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The Envelope Is Ticking: Insanity In RPGs


“Your shoelace is untied.” By the end of this article, you’ll understand the significance and meaning of that phrase.

Mentioning Call Of Cthulhu in Monday’s article reminded me of a discussion that I once had with Dennis Ashelford, still probably the best CoC GM that I’ve ever seen in operation, about how best to convey the effect of Insanity on an affected character.

Some background (from memory – be warned, I’m not sure how much of the rules I’m about to offer are canon, or even correct): CoC is based on the Lovecraftian mythos amongst other sources. Exposure to books, fell magics, and creatures from the nether domains (or wherever) costs the character sanity points, and can eventually drive the character around the twist. Lose a certain percentage of your remaining sanity points in one encounter (or adventure?) and you picked up some minor quirk that restricted but did not excessively hamper your character’s ability to function as one of the Good Guys fighting to stop the invasion/conquest of our world by these other-dimensional horrors. Lose them all, and you earned yourself a mental problem that could be crippling at best, and require permanent residence in a sanitarium at worst, ending your ability to adventure. Once you had a problem, further loss of sanity points only made it worse.

Both Dennis and I agreed that the worst possible way of handling this game-mechanics development was to simply tell the character “Your character has picked up an insanity. You are now (die roll, die roll) suffering from…” and name whatever it was.

Between us, we worked out a system for handling insanities and other mental breakdowns that I still use, to this day.

Inside this envelope…

The first rule of thumb was to roll for insanities in advance and place the results in an envelope. When a character acquired one, that character’s name would be written on the envelope, the GM would check the contents, and NOT inform the player or update the character. That only happened when the breakdown was successfully diagnosed.


The second rule was never to describe the problem, only to describe the symptoms – and only to do that in a roleplayed context. The goal was to describe to the player how the world now looked to the character, and let the player decide how to handle it. As much as possible, symptoms were to be backed up by reference and research – something that was a lot trickier in the days before the internet, though we now face the problem that much of what’s available is severely technical, requiring a fair amount of knowledge to decode and decipher. For that reason, Wikipedia is not be my first resource when applying these techniques in the modern world; I start with a Google search and add the word “layman” to the search terms. Then I repeat the search (if necessary) with “symptoms” and “plain language” – the latter in inverted commas to make it an exact quote instead of simply adding plain and language to the list of search terms.


The third rule was to come up with a list of triggering situations, the length and ubiquitousness of which were determined by the degree of insanity. These triggering conditions were also kept from the player.

The effect

This meant that the PC was free to do whatever the player thought appropriate, at all times, but that the character was often laboring under a false view of the world – a view that the other player characters did not share. When times were quiet, and there was leisure to ask “did you see that?” the flaw in the world-view was relatively quickly apparent; but in the middle of an attack by cultists, or with Cthulhu (or something else Man Was Not Meant To Know) oozing through an open portal from another world, or whatever, this is not something that you have the time for. Nor is it the sort of thing that one can do readily in the middle of a civic reception, or when giving a speech, when all eyes are upon the character. A deliberate effort was made, in fact, to place the character in such situations for a while – not only did it keep the game active, but it gave the peculiarity an opportunity to manifest.

Other Games

Insanity also occurs in other games. There are spells to induce it in D&D. There have been several characters with what could most charitably be called “distorted senses of reality” in both my superhero campaign and in the pulp campaign that I co-GM. So this technique isn’t just for CoC GMs.

Six Examples

I have a set of six examples to offer. I want to emphasize that these are actual examples from back then, or the fruits of our discussions at the time; I have not done any research on the symptoms in question for this article. As a result, they may be ignorant, incomplete, or shortsighted; at best, they are likely to be cartoonish caricatures of the real symptomology. I am not a professional psychologist or psychiatrist.

Whispers in the crowd

A crowd gathers after some sort of incident – a house fire or whatever. The character happens to see two people in the crowd point at him or at another PC and whisper to each other. No other PC is looking in the right direction at the right time. Are they cultists? Are they the people responsible for whatever has just happened? Is it a red herring? Or is it all in his head, the beginnings of paranoia?

This is the sort of thing that a character in CoC can’t afford to ignore. Depending on the circumstances, he might not make a big fuss about it; he might simply drop back to keep an eye on them, or might tell another of the PCs. It’s worth remembering that the players know about the insanity rules; if you mishandle the situation, or they have already been told that the character is now suffering from mild paranoia, the incident will be immediately discounted by the other PCs. But if they don’t know, the reactions of the other PCs will be realistic.

Your shoelace is untied

This is one that Dennis actually used at one point, subsequent to our conversation. Every now and then, he would tell the character that “You notice that your shoelace is untied.” The character would stop to retie the laces; after all, action could break out at any moment, and he didn’t want the GM to be able to say that he tripped over them.

The other players initially ignored it, the first time or two. Then they joked about it, suggesting that he buy a new pair of laces, or wash the ones that he had already to take off whatever was making them so slippery, or call in an exorcist. The next time it happened, Dennis let the PC notice an important clue while he was adjusting his shoelaces. Every twenty-to-thirty minutes of real time, the character would be told, “Your shoelace is untied”, or loose, or something along those lines. After about four hours of play, and about ten such incidents, the player noticed on the character sheet that the character habitually wore boots (it was a convention game, with pregenerated characters), and promptly announced his discovery to the world. Dennis simply grinned, and told him, “I know. Your shoelace is untied…”

Was the character obsessive-compulsive? Was the character paranoid about his shoelaces coming undone at a vital moment? Was he delusional? What else might he get wrong? If it weren’t for that time he spotted the important clue, the other players might have been inclined to distrust everything the character said. What should they do about the situation? Just as it would in real life, the debate lasted for a good half-hour or more, in-game…

The envelope is ticking

“You receive your mail through the slot in your front door. There are three bills, and what appears to be a letter in an envelope. The Envelope is ticking…”

You might think that the character was suffering from Paranoia. He wasn’t; he was suffering from auditory hallucinations, in which he kept hearing a clock, ticking, a reflection of his sense of urgency. Mental illnesses are not always easy to diagnose – and that’s in the real world, never mind in a world where there really are monsters and fell creatures and cultists out to sacrifice humanity to creatures from the Ninth Dimension…

There’s something behind you

This is one that I used, in a Champions solo mini-adventure. The PC was dealing with an enemy that could do all sorts of things with shadows – animate them, teleport between them, make them solid – but he didn’t know that at first. I simply kept telling him, “there’s something behind you.” Never mind what this did to the character’s mental landscape, it seriously ‘creeped out’ the player (to use his own parlance for what was happening).

He tried using his powers (energy-based attacks) to dispel the shadows, but that only shifted them. He lashed out at a pair of garbage cans, convinced that his enemy was hiding in the shadows behind them, and slowly started to unravel… eventually the character pulled himself together and got on top of the situation, but for a while afterwards, he would overreact to the phrase, “there’s something behind you…” – exactly as the character should, after an encounter like that!

NB: This doesn’t work so well in a crowd!

It looks like rain

This is one from my Champions campaign that didn’t work out as well as it should have. A satanic cult were raising money to continue their attempts to summon something from hell by running a drug ring, disguising their wares as sugar-based candy treats in the shape of pentagrams, which they would sell to school-kids. This was calculated to get one of the characters extremely hot under the collar (“hates drug pushers” and “protective of children” being two of the character’s psych lims). One of the PCs scouted the drugs lab, which wasn’t very well constructed, and was exposed to fumes that cause temporary psychosis. He saw all sorts of weird stuff in the basement, where the summoning rituals were being carried out, and became convinced that they had actually succeeded in summoning a demonic power, which had possessed the body of the cult leader.

The tip-off was supposed to come from the way I kept telling the PC in question that it looked like rain. There was always a conveniently located umbrella or pair of galoshes in the scenery (the trigger). The other PCs were supposed to eventually figure out that the character suffering was not himself, but they all got caught up in their plans to capture the cult and drive the demon back to Hell, to the point where I felt it would be a total let-down for everyone if I went ahead with the plot as written. Instead, I had to jump horses in midstream, make the summoning/possession “real”, and carry on from there. The result didn’t really satisfy anyone very much, I’m afraid. Looking back on it now, I might well have been better off sticking to my guns and letting the chips fall where they may, even though it would have complicated the campaign tremendously at a time when I was trying to simplify it to enable the players to focus their attention a little more.

The mistake I made was in not having a solid enough tipoff to the other players that this was a delusion of some sort. I had tried to use a number of “sunshine” and “blue skies” references, but they simply assumed that this meant that the rainclouds were on the horizon, and that I was threatening to have their evidence wash away.

Handled slightly differently, and in a slightly different context, and/or with a different group of players, it might have worked. This time around, it didn’t. There’s a lesson or two in that – nothing works 100% of the time, and sometimes you simply have to bite the bullet and get it over with even if it makes the adventure unsatisfactory to everyone involved.

Salted Peanuts

My final example is another of Dennis’ ideas, one that I don’t think he ever implemented. The idea was to require the player of the character to be affected to snack on salted peanuts by providing such snacks for everyone – but telling that player (by note) that he was not allowed to drink anything until his character’s circumstances changed. This was back in the 80s, when peanut allergies were either not as widespread, or not as widely recognized. The player was to be told that this was to help him roleplay his character who was in a difficult situation but didn’t know it. The idea was to try to simulate the mild break with reality; every time the player would comment on how dry his mouth was, Dennis would make it clear that this was something the character was also saying. Eventually, the character would get the opportunity to attempt to drink his fill, and at that point, Dennis would provide the player with plenty of bottled water – then only just coming in, and quite expensive.

Insanity and Social Sensitivity

These days, people are a lot more aware of mental disorders and the devastating effects they can have – and that most sufferers are capable of living quite ordinary and fulfilling lives if they receive the correct treatment. Those treatments have also improved vastly over the last X years, especially in terms of the unwanted side-effects of the medications, which often used to be almost as devastating as the illness itself, and which often led to sufferers refusing to take the medication.

I have used the term “X years” because… well, I started with 20 years, and then changed it to 30 years, and then to 50 years, and then 100 – and I came to realize that you could plug just about any number into that statement and it would still be true.

Accompanying those advances in medicine have been changes in social attitudes – perhaps incompletely, and not as uniformly as they should be, but improvements nevertheless. Most forms of mental illness these days are considered medical phenomena with psychological impacts and symptoms, often resulting from chemical imbalances, acute stresses, physical trauma, or long-term abusive situations.

The world has changed – and in this respect, it’s for the better – and I’m not sure what impact that should have on the way we represent mental illness in the games that we play.

On the one hand, in a game set in an era that is not so aware, you could argue that these techniques are still an appropriate way of depicting the problems faced. You could argue that by simulating, however shallowly, the perspective of a sufferer, you are actually raising awareness of the issue. On the other hand, it could be considered insensitive and disrespectful of the struggle that sufferers face on a daily basis. Finally, you could argue that this is just a game we’re talking about, and that it doesn’t need to reflect our personal opinions on any subject.

These are issues that I think every GM has to work out in his own mind and his own campaign. I don’t think there are any “right answers”. But I don’t want any readers of Campaign Mastery to think that I am being insensitive to the issue, or deliberately offensive. I’m sure we all know someone who faces the challenges of a mental disorder, whether we know about it or not, and those sufferers have nothing but my full heartfelt support and sympathy in dealing with those challenges.

I can’t think of a better way to end this article than this:

If you need help, or you know someone else who needs help, please seek professional advice, and the support of people who care about you. Don’t let yourself become just another statistic.

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Taming The Wild Frontiers


The Internet used to be compared to the American Wild West, where just about anything went and the only restrictions on what you could get away with was your own conscience, or lack of it. Slowly, the regulators and vested interests have whittled away at the cowboy attitudes and for the most part, the internet is a much safer place for it.


Any reference to taming the Western Frontiers always reminds me of AD&D and something that has been lost to the game in later iterations of the rules system. The ultimate goal of a PC used to be to gather enough wealth and influence to carve out their own nation in the wilderness, to tame and claim a portion of the Frontier that was beyond the edge of civilization and make it your own. I often wondered why that concept went away, and have slowly realized what I think is the answer. I think the “PC’s Stronghold” has been sacrificed on the altars of realism and political correctness.

As players and GMs became more knowledgeable and as Verisimilitude became more important, a number of frivolities were quietly dropped from the game. Political structures became more realistic, and settings more credible. People started thinking about the economic and social ramifications of adventuring, and found that the existing model simply didn’t hold water.

Furthermore, the concept of expanding your society through conquest of “unclaimed lands” was political incorrectness of the highest order, because The Wilds weren’t really empty; they couldn’t be, or there would be no adventure potential. Instead, they were usually inhabited by less-civilized societies – Orcs and Goblins and what-have-you – who were themselves being transformed by the forces of credibility into more vibrant cultures that simply didn’t fit the Imperialist/Monarchic pattern of the fundamental game setting.

So the writers junked the notion.

An opportunity lost

This was an opportunity lost, in my opinion. The concept could, and perhaps should, have been revised and updated. Fighters could still have engaged in conquest by violence – but with a realistic depiction of the consequences, based on history, and problems that could only be solved by negotiating fair treaties and sticking to them. Clerics could still have built temples and brought in religious settlers – but with the need to come to terms with the belief structures of the existing populations, which would be just as valid as those of the Cleric, perhaps leading to a situation in which both theologies grew as a result. Druids could have built groves, and Wizards towers, and so on.

Instead, the concept simply vanished from the sourcebooks. Why?

I think there were several reasons.

  • It didn’t take long for “Political Correctness” to become a joke and an annoyance, because it was carried to ridiculous extremes. It stopped being a passive demonstration of respect and acknowledgement of past mistakes and became an active reform movement, especially in the hands of hypersensitive zealots to the cause of feminism.
  • Research is hard, especially when dealing with native populations who prefer privacy over exploitation.
  • The Sourcebooks were already going to be large and expensive; this would have added another chapter or more to each of them.
  • The line between using a given native population as a source of inspiration – whether we’re talking about the tribes of central Europe, the tribes of Africa, the tribes of South America, or the tribes of the Western United States – and being offensive (with potential legal ramifications) – would have been razor thin, even non-existent in places.
  • The objective was to revitalize the system. Baggage that wasn’t contributing to that was an easy target.
  • A lot of “the wilderness” of several popular game settings had been pretty fully explored, anyway.

It was easier – and safer`- to simply ignore the idea and let it go away.

Personally, I would still contend that its possible to have a really interesting campaign phase which places the PCs on the front lines of one population which needs to expand – even though there is someone already living in the neighboring territories. The goal is to find a way to satisfy everyone involved, without turning your new domain into a colony in Revolt or triggering a native uprising. Outcomes like those of Northern Ireland (at the time), or the Middle East, or the transition to self-governance of India, or even the Reservations model of the United States constitute failures – can you find a road to success? How will the existing regional politics be transformed by this intervention, and what will the PCs do about it? If a GM can’t make an interesting series of adventures around a group of settlers/invaders who a numerically poor but superior in any one-on-one engagement colonizing an unexplored region with its own myths and legends, some of them true, and with its own delicately-balanced political stability – an applecart that gets upset by virtue of your very presence – he should be ashamed of himself.

And, if the notion of promoting the “conquest” of a native population still seems to strongly involved, send the PCs in as permanent peacemakers and sheriffs, assigned to take the “lawless outlands” – after the worst has happened – and forge a lasting peace between the hostile elements in place. This more smoothly integrates the more realistic social and political models, in which it doesn’t matter how good you may be as an adventurer, you still aren’t going to be made a nobleman for it; that comes as the reward at the end of the campaign phase, for services rendered.

Superheros In Space

In the late 60s and early 70s, Comics essentially had only a few models for Aliens to draw upon. You had the Imperialist Model (“we have come to conquer”), based on the European Imperial template and exemplified by The War Of The Worlds, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon; you had the Conflict Between Empires model, based on World Wars I & II, and exemplified by the Kree-Skrull war; and you had the American Wild West model, in which Earthmen go to the stars and conquer. Even the supposedly futuristic Legion of Superheroes were essentially an Imperial Model, albeit a slightly more enlightened one in which color and racial differences were not only welcomed, but essential to eligibility for membership.

For some strange reason that eludes my towering intellect, superhero games took their cues from the comics. Even my own campaigns employed these basic patterns. Earth was under threat, if not invaded outright, by all sides (for one reason or another), and the brave heroes had to fight for Earth’s Independence – with the odds stacked against them. It’s heroic, it’s adventurous; what more could you want?

Over the last couple of phases of the Campaign, that has begun to change just a little. Earth has beaten back the invaders, and has gone through the phase of demonizing their enemies with willfully slanted propaganda, and has started to see these as individual populations – many of whom have something to offer the people of Earth, either technologically, socially, or in terms of resources. By preserving their independence in the face of overwhelming odds, they are beginning to find themselves in the position of arbitrator, peacemaker, and King-maker. The future is one in which Earth forms the nexus of a loose confederation of interstellar powers, in effect bringing a Common Law to the Galactic Arm. And who do you think will get saddled with the task of enforcing this law? The Heroes, of course! Who else?

Does that mean that the old problems and models have gone away? Not on your Nellie! A larger border simply means that there’s more of the front – there will still be “people” who think the confederation is a soft target, and who will try to carve out an Empire for themselves; and it will be up to the PCs to stop them. There will be people within the boundaries who resent giving up total independence, and who will plot the downfall of the confederation at every step. The existing hatreds and antipathies – some of them millennia old – haven’t gone away, and ultra-zealots will still attempt a radical agenda of striking at “the enemy”. It will be glorious, and lots of fun! (NB: Most of these events will follow the existing campaign, which still has 8-10 years to run – but the time to start planting the seeds of it within the game world is now, in the course of the present campaign.

(Nor, by the way, will all the old problems – supervillains and nutsy robots and extra-dimensional menaces – have gone away. It will still be a superhero campaign – it will simply have a wider scope, that’s all).

Bringing The Law

I can’t think of a single genre* which can’t be characterized as “Bringing The Law” to those populations who don’t have it. Even things like Call of Cthulhu can be viewed as enforcing a “hands off our world” law – one that was written a long time ago by whoever tossed the old ones out on their heinies. Hey, whoever locked Yog-Soggoth & Co. out (most of the time) didn’t wipe them out, did they? Okay, maybe they couldn’t, even if they wanted to. Nevertheless, Call Of Cthulhu in general can broadly be viewed as analogous to WWII Britain during the Blitz, with subversive agents continually trying to slip across the border between worlds – for purposes of espionage, sedition, sabotage, and the recruitment of a fifth column.

*TOON, maybe…

The Intrusion Of Permissiveness

Which brings me back to the Internet. I have always viewed one of the internet as a social revolution in the sense that you are able to go anywhere in the virtual sense, and the regulations that govern what you can do on a particular site are always those of your destination. The Internet brings the law down to its lowest common denominators. In some ways, that is a good thing; tyrants and zealots may be able to slow the penetration of progressive social attitudes into their countries by way of the net, but they can’t be stopped without making the nation completely uncompetitive. China has had to embrace at least some social reform, however grudgingly, and so has Cuba. Have they gone as far as people outside of those nations would have liked? Probably not – but progress has been made. Similarly, the Middle East is slowly and painfully beginning to demand social reform. The genie is out of the bottle.

The internet, from the perspective of a repressive regime, is like Call Of Cthulhu – it’s subversive, it encourages independent thinking, and it lets people from other nations be seen as people.

Things aren’t completely rosy in a more democratic society, either. The internet was and is an open invitation to cowboy entrepreneurs. It provides an almost unstoppable channel for Vice. Shonky operators who can’t do what they want in the country of their residence but who want to stay legal will simply set up shop in a more permissive location, just like the Pirate Radio stations of the 1960s in Britain, or the BBC during the Second World War. The Germans could make it illegal to listen to it – but they couldn’t stop people from doing so. Attempts to do so are like trying to stop water from running downhill – temporary at best.

One of the areas of greatest trouble in this respect was the explosion of internet gambling sites. While some are authentic, honest, and reliable, others are more dubious, if not outright criminal.

Well, if you can’t stop people going to risky sites, legally or otherwise, the only thing to do is to find ways of informing people as to a sites’ policies, behavior, and regulation.

Setting A Standard

It may surprise a number of readers that there are organizations out there that regulate and audit casino and online gambling sites with a view to chasing out the untrustworthy operators – in other words, to taming the wild west. One example is London-based eCOGRA, eCommerce Online Gaming Regulation and Assurance; there are others.

I see the arrival of these institutions as analogous to the rise of the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1955, which legitimized and enabled the growth of Las Vegas by cleaning up a reputation that was more than a little scandalous. While some initial downturn resulted as regulations bit into shadier business practices and notorious characters, the booming gambling center became world famous through the later 1950s and 60s as a result. Some such regulation was inevitable, and intervention at a Federal level had only narrowly been prevented just a few years earlier. I contend that without this cleaning up of its reputation, Las Vegas as we know it today would never have come into existence; the “explosive growth” of the 1970s would not have occurred. As a result of the cleanup, gamblers were assured that the Casinos could be trusted to “play fair” and pay up if someone won. These days, no-one gives such questions a second thought in Las Vegas.

Self-regulation lacks the same degree of trustworthiness in the perceptions of many, so this alone is not enough.

Independent Reviews

What’s needed are independent review sites, forums where the legitimacy of self-regulatory outcomes can be reported, and multiple independent self-regulators and auditors cross-checking each other. What’s more, the regulators are only concerned with the legitimacy, fairness, and reliability of the technology and policies of the gaming sites; practices can be both legal and marginally unethical at the same time.

Independent Review sites such as both monitor the reputation and reliability of the self-regulators and auditors and provide an essential service by warning of such practices. They can also deal with issues that the Self-regulating bodies don’t, like the look-and-feel of gaming sites, and function as a vital dispensary for need-to-know advice and information – check out their pages on Las Vegas history, their history/review of US laws relating to online gambling, or their collection of useful referance websites if you need to be convinced.

The combination of such sites and serious accreditation programs form a more robust environment for the long-term growth of legitimate and trustworthy sites; as these acquire more market share as a result of developing reputations, the less reputable operators are forced to either up their game and “get with the program” or get driven out.

Legalities & The Internet

There have been a host of other regulations and laws aimed at protecting both the internet user and existing businesses over the past thirty years. As with most laws, some are controversial and perceived as preserving the rights or control of one of these groups over another, such as the file-sharing controversies. Others are more universally accepted.

In a mirror of the growth of Las Vegas following the licensing and regulation of the Casinos of the Strip, each of these legal restrictions has produced an explosive and ongoing boom in the capacity for users to access legitimate services of all sorts. Every year, online shopping becomes more ubiquitous and more accepted; compare the awkwardness of the online shopping experience portrayed in the opening scenes of The Net from 1995 with the way that eCommerce has become routine and so widespread that many bricks-and-mortar businesses are either under threat or have folded in recent years.

As always, the first refuge of those whose business models are under threat is an attempt to secure the future through legislation that stifles the advantages that their competitors and rivals enjoy. Sometimes, these battles are won by the incumbents (Napster), sometimes they are won by the newcomers, and in some cases the battle is ongoing.

Like the settlements in the original Wild West, the internet – and the commercial realities that it carries – are here to stay, and will only tend to prosper into the future – unless it is permitted to fragment, enabling bias in the delivery of content from content-providers who have paid for the privilege, restriction of access from content providers, and opening the door to corruption. That is one highly-possible outcome from recent decisions regarding the enforceability of the FCCs Open Internet Order, which remains a hotly-debated subject – refer to the “recent developments” section of this page at Wikipedia and the page or so that precedes it.

Taming The New Frontier

Regulation is the key to taming any frontier. Bringing Law to the lawless, and making it stick. As always, whenever there is change, there are some winners and some losers. In terms of the internet, most of us are naturally biased – we want the users to win, because we number ourselves amongst them. Like the Borg, we demand that the rest of the world adapt to service us whether it wants to or not – and if they won’t, we will take our money to someone who will. And regulation requires enforcement, and a guard against corruption and manipulation.

Any serious confrontation can be used as a template for a great many others in real life, or as the basis of a great adventure or a great campaign. Roleplaying games are still well-described by using the taming of the Wild West as a metaphor – whether its superheros striving to enforce the law and reform it to bring justice to the system, or adventurous first-level D&D characters setting out to carve a niche for themselves in a strange and often hostile world, or the last line of defense standing between our world and the world of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.

The connections to the past run deeper and stronger than the inclusion or not of the establishment of strongholds; and that’s both comforting and inspiring. Like PCs in a game, customers in the real world may not win every battle; the trick is to know that, and use that knowledge to be sure that we win the right ones, and eventually, the war. And hopefully, to have a lot of fun along the way.

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Kickstarted Creativity: Two fundraising campaigns of interest

The final part of the Priest Encounters article still isn’t finished, so here’s something else readers might find of interest…

I approach Kickstarter very much from the perspective of the consumer and possible backer.

That means that when I encounter such a campaign, my first question is always, “Am I interested in this?”, my second is “If I commit to this, will it be value for money?”, my third is always “Can I afford to commit to this?”, and my fourth is “Do I want to commit to this?”.

Sadly, the answer to Question three is “no” most of the time that the answers to questions one and two are “yes”. For example, when I wrote about the Corporia Kickstarter campaign, I knew in advance that the answer to question three was almost certainly “no”. I am very pleased that the campaign succeeded without me – I would have hated for them to have fallen short by just less than the amount that I would have pledged had I been able to afford it!

Two Phases

There are two major phases to any successful Kickstarter campaign, and both hold different sources of excitement. The first is before a campaign achieves its initial funding target, when you don’t know if they are going to get over the line or not. The resulting excitement and tension are remarkably similar to those that result from watching a sporting event. You feel the excitement all the more acutely if you have actually contributed to it, but it must be all the more intense if it’s your own project in the spotlight.

The second occurs when a campaign has achieved its initial target, and the question then becomes one of how many stretch goals will be achieved. Most of the uncertainty is gone, and its’ only a question of how much bang you will get for your commitment.

Today, I have two Kickstarter campaigns to bring to your attention. One is the second phase, having smashed its initial target to smithereens, and the other is just getting started.

Mutant Chronicles, Third Edition

I thought from the first time that this campaign came to my attention that it looked professional, it looked slick, and it looked primed for success. It ticked all the boxes that I had described as essential for a successful campaign back in that Corporia article. It was very clear what their goals would be, those goals were enticing, it was clear what you would get for a given level of commitment, and the promised product looked great and sounded interesting.

Of the initial funding sought, £11,000, they currently have support totaling £83,584, with 10 days to go. They not only have their core funding in place, but have smashed about a dozen of their stretch goals – with more good ones still to go. It would not surprise me if they achieved every stretch goal they currently have listed, and one or two more beyond that they have yet to announce.

Funded so far are the 400 page hardcover Core book in full color, a 98 page Player’s Guide, GM Screen, Imperial Guide Book, Custom Dice Sets, Cartel Artefact Bag, Massive Fabric Maps, T-Shirts, Cheaper shipping, Capitol Guide Book, The Guide to the Dark Soul & Apostles, and Dark Symmetry Marionettes Miniatures Set. That’s an awful lot of bang for your buck, and doesn’t even take account of the add-on products that you can add to your commitment – access to which has been unlocked by the stretch goals. By any measure, Mutant Chronicles is going to be a 2014 success story.

It becomes a lot easier to commit to a project when you know exactly what you’re going to get, and right now, backing Mutant Chronicles looks like being a bargain.

Mutant Chronicles 3rd Edition is described as being a full reboot/rewrite of the techno-fantasy RPG, but one that does not negate or exclude the original timeline for those who want to continue playing in the existing game with updated rules. This is an interesting blend of modernization and respect for the past that a number of other RPG producers could learn from.

So, if you’re interested in anything from Space Opera to Cyberpunk to Superheroes as a genre, or any modern/pulp campaign that integrates technology and magic, this is definitely a project worth looking more closely at. To find out more about Mutant Chronicles 3rd Edition, visit the kickstarter page.

