Campaign Mastery helps tabletop RPG GMs knock their players' socks off through tips, how-to articles, and GMing tricks that build memorable campaigns from start to finish.

The Hollow Echo Part 1 – Adding Music To Your Game

a sound board 1 by LeslieR

This is what you DON’T want
at the gaming table.
Image Credit: / LeslieR

Music can provide an iconic trigger that instantly transports the listener into an associated memory.

Soundtracks and scores for Film and TV have long recognized this effect and played on it. You might not know it, but every major character in a movie or TV show has their own “theme”, a handful of notes, usually at most a bar or two, that is played whenever they first appear after being off-screen for any length of time. Sometimes there will also be a group or ensemble theme.

Although not consciously aware of this slight change in the background music being played under the scene and sound effects, it aids recognition of the characters and – through the occasional variation – can nuance the emotional perception we have of the characters. The theme for the shark in Jaws is the instantly-recognizable “Da-Dum”. The orchestra only has to play it once and you immediately know that the shark (nicknamed “Bruce” during production) is out there somewhere.

On a larger scale, theme music can provide a deeper association. Star Wars is held together by two instantly-recognizable themes – the Star Wars Main Title Theme and the Imperial Theme.

A number of DVD-extras over the years have made the power of the soundtrack clear to audiences. It only makes sense that GMs would like to tap into that power for their campaigns. And that’s where today’s Ask-the-GMs question comes in.

This is the fifth of these Ask-The-GMs that I’m tackling without recourse to my usual allies and fellow-GMs. I asked, but none of them have any experience with incorporating music or sound effects in their campaigns – though their comments as to why that was the case will find a venue within this article.

Ask the gamemasters

‘Masteh Casteh’ wrote:

“How do [you] incorporate music [into] your campaign?

I have been very interested in this idea for quite some time now, I have thought about using different styles and songs to convey ideas, feelings and moods.

Everyone in my DnD group (including me) is either a musician or a music fanatic (no joke, we once had a conversation entirely about what [each] different race’s music would sound like).

Would it be a little too much to put musical puzzles in the game for them to figure out?

I need your help, you did a great job with a previous question about art and I have incorporated that into my own campaign.” (edited for clarity)

(For the record, I don’t recall there ever being an Ask-The-GMs question about art, though it has been mentioned and discussed in a number of articles here over the years. If I knew which article he was referring to, I’d have linked to it.)

It first has to said that MC’s group is relatively unusual in its makeup, and what might work for them might not work for everyone. So I’ll be looking at the question both in general and as it might apply to his group specifically.

It also seems reasonably irrelevant that his group is/was playing D&D. While the content might change with genre, the basic parameters of the question would be reasonably unchanged in a Pulp campaign, a sci-fi campaign, superheroes, or a western campaign. That said, picking the wrong musical genre to accompany your game genre could have interestingly comedic or monumentally cataclysmic impacts on the mood at the table. I don’t care if it’s a chase scene, punching up the Benny Hill theme just kills all gravitas, turning the music into the delivery vehicle for a quick joke, and belittling the significance of what the PCs are doing (regardless of whether they are the chasers or the chased).

There’s a lot to cover in this subject, so let’s tune up, and tune in…

Credentials, and the lack thereof

Let me start by saying that I have never used music directly in my campaigns. I have composed music for them, and inspired by them; and I have attempted (in a very limited way) to incorporate a sound effect or two into my campaign. I’ll tell those stories if there’s time and when they become relevant.

That’s not to say that I haven’t thought about it, even before the question was asked to prompt deeper reflection; I have. I have simply concluded that the technology that was available to me, in combination with the environment, made it inviable.

So I have limited practical experience upon which to base my response. This reply will necessarily draw on all of it, but will, of necessity, mostly be written from first principles and theory. And there is almost always a vast chasm-like gulf between theory and reality. So your mileage might vary, and take everything below with a grain of salt.


When you’re talking about music in a game, you need to first think about the hardware and software that will be used to play and control the music.

Hardware & Software

In olden times, when I first considered the problem, the only solution was to pump the music through a sound system of some kind. Unless your gaming space is already wired for sound, that meant that it would be coming from a different room – hardly a high-fidelity solution. The alternative was to record the soundtrack to cassette and play it through a ghettoblaster. That hardly permitted any sort of control over what was being played, when.

The advent of the CD made it possible to program in a set track list, and at the end of each section (if you were quick enough), you might be able to hit pause, or repeat, until you were ready for the next programmed item. Assuming that you had some powered portable speakers, which were fairly uncommon at the time. But you would end up spending half your time paying attention to what the player was doing, and waiting for your next cue to fiddle with the controls. I’ve done multiple things at once, and that’s fine so long as you only have to pay close attention to one of them at a time – this isn’t that situation. I find it inconceivable that your GMing wouldn’t suffer, and I am completely convinced that at least once in most game sessions, you would get distracted by the gameplay and fail to manipulate the controls properly, causing something entirely inappropriate to be heard.

Then came the desktop computer. Hardly portable, but the capability of running software that did exactly what you wanted it do do – even if you had to write it yourself – at least started to solve the control issue, While I never found Cd-player software that automatically paused the playback at the end of a track, lots of them let you set a track to infinite repeat. But unless you were actually using your PC to GM from – not something that I have ever done – it took away a lot of table space and imposed an even more formidable barrier between you and the players, one that could easily muffle what you were saying. So we’re still not at the point of having a viable solution.

But PCs got better. And the MP3 format came along, enabling a playlist of infinite capacity. And remote, powered, speakers of – well, let’s be charitable – at least medium fidelity came along at an affordable price. It didn’t solve the control issues, but it did away with the capacity and reproduction problems once and for all – or did they? I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Because that was followed by the laptop, and the MP3 player, and the tools were suddenly portable. It was suddenly viable to replace the big, bulky desktop PC with a portable solution in place of the GM screen. You could even run your entire adventure from notes on the laptop itself. And word processors got better – you could now embed links to music files in the adventure itself, to be manually triggered when the time was right. And some player-software came along that auto-closed at the end of playing a selection, or that auto-faded or cross-faded when you were moving from one piece of music to another, and the whole thing started to look extremely viable.


On my Windows-98 PC I had a wonderful piece of software called ACDSee. Designed for image display and the bulk handling of images, it could show a slide-show, or freeze on a single image, advancing to the next with a click. And – in the case of some music files – it would play them as soon as you clicked on them. You could set it to show or hide non-image files in a folder. Of course, as soon as you clicked on an image, the music would stop. But it has the virtue of responding instantaneously. Or you could double-click and it would launch in whatever the defined application was for that type of file, but that might take a second or two to load – if it weren’t already running in the background. I immediately contemplated adding sound effects to my game – a combat sequence that would play until I told it to stop. And soundtracks. And editing the two to blend them into a single file. And then I found that I could have two instances of ACDSee running at the same time, so I could use one for images and one for sound and they wouldn’t get in each other’s way.

If I had a laptop at that point in time, it probably would have happened. Since I didn’t, I shelved the notion.

Control – without the need to pay constant attention to it – is absolutely essential to any serious attempt to infuse your campaign with music, or sounds of any sort. You want things to play the instant you tell them to play, for as long as you want them to play, and then be quiet – until the next time. And you want the hardware required to be unobtrusive – or there anyway.

I’ve run adventures on one laptop, splitting the screen to show images on one side and the adventure on the other. It works, but it’s not ideal – you can’t look at your notes while showing the players an image. On the other hand, you have the convenience of a single device.

For the Adventurer’s Club campaign, we use two PCs – one to show the images, and the other to show the adventure. Because there are two of us co-GMing, having a second laptop at the table isn’t a huge issue. It’s inconvenient, but it works far better. I’ve tried doing it for the Zenith-3 campaign, of which I am the sole GM, and found that I was using up too much table space (and I have a BIG table, designed to seat up to 14 people in a dining situation). Five players and one GM should fit, no problem. With two laptops, we didn’t. Of course, I could always forgo the adventure notes – but that never seems to work out well for me. Others, with a different GMing style, might be able to manage just fine.

Operating System and Responsiveness

I recently acquired a new laptop – about 6 months ago – because my primary machine has been dying by degrees for a long time now, This meant getting used to Windows 8.

I absolutely hate it in a lot of ways. It’s slow, it makes me hunt around for the things that I want it to do. It won’t run the software that I had accumulated for earlier versions of Windows. It won’t recognize my USB modem, insisting on using the built-in wireless modem. It decides for itself what I want it to do, and leaves me with the feeling that it’s in control more often than I am. I use it, because it works when it gets moved, and because it has a nice display, but once I can get it connected to the internet, there is a LOT of “help” that I want to rip out of it. Right now, so long as I’m not switching from window to window, or trying to write something, it’s workable, but annoying.

Nevertheless, I use it as one of the two for the Adventurer’s Club, and to run my other campaigns, including the “Lovecraft’s Legacies” Dr Who campaign.

There came a time in that campaign where the Doctor (the sole PC) was to encounter the Daleks, and for dramatic purposes, and because I could, I wanted him to hear their famous “Ext-er-min-ate” before he saw them. After a bit of a web-search, I found a wav file that was good enough for the purpose. At the proper moment, I double-clicked the sound file to play it – after spending 30 seconds trying to get Windows 8 to display the folder. And waited. And waited. And waited. And then, with all the dramatic tension irretrievably lost, it played. Biggest anticlimax in ten years or more of GMing.

Responsiveness is everything (except control and portability) when it comes to incorporating sound into your RPG. This was as responsive as a concrete wall. It didn’t ruin the adventure, but it ruined what was supposed to be the climax of that part of the adventure – the introduction, intended to set the tone for everything that followed.

I don’t care what your preferences are for an operating system. I don’t care how much you like your operating system to assist you. Those are personal choices that are irrelevant to the problem at hand. At the end of the day, for music to work as an assist to your game, you need to have instant and immediate control over it. Zero delay in launching the app. Zero delay in getting to the controls. One second of delay is too long. If you don’t have that level of responsiveness, control and portability of hardware don’t matter; it’s not going to work.


The final consideration in terms of the mechanics of incorporating sounds into your campaign is one that’s also been touched on a time or two in the preceding discussion: the distraction factor. You don’t want the music to distract your players from what you are saying, and you don’t want to be distracted by sound management issues.

But, let’s assume – for the moment – that these are all problems that have solutions – there is some software that claims to do so, and that sounds quite promising, which I’ll look at later in the article, and move on to looking at technique.

The simple soundtrack

The very simplest approach to incorporating music into a campaign is to cue up some appropriate playlist and just let it play in the background. If nothing else, this should establish and help maintain an appropriate mood and tone.

If the game is Star Wars, cue up the soundtracks to the different movies and go! If D&D, maybe the Lord Of The Rings soundtrack should be your choice. I’ll get into content, in general terms, a little later.

Why it doesn’t work

In terms of setting the mood, this works perfectly. You can’t hear the theme from Indiana Jones without getting into the swashbuckling mood. You can’t hear the theme from Star wars without being mentally conditioned to a universe that’s a long time ago and far far away. The music triggers an association in the listener’s mind and that association does all the work.

From that point on, though, the whole thing collapses in a heap. You’re trying to barter for parts when the Imperial Death March blasts out. You’re in the middle of combat when a love theme begins to serenade the table. A goblin enters the room as the Ents begin to march. The music, as sequenced in the soundtrack, simply doesn’t match what’s happening in the game. Rather than sustaining the immersion, it gets in the way.

That’s why you need absolute control over what starts playing, and when.

Tuning Out

When we used to have Fumanor game sessions at Steven Tunnicliff’s place, he would have the radio playing because the family pets were so accustomed to something being on – radio, TV, movies – that they would howl the place down otherwise. There were times when whatever was playing was wildly inappropriate and distracting; there were rare occasions when it bolstered and reinforced the tone at the table; but, for the most part, we simply tuned it out.

That’s fine when it’s essentially background noise – but when you have a carefully crafted and chosen soundtrack, and you have solved the control problems, tuning out defeats the purpose.

For that reason, movies and TV shows control the musical background very carefully, using it for emphasis where useful and submerging it when its’ not. But they have the luxury of going over each screen minute over and over again until they get it right. You don’t have that luxury.

For me, there is an episode of The West Wing that is very informative on the subject: Season 7, Episode 7 (“The Debate”), which was performed live-to-air. The entire ambience of the show is affected, purely because the use of music is limited and was not tweaked in this way (it’s also evident in other ways that this was performed ‘live’ as the actors stumble from time to time, and were given some license to ad-lib lines, which occasionally trips one or the other up – something that adds the veracity of the “live debate” experience). But, just as musical background would be inappropriate during a real (unscripted) Presidential debate, so it would be inappropriate here – but its absence is definitely noticed, even though in most TV episodes, aside from the opening and closing themes, you are hardly aware of the music.

All-in-all, the “Simple” solution leaves so much to be desired that it’s counterproductive.

The Limited-Immersion Solution

But the first bit worked, so why not take that principle and run with it? At the start of each game session, cue up the main title theme of your chosen soundtrack, and after each break in play, play that or some other selection from the same soundtrack? Just to set, or re-establish, the mood?

I see no reasons why this can’t work perfectly well, and it avoids almost all the problems that have been described in the course of this article so far. Control: there’s nothing to control. You start the music, you fade the music, and then you start/restart gameplay. You have time for the hardware and operating system to be balky. All you have to do is remember to turn the volume back up. It poses no distraction to the GM, because it requires minimal concentration.

If you really study the content of a DVD, you will find that most of them use music in exactly the same way – at the start of a Chapter, they will emphasize the music while any establishing shots are presented and then get into the dialogue as the music recedes into the background. Try it – get out a movie that is known for having a strong soundtrack, and that you know well, and use the “next chapter” button on your remote. That’s why commercial TV versions, which often stick ad breaks in the middle of chapters, can sometimes be so jarring – we are used to the ad breaks occurring between chapters, so that the soundtrack reestablishes the mood after the disruption.

The By-Proxy Solution

I have also found that playing appropriate music in the background while doing game prep and writing an adventure helps imbue the adventure with the pacing and “feel” of the source material. It’s an indirect, by-proxy technique for imbuing your adventure with music, but it works. It also has the advantage of giving you a far broader musical palette to choose from. Personally, I find that up-tempo rockers help in combat scenes, that mid-tempo and softer music works for dialogue, and that more progressive and varied music works best for sections of player-GM interaction. I also use something very classical to set the initial tone for fantasy, something that’s a bit more jazz or with lots of horns for pulp, something more techno for sci-fi, and something that builds dramatically for superheroes. But my tastes are eclectic and a lot of people will find different solutions.

I have noticed that adventures tend to be quite different in tone if I vary these choices. That’s how I discovered “The Proxy Solution” in the first place. So play around with your audio environment while writing and see what happens for you.

More complex solutions

If you want to move beyond these simple, relatively brute-force solutions, you will need all those things that were discussed earlier – control, responsiveness, and portability. The exact software tools that you use will need to be chosen carefully, and probably only after a fair amount of trial and error. It will always help to set up a shopping list of the things that you want to be able to do with the music that you are playing. Things like programmable pauses in playlists, auto-fade when stopping play, minimal screen real estate, simple and responsive controls, dynamic compression (I’ll talk about that and why it’s desirable a little later), automatic gain adjustment (ditto), and so on.

