going to require careful thought.

I could contrive a one-off solution – the latest in a series of such solutions to this particular restriction – or I could implement a permanent solution that removed or revised one of the fundamental tenets of the campaign.


So far, this entire adventure had contained little of lasting significance in terms of the overall campaign. A number of subplots had inched forwards, and there were the long-term consequences of The Incident, but the dominant part of the campaign, the mystery, held no major repercussions for the campaign; it was a standalone adventure. This was an opportunity to change that and make this another milestone in the campaign. This is something that I’m always keen to do when significance doesn’t automatically attach to the plot, but there were good reasons for the presence of the restriction that created the problem in “Picture Of Trouble”.

The alternative was to revise part of the adventure, significantly reducing the involvement of the PC who was at the heart of the situation in the adventure, and significantly shortcutting the adventure. And, since I still had no clear path forward after the follow-ups to “Collector” and “Council”. that also held a certain level of appeal, because the “Investigation” phase was already larger than I had originally expected.

There are, in my campaign plan, a number of “free-floating” events that I intended to introduce at some point if the opportunity presented itself, but that weren’t necessary to the campaign plan. After wrestling with the problem for a couple of days, I realized that choosing the more significant change would permit me to integrate a couple of those major campaign background developments, and tie this adventure to a previous one. The choice, then, was between no real significance, or a triple-dose of significance.

The decision was made when further thought showed that this triple-dose of significance reflected an ongoing campaign theme, giving a fourth layer of significance to the whole thing. That combination was too much to resist.


But, in order to pull this off, I needed to contrive some means of getting the PC in question (or possibly all the PCs) to the point of revelation. That could only be done by laying some groundwork earlier in the adventure, a dues-ex-machina that the PCs would have to earn, and adding still another layer of mystery to the overall plot, and still another connection to the adventure theme.

In order to pave over the Plot Hole, I needed a significant scene – by far the largest and most complicated of them, involving all the PCs – somewhere back in “Real Life of the characters II”. This would prominently feature the PC who had no involvement in “Investigation Wave 1”, equalizing the screen time each PC was receiving, a further benefit.

I therefore decided to attach this additional sequence close to the end of “Real Life of the characters II”, i.e. as close to “Investigation Wave I” as possible. The optimum point was the end of Scene 8 of “Business As Usual”, and so “Scene 9: Puzzle Box” was added, about 2 1/4 pages in length, doing nothing but setting up the next scene in “Investigation Wave 3”, “Leapfrog”.

“Puzzle Box”

I have to be very vague about the content of those 2 1/4 pages. Something unexpected happens, which adds to the campaign background and to the PCs base of operations. That leads to an authentication procedure that is fairly rigorous – only the PCs could reasonably be expected to pass it – resulting in a foreshadowing of the significance of a future event and introducing yet another mystery to the overall mix.

Most entertainingly, while the specific events are definitely not “Business as usual”, the broader context of something unexpectedly leaping out of the plot shadows is very definitely “Business as usual” for the PCs. This was the final tick of approval for what I was planning, so far as I was concerned – “Puzzle Box” was an essential part of the adventure, I just hadn’t known it at the time.

The relevance of The Ordinary Lives Of The PCs

At the start of this article, I indicated that this would be illustrative of a number of things discussed in recent articles here at Campaign Mastery. It’s time to haul that relevance out into the open and spotlight it.

It would be entirely possible to write the adventure without the “Ordinary Lives” sequences, hand-waving the character development, and skipping straight to the “good stuff” – The Incident, Puzzle Box, Mystery, Investigation, Complication, Solution. It would also be possible to hand-wave a lot of the roleplay in “Investigation” – “you go to X and learn Y”.

Doing either or both of these things would elevate the significance of Puzzle Box, conferring a disproportionate share of the spotlight to one particular PC, and make the obvious-contrivance levels go off the chart. It would significantly shorten the adventure, making it far more disjointed internally and making the campaign far less contiguous. Since I’m of the opinion that roleplay is a vital ingredient in making an RPG fun, it would also diminish greatly the entertainment value of the adventure as a whole.

In a different campaign, that would not be the case. The style of this campaign is far more Marvel than DC, far more about telling the story of the lives of extraordinary people living in even more extraordinary times. The Ordinary Lives sequences make “Puzzle Box” just one event amongst several, and the high level of detail in those sequences justifies an equally-high level in the main part of the adventure. I am deliberately counterbalancing the outlandish nature of the events and concepts that are central to the superheroic genre with an infusion of “reality” that makes the PCs people, with foibles and flaws and problems, some of which assume larger-than-life significance because of who the PCs are.

Where to from here?

If the following gives the impression that the as-yet unwritten parts of the adventure are now clear in my mind, and need only to be executed, you would be interpreting things correctly. The Puzzle Box Sequence is essential to the “Simulation”, which is critical to the Solution being available for the PCs to discover. “Puzzle Box” broke the creative logjam.

  • I have a couple of minor creative elements to work out that form part of “Leapfrog”.
  • I have a couple of scenes already emplaced that need a little further expansion in one case and a lot in the other – Scenes “Research” (listed above) and “Inside Man” (the planned follow-up to “Council”).
  • That will be followed by “Ancient”, the planned follow-up to “Leapfrog” and which will resolve the Puzzle Box part of mystery, then “Breaking The Barriers”, which is the major payoff to the “Puzzle Box” – “Leapfrog” – “Ancient” plot thread. That will lead into “Life Of The Streets” and “Moonlighting”, which will connect the “Puzzle Box” sequence back to the main mystery, overcoming the roadblocks in “Council” and “Picture Of Trouble” respectively, and concluding Wave #3 of the investigation.
  • Wave #4 will comprise “Prescription”, “Simulation”, “Hope”, and “Missing”.
  • “Complication” consists of “Vanished”, “Lost and Found”, “Dead Men Tell Tales”. and “Discovery”.
  • “Solution”, “Dash”, “Hunt”, and “Justice” will follow, wrapping up the mystery.
  • Finally. “Hobby”, “Zombie”, “Law Of The Jungle”, “Connections” and “Contact” are epilogues and will wrap up the whole adventure.


There are many points in the above where the PCs make critical decisions. Despite the linear structure described, there is no certainty of success at any point short of “Solution”. What the PCs decide to do before the investigation even starts will have a material effect on the outcome – in the ideal situation, a criminal’s guilt is proven and another suspect exonerated, accelerating an increase in racial tensions and triggering a wave of racial unrest. A lesser success if possible in which all of the above takes place except that the criminal escapes. And complete failure is equally possible, in which the criminal escapes justice at the expense of another man, also triggering the increase in racial tensions and wave of racial unrest. If the PCs do make a meal of things at some point, there are also ways to salvage the situation.

The biggest lessons from this exercise are to make progress one step at a time, using outlines and brief mnemonics to keep track of the bigger picture, to remember the importance of NPCs, the genre balancing (‘mundanity’ to counterbalance the fantastic), spotlight round-robins, the principles of significance, themes, and titles, and inserting content as a way of empowering you to break through writer’s block.

The adventure is now 33 pages long, full of dialogue and narrative and with barely any mention of game mechanics. By the time it’s finished, that number will probably be closer to 60 than to 50. What resemblance the planned adventure has to what actually transpires remains to be seen; I’m always optimistic, but three times in four (or more) it won’t be the case.

If it were not a mystery, which requires an adventure to swarm with details, and the need to be consistent in prep standards throughout an adventure, I would not be writing to the level of detail that I am. The previous adventure was about as lengthy in playing time and complexity and consumed a ‘mere’ 17 pages. The one before that was 25 pages, and before that, an even more complex situation was detailed in only 10.

Most of the difference is in canned, pre-prepared dialogue. A lesson that I didn’t get to relate in the course of the article is that information should never be related ex cathedra when it can be conveyed by dialogue, i.e. by NPC-PC interaction. Using the old yardstick of a picture being worth a thousand words, I have also saved about 56,000 words of descriptions of people, places and objects by using photographs, digitally altering them as necessary.

When play has finished, I’ll revisit the subject, either in a follow-up article or by appending to this one, and providing the actual adventure for people to compare to what I’ve described herein. Although it wasn’t intended to be such, this has definitely turned into a masterclass on adventure creation, but that is needed to complete the value of it. I guess a lot of the decision between those options rests on how far the players deviate from what I expect them to do.

And no, guys, that’s not a challenge.

Articles referenced in the above text (directly or indirectly);

I have one more post to make before Christmas, and then Campaign Mastery will be taking a week off in terms of substantial content, resuming in the new year. So, the following oldies-but-goodies will give you something to read (or re-read) in the meantime.

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 10th Shelf

The Tenth Shelf: Beliefs I (Religions, Nazi Occultism, & Cthulhu) – Introduction by Mike


It’s always difficult when you need to take something that was supposed to be whole and split it in two, usually for reasons of practicality. Take this shelf and the next as a case in point: No-one can argue that Religion, Superstition, Unlikely Beliefs (such as Cryptozoology), and Mysticism form a continuity of sorts, bound together by the common foundation that people believe in them to varying degrees, and that those beliefs are held in different degrees of social credibility. But where do you draw the dividing lines? If you are a devout believer in one particular theology, all others have to be superstitions. If you don’t then they all hold equal weight, except when considered as a social force that one must take into account.

Fortunately for us, we can adopt the objective measurement of the level of acceptance, globally, in the 1930s, without making any statement as to the validity of those beliefs – a statement that would be sure to rub someone the wrong way. That’s a position that lets us then employ the even more objective measure of simply dividing the two halves as evenly as we can manage, given the categories and subcategories which we have employed to bind like subjects together, sometimes superficially.

Even so, the placement of individual works into different categories was often the subject of much angst. Take Wicca: should it be listed as a religion (which is how modern practitioners want it to be perceived) or a superstition (because that’s how most people in the 1930s see it)? Where should Voodoo be placed?

Or take superstitions – some of these have a foundation in fact that has been recognized; others are as out-there-with-the-pixies as flying saucers, which is to say that while some people believe implicitly, others are skeptical, and some are even derogatory in their assessments.

Taking fringe science out of this category helped, even though there is at least a superficial match in terms of the core subject. If the principle approach to a subject was science-based, no matter how flawed or manipulated the science, then the core of the subject is evidentiary-based and supposedly objective, rather than being matters of faith. That distinction made the distinction between Fringe Science and Mysticism/Superstition/Religion easier to make and ‘purified’ the remaining content.

This shelf and the next, then, are all about beliefs. Some are deemed credible by a large number of citizens, some not; some are respected by the western world of the 1930s, some are not.

Before concluding this introduction, I need to make it clear that no offense is intended to anyone’s beliefs by the categories into which a particular book has been placed. Such decisions are not intended to even be commentary on the beliefs except in terms of how the world at large perceived them during the 1920s and 1930s. Many churches and faiths don’t even get a mention, and omission should not be deemed significant in any way, either.

Of course, what is “truth” in the Pulp Reality of a game may be something completely different to what is acceptable as a belief in the real world. The Adventurer’s Club campaign has featured Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, Amazons, A reincarnated Aztec Deity (or so that person thought), a Chinese Vampire, A Japanese Demon, A Freshwater Kraken, A unified Hell, Ghosts and people pretending to be ghosts, and a resurrected Chinese Emperor – amongst other things. The Wrath of God routinely strikes down supernatural evils. How much of this do we believe in ourselves? In the form in which they have appeared in the campaign – pretty close to zero. That’s never stopped us in the past; the criteria is always what makes for the most interesting story.

So check your personal beliefs at the door and join us as we begin an exploration of human beliefs in the Pulp Era.

Relevance to other genres

Of all the shelves, this one and the next are the ones with the most direct relevance to many other genres. Superstitions are fertile grounds for plots in any genre, and where would a cleric be without his religion? Then we have all the books on Nazi Occultism, which offer a completely different perspective on the relationship between power and “theology” to the usual – in particular, the discordance between those beliefs and the way in which the Nazis were nevertheless able to cozy up with the Vatican. And, as for the Cryptozoology (on the eleventh shelf), what campaign can’t make use of additional weird creatures?

glasses on opened book, mobile phone

Image credit: / DariusZSankowski

Shelf Introduction

This shelf contains five sections, some of which started life as subsections within others.

Religion, Mythology, and Philosophy – We aren’t especially inclined toward political correctness, but at the same time, remain sensitive to, and respectful of, any individual’s beliefs and in particular of that individual’s right to believe. In our original plans for this series, we weren’t going to list anything that meets this description, as much because we didn’t want to leave anyone out as because the subject didn’t seem that strongly in keeping with pulp sensibilities; but as one compromise after another was forced on us. and we were forced to grapple with the realization that this list was not and could not be perfect, it became clear that something needed to be offered in this section. There was also a strong temptation to include these books as a section or subsection in the “everyday life” shelves, because that was the connection that seemed to have the greatest relevance to the Pulp GM; what changed that position was a count by Mike of the number of adventures within the Adventurer’s Club campaign in which Religion, Mythology, or Philosophy had played a strong role, either to the main adventure or to a singular encounter. The only responsible course after the results were revealed to the co-authors was to make the category as broad and inclusive as possible. But, because we’re human and this was an afterthought mid-way through the development of this series, it’s always possible (even probable) that something has been left out, or mis-categorized as a legacy of earlier phases of planning.

Nazi Occultism & Nazi-related Fringe Theories – Although it is listed second, this was actually the first section to be explicitly defined as being part of this shelf. When turning everything up to eleven for a pulp campaign, it becomes impossible to ignore the superstitions and radical occultism of the Nazi regime. Indeed, it would be very easy to construct a pulp campaign which was nothing but Nazi Occultism and an elite force who sought to block them from achieving supernatural primacy. Of course, the extraordinary levels of success achieved by the Nazis in their early campaigns play into these myths and legends and always raises the question of what changed – how was Britain able to resist, and why did Eastern Russia fail to fall? And then there were the Maltese campaigns and North Africa. In the real world, there were sound tactical and political reasons for those failures, but the contrast in success rates is so marked that in a fictional environment, the temptation must always exist to attribute the change in fortunes to some behind-the-scenes supernatural cause. Although we weren’t able to include all the books in this section that we wanted to list for reasons of price and availability, we were pleasantly surprised at the number that we were able to provide.

The Spear Of Longinus – While tempted to include these books in the preceding section, it was ultimately decided that there was enough non-Nazi involvement in the subject to warrant creating a new, specific, subsection. Note that many of the books listed in the previous section probably mention the Spear at some point.

The Ark Of The Covenant & Holy Grail – Similar logic and caveats to those expressed regarding the Spear Of Longinus. It’s probably worth observing that there is good reason for two of the Indiana Jones movies being derived from these legendary artifacts.

Cthulhu Mythos Reference – If there is an outlier on this shelf, this is it. No-one actually believes in the Cthulhu Mythos except the characters involved, and yet the nature of those beliefs on the part of the characters is completely appropriate to this section. And, in a way, that’s the significance of including this section on this shelf, signaling that we aren’t interested in what people believe in the real world, but we are interested in what characters believe in the pulp world. Besides, it was the right size in terms of number of entries to even the two halves up at the time we committed to our taxonomy! So, why include it at all? The answer comes in a single word: Inspiration. Cthulhu literature is a strange beast in many ways, bridging the gap between modern horror and the more lurid and macabre imaginings of the Victorian age. The concepts of ancient evils awakening is one that can be cited as a source of inspiration for everything from Hellboy to Alien, and is prime fodder for pulp adventures. On top of that, a lot of Cthulhu sourcebooks provide invaluable cultural and social relevance to the pulp era.

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation.


Books About Religion, Mythology, and Philosophy


Spacer comparative-religion-for-dummies

884. Comparative Religion For Dummies – William P Lazarus and Mark Sullivan

Most GMs, pulp or otherwise, have neither the time nor the inclination to make an in-depth study of the religions of the world, even though religious beliefs of some sort are pretty omnipresent – and distinctive – throughout the world. This book promises the ‘abridged version’ of this vast subject and as such should conceivably have a place on every GM’s bookshelf.

If we were relying on Amazon’s description, or on the cover, this book would not even have made the list, let alone being deliberately placed to lead off this section. Fortunately, we looked deeper, specifically at the contents pages, and discovered that it was far more comprehensive than either of those sources would lead you to believe. There are sections on everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Kabbalah. Nevertheless, there are major omissions from this book, and we are not going to pretend otherwise.

Where it provides greater value is in demonstrating the principles of Comparative Religion, and that’s something that any GM can benefit from – and the minor distinction that has promoted it to the head of the queue.


885. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to (Eastern) Philosophy – Jay Stevenson Ph.D. (Second Edition)

While there are many “For Dummies” books and “Complete Idiot’s Guides” on specific religions and philosophical movements, we deemed these to be too specific in subject matter to have general relevance; hence our recommendation of “Comparative Religion for Dummies”. This book fits neatly under the same umbrella.

The first edition included the word “Eastern” in the title, but there are virtually no copies left and the less-than-a-handful that were listed commanded ridiculously high prices. So we have linked to the more liberal second edition which omits “Eastern” from the title, of which there are many copies available at low prices. For now.

There is also a third edition (pictured) available with comparable prices and availability. This has an additional 71 pages of content, so you might want to make this your first choice, even though the existence of this more-recent edition will suppress prices of the older one for a while to come.

…and a fourth edition, but there aren’t as many copies of that, and prices are a bit higher. And some of those additional 71 pages aren’t there any more – this edition is only 352 pages in length.


886. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religions, 4th Edition – Brandon Toropov and Father Luke Buckles

This is similar subject matter to “Comparative Religion For Dummies” but this seems to tread, however lightly, into strange religious backwaters and side-alleys that other books do not. And there are specific sections that would definitely have been useful in the Adventurer’s Club campaign. It definitely belongs in this list.


887. 12 Major World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity’s Most Influential Faiths – Jason Boyett

A great many books treat a faith as a monolithic whole. Not only does this go beyond the “big three”, covering religious systems as diverse as those of ancient Egypt and of the Norsemen, but it also looks at the subdivisions within the most common faiths, which include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism, Judaism, Confucianism, Bahá’í, Shinto, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism! What’s more, a number of reviewers have commented on a complete lack of bias within the text.


888. South American Mythology – Harold Osborne

Lacking the expertise to criticize the volume, we can only describe it as lavishly-illustrated and seemingly comprehensive. Includes the Incas but not the Aztecs (who either were not considered “South American” by the author or who were covered in a separate volume of the series), and that’s our biggest criticism.


889. Tales From The Rainforest: Myths and Legends from the Amazonian Indians of Brazil – Jeanne Wilmot and Mercedes Dorsen

Compiled from numerous sources, these tales place the mythology of the Amazonian Indians into urban, social, and village-life context.


890. Mythology Of The American Nations: An Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The Gods, Heroes, Spirits, Sacred Places, Rituals And Ancient Beliefs Of The North American Indian, Inuit, Aztec, Inca And Maya Nations – David M Jones and Bryan L Molyneaux

It’s ironic given their exclusion from the previously-mentioned volume that the only South/Central American deities to figure in either the Adventurer’s Club or Zenith-3 campaigns are Aztec in origin! To address the deficit, we recommend this volume, which has the bonus value of Amerind mythology. 256 pages and over 500 images suggests that they are not terribly lavish, and the description of this as an A-Z suggests a less-than-user-friendly encyclopedia- or dictionary-style format, but it’s hard to find books on the subject that aren’t, for some reason. Interestingly, this was first published in paperback format and has only just come out (Mar 2016) in Hardcover; most publishing works in the other direction.


891. Celtic Mythology – Ward Rutherford

We also lack the expertise to critique this one very much. Reviews tend to give it from 3-5 stars out of five – from which we infer that it’s at least reasonable, and might be better than that.


892. African Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend – Jan Knappert

More useful as a reference than a primer on the subject, and criticized by one gamer in a position to do so fairly for being insufficiently critical in separating the beliefs of one African Culture from those of another. But there’s not a lot going around on the subject.

There is another volume by the same author entitled “The Aquarian Guide To African Mythology” with virtually the same cover, of exactly the same page count and page size, and which we suspect of being the same book with a different name. If there are no reasonably-priced copies of the first available, buy the second.

“An Encyclopedia”:
“The Aquarian Guide” (pictured):


893. Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines – W Ramsay Smith

Since our preferred choice isn’t available in anything close to sufficient quantities (and therefore has to be listed in the honorable mentions section), we can only rely on recommendations by others, and this volume seems like a good place to start. It suffers from a common problem in homogenizing the aborigines into a single culture when, in reality, there were thousands of separate cultures side-by-side, but as a collection of stories without context, it’s a good starting point.

(To understand the scale of the homogenizing problem, take a look at this map of Native Australian Tribal groups/languages). (yes, this is the same resource that Mike has linked to in the past).


894. Mythology of Asia & The Far East – Rachel Storm

Not quite enough copies to make our list normally, but there is a shortage of alternatives. The utility is obvious.


895. Mongolian Folktales – Hilary Roe Matternich

Contains 25 folk tales from the plateau between Russia and China. “The most ancient date back to the 12th century and are concerned with human relations with the natural world. Others use the whimsicality of animals to describe people’s struggles to find a good and decent life. Still others frankly applaud cunning … and the ability to survive an unfriendly competition.” 132 pages, from $12.31. New copies are currently one cent cheaper than used.


896. Tibetan Shamanism: Ecstasy and Healing – Larry Peters

The results of sixteen years spent investigating the daily lives, beliefs, and healing rituals of four Tibetan shamans forced into exile by the Chinese invasion of the 1950s. Which means that these belief systems and practices were present in Tibet during the Pulp Era.

For-Dummies Books relating to Religion, Mythology, and Philosophy

In most cases, we haven’t read any of these, and are recommending them for consideration based purely upon the publisher’s descriptions and on general principles except where otherwise noted. This also shifts the content of each review from one of “this book is recommended and here’s why” to “this book might be useful and here’s why”. We have made the assumption that availability and price would fall within our parameters, or close enough to them; we have rarely found this not to be the case.

Selected works were so promising and so relevant, that they have been promoted to the main list of recommendations, excluding them from the above caveats.

A note about Complete Idiot’s Guides

While the “For Dummies” series has a website that lists all the books currently available in the series, there is no equivalent for the “Complete Idiot’s Guides”.

Our blanket advice is that if Amazon lists a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” that matches the subject of one of our “For Dummies” recommendations, you should buy both.


897. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft – Denise Zimmerman and Katherine Gleason

This book has enough material in it that might be of value that it deserves a listing somewhere, but we have some concerns that the Pulp GM will want to romanticize what magic and witchcraft can and can’t do in their campaigns and this book – which treats Wicca from the perspective that modern practitioners want to promote, i.e. that it’s a religious movement – is more likely to confine if used too liberally. Make up your own mind. And yes, we know this isn’t a “For Dummies” book. Never seen a ringer before?


898. The Origins Of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth For Dummies – Greg Harvey

Tolkien drew on a lot of influences to achieve his stated goal of creating a European-style epic mythology for England in Middle-earth. Many of his creations have assumed iconic status in many RPGs, regardless of genre. We defy any gamer not to have immediately thought “Orc!” on seeing the green-skinned pig-faced guards in Jabba The Hut’s palace in Return Of The Jedi, for example.

Of more relevance in the pulp genre, Mike has seen one interpretation of the three primary groups of Elves being French, Swiss, and Belgians, respectively, while the Orcs were allegedly inspired by the invading Mongol armies of Genghis Kahn. We don’t necessarily agree with that interpretation, but drawing such parallels can afford a distinctive and unusual perceived flavor to the different nationalities of Europe.

Finally, there’s the mythology itself, which can be used as the inspirational foundation for pulp adventures set in Northwestern England or spun more broadly to inspire adventures elsewhere in Europe. Sauron’s sword makes a perfectly acceptable Macguffin that can have your players guessing about lost history for many contented hours. So this book definitely deserves a place somewhere on the bookshelf.


Books About Nazi Occultism & Nazi-related Fringe Theories

The big-name Nazis may be near-to household names in their strange beliefs, but their predecessors in intellectual mysticism are not. Most works that describe the beliefs and activities of these predecessors would be informative regarding mysticism and racial politics within the Nazi regime. The predecessors that we have in mind are Guido von List, Lanz von Liebenfels, Rudolf von Sebottendorf, Karl Maria Wiligut, Hans Horbinger, Dietrich Eckart, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who were the more notorious mystics of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Any work which does not cite Goodrick-Clarke, who wrote the definitive analysis of these early mystics, is also a little suspect in our eyes.


899. The Secret King: The Myth and Reality of Nazi Occultism – Stephen E. Flowers and Michael Moynihan

This is a fairly factual book on the subject, which makes it less useful to a pulp GM than a more sensationalist work might be. This book will be at its most useful if you want to parallel and contrast such a sensationalist work with this one to define the differences between what (some of) the Nazis thought they were doing and what was really going on in some of the stranger recesses of the Third Reich. This would not normally have been one of our first choices but our two primary choices had to be rejected due to excessive prices.


900. Unholy Alliance: A History of Nazi involvement in the Occult – Peter Levenda

If there is a book in third place (behind the two we would like to recommend but can’t), it’s likely to be this. Controversial in that some reviewers appear to have made deliberately misleading statements attempting to discredit it with claims of bias, but the research appears impeccable; the author even specifies where readers can find the original microfiche versions of his source documents. Accordingly, we discount those. Of greater concern are one or two reviews that suggest the book’s organization is scattered and anarchic; however, most reviews describe it as very readable. A few reviews hint that the presence of side-bars on every page, or close to it, interrupting the main text, might be the source of these complaints. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most promising-sounding volumes we can suggest under this heading – since the books we want to offer aren’t available to us. Once again, there are times when he seems to believe his own theories too unobjectively.