Orin Rakatha

Draft Cover Art based on the work of Brett Macdonald – the final art should look even cooler than this!?

From Sci-Fi to Fantasy. Orin Rakatha’s fundsourcing page is nowhere near as slickly polished and developed as that for Mutant Chronicles, but in terms of its appeal, it’s right up there. A campaign that’s been in active play for 27 years, and that is now being recast as a set of sourcebooks and adventures using the Pathfinder game system – with, I think, stretch goals to include stats for other systems such as D&D 3.5 – and that is as rich, imaginative, and diverse as you could ever want. The creators are promising epic, and with that starting point, I would expect them to deliver.

Coming from a live-roleplaying source, it strikes me that this material will be heavy on imaginative concepts and roleplay, and less-focused on meaningless, mindless combat than a great many other published adventures that I have looked at over the years. That means that at the very least, it should be full of ideas and characters that you can expropriate for use in an existing campaign.

One term that could be used to describe what I expect could be “resource-rich”.

The campaign world will suit all systems; it’s system agnostic and written from a storytellers view, focusing on the plot, history, background, and nature of Orin Rakatha rather than majoring on stats (although stats will be included for Pathfinder and if we are successful other OGL systems such as D&D 3.5, D20 & Fate) so game-masters will be able to use it for any fantasy system.

We plan to make this a massive campaign and have hundreds of hours of storyline for modules and campaign guides for forthcoming releases and (we can dare to hope) stretch goals.

All that sounds both epic and resource-rich to me…

Orin Rakatha still has 33 days of fundraising to go, as of the time I write this. Already, it has raised £1,957 of its £14,900 goal. In fact, it’s so early in the campaign that it is not at all clear at this point how successful it will ultimately be; I can only state that if it doesn’t get across the line, it will be a great disappointment, and many games will probably be the poorer for it.

In terms of the campaign, there’s currently an awful lot that we don’t know. Specific stretch goals and funding targets have yet to be announced. Details of add-ons have yet to be announced. They don’t have artwork and promotional banners ready for blogs like CM to use to promote the Kickstarter campaign. Those are all negatives that might stall early investment.

The goal itself also bears some assessment. At almost 15,000 pounds, it’s notably higher than the initial goal of Mutant Chronicles; and it’s been my observation in the past that 10-11K targets (in $US) tend to succeed more often than those with only slightly higher targets, though there are always exceptions, and don’t go as far over the target a lot of the time. I’ve seen numerous projects with more modest ambitions barely achieve the base level of funding. So there are a lot of question marks at the moment.

That said, I get the impression that this fundraising campaign is just a little different to most. They actively built up a social media presence before launching the fundraising, the announcement of the campaign was therefore actively promoted through social media contacts and supporters, and its just possible that they have a planned program of regular announcements such as stretch goals and add-ons to keep the buzz fermenting. I have never observed such a campaign – not to the extent that it appears Orin Rakatha may be attempting – and the established patterns might be comparing apples with ponytails, as a result.

The usual pattern to Kickstarters is an initial flurry of success, a lengthy slowdown, and then a surge at the end. The plan might just be to trade some of that initial surge for ongoing buzz in the normally flat middle phase in the hopes of a snowballing effect through social media.

What do you need to know right now to commit? That the core product looks like it will be value for money? Check. That there will be stretch goals that will enhance its utility? Check. That you can up your commitment to include add-ons as they are announced, or to carry the project closer to achieving those stretch goals when they are made public? Check. That they have answers to the Risks and Challenges that confront such a project? Check. That it costs you nothing if they don’t meet their initial target? Check. The Kicktraq for the project currently forecasts success to the tune of about £23,000, or about 156% of their initial goal – but that might be applying a standard pattern that doesn’t apply.

Oh, and the creators are active on social media, and hence available to answering questions in the course of the fund-raiser? Check.

I think that Orin Rakatha might just be that rare fundraiser that breaks the mould – or, perhaps, that creates a new one. In terms of my interest level, it definitely deserves to succeed. Whether the impediments that appear to be in place at the moment turn out to be actual negatives or they break the established pattern of fundraising on Kickstarter remains to be seen.

To find out more about this fundraiser, and perhaps to pledge your support, you can check out their kickstarter project page. Follow their twitter account and/or like them on facebook for updates, news on stretch goals, add ons, and whether or not my conjectures about their approach are correct.

Something for everyone

Between them, these two kickstarter campaigns offer something for just about everyone, whether you’re into sci-fi, superhero, or fantasy gaming – or a whole heap of other genres besides. They are both projects worth supporting, at two very different phases of their life cycles. Check them out, and tell them that Mike at Campaign Mastery sent you!

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The Personal Computer analogy and some Truths about House Rules


I’ve been desperately trying to clear enough time to attempt to get my main computer back up and running. It occurred to me the other day that there is a clear analogy between that process and the process of creating an RPG campaign.

The Computer Of Today: some context

Personal Computers are everywhere – or, perhaps, I should say, “Personal Computing Devices”. These days, the trend seems to be toward fixed solutions determined at the Manufacturer level, rather than the flexibility of the older Personal Computer; customers buy a tablet or a PC in some ready-made ready-to-go configuration. It might not even be called a PC; it might be called an iPad, or a Smartphone, or a Gaming Console. Economies of scale mean that these preassembled and preconfigured options have a slight edge in cost, and they have a definite edge in required standard of customer expertise.

These advantages come at the price of restricted flexibility, ubiquitous conformity, uniform vulnerability, relinquished control, and diminished expertise.

Restricted Flexibility

Fifteen years ago, at the height of the Personal Computer explosion, the easiest way to tell an expert computer tech selling a PC from a salesman selling a PC was as follows: The expert’s first response to the statement “I want to buy a PC” would be, “What do you want to do with it?” while the salesman would ask “How much do you want to spend?” or simply start showing you the standard models that the computer store had put together.

Purpose drove the choice of components, and those in turn drove every other decision. Your machine could be optimized for gaming, or for working with multi-megabyte graphics, or for business operations, or in any of half-a-dozen or more other ways. These choices would shift the relative expenditure on different components within the overall budget, and hence the computer would start its existence as customized to fit. (My problem was always that I had my toe in so many different areas that no one configuration not costing an arm and a leg would be optimal; I was a writer, an artist, a composer, liked to play games, used the computer to manage my self-employment, and did a lot of stuff on the internet. My computer had to be good at everything!)

These days, that flexibility is becoming a thing of the past, replaced with a set of one-size-fits-all solutions. In part, that’s because tech improvements mean that even the default choices are adequate in every area, so you no longer have to sweat the finer points of customization, and in part its because computer sales have moved away from the specialized trade and into the electrical goods stores as the product matures. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that someone else is making the decisions for you blind; in order to get all the functionality you require in one arena of purpose, you may have to buy more than you need in others.

Ubiquitous Conformity

Software writers and especially the people writing the operating systems like it. The less the customization, the easier support is; rather than having to worry about the compatibility of the components, they know that there are a smaller number of options. What’s more, it makes it easier for them to sell new hardware and software; on the one hand, you have the minimum requirements for the latest version of whatever demanding that you upgrade your hardware, and on the other, you have the line “Takes full advantage of the latest hardware”. It’s a continuous cycle, fueled by the need to sell to the same customers time and time again.

Uniform Vulnerability

There’s a price-tag, and that is that the same security vulnerabilities tend to turn up on a lot of systems at the same time. In the old days, sheer variety afforded an extra layer of security. These days, sheer conformity affords an extra layer of vulnerability. This is counterbalanced, at least in theory, by the ability to write and release patches to cover security holes more quickly and easily, and with fewer chances for them to go wrong. The process of patching such vulnerabilities can be streamlined, as a result.

Theory and reality aren’t quite the same thing, even in this most artificially-controlled and contrived microcosm. Anyone who tracks these things will be well aware of the number of system patches that have been released over recent years with flaws and errors. I personally get the impression that testing of computer patches is perpetually flirting with the line of minimum possible testing before release, with the users of the world functioning as unwitting guinea pigs, though – to be fair – most patches do what they are supposed to without a hitch.

When things go wrong, though, they do so spectacularly, and on a fairly broad scale. My current computer problems may stem from a Hard Disk failure, but nothing started to go wrong until an iTunes update crashed. It might be a coincidence, it might not. Restoring that piece of software to functioning state then caused a problem with a Flash update and a Direct-X update, and that was when I started getting graphics card errors (possible coincidence, possibly not) that froze the system and regularly crashed it in the middle of writing updates to the (problematic) hard disk, and from there the whole domino chain began to fall. Over the next month or so, the operating system corrupted itself to the point where it would take 90-minutes PLUS of rebooting to get it to load at all if it felt like cooperating on that particular day – at which point it might run for a few minutes, a few hours, or even for a few days.

Relinquished Control

I hate “push” software, and cloud computing in general. I work hard at becoming proficient with the current software that I am using, learning how best to get it to do the things that I need it to do, and the things to avoid doing because they function unreliably. I learn how to turn unexpected side effects into “features” that I can take advantage of. And I know that the software that I am using will get the job done when I’m on a deadline, enabling me to manage my time and schedule around my health problems and social life. I’m integrated with the foibles of my computer, in other words.

Cloud computing and “push” technology takes all of that away from me. Someone else decides when the software gets updated; a whole new interface can be foisted on me whether its convenient or not. Functionality that I rely on can be de-emphasized or eliminated entirely. Sure, it’s an inconvenience having to think for myself; and it can be an inconvenience not using state-of-the-art software; but I consider the alternatives to be worse. Frankly, I don’t trust the software vendors to get it right every time, and I rely on my PC to function every day – well, I used to. Now I have a backup solution – two, if I count a cybercafe.

Diminished Expertise

It used to be that you brought your computer home in pieces, and then put it together. Then you installed the operating system, then you configured it to your tastes, and then you started installing software to do the things that you required. Then the computers started being assembled at the specialist stores and sold as a unit; just install the Operating System and away you went. It wasn’t long before the operating systems were being pre-installed and pre-configured as well – all you had to do was plug it in and turn it on.

Every time you had to get your hands dirty, you started to learn about your computer and the way it worked. Expertise was forced upon you. It was intimidating to many, too intimidating for some to even contemplate. The forced acquisition of expertise has gone; users nowadays are more helpless in the face of a systems failure of some sort.

This is the price that has had to be paid for making computing power and systems available to a wider audience. While that end, and the benefits that it brings to society, is more than enough justification, the fact remains that this is a necessary downside.

Technological Maturity?

I tend to see a technology as “mature” when it reaches the plug-it-in-and-turn-it-on stage, with no real need to understand what is going on under the hood. With cars, this happened so slowly that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it became the case. Even with computer technology, there were a number of significant milestones along the way. Nevertheless, you would have a hard time arguing that computers had not become a mature technology.

Or have they? By forcing users to abdicate the nuts and bolts perspective of the expert and hiding much of the decision making behind closed doors and automatic updates, is this actually an illusion with the whole thing secretly held together with ceiling wax and baling wire? Does the Emperor, in fact, have no clothes?

The one point where the various manufacturers concerned can’t hide the true state of play is when discussing security concerns and problems. The assumption has to be made that if there is a hole, someone could exploit it tomorrow, and the systems for which they are responsible need to patched now to prevent that.

If computer technology really is mature, these holes will have been systematically closed off, and a design principle learned that prevents that hole or anything similar to it ever being an issue again. The implication is that design refinements and improvements will reduce the number of vulnerabilities needing to be patched, year-on-year. Has that been happening?

Well, in a nutshell – no. The frequency of security alerts has gone up, not down. The software engineers have managed to get ahead of the game to the point where they are most frequently patching systems before “exploits” show up “in the wild”, ie as anything more than theoretical; but that’s about the limit of the achievement thus far. And many of these exploits have disturbingly familiar descriptions that suggest that lessons are not being learned quickly enough to permit a systematic approach to the problem.

One computer-savvy person I know has even gone so far as to suggest that an increased need for responsiveness to threats is the real reason for software manufacturers’ insistence on push technology, and that the cozy hardware/software update cycle is not so much the result of a systemic conspiracy to enhance profitability (that has evolved naturally through the years) as it is an expression of people hanging onto the edge of the cliff by their fingernails.

Now, it might be that the growth in experts poking and prodding and discovering new vectors of insecurity is outstripping the pace of systemic improvements in computer security, producing an increase in threats being discovered even though those systematic improvements are taking place. I’m certainly prepared to entertain that as a scenario. But even if that were the case, it argues that – despite appearances – personal computing technology is not yet the mature environment that it appears to be.

And there’s one final point to consider in this debate; the rise of Script Kiddies and the technology that makes them possible. It is now (reportedly) possible to go to websites and find software ready to create your own worm or virus or spambot. I sincerely hope that this is urban legend but having seen some of the spam that arrives at Campaign Mastery showing malformed scripts with familiar spam phrasing, I somehow doubt it.

The PC is not dead

Some people seem to have the impression that the personal computer is dead and buried. Many tech writers on the net seem to think so, too. To investigate the question, I pulled statistics from the last 6 months of traffic to Campaign Mastery. 64% were from a machine using Windows as its operating system; about 11.5% used iOS; 10.5% used Android; 9% were Macintosh; and about 4% were Linux. The rest in combination totaled less than 1%. That’s 77% PCs of one sort or another and 22-23% some form of mobile computer. Even taking the Windows and Linux systems alone, the numbers are 2:1 in favor of the PC. (There were a total of about 20 visits by game consoles, which I found to be interesting).

I wanted to address this point because it directly relates to the ability of the readership to relate to the analogy that is at the heart of this article. Every PC user will, at some point, have to reinstall their operating system, or install a new one – or have it done for them. With no evidence of any sort other than anecdotal, I would estimate that at least half of the PC users out there have done it themselves at least once, and a substantial number of the rest will have at least some idea of what’s involved. For the rest of you, I’m going to describe the process – using as little jargon as possible.

Installing a computer

Putting a computer together is reasonably straightforward, at least in broad terms. You plug the hardware into the places the hardware is supposed to go, and you connect the cables to the places they are meant to connect. Most of these are designed so that there is only one right place for them to fit and one place for them to go; if there is more than one, they are fairly universally interchangeable amongst those connecting points.

The next step is to install the operating system. This tells the computer how to use the various bits of hardware and provides the environment for software to function within. This process can take a surprisingly short amount of time (when everything runs smoothly) or an extremely lengthy time-frame (when it doesn’t); most of the problems tend to relate to hardware that the Operating System doesn’t understand or doesn’t configure properly. This may also involve installing device drivers for that additional hardware – have to do that for my graphics card, for example. Some people advocate making a systems backup at this point, others say to wait until after Steps three or four.

Step Three is to configure all your options and settings within the operating system. Some people advise making a system backup at this point, others say to wait until after Step four.

Step Four is to patch the operating system – because the original system CD-ROM that you installed from doesn’t include the many updates that have occurred since it was purchased. If you haven’t made a systems backup already, now is the time to do it.

Step Five is to install the Software that you will use to actually do things with, and to start using the computer to do those things. Security-related software like Antivirus Software is right at the top of the list; everything else can be done pretty much as you need it. Though sometimes the order does matter – getting it wrong can make the task ten times as painful. Having that software backup at least lets you go back to the start of step five if you monumentally foul it up.

A lot of people, myself included, divide software into two categories: Essentials and Others. I tend to install the Essentials and then do another whole-system backup, and I recommend this course of action to everyone else out there, as well.

Creating A Campaign

So, is everyone clear on all that? Good, then let’s move on to how it resembles the creation of an RPG campaign – and what can be learned from that.

The Hardware

The Hardware is the most fundamental part of the campaign, its concept. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s only one way that the different campaign concepts can be put together, though, the way I can for computer hardware.

The Operating System

The Operating System is the core rulebooks that you require to implement the campaign. You can run the same campaign using a number of different systems; sometimes the differences that result will be profound, and sometimes they will be barely noticeable.

There’s not a lot of difference between AD&D and 2nd Ed D&D, for example. There’s not a lot of difference between D&D 3.0 and 3.5, and not a lot of difference between 3.5 and Pathfinder. There’s somewhat more difference between any of these`and another fantasy-genre RPG such as The Lord Of The Rings RPG, Rolemaster, Empire Of The Petal Throne, Tunnels & Trolls, or Hackmaster (though early editions of the latter bear a great and deliberate resemblance to AD&D, the current edition has evolved down its own path). More different again are games dedicated to other genres, though there are some that deliberately evoke the same basic architecture – compare D&D 3.x with d20 Modern, for example.

It’s even possible to change “Operating Systems” mid-campaign. My original Fumanor campaign was designed for AD&D, initially ran under 2nd Ed, went to Rolemaster for a while (a bit of a disaster, that), and then became 3.0. The current Fumanor campaigns were designed for 3.0, and have run under 3.5 – and may eventually become Pathfinder, though I have yet to be convinced that there is any pressing reason to make that change. The next Fumanor Campaign will probably be run under Pathfinder rules – maybe.

Configuring Options

This is the equivalent of deciding what official supplements you are going to “turn on” within the campaign. Like some Operating System options, once you turn them on, they make lasting changes that can never be fully undone by turning them off again. Also like OS options, sometimes they cause compatibility or configuration problems, usually because one hasn’t been fully developed or properly tested before it was included.

The Essential Software

Analogous to Essential Software are those third party supplements that you need to incorporate to transform the concept into a functional reality. These can also conflict with the Operating System; to some extent, they all modify it to add needed functionality to they system.

The Non-Essential Software

Non-essential Software is analogous to House Rules. They modify, extend, or replace either parts of the Operating System or a key component, like Internet Explorer; and – in theory – they can be put in and taken out as necessary. If something isn’t working – say you don’t like the first MP3 player you install – you can uninstall it and put in another one. But sometimes these have also made lasting changes to the campaign that aren’t redacted quite so easily.

User Documents

All this is infrastructure designed to give you the tools needed to create and manipulate the documents and files that you create – the adventures and supplementary materials. Without these, the campaign doesn’t actually exist, though it may be ready to play tomorrow. The principle documents in question are PCs, PC Campaign Briefings, and a Campaign Outline for the GM that describes (in general terms) what the adventures are going to stem from and what they are going to be. In television terms, these comprise the “Bible” that is sent to prospective writers who are going to write episodes for the TV show. They ensure consistency (at least in theory) from one week to the next, and keep all the creative personnel on the same page.

The Tail Wags The Dog

The end purpose of the entire assemblage is to enable the production of or access to “user documents”. Change the format of those User Documents and you will usually have to make a change at some more fundamental level, just like adding a new file format – you will often need to install some additional software to use it. Fancy-formatted documents? You’ll need a word processor. Spreadsheets? You need spreadsheet software. Graphics? You need image-editing software. And so on.

But more than that, the shape and nature of the files that you want to work with extend their influence all the way back to the “operating system” itself. Some are inherently better at doing things than others. To the best of my knowledge, for example, Graphic Design studios are still almost completely dominated by Macintosh systems. The advent of Dreamweaver and Flash may have changed that, though.

The Power Of Analogy: Some truths about House Rules

Analogies are useful because they often put things into a different perspective, enabling the observer to perceive aspects and attributes that were previously hidden or inobvious. This analogy spells out the differences and relationships between the different categories of rules, for example, and how deeply a change at one level impacts the campaign as a whole. And it highlights some attributes of House Rules that are worth taking on board.

Modified Out-of-context excerpts

Most house rules consist of out-of-context excerpts from another rules system that have been modified to make them compatible with the rules in play in the current campaign. “I want to use the critical hits system from Rolemaster”, for example. Even if it’s mostly original work, the intent is generally to replicate the functionality of that rules subsystem.

Because these are inserted and adopted piecemeal, key checks and balances are often left out, or left crippled by the modification process. The worst systems failures and abuses always stem from House Rules.

Always exist for a reason

House Rules always exist for a reason. That reason may be good (“this fixes a flaw in the experience table”, “this corrects one aspect of the rules that is incompatible with the campaign concept”), mediocre (“it fixes one problem but introduces another”) or trivial (“it looked interesting”, “it seemed like a good idea at the time”).

Always disruptive to the system

House Rules always come with an overhead. Even if they replace one mechanic with a simpler one, there is the price-tag of learning the new system. And because they are almost always written by relative amateurs, or integrated into the campaign by them, they are like a piece of software that hasn’t yet been fully tested. Expect strange bugs and quirks to show up.

But there’s more. Every House Rule is, to some extent, disruptive of the system that has been crafted and playtested. As my recent article on efficiency in game mechanics showed, even small disruptions that occur frequently can have an enormous cumulative effect – just as a new piece of software can chew up memory or processing power even when its not actually in use.

More Responsive To Change

There is an upside. It’s a lot easier to change a house rule, or even drop one completely, than it is to change or drop an official rule. You may have to live with the consequences of that House Rule having been in place for a period of time, just as a computer may be left with documents produced using software that’s no longer installed – but going forward, the rule is gone.

The Key To Success

The key to the successful creation and integration of House Rules is always a question of Utility vs Overhead. If the Utility value is high, then you want to keep the House Rule, or (at most) tweak it a little to reduce the overhead cost – then live with it. If the Utility value is moderate, then look around for alternative approaches that may also have the utility, or close to it – even if they do things a different way – but that have a much smaller overhead. If the Utility is low, the rule isn’t working and should be junked or replaced, ASAP.

But these values are only mildly covariant – the Utility Value depends on the campaign, the rules system, and the context within the game world, and has only a moderate relationship to the scale of the overhead. There is a whole array of combinations of these two values:

House Rules
Utility vs. Overhead Table

High Utility, Low Overhead

Moderate Utility, Low Overhead

Low Utility, Low Overhead

High Utility, Moderate Overhead

Moderate Utility, Moderate Overhead

Low Utility, Moderate Overhead

High Utility, High Overhead

Moderate Utility, High Overhead

Low Utility, High Overhead

The more red that’s showing, the more “broken” the house rule is. Anything in the yellow zone needs improvement; yellow-green is tolerable only if there’s nothing better.


The more self-contained a rule is, the more it will tend to be in the top-left of the table – the “good zone” – and the more amenable that rule is for excerpting into a satisfactory House Rule.

An excellent example is the Hero System rules for Psychological Limitations. This could be dropped almost straight into D&D because they are so self-contained; each defines a psychological quirk that is strong enough to alter the characters behavior away from what is best for him in terms of how often it impacts the character and how severely, and gives a value to the result in Character Points. To drop this in as a house rule, you need only do two things (aside from copying the two tables and the paragraph or so that outline the rule) – define a “character point” in terms of what a character gets for it in D&D, and set limits as to how many a character can have.

An unwritten principle of the Hero system is that if a character is handicapped in some way, there is a corresponding benefit of equal measure. The Character points, which can be spent for additional powers or skills or stats or whatever is the benefit that a character receives for taking the disadvantage. A very strongly and often-written corollary is that a disadvantage that is no hindrance is no disadvantage and worth no points.

So clearly, the “character points” received should provide some benefit to the character. One obvious choice would be a certain amount of starting gold per character point, to be used for additional equipment. Another might be some equivalent value in XP. If the GM was particularly paranoid about game balance, he could determine an “average expected value” and subtract that from the amount of the commodity that is usually received by starting characters – leaving it up to each player whether they wanted their characters to be psychologically flexible but with a poorer starting position in the game, or more psychologically fixed and defined, but with a starting advantage to make up for this constraint on their future choices.

You could go further, and define related House Rules for the change or removal of these limitations – perhaps it takes adventures totally so much XP in order to affect such a change. You could add rules for acquiring additional ones, perhaps lifting them from Call of Cthulhu’s insanity rules. But those are a separate issue.

These are all – except possibly the last one – low overhead, moderate-to-high utility house rules. By mandating specific examples, the GM can define and enforce attitudes that are reflective of the social position and mindset of a given group – “All druids must have ‘Environmental Awareness’ of 10 points or more”, for example.

Excerpted Rules

Excerpting rules in this fashion takes advantage of the playtesting and experience of others in the use of that subsystem, even if it has not previously appeared as part of the Core Rules that you are using for your campaign. You could get examples of Psychological Limitations from the Hero Games rulebooks or website. You can ask about Psych Lims that caused problems within a campaign, and talk to other gamers who are familiar with the source rule about interpretations.

It’s hard to be both original and to produce a quality rule without either a lot of experience, a lot of luck, a natural flair for rules design, or a crutch to lean on. Existing rules from other game systems can be that crutch. At the very least, they can provide a template upon which your House Rule can be built, a foundation that makes the entire structure more robust.

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I See It But I Don’t Believe It – Convincingly Unconvincing in RPGs

The Terrace

The Terrace – Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License. Click the thumbnail for the full sized image in a new tab.

Verisimilitude is critical in a role playing game in order to facilitate the suspension of disbelief and players (and GMs) getting into character instead of viewing events from a meta-perspective. Believability is hard-won at the gaming table and subject to constant attack by game mechanics and real-world distractions like side-conversations. More difficult still is the situation in which the GM has to be unconvincing without further eroding his hard-won verisimilitude…

Think about it for a moment. We ask our players to accept all sorts of fantastic and improbable events and condition them to do so. All of which works wonderfully until the time comes for an ill-conceived or poorly-executed deception to enter the picture, because that is what the character responsible would attempt in the in-game situation.

It’s a very hard line to walk, being both convincing and unconvincing at the same time!

The usual situation

Most of the time, the GM works hard at being convincing. We provide well-chosen descriptions of scenes and events, are careful to employ logic in our shaping of events and consequences, strive for consistency in our characterization and roleplay, and we establish narrative foundations that foreshadow important developments. We want the PCs to feel that they are part of the game world, and we want the players to be able to immerse themselves in their roles as PCs, living vicariously in a world that is brighter, more adventurous, and more fun than the “mundane world”.

A lot of advice over the years, both here at Campaign Mastery and at other gaming blogs and magazines, has been aimed at achieving this plausibility, so much so that a recent article considered the question of How and when to lie to your players – it’s not stated explicitly in the title, but the implication is that the article will suggest ways of doing so successfully. In other words, how and when to lie convincingly to the players.

…with the occasional flaw

One of the many reasons for these serious efforts to be plausible is so that the players will ignore the occasional flaw or lapse, and just keep on playing. Ninety-nine times out of 100 (or more), any contradiction between plausibility will be inadvertent, and the game will proceed far more smoothly and enjoyably if players simply accept the situation on its face and keep on playing.

Note that Plausibility is not the same thing as “realism” – but that’s a subject for another time.

The Contradiction

Overall, then, your game will be better if your players become accustomed to swallowing the occasional inconsistency. But that only makes it harder for the GM when the objective is to offer a deception that the characters are supposed to see through. This article is intended to offer methods of being unconvincing at the character/role-play level without compromising plausibility at the player level. Being two opposite things at the same time is exceedingly difficult, but with the techniques I have to share, you will have a better chance at pulling it off.

And here’s the contradiction: if you can succeed in being unconvincing in the right way, you will actually enhance the plausibility of the campaign, because in the real world, we have the conflict between people trying to be credible and others attempting to penetrate to the truth – and sometimes succeeding.

But it gets even harder

In the real world, we assess people’s expression, their body language, the content of their statements, and consistency with known and believed facts and biases, and with the past history of both the speaker, the organization (if any) that they represent, and the events that they are speaking about, in assessing their credibility.

A number of these elements are completely absent or compromised in an RPG setting. Most GMs are not top-of-the-line actors, and even some great and popular actors have limited expressive ranges. Everyone is usually sitting at a table, limiting the range of choices of body language – and, because of the differences between the game world and the ‘real world’, many of the indicators of deception may be present entirely innocently. The fact that players (and GMs) normally have an at-best incomplete understanding of the game world and character histories compromise everything else on the above list.

So, if it’s hard to lie convincingly, it is even harder to lie unconvincingly without compromising the campaign.