In terms of technique specifics, it will depend so much on what your chosen software can do that it’s impossible for me to offer much guidance. For the most part, you will need to put the cart before the horse – discover what your software can do and then work out how to use that to your benefit in the gaming context, rather than planning what you want to do and then working out how to do it. Remember, though, that a key requirement will be to have as little need to supervise what the software is doing as possible.

Choices Of Content

Having taken the question of technique as far as I can, let’s move on to some general guidelines in terms of content.


Vocals add a whole new layer of depth to the musical experience because words can contain context, narrative, and information content beyond that of the music. Vocals increase the odds of a clash between one or more of those elements of the music and your intended purposes.

On top of that, vocals add another voice at the table, one that constantly interrupts and ‘speaks’ over the top of the players and yourself. Having gamed in a crowded room in the past, I can tell you that the worst sort of ambient noise is the human voice; at quite moderate volume levels, it can make it almost impossible to make out what someone else is saying, even if the noise-maker is much farther away. I’ll have more to say on this front a little later.

Unless you know exactly what you are doing, I strongly suggest keeping any music that contains discernible vocals off your in-game playlist (something like Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky would be absolutely fine. And so would Annie Lennox’s vocals on the Two Towers soundtrack – I can’t make out what she’s actually singing most of the time in that song, the vocals are too quiet and submerged; the song seems to be more about the ‘feel’ of the music than the lyrical content. In fact, it was thinking of those two examples that led me to be so careful in specifying “discernible” vocals).


That leaves instrumentals, and with all of classical music and a reasonable selection of modern stuff available, that should still leave plenty of choice. but it’s not all good news.

Musical Ambiguity

Even when vocals are present, two people can listen to a piece of music and get something completely different out of it. “Every Breath You Take” is revered by many as a love song – it keeps getting played at weddings and anniversaries – but it’s actually about stalking. Take vocals out, and the ambiguity of a piece of music shoots way up. One of the things that I learned early on as a composer was that a song title profoundly influenced the perception of what a piece of music was about; on one notable piece, I went through over a dozen titles before being satisfied that my choice combined with the music to choose the subject matter that I wanted it to address (While I also wrote lyrics, my music was all instrumental in nature). (I don’t have my notes on such matters to hand, so I can’t give you the exact name at the moment, not that it’s relevant).

What one person hears as “wistful”, another hears as “mournful” and a third simply as “sad” – they are all reading different things into the music. These terms are all related, but the whole point of going further than the simple methods suggested earlier is to be able to finely nuance the feeling of the game situation. Without context to make it clear that is delivered in advance of the music, players will read something else into it, and then have to overcome that presupposition of meaning to get back onto the “same page” as the GM.

This is an example of how delicate you would have to be in infusing music into a campaign.

Dynamic Considerations

Not all available instrumental music will be suitable. A lot of music has quiet passages and loud passages, especially classical music. The same is true of some modern music, especially in the age of FM radio, CDs, and MP3s. When music had to be recorded to LP, and was mixed to be heard over static on AM radio, there was a lot less scope for such dynamism in composition; music was more nearly constant in volume.

That doesn’t work very well in a gaming environment. Either you have the volume turned up so that the quiet passages can be heard clearly (and the loud passages are too loud) or the loud passages are at a comfortable “background” level and the Quiet sections will be lost beneath the table chatter and ambient noise.

Or you use software to make the quiet sections louder and the loud sections softer, compressing the dynamic range of the music. This used to be done as a means of noise suppression – still is, for some applications – but rather than compromising your original files, I would prefer software that did it ‘on the fly’. Of course, there are limits to how far you can go without it becoming completely obvious and ridiculous, ruining the music – but some compression can be a godsend.

The other dynamic consideration to contemplate is gain adjustment.

No two pieces of music from different albums is recorded to exactly the same volume level. This is especially noticeable when it comes to vocals, but it happens all the time. What you want, ideally, is for everything to be at the same perceived maximum volume because that produces a playlist that can be listened to comfortably without continual volume adjustments.

I used to use software called MP3Gain to handle the problem. You could turn it loose on a pack of songs from the same album and it would measure their overall peak volume to set a benchmark; then use that benchmark on another album or group of songs to tweak their volumes to match. You could make manual adjustments of how much increase or reduction to perform (so that a quiet album of acoustic songs wasn’t made unnaturally loud). Or you could set your own benchmark and adjust a whole range of songs relative to that peak volume, or use a single song as your benchmark. It took time to master, but it amply repaid that effort – just make a copy of your files before you play around with them, some changes can’t be undone! You can always delete the copies when you are satisfied.

But if you want to be able to simply listen to your music most of the time, you don’t want to make permanent alterations to the files just to make them compatible with an application to gaming, and keeping two copies around – one modified and one not – is wasteful and potentially confusing. Once again, the better choice is to have your playback software make the necessary changes, in an intelligent fashion, on the fly. Some players used to do it, I’m sure that some still do.

That’s why I put both these tricks on the shopping list of software requirements that I listed earlier. Yes, you could probably live without them – but they can make life so much easier that you definitely want them if you can find them.


Of course, the ultimate solution is to compose and record your own music, building up a library of unique performances and compositions that perfectly suit your campaign. If you are fast enough, and sufficiently skilled enough, this might be a practical solution. My own experience suggests that few would be capable of it, but I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade – if you think you’re up for it, I wish you the very best of luck!

I was considered a fast composer – I could, when on creative fire, create three or four pieces of music in a single evening. Most pieces took a week of little bits of spare time here and there. Quite often I would load an incomplete piece, spend five or ten minutes noodling around with it, improving it or adding another two-to-four bars, then save it and move on to the next incomplete piece. But it would be a very good week in which I achieved more than, say, eight minutes of completed music. And that’s not enough to be a soundtrack to an RPG.

Again, of course, there is a compromise: create a single original theme for your campaign, and use it as described earlier, then use existing music by others for the rest of your soundtrack. But unless you intend to do it full-time, no other solution is practical.

Ambient / Sound Effects

The elephant in the room is this: Why go for a complete soundtrack when you can achieve most of what you want with an ambient-sound environment? There are a number of these out there for different gaming environments. Why not set the mood with some music and then go for something that’s reflective of the environment around the characters?

Some software will let you “live mix” specific audio effect files with another piece of background content – so you could have a “cave” ambient noise and add a waterfall, and the sounds of Orcs – or whatever you need.

Audio editing software can be used to play all sorts of tricks with these (you should work on copies). Take a Metallica guitar solo, slow it down 1000% and boost the pitch and add some phasing a truckload of echo and hey, presto! You have something that could be ambient sounds within the Negative Energy Plane. Though, given the group’s aggressively litigious history, maybe you should choose someone else, instead. Or maybe a long, drawn-out cello note that fades in and out is how you envisage the Negative Energy Plane. There are lots of free sample files out there that you can play with.


Only one topic remains to be addressed, then, in answering the primary question of today’s article. It’s two-fold: picking the right volume, and the environmental considerations.


The correct volume for any activity is hard to judge, as was intimated under the discussion of Dynamic Considerations. You don’t want the music to be so loud that it interferes with game play, and you don’t want it so quiet that it can’t be heard. Once again, most of this problem goes away if you employ the Limited-Immersion Solution, where you only play the music at “full volume” for a few seconds and then turn it down or otherwise fade it out. The more sound that you add to your game, the more complicated this question becomes.

As a general rule of thumb, for anything more complex, I would set the music to a comfortable listening volume (given the ambient noise), a level at which you can still comfortably hold a conversation without shouting – and then drop the volume by 10dB, maybe more.


The environment in which you play has a big impact on the viability of music, regardless of other considerations. When gaming at home, one of the busiest roads in the city is right outside my front window; we’re just far enough removed from it that it becomes background noise that can be tuned out. So music might be a viable option, but the “noise floor” that results would demand that the volume be turned up – and perhaps, turned up more than is compatible with communication. My working area, where I watch TV and write, is as far removed from that noise source as I can get – and there are still times when I can’t hear my TV for the noise. That’s one reason why I tend to time-shift as much as I can of what I want to watch – it not only avoids missing programs because I get caught up in the creative process, it gives me the option to skip back a few seconds and turn up the volume, if necessary, so that I don’t miss anything.

The other place where I GM is at a games store, which is often crowded with fifty or more CCG players and a couple of board-gamers and two or more groups of roleplayers. There are times when you can hardly hear what someone just across the table has said, and that’s before any ambient music / noise is introduced. Add to that the potential for disturbing those players with your chosen cacophony, and of persuading them to speak up so that they can be heard over your soundtrack, and the recipe is right for a volume “arms race” with no winners, only losers.

If you play in a quiet suburb, or in a basement, or somewhere like that, music can be a viable choice. Anywhere else, and you have to seriously question whether or not it’s worth the headaches.


There are lots of solutions and sources out there to consider. I haven’t used any of these, so no promises. Listed in no particular order:

  • RPG-Soundmixer 1.6 – “A [shareware] tool specifically designed to create music and effect backgrounds for ‘Pen&Paper’ RPG sessions.” It was suggested on the Hero Games forum in 2011 that development had ceased, but the page was updated in late July 2016. The demo version reportedly won’t let you save, the full version costs $19.
  • Softrope RPG Soundscape Mixer – “Softrope brings customizable organic soundscapes like rainstorms, battles and creepy dungeons as well as spot effects such as growls, screams and explosions to your tabletop RPG. Music tracks can also be added to any scene. Softrope allows you to build a collection of sound-based scenes. You build each scene with simple single sound-effects, layered up to create a more complex soundscape.” It’s still shown as being in Beta-test, but it has also been around since 2011, and one of the “donate” buttons on the website looks broken so it may have ceased development; however, it seems to have worked very well for the user discussing the subject on the Hero Games Forum. It’s important to read the user manual for this one.
  • FMOD Studio – Possibly too much software for most people’s needs, it is described in a post on Stackexchange as “a middleware tool designed for developing and mixing audio in electronic games” that can “easily be used to control audio for tabletop RPGs, as well.” “It can design, mix, and control game audio on-the-fly, and (more importantly) … allows you to audition what you create, so you can effectively use the tool as a sort of complicated DJ-ing interface. Plus, it can be downloaded and used free of charge, provided you don’t make any profit as a result.” This sounds ideal for creating mixes in advance for accessing through a simpler interface – I don’t like the sound of DJing “On The Fly” with a “complicated interface” while trying to run a game. Possibly of greater interest, FMOD also offer “over 100,000 high-quality sounds, ready to go” – and you get 50 of them free for signing up with them.
  • Syrinscape – “A cross-platform software package for GMs who want to add believable, immersive sound to their games. The app is available for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android, and uses a subscription or downloadable content (DLC) model to provide users with access to a rich set of fantasy and sci-fi soundscapes.” According to the Hero Games forum discussion I accessed, in 2011, there were lots of problems with corrupted installers, but it’s not unreasonable to hope that this problem has since been fixed, or won’t apply to your operating system. The web page which recommended it also lists some alternatives and a number of other useful-sounding / interesting GM tools – some of which I knew of.
  • RPG Ambience – Recommended by Gnome Stew in a guest article by the Author of the software, Jakob Kallin, but only after someone at Gnome Stew had played around with it and decided the world needed to know. RPG Ambience is “a free, browser-based, open-source application” that “lets you create scenes that consist of any combination of images, music, and text. When you’re at the gaming table, you can quickly play scenes by using keyboard shortcuts that you define yourself.” The app “doesn’t require any installation or registration.” All of which sounds really good. You can read the full article at Gnome Stew here. Make sure to read the comments as well.
  • Mixere – is “a free, open-source application for mixing audio files. It runs on Windows NT/2000/XP, and supports WAV, AIFF, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, Flac, and Mod audio files. [It] is optimized for live performance, and especially for creating live sound collage.” It has not been updated since July 2007 and may not work with more modern operating systems. The commentator at the Hero Games Forum says it “isn’t bad” but “can’t seem to load all of my sound effects” – there is no indication of whether or not it’s file format or sheer count of files that’s the problem.
  • Last, but by no means least, we have Battlebards (Disclaimer: I’m friends with someone from Battlebards on Twitter. But I’m friends with a lot of people on Twitter, so don’t hold that against them). Battlebards is a soundboard/mixer that is browser-based but are working on off-line utility. “Seasoned gamers know that scrambling for the right audio file is death at the gaming table; it’s completely unacceptable. The Battlebards Soundboard brings audio closer to the GM than ever before. The soundboard seamlessly integrates audio at the gaming table. Organize it however you like with our audio and with your own personal audio collection (unlockable feature). Create Playlists for your next epic scene or even for frequently used sounds.” This is a very popular system. As intimated in the quote, they also produce custom content, and at current count have more than 800 tracks. “BattleBards audio includes background music inspired by fantasy races, Environmental Soundscapes, Racial Languages, Monsterscapes, NPC scripts written to bring life to everyday character interactions, and a colossal array of bone crushing, spell fire blasting sound effects.” But if you go with BattleBards as your choice, you should consider subscribing to their Patreon account to get releases months before they are commercially available. That’s because they “release Albums that contain multiple tracks along with cover artwork” on the main site, but Patrons get tracks as soon as they complete. Interestingly, you don’t commit to so many $ per month or week, you commit to $X for each file that they release – usually once a month, but if they miss a month, you pay nothing, or if they get creative, you may pay more than once in a month; bear that in mind.

Which brings me neatly to audio providers. I’m sure there are many more than I have listed here – again, in no particular order!

  • Tabletop Audio – “Original, 10 minute ambiences and music for your tabletop role-playing games.” At the moment, there seem to be 99 of them, divided in Genre – Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Historical, Modern, Nature, Horror, and Music – but I notice one entitled “Steampunk Airship” and another called “Super Hero” (the latter described as “Music + Ambience”). So consider those categories to be rather broad in their contents. Their site looks impressive, if the audio is as good, users will be well satisfied.
  • Sound Hammer do everything through their Patreon page, so far as I can tell. (Disclaimer Again: I’m also friends with someone from Sound Hammer on Twitter). Sound Hammer emphasize quality and consistency of style. “If you are using any of our tracks for live streaming, podcasts, youTube videos and anything of similar nature, then … these are all royalty free! For everything else, see below.” No mention of tabletop RPGs there, but they explicitly state that tabletop gaming is one of the core purposes for which their music is made available in several other places, so I guess that’s considered to be of a “similar nature”. Some tracks are free – the last one appears to have come out in April 2016, which must mean that we’re due for another one sometime soon. Patronage is once again per track; $2 gets you 11 or more patron-only tracks, $5 also gets you access to some 10-30 second stinger tracks (which I tend to think of as “audio punctuation marks”). There appears to typically be one of these for each patron-only file posted.
  • Toxic Bag Productions are the first “RPG Soundtrack” producers that I ever heard of. I first came across them at RPGNow, but have linked to their web page. They also have apps for iPhone & iPad. They have LOTS of content encompassing all sorts of genres – I know, because a lot of them are in my RPGNow wishlist!
  • “Tracks Of Cthulhu Volume 1” – Mirye Software – An album of 12 Lovecraftian / Cthulhu tracks for $14.95.
  • Finally, I have another pair of posts from Gnome Stew by Martin Ralya that I want to link to. (Disclaimer The Third: I’m also friends with Martin on Twitter, even though he hasn’t been active there since July last year, have reviewed a couple of Engine Publishing products, and bought one of them). The first is RPG Background Music: 41 Awesome Soundtracks and the relevance should be obvious. This is, in part, an update of an earlier post which is linked to at the start of the first article; Creating Simple, Deep Playlists for RPG Background Music.
Effective Solutions?