901. The Nazis and the Occult – Dusty Sklar

This is a difficult book to evaluate. The same comment can complain both that the book is too broad in its subject matter and also that subjects such as the search for the Spear Of Destiny are not mentioned – but you can’t have it both ways! This book had the conspiracy theorists coming out in droves in the reviews – which could mean that it’s perfect for a GM’s needs, or that the author has drunk too deeply of the kool-aid – it’s very hard to know. Fortunately, used copies are quite affordable so most readers will be able to make up their own minds. We find it useful. Not to be confused with the similarly-title book below.


902. Nazis and the Occult: The Dark Forces unleashed by the Third Reich – Paul Roland

This volume is rife with unsubstantiated speculation of the worst kind, so much so that it is useless. On top of that, the author steeped the book in scandal by posting his own reviews both in his own name and using pseudonyms. Nevertheless, the title sounds so good that we’re including it with a recommendation not to buy at any price. Not to be confused with the similarly-title book above.


903. Hitler’s Occult War – Michael Fitzgerald

Also known by its original title, “Storm-troopers Of Satan”. Reviews suggest that this is an excellent overview of all – well, most – of the loony fringe theories surrounding World War II. They also suggest that the author implicitly believes them all, on the flimsiest of evidence or no evidence at all, has melded them all together into one grand conspiracy, and that might make them difficult to tease back apart for use in a Pulp campaign, where one would want to pick and choose.


904. The Nazi Occult (Dark Osprey) – Kenneth Hite, illustrated by Darren Tan

The first paragraph of the Amazon description of this book makes it sound perfect for a Pulp GM’s needs, and certainly comprehensive in its content. The second paragraph undoes most of this good impression by stating, “For years, the Allied governments worked to keep this information from reaching the public, and sought to discredit those few who dared to seek the truth.” Nevertheless, this book offers content that the previous one does not (and apparently leaves out some of the things that it reports) so you would need both to be comprehensive. This is a fun book to read, but the author freely admits to mixing real history, Nazi occultism mythology and invented fantasy based on literary and film in-jokes, on his website. This makes it unreliable as an overview, but might make it more culturally-accessible to a pulp GM.


905. The Occult Reich – J H Brennan

An examination of the occult influences on the third Reich and on Hitler personally. Most interestingly, it goes into the symbolism of the Nazis, something that many other works ignore.


Documentaries About Nazi Occultism & Nazi-related Fringe Theories



906. Hitler’s Jurassic Monsters

The title is misleading. This National Geographic Channel documentary describes Nazi attempts to retro-evolve modern-day creatures into their more primitive antecedents. This was (of course) completely unsuccessful, but does not have to be so in a Pulp World – and neither does the title have to be so misleading in such a campaign, either. It does not appear to be on DVD anywhere (perhaps it’s part of a series, and we’ve forgotten the fact), but it is available through YouTube
at the current time.


907. Myth Hunters, aka Raiders Of The Lost Past, season 1

We are recommending this for five of the 13 episodes: Episode 1: “Hitler and the Spear Of Destiny”, Episode 3: “The Hunt For Pirate Treasure”, Episode 7: “Himmler and the Holy Grail”, Episode 8: “The Hunt For The Book Of Spells”, and Episode 10: “The Nazis and the Book Of Power”.

Available in the US as an import from Australia only ($63.69, but the UK has access to domestic versions of the DVD set (£47.69 Unfortunately, Canadian readers again miss out – while Amazon Canada lists the box set, they also state that there are no copies available.

Fortunately, three of the episodes are available through YouTube as well (again, at the time of writing): “Hitler and the Spear Of Destiny”, “Himmler and the Holy Grail”, and “The Hunt For The Book Of Spells” For both these and the remaining episodes, you can also try this link. [UPDATE: That resource now appears to have gone belly-up. We’re continuing to list it anyway in case it was just a temporary problem when we checked].

NB: We had already approved part of this, back when there were only two episodes we were recommending, with a caveat that the price might be too high. With the increase in desirability, we dug a little deeper to uncover the additional options.


Books About The Spear Of Longinus

There are three artifacts of early catholicism that figure prominently in Nazi Occultism, bridging the gap between the two preceding sections. Another of the somewhat esoteric discussions that took place in planning this list was whether those three should be grouped into a single category. Bearing in mind that this section was originally a subsection within the broader subject of Nazi Occultism, whereas outside of the Indiana Jones movies, the other two were not the subjects of as much Nazi attention, the ultimate decision was taken to maintain the separation because their treatment and historical relevance were sufficiently different and distinctive.


908. The Spear Of Destiny: The Occult Power behind the Spear which pierced the side of Christ – Trevor Ravenscroft

Not to be confused with any of several other books with the same name, this is a ‘history’ of the Spear of Longinus up to Adolph Hitler. It can be very heavy going, but is one of the most ‘definitive works’ on the subject – if you can say any such thing about a subject in which much of the evidence was obtained by Psychic Visions courtesy of Rudolf Steiner and General Helmuth von Moltke. In addition, many of the more grandiose statements in the book are not referenced at all, and thus the reader has no way of verifying the authenticity of the author’s claims. All of which can be ignored by the Pulp GM who decides that Ravenscroft was bang on-the-money for campaign/plot purposes.


909. The Mark Of The Beast – Trevor Ravenscroft and Tim Wallace-Murphy

Built on the same foundations as “The Spear Of Destiny”, rehashed. Any good conspiracy theory grows to incorporate new and disparate events, and this narrative follows the same pattern, building to a rather spiritual and mystically-oriented sequel, carrying the ‘story’ of the Spear of Longinus all the way forward to its role in the The Apocalypse – with some very strange stops along its travels.


910. Secrets Of The Holy Lance: The Spear Of Destiny in History and Legend – Jerry E Smith and George Piccard

Not to be confused with “Adolf Hitler and the Secrets Of The Holy Lance,” which you will find in our Honorable Mentions. This is similar to the other books listed, but it includes the Nazi period in between as well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t flow in a linear fashion, chapters jumping from one era to another and back again. This makes it heavy going and hard to use as a reference work.


Books About The Ark Of The Covenant & Holy Grail



911. Otto Rahn and the Quest for the Holy Grail: The Amazing Life of the Real “Indiana Jones” – Nigel Graddon

This book has a mixed reputation as a result of containing too much frothing speculation and too little fact with some of those few facts demonstrably wrong. That makes it unreliable as a historical reference but lovely for the Pulp GM willing to go over the top. Available in Kindle and in Paperback. And, no, your eyes are not deceiving you: the cover text really is off-center.


912. Emerald Cup, Ark Of Gold – Col. Howard Buechner

Traces the history of the Cup and the Ark and ties in Otto Rahn. Receives mostly negative reviews on Amazon – one states “An extremely speculative work about the real quest for the Grail in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. He gives at least two new definitions as to what the grail is: 1) The Cup of Moses, 2) A series of enruned tablets,” while a second, more negative, reviewer comments, “The whole book is filled with highly speculative stories and straight out inaccuracies”, based on the reviewers personal knowledge of the subject matter of one chapter and projecting its flaws over the totality. None of which should matter to the Pulp GM who wants to use it as source material!


913. The Lost Ark Of The Covenant: Solving the 2,500-Year-Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark – Tudor Parfitt

One man, who the Wall Street Journal describes as “The British Indiana Jones”, and his quest to find the Ark. Booklist describes the book as “thoroughly cinematic in tone, with scenes of heart-stopping action and featuring characters so quirky they feel more fictional than real” – though they add the caveat that with the names (and who knows how much more) changed and no notes, it’s hard to tell where reality ends and fiction begins. That said, if you are going to reinvent the content for a pulp setting, who cares? It might even make it easier to use for our purposes!


914. Blood Of Avalon: The Secret History of the Grail Dynasty from King Arthur to Prince William – Adrian Gilbert

The author’s name on Amazon has a middle initial “G” that doesn’t show on the front cover, and can complicate attempts to locate copies of this book, which suggests that Princess Diana was related to King Arthur as part of its thesis on the importance of the Holy Grail in British History. In order to find this book credible, you first have to accept that King Arthur is real, and not a myth. That said, using the logic espoused above, the difference between what we consider “true” in the real world and what we consider “true” in a Pulp Campaign can be worlds apart.


915. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln

Rennes-le-Chateau is a small mountain village in the foot of Pyrenees where a buried cache of documents were reportedly discovered by a French Priest in the 19th century. Starting from these alleged documents, the authors trace their way back through the Knights Templar, the Cathar Heretics of the 12th and 13th centuries to a dynasty of obscure French Kings deposed more than 1300 years ago, suggesting that Christ did not die on the cross, instead marrying and becoming a father to a bloodline that persists to the modern day.

There are three editions of this volume, and each has their own attraction; the oldest dates from 1996 and has a kindle edition and a lot of cheap copies

The middle edition is from 2004, has hundreds more copies available at a pittance,, and is 118 pages shorter that the first; while it’s possible that this saving has been achieved by smaller print and tighter editing, it represents more than 1/6th of the length of the original – so it seems more likely that there has been a cut in content.

At first, Mike thought that maybe they had cut out a large photographic section to account for a large portion of the reduction, but then he found the third edition – one explicitly described as an “Illustrated Edition” (pictured), with an abbreviated title – and another reduction of 7 pages. There are not as many copies of this version and they are not as cheap, but if you want to use this for inspiration, the illustrations are likely to represent a significant enhancement of its utility – and the illustrated edition is still well within our price and availability criteria.


Books About The Cthulhu Mythos



916. Cthulhu by Gaslight – William A. Barton

Predates the pulp era a little but there’s enough crossover to make it worthwhile. If you want a new copy, the third edition is more affordable, if you want to save a few bucks and buy a used one, the second edition is the better-priced.
2nd Ed:
3rd Ed (pictured):


917. The Keeper’s Companion Vol 1: Blasphemous Knowledge, Hidden Secrets – Herber, Deitz (Chaosium)

Lots of excellent material on the era in general as well as more Cthulhu-mythos specific content. Parts were reprinted in the Call Of Cthulhu 1920s sourcebook “Keeper’s Compendium” which may contain new material as well, but we weren’t confident enough of that to list it separately.


918. The Keeper’s Companion Vol 2 – Gauntlett, Sammons, et al. (Chaosium)

More content useful in both general and mythos-specific ways. We suspect that the Keeper’s Compendium may also contain reprints of some of this volume.



Afterword by Saxon:

This may seem like a broad and eclectic category – and it is! – but a gamesmaster can usefully get a handle on it by identifying what the various mystical elements are contributing to the adventure or even the game setting as a whole. On the one hand, the mystical elements can be thematically linked by a general description that: “Some people think that the world operates in a way other than that of the everyday, obvious and mundane (and who knows, they may be correct).” (And thinking about it, that’s a description that even applies to weirder and counter-intuitive aspects of modern physics.)

On the other hand different religious and mystical elements may be doing different things, from benign cultural effects all the way through to incredibly hostile metaphysical threats. In a pulp game based on two-fisted adventure these might be arranged by answering the question: “How much (and what type) of danger does it pose to the player characters?” That’s not the only way sort the answers, of course, but it can be used as a starting point.

At the simplest, it might act as local color. This has been discussed before in this series, and can be summarized as minor details placed to pique the interest of characters (and players). Then again, it need not be quiet as simple, since religion and mysticism can form an important part of a non-player character’s world view. In such a case, the gamesmaster could use it to answer basic questions such as: “How would character X react in such-and-such a situation?” Moving on, does a religion or cult hold some form of influence that complicates the local politics? Is there some element that complicates local (or not so local) metaphysics? Is there some way that it provides a Macguffin for the player characters to chase after? Does it provide some sort of problem, threat or enemy that the player characters must work around or overcome? And since this shelf includes the possibility of using Cthulhu mythos elements, is there some existential threat which overshadows the entire campaign setting?

And, finally, there is the eternal question of how one set of beliefs interact and interrelate with another. One population believes one thing, another believes something else, and they can’t both be right. Or can they? Are there unspoken assumptions that, if challenged by the creative GM, makes room for both? Or perhaps it’s the case that they are both 95% right – and unity of applicability can be forged in those 5% gaps, through things that have been left unspoken. Mike and Blair have repeatedly challenged simplistic perceptions of religion and theology while permitting individual characters to be as singular and unwavering in their beliefs as the operator of that character thought appropriate to their personality. An excellent example is the assistance offered the group by the Goddess Kali through one of the least-religious and most practically-minded characters in the party simply to put such questions aside when they weren’t relevant to the situation at hand – a neat technique for preserving that respectful divergence between “objective character reality” and “subjective understanding of the world”. If Kali had chosen to work through my character, a catholic priest, a theological crisis for the character would be a foregone conclusion; working through Captain Ferguson avoided that issue, leaving Father O’Malley free to continue to wrestle with the compromises forced on the religious authority he regards as supreme and the political realities of the world around him.

Although these questions have been ranked in a rough hierarchy of danger for simplicity’s sake, you’ll observe that the answers are not simply escalating levels of threat. The answers demonstrate how different elements of religion and mysticism will operate in different ways within a game, possibly in several different ways at the same time. That’s a useful analytical tool, for real life as well as Game and campaign construction. The gamesmaster can variously use that as a springboard for new ideas, as well as a way of identifying something that the game needs and then looking about to see what elements can be used to fulfill that need.

Next in this series: The 11th shelf – Other beliefs from the credible to the even stranger fringes: Secret Societies! Freemasons! Knights Templar! Voodoo! Zombies! Urban Legends! Ghosts! Cryptozoology! plus General Mysticism, Superstitions, and some really strange stuff!!


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The Perils Of Pre-Play


Photo Credit: ‘) New Beginnings (‘ by / Vince Petaccio

As part of the recent Blog Carnival, I shared a tool that I had developed for creating a character’s background (Blog Carnival November 2016: The Ordinary Life of a Fantasy PC).

As part of that article, I originally had a section (entitled “An Alternative Route”) discussing playing a pre-game to enable players to develop the personalities and backgrounds of their characters before the main campaign starts, but ended up having to cut it when it began to overwhelm the main thrust of the article.

Reader Alan Kellogg noted the omission in a comment, which read,

Of course it helps when you make the process fun. Have a pre-game game where the players as a whole get together and play out how the group got together. Perhaps they work for an Ibo Merchant as he travels from Niger to Albion looking for items to bring back with him. Or a Seneca Shaman has brought then together to seek a lost artifact of the Mound Builders days.

So, what’s the story with pre-campaign adventuring? What are the benefits and the pitfalls? And why, despite the self-evident appeal, don’t I recommend it except in special and quite limited circumstances?

Stating the Obvious: What is a pre-campaign game?

Let’s start by making sure that we’re all on common ground when it comes to the subject of discussion. A pre-campaign game is a game in which the characters are not finalized in personalities, in which both players and GM get to discover what works and what doesn’t about their latest and greatest creations, in which the characters establish their backgrounds within the game world and in which the story of how they came together in a unit gets “told”. It establishes relationships between the characters and between the characters and the game world, and may or may not introduce key elements of the campaign to follow such as important NPCs and situations. I’ve never met the GM yet who didn’t also take the opportunity to diffuse the spreading of background information to the characters and players.

It’s a game that introduces the characters but not the campaign, though it does introduce the environment in which the campaign will take place. Aside from the PCs getting together, not much that happens is intended to have a lasting impact.

The Benefits

There are some obvious benefits to this approach, and the preceding description touches on many of them.

  • Players begin to get a handle on personalities, background, mechanics – especially useful with a new game system.
  • Gives the Gm the chance to intro characters, situations, and see what’s working and what’s not.
  • Makes the final part of the character generation more process fun.
  • Gives everyone the chance to tweak and adjust anything that isn’t quite right.
  • Moves the awkward “getting-to-know-you” phase out of the campaign, which is important if the characters are supposed to know each other and have been working together for weeks, months, or years.

Quite often, the campaign will start with the characters having achieved character level X, in D&D terms, while the pre-campaign game will depict the characters at a much lower character level. The separation helps create a firebreak between the pre-campaign adventure and the campaign, ensures that some elements of the campaign and setting are new and fresh for the players, and allows game-time “room” for revisions and tweaks to characters and setting.

The Pitfalls

That doesn’t mean that the idea isn’t without its potential negatives. There are four big ones that come to mind. These need a little more explanation (I tried producing a simple list the way I have above, and it just doesn’t work).

Pitfall 1: Ideas without foundation

Either the GM already has the whole campaign setting and background worked out, and it’s just a matter of revealing it to the players in a dynamic and interesting way, in which case there isn’t a lot of value to the pre-campaign adventure, or he hasn’t.

Either way, the implication is that the players have little or no idea of that campaign setting and background, and the characters that they come up with might or might not fit it. They are creating characters blind, and simply hoping that they will fit. I once met a GM who vastly preferred convention gaming because it meant that he got to create the characters instead of the players doing so, ensuring that they were fully integrated into the setting. Personally, I think that might be going a little overboard, but I can see his point.

Back in the old days, when characters started out as nothing more than a bunch of randomly-generated stats, with the ‘personality’ of the character still waiting to be discovered, the pre-campaign game had more merit. It might still apply to old-school gaming. The more input and direction a player has into the capabilities of the character, the more they are conceived as an integrated unit complete with personality and ambitions, the more significance this pitfall assumes.

Pitfall 2: Shifts the creative deadline to no great advantage

So the obvious solution is for the GM to make at least an outline of the campaign world available to the players prior to character generation so that they can integrate their creative concepts with the game environment. Which means that the GM needs to have it all, or almost all, fully worked up and fleshed out prior to the pre-campaign game.

This undermines several of the most significant advantages listed earlier. Really, all that it means is that the GM needs to have his campaign design completed that much sooner, or delay the real campaign that much longer. The only advantage that remains fairly intact is enabling the players to start play feeling that their PCs already know each other, begging the question: is it really that difficult to justify their coming together for the first time in the first adventure?

And, if there is a clear advantage to the campaign in having the characters establish relationships before play starts, there are other ways to achieve that, and I’ll offer one later in the article.

Worse still, the shortened deadline might lead to the GM rushing his campaign development, detrimentally affecting the entire campaign. There’s little worse than integrating a half-baked idea into the campaign foundations, something that the players and GM have to continually avoid looking at too closely or the internal logic of the whole thing falls apart. To the players, it’s a no-go area that’s barred from their characters; to the GM it’s a constant reminder of failure; and it’s something that the players can use to exert pressure on the GM to change other things they don’t like about the campaign. Most players aren’t so ruthless, but I have known one or two who were not above emotional blackmail in my time. And I’ve met one GM who was so emotionally scarred by this behavior that he gave up gaming altogether.

Not worth it.

Pitfall 3: Can derail the whole campaign

The problem with placing a discontinuity between the adventure and the campaign is that you risk divergent trajectories as characters pass through the discontinuity. In effect, the players want to go in direction A in the campaign, while the campaign that the GM has planned lies in direction B. Unless there’s substantial common ground, and a willingness to compromise on both sides, the expectations and desires generated by the pre-campaign adventure can derail the whole campaign.

This happened to one GM that I know; he ended up starting a second campaign with different players to play out the campaign that he originally intended while permitting the players in the pre-campaign call the direction they enjoyed in the original. This not only spread his prep too thin, it ate into his sleep and his health – two campaigns were simply too much for him to handle. In the end, he had to choose between his career and his hobby, because the hobby was wearing him out. So he dropped out of gaming for a number of years. He’s now back in the GMs chair with an extremely irregular campaign whose pace is dictated by his ability to prep to a standard that he finds acceptable. Sometimes there are games only weeks apart, sometimes three-to-six month intervals – but he refuses to wear himself out, and its hard to argue with his logic and compromise. An irregular game is better than no game at all!

Pitfall 4: Raises issues about the transition process

So you’ve had your pre-campaign adventure and each of the players has found things they didn’t like about their characters. One wants to change one optional ability for another. Another doesn’t like the way his chosen race are being interpreted by the GM, and in particular the baggage that the GM is saddling him with, and wants to change races. A third has found that his chosen character class isn’t as much fun as he thought it would be, and wants to change it. And a fourth dislikes the personality he came up with and wants to completely revise it into something that’s easier to play.

How many such changes have to be made before you end up with an entirely new party, anyway? What changes should be permitted, and what’s going too far? Is it good enough to say to player number two that his character has undergone a magical transformation that has altered his entire outlook and precepts, but that his early life and experience remained unchanged (maintaining the validity of the pre-campaign adventure)? How about telling the third player that he was free to take a new class but that his one level in the other class had to remain for the sake of consistency? Or might that be penalizing the character for using the pre-campaign adventure for the exact purpose it was intended?

How about a player taking what he learned in the pre-campaign adventure and using it to modify his character to give him an advantage over the other PCs?

I’ve seen some of these problems arise in the course of an actual campaign, never mind in the gap between pre-campaign and campaign. I have no doubt that some or all of them would eventually befall any GM who employed a pre-campaign adventure. Viewed one way, the pre-campaign could be described as a safety valve permitting these changes to take place before they overwhelm the main campaign; viewed another, it’s inviting compatibility issues between PCs and campaign.

Once again, you would have to ask if it’s really worth the grief? And my answer would be, “Maybe – it depends on the players”. Some players would use this as an opportunity to enhance both the game and their enjoyment of it; others, not so much…

The pre-campaign adventure as Pilot Episode

I have often held that changing perspectives on a situation can reveal hidden aspects and solutions to that situation. Perhaps looking at the pre-campaign adventure in a different light will find a way to maximize the advantages and minimize the problems?

The first such alternative perspective that comes to mind is one from Hollywood TV. A pilot episode forms part of the primary plotline, but permits wholesale changes that are retroactively introduced into the continuity. Any justifiable change is fair game. There have even been cases where a supporting character has become one of the stars while a supposed star has been relegated to supporting character status. And sometimes, those changes were even justified in terms of the popularity of the character. At other times, the character’s number one fan was one of the executives behind the show.

And, to be fair, sometimes the executive was right and the character grew into the new role.

President Bartlett was intended to be a supporting character in the West Wing, someone who parachuted into the plotline just in time for the climax or lobbed demands and hurdles to be cleared, from the sidelines. That changed right after the pilot, a change that hindsight says was probably inevitable.

G’kar was originally going to be the villain of Babylon-5, the character seduced by the Shadows, while Londo was going to escape foppishness and foolishness and become a hero of the series. That began to change right after the pilot, and even more-so after the first season, but shades of those conceptions remained, giving both characters depth and nuance and even pathos. At times, we caught glimpses of the Londo and G’kar that might have been.

Casting changes are also common after pilot episodes. Entire roles can be redefined – that happened with Babylon-5 as well, with Lieutenant Takashima was out, and Ivanova was in. Dr Kyle was out, and the much younger and more dynamic Dr Franklin was in. De’Lenn underwent a complete change of gender!

Clearly, almost any change is possible. Which changes should be permitted? There are two options: either revising a character from the initial adventure, or completely replacing the first character. Either should be permitted provided that there is a justification for the change; it’s really a matter of player and GM figuring out the least-disruptive way of handling the changes called for.

Viewing the pre-campaign adventure as part of the campaign in which there is a window for negotiated revision kills off virtually all of the pitfalls while retaining most of the advantages. But is it really a pre-campaign adventure anymore?

The main campaign as sequel

Or perhaps, “viewing the pre-campaign adventure(s) as a prequel” might be a more accurate way of describing this approach, which I have employed myself: in the original Fumanor campaign, the main plot couldn’t begin, in my opinion, until the characters reached a certain level of capability. Specifically, third level spells was the marker that I had in mind; at that point, characters would be sufficiently versatile to cope with the challenges. In the meantime, I could move various chess pieces into place as developments in the prequel part of the plot instead of having them already in place and starting the characters at the required character level. This gave the players time to get used to the campaign world before I pulled the rug out from under their characters’ feet and turned that world upside-down.

This approach was always my intent, from day one of designing the campaign. I wanted the game to feel just like any other D&D-oriented game world, with dungeons and the like, before the big picture emerged to transform the campaign utterly. This approach was modeled on the first season of Babylon-5 very deliberately, resting on the theory that the players wouldn’t really feel the upheaval unless they had time to get used to the status quo first. But there were ongoing hints that bigger things were in the works.

Through organic changes to the characters as they developed, over time, the campaign’s cast evolved to suit the game world and the player’s proclivities, in particular the number of players – several were part of the campaign and dropped out for a variety of reasons. In essence, instead of one massive change after a single prequel adventure, evolution was spread over the course of the entire prequel phase, making them seem more natural and giving players more opportunity to grow used to the changes.

This approach works – but it does so because it was a key part of the campaign plan from the beginning. And, once again, I have to ask the question – are we still talking about pre-campaign adventures, here? This clearly goes a long way beyond the scope of what was described at the start of this article, and it succeeds more effectively because of those changes – effectively arguing against the utility of pre-campaign adventures, instead recommending that various aspects of the pre-campaign adventure be grafted into the campaign proper.

Prequel adventures as “more of the same”

What if the GM has no radical “big-picture” shakeup planned to signal the commencement of the “main campaign”? If there is no real difference between pre-campaign adventure and the ongoing campaign, why bother having the pre-campaign adventure in the first place? In this circumstance, it’s the benefits that are almost entirely wiped out – I’ve never met a GM who wasn’t ready to make major changes to their campaign if they thought it necessary to preserve the entertainment that everyone was getting from it, or to restore that entertainment if it had mis-stepped somewhere along the line.

Prequel adventures as “something distinctly different”

But there is a danger in the “radical transformation” model, too – what if the players don’t like the changes? To avoid that problem, I generally assume that the players will assume an objective of restoring the status quo, or something as close to it as possible. The implication is that the changes are not intended to be permanent, though there are always ways of preserving any changes that go over well, and an impermanent change is far more tolerable than a permanent change that is viewed as ‘ad-hoc’ or capricious. Another key element of my planning of the original Fumanor campaign was ensuring that the justifications for the changes that the PCs were to experience in the game world were in place long before they actually occurred, though situations were often taken at face value and the embedded hints not appreciated at the time. As events unfolded, however, those clues became recognized for their true significance.