Scales of Deception

It’s probably worthwhile taking a moment to reflect on the four degrees of deception that are likely to come up in game terms, and that fall within the scope of this article, simply to put the needs and techniques into context.

The Tall Tale and other personal stories

At the small end of the scale we have The Tall Tale, the Little White Lie, and other personal lies – everything from the sales pitch of an obviously-untrustworthy salesman to the lies of a husband or wife having an affair. The purposes and intended effect of these deceptions may vary, and the emotional context certainly changes, but ultimately, these are all personal lies, told by one person to one or more others, often with no support.

This level also includes most cases of self-deception, itself a very broad field.

The Big Deceptions: Con men & Addicts

One step up we find the more expert con-men and the lies they tell to separate people from their money. These lies are generally expected to come under scrutiny and are designed to withstand a reasonable level of suspicion.

Some readers may be more surprised by the second item in this category, but any serious reading on the subject will reveal that addicts frequently evolve or establish elaborate deception methods to hide their addiction, and usually in such a manner that they can even lie successfully to themselves about the problem and/or its scale even when confronted by others who have penetrated the deception.

See, for example, the following:

A potential third contender in this category are the “big stunts” of professional magicians. Hollywood special effects at their most effective are also beginning to approach this standard, insofar as they are becoming (at their best) indistinguishable from the images actually present at the time of filming.

The Bigger Deceptions: Intelligence Games, Politics, and Military Surprises

More elaborate still are the deceptions practices by intelligence agents, by the deceptions perpetrated by Politicians to gain office, and by Militaries to conceal the scope or purpose of their operations and immediate intentions for tactical or strategic benefit. The deceptions that took place in the Africa campaigns for and against Rommel during World War II, the extraordinary deceptions practiced in support and preparation for the D-Day landings; the list goes on and on. Political deceptions are well-supported when they succeed because those who benefit acquire power which can be used to affirm and reinforce the deception; elect a crooked politician once, and you put in place a political machine which will re-elect that politician (and more besides) and is extraordinarily difficult to dislodge. And, as for the intelligence games, I think nothing needs be said…

The Biggest Deceptions: Masterminds and their plans

But now we leave the real world behind and enter the realm of the comic book, the adventure novel, the soap opera, the video game, and the RPG – the only places where hoaxes of this magnitude exist, outside of conspiracy theories. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about these here; instead I’ll refer interested readers to my earlier article, Making a Great Villain Part 1 of 3 – The Mastermind.

The Epic Deception: The confidence of the GM

Okay, I said there were four and this is a fifth. There is one deception in an RPG that outranks all these others, though it isn’t actually relevant to this article – the deception that the GM always knows what he’s doing…

Is the speaker trying to be convincing?

In most of these cases of deception, the person perpetrating the deception is trying to be convincing – but there are one or two notable exceptions. The first is the Tall Tale, where the deception is intended to be short-lived, for entertainment value only. The key to success in this case is to keep making the story bigger and more improbable every time someone swallows the story so far.

The other exception is a subtype of several types of deception – the double-bluff. In this circumstance, the fraud is deliberately intended to be penetrated, usually because it is serving as a cover for a deeper deception. The techniques offered below work very well for this type of deception.

The Failed Deception

Which brings me to the Failed Deception itself. There are eight techniques which can be employed singly or in combination to convey the message that a deception is being unsuccessfully attempted by an NPC (I had a ninth, but by the time I had these eight listed in my rough draft, it had been lost from memory).

Game Mechanics

The simplest mechanism is simply to have the player make a roll against a skill or appropriate stat and tell the player (if its successful) that their PC thinks the NPC is lying. A more refined version has the PC roll to spot or observe some flaw in the deception without actually presenting them with a conclusion already drawn for them. This approach works, but it’s totally unsatisfying. Something more subtle is needed; do that right, and the player may state that he is looking for the hidden strings, justifying a game-mechanics check to actually penetrate the deception. But there will need to be something more than mere cynicism involved to achieve that justification.

The Devil Is In The Detail

This technique works when the fiction violates a truth known to one or more players after that truth is confirmed in-game. That first step is essential, because the players don’t know (and may not remember) everything they need to about how the game world works.

For example, the player may know that the Eiffel Tower is 324m tall (1063 feet), including the radio antenna; or that the Empire State Building has 103 stories; or that the music of The Star Spangled Banner comes from a bawdy English drinking song (To Anacreon in Heaven). That doesn’t mean that the character knows the fact; and it certainly doesn’t mean that these facts are true in the game world. If, for some reason, the GM needs the Eiffel Tower to be 330m tall, or wants a 104th floor for the Empire State Building, or wants to have the Anacreontic Society appropriate the music from a Time Traveller for their drinking song, he is entirely free to redefine the facts to suit his needs.

So it is essential that the GM has any key information delivered to the PCs by an NPC even though the player might know it already. Only then will the player know that the fact, as he knows it, also applies to the game world, and hence when the details of the deception contradict that established fact, he can start to question the deception in character.

The more the details don’t add up, the more obvious the attempted deception becomes – if you know the truth of those details.

The Contradictory Note

Another technique that can be useful is to give a player a note or handout specifying some information reasonably prominently which contradicts key elements of the deception. This is actually trickier than it sounds; it’s easy for the information to be too buried or too obvious, and neither is helpful to the twin objectives of being Unconvincing as a character while keeping the game Convincing to the players.

The problem is that the “obviousness” has to be decided in advance; when employing a “live” delivery mechanism, i.e. an NPC speaking in-game to the characters, you at least have some feedback as to how far you need to go.

On the other hand, a note or handout will retain its information between game sessions, while memory is more fallible. That can be a vitally important consideration.

Finally, there are a couple of hybrid approaches that can be used:

Written Breadcrumbs
Use a note to kick-start roleplay in which the information is revealed, possibly after several scenes. The note then serves as a reminder of the information. I like to use this when the information is esoteric, like the volume of a klein bottle, or the calculus of infinities.

A general note leads to some roleplay which leads (eventually) to the discovery of a significant fact in play, with the key information being then communicated in a second note or handout as the climax of the day’s play. The first note serves as a reminder of the importance of the contents of the second, and that importance is emphasized by the extraordinary hurdles the GM put the players through in order to get it.

Uncertainty in expression

Using tone of voice to show that an NPC is unconvinced gives the Players license to be unconvinced, as well. It will usually be the case that the skeptic is a different character to the one attempting the deception, though there will be times when a character will attempt a deception while unconvinced of its likelihood of success or the need for it, and this will make his “performance” unconvincing.

Magic Words & Affirmations

There are several key words that can be incorporated into a statement which can undermine the credibility of the statement in a wholly credible way. These words are: Rumor, Speculation, National Enquirer, Fuzzy, and Vague. At all costs, avoid words like “unbelievable”, however.

Another approach that can be very successful is to have someone quote an absolutely plausible source or statement and then affirm it far more strongly than is reasonable – repeatedly. Over and over.

This is an application of reverse psychology, because players are well aware of the the notion that “any lie repeated loudly enough and often enough becomes accepted as the truth” – it’s one of the fundamental tenets of propaganda, at least in the popular zeitgeist (I’ve never studied propaganda, so I can’t be sure). And since propaganda seeks to disguise a lie as the truth, any statement made in this fashion is automatically thought to be false, no matter how plausible it sounds.

The Personality Conflict

Having an NPC – or the GM himself – act massively out of character creates a conflict between the credibility of the personality and the image being projected during play. This personality conflict then undermines the credibility of anything said while in this distorted-personality condition – but only if it is not something the character would normally keep secret.

Paradoxically, anything that is revealed that would normally be secret is actually rendered more credible, because it is assumed that the speaker is in some condition of diminished self-control – be it alcohol, drugs, hypnotism, a stroke, or for any other reason. So this technique needs to be placed in context carefully and in advance.

The contrast of details

This technique is simply to keep the deception threadbare, employing vague generalities and a general lack of detail. This is one of the most effective approaches, because it takes advantage of what the GM does normally to enhance the believability of his campaign to contrast with the deception.

While especially effective with spoken dialogue, this works in almost every form of content delivery.

The contrast of roleplay

The GM can carefully change his personal mannerisms to create a contrast to the in-character deceiver and his out-of-character running of the game. While this is never enough to be unconvincing in itself, it can often provide the last nail in the coffin of a deception that the GM wants to be penetrated.

Being Convincingly Unconvincing

It’s always going to be difficult to be Convincingly Unconvincing without damaging the credibility and believability that the campaign relies on, and it’s not something that is likely to come up every day. Most of the time, a campaign is better served by keeping the campaign plausible enough that players will ignore (or at least forgive) the occasional discrepancy. That demands extraordinary measures to project cases where the GM wants the players to pick up on the clues to a deliberate deception. This article may not be the last word on the subject, but it should leave GMs better-prepared the next time they have to try to deceive the players – without trying too hard.

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Casual Opportunities For Priests: The Common Encounters

So far, I’ve looked at what all Modern Priest PCs have in common, and what made one Priest different to another, This third part, and the fourth to follow, are all about casual encounters to highlight these character features…

Photo courtesy tome213 (Elvis Santana)

Photo courtesy tome213 (Elvis Santana)

Introduction to part 3

At first glance, encounters for priests can seem easy to create. If there is one thing that the first two parts of this trilogy make clear, it’s that there’s a lot of potential. Once you actually start, though, it soon becomes apparent that it’s not quite so easy. The one encounter can tick so many boxes that it can stifle creativity, and it is very easy to end up in a situation in which too many of the resulting encounters are simple variations on a theme.

In other words, Barbarians (who were featured in the first of this series) and Priests suffer from the same problem: a stereotyped encounter set. The reasons may be different, but the results are the same.

I’ve tried hard to combat this by employing those clichés sparingly and looking for more original variations on themes within these encounters. Of course, that’s also made it slower to write, but you can’t have everything…

As usual, these encounters are divided into two groups: encounters that reflect the differences between a generic priest and your run-of-the-mill adventurer (the common encounters), and encounters that highlight the differences between one variation on the standard priest and another.

The Common Encounters

Because Priest characters have such wide variations open to them, it is extremely difficult to define a “generic priest” character. Nevertheless, part one managed to do so, and these encounters are designed to highlight those common features. Each may need some tweaking to individual variations before being suitable for use.


All Priests have faith in a higher power of some sort…

1.Faith: What You Need

Look ahead to a future adventure, and pick a skill or area of knowledge that none of the PCs have. Then contrive an encounter in which an expert in that skill or subject features prominently in a professional capacity, making sure to emphasize an element of improbable coincidence.

The player will hopefully pick up on these signals and at the very least have the PC pick up a general layman’s understanding of the subject – and, of course, if more detailed expertise is required, this mini-encounter gives the PC a contact in the subject.

2. Faith: The Calling

When a Priest first decides to join the Faith and commit himself to a lifetime of Service (at least for the immediate future), it is described as Hearing The Call, or The Calling, or finding your Calling. Many priests use a discussion of their Calling as a way of introducing themselves. This encounter poses the question of what the Priest’s life would/might have been like had he not heeded The Call, and by extension, how his profession and training has changed him as a person.

While individual cases may vary, it’s my expectation that the NPC encountered in this plotline should not have amounted to anything noteworthy in any way – not especially poor, not especially successful. He should be mediocre in every way, having squandered any ‘gifts’ that he may have been born with, and having no noteworthy talents. He should be neither saint nor villain.

Such a nobody needs one or two redeeming features to reveal the potential for what he might have been, had he taken the other turn at some obscure crossroads in life. Perhaps he is fiercely loyal to his friends, is the person they all turn to for advice (no matter how mediocre and untrained that advice might be), and is the captain of a middle-of-the-road bowling league. Think…. Howard Cunningham (Happy Days) or Fred Flintsone.

This encounter preserves the moral fiber of the Priest and his innate capacities but discards the drive and determination, and perhaps the good- or ill-fortune that shaped their lives.

3. Faith: Calling Collect

This is an obvious variation on “The Calling” – an encounter in which the NPC was also once just like the PC, but who has taken every gift and talent and innate ability and used them for their own gain in power, prestige, and wealth. The head of a charity who is on a five-figure salary (1930s), six-figure salary (1970s-1980s), or seven-figure salary (1990s-now). The head of a powerful and corrupt union. The CEO of a business with a reputation for being squeaky-clean – and utterly ruthless.

This encounter removes the moral fiber of the Priest while retaining his innate capacities, drive, and determination. And with enough of that, you don’t need good- or ill-fortune to shape a life, you are quite capable of manufacturing your own fate.

This can also be a great choice for a Priest’s Arch-Enemy in a Pulp Campaign (every Pulp PC needs an Arch-enemy!)

4. Faith: The Pragmatist

One of the primary differences between Priests and other characters is that they have Faith in Something – and that this Something will always offer the pathway to a solution to any problem if it is not part of his plan that the Priest endure and learn from his experience.

I’ve described this encounter as “The Pragmatist” but in comparison with the Priest, we’re talking an outright Pessimist. “Always think the best of people but prepare in case they let you down”, “everybody has something to hide”, that sort of thing.

GMs have two tacks they can take with this encounter: the Pragmatist can be an antagonist in a situation that permits the NPC to debate philosophy and ethics with the Priest, or he and the Priest can form a short-lived “buddy cop” team with the Priest. The key requirement is for the NPC and the Priest to have lots of room for interaction.

5. Faith: The Subversive

A Priesthood tends to be conservative, while the ideals to which a Priesthood is usually supposed to aspire are progressive at the very least. This inherent conflict can be thrown into sharp relief by pitching the Priest into an encounter with The Subversive – a character who is seeking to undermine and overthrow an Authority because it has performed actions or made choices that conflict with his ‘Progressive’ ideology. This puts the Priest into an interesting situation in which the Subversive can be either Antagonist or Ally – or both at the same time. Careful choice as to the nature of the conflict can ensure full scope to explore the complex relationship between the Subversive and the Priest.

In some eras, like the 1960s, these encounters are very easy to engineer; in other eras, it may be more difficult, but they are practical in any era; it’s only a question of identifying the right moral problem.

Encounters with The Subversive tend to fall into two distinct patterns: “The End Justifies The Means” and “Foolish Idealism”. Both assume that the Priest will have some level of sympathy for the cause of the Subversive; the distinction lies in the practicality of the Subversive’s objective. But there is a third option that should not be ignored: “In Too Deep”, in which less idealistic forces are using The Subversive to do their dirty work. Sometimes, the Priest will have to convince The Subversive of the reality of his situation, and sometimes he will figure it out on his own and go to The Priest for help.

There is a strong temptation to make these more than mini-encounters, because it is so easy to make a featured plot out of them; the problem is that there may not be enough activity for any other PCs in the resulting plotline. I find that it helps to think of these encounters as episodes of Knight Rider or MacGyver – a small town setting, a small and strictly local problem, the Priest blows into the middle of the situation with the wind, has his encounter, then blows out again. Keep it small scale and local – unless you can solve the “something for everyone” problem. So, “The Subversive” tends to be either a very small mini-encounter or a vast, sweeping plotline – there is very little scope for middle ground.

6. Faith: The Criminal

It would be nice if a Priesthood could always weed out the weak and the criminal before they assumed positions within the Clergy. Like all man-made institutions, however, these make mistakes; and they are often loathe to admit them when they occur, because those who make the decisions are generally supposed to be guided by “a higher power”. Undermining this reputation for infallibility is perceived as undermining the faith of the congregation, which is bad for business, whether that business is saving souls (the idealist position) or profiting from them (the cynical position). This doctrine has led to the (admitted) sheltering of everything from pedophiles to war criminals within the ranks of the clergy. Exacerbating the problem is the perception held by some that infidelities by the Clergy are not subjects for judgment by fallible mortal men; that in joining the Faith, the Priest is now subject to a Higher Court. To be frank, many members of many clergies seem to perceive themselves as old-style Aristocracy.

All of which led me to ask what would happen if a Criminal sought to shelter himself from the Law by hiding behind a Cossick? Might not The Priest be asked to investigate the situation on behalf of the Church? Or, if the criminal were recognized by chance, might not the person who recognized him come to the Priest for help?

When I initially listed this encounter, that was as far as my thinking went; but, as I wrote the above, I realized that there was still more potential in this plotline.

In theory, provided that he confessed his sins to another Priest, repented them, and performed whatever Penance was required by Church Doctrine, The Criminal would be free to commit whatever acts he wanted. He could be a full-on Gangland Boss in the old-school Chicago Mob sense; murder, extortion, the whole nine yards. And, to the outside world, this character would simply appear to be more devout than most Priests because he was praying all the time. What’s more, the confessional would offer an excellent source of intelligence to such a Criminal. If he were to volunteer his to hear the confessions of criminals in the local Prison, he could easily recruit amongst the prisoners, and be in a position to advance the early release of those under his sway while delaying that of their rivals.

It would be very easy to craft a string of mini-encounters out of this concept – first, the Priest meets the Criminal while both are working on a charity drive or something similar; second, the Priest stumbles into a minor encounter with a gang; third, the Priest hears about a local business being extorted by a gang looking to muscle in on someone else’s territory; fourth, another local business suffers an “accidental” fire; fifth, the priest reads newspaper reports of a new gang war that’s blown up, with two gangs each accusing the other of invading each other’s turf; sixth, some charitable business leads the Priest to drop in on the congregation of The Criminal and (because it’s his business as an adventurer to notice these things) recognizes, from past newspaper articles, a large number of the ‘faithful’ as criminals who were incarcerated for their crimes; seventh, the Priest investigates – either by asking the Criminal about it directly, or by asking the Police about it, or by going to the Newspapers or the Courts and looking at their records, and discovers that The Criminal also ministers part-time to the Prison population and has been known to advocate for the release of reformed prisoners to the Parole Board; eighth, the Gang War escalates, and word begins to circulate about a new Ganglord moving in on the territories of several others; tenth, The Criminal asks The Priest to join him (and others) in a public call for an end to the violence…. Ten mini-encounters, and – if the GM has done his job right – the Priest still has only vague suspicions as to the identity of the guilty party. But a secret can only be held for so long before it begins to leak.

Eleventh, the church of The Criminal is targeted by a rival gang in apparent retribution for that public broadcast, and The Criminal asks the Priest for help in fundraising for repairs; Twelfth, while carrying out such fundraising, The Priest learns that most of the local businesses around the church of The Criminal are paying protection to the new Gang Boss, who is known as The Bishop, reportedly because he has a holier-than-thou attitude; Thirteenth, the Priest meets a couple attending his church for the first time, having traveled some distance to do so, because they no longer felt safe attending their old church, so many of the other parishioners seemed to be armed, or were so rough-looking. By now, the Priest should be starting to suspect that one of those Parishioners of being “The Bishop”. He may even elicit the aid of The Criminal in identifying “The Bishop”! At the same time, the gang violence should start to die down, according to newspaper headlines and police reports. The Fourteenth mini-encounter should finally reveal the true identity of “The Bishop” to The Priest, and lead to a confrontation between the two. The Criminal can, in this confrontation, even transform himself into The Subversive (see the preceding encounter) by claiming that by taking over the Gang, he is eroding the criminal organizations that control the underworld of the city from the inside, controlling and managing the violence. All this leads to the fifteenth mini-encounter, in which The Priest has to decide what to do about The Criminal, and then act on his decision. Finally, in a sixteenth mini-encounter, the Priest has to deal with the repercussions of that decision: Renewed gang violence and professional censure, or a nagging conscience that can then be exploited when a criminal who said all the right things to The Criminal slips the leash. This final part might in fact be big enough to bring in the other PCs and be the featured adventure of the day.

Dropping these mini-encounters one at a time into other adventures weaves them into a broader tapestry – and none of it would have happened within the game if the Priest were just another adventurer. Which is what these Casual Opportunities encounter ideas are all about…

7. Faith: The Reformed

While this encounter can occur anytime, it would be most effective if it followed – or was even inserted into – “The Criminal”. In it, a criminal who has served his time and been paroled, and who has sincerely seen the light and heard The Call, approaches the Priest and asks for his guidance in becoming a Priest. This works on its own, or it might serve as the mechanism by which The Priest learns the identity of “The Bishop” in mini-encounter Fourteen.

8. Faith: A Priest And His Deity

It’s hard to be very specific about this idea because it is so subject to the variations available in terms of Priests of different faiths. It will be somewhat different for a Rabbi, for example. This is a two-part mini-encounter, though the second can be ignored if the GM doesn’t find sufficient inspiration. In the first, the Priest is nominated for some award, honorific, or position – anything that can justify a reporter or committee member coming to do an in-depth profile of the character. In that profile, the key question is asking the Priest to describe his relationship with his deity, first in a single word, and then amplifying on that word by citing specific incidents from his past. (Note that it isn’t necessary for the Priest to actually receive the award or whatever; you can even use a second mini-encounter to convey the news – good or bad – on that front. And, if you decide to actually grant the award, a third mini-encounter when he actually receives it.)

In the official second part, the Priest encounters a character who has a very different relationship with the same deity. It’s that simple – but it can be profound.

If I were to actually use it in-game, I would give the player some advance warning to spend a bit of time thinking about the subject in advance of the question.

9. Faith: At The Crossroads

This mini-encounter is all about fateful decisions. The Priest can either be the subject, or can serve as counselor to the subject, who has reached some sort of major crossroads in their lives. More commonly, it will be the latter – if the Priest is the subject, it deserves to be central to a larger adventure. After all, we’re talking about potentially causing the retirement of a PC here. In fact, I don’t recommend the first option unless there is an inbuilt way for the player to continue to play the character, no matter what decision he makes.

What’s more important is that this mini-encounter more or less forces the character to relive some of the crossroads that he has reached in his past, what they were, whether he made the right decisions, and how his Faith saw him through – it’s an opportunity to publicly affirm his Faith and to put some flesh on the bones of that faith.

If the player has produced a character background, this is a great way to communicate parts of it to the other players and make it relevant to the game; if the player hasn’t, a little advance notice should enable them to add some more depth to their character.

10. Faith: Sign of the times

One of the Priest’s parishioners thinks he is seeing signs of the imminent end of the world. How flaky these signs and portents are is up to the GM and whether or not the players are actually going to be facing a situation that can be described in apocalyptic terms in the near future, or if the emergencies are somewhat smaller in scale.

The less reasonable it is to use these signs and portents to amp up the tension and drama of an imminent situation in the game’s main plotline, the more unreasonable the signs and interpretations should be, and the more the NPC parishioner should be prone to some unreasonable action in consequence. He might want to donate his life savings to the Church, he might want forgiveness for some deep dark secret impropriety, he might be suicidal, he might talk about killing his family while they are in a state of grace to ensure that they get into Heaven, he might want to start a new Holy War against “the infidels” (whoever fits that description within his own mind), he might have decided that a neighbor’s child is the Antichrist and want help in killing and exorcising him. There are a great many possibilities, and each can function as a metaphor or parable for whatever the PCs are to encounter in the main adventure. In terms of the mini-encounter, the Priest has to decide how to handle the immediate situation – since the parishioner is clearly wrong.

You can even pull a double-bluff on the Priest character by having the main adventure after the one which includes the casual encounter as a prequel be the more apocalyptic plotline. That enables the Priest to dismiss the likelihood of the accuracy of the prophecy of potential doom – only to be confronted with the possibility that he might have been premature in his dismissal. Handled correctly, he might even come to the conclusion that the GMs were trying to give his character an advance hint of what was to come, and send the entire second adventure trying to work out what they were trying to hint at, in terms of a solution or a required action!


Doctrine – in this context – is the collected “official” interpretations of religious writing and the church policies that supposedly reflect these interpretations.

11. Doctrine: Social Conscience

It’s always useful to have a casual encounter up your sleeve that places the contemporary attitudes about something in conflict with the attitudes that are contemporary to the game. First, it can be a way of educating the players about those attitudes and their ramifications, and secondly, it puts a character who is required by profession to be a “social conscience” on the hot seat. It could be paranoia about Middle Eastern terrorists, which was everywhere in the early 90s – partially reasonably and partially unreasonably – or segregation, or women’s rights, or well, just about anything that’s been controversial in the last 100-plus years, or that the GM can make controversial over the next hundred-plus in a sci-fi/superhero campaign.

This is one lesson from history that we never seem to learn. Persecute someone now, and their children have a greater likelihood to become radicalized in the future. A few years later, some of these radicals fall under the sway of some zealot who uses them to further his own ideological or political agenda, and which unleashes a new round of persecutions. This is a hard cycle to break, and that’s why backwoods communities in the US are such easy targets for humor aimed at their attitudes to African Americans – and personal hygiene – and, well, anything else that’s hopelessly out of date. I am quite sure that 99.99% of those jokes are unwarranted – well, 99% of them, anyway – and that the odd hold-out is tolerated more than welcomed. Sure, there’s always a vocal minority, but it should never be overlooked that they are the minority, right or wrong.

That’s right – the vocal minority don’t have to be wrong all the time. They probably are, they usually are, but that doesn’t mean they always are. There was a time when the American Civil Rights movement consisted of a vocal minority. There was a time when those opposed to Slavery in the United States were a vocal minority. There was a time when women couldn’t vote, and only a vocal minority complained. All social evolution has to start somewhere, and there are usually some growing pains.

The Priest is a plump target for a great many of these social growing pains. All it takes is for him or her to come across a situation in which one side or both are being extremist – his Social Conscience then requires him to get involved.

12. Doctrine: Defender Of The Faith

Similarly, the Priest is required to defend and sustain the Church, even when it does something he disagrees with. These encounters are more easily written and played when the Player and the Character both disagree with the Doctrine in question; they become far more difficult when the Character has to adopt an attitude that the player disagrees with. But they can also become more interesting and challenging at the same time.

Of course, as noted in previous parts of this series, no organized faith has ever done nothing with which every member of that faith agrees (excluding single-leader cults). Most, in fact, have one or more controversial skeletons in their closets. It’s always fun to require the Priest character having to defend one of these skeletons.

13. Doctrine: Oliver Twisted

The treatment of the poor and underprivileged has always been an issue where ideals war with practicality. There are all sorts of casual encounters that can be derived from this – everything from the Priest doing some volunteer work in a soup kitchen to sorting donated clothes to organizing a food drive for disaster relief somewhere to helping a poor person in some sort of trouble by employing his Priestly connections. It’s also worth remembering that a single charity dinner at which the social elite pay $X a plate can raise as much money for the poor in a single night as an entire year of soliciting donations, and can throw a Priest into an entirely different social situation.

But there’s one more idea under this heading, and that’s the one that inspired the section title. A character who grows so desperate to help a group of needy people that he does something he shouldn’t. That’s the e of the Robin Hood myth, but modern-day Robin Hoods would be about as welcome as the Sheriff Of Nottingham at a charity auction. All that’s needed is to connect the Robin Hood to the Priest – and the easiest way is for the Robin Hood to be inspired by some interview or newsreel (or TV or whatever) footage of the Priest doing some fundraising or talking about the plight of the poor. As soon as that connection comes to light, the Priest should feel that catching the Robin Hood – or, at least, stopping him – is his responsibility. The sense of duty comes with the collar.

14. Doctrine: The Interview

I’ve already commented on controversies and the Priest PC. This is another case where the Priest gets asked about something controversial. It should generally come “out of the blue” so far as the player and character are concerned – he quite literally gets buttonholed on the street, in front of the cameras.

15. Doctrine: Controversy

Doctrine can also require the priest, from time to time, to do something he would not normally do. This can be as much because most organized religions are political bodies as much as they are religious, as for any other reason. So this mini-encounter can be anything from the Priest delivering a message he does not agree with to a political body to appearing as a trial witness in support of someone the Priest doesn’t like because of political favors, to being an unwilling back-channel for diplomatic overtures, to acting as an unwilling intelligence operative.