How good are these solutions at solving the problems? I don’t know. I’ve given you every caveat that I deemed potentially relevant, including some that I hope to now be out-of-date, so you will have to find out for yourself. I should also note that if you go to Amazon, select the CDs&Vinyl category, search for “Instrumentals” and refine the search to CDs only, you still get more than 400 pages of results.

Some (most?) of them must be useful as Gaming Music.

Coda: The Wrap-up

I’m completely out of time (and then some), so I will have to leave the question about Musical Puzzles until next time – explaining the Part 1 in the title. Besides, I think I might have quite a lot to say on the subject.

So, to wrap up the general question of Music in RPGs: There are a lot of people who swear by it. There are others whose circumstances limit the utility of the proposal. My opinion is that strong>if you can solve the problems and strong>if you can achieve a suitable environment, it can’t help but add to the gaming experience – but those are two very big caveats. Fall down in either area, and you may find that it’s a detriment of devastating impact. The resources are out there; the capacity problem has been solved; its management of the experience, and the circumstances in which you game, that are the problem.

Next in this series: Part 2, Musical Puzzles

Leave a Comment

The Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others) Pt 0: The Front Desk


It started with a very simple idea. I had, some years previously, published a list of my top-twenty 3.x supplements (Part 1, Parts 2, 3 and 4, Part 5) – why not do the same thing for pulp reference books?


Because I don’t consider myself an expert on the genre (even after co-GMing a Pulp campaign for over ten years), I called on my co-GM and (after discussions with him), one of our players (and a GM in his own right) to provide expert “muscle”.

Besides, they were both known to me to be collectors and readers of genre-relevant books, which meant that they could provide reviews from someone who had actually read the books being reviewed.

I would be in charge of the organization and do most of the actual writing, as usual, while they were feeding me content and expertise to write about.


The plan was simple – we would agree on a taxonomy (classification scheme), list two or three top contenders in each category, whittle those down using agreed-upon standards of price and availability, and then argue the merits of which books were really “essential” until we were down to a top-twenty, or top-thirty, or – worst case – a top fifty.


And, up to a point, that plan performed flawlessly – that point being the taxonomy, which contained some 45 categories and subcategories and – in some cases – sub-subcategories. At that point, we were looking at a top-100, dead minimum; it was anticipated that in some cases, two or three essentials wouldn’t cut it; comprehensive coverage of the “essentials” might require four or five.


But, warned my experts, a lot of the books we wanted to list would not meet our availability criteria. And so I didn’t object too loudly when they began listing eight, ten, twenty books in each category. In no time at all, we had over 1000 potentially “essential” books listed; even if only one in four hit the target, and we pruned relatively ruthlessly, we might get – emphasis, might – be able to cull it down to a top-200.


It also transpired that in some areas, my experts’ collections were not as complete as I had thought. And there were a number of categories for which we had absolutely nothing listed.


So we started performing searches to pad out the empty categories, and turned to discussing just what we meant by “essential” in all of this – because it turned out that we each had a different idea of the definition that would apply. Did we mean that these were the most useful whatever-number books? Or that these were the books that were essential to a reasonably-completely-prepared pulp GM? Or was this to be a list of the most useful resources in the genre, regardless of how many there turned out to be?


Ultimately, we decided that what we were listing were all the things that we felt, collectively, a Pulp GM needed to know something about, and a list of recommended resources for satisfying that need. The ambition was to be comprehensive, not artificially constrained by the need to fill out a list of any given size – or to cut back to same. The working title of the article/series was “The Essential Pulp Reference Library”, after all. What’s more, every campaign would be different; without knowing the specifics of them all, how could we know what might be relevant or irrelevant to any specific GM? Our job would be to present the options and leave it to the individual to assess merit under their circumstances.

The Long March

That was more than a year ago. As late as August, we were still tweaking categories and thinking of new things that had to be incorporated into it. Between us, more than 800 man-hours of research and writing and reviewing and revising have come and gone. And, far from being a top-anything, the list contained more than 1000 items – many more of which met our availability criteria than we were expecting (though there were some most unexpected holes and gaps that needed to plugged). The whole thing broke down most naturally into a ten-post series. Then we found more books to list….

Victory of sorts

So the research has been conducted, the reviews written, and the results vetted as having been correct sometime in the last six months – we were all very conscious of the depreciation of reliability of availability, and that if we didn’t start to publish soon, it would all be out of date.


For that reason, we have pushed the button without even entering the “cut the list to something manageable” phase originally intended, and for the last three or four months, we knew that would be the case. It’s been a tumultuous journey, but one framed by good will and a readiness to give-and-take on all sides.

You don’t need everything on our lists to be a genre-expert GM – but you should have something from most of the categories.

Along the way, we’ve discovered books that none of us knew even existed, and we lost books that we thought we knew – there have been books making false promises, frauds, and undiscovered gems. It’s been a ride every bit as wild as a pulp adventure, in fact!

For the non-pulp GMs

One comment that was made more than once in the duration of this project was how many non-Pulp GMs would find this or that useful. Its’ not an exaggeration to state that none of us can, at this point, think of a genre that doesn’t have something of direct or indirect value listed somewhere in the series – sometimes quite a lot of somethings.

Availability Criteria

We used set criteria to say yes or no to an entry’s inclusion fairly strictly – most of the time.

  • We had to be able to say why it was being included (with a few exceptions that we thought were self-explanatory).
  • We deliberately excluded most space opera unless the offering was especially “Period Pulp” in nature (it just happened to happening in a strange place), and completely excluded works of pulp fiction – this is a reference list. A book about Doc Savage would have been fair game; the hundred-plus Doc Savage novels were jettisoned from consideration early on.
  • We deliberately restrained ourselves in the “inspirational media” section – I still think that the Die Hard movies should have been listed, but they weren’t judged Pulp Enough.
  • Books must be as broad & general as possible within its subcategory.
  • Books Must serve as a pointer to more specific information.
  • Books must be considered an essential reference for a pulp GM / Player by a majority of the participants.
  • Books must be generally available at a reasonable price, which we defined as at least 20 copies available and the cheapest copies had to cost at most US$15 for a paperback or $30 for a hardcover. We made the occasional exception, but were careful to make a note of it when that happened. Some of the books we’ve listed have hundreds of copies available at a price of just 1 cent (plus postage and handling)!
  • An e-book under US$20 counted as 5 copies. Not everybody likes e-books and not everybody has the necessary hardware.
  • Where insufficient copies were the only reason for a book to be excluded, it was placed in an “Honorable Mentions” category. Contrary to the dire warnings of my co-authors, this happened a LOT less often than expected.
  • DVDs were not bound by this restriction but we excluded anything that had a price-tag per disk that we considered too high. In most cases we did not include links to blue-ray editions, which may or may not exist. If we couldn’t find a DVD, we looked for a streaming service, preferably international; if we couldn’t find one of those offering the item, we looked on YouTube.

So, those are the ground rules. Like good GMs, we varied them at need – but had to convince the other two that it was justified, each time. Sometimes that was quick and easy – on other occasions, debate took quite a while. Everyone had to compromise their opinions at different times.

The Series Structure

The series is now 14 parts long, not counting this introduction. Yes, you read that right (and it will be news to my co-authors who were expecting ten). But when the counts were tallied up, that’s what came out as most practical. Each will be named using “Library Shelves” as a metaphor.

Each part will generally consist of 5 sections:

  • An introduction, which will include a taxonomy of the contents;
  • The Recommendations (generally 35-40 of them, sometimes more), with details, comments, and links;
  • A Documentaries section (counted in the tally given above);
  • A very selective “For Dummies / Complete Idiot’s” section, with a blanket caveat, the only exceptions to which we thought important enough to promote to the main list of recommendations);
  • A wrap-up/afterword on each category written by one or more of the authors.
open book, more standing, globe, glasses

Image courtesy / Ove Tøpfer

The Series Taxonomy

Okay, so to the meat of what’s going to be in those 14 articles:

  1. People I: PCs & Heroes
    • PC Archetypes & Heroes
    • Character Background Skills
  2. People II: Villains & Notable NPCs
    • Villains & Antiheroes
    • Famous real people
  3. Places I: The More-Ordinary Places
    • General/broad areas incl. Period area maps
    • Exploration
    • The USA
    • Europe
  4. Places II: The Exotic Places
    • The Rest Of North America (incl. Alaska)
    • Australia
    • New Zealand
    • South America
    • The Pacific and It’s Islands (incl. Hawaii and Easter Island
  5. Places III: The More-Exotic & Stranger Places
    • The Middle East
    • Africa excluding Egypt
    • Egypt & Egyptology
    • Asia
    • The Bermuda Triangle
    • Lost Cities & Civilizations
    • Atlantis & Lemuria
    • The Hollow Earths
    • The Florida Coral Castle
    • Picturesque Places
    • Strange & Exotic Places incl. Stonehenge
  6. Hardware I: Weapons, Things, and Science
    • Era inventions
    • Currency & Valuables
    • Weird Science
    • Fringe Science
    • Accepted Science
    • Weapons
  7. Hardware II: Vehicles
    • Cars
    • Aircraft – commercial & military
    • Air Routes & Commercial Aviation
    • Sea Power – commercial & military
    • Trade
    • Commercial Shipping & Passenger Vessels
    • Trains
    • Tanks etc
    • Zeppelins & other Airships
  8. Life In The Pulp Era I: Civilian Life
    • Everyday life
    • History & Historical Events
    • Politics
    • Hollywood & Cinema
  9. Life In The Pulp Era II: Courts, Police, Crime, & Militaria
    • Courts & Police & Detectives & Crime
    • Military Installations, Forces, and Campaigns
  10. Mysticism & Religion I: Religion, Nazi Occultism & Cthulhu
    • General Religion & Philosophy
    • Nazi Occultism & Nazi-related Fringe Theories
    • The Spear Of Longunus
    • The Ark Of The Covenant & Holy Grail
    • Cthulhu Reference
  11. Mysticism & Religion II: Secret Societies, Myths, & Legends
    • Secret Societies & The Knights Templar
    • Mythology
    • Urban Legends
    • General Mysticism, Superstitions, and strange stuff
  12. Odds & Sods I: GMing
    • General Books & Tools
    • Names
    • Writing
  13. Odds & Sods II: Fiction, Games & Practicalities
    • Pulp Fiction
    • Period Sci-Fi
    • Pulp Games & Supplements
    • Tactics and Techniques
  14. Movies & Pulp Serials
    • Movies
    • Serials
  15. Honorable Mentions

Some items could get placed in multiple possible locations within that taxonomy – for example, you may find one or two books about the Mafia in the “Villains” section, but most will be in the “Crime” section. We’ve always attempted to choose the best location given the content of the item and the usage we expect a GM to get out of it.

While most of the categories listed have been consistent since the beginning (with a couple of minor revisions, like moving Egypt out of the ‘Elsewhere’ section and into “Egyptology’) there have been last minute tweaks right up to publication, so there may be some minor variations when each part actually appears. These are most likely to involve the addition of new subsections (there are still a few hours of research left to do).

Afterword – by Mike

If these are going to be included in every part of this series, I may as well get in the habit now.

Based on my experience with the series that I linked to at the start of this introduction, there is no way in god’s green heaven that I would tackle anything involving 40-or-so recommendations in each and every article if most of the text hadn’t been done in advance. I’ve clocked it – it takes fifteen-to-twenty minutes or so to write each descriptive paragraph. For 40 recommendations, that’s about 700 minutes. Except that it requires such intense concentration that after about 4 hours, I’m completely stuffed, to use the Australian vernacular. Plus there’s all the framing text to write – another hour or so (less I hope). And a lot of formatting (probably another 4 or 5 hours of work).

Put it all together, and I’d be lucky to get one done a week – doing nothing else.

When doing those articles on d20 supplements, it took twice as long to do ten reviews as it did one “ordinary” 4,500 word article. Doing four or more times that much? Every week? Not going to happen.

Fortunately, the collaborative approach to this series mandated that the text be prepared in advance for my co-authors to review and – from time to time – amend. That’s what has made the series possible at all, never mind infinitely better than I could manage on my own. All credit to my co-authors!

Who are they? When they contribute to an Ask-The-GMs item, I run a capsule bio. I’m not going to do that for every part of this series (it’s going to be more than long enough as it is), but for this introduction, I thought I would include it.

One final note

Before I get to that, I should add that this series is NOT going to completely take over Campaign Mastery. My schedule calls for three “shelves” a month to be published. Parts 1-3, September; Parts 4-6, October; Parts 7-9, November; Parts 10-12, December; and Parts 13 and 14 in January. That leaves about 27 other articles to appear over those 5 months, so even if you aren’t a pulp GM and don’t find anything of use to you in one of the parts, there will be plenty of other material to keep the diversity level rich. But I would hope most people will discover something of interest!

Meet The Co-Authors

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


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


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

Comments (2)

The Other Side Of The Camera: Depth in RPGs

Narcisismo by Frederico Harald Ganss

‘Narcisismo’ by / Frederico Harald Ganss

I was watching an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” (a show that has inspired other articles here at Campaign Mastery) in which a number of photographs featuring the grandmother of the central focus* of the episode were presented, with the observation that his grandfather appeared in none of them (* I watched a lot of episodes at the same time, so I’m not sure which one this was).

That, in turn, reminded me of the key personal revelation for Téa Leoni’s character, Jenny Lerner, in Deep Impact – in which she and her character’s father appeared in all the photos and home movies but her mother was never in any of them, because she was always the person behind the camera, taking the pictures.

And it struck me that there are always two parties to any record, visual or narrative – those portrayed, and the witness documenting the scene – and that it seemed to me that people, perhaps distracted by the content of what they could see, didn’t pay enough attention to the second of these, to the person on the other side of the camera, be it real or metaphoric.

That’s both a phenomenon that the GM should be aware of, and one that he can sometimes take advantage of. So, today I’m going to examine as many aspects of this phenomenon (or should that be ‘these phenomena?’) as I can come up with, in the context of gaming.

The Camera Of Self: A presented image

The most obvious application of the principle is showing the players a photograph or image and telling them, “this is what your character sees.” This seems completely objective at first glance, with no relevance to the principle that we are examining.

Deeper consideration renders this simple premise quite a but murkier. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

moon in mountains at night

Image obtained from sxc before they became, photographer unknown

The Camera Of Implication: A witness statement

A witness describes a scene, while those hearing the story mentally construct the image that they are describing. The result is a ‘virtual’ photograph, one that is sure to have several gaps containing lots of missing detail, and even the occasional error. In fact, the unreliability of witnesses is now beginning to change the legal system itself. To quote from Wikipedia’s page on Eyewitness Testimony, “Memory recall has been considered a credible source in the past, but has recently come under attack as forensics can now support psychologists in their claim that memories and individual perceptions can be unreliable, manipulated, and biased. Due to this, many countries and states within the US are now attempting to make changes in how eyewitness testimony is presented in court.” In fact, the whole article, and several of those linked to at the end of it, make fascinating reading.

But the fact is: any witness will inadvertently color his recollections somewhat, and it takes expert training in logic and cognition to avoid this. Few witnesses in an RPG will have had such training, so the default assumption has to be that there will be some unintended errors in any testimony. The issue is one of determining the extent of such error, and whether or not it is significant in terms of evaluating the situation being described. If two witnesses describe identical scenes except that one remembers one gas station chain being on the corner and the other, a different one, and the specifics about the gas station are not relevant to the events that they are relating, their stories are identical in every key respect, and both would have to be evaluated as reliable eyewitnesses to the events being described.