There are greater problems to overcome if the transition is not intended to be reversible. Running a prequel campaign which is a political thriller with James Bond overtones and ends in World War III and a nuclear holocaust may be a train-wreck that the players can see coming while being helpless to stop it – but there’s no road back from that, the world after is irrevocably changed. The only solution that I can see is to make sure that the players are told in advance that the ultimate goal of the prequel campaign is to end in a nuclear Armageddon which will set the main campaign in motion, which at least cushions the blow. But don’t be surprised if the players work to prevent the disaster as hard as they can – it’s something that is eminently reasonable for their characters to do, after all – and resent any attempts by the GM to railroad his way toward that outcome.

That’s the key word in this discussion – railroad. Avoiding any hint that the rails to the main campaign are laid down unalterably undermines and devalues the prequel section of the campaign. It’s not acceptable to the players, and that makes the ‘permanent, radical, transformation’ infinitely more difficult a proposition.

To a certain extent, the shorter the ‘bedding in’ period, the less the players and characters will have invested in the status quo, and the less resistant to the changes they will be, especially if it is made clear to them in advance that something of Magnitude 12 is going to take place to launch the campaign proper.

The pre-campaign adventure as Prologue

I have seen suggestions that a pre-campaign adventure should be treated as a prologue to the main plot. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with a prologue depicting “life as usual” for the PCs; it certainly works in novels, especially when the power of foreshadowing is exploited.

Unfortunately, an RPG game is not a novel. This sort of prologue works in fiction because the characters are designed to be highlighted by the prologue, and the prologue is designed to highlight the basics of the fictional world. The two, plot and characterization, are intertwined, and each designed to fit the other like a glove. If a character is the rakish type, there will be something in the prologue to show that. If the character is honest and honorable, there will be something about his values and beliefs in the prologue.

You can’t integrate the personalities of the PCs into a prologue in an RPG because you don’t know what they are going to be. And that ties one hand behind the GM’s back in many respects. If he knows the game world that he’s created well enough, and is inventive enough at improv adventures, he might be able to steer the character into a situation that lets him show off his traits as the GM identifies them. If not, then the GM is left fumbling with generica, with cliché.

The only way out of this situation is for the initial encounter in the prequel to be fairly irrelevant to the PCs in terms of interaction, designed to show off the campaign world with the PCs as eyewitnesses. From their reactions, the GM can begin assessing personality traits and inventing more substantial plot elements that highlight the characters – who may well be evolving from generic cut-outs at the same time, as both players and GM grope in the dark for the shape of the eventual campaign.

The big difference between a campaign prologue and an prequel campaign or “Pilot Episode” is that most things are left unresolved, dangling plot threads that can be picked up on in the future. Only the immediate situation tends to be resolved. And, if character generation is taking place at the game table, that might be all that there is time for.

Prologues exist to thrust the characters into the main plot faster and harder than they might like. That’s a function that negates some of the negatives, but that leaves little room for the benefits. Incorporating any other function into the prologue weights it down and dilutes its effectiveness. Putting the entirety of the burden listed as functions of a pre-campaign adventure dilutes it so much that you have to wonder what the benefit is.

That’s not to say that prologues don’t work. I use prologues all the time. For adventures, they are usually a single sentence or brief paragraph; the longest was aimed at capturing the “feel” of New York City in the 1930s, the mood of the city, the tone of it, and required four short paragraphs – and a lot of work went into trying to abbreviate it further. As it turned out, it was effective and just short of being too long.

At the campaign level, a prologue sets a domino piece in motion or puts a chess piece on the board, Its purpose is to manipulate the players with knowledge that their characters don’t posses, i.e. to function at a metagame level. Such a prologue can be anything from that one-line length (“Somewhere, an old man in a Santa Suit mails a package…”) to an entire adventure. It’s a First Shoe.

So long as prologues exist to service the plot by getting players into the right mind-set, they work perfectly and are completely acceptable or even ideal. It’s when you load them with additional overarching functions that the situation becomes akin to spinning many plates on sticks at the same time.

Getting to know you: a practical alternative or two

So, if pre-game adventures have all these problems, and you decide to shelve the idea, but the PCs are still supposed to start the game knowing each other and with a common history, what’s the answer?

One solution is to play an entirely separate game, one in which the character’s backgrounds and relationships are forged as a narrative structure – in effect, collaborating with the players on a backstory. All that’s necessary is to agree on the goal of the story, what it’s supposed to achieve, then have everyone roll a d20. Highest roll gets sixty seconds to advance or complicate the narrative using his character, then he puts the die away and hands the baton over to the GM, who gets a minute to revise and edit the player’s contribution, and then the next highest roll gets a minute, and so on. Once everyone’s had a turn, you either start over in the same order, or roll again. The narrative structure means that a lot of game time can be consumed really quickly – travel from place to place and lots of mundane details get handwaved in favor of The Story. And, of course, the GM makes notes as he goes. There are other ways of achieving the same end, but they all have the same fundamental characteristics.

But there’s a specific tool that I have devised that I would employ before beginning that process. Each player needs a sheet of paper, on which they write the names of the other PCs and their players, as evenly spaced out as possible. Each player then takes it in turns to describe their character, while the other players make notes about how their character would react to the PC being described. Each player then gets to ask a question about the PC to enhance whatever they have decided without revealing what they have written.

Once all players have described their PCs, the GM asks them to make some additional notes in answer to specific questions – yours may vary, but these are the ones I would employ:

  • “Which of the described PCs will your character get on best with? Write ‘Friend’ next to their name.”
  • “With which of the PCs described do you have the least in common with? Write ‘Stranger’ next to their name.”
  • “Which of the PCs described do you think is most likely to make you uncomfortable? Write ‘Suspicious’ next to their name and add a note as to why to your notes on that PC.”
  • “Of the characters described, which are you most interested in, fascinated by, or curious about? Write ‘Intrigued by’ next to their name, and if it’s specific, add a reason why.”
  • “Which of the characters is most likely to get your character into trouble? Write ‘Trouble’ next to their name.” and, finally,
  • “When you get into trouble, which of the PCs listed do you think is most likely to come to your rescue? Write ‘Wingman’ next to their name.”

This gets followed by something akin to a speed-dating situation, supervised by the GM, in which the players get together in pairs to exchange how they see each other and work out what the relationship is like between them. This should only take a minute or two for each combination.

The resulting relationships then provide a foundation for the narrative ‘game’ that I described earlier, exposing the relationships to the players other than the ones directly affected. “I buy Glorwith a drink, but since he abstains, I drink it for him. I tell him to loosen up, and attract the attention of a barmaid, tip her, and tell her he’s lonely.” (Glorwith’s player rolls his eyes).

Immediately, there’s a rapport, a camaraderie. It feels like they have known each other for years, and this is just the latest in a long line of practical jokes between them. The getting-to-know-you process between them has been short-cutted.

This approach is just as much fun as a straight adventure, possibly even more-so because of the change-of-pace factor, and the best part? This is fully compatible with and complimentary to, the characterization tool that I offered in the post referenced at the start of this article.


In limited circumstances, where the GM has solutions to the problems raised and the pre-adventure campaign has a definite purpose that can’t be achieved in adventure #1 of the main campaign, and where the content of the campaign makes it especially desirous that the first adventure “hits the ground running”, a pre-campaign adventure may be the ideal solution. But unless you can tick all of those boxes, you have to ask what the real benefit is, and whether they outweigh the pitfalls.

A pre-game adventure is a compromise between starting “cold” and running a prequel campaign, and (as with most compromises) no-one is ever completely satisfied by the result – especially when there are alternatives.

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 9th Shelf


The Ninth Shelf: Life In The Pulp Era II – Non-Civilian Life [Crime, Policing, and Militaria] – Introduction by Mike

It sometimes seems that the term “delicate balancing act’ is over-used, but when it comes to Pulp it is a true description of some aspect of reality for the GM in at least some respects.

Fantasy is easy in comparison. So is Sci-Fi, especially more space-opera-ish sub-genres. Superheroes all four-color and sharp edges, blurring only when and where the GM chooses; no-one expects any ordinary people, no matter how well-equipped, to stand a chance against supervillains.

In Call of Cthulhu, the balance is generally the other way, with characters facing evils that cannot be overcome directly, but that may be vulnerable by virtue of their dependence on lesser, human, agents. But there’s little ambiguity about it.

In Pulp, that’s not true. The official forces that form part of ordinary need to be competent, but not so much so that they overshadow the PCs. At the same time, some of those forces will often be the source of the opposition that the PCs have to defeat. And right away, you’re into a delicate balancing act.

The best solution is to have the military, police, etc, be as competent and formidable as they were in real life, or even more so in the case of selected enemies; then making both problems and the PCs who will handle them that little bit more. More difficult, more capable, more than the official forces, just as those forces are more capable than any ordinary civilian.

But there is a price to pay for that solution: it requires the GM to know his stuff, to have his research done. And that’s where this shelf comes in.

Relevance to other genres

Of course, the same principles often apply, in somewhat looser fashion, to all those other genres. Even without the potential for cross-genre conversion – using pulp-era crime figures as inspiration for fantasy bandits that are a cut above the standard, for example – there is plenty of relevance to selected parts of the listings below, regardless of genre.

One of the biggest, most noticeable, differences between American police procedurals and those of Europe (including England) is that due process only seems to occur in the American shows when that’s convenient for the writer – and, half the time, the plot is about getting an arrest or conviction despite the protections afforded the presumed-innocent. European shows tend to be far more respectful of the limitations and processes of police work; this often makes them slower-paced, more Poirot and Sherlock Holmes than Die Hard or Starsky and hutch.

One of the reasons for the great success of the Law and Order and CSI franchises is that they combined a more European sensibility with something uniquely American-TV: gritty reality and American-show pacing, respectively. (Another is that they weren’t afraid to raise socially-controversial issues; early seasons of Law and Order were frequently food for thought. But I digress.)

The Pulp Genre is unashamedly action-based. If you want relevance, you have to squeeze in between the cracks like spackfiller. And yet, many of the adventures have a mystery component that is more European in style. Understanding this dichotomy, and the differences, is essential to managing a good pulp campaign – but also contain lessons for other genres, too, where the differences might be less extreme, less profound – but where they exist, nevertheless.

many open books

Image Credit: / m s

Shelf Introduction

There are only two sections to this shelf, but they are both bulging with good resources.

Courts, Police & Detectives & Crime – The underworld and the forces of civilization that combat it are pretty much at the heart of the pulp genre. If you start from the basis of reality in these areas and then make your villains even more OTT, more Bond-villainesque, you won’t go far wrong. On top of that, the mechanics of manhunts, police investigations, etc, define what is possible to the ordinary – anything beyond this lies in the realm of the extraordinary (for the era), and that’s the province of PCs. Again, a very easy way to determine what their capabilities are is to look at the state of the art X years later, where X is a number that you define – it could be 5 years, 10 years, or even 20 years.

That’s what at least one subgenre of Pulp is, really – characters with abilities ahead of their time, opposing opposing villains who are beyond the ordinary standard. But the heart of the genre is characters with pluck, resilience, and a boots-first attitude going head-to-head with villains who are ahead of the curve and beyond the abilities of ordinary law enforcement – and finding a way to win. Either way, the contents of this section are indispensable resources.

This major section has been further divided into 9 subsections:

  • Mysterious Deaths
  • Prohibition
  • Hollywood & Crime
  • Criminal Organizations
  • Criminology and Investigation
  • Forensics
  • Specific Types Of Crime or Crime Scene
  • Law
  • Courts, Trials, & Justice

Military Installations, Forces, and Campaigns – The usual response in the real world to a threat beyond the capacity of standard law-enforcement is to call out the military. It’s something that gets seen time and time again in the monster movies of the 1950s and 60s, but it goes all the way back to King Kong. Even in fairly matter-of-fact gangster movies, you will often hear the phrase “Call out the National Guard” or “The National Guard have been alerted”. Most readers won’t even know what that means, let alone what they were capable of doing in the Pulp era. If the military can handle the threats, what need is there for the PCs? it follows that the viability of the Pulp Campaign rests on an inability for the military to handle whatever the emergency is – or at least, to do so without the PCs leading the charge.

Another way of viewing the pulp era is the last great period of the individual as supreme over the collective. Although historians may dispute the point, it can be argued that the death-knell for that perspective came with the massive aerial bombardments of World War II, though we tend to think that it was the public response to the entrepreneurs and speculators who they blamed for the Stock Market crash and the Great Depression that started the rot, and the alliance needed to uproot the Axis powers that completed it. Throughout the pulp period, then, the primacy of the individual is being eroded – and the genre itself was a reaction to that, a statement that the world still needed Heroes. Completely aside from the direct referential value, these books provide invaluable context.

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation.


Books About Courts, Police & Detectives & Crime

This is a vast and sprawling subject that is at the heart of the majority of pulp campaigns. Accordingly, we’ve focused quite a lot of attention on the contents. While those contents have been divided into smaller subsections, there can be quite a bit of overlap.

Books about Mysterious Deaths



839. London’s Curse: Murder, Black Magic and Tutankhamun in the 1920s West End – Mark Beynon

“Throughout the 1920 and 1930s, London was gripped by the supposed curse of Tutankhamen, the Egyptian boy-king of antiquity, whose tomb was uncovered in 1923. Over the next few years more than 20 of those involved in the tomb’s exhumation perished in strange, often terrifying circumstances, prompting the myth of the curse.” Meticulously researched, this book shows that not only is the truth stranger than fiction, it can be more interesting. 224 pages, Kindle ($9.57), Hardcover (12 used from $9.96, 24 new from $12.20)

Books about Prohibition



840. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America – Edward Behr

Although the bulk of the prohibition era belongs in the 1920s, much of the social architecture translates into the pulp vernacular such as gangsters and corrupt officials even if your pulp campaign is set outside that particular decade. This book appears to be the best “read” amongst several on the subject, though others may suit individual tastes better. You only need this or the following choice to be equipped on this topic for a Pulp campaign, though “The War On Alcohol” (842, below) would be a useful supplement to either.


841. Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless years of Prohibition – Karen Blumenthal

Written for a young-adult/ high school student, this has been nominated for or won a number of awards for quality. Filled with period art, photographs, anecdotes, and literary character portraits.


842. The War On Alcohol: Prohibition and the rise of the American State – Lisa McGirr

This was almost listed as an alternative to the previous two, but at the last moment we decided that its perspective was sufficiently different to recommend it as a compliment to either volume on Prohibition. Deals with racial bias in the enforcement of Prohibition, for example, something that no other volume highlights. Without this book, you only think you have the whole story.

Books about Hollywood & Crime



843. Hollywood and the Mob – Tim Adler

This book examines the relationship between Hollywood and the Mafia. Only available as an import or on Kindle, but quite affordable – and, since the paperback is print-on-demand (and almost a quarter of the Kindle price), they aren’t likely to run out of cheap copies anytime soon. There are a very limited number of hardcovers available for even less than the paperback, so that’s what we’ve linked to – if they are all gone, click the “show all formats and editions” link on the Amazon page to find the $2.12 paperback.


844. Gangster Films: A comprehensive, Illustrated Reference to People, Films, and Terms – Michael L. Stephens

No modern-day GM can avoid having his Pulp campaign colored by the cinematic treatment of gangsters even though much of it will date from long after the pulp era and be extensively romanticized, one way or the other. That makes this volume an essential. Prices exceed our normal limits, but it looks so useful we wanted to include it anyway.

Books about Criminal Organizations



845. Mobsters, Unions, and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement – James B Jacobs

We’re always wary of political bias whenever the subject gets even close to mentioning a Labor movement. We’re also very wary of the contamination of history by J. Edgar Hoover’s …shenanigans… during the first half of the 20th century. Jacob’s reputation seems impeccable, and on that basis we are recommending this book despite none of us having read it – yet. (We suspect that Amazon describing it as the 49753 rd edition is a mistake, BTW).


846. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires – Selwyn Raab

The “Five Families” are the ‘families’ based in New York City, arguably amongst the most powerful in the country for most of the early 20 th century. Chicago may have been more notorious, other places more violent from time to time, but New York is where the people – and therefore the money – really were.


847. Philadelphia Organized Crime in the 1920s and 1930s – Anne Margaret Anderson and John J. Binder

Chicago’s mobs might have been more famous, New York’s families may have been more powerful – but Philadelphia had more than its share of ‘colorful’ characters, and this book will introduce you to them all, from “Mr. Big” to “The King Of The Bootleggers”.


848. Paddy Whacked – T J English

Refer to the TV & Documentaries section entry under the same name (Entry 044, 2nd Shelf).


849. Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York’s Chinatown – Scott D Seligman

“Nothing had worked. Not threats or negotiations, not shutting down the betting parlors or opium dens, not house-to-house searches or throwing Chinese offenders into prison. Not even executing them.

“The New York DA was running out of ideas and more people were dying every day as the weapons of choice evolved from hatchets and meat cleavers to pistols, automatic weapons, and even bombs. Welcome to New York City’s Chinatown in 1925.”

It may read like fiction, but this is true crime set against the backdrop of Tammany Hall -era NYC.

“The city government was already corrupt from top to bottom, so once one tong began taxing the gambling dens and paying off the authorities, a rival, jealously eying its lucrative franchise, co-opted a local reformist group to help eliminate it. Pretty soon Chinese were slaughtering one another in the streets, inaugurating a succession of wars that raged for the next thirty years.”

Available in Kindle and Hardcover.


850. Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld (25th Anniversary Edition) – David E Kaplan and Alec Dubro

The infamous gangsters of Japan comprise a criminal class with eighty thousand members, more than four times the size of the American Mafia. And, like the Families, they are a lot more than simple criminals; they maintain power by being a social lubricant, a way to get things done that advantage those under their protection in return for favors received or to be demanded in the future. This bureaucratic by-pass system has led to a degree of acceptance by the culture that is almost impossible for non-Japanese to fully grasp. This is a reprinting of the first book to reveal the full scope of the Yakuza beyond the Hollywood clichés, so controversial that it could not be released in Japan for five years after it first saw print, and which has become the Western “bible” for understanding the group and their society.

Kindle, Paperback and Hardcover – but most are beyond acceptable limits in price for this list.

Books about Criminology & Investigation



851. Criminology For Dummies – Steven Briggs

Criminology is the science of what used to be known as “Detective Work”. Sure, you might be able to get away with “Means, Motive, and Opportunity” – but the technicalities are things you can build an entire adventure around.


852. Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers (Howdunit) – Lee Lofland

Lofland is a recognized expert on police procedures and crime scene investigations. This book contains over 80 photographs, illustrations, and charts showing everything from defensive moves used by officers to prison cells and autopsies; Detailed information on officer training, tools of the trade, drug busts, con air procedures, crime scene investigation techniques, etc; and first-person anecdotes from the author concerning his experiences as a detective, including accounts of arrests, death penalty executions, and criminal encounters.


853. Police Procedural: A Writer’s Guide to the Police and How They Work (Howdunit) – Russell Bintliff

This book takes you inside the day-to-day world of police work – how police officers work, when they work, what they wear, who they report to, how they investigate crime, how they get promoted, and generally how they go about the business.


854. Scene of the Crime: A Writer’s Guide to Crime Scene Investigation (Howdunit) – Anne Wingate

How evidence is measured, collected, identified, and analyzed, the timetable of activity at a crime scene, and technical terms and professional techniques used – this is what NCIS refers to as “processing a scene”. Doing so was far more primitive in the pulp era – sometimes you were lucky if photographs were taken, never mind anything else being documented – but this describes best-case practices; all you have to do is determine how that standard has to be compromised to keep your mysteries a secret.


855. Just the Facts, Ma’am: A Writer’s Guide to Investigators and Investigation Techniques (Howdunit) – Greg Fallis

Former PI Greg Fallis uses real-life scenarios to show writers how investigative professionals gather evidence, interview witnesses, determine motives, and find answers.

Books about Forensics



856. Forensics For Dummies – Douglas P Lyle, MD

Forensic science originated all the way back in Europe’s 16th century with a Frenchman and two Italians. Not much came of their groundbreaking studies until they were published in the 18th century. The science’s roots go back even further, all the way to Aristotle. Believe it or not, the person most directly responsible for popularizing the science in the mid-20th century is the fictional lawyer, Perry Mason, and the real-world author of his stories (almost all of which were adapted into episodes of the long-running TV series), Erle Stanley Gardner. In the introductions to many of his stories, he would ‘introduce’ a forensic scientist (long before there was such a term) and describe their real-world breakthroughs and successes. After Mason came Quincy, about a Medical Examiner, and then the CSI franchise, and Abby Schuto in NCIS. Our big fear is that this book will be more about the techniques that would be familiar to viewers of those last few series and not applicable to the state of the “art” in the Pulp Era. However, the contents allay those concerns somewhat; while sections of one of the Parts on the Forensics Lab would not be relevant, most of it looks just fine.


857. Cause of Death: A Writer’s Guide to Death, Murder and Forensic Medicine (Howdunit) – Keith D. Wilson

Detailed descriptions of what happens to a body from trauma to burial, how autopsies are conducted, the paperwork involved in a death, and the (US) laws that govern how bodies must be handled and buried.


858. Forensics: A Guide for Writers (Howdunit) – D P Lyle

Award-winning author and TV show consultant D.P. Lyle, M.D., takes each area of forensics — from fingerprint analysis to crime scene reconstruction — and discusses its development, how the science works, how it helps in crime solving, and how you as a writer might use this technique in crafting your plot. Includes real-life case files and the role forensic evidence played in solving the crimes; a breakdown of the forensics system from its history and organization to standard evidence classification and collection methods; detailed information on what a dead body can reveal, including the cause, mechanism, and manner of death; and the actual steps taken to preserve a crime scene and the evidence that can be gathered there, such as bloodstains, documents, fingerprints, tire impressions, and more. While Forensics was still in its infancy during the pulp era, it can be a vital element of many adventures – as is making sure that Forensics doesn’t offer an adventure-wrecking shortcut to the players!

Books about Specific Types of Crime and Crime Scenes

See also “The Poisoner’s Handbook” and the other books on poisons (entries 617-619 on the 6th shelf).


859. The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide: 1001 Tips for Writing the Perfect Murder – Martin Roth

A book no writer of murder mysteries, thrillers, action/adventure, true-crime, police procedurals, romantic suspense, and psychological mysteries, whether scripts or novels, or adventures, should be without; Pages and pages of lists, from the so-broad-they-are-almost useless (“Weapons Used by Criminals” which begins “Acid, Air gun, Ax, Bayonet, Bazooka, Billy Club…”) to material that’s too contemporary for pulp (6 pages of LAPD police radio codes) to the irreplaceable (3 pages of FBI case classifications, 16 pages of organization charts for the LA County Sherrif’s Department), much of it very hard to find anywhere else. In short, this book may not be period but we think a lot of the subject is universal in application.

Our first link is to the most recent edition (pictured), and there are quite a few reasonably-priced copies of it available; but if they run out, there is an older edition with reportedly identical content:


860. Murder One: A Writer’s Guide to Homicide (Howdunit) – Mauro V. Corvasce and Joseph R. Paglino

Prosecuting investigators Mauro Corvasce and Joseph Paglino take you step by step through the nuts and bolts necessary to build your fictional murder scenario, from motives, plans, commission and disposal of the bodies.


861. Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists and Other Criminals Think (Howdunit) – Sean P. Mactire

A matter-of-fact book about the criminal mind, beginning with ancient history (from 1500 B.C.) and moving to the present-day serial and “nonserial” killers, showing how the creation of a police force changed criminal activity from open assault to cunning and secret operations, examining the psychology of criminals and the development of profiling (psychological mug shots), all supported by examples from the careers of actual criminals.


862. Rip-Off: A Writer’s Guide to Crimes of Deception (Howdunit) – Fay Faron

From street level shell games to high stakes real estate swindles, professional PI Fay Faron profiles con artists, cons and the victims, providing the lowdown on scams for authors who need the facts.


863. Modus Operandi: A Writer’s Guide to How Criminals Work (Howdunit) – Mauro V. Corvasce and Joseph R. Paglino

How criminals carry out murder, arson, smuggling, armed robbery, safe-cracking, and more. Copies of this book are starting to get hard to find and the price is going up.


864. Old Car Wrecks: And the Vehicles at Accident Scenes, 1920s to 1960s – Ron Kawalke

“Motoring mayhem unravels in this photographic history of tow trucks, police cars, ambulances and other vehicles in the aftermath of accidents. This … volume includes hundreds of photos and motoring misadventures from the 1920s through the 1960s.” Also contains a section on early crash testing and the evolution of safety equipment, but that’s not especially valuable to the Pulp GM, unlike the photos – it’s VERY hard to find anything both similar and period online. We know, we’ve looked – hard – and even had to rewrite part of one adventure because we couldn’t find what we needed. This book would have solved that need.

Books about Law



865. Law For Dummies – JD John Ventura

This is all about how the law applies to ordinary people in everyday, ordinary situations. While the law has evolved since the 1930s, it tends to progress with glacial slowness punctuated by periods of radical shakeup – so large parts of this will (we hope) be directly relevant to the Pulp Era. It’s almost certainly America-centric so inhabitants of the US will get some value from the book even if it’s not useful for Pulp purposes – inhabitants of other countries should NOT rely on this for legal advice and should aim for cheap copies.


866. Law 101: Everything You Need to Know About American Law, Fourth Edition – Jay M Feinman

A last-minute discovery by Mike, this is regarded as the quintessential introduction to Law for the layman. Since most GMs are not going to be qualified US Attorneys, that means us. As is usual with any book that has an “nth edition”, this is extremely up-to-date – but that actually diminishes its value to the Pulp GM. It’s entirely possible that the “For Dummies” book above is better value-for-money from that perspective – which is why this book has been listed lower in the list. But there is an upside: Any book that sells well enough to go into a fourth edition will probably have a fifth and then a sixth (and so on) in due course, so availability should not be a major issue for some time to come, or – if it is – it will probably only be temporary.