But I have to admit that what I had in mind when I named this category was the situation from the first episode of the West Wing, in which a moderate Priest is required to stand shoulder to shoulder with a rabble rouser for the sake of preserving political authority, and in turn being taken to account for failing to admonish a radical group for what amounts to acts of domestic terrorism committed in the name of religion.


Morality always makes great encounters – if you don’t preach at the players. What is`right and what is wrong? Shades Of Gray are not Permitted…

16. Morality: Public Citizen

It’s general doctrine for most religions for Priests to be Good Citizens whenever possible (except when contravened by Doctrine, of course). That means cooperating with the police and the authorities, reporting incidents of crime, etc – no matter who those police and authorities happen to be. The next time our PC Priest is in a fascist nation, we might put him on the spot by having him witness a smash and grab, or get stopped by a policeman to ask if he has seen this person (show a photograph) who is wanted for questioning about a murder, or something of that sort. Equally, sometime when he’s at home, we can have a similar incident occur – actually, that’s a really good way of emphasizing the difference between the two countries – and the difference between the Priest and another PC who would under no circumstances cooperate with a Nazi.

17. Morality: Leader Of The Pack

The Priest is also supposed to be a Civic leader, a solid member of the community. That gave me the idea for this encounter, in which a superstitious mob comes to the Priest and demands that he lead them when they go out to burn the local witch… Sure, the Priest can attempt to get the mob to convince him that the allegation of witchcraft is genuine, but he should be world-wise enough to realize that if he simply dismisses their allegations out of hand, the mob will simply go without him – and may even decide that he’s in league with her! No, he will need to be more convincing than that – and more convincing than a mere die roll, he’s going to have to actually roleplay the encounter.

18. Morality: Good Charity

Priests are supposed to be model citizens, at least in general. That makes them prized members of community organizations, charities, and committees of all sorts. There are not many things that could push a Priest so far that he would consider breaking the law unless he already suffers from some sort of moral turpitude – a Priest might kill to cover up a crime, might blackmail someone if the opportunity arose, but I doubt these acts would be considered by a Priest who is also a PC.

One of the things that might be enough to sen a Priest over the edge is busting a gut working to raise money for a charity only for the treasurer to skip town with the proceeds… or get conned out of it… or for the entire charity to turn out to be a Con…

19. Morality: When Pets Collide

This is one that I highlighted as an example in part one of this trilogy. A man approaches the Priest for guidance, and wants to know if it’s wrong to poison the neighbor’s cat, which continually threatens his poor helpless canary…

20. Morality: Of Dubious Character

And another from the opening salvo: A churchgoer suspects his neighbor of impropriety. Maybe he’s a married man who keeps bringing a blond home when the wife is away, or vice-versa, or maybe he suspects something more sinister. He wants to know what to do about it. The problem is that he has a police record and doesn’t think they will believe him. That means it’s up to the Priest… again!

21. Morality: Good Deal Gone Bad

“Father, I sold him my cat painting in exchange for a rare coin to complete my collection, but it was an almost-worthless fake, worth only half what he said it was. I want him to pay me the rest of what he owes me, but he won’t do it. I don’t want to go to court, I want someone to mediate.”

Enemy Of The Supernatural

This is what the Priest character is (generally) all about. But not all fiends from Hell can be Mephistopheles…

22. Enemy Of The Supernatural: The Rat Pack

There’s a pack of rats running loose in the city. Solitary citizens have been attacked, one killed outright, and several more have serious diseases inflicted by infected rat bites. A six-month old child has gone missing, and there’s some evidence that the rats dragged the child and its blanket away. Everyone is searching for the missing child, and the Priest has been persuaded to join the hunt. Besides, there’s something unnatural about the idea of rats coordinating their efforts enough to do something like that…

23. Enemy Of The Supernatural: A Spoonful of Sugar

A spirit with a sweet tooth steals a teaspoon of sugar from the bowl every night. No cake or sweet can be left safely unattended. Cups of tea or coffee are mysteriously sweetened if the consumer is distracted. And in the basement, a bee’s nest is growing, uncontrollably. Any attempt to disturb the nest rouses the ire of the spirit…

24. Enemy Of The Supernatural: Sock Demon

A middle-aged man in prominently mis-matching socks approaches the Priest and claims that he has a demon who likes to steal one sock from every pair haunting his apartment…

25. Enemy Of The Supernatural: The Penny-Pincher

The ghost of a grasping and greedy former owner haunts a small suburban home, pinching every penny until it bleeds.

26. Enemy Of The Supernatural: Living In The Icebox

Inspired directly by the Weird Al Yankovic song, “Living In The Fridge” (a parody of the Aerosmith song, “Livin’ On The Edge”) – lyrics Here, clip excerpt from the Weird Al Show
here, unofficial clip for the whole song here.

Some mold or something has spontaneously come to life within the icebox (this idea works best if set before domestic refrigerators became common), and now consumes any food that is placed there (think Audrey II in “Little Shop Of Horrors”).


Ghostbreaker plots differ from “Enemy Of The Supernatural” in that they are either (1) dismissable as hoaxes or misinterpretations of events; or (2) attract enough public attention that the Priest will need to find a way to publicly debunk them – refer “So who is the Priest, anyway?” and “Ghostbreaker” in Casual Opportunities For Priests: Analysis and Commonalities. The cover-up and clean-up are just as important as the battle, when there are Things Man is not Meant to be Sure Of – never mind things he is not meant to Know…

27. Ghostbreaker: Book Of Lost Toys

A minor demon/imp is stealing children’s toys and hiding them as images in sales catalogs or advertising, replacing the original printed image (but not the text) because it grows stronger by feeding off the anxieties of upset children. Best set in a children’s hospital or similar (a never-ending flow of victims) in an age when catalogs showing toys are routinely included in daily newspapers – 1970s on, let’s say.

28. Ghostbreaker: The Dead Poet’s Society

The Dead Poet’s Society takes place in a library in a school or university somewhere, where a ghost or spirit comes up behind people and whispers poetry to them when they are trying to concentrate. Whenever the person hearing the poetry turns around, there is no-one there. I would steal part of the “Librarian” sequence from “Ghostbusters” for the confrontation with the Priest. The obvious debunk here is “student prank”, with the Priest refusing to name the perpetrators, saying he has handled the disciplining of those responsible personally. But the Priest’s player may have other ideas. Old pipes can make strange noises…

29. Ghostbreaker: Grandmother of Pearl

A lovely young woman, Pearl, wants to marry her fiancée, but the clan Matriarch disapproves of the young man – a reporter – in question for reasons of social class or race or religion. The family are quite wealthy, “old-money” types. The only problem is that the Matriarch has been dead for decades…

Pearl’s Grandmother spent a lifetime arranging marriages – or perhaps, disarranging them might be a better term – when she lived, and has not stopped. Pearl’s older brothers, mother, uncles, and aunts, have all had to endure a scathing review of their prospective husbands and wives before condescending approval was given, and several have had to learn to live with their first choices being rejected. None of the resulting marriages are especially unhappy ones, but none of them are especially happy ones, either. She now abides in a painting of herself, and the first indication of her opinion is always a change of expression of the painting. She also weighs in on the cleanliness of the household, the deportment of the servants, and just about anything else you can think of.

In desperation, Pearl has sought out the Priest for help. His big problem is not going to be simply persuading Pearl’s Grandmother that it’s time to let go and move on, it’s going to be explaining events in such a way that the reporter fiancée doesn’t learn the truth and try to publish it. The most obvious tactic would be to invent a “distant cousin” whose inheritance was threatened by the marriage, and who concocted an elaborate hoax to persuade the family to forbid it.

This adventure works best in the late 19th or early 20th centuries – steampunk or pulp eras. Pearl (and the rest of the household) should have very stuffy Victorian values in everything from mode of address to choice of clothing, a hint as to the effect that the Grandmother has had on the family.

30. Ghostbreaker: The Librarian’s Curse

Another idea set in a Library – because the Player of the Priest character in the Adventurer’s Club campaign is a librarian in real life. In this mini-adventure, a ghost keeps rearranging the books in the library out of the order they are supposed to be in. This is somewhat less important before the invention of the Dewey-decimal system in 1876, though it can work in pre-System eras as well – refer to
the second paragraph of this section
on the subject for information on the general approach prior to adoption of the Dewey Classification. This idea works better if set in a public library, so that “student prank” is not a likely answer. Setting it in The Library Of Congress is probably going too far, though.

The GM needs three things to make this work as a Ghostbreaker encounter:

  1. Existing publicity for the problem, to make the cover-up a bit more challenging;
  2. A way for the Priest to get involved; and
  3. The reason why the ghost responsible is constantly rearranging the shelves.

There are multiple answers to all of these, so I’ll leave it to individual GMs to come up with their own.

31. Ghostbreaker: Candlesticks In The Dark

A ghost who is afraid of the dark keeps relighting any candles placed in the candlesticks that it haunts. There are several possible reasons why this might be the case – perhaps it died when its nightdress caught fire on a candle it had left burning while alive, for example. It also makes life slightly miserable for anyone who tries – glasses of water knocked over into their laps, food over-cooked, etc. As a result, the candlesticks in question are usually sold very quickly – to someone else who offloads them in a hurry. Now, they have made their way to a wedding reception – but the hotelier who bought them is a religious man, and rather than making them someone else’s problem, he has called on the Priest for help. The candlesticks are needed for a reception this evening, having been purchased to replace some silverware stolen in a burglary yesterday.

In this encounter, the Ghostbreaker has a willing conspirator in the cover-up – the hotelier – though his staff are not so open-minded and have to be kept from suspecting anything – but there is an obvious deadline for the Priest to worry about instead.

I got the idea from those “trick candles” that won’t go out, like those used at this child’s birthday party (I looked for a clip of some in candlesticks but didn’t find one).

32. Ghostbreaker: The Patriot

In this encounter, a block of apartments are continually being woken by someone Bugling at Dawn. The residents all deny any involvement. Worn out by lack of sleep over the past several weeks, one finally goes to the Priest for help. What is happening is that a group of men are planning to do something against the government; depending on the era of the encounter, this could be anything from defrauding it to an act of terrorism. At one point they made the understandable mistake of hiding out in a building that was haunted by a Patriotic Ghost, who has followed them ever since, attempting to warn those around them of the trouble – but he has no voice, he can only play his bugle, so no-one has understood. The bad guys have relocated a number of times in an effort to evade their ghostly alarm clock, without success…

This encounter inverts the basic premise of the Ghosthunter, and so is best used after there have been several other opportunities to establish the standard pattern. The Ghost is trying to attract attention, and is basically a good guy; the victims of the ghost are the bad guys. The Priest is still required by Doctrine to send the Ghost to its final rest. And the ghost will resist being sent with all its might until the threat posed by the Bad Guys is resolved. And there is still the small problem of the cover-up, afterwards.

33. Ghostbreaker: The Con Man

This is an encounter in three parts.

Twenty years ago, there was a bank robbery, in the course of which a guard was killed – but not before snatching the mask from the robber’s face. The criminal had time to hide the proceeds before he was captured. Despite an intensive search prompted by a substantial reward, the proceeds from the robbery were never found, and the robber never told anyone where the loot was hidden. With a little over five years before becoming eligible for parole, the robber has just been killed as a result of an argument between himself and another prisoner. The drama and mystery of this story means that the death makes the front page of a newspaper that the Priest reads regularly.

Some weeks later, perhaps as much as a month, a middle-aged woman approaches the Priest and tells him she thinks her house is haunted. She can’t think why God is doing this to her, she’s always tried to lead a good life, she works on behalf of all the right charities, she goes to Church every Sunday. Can the Priest advise her? (Notice that she hasn’t explained why she thinks the house is haunted, yet). When pressed on this point, she will describe strange noises in the night, unexpected blasts of cold air, food vanishing from the cupboards, doors unlocking themselves, etc.

When the Priest investigates, he will (eventually) discover that the son of the bank robber left a cryptic message in his last will and testament that, when decoded, seems to say that the money is hidden somewhere in the house now owned by the old woman. The son, a notorious con man, is attempting to persuade her to sell, or at least vacate, the premises. He would prefer the first, because then he can buy her silence by returning her purchase to her, but he’ll settle for the second. NB: The GM will have to come up with the cryptic clue. It is also up to the individual GM whether or not the money is really hidden there. Or perhaps the Con Man will succeed, only to discover that rats have gnawed on the money and it is now worthless.

Representative Of The Faith

The Priest is always the visible face of his Religion. Sometimes, his Church Elders will take advantage of that – and sometimes, it just makes the Priest a target…

34.-36. Representative Of The Faith: Dignitary

Fame comes in degrees to a Priest character. At first, he will be relatively unknown, and the perfect person to appear as a representative of the faith at some official soirée because he is not in a position to comment on Church Policy. He’s a safe choice for a diplomatically unsafe environment.

Then he will be a local celebrity, and perhaps famous amongst a small number of specialists and experts. He can then be asked to appear at functions as a legitimate dignitary in his own right, though he may have to seek the permission of his church to do so – and sometimes, they may say no. At this stage, he is also someone who can be sent to represent the Church on more serious and formal occasions without giving offense – and once again, he is a safe choice because he has no authority within the Church.

In time, he may become a genuine celebrity, someone whose opinions carry social or political weight, and a factor of which his Church’s administration must take into account. He can no longer be sent on missions where he may be provoked into making some social statement of which the Church does not approve; but at the same time, he becomes someone who is capable of representing the Church at the highest level. Indeed, his fame can make him a more flattering representative than the official face of the faith. He is now dangerously unsafe, if provoked; but at the same time, his celebrity makes him a more powerful representative – if he is likely to stick to the script.

When the Priest travels to a strange country, he may find his social status regressed to an earlier state, so it is not the case that this sort of encounter loses its utility as the priest becomes more famous; instead, new opportunities arise for variations on this type of encounter.

37. Representative Of The Faith: Peacemaker

Two warring factions request that the Priest – who has accidentally found himself in the middle of the conflict – negotiate a peaceful settlement.

We can be talking about anything from the Hatfields and McCoys to a couple of Mafia Dons.

This encounter doesn’t work as well in a modern setting, though it can still function – perhaps the younger generation feel their families’ decades-long blood feud has made them the laughing stock of their community, and is a relic of a less socially-aware era – and they need a Priest to arbitrate because there is no-one else who both sides will listen to.

38. Representative Of The Faith: Peacemaker 2

But, in the more modern context, a new opportunity arises for the Priest to play Peacemaker. A man takes his family hostage, producing a tense stand-off with police. He demands to speak to a Priest…

39. Representative Of The Faith: The Wedding Plan

The Priest is called upon to officiate at a wedding. Things go badly wrong with the wedding plan… It could be that neither family approves of the marriage, or perhaps you can steal a series of encounters from Father Of The Bride, one of Steve Martin’s funniest movies.

40. Representative Of The Faith: The Blessing-Bringer

What sort of things get blessed? Children, yes. Ships. Hospitals. Bridges. Motorsport events. Parks. Governments. Presidents. Mayors. Governors. Competitive Games, such as the Olympics? Railroads? Commuter Aircraft? Starships? Buildings? Tunnels? Police Stations? Busses? Pets? Statues?

Every one of these is an opportunity to have the priest being somewhere, doing something that directly relates to his archetype.

41. Representative Of The Faith: The Sermon

The Priest gets a message from the minister of another religion, who has always been friendly with him. He is unwell and would like the Priest to write and deliver a Sermon on his behalf. He doesn’t trust the only other member of his clergy in easy reach, and in fact suspects him of poisoning him in an attempt to gain a transfer to his (more desirable) parish…

The Power To Fight Evil

Having the power to go toe-to-toe with the Supernatural is all well and good, but how does the Priest recieve it, and how does it manifest? In the case of the Priest in The Adventurer’s Club campaign, Father O’Malley, at least part of his powers stem from a reinterpretation of the Guardian Angel concept. And the Guardian Angel deserves his share of the spotlight…

42. The Power To Fight Evil: Unfinished Business

The source of the Priest’s power to fight evil has some unfinished business from his former life, something to put right. Since he can’t do it himself, he has to use the Priest as a proxy – whether the Priest wants to be or not.

43. The Power To Fight Evil: Take A Chance

The source of the Priest’s power had an enemy, and the source wants justice. The source has no compunction about putting the Priest at risk in order to get it.

44. The Power To Fight Evil: The Old Enemy

The source of the Priest’s power had a vice, a source of temptation that he struggled for part or all of his life to overcome. A chance circumstance places the Priest in a location where he is exposed to that temptation, and finds that – in lesser degree – the source’s failings have now become the Priest’s.

I initially had in mind a gambler and a casino setting, but it might just as easily be an alcoholic and a bar, or a stripper and a nightclub, or any of a dozen other possibilities…

Which brings me to the end of the Common Encounters, and to the end of the third part of this sub-series. In the next part, which may be ready for later this week or may have to wait a week longer, I will look at encounters that stem from the things that make one Priest Character different from another…

Casual Opportunities Series Logo

About the Casual Opportunities series:

This series seeks to offer opportunities for PCs to reflect their primary role within a campaign. Opportunities for heroes to be heroes, for villains to be villains, for geeks to be geeks. It’s easy to become so focused on the primary plot, or on the things that the PCs are contributing to it, that it’s easy to overlook these touchstones that remind players of who their characters really are when the chips are down.

Each part focuses on one particular character archetype and list at least half-a-dozen or more minor encounters for that major type of character that showcase an essential characteristic of the archetype, explain the significance to that character type, and make some attempt to get under the skin of the archetype and examine what makes it tick.

The series itself will be an irregular one, appearing every now and then – don’t look for it every week. And while it might have started with a D&D / Pathfinder character class, I intend to cover superhero, sci-fi, and pulp archetypes along the way – all in no particular order. In fact, I’m going to deliberately mix it up…

I found out with the first entry in this series that they are just too big to write as a single post…

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The Fields Of Magic


How does Magic (in general) work? I’m not talking about how the rules work, but how Magic works within the game world.

Why raise the question now?
I should probably pause for a moment to explain why I’m writing about this now – in the middle of a major series about Modern Priests. There are four main reasons: I didn’t think I would get the next part of the Priest article written in time; I thought some readers might like a change; and I decided that those readers who are more into Fantasy and D&D might like something more in tune with their genre, and I had an idea that could be developed. Finally, because this is (mostly) going to be sheer off-the-cuff creativity, I can put as much work into it as there is time, and be satisfied to publish the result.

Why ask the question at all?

I guess the place to start is by answering the question “why bother?”. There are a number of good reasons why I think it’s important to at least think about the subject.

  • It helps color the game world uniquely;
  • It can inspire adventures that are unique to that game world;
  • It adds to the verisimilitude of the campaign;
  • It gives the GM a framework for decisions about how spells and magic items can/will Interact with each other;
  • It can be a lot of fun to do, and a lot of fun for the PCs to explore;
  • It lays a foundation that can be used to assess unusual situations.

“How Magic Works” is one of the “Big Questions” that I think all campaigns need to be able to answer. Or at least, to start to answer. I’ve been trumpeting that philosophy for years – one of my earliest articles here at Campaign Mastery, A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs, is all about Why.

But, in addition to all of the above, which is generically true of any of the Big Questions, there are two problems that only an answer to this specific question can start to answer:

What can Magic do?

Not just in the sense of the lone mage casting his spells; what can it do on an industrial scale? At what point does Magic become a more economically viable solution to a problem? Or, if you are dealing with a handicrafts-based pre-industrial or semi-industrial society, how can magic fit in as a tool in the workman’s armory?

Some definitions:
Pre-industrial means that everything is hand-crafted, and each craftsman works to his own particular design. Depending on the simplicity of the object, these may be very superficially similar, e.g. nails; but as soon as you get to anything more complicated, the artisan incorporates some distinctive feature into everything that he does that distinguishes it as his handiwork, and feels free to vary every other feature to a certain extent. A Knife set in which each blade is of slightly different size and shape and has a different decoration, which viewed collectively, tell a story. Daggers and Swords that are as individual as trees in a forest, each the subject of unique design. Each apprentice puts his own spin onto every project, and the master is more concerned with teaching technique than in directing creation.

Semi-industrial means that the idea of mass-manufacturing something has occurred to someone and been generally accepted throughout the society. Get forty or fifty blacksmiths together and give them some common design and supervision; there may be small variations between resulting examples, and each item is still hand-made, but the artistry is suppressed to some extent in the name of efficiency.

Early in the road to Semi-industrial society, the specifications have to be really vague: “Blade so long, hilt so long, cross-piece so long and so heavy, and I need five of them by Tuesday,” being about the outer limit. At the end of it, design specification extends to almost every detail of the work; the master smith gets to be creative, the apprentices do what they are told.

(For some reason, I naturally think of this stuff in terms of a blacksmith first, and other fields of design and creativity – woodworking, glaziers, etc – second. You will be able to observe this pattern repeatedly in the course of this article. I don’t know to what extent that shapes my thinking, so if you want to employ the same principles and approaches that I do but have a better chance at an original result, make some other craft your primary vehicle).

What can you do to Magic?

This question is all about the modes of interaction between magic and everything else, including other forms of magic. Can a Magical Sword unbind a spell, if used correctly? Are more powerful spells more susceptible to this? Can the enchantment within the sword be changed? What can be enchanted, and what can be done with those enchantments? Are some materials more suitable to specific types of magical effects, or less? Is there a limit to the powers that can be infused into a piece of wood, or a piece of hide? Or does the fact that these were once living give them a greater capacity than a lump of iron/steel? Perhaps Druidic magic can go further in enchanting once-living materials than Wizardly magic? Can magical properties be imbued into a source of wood, or a beast, while it is still living, that will persist within items that are subsequently crafted from the remains?

If these questions don’t fire up your imagination, and complete the process of justifying some expenditure of time on the basic question, you may be in the wrong line of work…

For every GM, a different answer

Every GM evolves his own set of answers to these sort of questions, whether he realizes it or not, simply by the process of deciding which things PCs attempt work, and which don’t. One GM I know describes everything in terms of Einstein’s General Relativity; rather than Space-Time, he describes a magical “energy field” called ‘The Weave’, which can be distorted by a select few – those with the potential to become mages – and the energy that results from the release of the distortion, transformed into various magical effects. The more powerful the spell, the longer the mage has to spend “pumping up” the distortion, but the more skilled and powerful the mage, the less time that has to be spent in this way; this yields a set of modifiers to base casting time. Some mages are better at some types of magic than others; another modifier set. The energy field itself is not uniform in distribution; there are natural peaks and depressions, spots where magic is innately more or less effective. There are wrinkles, and where these occur, concentrations of arcane potential are much higher; these form “ley lines” within the weave. Where several of these intersect is where Wizards like to settle, because it makes them more powerful, and hence they can defend themselves more easily. When crafting a magic item, the Wizard (who has to do all the blacksmithing himself, generally yielding a vastly inferior item) bends the Weave within the hot metal, which preserves the distortion when the metal is cooled, enchanting the weapon. What’s more, you can’t take a mastercrafted sword and have it enchanted because the process of reheating the blade sufficiently to capture the weave destroys the craftsmanship already within the weapon. Try enchanting a weapon with +5 because of the skill of the forger and you will end up with a weapon that has +5 because of the magic – and a sizable bill for the effort. Heat a magic weapon enough, and it will lose its magic, just as a sword will lose its edge. The greater the material’s resistance to heat, the more powerfully it could be enchanted. The difference between different practitioners of magic all came down to different ways of working with the weave, and different things the spellcrafter was taught to do with it once he had manipulated it.

For many years, every campaign this GM ran – whether it was Fantasy, where it was called magic, or Sci-fi, where it was called Psionics – employed this basic “vision”. For all I know – I haven’t spoken of such things with him for a long time – they still do. He found one answer that worked for him, and he has stuck with it – occasionally refining it to incorporate compatible ideas from other sources.

Sometimes a different answer for each campaign

My approach is a little different. I like to have a different answer for each campaign that I run; this may be more work in terms of learning each interpretation and distinguishing between them, and of course, it requires a bit more effort in the campaign creation stage, but there are a number of advantages in compensation.

It helps each campaign feel a little different to all the others, even though they may have the same rules system and hence game mechanics. It helps keep the campaigns fresh for both players and GM, because there is always new ground to explore. The distinctiveness can serve as a touchstone, a way for the GM to get his head into this particular game – a useful trick if you have more than one on the go at the same time.

Let’s create an answer

Rather than go into the answers that I have used for my existing campaigns, I thought that it might be more useful – and quicker – to demonstrate the process that I use to generate an answer to this question. This is going to be an all-new solution to the problem, and hence free for anyone to interpret as they see fit for their own campaigns.

The Limitation

Because this is being done as a fill-in drop-in article, the results will be a starting point, and not a robust solution. There will still need to be more work done by individual GMs before this reaches the point of creating game mechanics – though part of the process defines what those game mechanics will be, in general terms. I intend to work on the article up to the point where it’s either finished (not likely) or I run out of time, always reserving a little to use in indicating what still has to be done.

The Core Concept

I always start with a core concept, a fundamental, upon which I can build. It was having an idea for such a core concept that actually led to this article in the first place.

The Core Concept: Magic is a series of energy fields propagating throughout the planes of existence. These can be combined in various ways to produce different spells and magical effects. Simple (low level) spells cause a particular energy to flow either to or from the field to the environment. Higher level spells combine different energy flows to achieve more complex effects.

That’s my starting point.

The General Expansion

The next step is to define the parameters and expand on the basic concept. What are the different energy types? What are the different field effects? What are the ways that two or more energy flows can be combined? What’s the process of mapping existing spells into this view of the world? What are the differences between types of Magic? How do other spell parameters fit into this concept – things like range, area of effect, casting time, saving throws, targeting. What is spell resistance? Why doesn’t it always apply? How do spell components fit into the picture? How about Metamagics?

I used my general experience with D&D/Pathfinder to create the above set of questions, but if I were doing this “for real” I would skim the rule books looking for all the game mechanics that are involved with magic and making a list of them to make sure that I hadn’t missed one. The alternative is to expand the theory on-the-fly as questions arise in-game, and that can work too – if you’re good at that sort of thing. I am (hence my willingness to undertake this article), but I happen to feel that I get better answers if I have time to work at my own pace – so I prefer to work in advance.

Answering that long list of questions in the opening paragraph is a great place to start – not necessarily in that order.

The Ultimate Goal:

It’s worth keeping in mind what we hope to achieve at the end of it all: A system for the generation of spells, a process for the creation of magic items, a broader concept of what those magic items can be and do that facilitates the creation of new items not on the official lists that are unique to this campaign. And an understanding of what is happening that can provide a basis for color description of spell casting, spell countering, etc. We also need to evolve home rules for the campaign to reflect the metaphysical concepts.

This stuff is all metagame, in that it connects with game mechanics on one side, and roleplay/narrative on the other. At its heart is my belief that game rules should be subordinated, when necessary, to the campaign concepts and precepts.

What are the different energy types? What are the different field effects?

Turning the vague into the specific is an obvious next step. The general concept talks about Energy Fields of different types – how many do we need?

Well, how many effects to we need? Let’s start by thinking about the effects employed in existing spells.