A shortcut to trouble

Things grow even more confused when the GM seeks to shortcut this rather dry element of the game (especially if the witness is an NPC describing what he saw to a PC) by simply showing the players a photograph. Is this image a reasonably accurate depiction of what the witness saw, or has the GM chosen an image that deliberately includes errors on the part of the eyewitness? In other words, is the image objective, or subjective?

The GM can seek to make this explicit by “painting out” parts of the image using Photoshop, leaving them an appropriately neutral color, or by some other technique that is obviously visually-representative of details being left out; clearly, if the image were objective, that information would be present. It isn’t, and so the image has to be considered subjective, and unreliable to at least some degree.

The problem with this technique is that players don’t know that this is what you (as GM) are trying to communicate, and – what’s more – even if they did, the GM would then face pressure to be consistent in the degree and subject of the distortion.

Some may seek to get around this by presenting an image as seemingly objective and then giving the PCs a roll of some kind to evaluate the testimony, but this seems entirely too random; it does nothing but tell the players that they can’t trust what the GM is telling them, which has all sorts of repercussions, none of them all that productive.

Solutions that work

In my experience, there are only two solutions: Make the depictions as objective as possible, and have the players safely assume that they are objective except in any areas that the GM chooses to highlight or that are entirely implausible (such as the presence of a completely inappropriate late 20th century vehicle, or the occasional air conditioner, or telephone line, or TV antenna); or emphasize an awareness of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony while presenting an apparently objective view with characters with appropriate expertise able to identify (without rolling) parts of the testimony that they consider potentially inaccurate. In fact, the GM should determine such areas of potential inaccuracy based on what the characters can identify, i.e. their relevant skill levels.

Either way, it’s then up to the players to speculate on, make assumptions about, the errors and possible omissions and plan accordingly. To me, this puts the onus where it should be: on the players interpreting the game world presented to them by the GM through the eyes of their characters.

The solo PC: All bets are off

All that said, when only ONE PC is to hear the report, there are occasions when all bets are off. Players have to evaluate any information they are given, from any source, for plausibility – even if that source is the GM via another player. On some rare occasions, I will present one player with a radically different or amended image – such as was the case when one of the PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign began subconsciously seeing eyes watching her and inadvertently painted the same onto a picture of a bowl of fruit that she was working on, and then onto a recalled mental image being relayed telepathically, and then a third time onto an image being ‘live shared’ in the same manner. In all cases, it was seconds or minutes before the character in question was even consciously aware of the eyes – which was the hook connecting an incidental encounter (in plot terms) with the main plot of the adventure.

The bottom line

The bottom line, then, is that the observer cannot always describe accurately what they have seen, and the person behind the “virtual” camera will always influence any report of what they saw. Even if it’s only because they are more aware of the things that they have been trained to observe, this will be true. To get a military assessment, you send a military-trained scout – and take any mentions of anything else with a grain of salt. Players and PCs should always assume that there may be an unnoticed elephant in the room, and the GM should both be aware of this, and take advantage of it when it suits his adventure needs.

enhanced-color mountain

Image obtained from sxc before they became, photographer unknown

Now, back to the presented image question

All this makes very murky the validity of any image presented to the players with the statement by the GM that “this is what you see’ – because what was being described as a completely objective representation is, in fact, potentially subjective. Most of the time, such presentations should be reliable, perhaps omitting something, or taking into account an appropriate like-for-like substitution – ignore the Mitsubishi parked in front of the house, its’ actually a Ford, or a camel, or whatever is appropriate to the genre and time period of the campaign/adventure – unless the GM goes out of his way to point out the anachronism.

The witness always misreports the totality of a scene, despite their best efforts, even when that witness is a PC and the witness ‘report’ is being delivered first-hand and concurrently with the event being witnessed.

The Camera Of Reflection: The outside looking in

This same line of thought also offers a potential insight into self-portraits, both verbal and image-based.

Verbal self-descriptions are obviously susceptible to distortion by self-perception and psychology, so much so that they can be diagnostic. An obviously-thin person describing themselves as chubby or overweight clearly suffers from an eating disorder, to choose an obvious example. GMs and players are usually well aware of this factor, and usually ‘tweak’ such descriptions according to the self-image of the subject.

Verbal descriptions of someone else often fly under the radar, but these are also subject to the same effect, thought often to a lesser degree. A character who is racially prejudiced will ‘edit’ descriptions of Asian people to make them just a little shorter than they really are, quite subconsciously, unless the person being described is extremely, unusually, tall – in which case the opposite effect will usually take place, and their size will be exaggerated. I am always careful to apply the same effect whenever a member of one race describes a member of another – and make a point of noting the differences when a more objective observer encounters someone they have heard described.

But none of that applies when an objective image of a character is provided, right?

I don’t particularly like the shape of my chin, so I wear a beard that I carefully trim to give the impression that my chin is a completely different shape to the reality. I’m not particularly bothered about other aspects of my appearance, so I dress for comfort, not style – but other people I know think carefully about what they wear, and what goes well with their skin tones, and whether or not their clothes will go with a new hairdo or hair tint…

Appearance is something that all characters have some influence over – the amount varying with circumstances, culture, and setting – and from whatever starting position they have from those factors, the psychology and the image that they want to project are then applied as a modifier. I always try to think about what self-image the character has, and how that might influence his appearance. But it also works in the other direction – whenever I provide an image of a character, it will be chosen to reflect one or more characteristics that I know the character needs to convey, but beyond that, I always ask “what else does this image say about the character?”

view from the staircase

Image obtained from sxc before they became, photographer unknown

The Camera Of The World: The inside looking out at the world looking in

One of the most complicated questions I’ve ever seen on an employment application was “If he were here, what would your previous manager say about you behind your back?” It’s such a loaded question in terms of assumptions that you have to make. You have to assess your own situation in the previous job you held, your manager’s expectations, his or her personality, the way you and he or she interacted, whether or not anything that was said to you was between clenched teeth or unsaid. And, at the same time, there’s the matter of whether or not you answer truthfully, or gild the lily, or try to evade the question. I could certainly see why it was asked – it was so open-ended that no matter how you responded, the interviewer would learn something; they simply needed to employ other responses to place that information into context. At the very least, how you answered said something about your personality – and how you responded under pressure!

The question, “How do you think others see you” is always revealing, for the same reason. It’s not just about how the world really does see you, it’s how you want them to see you, and how effective you think your efforts in that respect are, and how you think, period.

An RPG Interpretation

Once again, in terms of the perspective being examined within this article, we’re talking about a virtual image being conjured by the words that the speaker employs in response. But the question is probably a bit esoteric for direct use in play within an RPG.

In order to answer it, though, you have to be able to get pretty deep inside the head of a character. That makes it a useful self-administered test for a GM to determine just how well he understands the personality of a character that he is about to depict in play. It’s similarly useful for a player to use, though they live in their characters’ “skins” so much more that it should be relatively easy for them to answer. Early in a campaign, when you are still getting a handle on your new PC, it might be a bit more useful.

When you get really familiar with the way your character thinks, and what they feel, you can kind of relax and simply ‘react’ appropriately to whatever the situation is; when you don’t have that immersive depth at your disposal, you have to pause and ponder everything – or occasionally fail to actually play your character. And, arguably, the early phase of a campaign is when it is most important to play your character well; as a character gains in experience, they gain in abilities and power and expertise. That means that in the early phase of a campaign, personality forms a larger part of the definition of who the character is than at any other time. Abilities can’t overshadow the personality, and who they are should shine forth a bit more clearly.

Then, too, this is the period when the other players are getting to know your character. Again, the clearer your understanding of that character, the more clearly you can convey that to them. Having a test of the depth of your immersion in the character can therefore be very useful in determining how hard the character should assert his personality.

A useful tool, that. On both sides of the GM screen.

'Camera' by Mustafa Pi?irici

‘Camera’ by Mustafa Pi?irici courtesy

The Modern Spin: The selfie

Some social phenomena are so new that we’re still figuring out what they mean. Two of these seem relevant – the first of which is the selfie. While the term appears to be Aussie in origin, at least according to Wikipedia, self-portraits go all the way back to the invention of photography. However, the concept of uploading such photographs to the internet also appears to be an Australian invention in the form of a website for the purpose that came online in September 2001. Hand-in-hand with the rise of social media, the concept grew and took hold as a social phenomenon, a response to the ease with which changes in technology enabled the pictures to be taken and shared. In more modern times, the concept has become a focal point for more important issues such as body image, gender issues and stereotypes, censorship, and privacy.

But the primary purpose remains one of taking (shared) ownership of an event by proving that you were a participant or witness. This function is absolutely predicated on the speed with which the images can be shared; any sort of delay mitigates or denigrates the value of the image for the purpose, because the technology has rendered such delays unnecessary, and therefore tinged with suspicion, in an age in which a photographic record is so easily tampered with.

The current wave of opposition to the photoshopping of celebrity images in magazines etc has its roots in the selfie and the demand for authenticity in order for the selfie to have its social currency. As photo-manipulation has become easier and slicker, people have come to distrust what they are shown, another social development whose ultimate effects are still to be recognized. It’s simply a trend in the world that we now live in; like all such, no-one can tell where it will lead in the long run.

Ancient Analogues

In the absence of such technology, one finds, with only a little thought, analogies in historic practices. In the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, people claimed ownership of an event with a photograph of the event that had not been printed, or with a first-hand account. The first was considered objective, and the publicly-perceived ambition of the second was to achieve the same standards of objectivity and accuracy; this is why phenomena and concepts such as the Potemkin Village, and other forms of falsification of image, were so shocking and fascinating when they were first revealed. Manipulating what was there to be seen, fooling the eye, was fascinating, politically revolting, or entertaining – or some combination.

Such practices can be logically followed back to the fascination held by optical illusions and stage magicians from the time of the ancient Romans, if not even earlier.

The Impact of the Fantastic

The more fantastic the world that a character lives in, the more likely a character is to accept any event in a story or narrative, especially one packaged as a first-hand account, no matter how extraordinary. In the real world, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, evidence of the highest standards of verisimilitude. It is usually in the smallest of details being depicted inaccurately that falsification can be detected (whether present or not) – my mind keeps flashing back to the Mythbusters episode disproving the conspiracy theories regarding the falsification of the moon landings. It is in this context that the claim that a “big lie” is more easily accepted finds some explanation; a concept of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, and probably the Nazi ruler’s most substantial positive contribution to world society, he described it as a lie so ‘colossal’ that no one would believe that someone ‘could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously’. The distortion of the big lie is so egregious that the listener has no referent for what the ‘small details’ should be, countering the listener’s capacity for critical appraisal of what they are hearing.

In order to be effective, however, the big lie must be internally consistent and swarm with small details that support the primary distortion; the listener would be aware of their absence.

Application to gaming

All this has relevance to gaming in terms of the achievement of a suspension of disbelief sufficient for players and GM to respond to the game world as though it existed in actuality. The GM, like the novelist, movie-maker, and play producer, is aided by a willingness to be ‘seduced’ into the plausibility of the scenario being depicted by the GM, provided that there are no jarring failures of logical inconsistency to jerk them out of the shared suspension of disbelief.

At the same time, the divide between player and character is enough to keep the fantasy world of the adventures at arms’ length, permitting their critical faculties to appraise what they are told their characters see, hear, and otherwise experience. It becomes more important that the GM achieve a reasonable standard of verisimilitude in gaming than in any other medium, and this is at its most important when the events being described are fantastic.

The smart GM, being aware of this, is able to draw upon other elements of popular culture to present their scene more vividly. A character name may invoke recollections of a movie or television experience, bringing associations of personality and nuance into the minds of the players, and wrapping the events in a cloak of derived verisimilitude by bringing small details into play that the GM himself never has to impart personally. “Picture John Wayne as the Lieutenant” produces a congruous association that makes the character of “the Lieutenant” more credible; “Picture John Wayne as King Henry” produces an incongruous association that makes the character of “King Henry” seem less believable.

Images, illustrations, photographs, and recognizable sounds all function in the same way, adding credibility and immediacy to the events being described – or subtracting from them. This is a tool that the GM can exploit. Heck, even humming a few bars of music from a movie can create manipulable associations – most people can manage the theme from Jaws and Darth Vader’s theme, for example.

Photo by Unsplash

Sometimes, people seem to come out of nowhere.
Image courtesy of and copyright Free Range Stock, – photographer Unsplash

The Modern Spin II: The Photo-bomb

It was probably an inevitability – the rise of the selfie in turn gave rise to the practice of someone inserting themselves into the background of someone else’s selfie.

In the old days, this was so much simpler – one simply had to assert that “I was there, I saw it all” – and unless there is some logical barrier to credibility, the statement has to be taken at face value. If I state that I was present at a fundraising effort aimed at fighting the University Of New South Wale’s attempts to reduce the power of the student union, you would have no trouble accepting it, especially if you knew that I had attended that institution. On the other hand, if I state that I was a first-hand witness to the lunar landing, you make the immediate assumption that I am speaking of the images televised around the world – and if I attempt to convince you otherwise, the logical barrier to credibility becomes insuperable (unless my name is Buzz Aldrin, of course) – but it isn’t.

There is a psychological need in many people to conform with the group mindset to at least some extent that can lead people to genuinely believe that they saw something that they didn’t, and couldn’t possibly, have seen. Consider this report of an air disaster in Amsterdam which took place on October 4th, 1992. According to the Wikipedia article on Eyewitness Testimony that I linked to earlier,

quote start 120

“Though no cameras caught the moment of impact on film, many news stations covered the tragedy with footage taken after impact. Ten months after the event, the researchers interviewed people about the crash. According to theories about flashbulb memory, the intense shock of the event should have made the memory of the event incredibly accurate. This same logic is often applied to those who witness a criminal act. To test this assumption, participants were asked questions that planted false information about the event” [in the minds of those interviewed]. “Fifty-five percent of subjects reported having watched the moment of impact on television, and recalled the moment the plane broke out in flames – even though it was impossible for them to have seen either of these occurrences.”

While a first impression of the practice of the Photo-bomb does nothing but reveal the immaturity of the photo-bomber, these lines of thought reveal a deeper value to the practice. First, it increases the immediacy of the image being photo-bombed, and second, it adds to the occasion a correlationary witness who was not intended to be one of the subjects of the image, enhancing the credibility of the event as a true record.

For a while there in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, there was a social trend in some circles of photoshopping yourself (or someone or something else) into a historical record – a photograph. The ultimate expression of this technique and technology remains Forest Gump, but long before that movie came along, this was a sure sign of a nerd.

Now, apply all of these to a fantasy milieu. A sufficiently vivid first-hand description of events can be enough for listeners to connect the events described with some similar experience of their own, leading them to falsely believe that they too experienced the events. This is especially the case when the person would have been a small child at the time, whose memories are fragmented by time and youth.

My earliest recollection is from a time when I was no more than two or three, possibly even younger, when the steering wheel of my father’s car came off in his hands. I once mentioned that to my mother, and she had no recollection of the event at all – yet it was something that she should recall vividly. I can only conclude that it was probably a nightmare experienced while driving – we lived, at the time, quite some distance out of town, and on one such trip I must have drifted off. Yet it remains a vivid recollection in my mind, even today, and absolutely real – even if it never happened.