Books about Courts, Trials and Justice



867. A History of Modern American Criminal Justice – Joseph F. Spillane & David B. Wolcott

Discovered in the course of researching this article. Many of the books listed in this section are subject-specific and we have concerns about how “contemporary” they are in terms of the Pulp Era; we hope that this provides an overview and context for working out what is relevant to the Pulp GM and what is not. Recommended without having read it. Cheap copies are limited in number.


868. The Trial: A History, from Socrates to O. J. Simpson – Sadakat Kadri

For similar reasons, we are also including this book, again with the caveat that we haven’t read it. Cheap copies appear plentiful.


869. The Great Trials of the Twenties: The Watershed Decade om America’s Courtrooms – Robert Grant and Joseph Katz

The roaring twenties played witness to a number of sensational encounters in the courtroom whose impact is still being felt – and, in some cases, challenged – today. Baseball’s Black Sox, Al Capone, John T. Scopes, Sacco and Vanzetti, Leopold and Loeb, and the court martial of Billy Mitchell. This book describes ten of those momentous clashes in depth.

“The authors dwell on the factual background of the cases and the social forces that swirled around them, glossing over the actual courtroom proceedings. (Predictably, the only attorney whose performance is noted at length is Clarence Darrow, in both the Leopold-Loeb trial and in the Scopes trial).” – Publisher’s Weekly.

“The authors spent a great deal of time each chapter delving into the background information (what was going on in the country prior to the trial). They “set up” the scandal at length before the reader learns about it. I think this is beneficial if the reader is looking to understand more about the 1920s, but I think it is also a little unnecessary at times.” – An amazon reader’s review.

Most usefully, having placed each of the cases in the context of the period, each discussion concludes with an examination of the consequences to society in general or to the defendant after the trial concluded, which also places them in context with respect to the modern world. Unfortunately, we could find no equivalent book detailing the 1930s.

Hardcover, 308 pages, 33 used from $0.01, 20 new from $18.99, 4 collectible from $9.85, Amazon price $30.00


870. Laws of Men and Laws of Nature: The History of Scientific Expert Testimony in England and America – Tal Golan

Discovering this book, which has a most promising write-up at Amazon, was one of the inspirations behind Mike’s article at Campaign Mastery earlier this year, Consequential Expertise: A Neglected Plot Opportunity. He was enthused about the book from the very first sentence of the write up, which asked whether or not expert witnesses are partisan supporters of the side of the legal argument which hires them to appear in a court case, or are they spokesmen and women for the higher principle of objective science? This is a question that has plagued the scientific expert’s role ever since they were first called to testify – and it’s not always easy to tell where any given witness falls. Justice can easily be derailed by judges and juries assuming that a witness has a particular bias – or has no bias. More time can often be spent exploring bonafides and potential biases on the part of expert witnesses, and rebutting their testimony on that basis, than is actually spent listening to what they have to say. As Mike’s article points out, PCs in a Pulp campaign can easily be parachuted into an adventure by serving as ‘expert witnesses’ in a controversial court case. That alone seems to justify including this book on the list, but that’s just the start of what it seems to offer.

For-Dummies Books relating to Courts, Police & Detectives & Crime

In most cases, we haven’t read any of these, and are recommending them for consideration based purely upon the publisher’s descriptions and on general principles except where otherwise noted. This also shifts the content of each review from one of “this book is recommended and here’s why” to “this book might be useful and here’s why”. We have made the assumption that availability and price would fall within our parameters, or close enough to them; we have rarely found this not to be the case.

Selected works were so promising and so relevant, that they have been promoted to the main list of recommendations, excluding them from the above caveats.

A note about Complete Idiot’s Guides

While the “For Dummies” series has a website that lists all the books currently available in the series, there is no equivalent for the “Complete Idiot’s Guides”.

Our blanket advice is that if Amazon lists a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” that matches the subject of one of our “For Dummies” recommendations, you should buy both.


871. Forensic Psychology For Dummies – David Canter

This book we’re not so sure about. Understanding the real reasons why people commit various types of crime might be useful, or it might simply stifle creativity and be too confining for the over-the-top Pulp Genre. We suggest you limit your costs on this one in case it’s not as useful as it might be.


872. Homebrewing For Dummies – Marty Nachel

The Pulp era blankets prohibition, when home brewing and illegal stills were at their height. Even post-prohibition, there were undoubtedly a few of these still lingering around. Slowly, home brewing seemed to go out of fashion until experiencing a resurgence in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – hence this volume’s existence. It would have limited utility, but if you can pick up a cheap copy, it might help verisimilitude enormously.


Books About Military Installations, Forces, and Campaigns

In some ways, this is easier to subdivide – but when we looked at doing so, the plan fell apart very quickly. Why? Well, book “A” covers a specific campaign that involved military forces from countries X, Y, and Z; book “B” might be a different campaign involving V, W, and X, which would suggest a break-up by campaign. But then you get book C which is about multiple campaigns by one military force – into which category should it be put? Or should it be out on its own in yet another category? The conclusion was that there was only one fully-inclusive taxonomy – and that was to lump everything together in the one broad topic.

While it started out as large as the “crime” section (above), however, right from the first, content began to leak out into other sections, notably the weapons & technology sections, and the vehicles sections, where they formed subsections in their own right (Shelves 6 and 7, respectively).

Additional information will also be found in the sections dealing with specific countries and regions (shelf 3, shelf 4, and shelf 5) and in the history section of Shelf 8.

These factors have combined to make this section a lot smaller than it appears from the very broad title.


873. Fortress America, The Forts That Defended America: 1600 – The Present – J.E. Kaufmann & H.W.Kaufmann

Two chapters of period relevance and several chapters of historical reference. There are several at low prices (plus a kindle alternative) here, and some more expensive ones here


874. U.S. Forces Travel Guide to U.S. Military installations/Military Travel Guide U.S.A. – Crawford, L Ann/Crawford, Ann Caddell

Written by the Military for the Military, this is nevertheless a useful reference. Updated periodically, we have linked to only two editions of this rather specific travel guide (one and two – which Amazon attributes to different variations of the author’s name – because there are cheap copies available second-hand – there are more out there if these are gone. While the contents may refer to modern installations, many of these have histories stretching back to the 1930s and beyond – and that’s without the GM reinventing history just a little! But you may need the Schading book listed below to translate it into meaningful content if you aren’t a military person.


875. Guide to Military Installations, 6 th Edition – Dan Cragg

“Reflects latest base realignments and closings with data on 300 military installations in the U.S. and overseas. Includes maps, climate, housing, phone numbers, and local area information.” Useful information for GMs on the places that are still operating (as of the date of publication). Again, written for military personnel who are being based in the installations described; you may need the Schading book for translation.


876. US Forces Travel Guide to Overseas US Military Installations – William Roy Crawford & L. Ann Crawford, edited by Donna L. Russell

Most of these will be modern, but it can be hard to find information on the few that pre-date World War II. Included on spec, and should be purchased with the same attitude. Obviously, this is another book written for military personnel being deployed, and, for a third time, the Schading may be indispensable.


877. A Civilian’s Guide to the U.S. Military: A comprehensive reference to the customs, language and structure of the Armed Forces – Barbara Schading & Richard Schading

If your campaign is going to have anything to do with the US Military, you need this book (even though it is written regarding the modern-day military). Background information, ranks, insignia, organization, slang, etiquette, military law, academies, decorations & medals, and more – plus a list of resources for more information.


878. Hitler’s Nemesis: The Red Army 1930-1945 – Walter S. Dunn Jr.

Part of a series, this volume “…traces the development of the Russian army in reaction to the rise of Hitler, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and the progression of World War II over the following four years” with “Details on the Soviet infantry, armor, artillery, and cavalry formations that waged World War II on the Eastern Front.”


879. The Battle For Spain – Antony Beevor

The Spanish civil war (1936-1939) is the largest conflict underway during the Pulp Era. This book focuses not only on the events but on the ideals, goals, and politics that shaped the two sides, giving the GM the ammunition he needs to portray them accurately in any encounter.


880. French Foreign Legion 1914-45 – Martin Windrow, illustrated by Mike Chappell

The history and uniforms of the French Foreign Legion including a comprehensive battle history of the Legion on the Western Front in World War I, the colonial campaigns in Morocco, Syria, and Indochina, and more. Illustrated throughout by photographs and with eight color plates. Only 50 pages, but this is content that is hard to find anywhere else. Paperback; new, from Amazon $17.95, from third parties 21 copies at $7.96+; used, 20 copies from $7.96.


881. Civilian in Peace, Soldier in War: The Army National Guard, 1636-2000 (Modern War Studies) – Michael D Doubler

The first of two books we have selected on the National Guard, this is a history of the “Citizen Soldiers” over almost 400 years of history. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how much of direct relevance to the Pulp Era is contained within; Part II covers the period 1898-to-1945 and consists of Chapters 4 and 5; Chapter 4 is “The Birth of the Modern National Guard” and Chapter 5 is “The National Guard in the World Wars”. Either or both might contain information of relevance, or might – like a great many other books on Militaria – ignore the inter-war period completely. The only good news is that the book is extensively book-noted and contains a comprehensive bibliography, so even a hint of relevance can be hunted down into something more substantial at need.

Paperback, 482 pages, 13 used from $4.96, 10 new from $5.35, 1 collectible at $5.95.


882. National Guard 101: A Handbook for Spouses – Mary Corbett

“Spouse” in this context means someone with no knowledge of the military or its protocols, let alone how those relate to the National Guard but who has become part of that world. This book “covers a broad range of topics, from practical knowledge about the history of the National Guard and understanding rank to softer subjects like social life in the Guard and family programs.” It’s written to be relevant to the modern-day, and that’s it’s biggest drawback from a Pulp GM’s point of view, as it again raises questions of relevance to the inter-war period. Nevertheless, it is the only book that assumes no prior knowledge of the subject and serves as a general introduction to everything you might want to know in order to properly represent the National Guard in your campaign that we could find.

Kindle $10.02 Paperback 35 used from $0.01, 31 New from $5.92, 3 Collectible from $9.85.


Documentaries About Military Installations, Forces, and Campaigns

There’s only one Documentary on this shelf, but it’s a doozy!


883. Secrets Of War

While we’re recommending this entire 65-episode collection, and they were all of interest, there are only three episodes of specific pulp reference value: “Super Guns”, “The French Resistance”, and “Stalin’s Secret Air War”. Normally, we wouldn’t recommend a 13-disc set for so little reward, but the prices were sufficiently reasonable that anything more you get from the series (and there’s enough additional material that you probably will get something) is totally a bonus.

Amazon US $17.41, Amazon UK [NTSC Region-1 US Import] £14.14, Amazon Canada CDN$30, with a few cheaper second-hand copies available in all three markets.

In addition, the Second Season (which includes two of the recommended episodes) is available online through Amazon US’s streaming service (US$20.99 for the entire season, or $1.99 for a specific episode):

  • “Super Guns” is (mostly) about the Nazi obsession with ever-bigger artillery, a trait that carried over into several other German Military projects. Everything had to be bigger, stronger, or faster, because (in Hitler’s mind), that was what made them better than everyone else’s equipment.
  • “The French Resistance” is pretty self-explanatory as a subject matter, but it’s the pre-war context that makes this episode especially valuable.
  • “Stalin’s Secret Air War” is all about Stalin’s meddling and political maneuvering behind the scenes during the Korean War, which makes it an unusual resource to recommend for a Pulp Campaign; however, the episode does a better job of getting into the head of one of the leading political figures of the Pulp Era than just about anything else we’ve seen. If Stalin is going to give orders to anyone that might impact on the PCs of your campaign, you need to watch this episode. It will also radically reshape your understanding of the Second World War, explaining the Pact Of Steel and how Hitler could (and did) underestimate Soviet strength so badly.


Afterword by Mike:

In the Victorian era, lurid headlines and melodramatic descriptions of crimes and events were used by newspapers to excite the readers; the term for this practice became sensationalism, and, at the time, it was not held in the same sort of contempt that it ‘enjoys’ in more modern times. In a pulp setting, those lurid headlines and melodramatic sensationalism are an accurate depiction of the high drama of reality. Perry Mason’s courtroom theatrics are more genre correct stylistically than the gritty realities of Law and Order or the slickly scientific approach of a CSI.

There is an undeniable absolutism to outcomes. In any conflict, there is a clear winner, and a clear loser, whether that be in an attempted bank robbery or a military engagement or a courtroom. If an event does not have an absolute outcome, the story has not yet run its course, no matter how conclusive it appears.

That’s not to say there is no room for ambiguity. In the first adventure on which Blair and I collaborated, we went to great lengths to build up a mysterious ghost ship with seemingly-supernatural powers; we then permitted the PCs to uncover proof that the whole thing was a hoax, perpetrated to distract the American Navy while a coup was mounted in Haiti. But along the way, the PCs met a Houngan with strange powers, and – as a postscript to the adventure, after smashing the equipment and facilities used to mount the deception and capturing the ghost ship, they had a passing encounter with another ghost ship – one that could not be explained away by anything that the PCs knew other than the supernatural.

Ambiguity is fine. Complex characters with shades of gray are fine. But outcomes are absolute.

Next in this series: The 10th shelf – Religion & Mysticism!


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A life less ordinary: November 2016 Blog Carnival Wrap-up

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I wasn’t going to write and publish this until later in the week, but a mis-remembered schedule means that there will otherwise be no article today, so this seemed the practical solution. After all, the odds of a late entry coming in grow vanishingly smaller with each passing day; the carnival itself has well-and-truly moved on to 6d6RPG, where the topic is garbage and sewers and, presumably, things that go “rot” in the night (sorry, failed saving roll).

NB: The following are not presented in chronological sequence of receipt, they have been grouped by subject matter.

The place to start is with the anchor post by yours truly, which spelt out the scope of the subject, “Ordinary Lives“, in addition to providing an unrelated article on the expiration of potions. It identified three major headings within the subject, and I’m pleased to say that between the contributors, there was something on each of those subjects.

All links will open in a new tab/window.

The Ordinary Life of the GM

The first major topic dealt with how the GM manages his work/life/gaming balance and the compromises that have to be made – and how to cut corners and not have it show.

1. Campaign Mastery

Campaign Mastery led the charge in this area with “The Everyday Life of a GM“. In this somewhat omnibus post on the subject, I looked at how my ordinary life had impacted on my ability to prep and my capacity to run RPGs through different periods of my life, and some of the unexpected impacts on things like GMing style. These things always happen more smoothly if you consciously accept the consequences to your gaming instead of blindly trying to maintain business-as-usual, so I expect the greatest value of this article being how GMs can alter their gaming to fit in with changes to their real-world commitments. I consciously tried to offer as much practical advice as possible for that reason.

2. Renaissance Gamer

Brent Jans, aka the Renaissance Gamer, also found the topic to be one to his liking, and led off a trilogy of posts with “The Ordinary Life of a GM: Getting Lost“, which is full of great advice on how to get things back on track when you get entangled in your own plot webs and lose track of who’s doing what to whom and why.

3. Tales of a GM

Phil Nicholls provided “Mixing Gaming with Life” late in the month, and really deserves the last word in this section for his deeply introspective piece on how gaming informs and influences every other area of his life, and vice-versa. If ever you find yourself struggling with fitting gaming into your work-life balance, this is the article to read for inspiration and motivation.

The Ordinary Life of the Players

The second part of the subject dealt with player interactions with the game and how their ordinary lives could impact on it. This probably posed the hardest questions to get to grips with, and so unsurprisingly, there were relatively few entries.

4. The Watch House

Leading off my listing of contributions in this category is The Watch House, with Ordinary Life, which talks about how differing levels of player interest defines the approach that the author, Craig Oxbrow, takes to the subject.

5. Renaissance Gamer

Brent Jens offers a second post for the Carnival, “The Ordinary Life of the PCs: Making Magic Magical“, in which he first laments the absence of the “magic” in D&D 5e’s item creation subsystem, then plugs the gap in an interesting way – by integrating the item creation process into the character’s ordinary life. An excellent article for even GMs and players of other editions and genres to read. This article is about transferring a player-reality activity into game reality, and as such, it could go in either this section or the next.

6. Renaissance Gamer

A third submission from Brent, in which he answers a metagaming question that I posed in the anchor post – “If one of your players has had a bad week, do you consciously twist the game in a direction they will like to get them ‘in the mood’ or permit them to blow off steam – rather than letting it interfere with the game in some more substantial way?” This was an intentionally-loaded question, and I was very much hoping that someone would pick up the issue and run with it. In “The Ordinary Life of the Players: Feeling Happy?“, Brent does exactly that. He describes the results as feeling a little disjointed as thoughts on the subject crowded in on him, but I would actually consider this the most inspirational of his three submissions, because he ends by turning the question on its head and asking what the GM does to deal with a bad week without becoming a feral killer-GM. I was left thinking that the whole subject was something that should be chatted about at far greater length, that the surface of a far deeper conversation had only been scratched. Definitely food for thought for every GM.

The Ordinary Life Of The PCs

The third article dealt with questions of verisimilitude and the incorporation of a character’s day-to-day existence into the game.

7. Anarcarnivàle

Clark Timmins created this blog at RPGGeek purely to participate in the Blog Carnival. His article, “The Real Life of Heroes“, asks why PCs should have to suffer any form of Ordinary Life and raises some very valid questions along the way. While I disagree with his conclusions (as you’ll discover later in this list), I agree with everything else he’s written on the subject, and recommend it as food for thought for any GM designing a new campaign – or running one already.

8. Board Enterprises

Board Enterprises found that this topic really resonated with them, leading them to submit three very diverse articles to the Carnival. This is the first of them, “Ordinary Life in RPG” in which he/they realize that “Ordinary Life” touches on almost every product they have have published and at least one that is still mired in development, and in which they argue that “an adventurer’s down time needs to be split between working, training and living, and those takes hours and money. Balancing that is the trick.” I’ve always felt that the economics of adventuring and adventurers were a fascination topic (right behind the sociology of adventurers as a social class) – is dungeon-bashing a hobby, a crisis intervention, a part-time job, or a profession that can support a decent lifestyle as the sole source of income? What are the social, political, and economic implications? This article only scratches the surface of these topics!

9. Board Enterprises

Most people would be content with a single submission (I go the extra mile when I’m hosting), but Board Enterprises went further, as I said a moment ago. In their second submission, “(Prior) Ordinary Life in RPG“, they look at a character’s backstory, which is often the only “ordinary life” component they experience. Creating a backstory with strong links to the diverse cultures and locations within a campaign binds the character to the campaign and makes players more invested in the lives of their characters, a tenet with which I heartily agree.

10. and 11. Campaign Mastery

A two-part article primarily focused on Fantasy PCs but applicable to all genres with a little adaption, which proceeds from the same foundation as the above-mentioned Board Enterprises article. The first part, “The Ordinary Life of a Fantasy PC“, describes a new campaign planning tool, most effective with new campaigns but viable even with long-established games, for working out what the ordinary life of a PC should look like, based on their backstory. This tool is rather more abstract and big-picture than every other character “survey” that I’ve seen, and designed to ensure that each PC has equal opportunity for an equal share of the spotlight.

The second part, “The Extraordinary Life of a Fantasy PC Pt 2“, is about using that tool to develop encounters and subplots and incidents with which to populate game play with interesting times.

12. Campaign Mastery

My fourth submission under this blog carnival’s banner dealt with the very soap-opera approach taken to PC lives in my “Zenith-3” superheroes campaign. “Ordinary Lives in Paranormal Space and Time” is mostly about campaign planning, and the principles and techniques work with any genre of campaign where this is your chosen approach.

13. Campaign Mastery

The 5th and final submission from Campaign Mastery on the subject, “Ordinary Life in an RPG“, is half rebuttal, sequel, and reply, to Clark Timmins’ article, listed at the start of this section, and half about how the “Ordinary Lives” of the PCs are handled in the Pulp Campaign that I co-GM because that proves the perfect example and illustrative mechanism for dealing with the problems raised by Clark. ‘This is obviously some strange new definition of the term, “Ordinary”.’ And, thematically, it brings us full circle leading back to the advice offered in the first article listed in this wrap-up.

Wrapping up the wrap-up

What strikes me, on reviewing the blog anchor and list of possible topics under this umbrella, is that only about half of them have been dealt with – there is still so much untapped scope within the subject.

The “ordinary lives” of the PCs in any game should be extraordinary by any mundane standard. Events within the “real” lives of the players and GM can have a definite and measurable impact on game-play and, while they can force compromises on a campaign, the changes don’t have to be detrimental and can even be harnessed to improve both campaign and GM capability. Between them, the articles that came out of this blog carnival offer you all the tools you need to make real life a positive force within your games.

Now, where’s the wrap party? In the sewers at 6d6RPG? Ohhhkay, where are my torch, leather boots, and broadsword?

Comments (4)

Ask The GMs – Up Hill and Down Dale: RPG Travel Laid Bare

Once again I’m daring to tackle a topic without the counsel of my friends and fellow GMs, largely because I had a clear answer in mind.

Ask the gamemasters

Today’s question comes courtesy of Jason B, who asked,

“Hey, I was about to start up a campaign that would ultimately take characters to all ends of the world. I was wondering, what is a good way of handling travel?

I was thinking of having an Elder Scrolls-style system, where once they discover a location, they can “fast-travel” on future visits. This would of course be overruled by ambushes and trailing enemies. But they must find the way to their destination first.

For me, it would give role-playing opportunities as well as ways to give plot hooks outside of cities. Maybe they find the lost temple on their own while on their way to the Elven capital. Maybe the Old Road that connects the three human kingdoms, usually protected and open, is being held by highwaymen.

What would you guys suggest for handling long-distance travel?”

Travel inevitably gets faster as characters gain in levels or power, depending on whether we’re talking D&D / Pathfinder or some other game system. Not only are there fewer creatures that will make them break stride, but they have access to rapid-transit magics – whether that be a flying carpet, a flight spell, a friendly dragon, or Teleportation.

Jason’s solution is just another variation on this well-worn procedure, and so would work perfectly well. But, (and it’s a big but), there is still that initial journey, and in fact, any travels undertaken while the characters are still low-level.

I always use these as opportunities to establish the framework of the campaign, the ground rules as it were. I will deliberately design supposedly “random” encounters to highlight any house rules that demand such recognition, for example. I’ll make sure that the players encounter people from a variety of the religious, social, and cultural backgrounds in the campaign, because dry words on the page are one thing, actually encountering something “in-game” is far more real to the players.

Beyond that, though, once these metagame considerations are dealt with, what then?

To a surprisingly large extent, it doesn’t matter what the game genre is, or how the PCs are getting around – the determining factor is travel time, and greater distances in some campaigns merely mean that the speeds are greater. I treat a week aboard an FTL starship the same way that I treat a week spent on horseback, or on foot, or on a sailing vessel, or handling a big rig.

Travel in RPGs

Travel is one of the trickier campaign elements to get right. Most of it can be hand-waved, but if you hand-wave the entire journey, characters will have no perception of the scale of the distances that they travel, and that can lead them into errors of judgment tactically. Hand-wave too little, and it can be desperately boring. The balance between these two contradictions can be tricky to manage.

The Problem

Much of the problem results from the fact that Travel is 90% GM Monologuing, and there is a limit to how much Narrative is acceptable in a big block, or even a succession of Moderately-sized blocks. That can be hard enough to manage on it’s own, but it’s far from the only headache; the limits of what are acceptable and what is sufficient are not fixed. In fact, there can be quite a lot of variation, from group to group, game session to game session.

Just some of the factors that can be involved are:

  1. Length of Narrative,
  2. Type of content,
  3. Predictability of content,
  4. Repetitiveness of content,
  5. Monotony of content,
  6. Quality of delivery,
  7. Expectations,
  8. Interval since the last narrative block,
  9. The Length, Nature, Subject, Content, Quality and Reception of that previous narrative block,
  10. Storytelling priority relative to interaction priority on the part of the GM,
  11. Storytelling priority relative to interaction priority on the part of the Players,
  12. Player psychology,
  13. PC psychology,
  14. Calls to action blocked by narrative,
  15. Any sense of railroading of plot, (right or wrong), and
  16. Any sense of bias against the players/PCs on the part of the GM (right or wrong).

You would need to be a mind-reader to assess all these factors with any accuracy – and many of them will be different from one player to the next. What’s the standard to aim for? Is it the lowest common denominator, is it the minimum that will get the job done from a functional perspective, is it a medium value that is still within the tolerance range of the least-tolerant player in this respect, or should you aim to satisfy everyone at the table while not going farther than any find tolerable? That last is obviously the theoretical ideal, but is it practical in the real world?

If everything aligns against the GM, he can even discover that the minimum non-handwaved travel in order to properly abstract the passage of time is more than the maximum tolerable amount of game time to be allocated to the cause – a gap that can only be bridged through strenuous efforts to change the base factors of one or both ranges, increasing tolerances as much as possible while lowering demands.

If you find yourself dealing with cases 4 and 5, there’s no problem. Most of the time, however, cases 1, 2, or 3 will be the reality, and the challenge for the GM is to change the factors that he can control to altar these conditions to something more acceptable.

In other words, how to bring the journey to sufficient life while increasing substantially the players tolerance for the journey?

Well, the place to start is with that improbably long list of factors, and what the GM can do to shade each of them in his favor.

Length of Narrative

There is an art to being able to compress narrative without loss of detail, nuance, and emotional resonance. It’s by no means easy, and yet it’s one of the fastest ways of improving the ability to write. That’s why (in addition to reasons of practicality) so many writing workshops focus on stories with very restrictive word limits.

Still, it’s not difficult – it just takes an effort, one that grows less as you learn the skill. I’ve devoted an entire series (The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative) to the subject and the techniques, plus a few tips and tricks shared along the way.