  • Heat and Cold are obviously paired, and set the pattern of matching opposites. Call it Thermal Force.
  • Life/healing and death/harm fit this pattern. Call it Vital Force. Animate object and its antithesis can also be covered here.
  • Time – things like enfeeblement, and potions of youth – can also be covered under Vital Force.
  • Acid – also sounds like an application of the death/harm aspect of Vital Force.
  • Electricity/Lightning and ? According to modern physics, the opposite of electrical current flow is a flow in the other direction – so the answer would be ‘more of the same’. But this is magic, and an invented metaphysics – it doesn’t have to follow those rules. So let’s get creative! Electricity turns water into gas that doesn’t turn back into water when the electricity is removed. Using that as a template, “electricity” breaks things into its component parts, and the opposite of that is binding things together – and static electricity makes things cling together, and electricity can be used to coat one one material with another (electroplating), so – in a metaphysical sense – that seems to fit. So lets define this pair as Binding Force. This also covers spells that repair things, a nice touch. This also offers an alternative interpretation of Acid effects, something to choose between at some point.
  • Size spells – making things bigger or smaller. Maybe that’s a special application of Binding Force?
  • Movement (including summonings and teleports) – the opposite of that is a resistance to movement, which is generally associated with solidity and the other characteristics of resilience. Lets call it the Resilience Force, because Resistance has a special meaning in our base game mechanics.
  • Clairvoyance and that sort of thing is all about moving the sensory point-of-view of the subject, so that’s covered under movement.
  • Detect spells – these are different to clairvoyance in that they give the caster a sense they wouldn’t otherwise have, or amplify it of they do have it naturally. And the opposite would be used in hiding things. Call it the Awareness Force. It’s a bit of a stretch, but Comprehend Languages can also be covered by this concept.
  • Light and Dark. That seems fairly obvious. Let’s call it Luminous Force.
  • Good and Evil = Moral Force.
  • Charm and Fear seem fairly opposite. Call that… hmmm. Thesaurus time…. The Alluring Force. And that can cover things like Fools Gold, too.

That covers all the spells from first and second level of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. There might be something that’s been overlooked from the higher-level spells, but that seems quite enough to be going on with.

Thermal. Vital. Binding. Resilience. Awareness. Luminous. Moral. And Alluring. Eight Forces. Taken singly, with a choice of increase or decrease, that gives us sixteen basic spells – some of which come in different variations and effects, indicating that there’s more to the story. Taken two at a time, those 16 basic effects become 240 combinations – possible less sixteen that cancel themselves out, possibly not – that depends on how creative we want to get. Taken three at a time, we get 4096 combinations. Taken four at a time, 65,536. Five at a time, 1,048,576. Six at a time – 16,777,216. Seven – 268,435,456. With the potential for multiple interpretations of each.

What are the ways that two or more energy flows can be combined?

I mentioned having a reason for thinking about 5 at a time: to get enough basic spells, I think the minimum needs to be two forces at a time, balancing the manipulation of one with a corresponding opposed manipulation of the other. I also had the notion that some of the other questions to be answered might be resolved by specifying one of these energy types as a “carrier” or “conduit” for the energy flow (both these ideas occurred while writing the list of effects). So that gives a three-fold combination at the base, or 4096 different possible spells. Next, suppose that – in general – every five character levels, a character gains enough mastery over spellcasting to integrate a new order of complexity within their spells. Character level five opens the door to three-plus-carrier, or 65,536 spells. Character level 10 opens the door to four-plus carrier, or 1 million-plus possible spells. Character level 15, sixteen million possible spells. And Character Level 20, 268 million.

With the field expanding like that, and each having its own nuances, it’s very easy to see why mages would specialize. But, of course, we’re talking here about obtaining a “unified magical theory” that covers Clerical and Druidic and Bardic magic as well. And Rangers and Paladins, and well, any class with a unique spell list.

What are the differences between types of Magic?

A general principle: I’m always on the lookout for answers to the next couple of questions while I’m answering the current one. I had this question at the back of my mind even while I was writing about “carriers” and “conduits”. By the time I got here, I had the rough outline of an idea.

First, let’s assume that not all carriers are equal. Some are easier to work than others, and some individuals find one easier to manipulate than others.

Second, let’s assume that spellcasting exacts a toll on the body or mind unless you are attuned to that particular carrier.

Third, at least some of those difficulties can be overcome with specialized training – at the expense of making other carriers more difficult to use in some way.

Finally, it seems to me that there are simply too many options in the number of combinations that the proposals thus far create. The field needs to be restricted a little more, and that restriction needs to be more substantiative at higher character levels than at low – which is to say, with higher combinations of force manipulations. A great way of achieving this is to suggest that some combinations are unstable, and prone to blow up (perhaps metaphorically, perhaps not) in the caster’s face. With specific training, though, perhaps stability can be forced on combinations that would otherwise disintegrate.

These four general principles give a foundation for explanations of the differences between core classes, and for the differences between prestige classes and those core classes.

Some classes get spells at character level 1; others don’t start until their character level is in their teens, the exact level varies. Let’s assume that for most characters with an innate affinity, that “level in their teens” standard is the one that applies generally. You might be able to bring that forward using a prestige class, but those should always come with some sort of a price-tag. It might come in the form of special abilities that the character doesn’t get because they aren’t progressing in the core class, or slowed progression in some area, or something.

Some Prestige Classes don’t seem to have such a cost. Some explicitly don’t. These are either inherently unbalanced class designs that need to be overhauled by the GM, or they come with character obligations that the GM needs to lean on – hard. You should never have a situation in which characters automatically gain an advantage by taking a Prestige Class without a commensurate cost that keeps them at pace, overall, with the core class.

Clearly, a future stage of the process will involve listing the different spellcasting core classes and most common Prestige classes against the list of forces and defining each of them in terms of their manipulation of the forces of Magic.

What’s the process of mapping existing spells into this view of the world?

With many of the basic concepts roughed out, it’s time to start thinking about what I think of as the “translation matrix” – the principles of how individual spells and their descriptors will be mapped onto this vision.

I can never think of this phase of the subject without referring to the TORG spell construction system in my head. The principles were that each parameter of a spell was indexed, and these indexes were then combined to achieve a certain index value that defined how difficult the spell was to cast. There were other aspects of the spell construction system as well, but those aren’t especially relevant here. I don’t think I could do better than to take the same general approach this time around.

There are three general approaches to combining parameters: you can add the index values together, you can multiply them together, or you can add their logarithms together. This choice has a profound effect on the end result.


Addition has the virtue of being the simplest. It means that if there is some sort of maximum total that can be achieved by a given caster and given level of spell, once that target is reached, an increase in value in one parameter must be matched by a decrease in another. Short of that level, however, an increase in index value has no greater impact on the total requirement than a matching increase in the total – so it’s not that much harder to double the range, or double the duration, or whatever.

If you have, say, 6 parameters, and they have an average value of five each, that’s a total of 30. Increasing one of those parameters to an index value of 7 only increases the total by 1, to 31.

At the same time, it doesn’t make the spell that much easier to cast by halving the range. To increase one indexed value substantially, you would need to decrease several others by a considerable amount – how many and by how much depends on the base values for each parameter.

Taking the same basic example as before (just as a way of getting our heads around the numbers), increasing one of the parameters to 17 – when the average value is 6 – is an increase of 12. To keep the total to the same value (30), it requires that 12 to be made up by reductions in other parameters – assuming that no parameter can drop below zero, that means reducing two of them TO zero, or three of them by four to two, or some other combination that reduces the total by that 12.


Multiplication means that increasing the index value of one element of the spell by one increases the result by a massive amount, equal to the rest of the index values multiplied together. It also means that the inherent numbers we’re talking about are a lot bigger. 6 parameters with an average value of 6 is a result of 46,656. Increasing one of those to a 7 brings the total to 54,432 – almost a 17% increase in the total.

Increasing one of them to 18 – tripling it’s index value – means that to achieve the same total, one other parameter has to be dropped to 1/3 of what it was – from six to two.

This shows that significant alterations to an index value actually compromise the final spell LESS under a multiplication regime, which is also food for thought.


Contrary to what a number of my players may have thought, this was not actually the first thought that occurred to me. If you don’t know what a logarithm is, don’t worry about it – you don’t need to know. Why? Because this is an absolutely unnecessary complication. Just by altering the way values increase in the index tables from one entry to the next, you can achieve exactly the same effect using the addition system.

Linear increases in those values will work for some Spell Parameters. Geometric increases, such as each entry being double the one before, will work for others. Exponential increases – say, powers of ten (1, 10, 100, 1000) – may be needed for some. The latter is exactly the same as taking the logarithm of the base value being indexed and using it in an addition model.

Index progression

But the discussion of logarithms points out a key parameter for each index table. In addition to a base equivalence, we will need some notion of how the indexed values will increase within the table.

Measuring The Target

There are three meaningful values that should be taken into account in determining what a reasonable total should be.

  • The first is Spell Level, which has a minimum of zero and a maximum of nine. This permits more powerful spells to have greater range and effect.
  • The second is caster level, so that more powerful mages can be more effective at casting the same spell as a lower level mage who has access to it. This has a value of anywhere from 1 to 30, say.
  • And the third is the relevant skill value, usually Spellcraft. It seems reasonable that the higher this is, the more effectively the mage can cast spells. This can have a value as high as Caster Level x Skill points per level, plus INT, plus anything derived from magic items that stacks, plus anything that derives from Prestige Classes (yes, I have seen some that boost it), plus anything derived from preliminary spells… At low character levels, this will be very low, at high levels it could be in triple digits. It probably won’t be that high, but it could be.

Simply adding these together would give numbers like 15 or 20 when the character was low level, numbers more like 50 or 60 at mid-level, and numbers close to 100 at about 20th level: INT 25 + 40 = Spellcraft 65, Caster Level 20 brings the total to 85, and spell level 9 gives a total of 93, and 93 divided amongst, say, 6 parameters gives an average index value of 15.5 – quite high. Especially when you consider that some parameters can be reduced to compensate for even higher parameters elsewhere. There’s no reason why one parameter can’t have a score of 75 under this regime. Or more, if the multiplication model were to be used.

Which settles one thing: we’re using the index addition model.

Spell Stability

Simply generating a total in this way makes the caster’s spellcraft total FAR more important than the spell level, and more than twice as important as Caster Level. Is that really what we want?

We could make the spell level matter more by using a multiple of it – but that would just increase the total available for the different parameters as well.

What we need is an overhead that rises with spell level and parameter total, and that must be “paid for” from the Spellcraft total – with only the balance going to towards the sum available for Parameters. If we make this number too severe, we can then compensate with multiples of spell level. At the same time, we want this to be VERY low at low character levels, where there isn’t a lot to play with, anyway. In effect, what we’re doing is taking some of the score available for spell parameters and soaking it up in some mandatory additional parameter.

Lets call this additional parameter… Stability.

Two options come to mind.

A Fibonacci Sequence

The principle of a Fibonacci sequence is very simple – each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. If there is no preceding number, assume a zero. So, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 is a 9-step Fibonacci sequence. I like such sequences because they keep showing up in the natural world, for reasons no-one is quite sure of. I used them a lot in my (still unfinished) game supplement on Druids. They start low and rise slowly until they rise quickly at the tail end.

Prime Numbers

The alternative that sprang to mind was counting prime numbers. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19 is a list of the first 9 prime numbers. But this doesn’t seem to go up fast enough.

Stability in excess of parameter total

My first thought – waaaay back in the writing of this article – was that Stability could have a minimum required value based on the total parameter score. But that doesn’t do very much – you could achieve virtually the same thing by simply doubling the index values. So that wasn’t very satisfactory. But while writing the above, a new thought came to me…

Extended progressions

Why stop at nine entries on the progression? What if the count was Spell Level plus one for each parameter with an index value higher than Spell level, plus another one for each that was more than twice spell level, and so on?

This idea is a bit of a game-changer. Suddenly, there’s an added penalty to pay for extremely high parameter index values. Spell level defines how big this penalty is.

Let’s consider a spell with +5 penalty due to parameters in excess of the spell level. For a third level spell, the Fibonacci entry would therefore be 8, and the eight entry on the list is 21. The Prime entry is 17. Not very different. Both a bit high when you consider likely spellcraft scores and caster levels for a character capable of casting 3rd level spells – 18+12+6+3=39 total. Use 17 or 21 of that and you get 22 or 18, respectively – so those are what the index parameters have to add up to. We have, say, one parameter at triple the spell level (9), and three at double (6) – that gives us the +5 penalty – which totals 27 out of our 22 or 18. So we’re five short, or nine short, depending on whether we use Fibonacci or Primes.

We could limit that by counting a minus one for each parameter that was at or below the spell level, and so lowering where we are in the sequence. Even a small movement makes a big difference. If there are six parameters, and four of them are established as being double the spell level or more, that leaves two as less than spell level – so our +5 modifier becomes a +3, and the list entry numbers drop from 21 (F) & 17 (P) to 8 (F) and 11 (P). Suddenly, out of our 36 maximum, we have 28 or 25 available.

I would continue to work the numbers like this, exploring the best way of combining operations, until I came to a satisfactory result.

Catching an error

By now, most readers familiar with the 3.x/Pathfinder game systems are probably screaming at their computer screens, because skill levels are based on stat bonus and not stat value. But this is supposed to be a warts-and-all demonstration, so I have left my initial error stand, even though I caught it quite a long time ago. So spellcraft contributions will be much lower than indicated, and the gap would have to be plugged with increased emphasis on something else – Spell level being a prime candidate.

Spell Parameters

Using a system such as the one outlined, a logical model can be assembled. The next step would be to actually assign some values to the different spell parameters: Level of effect, die size, range, etc etc. Once that was done, it becomes simply a matter of creating the tables for each parameter, and then looking up the values for each spell in the core book. It would take longer to actually type out the names of them than it would to do the math involved, from which a final choice between Prime and Fibonacci structures could be made.

But I’m rapidly running out of time, so I’ll assume that all that gets deferred and move on to the next question.

What is spell resistance? And why doesn’t it always apply? Why are some spells no-save?

I would define these as an additional Parameter (that may or may not count against the spell level limits described above) – a score of zero means that spell resistance applies, and that a character can save for no effect; a score of N, resistance and save for half; a score of 2xN, resistance and no save, or no resistance and save for half; a score of 4xN, no save, no spell resistance.

Which only leaves the metagame explanation of these effects. Saves generally imply some warning of what is about to happen, a chance to overcome the effect, or some such; it depends on the type of save involved. So that’s easy enough, though the specifics would vary from spell to spell and should be part of the spell description.

Spell resistance is slightly tougher. The first thought that comes to mind is that each class might have one type of spell energy to which they are inherently resistant, and that spell resistance would only apply to those spells that employ that spell energy in some way. But this restricts spell resistance more than it currently is. So I’m not really satisfied by that notion.

And now I AM out of time.

The Next Steps

I need an answer to the question of Spell Resistance. I need an answer to the question of Metamagics (I had one in mind but don’t have time now to describe it). There’s some work listed above that has been assumed to be done, and which would need doing in real life. I would contemplate how all of this gets affected by Permanence, and magic object creation. I would think about spell creation, and make sure that it was reasonably onerous but not too difficult. I would think about the effects on the cosmology. I would think about how all this would permit magic to be used as a labor-saver, and what the impact on the society would be. I would think about Spell Books and how they work. I would think about counter-spells, and whether or not I wanted high-magic zones or lines and magic-resistant zones or lines. I would think about inherently magical creatures, and how they might be affected, and how their descriptions and/or capabilities might change.

I’ve spent less than a day on this concept, and look at how much I achieved. Four or five more like it, and the system – and its concept – would be ready for use in an actual game. And all those benefits listed at the start – and which took a substantial quantity of the time expended in this initial session to list – would come flooding in.

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Casual Opportunities For Priests: Divergences and Differences

The first part of this sub-series analyzed the basic character of the modern priest archetype, identified elements that representatives of that archetype all have in common, and along the way considered how to employ casual encounters to enhance and reveal the character’s basic role in a campaign. In this second part, I’ll take a closer look at the variations that are possible, and how to devise and utilize casual encounters based on their distinctiveness.

Photo courtesy tome213 (Elvis Santana)

Photo courtesy tome213 (Elvis Santana)

Introduction to part 2

After all the discussion of variations that went on in the “Who is the priest” section of the previous article, you might be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t a lot more to say on the subject. But you’d be wrong…

Differential Threads

The object of casual encounters derived from common threads, which were discussed in the first half of this article, is to emphasize what is different about this particular archetype in comparison to any other. The point of casual encounters that derive from Differentials is to emphasize what is different about this particular incarnation of an archetype.

This can get tricky with characters like Priests, because while there may be superficial similarities, there are potentials for deep and complex differences between archetype examples. This causes differential thread encounters to invade the common thread encounters turf, and vice-versa.

It means that its very hard to be as specific as was the case with the archetype featured in the first in this series, the Barbarian; compared to a modern-day priest, with all his permutations and variations, the Barbarian is the soul of simplicity!

It is entirely possible to have exactly the same basic encounter, for exactly the same PC, and simply by altering the finer details of the circumstances and the NPCs involved, to transform the one type of casual encounter into the other.

So if there is an element of familiarity, of Deja Vu, about the discussions that follow, it’s partly because I’ve deliberately emulated the structural breakdown from the first part of the article – but only partly so.

Doctrine & Theology

There are three primary sources of casual encounters that can be h as coming under this heading. There are:

  • encounters that expound the difference between this character’s doctrine and theology and those expected of priests in general;
  • encounters that expound the difference between this character’s doctrine and theology and those expected of priests from this character’s specific faith;
  • encounters that highlight the difference between this specific character and others from within his specific branch of his specific faith.

Without knowing the specific doctrine and theology of a specific character, it’s very hard to create encounters that are rooted on any of these three sources. However, if I don’t try to get too cute by deciding which of these categories an idea fits into, it is possible to list a few generic encounters that can be appropriately repackaged into a relevance to any specific representative of the archetype. So that’s what I’ve done.


A similar issue exists with respect to ethnicity – there are simply so many choices that it’s impossible to get too specific in terms of casual encounters. However, an analysis on general terms still yields a profitable outcome.

There are 10 general encounters that fall into this category:

  • Situations in which the Priest’s ethnicity and his Faith will come into conflict;
  • Situations in which the Priest’s ethnicity and his role as a Foe Of Supernatural Evil will come into conflict;
  • Situations in which members of the Priest’s Ethnicity will expect or request a particular reaction because of that ethnicity, but which will trigger an unexpected response because this individual is a Priest;
  • Situations in which non-members of the Priest’s Ethnicity will expect a particular reaction because of that ethnicity but will trigger an unexpected response because this individual is a Priest;
  • Situations in which members of the Priest’s Ethnicity will expect or request a particular reaction because of that ethnicity, but which will trigger an unexpected response because this individual is a Foe Of Supernatural Evil;
  • Situations in which non-members of the Priest’s Ethnicity will expect a particular reaction because of that ethnicity but will trigger an unexpected response because this individual is a Foe Of Supernatural Evil;
  • Situations in which members of the Priest’s Faith will expect a particular action or reaction because he is a Priest, but which will trigger an unexpected reaction because of his Ethnicity;
  • Situations in which non-members of the Priest’s Faith will expect a particular action or reaction because he is a Priest, but which will trigger an unexpected reaction because of his Ethnicity;
  • Situations in which members of the Priest’s Ethnicity will expect or request a particular reaction because he is a Priest, but which will trigger an unexpected response because this individual is a Foe Of Supernatural Evil;
  • Situations in which non-members of the Priest’s Ethnicity will expect a particular reaction because of he is a Priest but will trigger an unexpected response because this individual is a member of his particular Ethnicity.

If you pay close attention to the logical combinations, you will detect a few in which his ethnicity doesn’t figure at all. These have been included in the relevant Common Threads category. For the record, they are:

  • Situations in which the Priest’s Faith and his role as a Foe Of Supernatural Evil will come into conflict;
  • Situations in which members of the Priest’s Faith will expect or request a particular reaction because he is a Priest, but which will trigger an unexpected response because this individual is a Foe Of Supernatural Evil;
  • Situations in which non-members of the Priest’s Faith will expect a particular reaction because of he is a Priest but which will trigger an unexpected response because this individual is a Foe Of Supernatural Evil.

The character’s role within the campaign can be defined within three different frames of reference: his role as an adventurer, his role within the church, and his role within society in general. Encounters can derive from any of these, but the question needs to be asked, how many of these highlight variations and differences?

Consider these frames of reference individually.

His role as an adventurer could focus on the differences between the archetype and a generic adventurer – but those are matters for the “commonalities” section, which deals with general archetypal encounters. If it should happen that a particular representative of the archetype is poorly-equipped to carry out a standard function of the archetype, it migrates encounters built on that capacity from a commonality classification to a divergence one without changing the encounter specifications in the slightest – only the expected difficulty and possible outcomes will change. Listing any encounters derived from this sub-source is therefore going to be redundant; the encounters will be the exactly same as listed in the common threads category.

His role within the church, being unusual, could be a valid and useful source of encounters, pointing out the differences between this particular sect or internal division of the Church to which the character belongs – but those are already covered, in the common threads relating to the role as a Foe Of Supernatural Evil.

Finally, there is his role within society in general. Perhaps half of the encounters that stem from this category are already going to be listed within the scope of Ethnicity, detailed above; and everything else is going to be already listed under the “common threads” category. Either this archetype representative will posses that common quality, making that the correct source; or he won’t, in which event it is that absence that is to be emphasized – with exactly the same encounter.

There’s no ground not already covered.


Which brings us to the ultimate expression of individuality, the personality of this specific character. Casual Encounters designed around the PCs personality are always going to be worthwhile.

But it’s very hard, once again, to offer specific encounters without knowing the personality in question.

Nevertheless, there are five types of casual encounter that can be derived from this category that are designed to express some aspect of the individual within the game. These can also be an excellent tool for helping the player think about these aspects of the character if they are not sufficiently delineated.

What tempts the character and how he deals with that temptation are especially good questions for a character like a Priest. But rather than focusing on temptations that may already be specified, a more general approach is warranted, showing how the character deals with those temptations that he may not have already considered.

Temptation is the opportunity desire to commit one of the seven (originally eight) “deadly sins”, and those sins cover a great deal of territory.

  • Lust – Lust is the simplest of the sins; it comprises desires of a romantic or sexual nature that are excessive or inappropriate.
  • Gluttony – Gluttony is overindulgence to the point of waste. It includes overindulgence in food, in other forms of consumption such as alcohol and drugs, and indulgence in excessive credit without the intent or ability to repay. Even habitual thrill-seeking could be covered under this sin.
  • Greed – Greed is the selfish desire for anything of inherent value. That anything could be money, land, works of art – in fact anything that is valuable or collectible. That last is important; an object can have relatively low actual value, but be of sufficient sentimental worth to someone that desire for it qualifies as Gluttony.
  • Sloth – Sloth is laziness, apathy, inattention, indecisiveness, and extends to paralysis or inattention to matters of significance through the indulgence of excessive sorrow or grief.
  • Wrath – Wrath includes excessive anger, acts of revenge, stubbornness in the face of reason, and resentment. It especially includes holding people to an unrealistic standard of behavior or piety.
  • Envy – Just as Greed deals in the desire for objects of material wealth, Envy deals in the excessive desire for the immaterial and intangible that someone else possesses. It includes the desire for fame or power for its own sake, or the indulgent pursuit of those qualities.
  • Pride – Also known as Vanity and Ego, Pride is excessive or unrealistic self-value. It includes indulgent creativity in sermonizing, excessive cynicism, excessive narcissism, a sense of entitlement, and any form of bigotry or deliberate inequality. It also includes the vice of excessive conspicuous humility, an “I’m better than you because I’m more humble” attitude that is especially seductive to Priests.

I’m sure you’ll agree that this provides plenty of scope for encounters! For each of these, there are three possible encounters:

  • The Priest becomes involved in a situation which is really about one of these sins, though it appears initially to be something else;
  • The Priest has to resolve a situation which obviously involves one or more of these sins; and
  • The Priest is offered a temptation which he can choose to accept or refuse.

There are way too many combinations listed above for me to offer a comprehensive set of encounters. By way of example, I’ll offer a few, but most of them will be left to the GM to create when he needs one.

One further distinction needs to be noted – and once again it derives from the issue of relevance. If the character or his faith are typical in the way they they are supposed to deal with a particular temptation, these are part of the Common-Thread encounter set; if the reactions of one or both are likely to diverge from that typical attitude, then they belong in the Divergences encounter set.

Opinions on Controversies
In the previous article I offered a partial list of controversies. It’s reasonable to expect that a Church would have a very different perspective on most if not all of these. Things become more interesting when you consider the potential for conflict between those official policies and the priest’s personal opinions.

Once again, there are far too many possibilities for me to go them all, but I’ve offered a few examples within this category.

Opinions on Politics
Priests are human, and while there may be a strong conservative streak in many Churches, there is more than enough variety of opinion to make for interesting conflicts and situations.

There are four basic encounters under this heading:

  • Extreme X in a Pro-X environment
  • Pro-X in an extremely Pro-X environment
  • Moderately opposed to X in a Pro-X environment
  • Strongly/Radically opposed to X in a strongly or radically Pro-X environment

You’ll notice that these are very generic. It doesn’t matter whether X means conservative or liberal. However, only two will apply to any specific character, because the first variable describes the character’s attitude. That doesn’t matter, because the second variable spans the entire range of possibilities; simply create an interesting situation that reflects that local attitude, and the let the player decide what his character’s politics are.

It might appear that these four combinations do not account for all the possibilities, but in fact, they do. Any possibility that you might think is missing – for example, “moderately opposed to liberalism in a strongly anti-liberal situation” – can be achieved by flipping “X” to the opposite and reselecting the encounter according to the relevant position: “moderately pro-conservative in a strong or extremely pro-conservative situation” – that’s number two on the list; it’s a situation in which the character will have some sympathy for the goals of whoever he has encountered, but will discover that they are willing to go too far.

Opinions on Society
Similarly, everyone has their opinions on various social issues. These may or may not be at odds with the stance of the local authorities, and/or the church that the character belongs to. The same four-way options described above work with these encounters as well – you simply replace “X” with one position or the other on the social issue concerned.

“X” might be equal opportunity, or segregation, or nuclear power, or war with Nazi Germany or free medical insurance, or teacher tenure, or higher wages for garbage men. The same mechanism works with any issue.

The trick is to define “X” relative to the environment – either moderately or strongly Pro-”X” – and then determine the character’s position with respect to that perspective on that issue.

But because there are two standards of comparison here and not one, there are more combinations: The character’s opinion vs that of society, and the official church position on that same issue. This can bring about a conflict between the character’s personal opinions and the position he is supposed to hold – and that’s where things get interesting for the character, as he is caught in the middle.

Hobbies & Interests
Finally, we have something that’s outright obvious. If you build an encounter around a hobby or interest of the character, it highlights that the character has that pastime, or would like to. Equally, you could build a casual encounter around something that the character has zero interest in – a variation on the old fish-out-of-water idea.

Conclusion to part 2

In the introduction to part 2, I rebuked anyone who thought there was nothing more to say on the subject of distinct variations on the Priest archetype, and how to express them in the form of casual encounters designed to highlight each variation’s distinctiveness. Well, here we are at the end of that discussion, and it has proven to be so extensive that there is no time for the example encounters themselves – so this article will be extended to a third part…

…or maybe even four. I’ve finally been able to get back to writing, having lost an entire week to post-surgical recovery. I’m still not 100%, and part three – which is scheduled to appear on Thursday – is less than 1/6th finished after working on it all day. I can’t realistically see getting it more than half done before it’s scheduled to appear in public. On top of that, I’m supposed to attend a family function this weekend, so it’s entirely possible that even the last part won’t be quite finished on time, even splitting it into four – but I’d rather post the final part a day or so late than break it apart any further than four parts…

So maybe I’ll do another quick post in between, so that people not into this series will have something else to look at – and so that I’ve got a little more time to get everything done.

One thing’s for sure – like it or not, future parts of this series will not only need to be subdivided, but those parts will probably need to be separated in time. There’s just too much work for them to appear in a string, it’s too hard carving that much time out in a solid chunk. Each part will need to be separated by something that’s a LOT quicker to write…

About the Casual Opportunities series:

This series seeks to offer opportunities for PCs to reflect their primary role within a campaign. Opportunities for heroes to be heroes, for villains to be villains, for geeks to be geeks. It’s easy to become so focused on the primary plot, or on the things that the PCs are contributing to it, that it’s easy to overlook these touchstones that remind players of who their characters really are when the chips are down.