The more dramatic a recent but somewhat distant-in-time event, the more people will remember having seen it, even if it is completely impossible for them to have done so. The more people remember an event, the more real that event will be – even if it never actually occurred. Experienced propaganda plays into this duality to distort the attitudes of people, magnifying in significance incidents that correlate with the propaganda while diminishing and obscuring those that do not. That’s why propaganda works. These facts can be manipulated by the GM in his storytelling efforts.

Green atmosphere forest

Image obtained from sxc before they became, photographer unknown

Reflections Of Cultural Change: Presented images with implied content

Another way that the GM can take advantage of these phenomena is when presenting photographs as illustrations within his campaigns, because every period image carries with it implied cultural baggage. The image can thus convey more than the information content for which it was chosen. Where this subtext conforms with the expectations of the viewer of the period, it reinforces the verisimilitude of the entire campaign, not just the immediate scene being illustrated; where there is a clash, it doesn’t just undermine the image being presented, it undermines the entire campaign to a certain extent.

Most of the campaigns that I run or co-run are affected by this phenomena, but in quite different (and yet strangely similar) ways.

The Adventurer’s Club

It is for that reason that even though players are willing to forgive the occasional anachronism in an image, I still work hard in the Adventurer’s Club campaign at erasing them from visual existence. Painting out telephone lines and TV antennas; copying and pasting an empty window to hide the air conditioning units, and so on. I can’t always get rid of cars, though.

The practicalities of what photo-manipulation may be required and what can practically be achieved in satisfying that requirement (in a reasonable time-frame) is always a consideration when selecting an image to represent some aspect of the campaign.


Half of this campaign takes place in an alternate world in which the date is 2056. But this isn’t any 2056 – it’s a technologically advanced 2056, closer to 2100AD in technological terms. The usual problem is that most images aren’t futuristic enough in content. There are some areas that retain a 2016 look, but many don’t. One of the smartest things I ever did was set the primary location for the team in a city that values its’ history, and that has experienced substantial rebuilding in recent times, New Orleans. This gives me a wide palette to draw upon is sourcing images to illustrate the stories. Telephone lines are tolerable in an image for this campaign, as are air conditioning units. But television antennas? Domestic satellite dishes? No, to both – everything is carried by the internet. The phone lines are really fiber-optic cables.

It’s relatively easy to choose images without people (“anachronistic” clothing would be a dead giveaway). But its a lot harder finding images without inappropriate advertising and without cars that look too “now”. Fortunately, there have been lots of sci-fi movies over the years – stills and excerpts from those can often be doctored to produce the imagery that I want.


Most images of castles and the like either have too much in the way of “modern” incidentals, or are too ruined in appearance, but persistent searching has produced results over time. But there are lots of wilderness photos available, and these have proven quite useful. The occasional “modern” element has to be removed, especially hikers and climbers, but that’s usually manageable. One of my favorite tricks is to take such an image and slice it in two, vertically. I then add a castle or whatever into the background of one half, using the vegetation to hide anything that’s unacceptable (damage or anachronistic); this gives me one image to use before the ‘destination’ comes into view and a clearly-related image to use when it does.

In fact, I’ve used a number of such images to illustrate this article.

d20'by janet galore from seattle

‘D20’ by janet galore from seattle – licensed under CC BY 2.0,

The map is not the country: Character Sheets as ‘images’

When I was making a list of all the possible interpretations of the the phenomena to be discussed, one somewhat inobvious notion came to me – and yet, on reflection, the same thought will probably have occurred to many readers, so I don’t intend to get into too deeply.

Perhaps the ultimate (in RPG terms) expression of forgetting the person behind the camera because you are distracted by the image on display – speaking metaphorical – is the player-PC-GM relationship, or its’ converse, the GM-NPC-player relationship.

The player: the ultimate face behind the camera (PCs)

A character, especially a PC, is shown to the world through its character sheet, the dry facts and game mechanical numbers that are used to define it – and yet, that is the barest fraction of the reality. It leaves out the contribution of the player, the perception of personality, the reaction to and interaction with the world.

I never forget this because I have seen the changes in a character when it is yielded by one player and another takes control – but that’s hardly a commonplace situation, so I doubt too many others have experienced it. Analogous to that is something that might have been experienced however – running the same adventure with the same fixed PCs for multiple groups at a convention, permitting a direct comparison of the differing interpretations of a character at the hands of different players.

When a GM is planning, all too often his planning focuses entirely on the character as presented. If the GM is a good one, he or she might go so far as to make allowances for the character that has been experienced in roleplay – its reactions, priorities, and psychology. The best GMs will also think about how the person behind the “camera” thinks and reacts, what they like and what they don’t. Aiming your adventure at the PC alone yields a workable campaign, which aiming exclusively at the player does not; aiming to satisfy both is far harder, people don’t come with character sheets and (in some game systems) psychological profiles, and are infinitely more complex than a PC, but the yield is a far better adventure, and a far better campaign.

The GM: the ultimate face behind the camera (NPCs)

Players face the opposite problem: they never get to see a character sheet for the NPCs that the GM depicts, if one has even been generated. Instead, they only get to see the mental image that they synthesize from the compounding of all the elements that the GM depicts – which at best will be a visual representation, a description, some personality traits, some dialogue, and a little narrative.

Just as the PC is more than just the character sheet, so the NPC is more than the sum of these parts, or should be; each of these is a reflection of a more complete entity, chosen by the GM because they reflect that aspect of the NPC (given the circumstances in-game). Too often, players assume that what they can experience through these channels is all there is, forgetting that not only will these fit together coherently and still be an incomplete representation, but that there is a central conception of the NPC which has been used to select those aspects that are on display.

This leads to NPCs being treated like cardboard cutouts by the players when they can be as dynamic and complex as any PC. Again, the better the GM, the richer these NPCs tend to be. In the case of a casual encounter, they might not be as complicated as a full PC, but they will still be something more than a wooden dummy draped with appropriate clothing.

In both cases, there is more to the characters than can be perceived on the surface.

And yes, this is another aspect of the reality of the game experience that the GM can manipulate so as to enhance the entertainment and enjoyment produced by his campaign.

Final Reflections

In this article, I’ve considered a diverse group of phenomena for which the “person behind the camera” is either a direct reference or a metaphor. What they all have in common is that they all say, one way or another, that there depth to any game than is superficially apparent from examining the ingredients and components that are the interface through which the campaign is experienced; and that the better the GM is at his ‘job’, the greater will be that depth. It will show in all aspects of his campaigns – from depth of personality to depth of plot – in varying degrees, depending on the individual.

If you want to improve as a GM, if you want to deliver more entertainment from, and generate more interest in, the games you run, that’s the takeaway message. No matter how deeply the players look, there should always be more depth, more thought, more to experience. Like the person on the other side of the camera, they won’t always be aware of what those depths contain – but their mere existence will add form and substance to the experience of playing the game.

All else is merely technique, which can vary from one GM to another, and which can change and evolve from time to time. And, while improvement in technique can be a laudable goal in and of itself, technique alone is shallow and superficial. It is never enough.

A GM who is aware of depth, and where he can most profitably create it, exploit it, and display it within his games, will always run a better game – so always remember the principle of the person on the far side of the camera, in all its gaming permutations.

Leave a Comment

The Yu-Gi-Oh Lesson: New Inspirations In Pacing and Style

Temple at Luxor in Egypt

Temple at Luxor in Egypt, photo by Pixabay / famhud. Public domain image licensed through CC0. Only marginally related to the article but it looks awesome!

I’ve been aware of the CCG, “Yu-Gi-Oh”, for some time. Collectible-card games are a staple of the games store to which the NSW Wargamers migrated when circumstances made the nearby venue we had been using for over a decade unavailable to us (shout-out to Good Games in Burwood – thanks for giving us a home when we needed one!). But this article is only indirectly about the card game.

A couple of years after noticing the card game (but having no idea of how to play, and certainly never having played it), I also became aware of the children’s cartoon advertising the game (both based on the same manga series). My interest level in both immediately declined sharply; in my experience, such television is rarely worth watching.

But, over the next 5 or 6 years, I caught a few minutes of an episode here and another there, and found that the TV show was a lot better than I had ever expected. Even more unexpectedly, I started recognizing interesting things about the pacing, especially noticeable in the first series.

If you study the Wikipedia page listing the episodes, you can see part of what I’m talking about, but it’s not very obvious – you have to dig for it; and even if you do, it won’t tell the whole story.


The pacing of the Classic Yu-Gi-Oh series (also known as “Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters”), especially in season 1, is like nothing I’ve ever seen in televised fiction before. Let’s break down season one, based on the Wikipedia page entries I mentioned a moment ago, to show you what I mean.

  • Episode 1 introduces the protagonists and sets the plot in motion as a ruthless tycoon kidnaps the hero’s grandfather in order to get a rare “Duel Monsters” card in “Grandpa’s” collection. The episode is essentially a standalone introduction.
  • Episode 2 begins the main plot as the main villain, Maximilian Pegasus, steals “Grandpa’s” soul to force the hero, Yugi Moto, to enter the tournament that Pegasus has arranged. An important plot point is Pegasus using the power of his Millennium Eye (a magic item) to gain an advantage.
  • Episode 3 gives the story of the trip to the tournament and shows the underhanded lengths that some of the participants will go to in order to win.
  • Episodes 4 and 5 are a two part episode in which the player whose conduct was so underhanded in episode 3 gets defeated. The two episodes comprise a single Duel. Several more victories will be needed before the two friends who are participating, Yugi and Joey Wheeler, can claim admission to the final rounds and a confrontation with Pegasus.
  • Episodes 6 and 7 are single-episode plots as both Joey and Yugi achieve further victories and which carry the time-frame forward to the end of the first day on Pegasus’ island, scene of the tournament.
  • Episodes 8, 9, and 10 are a three-part episode detailing two related duels, and reintroduce Kaiba, the duelist that Yugi defeated in the first episode, and Kaiba’s younger brother, Mokuba, only to reveal that the Kaiba that we see this time around is a fraud perpetrated by Pegasus.
  • Episodes 11, 12, and 13 are individual episodes that collectively form a three-part plot detailing two duels and conveying more information about the ‘Shadow Realm’ (where Grandpa’s soul was taken by Pegasus) and the Millennium Items.
  • Episodes 14 and 15 are a single two-part episode which continues the reforming of Mai Valentine, a character who was initially vain and selfish.
  • Episode 16 is a single-episode plot which reintroduces the real Kaiba, who delivers a psychologically-crushing defeat on Joey. This brings the plot to the end of the second day on Pegasus’ island.
  • Episodes 17 and 18 are the first official two-part episode in the series and comprise a single duel plus introduction and conclusion. The introduction deals with the consequences and aftermath of Joey’s defeat in the previous episode.
  • Episodes 19-21 are a three-part episode detailing a two-on-two duel and features, as a subplot, Kaiba making his way to Pegasus’ castle, gaining entrance, and being confronted by Pegasus, who traps Mokuba’s soul in the same way that he did Yugi’s Grandfather. The trilogy begins with the cliffhanger ending to the previous episode and ends with Pegasus giving Kaiba an ultimatum – Kaiba must duel Yugi and win in order to secure his brother’s release.
  • Episodes 22, 23, and 24 are another three-part episode. At last, both Yugi and Joey have qualified for entry into the final rounds, but before they can settle in, Yugi is forced to accept Kaiba’s challenge, and loses his nerve when the spirit of his millennium item appears willing to sacrifice Kaiba’s life in order to win. Furthermore, as a consequence of the duel, Yugi no longer qualifies for the later rounds. Rather than enter without him, all the companions turn aside.
  • A single-part plotline occurs in episode 25 in which Téa Gardner, a mutual friend to Joey and Yugi, wins enough star chips to enable Yugi to enter the castle from Mai Valentine, after Mai’s offer to give Yugi the star chips she has in excess of her needs is refused.
  • In episodes 26 and 27, The companions enter Pegasus’ castle, where, true to his word, Pegasus duels Kaiba. Once again, Pegasus uses the power of his Millennium Eye to his advantage, and eventually wins by playing a card so powerful that it was never put into circulation.
  • A single-episode plotline follows in episode 28 in which the structure of the tournament is decided, one of Yugi’s companions (Ryo Bakura) reveals to the viewer that he is plotting against both Yugi and Pegasus and poses a hidden danger.
  • In the first semi-final bout, Yugi faces Mai Valentine in the course of the two-part episodes 29 and 30. Yugi overcomes the doubts inflicted by his bout with Kaiba to win.
  • Another two-part episode (31 and 32) follows in which Joey defeats the fourth qualifying semi-finalist, despite his cheating. This episode brings to a conclusion a subplot that has threaded multiple episodes, starting in episode 3, the rehabilitation of Mai Valentine.
  • The final bout between Joey and Yugi takes place as a two-parter in episodes 33 and 34. Yugi wins the tournament, permitting him to duel Pegasus for the soul of his grandfather.
  • A five-part plot occupies episodes 35-39 which tells the story of the duel between Yugi and Pegasus while the rest of the companions attempt to rescue Kaiba and Mokuba. When Pegasus is defeated, he releases the souls he has imprisoned and slips away.
  • Episode 40 deals with the aftermath of the duel, answers some more of the mysteries surrounding the Millennium Items, and reveals to the audience that the hidden threat has made good on his plans to capture Pegasus’ Millennium Eye. This plotline is then left hanging, not to be mentioned or developed further in season 1.
  • Episodes 41 and 42 appear to start a new plotline, are set after the return of the party from the Island on which the contest took place, and deals with how Yugi’s grandfather came to posses the rare card that initially earned the attention of Kaiba, which established Yugi’s reputation, and led to the entire conflict with Pegasus. In reality, this plotline simply fills in some of the background that should logically have been presented earlier in the series; it feels ‘tacked on’ as a result. However, the resolution can only take place after the main plot.
  • Episodes 43 to 45 are a three part plot in which Kaiba is trapped in a virtual reality by his duplicitous board of directors (who had been allied with Pegasus) and Yugi, Joey, Mai, and Mokuba Kaiba combine to free Seto Kaiba. This plotline deals with subplots initiated during the main part of the season, cleaning up loose ends.
  • Episodes 46-49 are a standalone 4-part plotline in which the psychological issues exploited against Joey in Episodes 16, 17, and 18 again feature, reconfirming the friendship between the two, which in turn was the jumping-off point that started Episode 1. They also show both Yugi and Joey dealing with the fame that they have accrued through their success in the tournament. While (in terms of the dramatic action) the series peaks in Episode 39, and has its denouement in Episode 40, this final piece of “cleanup” brings the story full circle, back to where it started – the friendship of Yugi and Joey. This provides closure and a sense of completion for the series. The post-tournament episodes also have the cumulative effect of showing that life goes on for the characters. Personally, I suspect that the series was originally intended to conclude with Episode 40, and these additional episodes were added when it became clear that there was going to be at least one more season of the show. But I might be wrong.

The first season leaves a number of questions unanswered, which are resolved in later seasons.

scroll scrap with hieroglyphs

I thought about displaying the Yu-Gi-Oh Logo, which I found on Wikipedia Commons (click the link to view) but I chickened out (copyright, trademark). Instead, I’m showing “Hieroglyphs” (artist unkown) which is a public-domain image licensed under CC0.


There are two major points to be drawn concerning the pacing revealed in the course of this season.

First, the major plot points are whatever size the plot requires them to be. One episode, two-part episodes, three-, four-, and even five-part plots take place.