Type of content

Some things are more interesting than others to hear about. Focus on those things and hand-wave the rest.

Repetitiveness of content

If you’re merely repeating yourself, collapse the information into a single narrative statement, and consider hand-waving it if that still results in repetition. Kill repetition stone cold dead.


Day 23: Becalmed
Day 24: Slow Progress
Day 25: Slow Progress
Day 26: Becalmed
Day 27: Slow Progress
Day 28: Slow Progress
Day 29: Slow Progress
Day 30: (Something interesting happens)
Day 31: Slow Progress
Day 32: Slow Progress
Day 33: Becalmed
Day 34: Becalmed
Day 35: Slow Progress
Day 37: (Something else interesting happens)


For a week, the prevailing winds are against you, resulting in slow progress, sometimes none at all. But the monotony is interrupted on the 30th day of your voyage when…
(Something Interesting Happens)
Almost a week later…
(Something else interesting happens)

Note that a further occurrence of “Almost a week later” or anything too similar is also repetition and prohibited. Find another way of phrasing it, or even ignore it altogether: “The next break in the dull routine takes place [N] days later…”

Predictability of content

If the players already know that their ship’s sails are not built for sailing into the wind, don’t tell them again. It’s predictable, it’s another repetition, even though it may be the first time in this journey that it gets mentioned. If the season is changing from Autumn through into mid-winter, don’t tell them that the days are getting shorter, and don’t give daily weather reports; use your narrative to make it clear that the season has changed and leave it to the players’ intelligence and general knowledge to tell them that the days are getting shorter – if they even have some way of keeping precise track of time.

If the players know that they are sailing in a northern latitude in winter, don’t bother mentioning snowfalls, or ordinary levels of sleet or storms. Compress and hand-wave: “The Cambulian Sea is notorious for its winter storms, making your passage to Port Tuffnarkle an exercise in misery.”

Monotony of content

“In the mid-afternoon, the wind shifts again…” Kill it.

Some modes of travel lend themselves to narrative differentiation due to the changes in the landscape, while others do not. Compare the following two passages:

“Over the course of the next week the foothills grow steadily steeper and taller, and you begin catching glimpses of the Dragontooth Mountains when the weather is clear. The winds grow chill, especially at night, and your journey is becoming a real race against the changing of the seasons – it seems Winter is coming early this year.”

“Over the course of the next week the waves grow slightly and increase the force with which they crash into the ship, especially when the winds shift in the afternoons.”

The first is great; it gives a sense of the many leagues of travel implied in a journey of that duration and implies that the world is moving on about its business while the PCs are going from point A to point B. It even threatens something interesting in the near future and lays the foundations for difficulties resulting from picking up the pace.

The second is barely tolerable. It could be improved – “the waves crash with greater force against the hull in the afternoons, when the wind shifts” – but even then, it doesn’t say much more than “time passes, the sea grows more agitated,” which is pretty ho-hum. Save it for the narrative when you introduce something more interesting going on – “Over the last week the waves have grown more violent, and the ship pitches and wallows ever more violently. Today, as the horizon rose over the side of the ship, Kalton saw…”

Quality of delivery

Some people are better at oration than others. The rest of us have to work on it, and do so again and again, because it’s easy to fall into bad habits. The more adverse the gaming environment, the more you are constrained in this department. Do whatever you can to improve your skills.

Over the last century or so, Oratory has gone from an art form to at least semi-scientific. There are all sorts of principles and techniques that can be used to enhance the style in which content is verbally arranged for best delivery.

Too many GMs take their narrative style from the delivery of actors and voice-over men in movies and TV shows. They get to deliver their lines in sound studios and often to do it over and over until they get it exactly right. Even worse, when some people read text they sound like they are reading text. You can tell.

Probably the easiest quick improvement that can be made in this respect is to read everything you have written in advance aloud at least once, at something approaching the volume levels that you will need at the time. Rehearse. Better still, if you can, record it and listen back to it at least once.

At the very least, this will point out passages where you have to take an awkward breath, or where your delivery becomes flat and monotone, or where you have pronunciation problems. Rewriting to avoid the first and third and adding reminder notes regarding your delivery will do wonders. And watch out for sentences running together.


Some expectations need to be confounded, and other embraced. If the PCs are expecting a harrowing journey through danger, deliver. If the PCs are expecting a dull, routine, trip, liven it up at least once, and hand-wave the rest.

Interval since the last narrative block

As you’ll see when I get into travel narrative content, later in this article, an interval consists of player interactions with someone or something. No matter how interesting the content is, narrative blocks come in just two lengths: Too-long, and Not-Too-Long. The same is true of the intervals that separate one block from another.

There isn’t a lot of information out there on the specifics that distinguish Too-Long from Not-Too-Long. But I do have a rule of thumb that I employ: subtract the length of the interval from the length of the preceding narrative block, in terms of delivery time, and then consider the combination as though it were one larger narrative block. If the result is a narrative block that is too long, something needs to be done about it – either you need more content in the interval, or you need to shorten one or more narrative blocks still more, or you need an additional interval to be inserted somewhere.

The reality is more complicated than that:

  • if the two narrative blocks are on the same subject, the interval is only 75% effective at separating them.
  • The same is true if the second block can be considered a continuation of the first – 75% of 75%, or about 50% effective.
  • There is also a compounding narrative length factor: every subsequent block of narrative after the second is effectively 25% longer than it seems, cumulative – so (roughly) +0%, +25%, +50%, x2, x2.5, x3, x4. The only way that isn’t the case is if the total of the intervals on either side of such a narrative block are at least as long, in playing time/reading time, as the unmodified block of text, which resets the pattern at +0%.

Let’s apply those “more complicated” principles to an abstract example:

  • Narrative Block 1: 3 minutes
  • Interval 2: 0.5 minutes (estimated)
  • Narrative Block 2: 2 minutes
  • Interval 3: 1 minute (estimated)
  • Narrative Block 3: 3 minutes
  • Interval 4: 2 minutes (estimated)
  • Narrative Block 4: 5 minutes
  • Interval 5: 0.5 minutes (estimated)
  • Narrative Block 5: 3 minutes
  • Interval 6: 30 minutes (estimated)

Becomes, step by step:

  • Interval 1 is a die roll which is intended to be rhetorical. The PCs should succeed easily. Therefore:
  • Narrative Block 2 is effectively a continuation of Block 1, so Interval 1 (a PC die roll) is effectively half length: 0.5 minutes becomes about 15 seconds.
  • Narrative Block 1+2: 3+2 minutes-15 seconds = 4 minutes 45 seconds.
  • Interval 3: 1 minute (estimated) – a brief conversation and a decision. Narrative Block 3 is on the same subject but isn’t a direct continuation because of the decision point, so it is 75% effective, or about 45 seconds, effectively.
  • Narrative Block 3 is effectively +10% in size: approx 3 minutes 20 seconds.
  • Narrative Block 1+2+3: 4’30” + 3’20” – 0’45” = 7’5″.
  • Interval 4: 2 minutes (estimated) – a conversation of greater substance, and maybe a die roll at the end of it. Therefore Block 4 is not a direct continuation of Block 3 but is on the same subject, so the interval has an effective value of 75% of its length, or 1’30”.
  • Narrative Block 4 is effectively +25% in length, so 5 minutes becomes 6′ 15″.
  • Narrative Block 1+2+3+4: 7’5″ + 6′ 15″ – 0’45” = 13’20” – 0’45” = 12’35”.
  • Interval 5: 0.5 minutes (estimated) – perhaps a simple yes/no decision. Effectively 75% long, or about 25″ long.
  • Narrative Block 5 is effectively +50% in length, becoming 4’30”.
  • Narrative Block 1+2+3+4+5: 12’35” + 4’30” – 0’25” = 16’40”.
  • Interval 6: 30 minutes (estimated) – a minor combat or substantial roleplaying encounter. Since this is vastly more than the cumulative effective narrative total of 16’40”, and since the other side is “before play” (effectively an infinite interval), this breaks the pattern of increasing narrative length. Narrative Block 6 will therefore be a fresh start.

As a general rule of thumb, a 2:1 play-to-narrative total is tolerable to most players, provided that the initial narrative isn’t too long. This example seems more or less right – the narrative is a little longer than half the estimated length of the combat/conversation, but battles/conversations are easy things to underestimate, and the narrative has been broken up with GM-party interactions and decisions.

Note that I don’t normally calculate things out in this fashion – I do it by eye, feel, and instinct, and then pay as much attention as I can to the response of the players at the table. Perhaps that attention isn’t enough at times, but it’s the best that I can do.

Oh, and one more hint: you can use breaks to extend intervals, but not AS intervals in their own right. Taking a break after the players get to do something is fine, but making them wait to do something is not.

The Length, Nature, Subject, Content, Quality and Reception of the previous narrative block

The above already deals with this in a fairly substantial way; there’s not a lot more to say.

Storytelling priority relative to interaction priority on the part of the GM

We all have different levels of emphasis on storytelling as opposed to the PCs interacting with the game world and its inhabitants. The former promoted chunky narrative blocks, the latter breaks them up. By way of example, compare the very interactive outline used as an example above with:

  • Narrative Block 1: 16’40”.
  • Interval 1: 30 minutes (estimated)

Even though the Narrative Block is the same length as the effective combination of the individual blocks, given the intervals in between, this is a horse of an entirely different complexion. The GM drones on for more than 15 minutes before the players get to do anything. There are GMs who focus VERY strongly on storytelling who might consider this acceptable; I consider it extremely marginal, and I have a strong storytelling emphasis in my campaigns. Most GMs would consider it unacceptable, even if the players were content to listen to it.

Sidebar: The reality of storytelling priority

Actually, while we’re on the subject: the very concept that GMs have a single tolerance/desire level to narrative is a myth. In reality, it varies depending on where you are in the adventure. During the set-up phase, when there’s a lot of information to impart to the players, it can be fairly high; as the adventure gets underway, it declines to a mid-range sort of level; and as the adventure approaches a climax, it should plummet.

Or, at least, that’s the GMing style that I employ, which is all about my getting the PCs into an interesting situation and letting them find their own way out of it; the consequences then forming part of the initial conditions for subsequent adventures.

Other GMs have different approaches; my former partner here at Campaign Mastery recently discussed his own approach (I’d provide a link but I’m not sure it’s available online yet), which is to always start the session with some action. He and I would probably be a poor fit for each other’s campaigns – I’d be wanting to talk story and character development while he was reaching for dice, and vice-versa. Nothing wrong with either approach, or with some other pattern that suits you and your players.

The same is true of just about every metric defining GMing or Campaign Style that I’ve ever seen – whether it be continuity, or emphasis on combat vs roleplaying, or whatever. At best, they are a starting point for a conversation about style, not an adequate definition.

Storytelling priority relative to interaction priority on the part of the Players

What the GM considers acceptable may not be the same thing as what the players consider acceptable. And each player will have a different tolerance level. And it can vary from one campaign genre to another. One mistake that some GMs make repeatedly is writing to the PCs intelligence and not that of the players – addressing all the information blocks to the most intelligent character, for example, as though the less-intelligent fighter was irrelevant.

I try to treat all PCs as having situational intelligence and pitching party information in terms of that situational intelligence. If I’m giving the tactical situation, I will point the information towards the Fighter. If we’re talking about Magic, I’ll write to make the narrative accessible by the player with the Mage. If it’s about puzzles or security, a rogue gets the focus of that part of my briefing, and so on. Every PC should have their own focus where they are the expert, and the narrative should be pitched from their perspective. And I never short-change one to make room for another to receive additional information.

Player psychology

Or, to be more precise, player emotional and psychological state. There are days where you just want to hit something – hard – even if you aren’t a fighter. Bazorting something with a fireball can be a tolerable substitute if that’s the way your character rolls. If the player wants a fight and you’ve planned political dances, you’re in trouble.

The best approach is to have something for everyone and let the players decide who wants to do what – and NOT based on character abilities; the trick is to read these prevailing winds in advance and tailor the content so that what appeals to the player this week is suited to the character he runs. The impregnability of fortresses can vary enormously depending on who wants to penetrate it – if the fighter is feeling relaxed and comfortable but the thief craves action, a frontal assault may miraculously become impossible between the time we sit down at the gaming table and the time the PCs approach the fortress, tower, or whatever, while some flaw in the defenses might equally-miraculously materialize at the same time. Maybe there’s a bling spot where a climbing rogue would not be noticed, enabling him to undo whatever is making a direct assault impossible…

PC psychology

Some players tend to get as deep inside the heads of their characters as possible, wrapping themselves in their PC’s persona like a cloak. Others seem incapable of relating to their characters except from a distance and through what the game mechanics permit them to do in any given situation. Some of a GM’s biggest headaches arise when the mechanics and the character are in conflict. I don’t want to get deeply into the metagaming that can result, or we’ll be here all day.

Suffice it to say that the more deeply a player role-plays, the more you need to aim information at the personality and capabilities of the character and not of the player, and that for most, you need to take both into account.

On top of that, every character has certain ‘buttons’ that you can push to provoke a particular response. The psychology of the individual character is something that the GM always needs to be mindful of – whether that is because it defines the abilities that the player will apply to a situation (the deep roleplayers) or because the player has more trouble than most thinking “in-character”.

Tolerance for narrative can vary enormously depending on whether or not the content of that narrative accords with the psychological profile of the player-PC gestalt. To some extent, this lies beyond the capabilities of the GM; to some extent, it can be manipulable. Doing something to put the PC-player combination in a good mood can directly impact their tolerances. I know one player who has a great deal of difficulty making decisions when he is responsible for what a character does, but who is perfectly capable of making excellent and insightful suggestions when they are only kibitzing. In the former mode, he is capable of tolerating enormous amounts of narrative, even demanding as much information as possible to help them reach a decision, while their instincts outside that framework are far more direct and interactive in nature.

Calls to action blocked by narrative

It happens to all of us at times – you’re mid-paragraph, haven’t finished describing the situation confronting the PCs, when one of them wants to interrupt to ask a question (often one that you were about to answer) or to take action on the situation as they perceive it.


There is little more frustrating to a player than wanting to do something right now while the GM wants to continue with the briefing.

Whenever this happens to me, the first question that goes through my mind is whether or not the remaining information can be repackaged to result from the action being proposed by the character. If yes, problem solved.

If not, is there a way for the character to initiate the action they have described only to pull up short as the additional facts come to light? Again, if yes, then no problem; the player has simply inserted an additional interval into the narrative block, signaling that there should have been one there, all along.

Again, if not, is there any way to rescue the situation from reckless, perhaps precipitous action? If so, then no problem, let the player go ahead. If not, I will usually ask the player if they are really sure, which is polite table code for “you’re about to make a colossal mistake, you fudgeknuckle”. This is effectively asking the player to expound on his character’s thinking, giving the GM an opportunity to reassess the earlier yes/no questions, and the chance to initiate discussion of the desired action if nothing changes as a result. But if they say “yes,” then let the chips fall where they may.

Persuading a player that their decision is the wrong one when it’s the only one that they can think of may be frustrating to the player, but that won’t last if the reason they can’t see any alternative is because they didn’t yet have all the information that they needed, or because they were making a flawed assumption.


Is the question one that the briefing will answer in due course? If so, is it possible to preempt that passage and answer the question? A yes to this combination solves the problem – answer the question and then continue with the briefing. A ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively and I’ll just tell the player to hold his horses, I’m getting to that.

If no to both of these questions, is the question a fair and valid one? And is it one that the character, or some other character present might/would think of? A double-yes earns the character a brownie point in the form of a bonus point of experience – about 100-300xp on the D&D scale – and some quick thinking on the part of the GM. If I can’t give an answer pretty much right off the bat, I’ll take a couple of minutes break to think about the problem, usually having to rethink the internal logic of the whole adventure. It doesn’t happen often.

But, if not, then it’s my job to explain why not – sometimes the player will accept that, and sometimes they will offer a counter-argument that I will accept, leading to a reassessment.

Ultimately, most players will deliberately ignore a genuine plot hole if you acknowledge that you’ve included one by mistake, letting the adventure play out – and, any number of times, one of the people at the table will come up with something to wallpaper over that plot hole eventually.

Any sense of railroading of plot

Nasssty, Nassssty, we hates it, we hates it! The only time this is tolerable is when it is an agree-upon mechanism for the GM enabling the character to go somewhere, plot- or character-wise, that they have already agreed to go. In other words, a plot train is perfectly acceptable if there’s a player at the wheel and his character is the only one affected. Under any other circumstance, tread with extreme caution. And derail the plot train at your first opportunity.

There is a big difference between a plot railroad and shaping circumstances to lead to a specific outcome, however. If something happens despite the players’ best efforts, that can be fine (though the next point might apply). That said, I never like imposing a situation in which there is nothing that the PCs can do about a situation; they can try and fail, that’s fine, but there has to be some chance (and one beyond a mere die roll) to steer events – eventually. They might have to endure a situation for a while before an opportunity presents itself to them!

This is relevant because any block of narrative is essentially describing the outcome of decisions already made by the PCs, or that the GM assumes they will make. And that last is where things can come unstuck – that, and assuming that when things start diverging from their wishful thinking that the PCs won’t do something to change their decision.

Compressing narrative is never an excuse for taking decisions out of the PCs hands. That’s why there are intervals.

Any sense of bias against the players/PCs on the part of the GM

It’s human for a player to feel like the GM is picking on them from time to time. It’s also human for the GM to want to rub salt into wounds. I work very hard when writing narrative to guard against the first, and to resist any urge toward the second. I may not always succeed, but I always make the effort.

I always seek refuge in the “Yes, but…”, or the “You can, but…”, or “That won’t work because…”, or even, “That won’t do it unless…”.

Of course, it’s not bias against the players/PCs for a super-smart opponent to have anticipated an action and prepared a countermeasure. Doing so is one of the easiest ways for those of us who are mere mortals to simulate the super-genius. But the NPC needs to have already been described as a super-genius to the players, or they are entitled to find out the hard way.

There have been times when I’ve wanted to simulate not a super-genius plotter, but a crafty individual, or a someone who is just a little smarter than the PCs – which I do by letting them come up with a plan while I think of something that could be done to stop it, with word of that piece having been moved onto place on the metaphoric chessboard just as the PCs are about to put their plan into motion, signaling that their enemy has only thought of it a short time before they did, or that he took a long time to come up with a countermeasure.

The players should never feel like you are making up their minds for them. Constraining their decisions is fine. Adopting the role of someone in a battle of wits with them is fine – even cheating a little to make up for the fact that it’s X players against one, or to simulate the villain having had a lot of time to think about things and prepare accordingly.

Ultimately, I prefer to ensure that there is always a fatal flaw in the most brilliant of schemes simply so that I know what the solution that the players ultimately find should be, and can steer them gently in that direction if necessary. Players are not their characters, and each has limitations and advantages that the other lacks; players can often see the big picture more readily than characters who are swept up in the moment, for example.

Another point that’s relevant in this context is that NPCs can and will lie their heads off if so inclined, but anything delivered ex-cathedra is gospel as the players understand the situation to be. If something happens to contradict that understanding, I make sure to highlight it.

Narrative must always be honest.

Narrative Travel Content

Confession time: when I first blocked out this article, what follows is all there was after the numbered list at the start of the article. Everything you have already read was an afterthought, expounding on the items in that long list.

So here’s where we’re at: Travel is best handwaved into narrative passages interrupted by passages of interaction. What should be contained in those narrative passages, and what should those interruptions to the narrative be?

Well, the basic assumption is that the narrative will describe the journey being undertaken by the PCs up to the point where something interesting happens. Quite often, a narrative passage will naturally lead to some form of interaction; at other times, you need to break a large block of narrative up into digestible chunks.

Narrative passages essentially consist of two parts: Summation of otherwise boring/mundane events and introductions to an interaction that interrupts the narrative long enough for the players to have input into the situation, to make decisions, or to otherwise interact with the GM, with an NPC, with a situation, or with the game mechanics.

Every trip starts as a blank slate. Here’s what should go into that vacant space:

  • Environmental Transitions
  • Awesome scenery
  • Noteworthy locations
  • Noteworthy events
  • Notable Weather Events
  • Peculiar Events
  • Encounters – trivial
  • Encounters – non-hostile interactions
  • Encounters – hostile interactions
  • Mini-adventures
Environmental Transitions

If the terrain changes, the PCs should get a description of that change. “Over the next few hours, the bracken part before you like a stick parts the sand, but ahead of you now stands the Darkflame Forest, the very stuff of nightmare, or so legend would have it.”

“You forge the icy stream and crest the pass. A valley of reds and golds, forever autumn, stands before you, and a wash of warm air envelopes you in the scent of honeysuckle and roses.”

Awesome scenery

You would have to be blind not to recognize that there is fantastic beauty in every country on Earth, be it the breathtaking pyramids of Giza rising out of the sand dunes or the waterfalls of South America. People have been going out of their way to look at such sights for centuries; whenever possible, roads pass within view of them, and when not, side-roads and paths lead to amazing sights – side-roads and . paths that may be sufficiently unofficial that they do not appear on any map.

Placing such a natural wonder in the path of the PCs and ensuring that there is something distinctive and memorable about it forever transforms an otherwise forgettable road between obscure townships. No longer is it the road between Farns-something and Junomacallit, it’s the Road of Giant Idols or the cliff-side forest or whatever.

What’s more, because these are natural sights of attraction, places to break a journey, the odds are far greater that a fellow-traveler will be encountered at such locations, affording an opportunity to break the narrative with a bit of roleplay.

Noteworthy locations

Sometimes the location might not have natural beauty but may have deep significance historically or culturally. This is not only a chance to bring some of that campaign background to the fore, it’s a chance to directly connect one or two PCs to it. “Mid-afternoon, you reach the Humbolt Crossroads, where three armies once clashed in battle, slaughtering each other to the last man. With a start, you realize that the forest of sticks stabbing skywards are actually grave markers that go on for as far as the eye can see. Bruclaw, you’ve heard of this place and its story all your life; your Great-Uncle is amongst those buried here.”

If you forgo the personal connection, it becomes just another passage of narrative, another brick in the wall of perception of the journey; adding that connection gives an opportunity for some roleplay. If your players are reluctant to take the hint, you can get more direct, asking if, for example, Bruclaw is stopping to pay his respects to the fallen, or suggesting to the cleric that some words of prayer might be appropriate.

Noteworthy events

Some events are sufficiently noteworthy that the narrative should inform and then pause for the characters to investigate. “As you watch, the stream running alongside the path turns blood red for a moment before clearing.” “In the distance you hear an anguished scream.” “The horses panic as two dragons flash overhead, eye a potential lunch, and decide it isn’t worth the price of collection.”

Notable Weather Events

One of the things that I specify for every region that I create is the risk of an unusual weather event at different times of year. This risk is usually expressed as such-and-such a percentage per day spent in the area. I then do a calculation to tell me how many hours are needed for the cumulative chance to reach 10%, 25%, 50%, or 75%. This reduces the die rolls required to check for such phenomena to just a couple, and makes it practical to skip results or roll additional dice if the PCs pause for whatever reason.

An ordinary storm would be mentioned only in passing during the narrative, as would an ordinary wind. This is reserved for the really unusual and noteworthy weather events. As a further rule of thumb, unless the plot has something funky going on with the weather, there is a limit of one such event per month, no matter what the roll might be.

For example, a once-every-four-years winter event would have a chance as follows: One day in four years, divided by 4 seasons in a year, is one in 365 x 4 / 4 = one in 365, which is about 0.275% per day.

10% is therefore 10/0.275 = 36.5 days.

25% is 91 days.

50% is a bit more complicated, because a season is only going to be about 91 days long. 50 divided by 0.275 = 182 days – so if there wasn’t one last year, the odds of one happening this year are doubled to get the same net percentage chance. So 50% is two years, or 0.55% per day if it didn’t happen last year.

Similarly, 75% becomes 25% if there was one two years ago, and 50% over the entire 90-day season if the last was longer.

Note that these are not accurate calculations in terms of the probability; they are rough numbers that give a near-enough description of the situation, and are fairly simple to work with.

If it is going to take the PCs a week to cross the region, it’s a simple answer to make seven rolls against the daily total. If it’s going to take longer – thirty days, say – that becomes impractical. But if 10% chance is 36.5 days, then 30 days is 10 x 30 x 36.5 = 8% chance.

Once I know that there will be an event, the question becomes how serious? The base that I use is always once every four years, because 91 is close to 100, making for convenient calculations. (I will usually define a season as 100 days with some overlap between them, just for the convenience, to be honest).

Roll one d6 for each year. If any of them come up a six then it is worse than a once-in-four-years event, it’s a once-in-eight years. If two come up six, then it’s a once in sixteen years, and so on. For every two additional years, roll an additional d6; a six again doubles the numbers from 1-every-16 to one-every-32 to one-every-64 to one every 128. I don’t go beyond that 128 years is “never in living memory”.

Once I know how bad it is, I can plan the event accordingly, write the narrative that goes with it, and so on.

Peculiar Events

Sometimes, inexplicable things happen. Other characters are out there having adventures, and sometimes there’s a spillover. I use these when my imagination produces one. “The horizon lights up with eldrich fire; the display persists for a little more than an hour before vanishing.”

Encounters – trivial

Trivial encounters are something noteworthy but that don’t involve any PC interaction or combat. A pod of dolphins swimming alongside a ship qualifies. These don’t even rate a mention in the narrative unless they are unusual – so including one by definition makes it a notable event. A two-headed owl? Yes. A small lizard which runs through the air from snowflake to snowflake? Yes. The largest herd of buffalo that you’ve ever seen, more than 1,000 head? Probably. A dozen brown bears sitting around a campfire in some standing stones? Very definitely.

Most of these will simple get mentioned in passing. I place a limit of two of these per month of travel unless the PCs go somewhere where everything is new and strange, in which case I will have it at two or three a day for the first week and once a day for the rest of the month.