Each part focuses on one particular character archetype and list at least half-a-dozen or more minor encounters for that major type of character that showcase an essential characteristic of the archetype, explain the significance to that character type, and make some attempt to get under the skin of the archetype and examine what makes it tick.

The series itself will be an irregular one, appearing every now and then – don’t look for it every week. And while it might have started with a D&D / Pathfinder character class, I intend to cover superhero, sci-fi, and pulp archetypes along the way – all in no particular order. In fact, I’m going to deliberately mix it up…

I found out with the first entry in this series that they are just too big to write as a single article – and that was before my recent computer problems and the ongoing headaches of writing with an overenthusiastic laptop while recovering from surgery.

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Casual Opportunities For Priests: Analysis and Commonalities

Casual Opportunities Series Logo

About the Casual Opportunities series:

This series seeks to offer opportunities for PCs to reflect their primary role within a campaign. Opportunities for heroes to be heroes, for villains to be villains, for geeks to be geeks. It’s easy to become so focused on the primary plot, or on the things that the PCs are contributing to it, that it’s easy to overlook these touchstones that remind players of who their characters really are when the chips are down.

Each part focuses on one particular character archetype and list at least half-a-dozen or more minor encounters for that major type of character that showcase an essential characteristic of the archetype, explain the significance to that character type, and make some attempt to get under the skin of the archetype and examine what makes it tick.

The series itself will be an irregular one, appearing every now and then – don’t look for it every week. And while it might have started with a D&D / Pathfinder character class, I intend to cover superhero, sci-fi, and pulp archetypes along the way – all in no particular order. In fact, I’m going to deliberately mix it up…

I found out with the first entry in this series that they are just too big to write as a single article – and that was before my recent computer problems and the ongoing headaches of writing with an overenthusiastic laptop. It may even prove necessary to make this a three-part article, though I’m trying to avoid that.

This part will analyze the basic character of the priest, consider the elements that they all have in common, and how to employ casual encounters to enhance and reveal the character’s basic role in a campaign. In the second part – if all has gone according to plan – I’ll take a closer look at the variations that are possible, and how to devise and utilize casual encounters based on their distinctiveness, before wrapping the article up with a heap of example encounters. If I have to split it into three [update: I did], it’s the latter part that will be removed from part 2.

Chalk the division up as yet another necessary evil. Which brings me neatly to the beginning of this particular two-part article…

Photo courtesy tome213 (Elvis Santana)

Photo courtesy tome213 (Elvis Santana)

So who is the Priest, anyway?

I want to make it clear from the outset that we are not talking about Pathfinder/D&D Clerics here.

I should also emphasize that the content below is not intended to challenge or belittle anyone’s personal beliefs.

The traditional Priest in a pulp, cthulhu, horror or modern-day setting is a character who fights the supernatural and evil. A variation on the standard Anglican or Roman Catholic priest, his very existence within the game is predicated on the notion that such evils exist, and that certain members of the clergy are blessed with the power to fight them.

For three reasons, such characters attempt to maintain a shroud of secrecy over these encounters.

  • They would not be believed by most. The claim that they are real therefore weakens the authority of the character, which he might need in future encounters. Or,
  • If they were believed, it would scare the public, resulting in panic wherever the priest went, which is also counterproductive. Further, lynch squads would target the innocent at the slightest suspicion. That’s undesirable, to say the least.
  • Some, however, would believe and see this as a road to power, increasing the workload of the priesthood beyond its capacity. It must be remembered that the real enemies of the priesthood are not the puppets and pawns of Evil, but the power behind them.
  • Priests are required to be humble. Within reason. It’s the priesthood that’s important, not the individual. The sort of publicity that would result from a genuine battle with the supernatural, properly reported in the press, is not permitted.

So there are all sorts of good reasons for keeping things on the QT – mostly because it advantages the other side too much, one way or another.

When the supernatural is not involved, the Priest is just another pulp character. He may or may not choose to employ lethal force in self-defense or the defense of others. He may be a polite public face, because most priests are good talkers. He may be the moral compass of the group, because priests are supposed to be experts in morality. He is usually a follower, not a leader – but he will take charge when events move into his domain, and expect obedience. He is usually a character of firm convictions, and often conservative in many respects – even retrograde.

And yet there are innumerable variations on this basic model.

Doctrine and Theology

The presence of this type of character within a campaign generally points to a difference between the doctrine that is publicly expounded and the true theology that lurks behind the scenes. The version of the Holy Book upon which their religion is founded is a carefully-edited (even fabricated in parts) to conceal things that Man Is Not Meant To Know.

Variations In Faith

The most obvious room for variation is to consider the difference between different faiths, even notionally similar ones. Roman Catholics and Anglicans and Protestants and so on are fundamentally different from each other in some respects; a player choosing an alternative faith for his character and making that difference relevant is an excellent way of making a character unique. Perhaps he’s Russian Orthodox instead.

Or you can go even farther afield. A Confucian Monk who battles supernatural evils. A Voodoo Priest or priestess. An African. A character from the Bible Belt. A Mormon. You can choose any faith you want – provided that enough of the fundamental attributes line up, or can be made to line up, with those outlined below.

Doing so requires both the assistance and cooperation of the GM, and he has enough on his plate without a player demanding he undertake a serious study of comparative theology. The player should do whatever he can to make it easy for the GM to understand the character and the differences that the player wants to embrace.

Variations In Ethnicity

Once-Irish catholics in New York City have a particular ethnic stereotype. If you choose a North American Roman Catholic, you are likely to be assumed to be adopting that ethnic stereotype as a foundation as well. This can make the character easy to create, because it is a stereotype; and it also makes the character easy to make unique simply by choosing a different ethnicity. A Caribbean Catholic? A Brazilian Catholic? A Chinese Catholic? Why not?

The same caveats and prescriptions apply as were described for Variations in faith.

Variations In Culture

Even if you stick with the basic Caucasian Roman Catholic, there are people who fit that profile in many different countries, and even variations within individual countries. The variations and choices that you have available range from the subtle to the obvious. A minister from the Australian Outback will be quite different to a minister from Poland, who will be different to one from Denmark, who will be different to one from the Northeastern USA.

A unique character is one composed of many parts that harmonize with each other in a way that renders that character an individual and not a cypher.

Heck, a Clergyman from the lower east side of Manhattan is quite likely to be very different from one deriving from, say, the Boston countryside. The two would have certain things in common, but they would also have different perspectives and viewpoints and experiences, yielding slightly different attitudes and a differing emphasis on diverse parts of that common foundation.

Variations In Personality

Even with three parts of the foundation the same, there’s still a lot of room for individual variation, because now we come to the character as an individual. How did he come to serve whatever church he is part of? What was his motivation? What is the well-spring of his faith? Which temptations has he had to overcome, which does he struggle with, and which has he yielded to? What vices does he have? What is his attitude towards all the political, philosophical, and social issues of the day? Is he a conservative or a progressive – and what do those terms mean in his sphere of reference? Who are his usual Flock and what effect has that had on him? Is he a practical man, or a dreamer – or a zealot? How does he resolve contradictions between what he is required by his Ministry to do, and what most people would say he should do – e.g. privileged communications within the confessional? Is he puritanical, or more casual? Is he the type to lecture people, or does he hold fire until they come to him? Is he the missionary type?

Variations In Role

His role within the campaign beyond the confrontations with Spiritual and Supernatural Evil also bear scrutiny, because there’s plenty of scope there. While it might be traditional for Priests to be well-spoken, good communicators, they aren’t all like that. Some are blunt, some are outspoken, some are diffident, and some won’t speak up at all. He might have a terrible stammer – except when he is speaking about his faith or quoting the bible verse.

Does he rely on non-lethal force – even when attacked? Under what circumstances is he willing to use a weapon – and how good is he with it?

Is he a leader or a follower, outside of spiritual matters?

A Cynical View Of Catholicism

It’s fair to say that there have been blemishes on the history of the Catholic Churches. Dig hard enough into any of them and you will find that they are, or at least have been, terribly flawed, like any human institution.

Just some of the controversies and judgmental errors of the past include:

  • The Spanish Inquisition,
  • The creation of the Church Of England,
  • The KKK,
  • The condoning of Nazism,
  • The trials of Galileo and other scientists,
  • The Crusades,
  • The Witch trials of Salem and many more, elsewhere,
  • Wealth vs Asceticism, as highlighted in “The Name Of The Rose“, and
  • The relationship with the Italian Mafia.

The more you dig, the more controversy you discover. These examples don’t even mention people like Jim and Tammy Bakker and other controversial televangelists. Even the modern-day church is not without its thorny social issues and attitudes which are considered conservative at best:

  • The role of women in the priesthood,
  • Gay Marriage,
  • The Right To Life Movement, and especially the extremists within that movement,
  • The vow of abstinence Priests of some faiths must make,
  • The sheltering of pedophiles within the church,
  • Creationism and its more recent incarnation, Intelligent Design;

…the list just goes on and on.

Sometime in the near future, we may have some hotly-debated new topics for that list:

  • Do Clones have souls? Is killing them murder? Can they be enslaved?
  • Same questions for artificial intelligences.
  • Same questions for Aliens or other Biological, Sentient, Non-Humans.
  • Same questions for non-human and semi-human artificially-created life forms,

They may belong to the future of the real world, but they can very much apply to the present-day in a roleplaying game, regardless of the genre.

I have opinions on all these subjects. Players and GMs will almost certainly have opinions on all these subjects. Priest Characters should have opinions on all these subjects, which may differ from those of the player responsible, the GM, or the other players at the table.

Where personal opinions can be accommodated or set aside, these all make great fodder for plotlines and encounters. Where there is no conflict between opinions, they can still make for great plots.

It would be remiss of me, however, not to point readers at an early article that I wrote here at Campaign Mastery, relating a real-life problem that derived from such a conflict in opinion, and one player’s unwillingness or inability to distance the game from his personal opinions on another, related, subject: Moral Qualms on the Richter scale – the need for cooperative subject limits. As that article explained, the conflict between his theology and the assumptions within the game cost me a creative and intelligent potential player. Even the brief contact that he had with the campaign left it considerably richer in new ideas and new concepts, and I still regret the loss.

Common Threads

There are seven characteristics that I regard as universal amongst all the different varieties of priest that have already been described:

  • Faith
  • Doctrine
  • Morality
  • Enemy Of The Supernatural
  • Ghostbuster
  • Representative Of The Faith
  • The Power To Fight Evil

Each of these illuminates a different, sometimes subtle, aspect of the character.


Some people define “faith” as surrendering blindly to whatever you believe in, in the expectation that it will save you – or has a higher purpose that is served by a failure to save you. Others define it (as I usually do) as belief beyond need of proof. That doesn’t need to imply a fatalistic surrender, an expectation that someone else will solve all your problems for you; it can be faith that you will be given the opportunity and tools that you need to solve your problems, and some religious doctrines demand that these be earned through pious actions. Which is something that a player with a good GM can reasonably expect, anyway, so it’s not a huge stretch. The player and GM simply have to treat whoever or whatever the character has faith in as an off-screen metaphysical NPC who’s there to help – on certain non-negotiable terms and with certain inherent limitations.

These factors are even more significant when contemplating the difference in relationships between this abstract entity and the priest, as compared to the relationship with the general public. Expectations of each other will be different. I once read (somewhere) that everyone’s true relationship with the God that they believe in is uniquely individual because everyone has slightly different needs (which may bear no resemblance to what they think they need), and their god fulfills those needs.

The Relationship between Priest and Divinity
It follows that the relationship between clergyman and deity is different for every priest, and uniquely characteristic of that clergyman – a central manifestation of the personality and appointed role of that man of the cloth. Appointed, not by others, and not by the character themselves, but by the deity in question.

What’s important in the context of this article is that the Priest has faith in something; that this faith manifests in unique form for every individual; that defining the shape of that faith is central to a complete definition of the character; and that once it has been defined, the GM can provide mini-encounters to explore, reveal, and demonstrate the uniqueness.

Metagame-level problems
Since the character has no idea of the “plan” which has been laid out for their future, this poses a particular problem in Game terms. The GM is normally responsible for the decisions and actions and metagame aspects of the campaign, but this is too central to the uniqueness of the character not to be in the hands of the player when we’re talking about a PC.

You can get along just fine for months or even years without addressing it, but sooner or later the player and the GM are going to have to get together and talk about the ultimate destiny that the player has in mind for the character within the campaign. The GM has to be careful in terms of what he reveals about his future plans for the campaign, but those future plans have to accommodate a mutually-agreed-upon direction in which the character can slowly evolve.

This is normally a wise GMing policy anyway, but in the case of the priest character, it becomes essential. The primary events and adventures within the campaign (well, some of them) then become formative and transfiguring milestones in the evolution of the character, while the sort of casual encounters that this series is dedicated to advocated and enabling become checkpoints of this development.

The role of casual encounters of Faith
A more useful metaphor might be “crossroads” and “signposts”. Adventures which feature the priest character should present choices to the player, choices which evolve the character either a little or a lot, while the signposts give the player an opportunity to see the impact of the most recent choice on the character.

Of course, a character can be central to a plotline without such a crossroads; the character can slide, unaffected, through any plotline which is based on what they already are as opposed to what they are going to become. But this usually represents a wasted opportunity, because an adventure which is personally significant to the character always has much greater depth and engagement levels for the player.

Avoiding The Railroad
Whenever you talk about “grand plans” for a character and “crossroads in their evolution”, the risk of railroading plots escalates considerably. But this metaphor and approach offers a solution: The GM can simply offer the choices with no “grand plan”, but with an eye to the consequences of the character’s choices, and let the character’s destiny evolve however it evolves. The mini-encounter “road signs” give the player the chance to see the direction their character is headed in, enabling them to make a more informed choice at the next crossroads if they don’t like it.

It follows that adventures that offer especially significant choices to the priest character should always come with a pre-planned future mini-encounter to articulate the consequences of the last choice made, and/or a mini-encounter intended to foreshadow the choice so that the relevant subject is already on the player’s mind before they have to commit themselves.

Translating Choices into Casual Encounters Of Faith
This section of the article started with the very abstract and has worked its way from that beginning through metagame levels into practical application and advice, to arrive at the most practical question of all: How to integrate these opportunities for choice into an adventure, and how to derive from the outcome a casual encounter that articulates and highlights the consequences.

Unfortunately, the more practical the advice, the harder it is to keep it general in nature. Individual cases and circumstances become too relevant. So the general answer to that “how” is necessarily vague.

  • Give the character a choice that exaggerates or makes more extreme a trend that is already occurring within the character and his past choices. That choice should be significant to the outcome of the adventure.
  • Extrapolate and simplify that choice to a mundane level equivalent, something that is not life-and-death, but that has real impact on the lives of a few ordinary people.
  • Create a casual encounter which injects the Priest character into this mundane level situation.
  • Where the GM wishes to foreshadow the choice that the character will have to make, the casual encounter should precede the adventure with the critical choice, or at least precede the choice itself. Where the GM wishes to illuminate the consequences of a choice that has already been made, the casual encounter should follow the choice and should be derived from the player’s actual decision.

A little unsatisfying, isn’t it?

Maybe an actual example from the Adventurer’s Club campaign will help.

The Interfaith Prelude for Father O’Malley
It’s been an established premise in the Adventurer’s Club campaign that the farther you got from “civilization”, the more powerful and omnipresent supernatural forces tend to be, both good and evil. If you want “really weird”, go off the beaten path.

My co-GM and I had a major campaign event coming up that was going to take the PCs into the mountainous backwaters of China, in the “foothills” of the Himalayas. We knew that this meant that all the baggage of Chinese superstition and mythology would be available to us for encounters, and wanted to hint in advance to Father O’Malley that his abilities to Smite Supernatural Evil would still be effective, and to lay some philosophical groundwork for the adventure.

Father O’Malley, when he isn’t out adventuring, shares a`Ministry with another priest whose name escapes me for the moment. They alternate Dawn services, and deliver the services on alternate Sundays. One of the other activities of this NPC was to participate in a weekly radio show discussing the theological implications of recent news and performing an on-air interfaith service, sharing the studio and airwaves with a Jewish Rabbi and an Anglican Minister. The NPC fell ill this particular week and asked Father O’Malley to substitute for him.

The theme of this particular broadcast, as it developed, turned out to be Tolerance and Unity, and the general statement that the things people of the faith had in common were more important than the differences. This was obviously a well-worn theme for the participants, and they offered many statements under that heading that we wanted Father O’Malley to know. “Evil is Evil”. “What is in your heart is what matters”. “Caring for others is universal.” “The cloak of God will shield you, no matter where you go.” “All men are your brothers”. That sort of thing.

It was still with some trepidation that Father O’Malley first called upon his “Smite Supernatural Evil” when the party subsequently encountered a Chinese Water-Demon in the form of a ‘Giant Freshwater Kraken’, but his abilities were as effective as he could possibly hope they would be. When an ancient Emperor and Dark Sorcerer was resurrected, he was able to employ his abilities to defend himself and the rest of the party while they sought a solution to the problem. The underlying theme throughout was that there were more similarities at the core of the superstitions and mythos of East and West than expected. Later, they encountered a Chinese Vampire; some of the traits and vulnerabilities were as described in Chinese Mythology, other elements of that description were mere superstition, and in some ways, the foe resembled a traditional “Western” vampire like Dracula.

In all these encounters, Father O’Malley faced a choice between three options:

  • Staying true to his Western upbringing and dealing with the things he encountered on that basis;
  • Deciding that the local beliefs superseded his own because he was out of the Western environment in which his faith was dominant; or,
  • Being himself and employing the weapons of his faith, while respecting that the locals might know something about local conditions that his faith did not, and working within the commonalities between the two.

We were prepared to cope with any of the choices made. For the record, the character chose option three – but then struggled to reconcile the effectiveness of the local beliefs with his own faith, going into “full western priest” mode afterwards. The character was played in such a way that he felt he was compromising his own beliefs out of practicality – and the fact that they worked began to steer the character toward a crisis in his Faith.

Subsequent adventures have heightened these spiritual doubts; he has now reached the point where other culture’s faiths are given priority over his own in terms of his choices of action. When the characters recently encountered a Native Spirit Of Vengeance in northwestern Canada, he almost completely “went native” rather than trying to reconcile his beliefs with those of the natives. This made relations with the locals much easier, and the PCs won through in the end by following the native-faith strategy, but there was no thought given to the spiritual consequences for the character. Without doubt, his Faith is now at an all-time low. At the same time, the character has been cruising along, treating emergency situations on their merits as he perceives them.

Which is the perfect time for a major crossroads for the character, an opportunity to renew his Faith, or turn aside from it and become just another Adventurer. I can’t go into details for several reasons – including that we haven’t played the adventure yet – but suffice it to say that his weakened Faith will either emerge stronger than ever, or gone completely, to the point where he may turn in his collar afterwards. There’s no real middle-ground this time.

Naturally, with an event of this importance, we want the question to be on his mind, and – in a way – the entire adventure up to the crisis point will serve to do just that. The PCs will have won, and the adventure will be over – but if the player decides to renew Father O’Malley’s faith, and the other players have sufficient confidence in Father O’Malley, there will be an extra chapter to the adventure tacked on that will take them someplace they never thought we would dare take them. To some extent, this will also be a test of the player’s faith in the GMs unwillingness to completely destroy the campaign if they dare accept the challenge we intend to pose. We’re prepared, either way.

At least, we were – before the PC woes that I’ve been experiencing caused a systems crash in the middle of saving the adventure, completely destroying three month’s work, which we are desperately trying to re-create at the moment.

A Secondary Benefit
The example also highlights a secondary benefit to the casual encounters approach when employed in this fashion that is worth taking a moment to highlight. It lets the GM move some of the contextual narrative out of the time when the PCs are too busy to absorb it and shifts it to a less distracted moment – so that the action in the main adventure can move more freely, with less narrative interruption, and the relaying of important information can take place when the players are able to pay attention to it.


Moving on, we come to the subject of Doctrine. Every religion has a set of rules that their representatives must follow, and a set of official policies on various subjects. As explained earlier, some of these are controversial, conservative, or even regressive, while others may be controversial, progressive, or simply weird. Still others will reflect the general attitudes of the day. There will also be subjects on which clergy are forbidden to express an opinion, and some on which they may be forbidden to even have an opinion. Some of these doctrinary restrictions will be locally imposed, some will be national, and some may be supranational or even characteristic of the particular religious body that the priest represents.

It’s generally not necessary to outline the actual doctrine that the priest PC must abide by; it’s enough to deal with occasions when doctrine requires the Priest to do:

  • Something he disagrees with as a character;
  • Something that would be considered out of step with contemporary attitudes;
  • Something that he would not normally do, and which is therefore uniquely characteristic of his character; or
  • Something that is controversial or unusual by the standards of the society within the game.

In other words, Church Doctrine is a plot device that the GM can use to put a Priest into an interesting roleplaying situation. It is limited to specific applications however, defined by the player’s choice of religion for the character.


Priests don’t have a morality that’s especially different from anyone else’s, but they are notorious for following that morality more closely than the man in the street – or at least (if you’re talking about one of the more despicable examples mentioned in the section dealing with controversies), pretending to.

As a general statement, they are required to be both conspicuously moral (regardless of their true natures) and a moral leader and educator. Which means that they can expect the thorniest moral issues and problems to be laid at their feet for resolution, without warning – just walking past can embroil the character in some difficult decision. “Is it wrong to kill my neighbor’s cat in defense of my budgie?” “Is it right to ruin the lives of the rest a family by making unprovable allegations of immoral behavior on the part of one family member?” “We both claim ownership of this cat…”

If you can think of a moral conundrum, there’s almost always a way to drop it on a Priest character without warning – to everyone’s amusement. A great source of ideas for this purpose are 1950s, 60s, and early 70s sitcoms – things like Bewitched, I Dream of Genie, Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Brady Bunch, even The Partridge Family!

Enemy Of The Supernatural

Not every supernatural enemy is going to be first or even second-rate. Some problems can be nipped in the bud before they become a crisis. The presence of supernatural foes great enough to make the character significant as an archetype implies a number of these minor problems; in fact, you would expect more trivial encounters than serious ones, but the trivial ones would become boring if anything close to the correct frequency was maintained. So use these whenever you think of a good one!

Trivialized versions of a lot of the plots of Charmed can be a good source of these mini-plots.


One of the most famous debunkers of the supernatural was escapologist Harry Houdini. “Ghostbreakers” were semi-professional cynics, sometimes called “Ghostbusters”, who sought out reported cases of ghost, psychics, mediums, etc, and tried to disprove the event or report.

The existence of an Enemy Of The Supernatural who nevertheless does his best to keep the public in ignorance concerning the reality of the supernatural creates some highly-interesting ambiguities.

The Adventurer’s Club campaign, for example, has an NPC who searches high and low for a genuine supernatural event, but whose luck always leads him to incidents with other explanations that turn into his adventures. This is something of an ongoing metagame-level joke within the campaign. He is quite convinced that the supernatural is sometimes real, but he can’t prove it.

It undoubtedly doesn’t help his cause that there are priests like Father O’Malley out there who are required by their Churches to muddy and cover up any genuine incidents to the best of their abilities!

In a recent adventure in Los Angeles, Father O’Malley had to confront a demonic presence terrorizing the offices of a Newspaper. An exciting chase developed through the different offices in the building an the air conditioning ducts. At the end of the confrontation, the “Printer’s Devil” – actually more of a “Printer’s Imp” was destroyed, leaving only property damage and a huge mess behind. Several reporters had managed to take photographs of the Imp; somehow, two bottles of developer were mislabeled, and the negatives ruined before any prints could be made. The Insurance Company who subsequently investigated the incident found evidence in the basement of someone cooking wild mushrooms on a portable camp stove near an inlet to the air conditioning and blamed the entire incident on staff affected by hallucinogenic fumes. Father O’Malley, who had been in that precise spot, was not reachable for comment, but would have (a) remembered no such stove, and (b) been required by his Church to say that it was there, effectively debunking the incident. He would probably suspect that the Church had some small squad on standby to follow-up such incidents by manufacturing and planting whatever evidence was needed to keep the reality a secret. Wouldn’t you, if your organization was responsible for keeping such things a secret?

And that’s the template for encounters that fall into this province – Character encounters some minor supernatural event, character investigates, character deals with whatever caused the incident and then character does whatever is necessary to cover it up. If the character is distracted by something more urgent that comes up (as was the case in the Los Angeles adventure in question), the church’s “disinformation squad” handles the clean-up – and never admits doing so, even to the Enemy Of The Supernatural who dealt with the threat.

Representative Of The Faith

Whether he likes it or not, the Priest is the public face of the Faith, the target of every resentment, complaint, and reaction to controversy, the recipient of every public trust and confidence, however misplaced or out-of-his-depth he might feel.

If someone has a beef with the church, and the Priest walks by, he becomes the subject of that anger. If someone has a problem, they will often tell it to a Priest. If there’s an argument anywhere in the vicinity, the Priest will be sucked into it.

And heaven help the poor Priest who gets a reputation for actually solving people’s problems; leeches and troubled personalities will crawl out the woodwork.

The Power To Fight Evil

The presumption made throughout this article is that the reason the Priest is a viable archetype is his Power to Fight Evil. But that is only the tip of a very complicated iceberg. What are his specific abilities? How do they work? Where did they come from? Were they inherited from a predecessor? We’re only starting to explore this territory with Father O’Malley, because for some reason it took us a long time to realize that these are important questions.

Because we don’t have yet have all the answers figured out for Father O’Malley (and it’s worth mentioning that we are working in collaboration with his player), I can’t give a lot of guidance as to what the answers might be in this section. We have worked out that his “Detect Occult Evil” ability is the ‘whispering’ of a guardian Angel, and have discussed with the player the identity of that Angel. There are five basic options:

  • An especially holy figure who has chosen to serve;
  • A child or cherub who was never given the chance to be baptized into the church, but who has nevertheless been given the chance to earn their way into the afterlife – the “innocent” option;
  • A generally good person who had a singular flaw that went unconfessed/unforgiven in life and who must now redeem themselves – the “John Q. Public” option;
  • Someone who did evil in the name of the Church, and who must now redeem themselves by helping someone else do good in the name of the church – the “Redemption” option; or
  • A genuinely evil person who is now being punished by forcing them to perform good works – the “darkness” option.

What these all have in common is that they mean that the PC is carrying his own personal NPC around with him, with whom he can interact. An NPC who will show up, not in the form of direct dialogue between the two, but by influencing the personality of the main character, just a little and just for a moment. The things that NPC was interested in, when the PC comes across them, will hold an inexplicable (and brief) fascination for the PC – a fascination lasting just long enough to get him involved in an encounter.

The things that the NPC dislikes will also be reflected in momentary passing dislike or distrust by the primary character – again, lasting just long enough to get him involved in something interesting, or complicate what might otherwise be quite a straightforward situation.

We put the question of “who” the the player, and he chose to rule out option five, option one, and the most extreme versions of option four – so his guardian spirit is not going to be Torquemada, or a former Pope, or anything like that. Beyond that, he’s left the choice in our hands, so that he – as a player – can interact with the spirit, whoever it is, in the same state of ignorance that his character would be in.

The question of how his other abilities work remains unresolved, but for the first time, it’s on all our radars. We’re thinking about it now – for the first time in… how long HAS the Adventurer’s Club campaign been running? Four years? Five? Six?

In any event, the “Guardian Spirit” gives us a whole new way for the campaign to interact with the character, and exploring those capacities for interaction is the subject of this particular set of encounters.

Conclusion to part 1

So, there are lots of encounters that can derive from the fundamental standards of the archetype. Specifics may vary in individual cases, but the general descriptions remain.