Second, while the show is not afraid to compress time when absolutely nothing is happening – while the characters sleep, for example, or in the period of time between the end of episode 2 and the start of episode 3 – these are the exception and not the rule. Beyond this, while some time compression takes place, the show makes great efforts to begin each episode where the previous one ended, and to fill the time with events rather than simply hand-waving the interval between significant plot points. Instead, it introduces or furthers subplots, explores relationships and backstory, and even lays foundations for what will later turn out to be substantial plot developments.

In terms of actual plot, for example, less than 1/4 of episode 28 does anything to advance the main storyline. Three quarters of the episode or more deals with character issues and reactions to earlier events, and even though those seem to have been resolved by the end of the episode, they are still in force, however weakened, at the start of the next major plot element. Viewed one way, 1/4 of the episode matters, and the rest can be considered filler; but that ‘filler’ content is then referenced in the next episode, when it becomes vitally important.

The bottom line is that the series never permits substantial time to pass without something happening, even if it’s something that won’t pay off for a dozen episodes – or even in a later series.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar? That’s right, the pacing sounds like that of an RPG, with “Adventures” of different lengths (when measured in terms of Game Sessions).

The target audience

I suspect that the pacing may have more than a little to do with the target audience. The Yu-Gi-Oh series, first and foremost, is intended for kids, and they may have been perceived (rightly or wrongly) as having a weaker concept of abstract time. Adults are more accepting of the notion of nothing happening for a while.

Try telling a story to a young person, dropping in the phrase, “A week later…” and most of them will immediately want to know what happened in the meantime. “It takes a week to travel to…” works in exactly the same way. They simply can’t accept that nothing happened for a period of time.

Most television series compress time routinely, or disregard it completely. This one is different – and, as a result, the time interval in terms of major plot developments is also quite variable. It doesn’t matter, for example, what order you screen Bugs Bunny cartoons in. The almost diary-like notion of having something to say about each and every block of time and the events therein, adding more events as necessary, is most unusual.

Interestingly, while many of the pronouncements are suitably melodramatic, there is no sense in season one that the show is talking down to the viewer – which is an occasional flaw in season 2. It’s as though the first series was pitched a little ‘high’ in age bracket for a cartoon’s typical audience, and there were some deliberate attempts to redress this in season two even though the latter is much darker and more adult in tone in many other ways.

replica of tutenkamuns treasure

Image of a reproduction of tutenkamun’s treasure by Pixabay / Bluesnap. Public domain image licensed through CC0. Again only tangentially related to the article.

Content I: The character Point Of View

Another element of the series design that is particularly noticeable in the first season is the focus on the main characters. While the antagonist frequently gets to gloat for the audience, that gloating rarely amounts to anything of plot substance. In fact, you can count on one hand the number of plot developments that he (or anyone else) is involved in and that the audience become aware of before the protagonists do. For the most part, when they find out about something, we find out about it – and not before.

This also has an impact on the pacing of the show. There’s less time for tension and drama to develop, so the creators have to achieve it by other means – specifically by focusing on the cat-and-mouse strategies of each opponent in one of the Yu-Go-Oh duels, and by having the PCs become aware of a threat or a problem with no immediate opportunity to deal with it, and without enough specifics to even engage in anything but the most general long-range planning.

Notice anything familiar about that? Again, with rare exceptions which are the equivalent of an omniscient narrator teasing the audience with out-of-character knowledge, this is exactly the way in which campaigns unfold in an RPG – as though we (the audience) were players in an RPG and the protagonists were our characters!

Content II: The primary plot

The primary plot is framed around the Yu-Gi-Oh game, called “Duel Monsters” within the series. The premise is that in ancient Egypt, powerful sorcerers did battle using magically-created creatures in duels with very specific rules, threatening to eventually wipe out the entire planet in their quest for power. Several mystic artifacts were created to house the power and dispersed so that no-one could summon the real creatures from the ‘Shadow Realm’, an extra-planar reality. Ultimately, the power-mad sorcerers were stopped by a mysterious Pharaoh. Since the fall of Egypt, these events have become legend and myth. The rules of these duels, and the images of the creatures employed, were preserved in hieroglyphs that were used as a source of inspiration by Maximilian Pegasus, who created the modern-day game of Duel Monsters. Eventually coming into possession of one of those artifacts, the Millennium Eye, he discerned part of the truth behind the myth and set out to reclaim the other Millennium Items so that he could use their power for his own purposes. While not inherently evil, Pegasus was prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his ends, and “villains are as villains do”.

One of the millennium items is a puzzle, reassembled by young Yugi (something no-one else had ever managed to do), and the central plot of the first series concerns Pegasus’ attempt to take that item from Yugi by staging a duel tournament. He kidnaps the soul of Yugi’s grandfather and exiles it to the Shadow Realm in order to force Yugi to participate, because the magic of the item will not work unless it is won in a duel. Of course, were it not for this last requirement, Yugi might well have traded the Millennium Puzzle directly for the return of his Grandpa, and there would not have been much of a series. It is this one ‘metagame’ plot point that propels the entire plotline.

With only minor alterations, this could easily be the plotline of a pulp campaign, or a D&D / Pathfinder campaign, or a superhero campaign, or a Call of Cthulhu campaign.

The series introduces the game and the protagonists, brings in a minor villain (who will serve in the same capacity in series 2) on the pretext of an attempt to claim a rare card owned by Yugi, and then introduces the main plot using this foundation to justify Pegasus learning of Yugi and his millennium puzzle as a result of his victory over the minor villain. It then takes advantage of the period of travel to the tournament to introduce many of the enemies/rivals that will have to be overcome by Yugi in order to reach the final confrontation with Pegasus. Most of the first season is the story of the tournament, with the heroes experiencing both successes and setbacks, confronting enemies with who employ direct attacks of great power, clever strategies, or psychological manipulation in their attempts to win the prize for themselves.

The ‘virtual game environments’ in which these struggles take place mean that even though there is relatively little physical travel involved, a variety of environments are experienced along the way.

This is exactly the sort of trick that a GM would use within an RPG campaign, overcoming the inherent restrictions of the ‘tournament’ framing device (and, not coincidentally, keeping the series visually interesting).

Content III: Flashback backgrounds

One of the greatest problems a GM faces is how to deliver background and backstory without spending hours as a talking head in the middle of the campaign. The series solves this problem in a rather interesting way.

Backstory is never presented until it becomes relevant, though it may be referenced earlier. In most cases, those earlier references are simply taken for granted by the protagonists – for example, it is established in episode 1 that Yugi, Joey Wheeler, and Tristan Tailor are friends, it isn’t until much later that the backstory of how such disparate individuals came to be friends, as the psychological pressures inflicted by the tournament take their toll.

And, when backstory is presented, there are two mechanisms employed: the first is simple narration by one of the protagonists – either the subject explaining himself, or one of the characters present telling the main cast what they know about the backstory, or some combination. This does little to delay the main action of an episode and is often integrated into it. The other device, employed when the main protagonists would all know the story (but the audience don’t), or when there is no way for any of those present to know the backstory, is the flashback.

While flashback sequences and backstory narrative passages are both equivalent in a gaming context, there are three lessons worth absorbing by GMs from the TV series.

The first is to present minimal backstory except when it’s relevant; and in fact, several of the subplots exist (from a meta-perspective) purely to justify the presentation of backstory in order to raise the stakes in future main-plot action.

The second is take the existence of backstory that has not been presented for granted, on the assumption that it will only receive exposition if and when the details (and not the outcome) become relevant.

And the third is to schedule such backstory exposition as a way to fill in “quiet periods” between main action beats.

A number of times, backstory is promised for later, so as not to interfere with the main action – providing context after the fact for behavior exhibited in the main plot.

The result is a flexibility in which backstory rarely intrudes excessively, and is presented in a flexible manner based on the required pacing of the main plot and the availability of ‘real time’.


The RPG Relevance: Zenith-3 and the merciless calendar

In the Zenith-3 campaign, activity falls into two primary patterns. In the main-plot sections, time is compressed as necessary, and side-activities only roleplayed if they are relevant in some way; the rest of the time, they get little more than lip service. Wrapped around that main action, subplots and side-plots are used to fill in ‘gaps’. Sometimes, this will involve presenting details of events previously related only as a mention during the main action.

The foundation of this is a merciless calender. Most events in the game are not locked to any particular point in time, but are instead in a logical progression that increments one of the plot threads. However, some game events are seasonal, and others are locked into particular in-game dates; and there are other events that are locked-in, relative to those in-game dates. So some parts of the campaign plan are “locked”, while others are not, and are simply arranged around the ‘locked’ material however they will fit. Gaps are left to provide flexibility, and those gaps are filled at the last minute (real-time) with subplots and side-encounters and character development.

I try very hard to derive inspiration for those subplots, side-encounters, and character developments from the themes of the adventure in question. This gives everything that is going on a relevance to the main plot, even if that relevance is not initially apparent. At the same time, it ensures that every adventure starts on common ground: the characters simply living their lives.

I also work hard to integrate anything that the players have said that they want their characters to do, actively looking for ways to integrate those activities with the themes of each adventure. I am aided in this by the creation of an overzealous bureaucracy which is discovering elements of Japanese management techniques (in a game world without Japan, I should note). They have noticed, for example, that creative people tend to find solutions to problems, and so have mandated that all personnel within their purview should spend a (paid) hour a week pursuing some creative outlet. They have noticed that those with an appreciation of music correlate strongly with empathy for the situations and problems of others, and are in general, happier personnel; so they mandate a (paid) hour a week of listening to music from some genre other than those the individual would normally choose for themselves, and so on. And, of course, there are forms and paperwork to track these things,

These activities are calculated by me (as GM) to do three things: give the characters a rich tapestry of experiences; provide a means to sneak little bits of game background into the plot; and provide lots of opportunities for the characters to interact with the game world, providing hooks into adventures, and so on. In fact, there’s so much going on in their lives that it is quite clear to everyone that I am cherry-picking which parts to actually roleplay, but everyone gets something, every adventure.

I also employ these ‘fillers’ within any gaps in the main plot, though these are rarely roleplayed. This also enables me to manipulate the pacing by making it seem that the main plot has come to an end when it hasn’t.

While not 100% the same as the Yu-Gi-Oh approach, there is a great degree of similarity between the two – which is probably what led me to notice the pacing of the TV series in the first place.


The RPG Relevance: Intermissions, subplots and introductions in The Adventurer’s Club

Th relationship between the Zenith-3 campaign that I referee and the Adventurer’s Club campaign that I co-referee is an interesting one in terms of the narrative structures employed. I’ve detailed the first above, and discussed the latter in a number of recent articles – for example in Encampments and other In-Character Opportunities, in the section “Everyday Life Creates a sense of reality” (in a nutshell, we look into the character’s ordinary lives until the main adventure starts, and when it starts, it is initially indistinguishable (most of the time) from another of those ordinary life episodes).

I had developed a similar technique in the previous Zenith-3 campaign (“Zenith-3: Earth Halo”), but it has fallen out of disuse to some extent as the campaign approached its’ big finish – in other words, as the characters’ capacity for having an ordinary life diminished. It was nowhere near as well developed, of course. That development took place in the latter years of the Adventurer’s Club campaign.

Until Adventure 14, the drive was to get the PCs into the main adventure as quickly as possible, mentioning anything else they might have been doing only in passing. Adventure 14 was a set of simultaneous mini-adventures – essentially all ‘personal lives’, and was quite well received at the time. Adventure 15 fell into the old format – get the PCs together, mention briefly any personal developments, and then bring in the main plot. The difference in the player’s reactions was noticeable. Adventure 16 broke the mold, because it was deliberately designed and intended to start slow and focus on just one of the PCs, and we needed (in the interests of giving everyone else their fair share of screen time, and not making it too clear where the main plot was coming from) to show what the other PCs were doing. So they had their own personal lives development which led into their own mini-scenario, while the main plot was bubbling away, relatively unnoticed – until it came to a head, and the whole group became involved.

This technique not only hearkened back to Adventure 14, “Scenes From The Balcony”, but worked so well in terms of making the players feel their characters were alive in the pulp world that from Adventure 17 onward. it became our standard pattern. Adventure 16 was an anomaly; written largely to write a character out of the campaign with dignity and respectful remembrance following the death of his player, it again parachuted the players straight into the main plot – mainly because it was written before Adventure 15 was played. (Right now, we are playing adventure 24, “Boom Town”, but writing adventure 26, “The Secrets Of Magnus Maximus”; adventure 25, “Lord Of The Flies”, is “canned” and ready-to-go).

It was while we were playing Adventure 18, I think, that the Zenith-3 campaign folded into it’s own sequel, “Zenith-3: Regency”, and the capacity once again arose to look at the adventure structures of the campaign. Naturally, I started with the “state of the art” as it then was, and from that point on, one has evolved in technique and the other has then ‘caught up’, and eventually pushed the boundaries still further. We are now at the point where the opening day’s play of most adventures includes just the cliffhanger intro to the main plot; the rest of the day is spent on the characters’ personal stories.

While the two campaigns are not in competition, in evolutionary terms they might as well be; each spurs the other on in its development. And again, while the adventure structure isn’t quite the same as that of the Yu-Gi-Oh TV series, there is more than a little similarity.


The RPG Relevance: Coordinating two Fumanor campaigns

There is a particular challenge involved in running two simultaneous campaigns in the same game world with at least some players in common. That challenge can be stated in a single two-word summary: Synchronizing Plots.

There were times when one campaign was inevitably going to influence another. That meant that (in order to give the campaign to do the influencing a chance to catch up to, and synchronize with, the influenced campaign, there needed to be space inserted for filler between them, for variable time factors under my direct control as GM. Because I knew that one campaign involved a lot of relatively slow travel over great distances, and the other involved relatively short and quick travel over much smaller distances, I knew that “One Faith” needed to start a long time before “Seeds Of Empire” in game time (but not in real time). The two would then synchronize when events in “One Faith” caused the “Seeds Of Empire” campaign to come into existence.

The next point of synchronization would come when “Seeds Of Empire” began to reshape the political landscape within “One Faith”. There was a lot of adventuring in the former between those two points, and even allowing for the two to have started at the same time in the real world, it wasn’t going to be enough. So I came up with a mechanism by which the campaign would divide into two strands, theoretically simultaneous, but played sequentially, with different characters in each run by the same players. One would contain a string of mini-adventures, while the other contained chapters in an ongoing saga; by adding or subtracting from the mini-scenarios, I could make sure that the “One Faith” campaign meshed, timeline-wise, with the “Seeds Of Empire” campaign. When the time was right, these two strands would recombine, and the changes wrought in the “Seeds” campaign would take effect, and then the “One Faith” campaign would again bifurcate until all was in readiness for the grand finale of both campaigns.

Things were further complicated when one of the Key players in “One Faith” passed away – yes, the same player that I mentioned earlier.

Quite frankly, it was a logistical nightmare that required (and will require) flexibility and a lot of detailed planning, and I never want to have to do that again if I can help it – but it worked, at least up until the point when both were shut down. Not abandoned, however; they will eventually restart. The major blockage at the moment is the ill health of the grandmother of one of the common players; he can only take so much time away from caring for her, and the others involved (including me) agree completely with his priorities. Or, to put it another way, I didn’t invest nearly 1000 hours in the “Orcs And Elves” series – all campaign background being revealed to the characters in the “Seeds” campaign – just to throw it all away!