Encounters – non-hostile interactions

A non-hostile interaction is one in which there is a potential danger but no actual combat unless the PCs are foolish enough to start it. Those dragons flying overhead? They would qualify. A strange footprint in the mud? That would qualify. A passerby who hails the party and wants to chat about something? That definitely qualifies. I will use these as often as they seem appropriate when I need an interruption to the narrative.

But these can’t be filler. All right, one can be. The rest have to be significant in some way – either conveying news of something that will affect the journey, or that might affect the PCs on arrival. They are story groundwork.

Encounters – hostile interactions

Quite obviously, if someone has hostile intent, the encounter escalates to this category. I only use these when I need to reset the narrative clock unless the PCs are somewhere known to be dangerous.


I define a mini-adventure as anything that will take less than an hour to resolve. It could be five minutes, or it could be fifty-five minutes. Unless it is going to be shared by the entire party, the length is divided by the number of players and each of them needs to get one somewhere in the course of the journey; in truth, I always try to have at least two taking place for different PCs at the same time, just so that the other players at the table have a variety of things that they can get mixed up in, even though it’s not strictly any business of theirs.

I also permit players whose characters aren’t involved in a mini-adventure to kibitz. If I can involve them in some other way, that’s good too.

For example, in one of my campaigns, Dopplegangers need only have physical contact with someone to be able to replicate their appearance and mannerisms. In that campaign, at one point, a PC in a mini-adventure encountered one of the other PCs, even thought that second PC was last mentioned as staying put in the Inn where the characters were staying. The two went on to share the mini-adventure. At the very end of it, I handed the second player a note that said, “the character who has been adventuring with Thessald Brasstacks is a Doppleganger. Your ‘character’ should make an excuse to leave. When he returns to the inn, you will have no knowledge of any of the events of the evening, and won’t have gone anywhere all evening. Pull this off and you get full XP for the mini-adventure.”

Note that I have changed the name of the second PC. The first PC asked no questions and still has no idea that the encounter he had wasn’t with his friend…

The Principles of Compilation

I start by laying out a rough draft of the narrative. It might be as simple as “Depart Z’Lessig; Fields of Miphrew; Crossing the River Hellspan; Forest of Gressel; Summer -> Autumn; First Glimpse of Monbark; Arrival during an uproar.”

Some of these will suggest natural intervals in the Narrative where some interaction is clearly likely to happen or at least possible. There may be inadvertant gaps – in the example there is no mention of exiting the Forest of Gressel, the trees of which would make it hard to catch a glimpse of anything other than more trees until you were right on top of it. Always, each item is accumpanied by the unspoken question, “Why is this significant?”; the question might be implied, but the answer will not be.

Once I have rough-drafted the results, I can look at the length of the existing narrative blocks relative to the intervals already assigned and decide whether or not to subdivide the narrative block, bearing in mind that doing so will require the insertion not only of the interaction details but the inclusion of the introductory narrative to that interruption. If your narrative is twice as long as you think you want, divide it in three!

Once I know what the intervals will be, and I have allocated the ones that are logical outgrowths of the narrative block, it’s time to decide what goes in the others from the palette of choices described earlier in the article. Rough-draft them, estimate how long it will take to resolve, and then read it through from start to finish looking for issues of poor narrative flow from one section to the next. The more distinct each passage of narrative is, the better.

Then it’s a matter of polishing, adding detail and color and tonality. Simple, really.

Some rules of thumb:

  • A week’s journey should take up no more than half a page unless there’s a roleplayed encounter involved, in which case I’ll let it stretch to 3/4 of a page.
  • Between a week and a month should be less than a page.
  • More than a month but less than three months should be no more than a page and a half.
  • Up to a year should be disposed of in two pages -with full narrative flavor text and interruptions.
  • Between one and five years, three pages, at least one of which is used by one or two interactions.
  • Between five and twenty years, six pages.
  • Longer, seven pages.

(All with 10-point text).

These are absolute maximums. I typically try to achieve half this – or, to put it another way, that’s the length of the rough draft of my narrative before I compress and polish it.

As a rough rule of thumb, it takes me five to seven-and-a-half minutes to read an A4 page of narrative aloud. Letter-sized pages are a little smaller – call it four to six minutes (3/4 inch margins).

In the next ATGMs: Shared Worlds and Co-GMs!

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Blog Carnival November 2016: Ordinary Life in an RPG

rpg blog carnival logo


image credit: / Christie Merrill

This is an article in two halves, but the two should segue together seamlessly. The first is partially a rebuttal, partially a sequel, and partially a reply, to Clark Timmins’ thought-provoking submission to the Carnival, The Real Life of Heroes.

The second half looks at how the ordinary lives of the PCs are depicted in the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, serving as one way in which the suggestions and comments put forth in the first part can be practically applied in an RPG.

It is also the fifth and final article scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting.

Hand-waving the boring bits

Clark starts by pointing out that its good practice for GMs to skip or hand-wave the boring bits. No-one wants to roleplay every stride of a 10,000-league march – let alone doing it a second time when burdened with the fruits of victory. It is neither necessary nor desirable to detail every bite of every meal. Heck, even standing watch is better hand-waved most of the time, and even rolls for wandering monsters can get dull and tiresome.

As Clark writes, “Who wants to roleplay all this drudgery? That’s not really fun.” And he’s completely correct. And so we hand-wave the boring bits.

…taken to ridiculous extremes

But why stop with just the mundane and trivial parts of the game? Why not remove the repetitive as well? All that checking for traps for the umpteen-thousandth time, the rolling to hit, the recording of damage – why not simply have the players taking it in turns to roll once for each battle to see how it works out for the party, how much damage they take, and get on with handing out the XP and the goodies? After all,
     “We break open the door, weapons at the ready.”
     “There are a dozen Orcs in the room.”
     “We kill the Orcs. Do they have any loot worth noticing?”
is a sequence that I’m sure resonates with most of us.

Let’s be clear on this: I am NOT advocating the hand-waving of all combat! On the contrary, most GMs go to great lengths to make combat interesting, both to them and to the players. Nevertheless, there is a grain of truth in that, after a while, all dungeon rooms begin to look alike, all combats begin to blur together. What makes them distinctive and interesting is interaction – between the PCs, between the PCs and the (NPC) enemies, between the PCs and the environment – and in making the story bigger and more substantive than just a combat, attaching meaning to events.

Asking The Wrong Question

Clark’s points get to the heart of what this Blog Carnival is all about. And yet, at the end of his article, when he writes, “Doing “real life” stuff in-game is not escapism, and it’s not fun for most people. And so when it comes to the administrivia of packing a horse, striking a camp, wheeling a wagon… why… we just assume those things happen without comment. When our characters must traverse a mountain range, why… they just do it. When they stagger out of the dungeon at encumbrance capacity with silver coin tucked into every pocket, why… of course they do it. And when they get to town, why… they drink ale. What else is there?”, he is asking the wrong question. Phrased that way, in that context, there can be only one answer, and it traps the GM into the same endless treadmill – dungeon after dungeon, with only the occasional wandering monster for variation.

When you’re 18, it can seem the ideal diet is to live on Pizza and Coke, with the occasional hamburger for variety. But a few months, or years, of such a diet and it will quickly lose its luster. In the same way, a few months or years of unremitting dungeon-bash grows dull and tiresome. That’s when people start doing something else with their free time, leaving the hobby for good.

Real Life vs In-Character “Real Life”: The Right Answer

having fun

image credit: / Ned Horton

The question isn’t why we can’t skip the “bits in between” because they’re boring; it’s how we can make them more interesting. There’s no need to roleplay everything; – but there is an implies assumption that the mundanities that Clark describes are the entire palette of choices, and that’s not the case.

Beyond the dungeon walls there are strange phenomena, breathtaking vistas, deadly environments, social problems and movements, greedy merchants, ignoble “noblemen”, church politics, buxom barmaids (or bar-men if that’s your preference), gypsy curses, Orcish Armies, Sinister Plots, Rogue Wizards, wise-cracking (and just plain wise) trees for those with the wit to hear them, haunted houses, scheming guilds, duels, rivals, friends, allies, enemies, and much, much, more. Why throw all that away? Because it’s “boring”?

The ordinary life of a PC is not like the tedious “real life” that would exist were these adventures our actual existences. We still hand-wave the boring bits – but we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Simplest Implementation: Where are the PCs and What Are They Doing?

The most straightforward way of incorporating non-boring “real life” for the PCs is simply to ask, “Where are they and what are they doing when the adventure comes calling?”

  • Uthrak is in the marketplace, haggling with a vendor about the price of his melons – not to mention the black market jewelery under the counter. If he can get in good with the merchant, a lucrative side-career as a transporter of stolen property awaits him.
  • Berwald is on the run from the watch, having been mistaken for a second-story burglar. Calumny – no-one’s ever seen him casing a target, so it has to be a case of mistaken identity – but the chains on the prison walls won’t care, either way. He has just darted into an alleyway leading at the other end to the market square; maybe he can shake off his pursuers in there.
  • Zarkasal is following the arcane trail of a necromancer. Never turn down a chance to learn something new, even if it forbidden knowledge, is his philosophy of life! Either the Necromancer will agree to give Zarkasal a few lessons or the Fighter-mage will turn him in to the authorities. If the prey rubs him the wrong way, he might do that, anyway. There’s a disturbance up ahead – with a start, he realizes that the Watch are chasing Berwald. He can’t afford to let them catch him – those forbidden scrolls he found are still hidden in Berwald’s pack! Looks like the Necromancer will have to wait for another occasion!
  • Asther is in a poker game in the cellar of the inn where all the PCs have been staying. The dealer thinks he’s smart, dealing from the bottom of the deck; he hasn’t realized – yet – that Asther is marking the cards. A third player has just run out of cash and offered a rather interesting-looking tattered scroll containing, he alleges, a map to a lost treasure from the Old Kingdom. Time for Asther to make her move – and then bail on the game before she gets caught.

There you have it: Plot Hook (the map) and the other PCs are about to have a reason for them to leave town in a hurry. And all it took was the GM to listen to what the players wanted to do and find some interesting twist into which he could drop them at the start of the day’s play. It would be a matter of only a few seconds play for the GM to bring the party together, now in possession of the plot hook, and on the run.

When My co-GM and I started touching on the lives of the PCs outside of the main adventures, it was so that we could lay the groundwork for future plots. It didn’t take too long for the “You all meet up at the Adventurer’s Club” to become a bit stale, however; better to have the plot hook come to the attention to one PC and for him or her to then call in the others. But that raised the logical question of what the others were doing at the time?

Stepping It Up: Mini-Adventures for Fun and Profit

It didn’t take too much longer to realize that the interests of equal screen time were best served if we didn’t simply pay lip service to “What the PCs are doing”, and gave them the chance to roleplay themselves into and out of whatever situation they were in. These mini-adventures didn’t have to be long; the rule of thumb was always how much screen time it would take for the PC to receive the plot hook and what had to be done about it.

Five PCs, five minutes of mini-adventure each – working our way around the table every minute or so, that’s just 25 minutes or so and we’re into the early stages of the main plot. Ten minutes each? About an hour. 45 minutes each? That’s a session’s play, permitting us to use the intro to the main adventure as a cliffhanger. The decisive factor is always the expected length of the part that “matters” in terms of the main adventure, then matching that in screen time for the rest (for more information on our techniques for “splitting the party”, see Ask The GMs: “Let’s Split Up.” – “Good Idea, we can do more damage that way!”).

Mini-Adventures to Mark Time

Some adventures have lulls in between significant developments; once you’re used to the notion of mini-adventures, there’s no reason not to drop in some to mark time in such lulls. Hand-waving the interval with nothing happening is easy enough, but it doesn’t “feel” right to most players; the interval doesn’t seem real. This is doubly true if the GMs want the events pre-interval to fade into the recesses of the PCs memories because they think the adventure is over. On top of that, you have all the considerations of pacing (discussed in a series of articles here at Campaign Mastery). The list below has been excerpted from another post (which is why it may look familiar).

  1. Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 1
  2. Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 2
  3. Pacing and the value of the Pause
  4. Anatomy Of An Interruption – Endpoints
  5. Status Interruptus: Types Of Pause
  6. Compound Interruptions: Manipulating Pauses
  7. The Yu-Gi-Oh Lesson: New Inspirations In Pacing and Style, plus a couple of older articles that touch on the subject:
  8. Back To Basics Part 1: Adventure Structures
  9. and, Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow if applied at the micro-level to the individual adventure instead of the macro-level of an entire campaign.

Zenith:3 and the Adventurer’s Club: The Difference in Philosophy

There are still variations that the GM has to decide between. There is, for example, a profound difference between the approaches employed by the Zenith-3 campaign (described last week in Ordinary Lives In Paranormal Space and Time as part of the Blog Carnival) and that used in the Adventurer’s Club.

In the Zenith-3 campaign, I assume that every event of significance to the character will be of interest to the player of that character, and that whenever something happens, the PCs will be doing something else. The campaign is designed to evolve over time, and the PCs are expected to evolve as it does so, sometimes radically, sometimes only in their relationships with each other or with others. It is a “Continuity-rich” campaign.

In the Adventurer’s Club, in comparison, is far more static and stable. While parts of the background may evolve, the game date is perpetually somewhere in the mid-1930s, and we gleefully expropriate events from whenever they actually happened to suit our storytelling needs. For example, the last adventure, “Boom Town”, took place in late January and early February of Nineteen-Thirty-Whatever, but featured a World Heavyweight Boxing title fight which actually took place on June 13, 1935. This despite many of the events of the previous game year also deriving from 1935… The Adventurer’s Club campaign is a Serial campaign in which the game world is more-or-less static, evolving only as it creates interesting situations for the PCs. We’re quite happy to connect an event from 1933 with another from 1937 and call the whole thing 1935.

The philosophy of the Adventurer’s Club campaign is that we only play interesting events in-game, and any mini-adventures have to meet this standard. Individuals and organizations have memories, and relationships with the PCs evolve as a result, but the calendar is perpetually more-or-less locked. The players will know when the campaign is preparing to end (yes, we do have it planned) when real-world events start synchronizing in a major way with the game world – in essence, when the immediate precursor events to World War II start happening but that’s a long way off.

There may not seem to be much difference, but the distinction is actually quite profound. It’s the difference between things happening as context in the lives of the PCs, as those lives develop, that just happen to be interesting because the PCs are interesting people living in interesting times, and something interesting happening because we need to have something interesting happen to give a character his share of screen time.

Going Even Larger: Personal Subplots

It’s a short step from where things stand to giving characters personal subplots that provide a standalone in-the-background link from one adventure to the next. We have something of that sort going on with one of the newer PCs at the moment; his daughter had a rare form of Leukemia, in one adventure the PCs obtained a cure as a reward. Normally, that would be that; the actual use of the treatment would be handwaved and taken as read. But we saw potential for more interesting interactions with the plotlines, so first the daughter had to travel from England to the US by ship, waiting to meet her gave us the chance for the character to have a mini-adventure finding the parents of a lost child. Then we had the surgery, performed by another PC, be disrupted by an explosion down the street. The cure will take time to fully cure her; she is still convalescing, and we have another couple of small mini-adventures to come in which her position within the game world will stabilize, to be pulled out of our back pockets only when her presence adds something to an adventure or mini-adventure.

Taken collectively, these mini-adventures form a small plot arc, adding additional textural elements to the adventures in which the PC becomes involved.

We’re also going to be initiating another Personal Subplot for a while at some point in the near future of the campaign in which another PC gets to expand his personal “fleet”, we’re just waiting for him to decide what sort of ship he actually wants. If he takes too long, we may present him (one at a time) with three or four alternatives and then tell him to pick one! But we aren’t at that point, yet. Meanwhile, we are deliberately “aging” his current vessel just a little; it’s seen hard use for several years and is going to need a major overhaul eventually. These events will let us use the ship as the hook to connected mini-adventures for the character for some time.

The Oriborous Principle: Plots that eat their own tails

We love it when we can interweave or interconnect mini-adventures with the main plots, using the mini-adventure to give the player information they will need for the main plot. For example, that title bout that I mentioned? We first brought it to the players’ attention through a time-marking mini-adventure, without hinting as to the significance that it would later assume in the main plot as PCs in four separate locations attempted to disarm “planted” bombs being used to blackmail the city – with only one of the PCs having the skills necessary, having to give the others instructions via a patched-together telephone hookup!

But it was the start of that mini-adventure that really serves as the best example: each PC had a mini-adventure, each of those mini-adventures provided part of the plot hook into the main adventure, they crossed over with each other and intertwined… you could say that each of the mini-adventures was a prelude or prologue to the main adventure.

This was done because the players had grown accustomed to one of the mini-adventures being the “hook” while the others were just interesting things that happened. So we changed it up on them – not something that we’ll do every time, but it broke the pattern. We followed that up with an old-style beginning to the current plot that had no mini-adventures at all, simply pitching the PCs into the adventure, because that made sense in terms of the dramatic pacing of the adventure. The only rule is that we will structure the adventure in whatever way works best for that Adventure. Personal Life doesn’t automatically happen; it is subordinated to the exigencies of plot.

A Collection Of Interesting Experiences

Ultimately, the personal lives of PCs are best viewed as a collection of interesting experiences. Whether your approach is for things to happen that you then make interesting, or to only hit the interesting highlights on the way to the main plot, the basic strategy is the same: make parts of the “mundane lives” of the PCs interesting and ignore/hand-wave the rest. The wealth of plot elements that this opens up more than justifies the effort, regardless of genre; it’s as true of Superheros and Pulp as it is for Fantasy games like D&D. Ignoring this potential is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Some time ago, in an article here at Campaign Mastery (which one it was, I can’t quite recall at the moment), I pointed out that I deliberately focus on the mundane elements of character’s lives in the lower character levels of a D&D campaign because they provide a vehicle for me to tell the players more about the world in which their characters are living, the way reality works, and so on. As routines become established and their capabilities rise with increasing character levels, things like making camp and who does the cooking and travel are increasingly hand-waved – unless something interesting takes place along the way. It’s the same principle, simply being applied in still a third way.

Clark asked at the end of his article, “What else is there?” The answer is, quite a lot. You just have to pick the low-hanging fruit.

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 8th Shelf


The Eighth Shelf – Life In The Pulp Era I: Civilian Life – Introduction by Mike

This month’s blog carnival is about “Ordinary Life” and is being hosted by Campaign Mastery, so its’ fitting that the vagaries of chance and publication schedules has this shelf of the reference library appearing in the course of it.

Players need to understand the pulp era so that they know what their characters are used to, what their childhoods were like, and what a normal existence is like in that game environment. GMs need to understand ordinary life in the pulp era because, quite often, they will need to provide the context that makes the world seem real and plausible.

A character needs to speak with someone urgently. Most players will be cluey enough to know that it’s too soon for mobile phones, but most won’t have come to grips with the fact that most homes don’t have telephones at all, and many don’t yet have electric power, at least at the start of the pulp era. So the PC goes down to the drug store on the corner to use their telephone to call for a cab. Sorry, in this era, most taxis don’t have radios – you don’t call for a cab, you hail one on the street. For that matter, many players won’t be old enough to have any experience of telephone operations before automatic switching, and the practicalities of telling the operator which part of the country you’re trying to call, and the telephone number, and having her negotiate manuals connections from one operator to another until you are dealing with the local operator who connects you with the number you’re calling. Telephone switchboards will remain a fact of life for as much as half-a-century yet. But with no need to phone the taxi company – who might not even have a phone themselves, it isn’t yet considered an essential business tool – that doesn’t matter.

So you wait outside the drug store for a cab. And wait, and wait, and then get accosted by a policeman for loitering. In order to hail a cab, you need to go to where they run – a taxi stand (near most of the rail stations, large hotels, and the like) or one of the main thoroughfares. How to get there? Well, you can walk, and people do a lot more walking in this era. Or there might be a bus line. Or perhaps a cable-car.

If you don’t know the era, the statement by an NPC, “I feel like going out – let’s go down to Harlem,” might fill you with horror. Does this NPC have a death wish? But if this is part of the era when Harlem was the social hot-spot of the city, it’s an entirely reasonable statement.

The iceman tells you that Mrs O’Laughlin from down the street wasn’t home to receive her ice delivery, and doesn’t have outside access to her ice-chest. If you don’t know the era, you don’t know that this is reason enough to surmise that something is seriously wrong.

Everyday life IS the “real” world of the game, the world that NPCs inhabit and that PCs derive from. It is one of the building blocks that GMs need to master in order to create credibility, verisimilitude, and immersion in the game world.

Relevance to other genres

For some genres, the contents of these shelves will be directly relevant. For others, perhaps less so. There’s meat to be found in the politics section for fantasy GMs, for example. But this shelf has a more period-specific focus than many of the others, so the relevance to other genres very much has to be measured on a reference-by-reference basis. There definitely some recommendations which will be useful beyond the Pulp Genre!

variety of old books on two shelves

Image credit: / riesma pawestri

Shelf Introduction

There are only four sections to this shelf, but they are all fairly significant.

Everyday Life – I entitled the final section in Monday’s article “A world is for living in”. Before that can happen, you have to understand that world and how it works, what the ordinary everyday experiences are, and so on. You can’t just assume that it’s like 2016 only simpler, or with less technology. Fortunately, there are some really excellent resources to help you travel back in time to the world of yesteryear.

History & Historical Events – Of course, everyday life is just the small picture. The big picture is comprised of and punctuated by events – what happened, where, when, why, and what people did about it.

Politics – As always, the big picture is dominated and shaped by politics more than anything else. You can’t understand the decisions that were taken until you understand the politics that lay in back of that decision, and you can’t determine the effect on the inhabitants of the world without understanding the decision and its impact. Or to put it another way, politics defines the size and shape of the societal “box” within which an ordinary life is lived. If the game world was just like the real world, it would be relatively easy – but it’s not likely to be, and every change alters the driving forces behind decisions that have real impacts on the lives of inhabitants – including the PCs.

Hollywood, Cinema, and Entertainment – When the crushing burdens of real life threaten to become too much to bear, people turn to their entertainments to relieve the pressure and restore some balance within their lives. Hollywood was big before the advent of the talkies and the Great Depression; they grew to be enormous during and after. At this time, few if any of the stars realized just how much commercial power they could wield with advertising and endorsements, and even if they had, the sort of thing that’s commonplace now would be considered the crassest form of commercialism then. The public perceived their stars as operating in a more pure world, of having risen above such petty concerns; the idolizing of strangers because of their public image was in its infancy. In some ways, the world of then is as alien to our modern routine existences as the planet mars.

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation.


Books About Ordinary Life in the Pulp Era

There are a lot of books in this section, and if we could have found a reasonable way to subdivide it into reasonable even chunks, we would have.

Spacer everyday-life-from-prohibition-through-world-war-ii

749. Everyday Life from Prohibition through World War II – Marc McCutcheon

Organized by decade/era, this is essential period cultural reference – everything from slang to clothing to crime and media – a must-read for every Pulp GM.


750. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940: How Americans Lived Through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression – David E. Kyvig

This book came to our attention in the course of compiling this list, and sounded too good not to include – but we haven’t actually read it. According to Amazon, the prize-winning author …”describes everyday life in these decades, when automobiles and home electricity became commonplace, when radio and the movies became broadly popular”. The Amazon blurb goes on to say, “The details of work life, domestic life, and leisure activities make engrossing reading and bring the era clearly into focus.” That description, plus a whole heap of authoritative recommendations, earns the book a place.


751. 1930’s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook – Emmanuelle Dirix and Charlotte Fiell (Carlton Books)

A little on the expensive side (the cheapest copies were US$35 at the time of our review) but might be worth it to the GM who wants to nail this important element of period color. Amazon has two different editions, one published about a year after the other and losing 64 pages in the process – though, given that it was still over 500 pages in length, that might well be down to a change in font or typesetting. The covers are identical. The newer edition is marginally cheaper than the older, however, so there might be more substantial differences. For that reason, we recommend the older edition be considered ahead of the newer, even though they cost slightly more.
Older edition:
Newer edition:


752. 1920’s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook – Emmanuelle Dirix and Charlotte Fiell (Carlton Books)

Everything written about the 1930s sourcebook above also holds true for the volume detailing the preceding decade. 512 pages, featuring 600 totally original, period photographs and illustrations. Paperback: 36 new from $24.67, 15 used from $30.26.


753. American Culture in the 1930s – David Eldridge

This is a great book for understanding the impact that the Great Depression had on American Society. Although the primary focus is on what the economic situation and the response from what Washington did in terms of the Arts, that in turn changed what was popular and how it was delivered to the masses. When you read the chapter on radio and music, for example, you not only see the foundations of the studio system of 1970s television, but the primal gestation of MTV as a concept. Critically, if you change history to create a more pulp-like world, you also change the degree of cultural impact and hence change the everyday society. Mike and Blair had part of that puzzle solved for the Adventurer’s Club campaign; reading this book gave them the rest of it.


754. Only Yesterday: An informal History of the 1920s – Frederick Lewis Allen

Originally published in 1931, when the author could not know what would turn out to be significant and what wouldn’t last – so he provided context and included it all. The important events are covered – Prohibition, Al Capone, and so on – but the prosperity society leading up to the crash of 1929 is also exposed, covering everything from flappers to speakeasies to the pioneers of radio to the scandalous rise of hemlines. Hailed at the time as an instant classic, it says something that it is still available today.


755. Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America – September 3, 1929 to September 3,1939 – Frederick L. Allen

The sequel to “Only Yesterday” (listed above) picks up the story with the Wall Street Crash. Acknowledged for its lack of political bias, you can always tell the writer was a supporter of FDR but he quotes the criticisms of others fairly and even agrees with them from time to time. This is not a history book about events, but about the look and feel of living through the events of the decade.