Post-Surgery Status Update: I’m still finding sleep difficult, post-surgery, and as a result concentration is in short supply. It probably doesn’t help that the painkillers I’m using to manage my back pain, worsened by an awkward sleeping position, also induce drowsiness. I tried doing some writing today but wasn’t very successful. In fact, I got less than 500 words done in a time that should have been enough for three or four thousand. Fortunately, anticipating this possibility, I had already written the first two parts of this three-part article, and made extensive notes on the third – so I still have a week to get the last part written, which hopefully will be enough…

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The Application Of Time and Motion to RPG Game Mechanics


How do you tell a good House Rule from a Bad?

I know, I promised something short. As long-time readers will know, I don’t do “short” very well…

“Time and motion studies” used to be the favorite tool of “efficiency” experts who optimized a process for speed. They quickly became the butts of a lot of sarcastic humor because they had an alleged tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater, culling process steps that existed for good reason beyond their limited frame of reference. To some extent, this may have been deserved, but for the most part it was simply resistance to change; no intelligent efficiency expert would dream of not determining why a process was occurring and what other processes made use of it.

It’s like double-entry bookkeeping – yes, it doubles the workload of the bookkeeper, but it’s absolutely essential to any form of auditing for errors in the accounts.

It’s also a great way to tell a good rule from a bad rule – especially valuable when you’re thinking of adding house rules to a game system.

I’m a big fan of House Rules, of customizing the game infrastructure to incorporate and reflect the unique concepts of any given campaign. It’s even possible to create a whole new campaign simply by deciding to replace a base rule with a house rule idea and asking “what are the in-game consequences?”

But whenever you get into House Rules territory, the fact that these have not been playtested – or, at least, not in combination with every other House Rule that you have incorporated – can be a recipe for disaster. There is an analogy here to a personal computer – no-one else in the world is going to have your exact combination of hardware, software, environment, and user habits. That makes it hard for any software or systems developer to throw anything new into the mix with zero possibility of conflict and confusion, and is the reason why most troubleshooting advice starts with uninstalling anything new that has been added since the last time the system worked reliably.

If only it were always that simple… (sigh). Some software makes permanent changes to the system and doesn’t clean up after itself properly when it gets uninstalled. In part that can be because of sloppy design, but it can also be because the uninstall function also has to function in that particularly unique environment.

I’ve learned a few “rules” the hard way about what differentiates a good house rule from a bad one – enough that I can spot a lot of the lemons before even “installing” them in my campaign. Call them Metarules for the sake of convenience. This article is going to describe those Metarules, dividing them into six categories:

  • Rules that take too long
  • Rules that offer too much choice
  • Rules that occur too often
  • Rules that add insufficient value
  • Rules that require a shift in mindset
  • Rules that are redundant

I’ve been guilty of creating House Rules that have infringed on each of these, in the past – but I like to think that I have learned from those mistakes.

Rules that take too long

Some rules simply take too long to use. “Too Long,” of course, is a subjective measure; three minutes once a game session is not overly excessive. Three minutes per hour of play is becoming problematic; but if the rule is important enough, valuable enough, that might still be tolerable.
The more steps there are in a process, the longer that process will take.
“Too long” stems from a combination of three factors, which are only partially independent of each other:

  • Too Many Steps – The more steps there are in a process, the longer that process will take.
  • Too Many Variables – The more values that have to be included, the longer a process will take – especially if they have to be looked up in different locations.
  • Too Many Decisions – Every choice requires a comparison between that choice and every alternative. This element grows exponentially worse with complex or combinations of choices.

Any or all of these factors can cause a rule to simply take too darned long to use for that rule to be practical – and an impractical rule is a bad rule.

There is one final factor of which a GM should be cognizant in terms of this category of rule: Rules that take too long to explain to the players, or that are – for whatever reason – too hard for them to understand. This factor needs to be assessed a little differently to the others because it is an element that may improve with time. The more frequently a rule is accessed, the more likely it is that this will be the case; but there are no guarantees. So such rules may be worth trailing, but the GM should bear the potential for rule failure in mind, and have a way to remove the rule that is not too disruptive to the game’s internal logic and history – a topic that I’ll come back to at the end of the article.

Rules that offer too much choice

I’ve already touched on this in the preceding section, but here I’m talking more specifically about rules that expand the freedom of choice of the players by giving them extra metagame options, more ways of interfacing with the game mechanics.

This is the challenge that makes spellcasters such a challenge (compared to fighters and such) in the various incarnations of D&D – the variety of options (spells) that they have to choose from. The same problem can also afflict superhero games when characters have too many powers and too many ways to use them, or cyberpunk games where characters have too many weapons of different characteristics available in their armory.

As I said previously, every choice added to the palette requires a comparison with every other choice available before an action can be chosen – and the situation grows exponentially worse if there multiple sets of choices that can function in combination.

This problem can be compounded. Players generally come in two varieties: those with greater expertise in the rules that affect their characters than the GM has, and those with less, sometimes substantially less. The latter adds substantially to the workload involved in actually making a choice from amongst the options available. Some players cope better with choice than others, in other words. It’s probably fair to say that every player has their own individual breaking point, though, and this is the problem that the GM flirts with every time he offers a new mechanism of choice to the players.

Rules that occur too often

It’s a straightforward relationship – the real cost, in time and effort, of any rule is the product of individual processing time and the frequency with which that process has to be carried out. Ten seconds an hour isn’t very much. A minute an hour isn’t bad. An extra minute every combat round is too much. An extra second for every blow struck in combat is absolutely massive.

Here’s some simple math: The number of combats in a game session times the number of rounds of combat in the average battle times the number of blows struck in a combat round by all participants including monsters and NPCs. Typical numbers might be 3 x 6 x 20 = 3600. Even one extra second each comes to an HOUR of playing time lost. And since the GM is handling multiple characters, most of this will be time the players spend waiting for him – as Johnn Four discovered a while back My Group’s Time Thief Revealed – Chronology iPad App Review.

The frequency with which a rule is invoked is usually far more important than the time that the rule takes to use. This is a lesson that I have learned through very painful experience (My Biggest Mistakes: The Woes Of Piety & Magic).

Rules that add insufficient value

Any rule change needs a good reason to be there. Even house rules that are designed to streamline some process that occurs frequently within the game have to be justified; every such rule is a balancing act between what is gained and what is lost. And I’m not talking about what a rule is intended to do, or attempting to do; what is its actual value to the game, and to the campaign?

What does it cost? Every rule change has a cost, whether it’s measured in time (which has been the focus of this article thus far) or in terms of reducing the choices someone has to make. Even if the rule is a streamlining of existing processes, like the change from the old THAC0 structure in D&D, there is a price-tag in terms of learning the new rules.

Changes in value

Here’s some further room for thought: the costs and benefits change as characters become more powerful. In systems like D&D, they may gain in the number of attacks each can perform, for example. They will gain more options as characters. That can change the cost-benefit analysis, and can mean that a useful contribution can become unnecessary, unworkable, or simply not worth the hassle.

Don’t simply assess a rule on the current situation; consider what will happen a year from now (real time), or two, or five.

If a rule is worthwhile now, but will stop being so in the future, you have three choices:

  1. Tolerate the future penalty for the sake of the short-term advantage;
  2. Kill the rule now, and save the later headache;
  3. Include a mechanic to phase the rule out over time, or have some other form of “exit strategy” for the rule.

The last doesn’t seem to occur to people very often, perhaps because it’s an artificial solution – but there’s nothing wrong with employing a metagame solution provided that it is being made on the grounds of practicality, and the players are advised of this. For example, is there a sub-mechanic that can be employed to reduce the frequency of occurrence of the house rule based on some value that increments with character experience?

And if you’re really worried about the ramifications for campaign concept, you can always think about some in-game justification for this phasing out. While it’s not something that would worry me, per se,, I would probably put some such justification in place just in case it bothered one of my players. After all, no matter who the players are at the start of a campaign, you can never be sure just who the players will be at its end. (I was once told of a D&D campaign whose focus was generational change; each time the characters gained a level or was killed, one of the PCs was forcibly retired, and a new player brought in a new PC to replace that character. There was a rotational roster involved. It came to mind because it’s a story relevant to the next ATGMs – but it’s also relevant to this discussion, so I thought I would mention it).

Rules that require a shift in mindset

Once again, I find that I’ve anticipated the subject. In part this refers specifically to situations like the THAC0 problem – “Low rolls are good except for attack rolls when you want a high roll” – i.e. consistency of mechanism. More specifically, rules that require subtraction of numbers tend to take a lot longer to process than rules that require additions.

But there are also rules that require other shifts in thinking. Rules that address a team’s tactical situation, as opposed to the simple and straightforward “I attack”. Even shifting to a situation in which game rules dominate can take time. For that reason, in both my own campaigns and in the shared Adventurer’s Club campaign, there are times when a cinematic approach is taken so that the players and GM can stay in character rather than losing the time while everyone shifts mental gears.

Even if it only takes a second to shift mental gears, or to perform a subtraction instead of an addition, that time can be incredibly important, as the previous section shows – but my experience is that it takes more like 5-30 seconds.

Five seconds once a combat round – based on the numbers offered in the previous section – is a minute and a half. Thirty seconds costs almost ten minutes. That doesn’t sound like a lot – not in comparison to one second per attack! – but that’s assuming everyone can make the shift at the same time. If they have to do it consecutively, taking into account what the player who has just acted has done, a five PC group takes that Thirty Seconds up to 45 minutes of wasted time. And if the GM has to do it as well – that 45 minutes becomes an hour and a half of wasted game time.

Some players are especially poor at these mindset shifts. I have known one player who required something more on the order of minutes to achieve it – so much time that most of the other players became impatient. Once the mind-shift took place, once the decisions were made, he was as insightful and original as any player I’ve ever had in one of my campaigns – but he couldn’t turn it on and off like a tap, and the other players could.

The rules didn’t help, in that they weren’t designed to accommodate someone with his particular limitations. He would undoubtedly have been a less frustrating player if they had been constructed to minimize the frequency of mental gear-changes. As with everything else, the frequency of repetition is critical.

Rules that are redundant

But it’s not everything. A rule that costs 10 minutes every time a battle starts still costs half an hour of play if there are three battles in a game session. You can cope with that if the reward to the campaign is big enough; but how about if there is no reward unless that player chooses to exercise one particular choice?

Or a rule that costs time – even only a few seconds – repeating something that you’ve already done? What if the rule is nothing but an absolute, total, waste of time? Remember that number from earlier – one second an attack can waste an hour in a typical game session. Take that up to 3 seconds and you are talking three hours of lost play. That’s probably half the average game session. And if that’s because of a redundant rule that gives you no benefit at the end of the day’s play, how much better would your game be simply as a result of junking that rule?

Principles of efficiency

I was once told that there were three principles to efficiency:

  1. Do things once, and do them right;
  2. Do them when you need them, and not before; and
  3. Keep the results where you don’t have to look for them.

Well, here’s a shocker for anyone nodding their heads: I don’t agree with number two.

So long as you assume that you will follow principle number three, you will use less time if you perform the task when you already have the reference material in front of you. In other words, don’t perform the task when you need the result; perform it when you know that you WILL need the result before the end of play, and when it is most convenient to do so.

As always, there’s a caveat. Things are never that simple. Here’s the first rub: the more you do in advance, the more time you can lose wading through all the other things that you’ve done at “the most convenient time” looking for the result. It’s a balancing act. And the key to success is not just getting the balance right between “just in time” and “done in advance”, it’s doing those things in advance that have the biggest time penalty when done “at the time”.

Prioritize anything that has to be performed repetitively. Next, prioritize anything that requires a shift in mindset. Those two factors alone should be more than enough to get you to the right sort of mark.

Wise Prep

At least, they would be, if not for the second joker in the deck: Time spent when you are not at the gaming table doesn’t count. All time is not equal; if you can squeeze in an extra five minutes of game prep sometime prior to play to perform, in advance, some of these tasks, it’s all gain and no pain – and can yield a disproportionate improvement in actual game time.

When you read a section of narrative, it’s used once; you are generally better off using bullet points and a summary of that narrative and fleshing it out on the fly, then using the time saved to prep the numbers that you will need in the course of the game. This trades a one-off inefficiency for a recurring efficiency.

Removing Bad Rules

The simplest answer is to wave your GM’s magic wand and simply announce “the rules have changed”. What’s past is past, and even if the rules no longer permit what did happen to happen, learn to live with it and get on with the game.

If you really want some sort of in-game justification for the change, do it as a metagame byproduct of a present or future encounter. You could:

  • Assume that the old situation was unnatural, and give the PCs the opportunity to restore conditions to their natural state; or,
  • Assume that the old situation was to the disadvantage of a powerful NPC enemy, and have him do something to alter conditions such that they are more to his liking; or
  • Assume that the PCs have a hidden ally (competence to be determined) who thinks that the change will help them; or
  • Make the change a side-effect of something that the PCs do.

I want to expand on the last one for a moment. I once needed to make a rules change in an AD&D game. The PCs came across a wandering monster. The dice indicated that in this monster’s hoard there was a sword – no magic, nothing special. So I made it a magic item – no bonuses, but once someone lifted the sword, some runes glowed, and (unknown to the players at the time), the rules changed. They spent ages trying to determine what the magic power of the sword was; it radiated magic to anyone employing a “detect magic” spell, it was lawfully aligned, but any attempts to learn of its abilities produced absolute silence. Eventually, they got the runes translated, and learned that this was the sword “Gamechanger”. They then put two and two together and came out with five, which was exactly the answer I was hoping for. For the rest of that campaign, the PCs were afraid to touch the darned thing, and even more afraid of letting anyone else get their hands on it, or even learning of its existence. One of them was so paranoid that he hired an assassin to make sure the Sage who performed the translation could never tell anyone about it. And every time an enemy singled them out, they were afraid that he had learned of the sword. They could never be sure what change it might make next time.

So let me sum this section up in a different way: try to find a way to look upon the need to change the rules as an opportunity, not a burden.

The Final Word

Above all, don’t stress too much about the efficiency of the existing rules, including the house rules you already have in place. They must be working well enough, or your campaign would already be in trouble. Apply these standards and considerations to any new rules that you come up with, and don’t stress about the rest. The game is supposed to be fun, and while bad rules can maim or even fatally wound that fun, stressing out about them is certain to do so. When you perceive an opportunity to improve the game, by all means take it; but “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” as the saying goes.

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Quantum Entanglement and the Tech of Tomorrow


This isn’t the post I expected to be writing today. There are two reasons why you’re reading this and not the first of a three-part article about Priests: the first is a documentary (part 3 of The Fabric Of The Cosmos) and the second is the explosion of inspiration that it produced. I wanted to strike while the iron was hot…

This article builds on and extends the game physics that I use for the Zenith-3 and Warcry campaigns, which I previously discussed in Fascinating Topological Limits: FTL in Gaming amongst several other articles. You might also want to check out A Journey Of 1,000 years which is part two of my series on time travel. More to the point, this article (in parts) will assume that you are familiar with that content.

Quantum Entanglement

So, let’s start with the source of inspiration behind this whole article – Quantum Entanglement. If you don’t understand this concept, you could try reading the Wikipedia article that I just linked to, or you could watch the documentary I linked to earlier – or you could stick around for my slightly simplified recapitulation of the explanation they offered in that documentary. If you have used one of the other techniques, feel free to skip down to the next section, “Multiple Dimensions Of Space-Time”.

Still here? Excellent. Okay, imagine you have a roulette style wheel with alternating blue and red panels, which represents an electron. If you bring two electrons or other particles together closely enough, quantum theory says that their properties can become entangled with each other. The colored panels on our wheel represent some property of the particles that the wheels represent, such as the direction of spin. So we need a second wheel for the other particle.

If you spin the wheels, entanglement means that whatever color comes up on one wheel, the opposite color will come up on the other. The act of spinning the wheels describes manipulating that property of the electron. Now for the strange part – it doesn’t matter how far apart the two particles are once they are entangled. One will always have the opposing value for the property being manipulated to the other. Somehow, the second particle “knows” what the condition is of the first, no matter what the distance between them is, and “communicates” this information instantaneously in zero time to the other – with no connection between the two of any sort.

Einstein hated the notion. He called it “spooky action at a distance” – the “spooky” part referred to the lack of connection. At best, he thought, quantum theory was incomplete – and he had already shown that information couldn’t travel faster than the speed of light. Since Quantum Entanglement did, he had to choose to believe that either he was wrong, or that Quantum Theory was… dubious, shall we say?

Multiple Dimensions Of Space-Time

Quantum Theory also states that you can’t state where a particle is (and some other qualities, like its spin) until you observe it; until then, it has every possible outcome at the same time.

The physics of my superhero campaign rests, in part, on the concept that there are three dimensions of time just as they are of space, and that what we experience as time is a vector through the resulting space-time. When a quantum state collapses into one of these possible outcomes, the timeline splits into multiple branches, each of which experiences only one of the possible outcomes. In part, that’s my theory, and in part, it’s established physics theory, known as the “many worlds” theory or the many worlds interpretation (the link is to the Wikipedia article that describes it in far more technical detail). According to my game physics, when that happens, the temporal vector lines branch off in multiple directions within the three dimensions of time, but if you were to perform a vector addition of the results, you would end up back with the original vector.

We don’t experience anything that doesn’t happen on the vector that describes our particular space-time, only the effects of the various forces that affect the path of timelines.

When I first described this theory of “Vector Time”, one of the comments I got was “why?”. Quantum entanglement is a great way to demonstrate the value of the approach.

Demystifying the spookiness

Since there is no absolute temporal frame of reference, all measurements will be relative to some base timeline. The act of entangling the two particles clearly divides the timeline in two – one in which the particles were entangled and one in which they weren’t – but we aren’t interested in the second of those, so let’s discard it and use the timeline in which entanglement took place as our base.

Next, we had the act of separating the entangled particles. This also splits the timeline – one branch for every possible adjusted location
of the entangled pair. But we’ll simplify it and assume that we only ever move the second particle to the same point relative to the world around the first. In which case, we split the base timeline into only two timelines – one in which the pair were separated, and one in which they weren’t. Since there is no change from the base timeline in the non-separated subsequent timeline, it continues along the same temporal vector that the universe had before the question of separating the pair came up. The timeline in which we did separate them is obviously different to this one, so it has some temporal vector relative to the first – it will angle off from the base timeline, starting from the point of divergence.

Subjective time is akin to a wavefront traveling along these temporal lines, expanding from the point at which measurement started and expanding into the future. This is the equivalent of an arc drawn with the center placed on one of the timelines. Note that nothing has been “duplicated” – these are still the same particles on the different temporal vectors. It’s just that one has moved within the internal space-time and the other hasn’t. There is also now a connection that cannot be perceived by any of our senses or instruments that links the past (when the two were made entangled) and the present, where they have been physically separated but the entanglement persists.

The act of causing one of the particles to “collapse” into a deterministic outcome by measuring a property that is subject to entanglement propagates back along the temporal vector to the point in time where the two became entangled in the first place, and it is at THAT instant that the collapse of one takes place – forcing the other to also collapse into the opposing state. Therefore, whenever that property of the entangled remote particle is measured, it will always have the “correct” value.

Some people might now be saying, “but the particle didn’t collapse into one possible configuration at that instant, that happens as a result of the act of observation, at the instant of observation” – to which I reply, how would you know? The only way to find out is to measure the property of the particle at some point before you measure the property of the particle – a logical impossibility. All you end up doing is shifting the point from which the collapse event begins to propagate back along the timeline.

All this takes zero perceived time within the integral space-time containing the particles. It’s not on our temporal vector, in fact, it’s as far removed from our temporal vector as it is possible to get. By definition we can’t experience the connection between the two entangled particles – only the measurable fact that changing one also changes the other, instantaneously within our frame of reference. The connection between the entangled particles is outside our space-time.

I’m still not claiming that my theory is correct. I’m simply saying that it offers a way of explaining the otherwise inexplicable.

The Virtues of Entanglement

Entanglement is real. It has been proven in the lab. And once we know how to do something in the lab, humans have a natural tendency to start looking for ways to utilize it for practical purposes. At this point, the documentary starting talking about star-trek style teleportation – without addressing any of the multiple flaws in the proposal that make it impractical. But I began thinking about some more realistic applications, and very quickly found that entanglement opens up a whole new branch of technology – or maybe a whole new sub-branch of electronics.

Let’s start with the blindingly obvious and go from there…

Real-Time FTL Communications

We’re really good at manipulating electrons. We’ve been doing it for quite a while now. Electron spin, one of the properties affected by entanglement, is the basis for all digital computer RAM, floppy disks, solid-state disc drives, etc. Suppose we were to separate a pair of entangled electrons and send one of the pair a very long way away. Light-years. By altering the spin of one of the pair, we also alter the state of the one left behind. Examining the state of the one left behind gives us the (manipulated) state of the distant one – instantly. What we have is a 1-bit communications channel. We don’t care that reading the status of the one at the receiving end also alters the state of the remote one, because as soon as the next bit of information is encoded onto that remote electron, it resets our local one, undoing the effects of our last reading – so we simply read its state again, ending up with digital serial communications. If we have 8 of them, we can send one byte of information back at a time. Of course, we’ll want more for broader information bandwidth and still more for redundancy.

Imagine something like a matched pair of memory cards with 100Mb capacity each, in which each of the memory circuits on one contains electrons that are entangled with the one in the other card. Or 256Mb. Or Gigabytes. The limiting factor is how quickly the information can be read off the memory card into a computer; the bandwidth that results is vastly more than can be used. You need time to read and process the information being sent before the next manipulation at the remote end. Data can be streamed – in one direction at a time only – at infinite speed over infinite distance.

While it would be possible to reverse the process using the same electrons – reading data into the home RAM to be read by the remote RAM after processing the signal sent from the remote RAM – it would probably be easier to permanently dedicate half to each direction of travel. The result is real-time digital communications to anywhere, instantly.

Real-time Remote Control

Of course, once you have bi-directional instantaneous communications, there is absolutely no barrier to real-time remote control of space probes, etc. Without the “instantaneous” part of that description, speed-of-light lag makes this impractical; you can’t issue a command based on what the situation was so many seconds or minutes ago, and which won’t actually be carried out until that same number of seconds or minutes later.

Stick a couple in (relatively) close solar orbit to watch for solar flares and storms, and send the information back to earth ahead of the event so that electrical companies have time to prepare their systems, for example.

Sidebar: Dispensing With Paradox
It has been said a number of times that FTL communications creates paradox. This comes about because physicists (and astronomers, and others) mistakenly equate an event with the awareness of the event having occurred. Just as astronomers are prone to describing the events observed in distant galaxies such as their motions with what is happening “now”, ignoring the fact that light has a finite speed and therefore the actual event occurred quite a long time ago, so the same mistake creates the apparent paradox of ‘being able to receive information about an event before the event occurs’. The only reason there is a paradox is because of the assumption that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and therefore becoming aware of the event via some communications that occur at the speed of light is tantamount to the event occurring at that instant.

If you define the speed of sound as the fastest speed possible for information to travel, then any communications by means of light automatically creates an artificial paradox, a means of learning about an event before awareness of that event (by means of sound) reaches the observer. Therefore either the light-based information is describing the event before it occurs, or there’s a flaw in your logic, assumptions, or both.

I am perfectly happy to accept that the speed of light is the fastest speed possible for information to be sent electromagnetically. But not everything is necessarily subject to electromagnetic limits. That’s a subject I’ll return to a little later, when I ask whether gravity is a force – or the effect of a force acting through an extra-temporal domain, possibly even the same one as entanglement.

The Ultimate in secure communications

Before getting to that, I have a few other aspects of the communications-by-entanglement approach to discuss. It occurs to me that it would be the ultimate in secure communications – assuming that you can’t have multiple particles mutually entangled. The entanglement link cannot be monitored – though, once the messages are received and passed to a standard electronic device, they would become vulnerable, just as a secure internet connection will not protect your passwords from a virus on your computer. Nor can the message be interfered with in any way, so far as I am aware.

The prospects for military communications alone are revolutionary. “Radio” signals that are not subject to interference, can’t be blocked, and can never be intercepted?

But, even more to the point, a modem “pair” employing entanglement technology would be a wireless internet connection that has these same attributes, and that can never be tapped by a bandwidth pirate. The wifi node is secure, by definition.

The Ultimate in off-line storage

Picture a box into which you can plug memory card after memory card, which accesses that memory using an entangled data connection like a SIM card. Limits to computer RAM become a thing of the past. You can have the equivalent of unlimited hard disk space. You take one end of this connection with you wherever you go, plugged into a very localized low-power wireless connection. Suddenly, you have full access to your computer storage everywhere you go. You are no longer limited to the amount of memory in your mobile phone, or your digital camera, or your tablet device, or your e-book reader. You can store and retrieve information instantly, from wherever you are.

That memory device does not have to be in plain view. It can be in a fire safe. It can be in another, more secure, building. It can be on another continent, or another planet for that matter.

The Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy produced multiple terabytes of data. How much more convenient would it have been to have had all of that information instantly accessible, anywhere in the world that Peter Jackson happened to be? And that’s just one application of this technology.

The Universal Telescope

When did entanglement start? There was a time, perhaps a few milliseconds or even microseconds after the big bang, when the fundamental particles came into existence, when there was ample scope for some of them to have become entangled with one another. Those particles could now be anywhere in the universe. Let’s say we want real-time information about the stars at the center of our galaxy – we can get some of that information simply by interrogating a particle we have access to here on earth which happens to have been entangled, way back when, with a particle that is now in one of those stars. It’s only a matter of finding a local particle with the correct entanglement.

It seems probable that shared history means that the majority of entangled particles in a given location, say the earth, will have their partner found nearby. It should be ‘relatively’ easy to find an entangled pair in which both particles are part of the earth. The number of particles which are entangled with a more remote location should be far fewer, because they have less of that shared history.

Like all telescopes, a telescope based on existing entangled pairs would be limited in the data that it can convey, just as radio telescopes, infrared telescopes, x-ray telescopes, and optical telescopes, all give different information to astronomers. It follows that it’s uncertain how much useful information we would get from such a telescope.

There are also some extremely difficult hurdles to overcome before such a telescope would be practical. If you grab a random particle here on earth, first you have to identify it as an entangled particle; secondly, you have to identify where its partner is located by correlating changes in its condition with events observed by other means, where one is subject to a speed-of-light lag of unknown proportions and the other is not; and third, that remote location has to be somewhere of interest. Only once those three problems have been solved can you start addressing the question of what the particle is telling you about conditions where it is located.

Part of these difficulties – a very small part – might be overcome by assuming that every particle that can be entangled, is entangled, and that when we speak of ‘entangling’ two particles, what we are actually describing is a change of entanglement partner. That vaults the first hurdle that I mentioned, and only leaves two to go. The second is almost impossible to overcome, and only the prospect of quantum computers holds any hope of a solution in my opinion – what we have now is simply not up to the task.

I don’t think the third is as much of a burden as it might initially appear, though – finding any naturally-entangled pair with a positively-identified remote location for one of the pair would automatically make it acutely interesting. Maybe it’s somewhere in the Earth’s core? Or attached to an atom in the earth’s atmosphere? Every positive identification would be of acute interest, at least for the foreseeable future – so the third hurdle is a non-event. That leaves only one technological challenge of any seriousness to be overcome, and puts this idea squarely into the “someday soon, maybe” category.

Another prospect that this holds is the potential for direct examination of the big bang itself – that only needs a particle whose state hasn’t changed since that time. The more remote from anything interesting, the less chance an entangled particle has of having encountered anything to change its state since that time – the void between stars, or more likely, between galaxies, is the place to look.


If entanglement communications can become a reality, then any sort of radio communication swiftly becomes obsolete. Which might explain why SETI hasn’t found any. The window in history through which radio transmissions dominate and are detectable over interstellar distances might be less than a century or so wide.

Pick an extrasolar planet that has intelligent life. Find a matching entangled particle here on earth. Start transmitting messages using that particle to change the state of the remote particle in a deliberate pattern. Wait for someone there to find and identify that pattern. Eureka – instant Contact!