Anyway, the point is that here was a quite different plotting problem that was essentially solved by a variation on The Yu-Gi-Oh lesson (at least, it would have been; that has the temporal relationship between events inverted). What took lots of planning and skull sweat would have been solved relatively quickly and easily, in exactly the same way, by observing and analyzing the TV series.

Closing The Books

That makes three different campaigns (four if you count the Fumanor campaigns separately), each of which is now on a surer footing for my having observed the Yu-Gi-Oh TV series and its’ unique approach to pacing. More than enough evidence, then, to state that it’s worth sharing.

Novels work best by compressing time between significant events. Comic books and movies, even more-so. But, as in so many other ways, RPGs are a breed apart from anything else. Make them just a little more real-time by inserting subplots, events, and interactions, and you gain an exceptionally useful tool – one that lets your players explore the lives of their characters, and at the same time, enables you to further manipulate the pacing of your games. I’ve written a two-part article (Part 1, Part 2) and an additional 4-part series (Further Thoughts On Pacing) on the importance of that subject and the techniques that I employ, and despite all this effort, the Yu-Gi-Oh TV series has still given me a whole new tool or two, and a whole new insight, that I can exploit in the quest to make my games as entertaining and fulfilling as they can possibly be. And that is news worth sharing.

Leave a Comment

The Energizer Bunny: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 4

Based on Knight With Shield Michal Zacharzewski

Image from / Michal Zacharzewski
Background by Mike

This is the fourth part of a very intermittent series that is examining alternatives and possible implications to the standard spell storage solutions built into D&D, Pathfinder, and, in fact, most fantasy games. Today, We look at Permanent Magic Items.

Permanent magic items are like the energizer bunny, they just keep going. That makes them qualitatively different to every type of magic device that this series has considered so far.

Key Characteristics

There aren’t a lot of defining traits to these items; they tend to be relatively simple. There is a simple reason for this: there are so many closely-related varieties of such item that there are very few characteristics common to all, or even most, of them. That suggests that armors should be treated separately from weapons, and so on, that the category should be subdivided; but, at the same time, the few commonalities that do exist are so compelling that a piecemeal approach would not tell the whole story.

The traits that I have identified as sufficiently common are:

  • Persistence
  • Immutable State
  • Charges (inconsistently), Commands, or Continuous
  • Usually Worn or Wielded
  • Usually a Buff item
  • Mass, Momentum, and Weight?

In addition, there is one characteristic that such items should posses but sometimes – perhaps all too often – don’t.

  • Limited Power/Complexity

The magic in the item is usually not consumed when the effect it contains is released, or instantly renews itself, and either way, the item itself survives.

As a GM, this can be a little understated. Why not give magic items a sensory impact of some sort when they function? I’ll talk about this idea further a little later. Heck, why not go further, and explicitly show the “instant renewal process” – an item does it’s job, instantly rusts or sublimates or something, and then instantly renews itself? Make it clear that the item has done whatever it does. This works especially well when an NPC is wearing or using such an item and there is no discernible effect that the PCs can spot/identify, providing a fertile ground for paranoia!

Immutable State

It’s very rare for these items to change in any way. One of the most common visual clues given out by GMs, especially early GMs, is that these items don’t rust or decay; they are almost always immaculately clean and polished, and any dust or detritus like spiderwebs fall away with hardly any effort.

Charges (Inconsistently), Commands, or Continuous

Most of these items function continuously, or effectively so if you utilize some of the special effects suggested earlier. A few either only work or have additional powers that have to be commanded into operation in some manner by the user. A very few of the latter type have a limited number of self-renewing charges.

So why not require ‘continuous’ effects to be commanded into operation even if they don’t consume some form of “charge”? That magical plate mail functions as ordinary plate-mail until commanded to protect you – which it then does, for a limited amount of time. Of course, as soon as it shuts off, the power can be invoked again – unless you also throw in some kind of “recharging delay”.

Usually Worn or Wielded

While there are a few items of this variety that have to be held, most of them have to be worn, or have to be wielded as a weapon. Even magic items such as Horseshoes can be considered to be “worn” by the mount.

Usually A Buff Item

Most of these items add a bonus to some numeric value, though some provide characters with additional abilities, such as Hats Of Disguise.

Oh, the fun that you can have with this trait and just a little creativity. Why not an unusual ability? A suit of plate mail that starts singing a bardic song every time you enter battle (too bad if you’re trying to sneak, but at least you get the benefit of the Bardic Song). Why not shoes of Dancing that add to your charisma when tripping the light fantastic on the dance floor? Why not a series of miniature Portable Holes in a money belt – just big enough for coins, or sling bullets, or arrows, to be stored and retrieved? Why not a crossbow with an “Unseen Servant” spell that retrieves any bolt that survives after being fired and striking something? Why not magical sling bullets that scream in terror when fired (a literal “terror weapon”)? Any effect that you can think of can be built into such magic items, whether those effects exist as a spell or not.

Mass, Momentum, and Weight?

Another trait that is often common to such items, however unofficial, is that they weigh substantially less than the unenchanted varieties, enabling characters to move more freely, attack more adroitly. In many cases, this is an attempt to explain “how” the magic achieves its game mechanical effects, i.e. define what the game mechanics are simulating. This is largely color, used to enhance narrative within a combat situation, though some GMs then make the ramifications part of their campaign worlds. If magic armor impairs movement significantly less than normal armor, for example, then characters can presumably swim while wearing it – at least as well as they could wearing wet clothing, say.

There’s nothing wrong with this interpretation, or with a GM adding verisimilitude to the game world by being consistent in applying the effects and logical consequences.

Others walk a finer line – only in combat does the magic truly ‘come to life’, the rest of the time, armor and weapons are just like their mundane counterparts. This is also fine.

The most important thing is to be consistent within the campaign in terms of your explanation and interpretations. That requires such decisions to be made pro-actively, before play actually starts, which is why this is worth mentioning.

Limited Power/Complexity

“Cool! A +5 Vorpal Frostbrand Holy Avenger!” Yes, that is a real-world quote from a completely real gamer who really was being handed such a magic item by his GM.

Most of us know better, but still make items far more powerful than is desirable, given that a lot of these effects are permanent and continuous (even if you need a critical hit to activate the goody).

Hey, if swords can have powers that are only activated on a critical, why not armors that have a special power that only activates after the wearer is subjected to a critical hit? Heal, or Invisibility, or Cure Poison?

Here’s the way it’s supposed to work, as I understand it: All magical weapons have a specific “plus” that is their attack and damage bonus and also their capacity for special effects. Each special effect, like Vorpal, or Holy Avenger, has a rating to indicate how much of that capacity gets consumed by incorporating that special effect into the weapon.

Why don’t armors and shields have a list of special powers that work the same way?

Limiting the power: Option 1

One possibility that I have heard suggested in bull discussions amongst GMs is that incorporating a second ability into one item consumes an additional slot. So a +5 weapon could have two powers – one worth +3 and another worth +1, or both worth +2. Or, of course, one power of +4 or +5 value. This has the virtue of making combinations of powers more manageable from the GM’s point of view, i.e. limiting the synergies involved.

Limiting the power: Option 2

Another suggestion that presents far sharper restrictions on the effectiveness of such magic items is for the item to offer it’s pluses only until they are consumed by adding a special effect. So a +5 axe might have a +3 special effect and confer +2 in combat bonuses. Or even a +3 and a +2 ability, but offer no combat bonuses at all. A Holy Avenger adds +0 combat bonuses but in all other respects and for all other purposes, counts as a +5 weapon. And so on.

Variations Of Ability

There are lots of ways you can spice up the variety of items in a campaign without undue risks of imbalance. Some of these have been mentioned in earlier parts of this series but deserve specific consideration within the topic of permanent magic items.

Feats in magic items

The first variation is one that has definitely been mentioned before. Consider a feat to be a +1 magical effect. Armor that confers the feat “Acrobatic”, for example, or a Helm that confers “Blind-Fight”, or Gloves of “Nimble Fingers”.

Everyman An Expert

One of my favorite applications for this idea only works in a very wealthy society with lots of access to magic. Armor and weapons are utterly unlike most magic items in that you require a specific feat in order to use them (no matter how ubiquitous that Feat might be). Why not build that feat directly into the magic item itself? Fantasy legend and lore is full of armor that transformed the wearers into warriors, of country bumpkins becoming expert swordsmen immediately they pull the sword from the stone, etc. But on the larger scale, this enables a society to turn the effort normally expended on martial training to social purposes – a city of poets and artists (because they have converted the default martial feats into perform feats) who look soft and weak – until they put on their ceremonial armor and gain the benefits of guidance from every forebear who ever had to fight to survive.

Using Magic Item Feats for Flavor

Another idea that I find compelling in a number of ways (mostly related to the flavor that is imparted) is to rule an entire publisher’s line of supplements out of bounds for PCs, and then build the feats and spells from that line into magic items. This takes maximum advantage of the explosion in 3rd party supplements that was the 3.x “Boom”, but it works very well.

For example, you might rule that no feats or spells are available to characters from the excellent Mongoose series of publications, and then make those exclusive to magic items – while stripping out from the treasure lists anything which is derivative of a Core Book spell or feat. Suddenly, magic items have their own unique flavor.

You can take this idea further by deliberately integrating campaign background elements from those resources. For example, if all magic items were the legacies left behind by a past civilization which fell long ago and vanished, leaving behind nothing but ruins and the odd enchanted item, you add massively to the color and substance of your campaign by using the Eberron sourcebooks as your magic item “foundation”, or Faerun.

You can even have two different populations with different legacies from the past by basing the magic items of one on one set of sources and the magic items of another on an entirely different source. “Elven and Dwarven magic is based on Faerun; Human magic is based on Ebberron”.

The redundancy/overlap problem

Implementing any of these ideas means confronting one major issue and implementing a policy to deal with it: that of feats that overlap with those in supplementary sources that you do permit players to draw upon. Some ideas are so good that they occurred to different game companies and were implemented in very similar ways, if not completely identical ways.

For example, at least three different feats from different publishers granted +2 Initiative. One did it as a “miscellaneous bonus”, another as a “Dexterity Bonus”, and a third as a “General Bonus” of unspecified nature.

There are lots of ways of resolving such overlaps, where the intent was clearly the same: you can rule that regardless of the mechanism used to translate the effect into game mechanics, they are all the same bonus, and once you have it from one source, you can’t get it from another. Or you could apply stacking rules (the first one has full effect, the second and subsequent ones that are the same only add +1), or you could adopt an open strategy in which they all count unless the named bonus is exactly the same – in this example, gaining the three different feats could confer a bonus of +6 to Initiative. I tend to lean toward the latter, but always consider whether or not the others are more in keeping with the style of campaign I intend to run.

This becomes more important when one is a feat, and another is in a magic item; while at the same time, the act of placing the “feat” into a magic item naturally restricts availability enough that the more open policy becomes more viable. GMs should make up their own minds, but should definitely think about this in advance of starting play.

Skills in magic items

Another idea that’s been mooted before, but one that merits consideration. Leather armor that contains skill ranks in Stealth? Why not? Or that simply confers a bonus to a skill without conferring any ranks in that skill?

My usual pattern is to look at what bonuses a Feat confers – these usually add up to +4, often spread equally amongst two different skills – and so the existing equivalence mooted above (1 feat = a +1 special ability) means that for each +1, an item could confer +4 in one skill or +2 in two related skills.

It’s in combination with the feats idea (discussed above) that this becomes truly significant. Armor that makes you a better rider? Weapons that impart knowledge of tactics? Robes that improve your spellcraft? Gloves that improve your lock-picking skill?

Swings and Roundabouts

Another favorite idea is to take the basic ideas one step further. Instead of armor that confers +2 resistance to fire-based effects, why not one that confers +4 – but also confers a -2 penalty against cold attacks? Whenever you have something with a logical opposition – and D&D / Pathfinder is full of such – why not exaggerate and hyper-dramatize the benefits?

In and Out

Finally, consider the possible differences in variations of energy flow. Why not a magic item that enhances a cleric’s healing spells by +1 per die – but also reduces the benefits of healing directed at that cleric by -1 per die? Or a magic item that adds +2 fire damage to an attack – but also inflicts 2 points of fire damage (or cold) damage upon the wielder?

The Unseen Squire

Let’s talk about another aspect of complicated armors like full plate. These are incredibly difficult to put on, unaided, and beastly uncomfortable to try and sleep in. In real history, each knight had one or two squires, and one of these squire’s duties was to help the Knight put on his armor properly. Why not build an “Unseen Servant” – in this case, an “Unseen Squire” – whose primary tasks are to help the wielder put on or take off the armor, and to polish, clean, and maintain it while the owner sleeps?

The Leaders and the Led

While the notion of leaders who command from the back lines instead of leading from the front might seem a relatively recent innovation in military strategy, that doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt it to function within a fantasy society – and the implication is that the two roles might have very different types of enchanted armor. Leader’s armors might emphasize tactics, and communications, and clairvoyance;
mid-level armors might emphasize speed and flexibility in combat; while senior grunts armors emphasize combat prowess, attack and defense.

Inverting expectations

One idea that I don’t think has ever been fully explored by magic items despite the plethora of them have been introduced through hundreds of adventures and game settings is the notion of inverted expectations.

Why not a suit of armor that helps you get into position to attack (i.e. confers an attack bonus instead of a defense bonus?) Why not a weapon that enhances your ability to deflect blows (bonus to AC instead of to attack?)


I’ve had a thought that might prove too powerful for extensive use: Why not a suit of armor or a weapon that permits you to roll for success or failure before you commit yourself to an action, enabling you to choose what that roll is subsequently used for? “Okay, I’ve rolled a 19, I’m going to go for an all-out attack.” “Hmmm, I’ve rolled a 3, that’s not going to work as an attack, so I’ll do something where the low roll is a benefit, or at least the failure won’t hurt too badly – I’ll drop a tangle-foot bag at my feet and act as though I were trying to keep him from noticing.”

The only rules would be that you had to do something that demanded a die roll, and had to use the roll you had already made – beyond that, you could customize your actions to take maximum advantage of the results.

It’s not a suggestion that everyone will like. I’m only lukewarm on it, myself. But for some GMs, it might be exactly the ticket for simulating some sort of “future sense” of what is about to happen – something that’s fiendishly difficult to do without the GM railroading events.

Matched Sets

One of the better ideas in the 3.x Epic Handbook was the notion of Matched Sets. This weapon with this armor with this helm combines to give a magic item that is more than the sum of its parts.

It’s a concept that can be taken a lot further. Here are 2 swords, 2 suits of mail, and 2 helms – and every combination of three items (armor, weapon, and helm) yields a different “extra ability”.

An entire campaign could be built around the concept of the “collectible card game” equivalent in magic items.

Variations Of Form

Unlike most magic items, there aren’t too many variations in form to consider. Armor is something that you wear; weapons are something you wield; and so on. Instead, and unlike most magic items, the majority of variation in “form” is actually a variation in materials.

One of the ideas that I tried to implement (with only partial success) in one of my campaigns was the notion of Exotic Materials. I talked about this in some detail in Plunging Into Game Physics Pt 2: Strange Mechanics, so I won’t go into it here.

You might also draw inspiration from my series on exotic spell components, Some Arcane Assembly Required.

But some of the variations in function described earlier are also appropriate to consider variations of form. As with many other aspects of these magic items, it’s hard to draw a dividing line!