756. The 1930s House Explained – Trevor Yorke

This is a book about English houses of the period, not American ones. But from a distance of more than 85 years, the two were more similar than they were different. More importantly, the Brits never fell out of love with the style and fashion of the times (they just regarded them as rather dull and tawdry for a while); these days, restoring houses to the old-time look and feel is a popular practice in the UK, and that’s given modern analysts a chance to examine the styles at arms-length in terms of what worked and why, and why it was popular. Unusually, new copies can be cheaper than second-hand ones (and there are more of them, too) – which indicates that most people aren’t reselling the book, they are keeping it.


757. Dust Bowl: The southern plains in the 1930s – Donald Worster

No-one who hasn’t lived through a dust storm can fully appreciate the misery that they can cause, and no-one who wasn’t there at the time has ever lived through anything like the dust storms that befell the Midwest during the 30s. We wanted to link to a documentary on the subject but no links could be found; this book is the next best thing. The book was updated and revised in the 1950s as time brought a new perspective on events, and as a warning that it was about to happen again. Emergency action prevented the return of the Dust Bowl at the time – at least to the same degree – and again, in the late 70s and early 80s – but the documentary in question made the point that conditions and land management practices are once again “right” for the return of the dust-bowl, just as the GFC was a mirror-image of the Great Depression. That comment isn’t meant as a call to action or to influence anyone’s political views, but as a way of providing an association that should be meaningful to a reader of the book.


758. The 1920s (American Popular Culture Through History) – Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber

We really shouldn’t list this book here (for availability/price reasons), but the next one in the series (the 1930s, listed separately) was so good that we couldn’t turn it down.

Known by many names, the 20s were an especially vibrant time, until, despite, – or perhaps, because of – the Great Depression and its precursor investment boom. Known variously as the Jazz Age, Dry Decade, Flapper Generation, or (most famously) as the Roaring Twenties, this was a colorful bright spot that stands in stark contrast with the preceding period of history.


759. America in the 1930s – Jim Callan

A children’s book for ages 10-13, but don’t turn away just yet! Described as “solid, well-written” and “poorly formatted”. The list of subjects covered is robust, and would make an excellent primer for the pulp era; but the layout conjugates text with completely-unrelated imagery. Furthermore, small type is used on thin paper, which is somewhat unusual in a children’s book. Bottom line: Those who grew up in America may not need this book, for everyone else it makes a good foundation. As a bonus, it includes an extensive bibliography.


760. Farming in the 1920s and 30s (Shire Library) – Jonathon Brown

Although there’s nothing we can explicitly point at to state it definitively, we suspect that this is about farming in England during the inter-war period. But there would be a very substantial crossover in farming techniques throughout the western world, regardless of locality. Certainly the tractor on the cover could be English, Australian, or American – or Canadian, or French for that matter.

This book looks at the challenges of farming in a recessed or depressed economy, the effects of peace after a Great War with its inherent labor disruptions, the crops and livestock being produced, and the new technologies that enabled the farmer to respond to the challenges. Agriculture is an essential but often-overlooked element of real life in ANY historical era or location.

64 pages, Kindle ($6.04), Paperback 27 New from $3.69, 16 Used from $3.68


761. Diamonds at Dinner: My Life as a Lady’s Maid in a 1930s Stately Home – Hilda Newman and Tim Tate

Hilda Newman was a maid to Lady Coventry at the Worcestershire stately home of Croome Court in the 1930s. This is her memoir of the life she experienced and the one that she witnessed from her position. A lot of readers will also be drawn to her observations of the War years, when Croome Court housed the Dutch Royal Family, who escaped the Nazi occupation, and was also home to the top-secret RAF base Defford, where radar was developed and repairs were carried out on aircraft fighting in the Battle of Britain, even though they aren’t pulp-relevant.

Although clearly and distinctly British in subject, there would be a certain amount of overlap with the upper-class residents of other parts of the world. 272 pages, Kindle ($4.40) and Paperback (32 used from $0.77, 38 New from $4).


762. Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s English Kitchen Maid – Mollie Moran

Moran was born in 1916 in Norfolk and left school at the age of 14 to become a scullery maid. This book walks similar terrain that of the previous listing but has perhaps a greater emphasis on the social life that was enjoyed beyond the house. 360 pages, MP3-CD (3 used from $21.03, 12 new from $16.33) and Paperback (61 used from $2.81, 36 new from $7.13).


763. Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses Between the Wars – Sian Evans

“In the aftermath of the First World War, the previously strict hierarchies of the British class system were weakened. For a number of ambitious, spirited women, this was the chance they needed to slip through the cracks and take their place at the top of society as the great hostesses of the time. In an age when the place of women was uncertain, becoming a hostess was not a chore, but a career choice, and though some of the hostesses’ backgrounds were surprisingly humble, their aspirations were anything but. During the inter-war years these extraordinary women ruled over London society from their dining tables and salons.” “Queen Bees looks at the lives of six remarkable women who made careers out of being British society hostesses between the wars” and who became the matriarchs of inter-war society in England.
416 pages, Kindle ($12,52), Audible ($26.14) and Hardcover (6 used from $18, 20 new from $16.75).


764. The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (reissued) – Jeffrey Richards

The Australian experience of cinema in the 1930s was not all that dissimilar to that of the US, producing a particular myopia on the subject from other perspectives, an unwritten and untested assumption that it was like that everywhere. Well, it was and it wasn’t; there were subtle differences, and this book exposes that even as it examines the role of the cinema in everyday British life of the 1930s. On top of that, Richards scrutinizes the film industry, censorship, cinema’s influence, the nature of the star system and its images, as well as the films themselves, including the visions of Britain, British history and society that they created and represented.

384 pages, paperback ,25 new from $10.56, 29 used from $4.08, 1 collectible at $50.23.


765. Britain in the 1920s – Fiona McDonald

Sometimes it’s helpful to be an outsider looking in, because you can see the shape of the forest more clearly from a distance, even if some of the trees are obscured. Fiona McDonald is Australian, born in Armidale and educated at the Julian Ashton Art School before discovering a passion for making dolls and toys, especially dragons. That makes her just about as outside of 1920s England as you can expect to get! And the results from that examination are comprehensive, accessible, and indispensable, even for those whose .Pulp Campaigns are set later in the Pulp Era. Operating without the benefit of this reference, Mike and Blair’s campaign Britain clearly bears a greater resemblance to the Britain of the 1920s than that of the 1930s; recognizing that, they can either play into it and enlarge on that theme in future, or apply a correction the next time the PCs visit London.

The 20s were an exciting time in England. The war was over, new technologies and fashions were everywhere, and there was a sense of optimism for the future. Social progress granted women new freedoms and rights, automobiles were more accessible and houses became filled with electrical gadgets. And yet, counterbalancing that were high unemployment rates, extreme poverty in parts of the country, high inflation, and workers were shamelessly exploited. This book embraces the social, political, and cultural landscapes of the era to provide a comprehensive summation of a place that American readers would recognize only as “similar but different”.

Hardcover, 256 pages, 12 used from $16.52 and 13 new from $20.36.


766. 1920’s Britain (Shire Living Histories) – John and Janet Shepherd

From Amazon: “How does a society recover from a devastating war? This was the question posed in the 1920s as people searched for normality in the aftermath of terrible trauma. Written from the perspective of those who lived, worked and played in the metropolis of greater London, 1920s Britain uncovers the hardships and stresses of the age, strains which manifested in the general strike of 1926. However, the 1920s was also a time of recovery and hope for the future; London itself was a place of international significance and hope. Delve into the past in this intriguing insight into a difficult time for Britain and the people tasked with its recovery.” This book is short, but the prices are a reasonable reflection of that, and if your campaign is not going to feature Britain extensively, this might be all you need.

88 pages, paperback, 30 used from $1.86 and 36 new from $4.46.


767. Britain in the 30s and 40s (Ticktock Essential History Guide)

“This title explores the times of 30s and 40s Britain, and uses essential facts and engaging imagery to give the reader an understanding of this period in history – from rationing and evacuations to the Great Depressions and antibiotics.”

For it’s minuscule size (only 32 pages) and categorized by Amazon as a children’s book, this is quite expensive – but there is not a wealth of alternatives to choose from. 14 used copies from $8.16, 10 new from $16.88. NB: This is a “bargain book” and even new copies may have marks from publishers and price stickers.


768. The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s – Eugen Joseph Weber

“Caught between the memory of a brutal war won at frightful cost and fear of another cataclysm, France in the 1930s suffered a failure of nerve.” Everyone knows about American isolationism in the period between the World Wars but far fewer understand it. This book corrects the gap in comprehension by looking at how the same forces of fear and economic distress affected a nation that was right in the firing line – and knew it.


769. Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s – Petrine Archer-Staw

In the years after World War I, many Africans and African Americans emigrated to Europe’s urban centers in search of work and improved social conditions, where they had a major impact on European society. Nowhere responded more strongly than Paris, at the time the most culturally experimental city in Europe. Now known as the Negrophilia period in Parisian society, this book examines a cultural revolution whose traces were all but obliterated by the Nazi Occupation two decades later. The contrast in the Parisian mindset of the twenties, as described in this book, and that of the thirties described in “The Hollow Years” (above) is particularly stark and noteworthy.


770. The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 – Tim Madigan

A white mob with thousands of members descended on the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 1, 1921. They obliterated 34 square blocks of Tulsa’s Greenwood community, then one of the most prosperous black communities in the US, which had been nicknamed “the Negro Wall Street Of America”, reducing them to smoldering rubble. It was virtually impossible then to put an accurate figure to the death toll, and it is a task that has not grown easier with the passage of a further 80 years of history; it could be 100, it could be three times that. This book provides both the detail and the emotional narrative to recreate the town, the era, and the incident, as well as its precursors in the distant past and the silence that surrounded the events for almost 80 years afterwards.

There are quite a number of books that have now been written about the Tulsa Riot. We chose this one initially through chance and kept it (rather than searching further) because of the scope and context that it seems to offer. If copies run out, consider one of the others. Most can be found by searching for “Black Wall Street”, a few by searching for “Tulsa Race Riot 1921”.


771. When Harlem Was In Vogue – David Levering Lewis

Mike’s first exposure to the existence of Harlem was in the James Bond film “Live and let Die”, at least as best as he can recall. His second and third were from the TV series “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “Good Times” – which weren’t even set in Harlem (Brooklyn and Chicago, respectively). It is from such disparate and largely inaccurate sources that an impression of the locality within New York City is compounded for those who aren’t American. Self-education in music and music history proved a revelation to him; although not a Jazz aficionado, he learned enough about the subject through various sources over the years to completely reevaluate his perception of what was, in his lifetime, one of the most legendarily downtrodden slum districts of the city.

This 448-page book gives the history of Harlem and its African-American subculture from 1890 until the riot of 1935. For part of that time, this was the cool place to be and to be seen, and that period just happens to coincide with part of the Pulp Era. So, if your perceptions of Harlem bear even the slightest resemblance to those of Mike when he was younger, you need this book or you will be ignoring one of the cultural landmarks of the era.(We don’t think any of the players will ever forget Father O’Malley and Dr Hawke’s expedition into Harlem, which ended with one of them singing on stage and the other dancing on the tables after a bluff went horribly “wrong”).


772. Jump For Joy: Jazz, Basketball, and Black Culture in 1930s America – Gena Caponi-Tabery

For some, the 1930s were a time of exuberance, buoyed by high-profile successes in various fields, including the 1936 Olympics, the 1937 union victory of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Joe Louis’ 1937 and 38 heavyweight championship bouts. For the first time, black Americans had cultural heroes and ambassadors and could aspire to the heights that they represented. While the focus of this book is 1941 and the years that followed, it starts by chronicling these successes and the influence they had on the developing African-American subculture.


773. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life In Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (English Language edition) – Sheila Fitzpatrick

I don’t think we need say too much to sell the inclusion of this book. There are those who would suggest that it should have been placed in the section dealing with Russia, but the focus on daily life, and the potential to extrapolate to large parts of Eastern Europe in general, were – in our opinion – enough to justify its placement here. Kindle, Hardcover, and Paperback; at the moment, of the latter two formats, the Hardcovers represent the best value for money, but that could easily change, so look carefully at the options and prices when you consider purchasing. 304 pages.


774. Decades Of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe before World War II – Ivan T Berend

A holistic approach to the history of the region yields a work that even those who lived through the period find educational. “Berend’s book is the broadest synthesis of the modern social, economic, and cultural history of the region that we possess, probably in any language. Much of the narrative is masterful, and of an unparalleled richness, both in fact and insight. This work displays well the broad erudition of its author.”–John Connelly, Journal of Economic History.

There were any number of places where this 485-page book could have been placed. It could be in the Politics section, or the Eastern-Europe “places” section, for example, and we can’t actually state any particular reason why we have chosen to list it here; just an instinct that says you can’t deal with such a broad palette without describing everything that defined life in these nations during the period in question, almost as a side-effect.


775. Bartender’s Bundle (e-book)

Contains Bartending For Dummies and Whiskey and Spirits For Dummies – We aren’t complete teetotalers but there are hundreds more drinks than we’ve ever heard of, and that’s not counting the cocktails! How relevant these books will be to an earlier age is unknown, and our only concern. Do you know the difference between a Parrot Bay Sunset, a Tropical Sunset, A St Croix Sunset, a Perfect Sunset, and a Sunset Strip? – let along which of them should be your character / NPC’s favorite cocktail when ordering a tipple in, say, New Caledonia? Or perhaps one of the world’s 1+ varieties of beer is more your style?


776. Bartending For Dummies – Ray Foley

If e-books aren’t your thing, you might consider buying the two books conflated into the Bartender bundle in more physical form. This is the first of them, listing over 1, drinks recipes. Two editions are available; this is the older and cheaper. Forget the new copies; there isn’t enough value for the GM for the pieces being charged. If you really want a new copy, click through to the more recent edition. There are 50 used copies from one cent.


777. Whiskey and Spirits For Dummies – Perry Luntz

The latest edition of the other physical book contained in the e-book bundle has somehow reached the conclusion in the title that Whiskey is not a spirit, which gave us a wry chuckle. Setting that peculiarity aside, this book is supposed to be a “complete guide to selecting and enjoying this family of noble beverages, flavor by flavor”. Kindle $11.74 (but the Bundle listed earlier is better value for money) or Paperback (36 new from $8.16, 50 used from $0.50).


778. Wine For Dummies

The complexities of cocktails and spirits are dwarfed by the complications of fine wines and champagnes. Our only concern is the question of how much of the content would be relevant to the pulp era, but this is one area where it’s probably easier just to pretend that the modern range is available back then.

We’re actually linking to two different forms of this book, because they are very comparable in price. The first one, and our first choice (Pictured), is the Wine-All-In-One For Dummies; this contains the central book and four regional wine guides – French, Italian, Californian, and Australia/New Zealand Wines – though it’s worth noting that neither of the last two amounted to very much in the world of fine wines during the Pulp era. 696 pages, Kindle ($17.40), Paperback 28 New from $14.67 and 31 used from $9.57.

Compare that with the core book on it’s own, which we recommend only when the price of the breaks the $20-or-so barrier through scarcity, even though it is two editions later than the bundled one. 432 pages, Kindle ($13.28), Paperback 43 New from $10.40, 19 used from $12.74. Is the added color worth paying less for? Is that a silly question? Turn it around: would a pulp GM (as opposed to the general public) get enough additional value out of the updated information to justify the higher price?


779. Cooking Around The World For Dummies all-in-one

There are a number of regional cuisine books in the Dummies series, but we don’t think that any one of them is worth getting just for RPG purposes. Getting all eight of them in one volume, on the other hand, seems reasonably cost-effective. After all, one of the easiest ways to make different places around the world distinctive is through the food that’s on offer, especially when discussing a time before McDonalds!

As you would expect, under the circumstances, the page-count is high: 744 pages. Available in digital format (e-book by another name?) for $4.99, or as a paperback (29 new from $15.50, 54 used from one cent).


Documentaries About Ordinary Life in the Pulp Era

Four items in this subsection that are heartily recommended. Books are a great way to impart specific information and details; actually seeing something permits the incorporation of details not even consciously perceived, leading to a greater appreciation for the way the world felt beyond the known details, and providing a foundation for decisions about the look-and-feel of those details.

See also a number of documentaries listed in the “Era Inventions” section, as many of them make great efforts to place the problems these technologies were to solve in period context.


The “Hidden Killers” Documentary Series:
780. Hidden Killers of the Edwardian Home

Even if this was nothing more than a detailed examination of the typical home in 1901-1914, it would be deserving of a very strong recommendation. Since it is so much more than that, examining the deadly threats and dangers that the radical new inventions such as electricity and domestic chemicals brought with them, it gets top scores. (It should be remembered that outside the larger cities, Edwardian technology and the social consequences it carries will still be the contemporary reality!) On top of that, any city-based character over 25 will have experienced these conditions first-hand, and may be suffering from ill-effects as a result – something that can be a useful plot point for any Medically-oriented PC.

781. Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home

Less directly relevant at first glance, this predates “The Edwardian Home” (above) in time period. But that only means that you have to travel further into the backwoods and backwaters to find people living lives of a Victorian standard. All the reasons for the other “Hidden Killers” documentary to be relevant are just as valid for this one – only the context of the applicability has changed.

782. More Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home

No more need be said.


Unfortunately, this series is not available on DVD anywhere as far as we have been able to determine. US residents can stream the entire series for $9.99 per episode, local DVD suppliers might carry it, and at least two of them are available through youTube and – at least at the time of writing.


783. New York

Known variously elsewhere as “An American Experience: New York: A Documentary Film In 8 parts by Ric Burns”, or some combination of those elements, this is a collection of thematically-related documentaries spelling out the history of New York City. Originally aired as elements of a longer-running series over multiple seasons, this collection excerpts them to form a continuous narrative that is indispensable for any pulp GM.

Firstly, it brings the era to life; secondly, it brings the politics of the city in the pulp period to life; and third, it grounds the GM in what is inevitably going to be one of the featured locations in any Pulp Campaign.

We are recommending the series for 5 episodes: “The Power & The People”, “City Of Tomorrow” (Parts 1 and 2), and “The City & The World” (parts 1 and 2). (Mike: To my great regret, I missed episodes 1-3, or the recommendation might be even more expansive)! This 8-DVD set isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it, and there may be cheaper options available to you, depending on where you live.

Amazon US: $54+, or rent the entire series through Amazon streaming for $3.99, or buy the series streamed for $30

Amazon UK: limited copies of the US import from about £52

Amazon Canada: CDN$85+, which is far more reasonable than usual, relative to the US Price.


784. Turn Back Time: The High Street (Eps 1, 2, 3, and 4)

A 6-episode British series looking at the industrial/retail sectors of society and how they have been transformed by society and technology over the course of a single century, and how they in turn have transformed society within that century. While the series is British, the social and economic forces that affected the UK had their equivalents in Australia, and in the US, and – I’m sure – in Canada as well.

Amazon US has a single copy of the UK import and four copies through other vendors, all starting at around US$20

Amazon UK has not many more copies, but links to several more second-hand

Amazon Canada doesn’t list the DVD at all, but they do list the book of the series, with second-hand copies available at the bargain price of CDN$0.01!

Amazon US also has the book for very reasonable prices
and Amazon UK has the greatest availability of all, in terms of the book


785. Turn Back Time: The Pharmacy aka Victorian Pharmacy (3 eps)

Examines medicine in the Victorian era, when skin creams contain arsenic and cold medicines were based on opiates. Any pulp-era character’s parents will have experienced the pitfalls and social impacts of this era’s pharmacology (in many cases, may still be experiencing the aftereffects), and certainly any doctor with a medical practice anywhere in the western world during the pulp era would be familiar with the ailments and supposed treatments. (Interestingly, the DVD has a run-time of 240 minutes, suggesting a full hour’s worth of extras).

Amazon US has only a limited supply of UK imports that won’t play on most domestic US equipment

Amazon UK has a few more, and quite good availability second-hand

Amazon Canada also has a few British imports for the relatively reasonable price of CDN$20 or thereabouts and has a few more listed separately at totally outrageous prices of up to CDN$900!

When the reasonably-priced DVDs run out, there is also a book (we are not sure whether the book is based on the TV series or vice-versa) available:
Amazon US:, Amazon UK:, and Amazon Canada: and and and a few more on top of those at less attractive prices.


Books About History & Historical Events

We weren’t able to subdivide the everyday life section very effectively – there was too much crossover in the value to be provided by the different titles being recommended – but we were able to subdivide the second-largest section into four subsections: World History, US History, British History, and Histories of Elsewhere.

See also specific items by location on the “Places” shelves.

Books About World History & Historical Events in general

This subsection holds 11 books, three of which are “For Dummies books that we thought worth promoting to the main list of recommendations.

Spacer readers-digest-book-of-facts

786. Reader’s Digest Book Of Facts – Robert Dolezal

The list of past rulers from different Kingdoms, Empires, etc, has been very useful any number of times. And you can get adventure ideas from elsewhere in the book using the techniques offered in Campaign Mastery’s 2013 article, “Trivial Pursuits: Sources Of Oddball Ideas”.

There are a mountain of cheap copies available at and, if they run out, there are some more here and if that’s still not enough, for the third edition they changed the name to “The Book Of Facts” and there are even more copies of that available at this page!


787. The Concise Encyclopedia Of World History – Rodney Castleden

Every major event from 38, BC to 1993 by date. Also some very useful appendices. Very limited detail on any given entry, we use it as an index of events, because it permits you to “flip through time” very quickly. Published with a couple of different covers, the cover shown is the one that we have and use.


788. A History Of The Modern World from 1917 to the 1980s – Paul Johnson

A more narrative approach that gives context and insight into events. Mike has the paperback and paid a lot more than these prices for it! The cover is very plain – orange for the paperback (pictured) and green for the hardcover, so this book almost escapes attention, which is a shame – one that you should take full advantage of. Mike and Blair (metaphorically) ripped almost two full pages of narrative from the content to use as player briefing on the Yakuza in Japan during the 1930s without need to edit it at all – they just took the book into the gaming venue with them and read aloud from it!


789. Chronicle Of The 20th Century

Newspaper headlines, photographs, and story excerpts day by day and month by month, from 1900 to 1989 (and possibly beyond – keep reading). You can also get a subsequent and much thinner volume covering 1990; the plan was to keep issuing them; that never seemed to happen. But there was a second edition (with the same cover as the first, pictured), with a slightly different page count – and, very helpfully, there was still another edition (with a different cover, and 100 more pages, taking the total to well over 1400) released in 1995. These are essentially a-month-to-a-page, so 100 extra pages is roughly 100 more months – or about 8 more years.

We’re recommending the newer edition even though it costs more, for that reason, but there are copies of the other editions that we have mentioned available for ridiculously cheap prices.

One word of caution: At 9 lb in weight or thereabouts, postage will be expensive. No, Very expensive.

NB: We are basing this recommendation on a specially-prepared Australia-and-New-Zealand edition, but the links we have provided all lead to a US edition, so far as we can determine, except as otherwise noted.

1995 edition (newer, larger. more complete):
Second Edition (older, cheaper, less complete):

BRITISH EDITION (slight cover differences, presumably greater content differences – and yes, we’re tempted…):


790. Chronicle Of The World – edited by Jerome Burne

NOT to be confused with the previous recommendation, even though the title is similar and the cover is clearly related. This is a history of the world, but it’s written in modern journalistic style, arranged in chronological order from 3.5 Million B.C. To 1945. There are also more than 50 essays to supplement the main text. Interestingly, major events after 1945 are only summarized, showing that the focus isn’t on modern history but how we got to the modern day – and part of that “to” includes the Pulp Era.
The last 100 pages of the book contain an alphabetical compendium of the nations of the world.

This book is almost 1300 pages in length and again, tips the scales at more than eight-and-a-half pounds, so postage costs will be exceptionally high even though the book itself is quite affordable.


791. The World’s Worst Historical Disasters – Chris McNab

A couple of pages each on various disasters from Sodom & Gomorrah through to the Pacific Tsunami. While only a few entries will be of direct value there are a lot more that can be historically relevant to characters and their families. Amazon carries three different editions of this book, and most of them are outside the price limits of this list – including the edition we have and use. So buyer beware, your mileage may vary!

2005 Edition (cheapest):

2007 Edition (only one used copy, priced at $41.43):

2008 Edition (not enough copies, but they are reasonably priced):


792. Debunking History: 152 Popular Myths Exploded – Ed Rayner & Ron Stapley

Many of the articles within this broad work will not be relevant, but there are enough to make this worth listing anyway. Amazon has four listings for this book, but only one falls within our price limits. If the affordable copies are all gone, you may be able to find one of those more-expensive ones by searching for the title.


793. Day Of The Bomb – Dan Kurzman

This is the story of the Manhattan Project and the men who worked feverishly to construct an atomic bomb. Historically, the big threat that the US perceived was that Heisenberg would give Nazi Germany atomic weapons. At the end of the War in Europe, it was learned that the Nazis were years away from that achievement, and that they had never devoted the resources to the problem that were necessary to solving it. What is not well known, even today, and will be even more interesting to a Pulp GM, is that a more serious threat was a Japanese nuclear weapon; they knew it was possible and they were making great strides towards success.

With weird science to accelerate technology, the Manhattan Project becomes cutting-edge Pre-war research – and the Japanese Bomb a serious (and completely unrecognized) threat to world security (they were all too busy panicking over the possibility of a Nazi Bomb, but the Germans were never really close to achieving one and Hitler didn’t really believe in the concept, possibly because of the Jewish Scientist element). It’s this International aspect that has led to this being included in this subsection and not in the one on the US.

In addition, the scientists of the Manhattan Project are many of the leading scientists of the day, who can perform consultative roles for many Pulp Heroes – that is why they are featured in “The Proteus Operation” by James P. Hogan (, as experts called in to solve the mystery of why the time machine isn’t working the way the time travelers expected it to!

Our copy of “Day Of The Bomb” is a hardcover with a different cover to the one shown.