This is really an inefficient approach. It would be a lot better to grab a hunk of particles, assume that they are entangled, and start altering their states in a non-random way. This shotgun approach makes it more likely that someone, somewhere, will notice the signal – if there is anyone out there to do so. Remember, no interference, no attenuation of signal with distance, instantaneous. The “background noise” here is of an entirely different kind.

Hold on a moment – that means that every computer on the planet is broadcasting to ET every time it gets used. But our computers aren’t equipped to cope with transmissions received by means of entanglement – they would simply kick out a memory error, or a corrupt file. We may already have missed ET’s reply. Certainly, we are signaling at a more prodigious rate than ever, without even realizing it.

I can picture some future incarnation of SETI testing large numbers of particles for non-random condition changes over a long period of time – the more they test, the more likely they are to find one – while also non-randomly changing the state of another large group of entangled particles – the more they do of that, the more likely it is that they will make contact with ET’s SETI project. Then comes the hard work of convincing each other that the contact is real – and convincing anyone else that it’s real, too.

Bypassing the event horizon

What happens to an entangled pair when one of the pair is swallowed by a black hole? I don’t know, but it would be fascinating to find out. More to the point, it’s entirely possible that entanglement would permit the direct observation of the interior of a black hole, beyond the event horizon, because it bypasses the speed of light limit that creates the event horizon in the first place. That depends on whether or not the subatomic properties that create the entangled condition are lost during the transition.

If we could determine what the properties of a particle whose entangled partner has been swallowed by the hole (but not by the singularity) would be, we can start looking for such a particle…

The mysteries of the Big Bang

Cosmologists sometimes seem to have a masochistic streak. No sooner do they come up with what seems to be a workable theory than they start apologizing for its simplicity and start trying to complicate it.

That’s certainly what happened with the big bang. For some reason that no-one has yet adequately explained, the subsequent expansion doesn’t seem to have occurred at a steady, even, pace. This is called Cosmic Inflation, and while it remains controversial, unproven, and possessed of known flaws, it does predict some phenomena that have been observed, so it would appear to be at least part of the story of the early universe (read the wikipedia article if you want a more detailed discussion). One of the big problems is why things would happen this way?

Multidimensional time might just offer an answer. If the post-big-bang universe was always expanding at the same rate overall, but part of that expansion was along a time axis that we cannot directly observe, it changes the nature of the question by providing a different frame of reference within which the “missing expansion” might have taken place. Interactions between the observable and unobservable time frames can then account for the apparent (but illusionary) change of expansion rates – its an illusion caused by the fact that we can only perceive part of the totality.

This all implies that the additional temporal dimensions can function as an additional energy transfer mechanism, one that is not taken into account by any current theory. Our definition of the universe as a closed system, in thermodynamic terms, becomes untrue until the parts of the universe that are present within these other temporal dimensions is taken into account. So far as our observable universe is concerned, energy could be (apparently) created (actually, siphoned from elsewhere) and destroyed (siphoned off to elsewhere).

This is not a trivial matter. It affects just about everything in science that you can think of – though the impacts on most things would be a vanishingly small, because this sort of thing wouldn’t happen very readily or very often. Conditions would need to be exactly right. Study of entanglement would lead to an understanding of the mechanism by which it operates, opening the door to the adaption of those mechanisms to practical ends.

Unlimited free energy?

Let’s start with a couple of benign ones. The first is that we obviously have a source of unlimited free energy, we just have to work out how to tap it.

Even just a controlled and short-lived tiny trickle might be enough to enable self-sustaining fusion reactions, itself no small benefit. Ultimately, though, the goal would be to go beyond using this energy source as an exciter for fusion and harness it directly on a much larger scale.

It has been suggested by some writers that if you have enough energy, you can do anything that is permitted within the laws of physics, and that might well be the case. Oil could be created artificially from waste, for example, and we could turn garbage back into its constituent parts and then build those up into whatever material we desired. Practicality is not so certain, though. So it would not be a universal panacea, though it would certainly help.

Thermal Pollution Cleanup

Human activity creates a lot of heat. I’d love to see a study sometime of the climatic effects of thermal pollution from a city, and the way that thermal energy interacts with the existing climatic models. In fact, since the majority of human activity takes the chemical energy locked away in various fuels and releases it into the environment with no corresponding mechanism to take the excess and waste energy and store it away again, I would be more prepared to consider this as the cause of global warming than the usually-attributed culprits, simply because there are natural feedback mechanisms to moderate the others. There are natural processes that take C02 out of the atmosphere, for example. That’s not the case with thermal pollution.

The time might come when every city has a heatsink that gathers the excessive heat from around it and shunts it away onto another temporal axis. It’s simply the reverse flow of that which yields all that free energy, implicit in the development of one is the development of the other.

Of course, this is simple sweeping the problem under the carpet unless the realm to which we export this thermal garbage is also the realm from which we draw our energy supply, but out of sight tends to be out of mind – I can’t imagine that stopping us.

Directed-energy Weapons

If unlimited energy is on tap everywhere, someone’s going to find a way to weaponize the technology. I’ve described the results as a directed energy weapon, but it might not be the energy in its pure form; self-powered rail guns are another distinct possibility, as are lasers without the bulky power supplies that they now require.

Energy Shields

It’s not often in the design of a new weapon that its natural defense is also implicit in that development, but that just might be the case this time around. If you can tap an extra-dimensional space for its energy, you can also shunt unwanted energy away, at least in theory. The same tech that deals with thermal pollution could be adapted to provide an energy shield, i.e. a shield against unwanted forms or concentrations of a particular form of energy.

While it might never be practical as a defense against the concentrations of energy produced by the weapons discussed a moment ago, that doesn’t mean that it won’t be useful – for example, as a sunscreen that blocks 100% of the harmful UV from your favorite beach or park.

Black Holes & Entanglement

Let’s talk about gravity for a minute. Imagine that you have two spheres in space orbiting their mutual center of gravity. One of them is charged, the other is not. Now place a static charge somewhere nearby so that there is a new force acting on the charged sphere. This alters its orbit, which in turn will cause a secondary alteration in the orbit of the other sphere. If you were measuring their mutual gravitational attraction, would you really have to wait for light to travel from one sphere to the other before this gravitational shift was experienced by the uncharged sphere? Or would it occur simultaneous with the event itself, and not with the awareness of the event by electromagnetic means?

Gravitic interactions and Entanglement seem to share a common property, then – they operate instantaneously so far as our frame of reference is concerned. Could it be that the reason we’ve never found a graviton is because they function on a different temporal axis that we can’t directly perceive?

The implications of the similarity are staggering, opening the door to gravitic technologies.

Transmission of gravity to a remote destination – in other words, artificial gravity. No more zero-G problems for astronauts on long missions.

Transmission of gravity from a remote destination – i.e. artificial anti-gravity. No more worrying about blackouts from high G-forces. The ability to manufacture the effects of a gravity well in a controllable direction relative to the path of flight – in other words, Star Wars / Star Trek space vehicle maneuverability.

Combining the two would permit acceleration by focused gravitic attraction at huge rates. You already get huge numbers from sustained 1-G acceleration – how about at 100G, or 10,000? What this amounts to is moving gravity from somewhere where it is not useful to us to somewhere where it is, without moving the mass that causes it. Of course, there might be side effects at wherever we’ve taken the gravity from, to consider. What did I say earlier about problems that were out of sight? Oh, yes. If we can do it, we will.


How about sending matter through one of these different temporal vectors? The results have to be FTL travel so far as either the crew, or the universe around them, are concerned – possibly both. Though this is a different order of magnitude in difficulty compared to most of the other engineering/science problems that have been discussed, it might just be possible.

“Replicators”? Teleportation?

Similarly, it’s not that difficult, if matter can be transmitted through a different temporal axis to a remote temporal point in our perceived space-time to come up with teleportation, at least in theory. The practical problems might be bypassed by this approach, or they might still be relevant – if you can do it by effecting every constituent particle with an energy field of some kind, for example, there is no need to individually analyze and replicate each one at the destination. But that’s a very big ‘if’.

The same sort of technology could be adapted to permit Star Trek -style replicators.

The existing theories concerning large-scale teleportation – which the documentary that inspired this article immediately went to – require that the original be destroyed during the scanning process and then used to recreate every particle in its appropriate quantum state at the destination, and completely ignores the practical problems such as the sheer quantity of data involved and the transmission of that data from source to destination. While it might be theoretically possible, I don’t see this approach as ever being practical.

The Infinite Computer

But even being able to perform the data acquisition, analysis, and transmission using a different temporal axis so that it all takes zero perceived time, or close to it, might change all that. You could hand a computer a problem that will take it 10,000 years to solve, send it off along another temporal axis – more of a temporal loop, really – and have it return to our space-time a short interval later having spent those 10,000 years according to its frame of reference, and therefore having the answer.

Speculation vs Reality

Some of what I have suggested in this article is undoubtedly speculative at best, and potential pie-in-the-sky; but some of it is stuff we know how to do already (especially the proposals made early in the article), which rely on the fact of entanglement and not on any particular mechanism by which it occurs. Some of what I’ve described will happen – as soon as we figure out how to entangle particles reliably on an industrial scale. That could happen tomorrow, it could happen in a year, a decade, or a century – or even never, if there is some physical principle that stands in the way and which I’m not aware of.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens!

I’m having surgery on Monday so there may not be a new post until this time next week – though, if I can, I’ll do something quick over the weekend and schedule it in advance. The intervention is minor, to remove a lump believed to be a cyst from the back of my skull, but you never know when you’re having an operation.

And, speaking of operations, I’d like to send a quick shout-out to my nephew, Patrick, who hit something on the skateboarding rink two days ago and today had to have an artificial elbow and arm reconstruction. Get well soon, Patrick!

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The Loss Of Innocence: Some unexpected insights

I was watching a documentary on the roles of Women as portrayed on Television the other day, and it yielded a couple of unexpected insights – one into modern society, and the other into the edition wars that have plagued D&D over the last few years, and the divide between “new school” and “old school” gaming.

TV has changed from presenting the stereotypes of the 1950s to portraying a more realistic view of the characters that inhabit it, especially in terms of roles,relationships and personalities within the family. This enables the characters to connect with an audience who frequently found that their lives could never live up to the ideal presented in those shows – it has given their characters relevance, and made it easy for the audience to identify with the characters. The Actors and Actresses find the characters more interesting and satisfying to play, as well.

With this change has come an increase in the ready utilization of sex and violence on the small screen, not to mention drugs and language and all sorts of other bad behavior. It has been quite common to blame the fall in social standards and rise of violence and swearing within society on these changes – I’m sure everyone will have heard someone making that claim – but I have long believed that this is putting the cart before the horse, and attempting to shoot the messenger. In a nutshell, the world was not more violent and abusive because of TV, TV was more violent and abusive because that’s the way the world is these days. At worst, I thought, there was a minor echo chamber / feedback contribution.

It’s easy to see why Television has acted in this way, for its part. Pushing to the edges of what is acceptable is always good for shock value, and shock value is always good for getting attention – and that usually translates into ratings.

But maybe something has been lost – the inspiration to aspire to be better. Instead of presenting our social ideals on the small screen, we have lowered the bar. This has taken place in small increments, and each time we have done so, TV has adopted the new standard, which has lowered social expectations even further. In effect, the medium now says that it’s all right to be flawed and not to strive to overcome those flaws. The goal is now not to improve ourselves but to learn socially-tolerable ways of managing them. Instead of updating the positive image and role-model that was present in that early era, we have let positivity go in favor of shock value, realism, and relevance.

This blog is about gaming, so let me make this discussion relevant: the same social change has also figured into RPGs, and – in my opinion – is one of the great hidden truths behind the Edition Wars.

But before I discuss that, I should offer some evidence for my primary argument.

The traditional woman – 1950s & 60s

In the televised world of the 1950s, everything was pretty perfect, at least so far as on-screen families were concerned. The Father always had all the answers, the mother stayed at home and raised a perfect family… This was the world of shows like “Father Knows Best” (1954-1960), “Leave It To Beaver” (1957-1963), “Lost In Space” (1965-1968), “Flipper” (1964-1967), “Bewitched” (1964-1972), and “Green Acres” (1965-1971).

Similar values were extolled and exemplified by the leading roles of other shows of the era such as “Dr Kildare” (1961-1966), “Perry Mason” (1957-1966), “Marcus Welby, MD” (1969-1976), “Hawaii 5-0″ (1968-1980).

Even shows that skirted the boundaries of traditional morality (while avoiding drawing attention to the fact) exhibited the dominance-submission pattern, such as “I Dream Of Genie” (1965-1970), or reflected the traditional and ‘acceptable’ family structure, even without the presence of the maternal figure – consider “My Three Sons” (1960-1972).

The first show to deliberately deviate from this ‘perfection’ was “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957) in that Lucy wanted to work in Desi’s shows, but it only flirted with a realistic depiction of women; Lucy was portrayed as untalented and ‘ditzy’ by the show.

The Professional Woman – 1970s & 80s

The TV program that is usually credited with being the first to depict a professional woman, independent of the “traditional” role of wife and mother was the eponymous lead character of “Mary Tyler Moore” (1970-1977). [Personal Admission: much of my attitude towards women as professionals was shaped by this show, even though I was only 7 years old when it began airing in the US. It didn't air on Australian Regional TV for some time after the US Premiere.] So shocking was the concept that Mary Richards, the leading role, was a recent divorcée that network executives tried to persuade the producers to make her a recovering alcoholic instead. While this would have been equally groundbreaking, it would have undermined the independence that the role was to exemplify, and so the proposal was vigorously refused.

Operating in parallel with this series was “All In The Family” (1971-1979), which featured an over-the-top caricature of the traditional father-figure, Archie Bunker. This show ridiculed the out-of-date opinions of Bunker, and by extension, any such attitudes held by members of the audience.

Between them, these two programs reshaped the roles to which women in society could aspire without incurring a general social stigma. Over the next few years, it became acceptable for women to be professionals, both in real life and on television.

This movement reached its zenith in “Murphy Brown” (1988-1998), featuring Candice Bergen as the title character, who gave as good – if not better – than she got.

Nevertheless, these were exceptions to the general trend, which was to ignore the question as much as possible. There were no shows that I remember that featured a female lead who was the equivalent of a Marcus Welby, an Ironside, or other leading professional. Outside of these exceptions, women were still seen as co-stars at best, supporting roles at worst.

The Single Mother

I’ve wracked my brain, but the only shows I can think of that made a point about the acceptability of being a single mother prior to the turn of the century were “The Brady Bunch” (1969-1974) – Carol Brady was described as doing a completely acceptable job of raising her children before she remarried and entered a typical family relationship; and “The Partridge Family” (1970-1974) – but there was still a father figure on hand in the form of the manager, Ruben (however questionable his competence might have been).

Other shows may have had single mothers in supporting roles, as was the case with “Good Times” (1974-1979), but these were the most prominent such roles that I recall. In fact, the only show that had a single parent any sort of featured role was Dallas, in the person of the Matriarch of the Ewing Clan.

Somehow, this simply became accepted, slipping into the consciousness through sheer weight of numbers amongst the public. So stealthy was this indoctrination that her family status was barely even noteworthy when the character of Catherine Willows appeared in the first episode of CSI.

The Perfect Family Revisited

Mention must also be made of another program that once again depicted the perfect family of the 1950s – with, in the person of the mother role, a few hints of Lucy Arnez – and that is “Happy Days” (1974-1984).

I found it particularly interesting that the spin-off show, “Laverne & Shirley” (1976-1983), mirrored the transition from 1950s stay-at-home women to 1960s/70s working women.

But throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in general, the “perfect family” was breaking down as a television concept, being eroded one piece at a time.

The depiction of lower-middle-class working women then progressed into “Cheers” (1982-1983) and the character of Dianne.

It would also be remiss to ignore the world’s best known dysfunctional family, The Simpsons (1989-present) – who seem to come back together, no matter what befalls them. It’s astonishing to think that there are probably children about to enter primary school whose grandparents had not even married when the show began. [Don't believe me? 18 years old in 1989, marriage, child born in 1990, who turns 18 in 2008, have children in 2009, who are therefore going to be 5 years old in the course of 2014. And that ignores the number of children born to 17- and even 16- year old mothers - children could be as much as 9 years old in 2014.]

The Executive Woman

First, I want to point out that just as there have been few TV shows (and fewer successful ones) that feature females in dominant, executive roles. In fact, I was able to think of only a handful of good examples.

  • “L.A. Law” (1986-1994) Arguably the groundbreaker in this respect (as it was in dealing with many other`social issues), aside from a number of highly-proficient female attorneys it featured the character of Grace Van Owen, a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office, who later became a member of the law firm.
  • My second example is also of a highly-respected prosecutor and deputy district attorney within a crime drama, Marion Grasso
    in the first season of “Murder One” (1995-1997).
  • “The West Wing” (1999-2006) – CJ Craig may have started as Press Secretary but she rose to the position of Chief Of Staff. And did it without losing her humanity.
  • “Eureka” (2006-2012) – Allison Blake started as a scientist and Liaison to the Department Of Defense, but she became head of Global Dynamics.
  • “Commander In Chief” (2005-2006) – least successful of the series being discussed in this section, this underrated series featured Geena Davis as the first female President of the USA, the struggles of the system to cope with the gender role reversal that accompanied it, and the character’s struggle to reconcile the needs of her family with those of her position.
  • “Babylon-5″ (1993-1998) – Delenn and Ivanova may have been notionally subordinate to the station commander (Sinclair and Sheridan) at various times as their roles within the series changed, but both were more than capable of exerting themselves and their authority.
  • The Stargate Franchise: “Stargate SG-1″ (1997-2007) and “Stargate Atlantis” (2004-2009) plus movies (2008) – Samantha Carter started as a “science geek” with military training and experience and effectively became the second-in-command of the primary Stargate team, and only rose in authority from that position. Elizabeth Weir was a diplomat and expert in international politics, who initially leads the Stargate:Atlantis mission after a brief stint as commander of the entire Stargate program.
  • “Star Trek: Voyager” (1995-2001) is arguably the most successful depiction of a female in power, featuring not only significant department heads in traditional male roles (B’Elanna Torres) and other strong female roles (Seven Of Nine) but throughout the series the Captain of the starship, Kathryn Janeway, to whom all the other roles were subordinate. This was accomplished in a manner that felt completely natural, never forced.

In every other case that I could think of, the executive woman was clearly subordinate, was at best a supporting character, or was an executive only in a traditional female role, such as the part of Margaret Hoolihan in “MASH” (1972-1983).

Half of these are science-fiction series, and the other half are crime dramas or political dramas. I’m not quite sure about the significance of that.

The Flawed / Abrasive Woman

Leading female roles with character flaws was one of the first inroads of “realism” into characterization. The male-with-character-flaws had been made prominent by the character of Andy Sipowicz in “NYPD Blue” (1993-2005); with the success of that show, it was inevitable that an equally-flawed female role would be presented. The groundbreaking actress was comedienne Roseanne Barr and the show was “Roseanne” (1988-1997). Roseanne was tough as nails, a leading female role whose attractiveness to the audience was not based on her appearance; instead, she – and the show – were more realistic portrayals of women and the blue-collar society of the time. In comparison, every other female role on television at the time was sanitized or idealized in some fashion – even the female detectives in the aforementioned gritty crime-drama. “Roseanne” tackled many social issues and was never afraid to court controversy; issues such as poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, birth control, teen pregnancy, obesity, abortion, race, social class, domestic violence, infidelity, and gay rights according to Wikipedia.

(The heyday of “Roseanne” coincided with a period of time in which I did not have a TV set, and I never found Barr to be particularly funny – though my sense of humor is such that I’m in no position to judge for anyone else; there are a LOT of TV shows and movies that I don’t find funny. It doesn’t stop me from respecting the people who work very hard to make others laugh – or think).

While no other shows on mainstream television since then have even approached the acerbity and confrontational expression of a flawed character, from that point on, it became very difficult for such sanitized roles as were appearing elsewhere not to look vapid in comparison with more socially-acceptable flawed male roles. “Roseanne” marked a turning point in the characterization of women on television. From that time on, it became almost necessary for the female characters to be flawed in some way.

Departing from the script

Most of what I’ve written so far has been somewhere between recapitulation and synopsis of the Documentary that I referred to at the start of this article. It went on to discuss the disintegration of the myth of the ‘perfect mother’, the rise of Cable TV (where the restrictions are far less compromising) and shows such as “Sex In The City” (1998-2004), “Desperate Housewives” (2004-2012), “The Good Wife” (2009-present), “Nurse Jackie” (2009-present), and “Weeds” (2005-2012).

I was only half-listening; in fact I had to go back and watch this part of the documentary again (fortunately I had time-shifted it and could do so). That was because I was distracted by the insights that I mentioned earlier.

Dysfunction, Failure and Flaw

One of the common points that many of the producers, writers, actors, and actresses made in the course of the documentary was that the more dysfunctional and flawed the characters that they created, the more easily the audience was able to identify with them. These characters went from ‘impossible perfection’ to ‘achievable ideal’ to ‘just like me’ to ‘makes me look good’ as television matured. And I began to wonder whether or not these relationships with the characters were reflected in the relationships of audience members with other aspects of society – from striving for a standard of perfection that was unattainable, and being forced to compromise with reality, to being told ‘it’s all right to be as you are, warts and all, because it could be much worse’. Were people in fact being given a license to indulge themselves and their vices by society and social standards?

Why had television evolved in this way? I could summarize the three goals at a meta-production level as Relevance, Realism, and the pursuit of Shock Value, because all three brought good ratings. Character values were either secondary qualities of the character, described as naiveté, or were doomed to failure in the mire of the character’s feet of clay.

The Dark Side Sells

There is clearly an opinion in Hollywood that “The Dark Side Sells”. From early hits like “NYPD Blue”, to “The Sopranos”, to “House”. Even idealized characters from earlier eras were re-imagined with modern flaws – in “Elementary”, Holmes is a recovering Drug Addict, and someone who struggles to learn social niceties.

Characters with flaws are easier to write, more interesting to portray, and have greater depth and verisimilitude. Even characters aimed at children are expected to express some (carefully controlled) flaws these days – look at “Shrek” for example. Somewhere along the line from G-rating to MA-rating (or even R-Rating on cable), there is a slide from “The Good Guys Always Win In The End” to “Anyone can win” to “The Bad Guys Win because you can’t tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys anymore”.

Personally, I think the major switch occurs with shows aimed at teens and young adults; teenage rebellion makes the “sappy, saccharine” overtones of children’s TV unpalatable, they want something that makes them feel more “grown up” than that.

And Yet – idealism can be even more commercially viable

The last, and strongest, holdout from this way of thinking are the cop shows. They flirt with the dark side, but the formula is that Justice is served in the end. Sometimes at a price, and sometimes after exploring some provocative ground, but they usually get there. Consider, for example, the CSI franchise, and the Law & Order franchise.

In fact, with only a few exceptions, the longest-running TV series are always idealistic in some fashion.

In addition to the examples offered above, consider the following list:

  • Perry Mason
  • Mary Tyler Moore
  • MASH
  • Cheers
  • Marcus Welby MD
  • Quincy
  • Trapper John, MD
  • Happy Days
  • The Cosby Show
  • The Star Trek Franchise (in general)
  • TV Cop Shows prior to NYPD Blue including Hawaii 5-0, Ironside, & CHiPS
  • Knight Rider
  • MacGuyver
  • The West Wing
  • Numb3rs
  • Babylon-5
  • Stargate
  • JAG
  • NCIS
  • Columbo
  • Mission Impossible

… the list just goes on and on.

It seems easier to have a successful short-lived show that accentuates the negative, and easier for a positively-oriented show to flop – but for longevity, find yourself a positive show that avoids falling off a cliff and it will last. But I find it significant that of all the examples on the list above, only one is still in production.

The creator of “The United States Of Tara” has said, “There’s this belief that characters on television need to be extra-relatable, and extra-sympathetic because they are coming into your home week after week. The idea of normal has definitely been skewed. I think now we’re realizing that abnormal is ‘normal’.”

Dystopia, and short-lived successes, seem to be the modern stock-in-trade. At least for now.

Social Progress

It should be clear that if my theory is correct, there has been some serious social damage that has resulted from this headlong pursuit of shock value and and realism in plots and characters.

But it has not been without its redeeming social benefits. It started with acceptance of women as professionals. It progressed through into acceptance of racial minorities and the rejection of stereotypes. In more recent times, it has moved on to fostering acceptance of misfits and “geeks”. There is now a common acceptability of people as individuals, flaws and all. This is a good thing.

Social problems of all sorts have been scrutinized, and if there have been no realistic easy answers discovered, no-one really expected to find any. It’s more important to start dialogues about these issues from which real-world solutions might eventually result. The first step is always to de-stigmatize the issue. It can be argued that television has made an indirect contribution to every piece of social progress that has occurred in the last 75 years or so.

But here’s the outstanding question: can you really state that having one automatically mandates the other? Could we have had the social progress without the lowering of acceptable standards of social behavior?

To some extent, the answer to the first question is yes, and the second, no. The reason “Roseanne” had such impact with its examination of social issues is because these were ordinary working-class people with whom the audience could identify. If those characters then learned or expressed a social lesson, the audience took that lesson on board as something to at least think about.

But also, to some extent, the answers might well be no, and yes, respectively. If I accept the last logical point that I made, I then need to ask whether or not the trend that produced characters who were plausible enough for the audience to identify with, was then extended beyond the point of necessity. And I would have to say that yes, it was. Even “Roseanne” was probably on the outer limit of necessity in terms of achieving social progress, if not slightly beyond.

The Evolution Of RPGs

It’s my contention that RPGs have emulated the drive toward Relevance, and Realism. I’ve argued in the past that the early games were more frivolous, and more freewheeling – more about fun – refer, for example, to What does “Old-School Gaming” really mean, anyway?.

At the same time, the older the game, the more prone to reinforcing stereotyping it is. The first stereotype to fall by the wayside was the pro-male gender bias; the second were class level limits for non-humans, i.e. Minorities. Outside the D&D range, other games were introducing characterization tools such as the Disadvantages of the Hero System. Throughout the 90s and into the noughties, the goal was to achieve more “realism” in characters – though that term needs a little more definition before anyone will agree with me.

I’m defining “realism” in this context as “true to the source material”. Fantasy characters that were more like those in the novels and computer games. Superhero characters that were more like those in the comics (the movies and TV shows were mostly lame in comparison). This trend reached its high mark with franchised tie-in RPGs starting with things like Dr Who, Star Trek The Roleplaying Game, Ringworld, and so on, and has stayed there ever since.

It wasn’t just the characters. Every aspect of the RPG was affected – from rules to encounters to plotlines to campaign backgrounds. Of course, there is a natural corrective mechanism built into RPGs – go to far, and the game becomes unplayable, and GMs look for shortcuts and house rules. One of the best examples of this trend that I can point at is the evolution of the Traveller game system, but I would also point at the rules for Star Fleet Battles and Supremacy even though they aren’t strictly RPGs.

D&D wasn’t spared. The 3.x rules were pretty good, but by the time you bloated the systems out with all the game supplements, the results were pretty unwieldy, as I pointed out in one of my earliest articles here at Campaign Mastery, Google Groans: Misplacing the Rules. You really need a search engine to find all the rules that are relevant to a situation – unless you bite the bullet (and possibly annoy your players) by restricting their sources for things like feats. Of course, to be palatable at all, if you restrict the players choices, you also have to restrict your own.

And slowly, the games have become more serious, and some of the outright, outrageous, sense of fun has gone. The whimsy began to be seen as silly.

Glass Half Empty to Glass Half Full?

What is wrong with television having characters just flawed enough to be recognizable and permitting the audience to live vicariously through their struggles to be better people?

What’s wrong with letting the Fun element overcome the deathly serious slant of modern games every now and then? With giving up some of the shock value for the fun value?

What’s wrong with putting some Idealism back into the realism equation?

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