794. The First World War For Dummies – Seán Lang

The broadest possible definition of Pulp is “adventure set in-between the two World Wars.” That means that anyone who is old enough to be an adult character in a Pulp campaign will have been touched by the First World War, making this volume a no-brainer. The author has an acute in his christian name that horribly mangles Amazon’s search results and means that searching for “Sean Lang” can result in no titles found.


795. World History For Dummies – Peter Haugen

Of course, anything older than World War I will also have left it’s mark. Ancient castles, monasteries, stone circles, the age of exploration (and anything they might have missed) – these are all fertile grounds for pulp adventures. Quite often the problem lies in identifying what detailed research is required, as intimated earlier; a broad overview of world history is therefore very useful to have around.


796. World War II For Dummies – Keith D. Dickson

Drawing a line in the sand at the start of the first battle or of the declarations of war is probably the worst way of delineating periods in history. Wars never “just happen”, they are the culmination of long buildups and rising tensions. You can’t understand World War II without understanding the context of the 1930s; you can’t understand the First World War without understanding the tangled web of alliances between the great powers and how those came about (in essence, it was to prevent wars between them by guaranteeing mutual defense – ironic, that). All of which means that books on World War II are entirely relevant resources to understanding the world prior to that war, and vice-versa. Hence the inclusion of this volume.

For-Dummies Books About World History & Historical Events in general

In most cases, we haven’t read any of these, and are recommending them for consideration based purely upon the publisher’s descriptions and on general principles except where otherwise noted. This also shifts the content of each review from one of “this book is recommended and here’s why” to “this book might be useful and here’s why”. We have made the assumption that availability and price would fall within our parameters, or close enough to them; we have rarely found this not to be the case.

Selected works were so promising and so relevant, that they have been promoted to the main list of recommendations, excluding them from the above caveats.

A note about Complete Idiot’s Guides

While the “For Dummies” series has a website that lists all the books currently available in the series, there is no equivalent for the “Complete Idiot’s Guides”.

Our blanket advice is that if Amazon lists a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” that matches the subject of one of our “For Dummies” recommendations, you should buy both.


797. Twentieth Century History For Dummies – Seán Lang

By the same author as “World History For Dummies” listed earlier, and the same notes about the spelling of his name apply. A bit less than half of this will be directly relevant to the Pulp GM, though some future developments in history can be foreshadowed as “current trends” within a campaign. In terms of the value of this book as a reference, a lot depends on how heavy the focus is on the two world wars, because that content would be redundant given the existence of specific references on the subject.

Books About US History with a Pulp-era focus or relevance

See also a number of the books in the World History section, above.


798. The Plot To Seize The White House: The shocking true story of the conspiracy to Overthrow FDR by Jules Archer

The subtitle should tell you all that you need to know about the subject, but in brief, a former general, Smedley Butler, alleged that he had been approached by moneyed interests from the highest echelons of American Society and pressed into a conspiracy to overthrow FDR and take his place as President and Fascist Dictator. There are no less than seven different Amazon pages covering this product, but none of the others has prices below the $20 threshold. If this page is out of cheap copies, search for the title and hope to find one of the others.


799. War Is A Racket – Smedley Butler

This is an anti-war booklet or pamphlet (80 pages long) by the decorated US General which includes a section on the alleged attempted coup in the US, which was the basis of Mike & Blair’s “Five Star” adventure in their Pulp Campaign. There are no less than four different editions of this book listed on Amazon, each of which has its own separate Kindle edition, each of which is at a different price. Three of the four also have different covers. So far as we’re aware, these are all the same in terms of content. Check all four for your best purchase option at the time.
Link 1:
Link 2:
Link 3:
Link 4:


800. US History For Dummies – Steve Wiegand

While most Americans should be familiar with the subject, do they really know enough specific detail to build encounters and adventures around except in the broadest possible sense? And how familiar with those details is someone from outside the US likely to be? Everyone needs this reference.


801. Native American History For Dummies – Dorothy Lippert, Stephen J Spignesi, and Phil Konstantin

It’s possible that Americans won’t need this reference; the rest of the world almost certainly will. But it’s our impression that even most US Citizens don’t know all that much more on the subject than the rest of us (and the same is often true of other indigenous cultures – Mike admits, for example, that he doesn’t know as much as he perhaps should about Indigenous Australian history).

Here’s the thing: the Wild West is astonishingly close to the pulp era in time. When does the latter end? 1870? 1900? 1910? Wikipedia puts the date as 1912. Did anyone tell those who were living in remote backwaters? How hard is it to imagine that some vestiges persisted into the 1930s in a pulp campaign?

Yeah, that’s what we thought, too.

But, while there are lots of very specific books on this tribe or that, this native American subculture or the other, such as the Navajo or the Sioux, there aren’t very many general overviews of the subject. That’s why this book makes our main list.


802. US Citizenship For Dummies – Cheri Sicard and Steven Heller

In the last half of the 19th century and the first third or so of the 20th, more than at any other time in its history, US Citizenship was a passport to a prosperous future, a ticket to the land of opportunity. Say, from the start of the Irish Potato Famine in 1845 through to the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the US could no longer be seen as a refuge from the War. Throughout the Pulp era, immigrants swarmed into the country as fast as they could be accepted – and one of their highest priorities on getting there was making sure that they couldn’t be sent away again, by becoming naturalized citizens. Probably half this book deals with events and changes post-pulp in time, but the rest would be of absolute bang-on-subject relevance.


803. US Military History For Dummies – John C. McManus

There are a number of urban legends that circulate based on the impression that the rest of the world knows more about US History than Americans do. Like most urban legends and internet memes, there is at best only a grain of truth to the impression. It follows that this volume may or may not be essential reference material for any given GM, and this is doubly true for any American pulp GMs!

Our greatest concern is that there may be too great a focus on conflicts that post-date the second world war; Our greatest hope is that there is enough material on WWI and II, The Spanish-American War, the Civil War, and the Revolutionary War (to name just a few) to make this relevant. Some pulp-era characters will have grandparents who remember the civil war and great-grandparents who fought in it!


804. The Civil War For Dummies – Keith D. Dickson

…which fully justifies having this volume somewhere at hand, we think. Well, that’s what we decided after a bit of debate, anyway; debate which started Mike thinking along the lines that eventually led him to devise the character-background planning tool he described in Throw Me A Life-line: A Character Background Planning Tool. The example of use which forms part of that article shows clearly that an adult character in Pulp 1933 could have known grandparents who fought in / endured the war, and whose parents were certainly affected, with who knows what ripple effects. The Civil War is probably the outer stretch for relevance, but throw in various groups in the South who might want to relive those glory days, and justifying this book’s presence on the list gets a whole lot easier.

Documentaries About US History with a Pulp-era focus or relevance

One entry, and it’s slightly tangential – but very important.


805. Frontline: Money, Power, & Wall Street (Ep 1)

Although this 4-hour production is all about the GFC, the opening hour is directly relevant to the pulp GM. You see, the GFC arose because banks did certain things that they had been forbidden to do until a succession of presidents began to weaken the restrictions holding them back. And who imposed the restrictions in the first place? FDR, following investigations into the causes of the Great Depression.

Available from Amazon US for reasonable prices (especially second-hand), and from Amazon UK and Amazon Canada in limited quantities as a US import – but also with second-hand copies available at reasonable prices.

For-Dummies Books About US History with a Pulp-era focus or relevance

The usual caveats (described earlier) apply.


806. US Presidents For Dummies – Marcus Stadelmann

Most people no matter where they are from can name most of the US Presidents of the 20th and 21st centuries and get them more or less in the right order. But it’s easy to build a pulp plotline with its roots in American political history prior to that date, and for that, most of us – Americans included – might need reference material. The first resource we would turn to is “The Universal Almanac” (listed elsewhere) because it has an excellent section on the US Presidents, and the second is Wikipedia, where we would expect each to have a dedicated page and links to more detailed discussions. This book seems likely to slot in-between those first and second resources in terms of quantities of specific information – more than the entries in the Almanac, and less than Wikipedia’s totality – and that is enough to earn this a recommendation, especially for anyone who can’t get a copy of the Almanac mentioned. We intend to use it as a filter to prevent us wasting time doing research on US Presidents that don’t fit our plot needs.

Books About British History with a Pulp-era focus or relevance



807. Britain in the 1930s: A Deceptive Decade – Andrew Thorpe

Britain’s 1930s are a very different decade, with mythologies having become encrusted around controversially different perceptions of events. The tumult around the resignation of Prime Minister Chamberlain and installation of Sir Winston Churchill are the most famous manifestation of the conflict, but its roots ran deeper. “Were the 1930s in Britain a decade of growing prosperity, unprecedented levels of ownership and sane, competent government? Or was it a time of grinding poverty, long-term unemployment and political timidity?” Blair and Mike have their own interpretation of events, viewing Chamberlain as neither dupe, villain, or victim but as a leader who gave Fascist Germany enough rope while desperately trying to avoid another war like WWI and who ultimately was betrayed by Hitler reneging on his given word. Had he responded with more outrage and vitriol, his position might have been salvaged, with Churchill brought in as an advisor and member of a bipartisan war cabinet; but upper-class British Reserve saw him hold back, and appear too weak to inspire the nation in the way that Churchill did.

It’s a slightly more forgiving position than that taken up by Andrew Thorpe in this book, but one with which he would be more comfortable than discomforted. In its pages, he examines the politics, economy, and society of the period and concludes that while not particularly dynamic, [the] governments [of the day] did as well as could be expected in the face of unprecedented problems. Without whitewashing the administrations, he cuts through the myths and unravels the half-truths to show that things were never as bad as the jaundiced and traumatized view of a nation at war would recall.

Paperback, 152 pages, 26 new from $32.03 (too expensive for our restrictions), 22 used from $0.77


808. From Scottsboro to Munich: Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain – Susan D Pennybacker

To those of us who aren’t from the US, it sometimes seems that America has trouble recognizing that other parts of the world have their own racial issues and problems, and have had for as long as America has struggled with its own race relations and Civil Rights issues. In fact, there’s been more than a little spillover of America’s problems in these areas through the years with other developed societies, as this book makes clear. Pennybacker examines the British Scottsboro defense campaign, inaugurated after nine young African Americans were unjustly charged with raping two white women in Alabama in 1931, explores the visit to Britain of Ada Wright, the mother of two of the defendants, considers British responses to the Meerut Conspiracy Trial in India, the role that antislavery and refugee politics played in attempts to appease Hitler at Munich, and the work of key figures like Trinidadian George Padmore in opposing Jim Crow and anti-Semitism in England and Great Britain. This book sheds new light on the racial debates in the Britain of the 1930s.
408 pages, Kindle ($15.92), Hardcover (too expensive for our restrictions), and Paperback (15 new from $18.97, 19 used from $0.58).


809. Exporting Fascism: Italian Fascists and Britain’s Italians in the 1930s – Claudia Baldoli

How did Italians living in Britain respond to Mussolini’s fascism? What links did ex-pat fascists forge with the British Right? To what extent did Italophilia exist in Britain during the Mussolini years? Exporting Fascism addresses these questions, which have long been ignored by historians, exposing the effects of Mussolini’s policies of transforming local Italian communities around the world into “little Fascist Italies” and the Italophilia that dominated the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the first half of the 1930s, later replaced with an admiration for National Socialism as the fascists forged connections with Britain’s right-wing.
288 pages, Hardcover 20 new from $19.15, 18 used from $15.77; Paperback 21 new from $1.98, 20 used from $1.96.


810. British History For Dummies – Seán Lang

There are two great poles around which pulp adventurers would orient themselves: they would either be Americans or subjects of the British Empire. Similarly, most pulp GMs would stem from one of those backgrounds. Most colonial citizens don’t know enough about the history of Britain to GM British-history and institution-based plots effectively, and that includes Americans – especially such history that predates WWII.

Written by the same author as “World History For Dummies” and “Twentieth Century History for Dummies”, both listed earlier; the same notes about the spelling of his name apply.


811. British Military History For Dummies – Bryan Perrett

See the comments under “British History For Dummies”, above! There are more copies than those to which we have linked, but they are all over the $20 threshold.

Documentaries About British/Commonwealth History with a Pulp-era focus or relevance



812. Edward & George: Two brothers, One Throne

A documentary that appears to never have been released on DVD. A Google search for “Two brothers One Throne” shows that in many countries it is available through local streaming catch-up services, at least for the moment. Consult your local networks or do a Google search for “two brothers one throne”. Note that the image shown is a fictitious cover.
Google Search:

Books About History & Historical Events outside the US & Britain



813. The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pious XI and the rise of Fascism in Europe by David I Kertzer

Although Pious XII only took the reigns in 1939, it is easy to translate his rule back in time a decade to make this yet another enemy force for the PCs to counter. But at best it historically falls at the very end of the pulp era, even by the most generous of definitions.


814. Saints and Sinners Popes Edition – Aemon Duffy

The only thing not covered by the preceding recommendation is the mysterious death of Pope Pious XI, and the other first “fathers” of the Catholic Church. To rectify that, we recommend this volume, firstly because it is well illustrated, and secondly because of the review by Peter Stanford of The Daily Telegraph, who (in part) wrote, “As [Duffy] works his way through the papal roll of honor and dishonor, he is always careful to re-create the political, social and economic background to different reigns. He eschews opaque ecclesiastical jargon and, where a theological or doctrinal dispute has to be explained, he does so in a way that even those unversed in biblical concepts or Christian history will immediately grasp.”


815. European History For Dummies – Seán Lang

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a transition from a European-dominated period of history to an America-centric one. While the most immediately-relevant European influence was England, most of English history is either in reaction to, or an action targeted at, some other part of Europe. That, of course, means that English History is only half the story. This is part of the other half.
Search by title, not author, as explained several times already.


816. Medieval History For Dummies – Stephen Batchelor

Of all the European structures that can make their way into a pulp plotline, a medieval castle is one of the most likely. But you can’t understand such structures without understanding their historical and social role. Because of the pulp world’s inheritances from medieval times, this resource is both indirectly relevant and something approaching indispensable when that relevance comes into play.

For-Dummies Books About History & Historical Events outside the US & Britain

The usual caveats apply.


817. Napoleon For Dummies – J David Markham

With all due respect to George Washington, Colin Powell, and Ulysses S. Grant, Napoleon Bonaparte is arguably the most famous and influential military commander and civil leader in modern history. The codes of justice that he introduced, for example, are the foundations of the modern jury system, and you can’t fully understand the failure of the military invasion of Russia by Germany in World War II without referencing Napoleon’s earlier failed attempt to do exactly the same thing. Therefore, while this book has very little direct relevance to a pulp campaign, it has enough indirect relevance and context to re-float the Titanic.


Books About Politics in the Pulp Era

We thought seriously about subdividing this section along similar lines to the histories, above, but there didn’t seem to be enough references to make it worthwhile. Then we found more references when it was too late and we were committed to the current structure (these articles are a lot more complicated than they might seem). The best we’ve been able to do is list them in roughly the sequence in which they would have appeared had we been able to create the subsections structure in time.


818. The Book Of Rule: How The World Is Governed – Timothy Cain (‘Editorial Producer’)

Gives details of how different governments around the world work at the time of publication. Essential for jet-set games in the modern day – but by including historical reference and context, invaluable for the Pulp GM as well.


819. Supreme Power – Jeff Shesol

Brings the political and legal worlds of Pre-WWII America to life, Supreme Court vs Roosevelt over the New Deal.


820. Isolationism In America 1935-1941 – Manfred Jonas

The US was highly resistant to participating in another European War. This was known as the Isolationist Policy or movement. This volume details the people at the forefront of the movement and the maneuverings to keep America out of the War. Not many copies available.

An excellent alternative source is – surprisingly – a work of fiction. The debate is at the heart of part of “The Winds Of War” by Herman Wouk, and there are plenty of cheap copies of THAT available.


821. The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the isolationists, and the Road to World War II – Nicholas Wapshott

There were many reasons why America didn’t want to enter the war that everyone could see coming to Europe. GMs need to understand all of them to understand the time period, and why some were so intent on avoiding war that they would commit treason, or appease the Nazis, to stop it. (It may help modern readers understand the title to know that “The Sphinx” was FDR’s nickname in the pre-war period).


822. Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era – Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff

The Roosevelt era was rife with contradictions forced on the administration by the practicalities of politics. In order to avoid antagonizing a powerful southern congressional bloc, they refused to endorse legislation that openly sought to improve political, social and economic conditions amongst the African American population, instead doing an end-run around the southern opposition to progress by providing federal support to notable black intellectuals, artists, and celebrities.

While this may have been a short-term setback to Civil Rights, it was arguably more beneficial in the long run in terms of convincing the wider public to support the notion, despite the contemporary flaws, injustices, and bias within these programs.

This is the story of one major skirmish in the war of race relations and social enlightenment. Unusually, it’s new copies of this book that are cheap enough to permit its inclusion (just) and not used ones.

Kindle and Paperback, 328 pages.


823. Congress For Dummies – David Silverberg

Everyone has some idea of how the US Congress works. Very few have enough information to actually write and roleplay a scene involving Congress. This seems to have everything you could possibly need. We needed this (but didn’t have it) when working on the “Five Star” adventure for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, finding out the hard way.


824. How Washington Actually Works For Dummies – Edited by Greg Rushford

This book actually contemplates and demystifies the rather murky world of Federal Politics. It’s an essential Pulp reference whether you’re American or not, even though it doesn’t cover everything that we hoped it might (did you know that Congress writes the City’s budget and not the Mayor’s office?).


825. The Supreme Court For Dummies – Lisa Paddock

Completing this trilogy of vital Dummies titles is this offering, which covers everything from how cases get assigned to the Supreme Court, how they are argued, and how they are decided.


826. Democracy In A Depression: Britain in the 1920s and 1930s – Malcolm Smith

The sun may have been setting on the British Empire (in fact, the process was well advanced) but that hardly dents the importance of the island nation at this point in history. This book looks at the politics, society, and economy of Britain during the period in question. Not enough copies, and even fewer at a relatively cheap price, but the lack of alternatives has forced us to include it anyway.


827. Twisted Paths: Europe 1914-1945 – Robert Gerwarth (editor)

Described as “a concise look at European History” between the years stated, this 464-page volume completes the primary historical references that the GM should have available. There was lots of the “the rest of the world” but there’s no unified reference to events there; this is as good as could be found. Prices are all outside our normal limit, but this is the cheapest comparable reference book on the subject that we could find.


Books About Hollywood, Cinema, and Entertainment in the Pulp Era

There’s one book from this section that we really wanted to list, but it was just too far outside our restrictions. There will be an extensive review in the honorable mentions.

See also “The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain”, above.


828. The Great Movie Serials – Jim Harmon & Donald Glut

Talks about the behind-the-scenes creation of the movie serials and the directors, producers, and stars that created them. This book is available for Kindle but at $43 I don’t see many people rushing to buy it in that format. Fortunately there are still some physical copies left at half that price.


829. Continued Next Week, a history of the moving picture serial – Kalton C. Lahue

More of the same, plus synopses of some of the plots. Amazon has several pages listing this book, for up to $706 a copy. Fortunately, the copies we have linked to are more reasonably-priced.


830. Hollywood Babylon – Kenneth Anger

Hollywood scandals of the era and the people involved in them – unsubstantiated anecdotes & gossip for the most part.


831. Hollywood Babylon II – Kenneth Anger

More of the same.


832. The Rise of Radio, from Marconi through the Golden Age – Alfred Balk

We have three books to recommend on radio in the pulp era. This is the broader and more general, covering the entirety of the history of the medium in America from birth to the modern-day, and is the one we would be more interested in reading – which is the reason for it’s primacy here. There aren’t quite enough cheap copies but we’re making an exception to the usual rules.

Radio was the dominant form of mass communications from the 1930s into the 1950s, when it began to be slowly killed by a combination of television and ill-conceived media laws. “This anecdote-rich sweep of radio history, from its birth as Marconi s wireless telegraph through its current status under deregulation, analyzes the changing medium s social, political, and cultural impact…[casting] new light on many topics, including the roles of women and African Americans, programming sources outside the Hollywood-Broadway nexus, and arguments about Amos n Andy once the hit that jump-started radio s young networks, now a controversial remnant of a bygone era.”


833. Radio’s America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture – Bruce Lenthall

This is more specific in scope, and more affordable. This book’s main contribution, distinctive to all the others, is that it examines how ordinary people integrated radio into their lives. Much of modern perception of that aspect of the subject is a cliché of the family gathered around the set of an evening, and while that is a part of the story, it is by no means the whole. Even in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, Mike and Blair are probably guilty of underplaying the value and impact of radio within the society of the time, a flaw this book promises to correct. Kindle and paperback (hardcovers exist but are ridiculously-priced).


834. On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio – John Dunning

A complete reworking and rewrite of the definitive one-volume reference on old-time radio broadcasting by the author of the original. 1500 radio shows from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s are presented in alphabetical sequence, with a complete broadcasting history, timeslot, network, advertisers, major cast and production members and even the theme song of the show. Not only does the book provide a synopsis of each series but takes the reader behind the scenes to capture the feelings invoked by the shows in their audiences and how they were achieved. On top of that, umbrella sections provide an overview of one particular aspect of the medium.

As a bonus of sorts, there will be a number of pulp-style radio serials that will have written up in individual entries!


835. FDR’s Fireside Chats – edited by Russell D Buhite and David W Levy

This book collects, into a single volume, transcripts of all 31 of FDR’s “fireside chats” in which the President of the day talked things over with the American people. More in-depth and narrative in form than the modern-day press conference, these were an unprecedented attempt to achieve intimacy with the nation. Ridiculed by some at the time as a cynical and self-serving stunt, their effectiveness cannot be overstated in terms of the unity experienced by Americans during the war years and the winning of an unprecedented 5 consecutive terms as Commander-in-chief.
Link One: Kindle, Paperback (1993), cheaper copies (pictured):
Link Two: Paperback (2010), more expensive but quality may be better due to younger age of copies:


836. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era – Thomas Schatz

This book “…recalls Hollywood’s Golden Age from the 1920s until the dawn of television in the late 1940s, when quality films were produced swiftly and cost efficiently thanks to the intricate design of the system. Schatz takes us through the rise and fall of individual careers and the making—and unmaking—of movies such as Frankenstein, Casablanca, and Hitchcock’s Notorious. “ Also explores the distinctive styles of the different studios. 528 pages.


837. The Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities – Paul McDonald

The development and evolution of the Star system within the American film industry, tracing the popularity of star performers from the early “cinema of attractions” to the modern-day internet era, this book examines how Hollywood makes and sells its stars. 144 pages, which is a little on the short side.
Link One – fewer copies but cheaper ones:
Link Two – more copies but more expensive:


Documentaries About Hollywood, Cinema, and Entertainment in the Pulp Era



838. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey – Pts 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5

This is the first third of an epic 15-episode 15-hour documentary series. I found the strong Irish accent of the narrator & director, Mark Cousins, to be a little distracting and hard to get used to, but the fascinating story of the interplay between social development being reflected in cinema and, at the same time, being driven by cinema, soon overrode any hesitation in watching (or recommending) this excellent series.

However, the scale of the series does make it rather expensive. Currently there have been 5 editions of the set in the US alone according to Amazon, a strong indicator of popularity; the cheapest of these is the second at the fairly reasonable price of US$21, but make your own comparisons at the time of purchase

Amazon US also has the first five episodes available through their streaming service, at a price that’s about the same for the entire ‘first season’ of 5 episodes $40 or the 5 episodes individually for $10 each – (even though all 15 parts formed a single season when broadcast in many places if not all). By happy coincidence this ‘first season’ is completely comprised of the five episodes that are relevant to the pulp era so this is a viable option

Amazon UK lists the series for the relatively reasonable price of £12.75 while Amazon Canada has only one or two copies at the ridiculous price of CDN$80 or so, but lists several more second-hand at the marginally more reasonable price of CDN$60 or so



Afterword by Saxon:

This is another of the shelves for the reference library that are about making use of the real life details of the pulp adventure period. We’re assuming that the game you want to run is set during the early Twentieth century, with at least some attention to historical detail. Or to put it another way, that the game isn’t simply taking the tropes and clichés of the pulp genre and running adventures on those in some other time period. In any case, period details can be used in several ways. Generating local color for the purpose of immersion. Characterization of the player characters. Idea generation for plots.

Local color helps establish the setting. Use too little of it and you run the risk of the players forgetting that they’re not playing in the modern world. Too much can be just as dangerous, since a pulp adventure is arguably about action and excitement, and the gamesmaster should be careful not to get bogged down. How much is just right? Well, that goes back to the old adage that the GM needs to know, and cater to, the preferences and needs of the players. However, a rough guide would be that in a pulp adventure, action takes first priority. Judicious amounts of period detail can be sprinkled about to maintain the games setting’s internal realism, but when there’s a choice between action and detail, choose action.

Next, using detail to build the characters. This has been discussed in the afterward to the first shelf on Heroes and player characters. At the broadest level, know what people and the jobs existed (in both reality and fiction) to choose the type of character to be played. Then refine with motivations, personal background and character tics as desired. Personal backgrounds are particularly useful, since they can be used to provide ideas for the third category, idea generation of plots. Does the character have something they particularly want to do, or an injustice they want to put a stop to? Do they have an enemy form the past that could act as a recurring villain?

Of course, not all adventure plots stem from the personal backgrounds of the characters. Some, even perhaps most, will derive from the random emergence of a Villain with his or her own agenda, and a notable fraction will emerge from the social, political and economic forces that existed at the time. Some of those will be generic to the setting, and can be made up out of whole cloth – if the GM knows what the cloth will look like. Others may involve the player characters becoming involved in specific historical events, in which case the GM will need to have done research to get the specifics correct. (Whether those details are then changed for reasons of surprise, dramatic emphasis, or plot convenience, is another matter entirely…)

Next: The 9th shelf: Non-Civilian Life: Crime, Policing, and Militaria!


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