Although it seems hard at first to look beyond the basic functionality of most permanent magic items – weapons and armor especially – there are a surprising number of variations possible. Expand your repertoire and never be guilty of “It’s a suit of +1 chain”. Magic items are hand-crafted originals, not products of an assembly line; each should have its individual quirks and color, each should be just a little different than the next. There is no off-the-shelf, so why should such magic items be described as though they came out of a sausage factory?

The final part of this series is tentatively scheduled for mid-to-late September, and will look at the vexed and vexing subject of the ultimate magic items: Relics and Artifacts.

Leave a Comment

What Is Magic? Six Answers

dark magic by salssa

Image Credit: / salssa

Magic features in a lot of different RPGs, but very few of them answer this simple, fundamental question – what is it, and how can it be used to achieve the many and various effects that are attributed to it within whatever game you happen to be playing?

Work on the ATGMs question on spell components got me to thinking about the subject again a while back, as happens from time to time. There are no really satisfactory answers – just bits and pieces that are on such uncertain ground that you have to run across it very quickly, lest it swallow you whole.

Well, I’m an experienced GM, and a veteran writer on the subject of RPGs; if anyone is going to be capable of playing tour guide through the different options, I should be able to manage it.

My usual starting point for this sort of research-driven article is usually Wikipedia, but I suspect that it will have a hard time separating out superstitions and religious issues that matter in the real world study of the subject but only get in the way of an RPG understanding. So, instead, I’m cracking out various rule-books.

Based on Magic Sphere 2 by bert8k

Image Credit: / bert8k
Color manipulation & additional textures by Mike

Physics Incognito, Pseudo-Physics, Paraphysics, Metaphysics, Not-really-physics, Mumbo-Jumbo

These six approaches form a continuity into which different solutions can be classified. You might disagree with the order in which they are placed; I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s examine and define each for anyone unfamiliar with the terms and the way that I employ them within this context.

Physics Incognito

“Any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic.” So said Arthur C. Clarke in his third law, and it’s a fun place to start. The most difficult category, this assumes that magic is “sufficiently advanced science”, i.e. science that isn’t understood by observers and which cannot be learned from first principles and simple observation.

This requires Magic to obey certain physical principles (which may be inadequately defined, or not defined at all) but which nevertheless limit what can be done with it. It is usually created by applying the principles of real-world physics to the manifestations of magic in a game reality, such as thermodynamics and thermodynamic inefficiencies.

This answer can be the starting point for endless debates of great entertainment value but little real merit. More often, writers employ this basis of “Magic” to make it palatable to a hard-science crowd. Look for this sort of “Magic” in any science-fiction series or roleplaying game, from Star Trek to Stargate. Babylon-5 occasionally steps into this domain as well, for example in the Season-5 episode “Day Of The Dead” (a personal favorite from that season) though it steers clear of the entire subject much of the time.


Pseudo-physics attempts to mimic a veneer of Physics Incognito without ever going beyond the use of poorly-defined and self-referential buzzwords to actually “explain” the principles behind magic, just as many science fiction shows use technobabble to “explain” the workings of technology. Because it attempts to appear rational, this can sometimes be mistaken for Physics Incognito.

It can be a lot of fun coming up with a pseudo-physics to ‘explain’ magic, but the more detail you invest in it, the more likely you are to trip over the two big bugbears of this approach: consistency and internal contradiction. The most common cause of both is misremembering some principle that has been embedded in the pseudo-physics and then forgotten; the easiest solution is to introduce the concepts one at a time without expanding on the physics beyond that point until the current understanding is mastered. The problem is that this approach is frequently at odds with experienced mages of greater power; this can be accommodated but only if the solution is deliberately embedded into the game society/campaign concept & plan.


In the early 80s, when I started playing, a lot people went in for the notion that “Magic” in D&D was a type of psionic phenomenon, or was to be explained in those terms. Some GMs even modified the rules systems to better reflect this notion. Some also discarded the Vancian system that was the basis of D&D magic in favor of something less rigid, often involving Spell Points of some sort or another.

Fundamentally, if you accept the validity of these phenomena, then this category stands somewhere between physics incognito and pseudo-physics; if you don’t, then this is where it belongs. No sitting on the fence on this one.

Complicating the whole situation have been a succession of Psionics Handbooks; the fundamental assumption is, therefore, that magic is something that exists separate to the phenomena described. This leaves the GM with three options:

  • Rule the psionics handbook out of bounds, and determine that this paraphysics is the undiscovered truth about magic;
  • Scrap the spells in the players handbook and replace them (and any related game mechanics) with the contents of the psionics handbook; or,
  • Rule that magic and psionics (if the latter exists in the game world) are completely separate and unrelated, and therefore, that you have to choose a different answer to the question, “what is magic?”

A metaphysics abandons all congruence between reality and fantasy worlds and introduces some concept (which may be dressed up in pseudo-scientific language, but is more probably dressed up in some sort of spiritual terminology) to explain the phenomena. The prime example is The Force from Star Wars – but this is a Force with a little more flexibility, able to manipulate all sorts of energies in very complex and sophisticated ways. The key is in the consistency with which this ‘explanation’ is used to describe the underpinnings that the game mechanics are simulating; the GM will usually need to come up with “laws of magic” to explain how magic works, and then examine both the game mechanics and every spell description for contradictions.

An early attempt at this sort of thing in the prior campaign that eventually became the Zenith-3 campaign held that magic was a parity swap between the area of the game universe affected by the spell and a parallel dimension that was identical in every respect save that whatever the spell effects were supposed to be had just occurred there of natural (but undetermined) causes. A Lightning Bolt simple exchanged the path that the lightning bolt was to follow with that of a parallel world in which an entirely natural lightning bolt happened to be following that line. Result, so far as an observer in the game world was concerned: a lightning bolt erupted from the appropriate spot in thin air and traveled along the appropriate line to strike the target. So far as a hypothetical observer in the source universe was concerned: a lightning bolt traveling along the indicated path vanished without apparent explanation.

Where this explanation fell apart, in-game, was that I did not have natural phenomena simply vanishing from the game world. It violated reasonable plausibility that no-one would ever cast a spell in which the game world was also the source world. If you don’t make that mistake, you should be fine.

I had rather more success with the concept in Shards Of Reality, in which the universe wasn’t created by the Gods, who were created by the power of mortal belief infusing raw arcane power with the belief that they had done so embedded within their memories and in which all magic was an illusion of some level of believability. Mundane illusions could fool mortals (with a save, most of the time); Fey Illusions could fool all living creatures, even those immune or resistant to illusions (with a save, in the latter case, and a more difficult save some of the time if not, except when actually drawn into the plane of reality inhabited by the Fey); and Magic drew on particles of this raw arcane power to construct illusions so real that the universe itself believed them, and made it so (this was an environment in which everything – including rivers, mountains, trees, etc – possessed some level of sentience and personality). The Creator of the universe had done so out of loneliness, wanting someone to provide company and companionship, and had used part of his own essence to do so; but his first creations (I forget what I called them) were jealous children who turned on him and ripped him to pieces. With his dying breath, the creator infused everything else he created with tiny fragments of himself – every blade of grass, every tree and lifeform – with his own potential to create reality. Slowly, as the magic in the immediate world was consumed, it became unreliable and began to fail. The goal of the campaign was for a PC to use his own body and mind as a template to recreate the creator, and then to face the choice of a world completely without magic or committing the ultimate evil all over again to restore magic to the world. But the players never got that far, and were only touching the fringes of these concepts when the campaign folded.


This explanation posits that some ancient natural philosophy (“everything is made up of four elements”) held a grain of truth, and those who know how to manipulate these lost principles of reality can achieve effects that the unenlightened would regard as miraculous. Ars Magica adopts this basic approach, for example. I have also seen games in which Zoanastricism is correct, but only in a sense; and worlds in which Cthulhu-physics can be used to override the natural order of things in our world (a Call Of Cthulhu campaign, quite obviously). I’ve seen games in which Devils and/or Demons replaced Cthuloid reality for this purpose, explaining why Mages and Clerics are usually at loggerheads; this is a concept in which magic is a weapon of the enemy that has been usurped by mortals for their own purposes, and which may slowly corrupt the caster – which is why high-level mages frequently seek to become Liches and Demi-liches. In their own minds, that decision is entirely logical, sensible, and reasonable.


The final category is Mumbo-Jumbo, in which all pretense of consistency is thrown out the window and its place is taken by buzzwords without definition but that sound impressive. In essence, the art of spellcasting has outstripped the understanding of those who do it; methods and spells are learned by rote and most variations fail, or ‘collapse’ into a default state. New spells can only be created by trial-and-error, discovering a new stable configuration of the pseudo-energies. In the meantime, because they don’t understand how it works, romanticized and incomplete speculations with as many exceptions as there are holes in a colander make up what is laughingly called “magical theory”. In essence, this holds the game mechanics to be paramount, and the explanation? “Well, there is one, but no-one knows what it is, yet”.

This employs a social model based on the understanding of reality in Western Europe prior to the Reformation – that of the so-called Dark Ages, though that term is currently out of favor with many historians, in which religious speculation was contrived to explain everything.

What’s your poison?

Every game system that I’m aware of either makes no explanation at all (most of them), or implies one of the above, or – very rarely – actually describes one of them in some level of detail as an explanation for how magic works. In reality, most of them are compatible with most game systems, and it’s up to you to select the one that best fits the rest of your gaming world.

But there can be consequences, both good and bad.

colorized version of Magical Forest At Night by Image Credit: Photo by Katerina Štepánková

Image Credit: Photo by / Katerina Štepánková;
Color & Image manipulation by Mike

The Consequences

The impacts tend to cluster around four main themes: Characters, Manifestations (i.e. Spells), Adventures, and Campaigns. Permeating all of these is the increased credibility that comes from being able to give an answer (possibly devoid of meaning) to the fundamental question posed by this article, “What is magic?”.

Character-level consequences

If you define what magic is, you define how the mage fits into the game universe. In most games where the question isn’t answered, the default position tends to orient around the defining characteristic of the mage, his INT score, leading him to be cast in the role of the scientist – but often it’s a slightly ‘mad’ scientist from the 1950s, creating monsters and pursuing experiments in the nature of reality without regard to the morality that might be involved. The contrast is always between the Mage (smart but unwise) and the Cleric (wise but not necessarily smart). Changing the definition of the mage, by changing the (lack of) definition of magic also changes this essential dynamic, aligning the character archetypes across a different conflict.

Obviously, some of the choices have greater influence over this aspect of the characters than others. Some will retain the existing conflict modes but sharpen them, for example the demonic/devilish spawning of magic posited in the “Not-Really-Physics” line.

But it goes beyond that, or it should – a campaign is a jigsaw puzzle, and changing the shape of one piece necessarily changes the shape of all the pieces that surround it. Now, sure, you can stop there – but what a waste that would be; so instead of leaving the outer edges of that collection of pieces unchanged, link another change through logical consequence to the first, and change the shape of the entire jigsaw, one piece at a time – sometimes just a little, sometimes a lot.

Changing what magic is might change what Elves are, or what Dwarves are, or both, and that might change what Fighters are, and that changes what Paladins are, and that changes what Clerics are, and that changes what Demons and Devils and Gods are, and…

Provided that there is an internal logic that is clear and strong in back of these changes, even if that logic (and the causal factor, the definition of magic), those reading the campaign background will absorb the presence of that internal logic without even realizing it. You can tell that there is a reason why things are the way they are, that nothing has been included by chance. There’s a pattern there, it’s just not being spelled out.

There is an inherent pleasure in taking a “noisy” situation and making sense of it, and that’s the central appeal of most mystery stories and police procedurals. Defining magic gives a GM the capacity to layer that appeal on top of everything else that he has going on in his campaign.

But there is a downside: you really need a player to step up and become the focal point of this aspect of the campaign by playing a mage. And not every player will agree to do so if the class has been extensively redefined. “Gee, I wanted to play a Mage, but this isn’t what I had in mind. Maybe I’ll play a rogue instead…” …because what it comes down to is replacing an iconic game element with a home-brewed house-ruled version.

This actually places a much stronger demand on the player’s skills at the table than playing an ordinary mage straight out of the rulebook. There are hundreds of web pages and discussion threads on how to play a ‘real’ mage – and none at all on how to play your revised version. You need either an experienced player of substantial creativity and imagination, or need to make yourself available as a substitute for all that collective reference material in the case of a less-experienced player. It’s a roleplaying challenge, and you need it to be undertaken by someone who will bring their A-game, or who is prepared to invest the effort to make up for it if they don’t have the requisite depth of experience.

That being said, there is an advantage to a relative novice taking on the role, insofar as they have less learned expertise to discard. The role of an Elf in the original Fumanor was taken by a player of more than twenty years D&D experience as a GM; he claimed to be looking forward to stretching his concept of what an “Elf” was, and for a while was genuinely enthusiastic about it. (I don’t remember what the character’s class was, and in any event it was subordinate to his racial profile within the campaign). But as the campaign progressed and more information was revealed about the changes to Elves, he had increasing difficulty translating them into actual play; all too often he would adopt a ‘traditional’ elven reaction to events that was completely contrary to what should have been his social and cultural experience, and in the end he left the campaign because he simply couldn’t get a grasp on the changes and how they impacted his character.

Manifestation- (i.e Spell-) Level Consequences

I’ve touched on this a couple of times in the earlier discussion. Spell descriptions and details may not match the metagame implications of the answer you have selected. That means that they need to be rewritten to accurately reflect the underlying ‘mechanism’ by which spells affect the game world. Not only does that impact on what characters can do – introducing the same consequences discussed above – but it also potentially rewrites magic items, many of which base their effects on the magic system in most games, and can certainly altar the game balance between mages and ‘mechanics’ armed with such arcane tools.

It introduces dichotomies between how the “same” spell is handled for different classes, unless it changes the spell for everyone, and that can impact other classes in undesired ways.

These consequences are not to underestimated.

Adventure Implications

So, what’s the return on all these difficulties and headaches? Because if verisimilitude and a challenge to roleplay are all there is, the price is too high.

The real benefits commence with the potential for adventures based around the (re-?)definition of magic – exploring and discovering the underlying concepts, finding ways to overcome new tactics used against the party, exploring the changed social dynamics that result, and seeing how these all fit into a larger-than-life game world. If you change magic, what impact does that have on creatures that are based on magic, at least in part, like Liches and Elementals and Djinn and… well, you get the idea. Old, familiar encounters suddenly pose new and unexpected challenges.

Of course, you can underplay the whole thing, but that seems a total waste of effort. A lot depends on how much else you have going on in the campaign – if this is a relatively ‘minor’ change, it might be better underplayed, and used simply to add color to these other changes. That’s what I did in the Fumanor campaign – which left the changes free to manifest in new plotlines in subsequent sequel campaigns.

Campaign Implications

Finally, if most of your adventures are impacted by the changes, one way or another, that adds up to a campaign-level influence. Essentially, by defining what magic is and how it works at a metagame level, you are creating a point of distinctiveness about the campaign, a unique identity that defines your game as being just a little different to anyone else’s.

No GM really likes the notion of their campaign being so vanilla that they are considered an interchangeable part.

What’s more, this is a toe-in-the-water in terms of game design. If you have the slightest interest in ever being part of the creative team behind a new version of D&D, or a new computer game, or a new RPG, or a new comic book, or a movie or TV show, this can be a great learning experience; it’s broad enough to give you serious room to explore and develop your creative ‘chops’, but is limited enough to be relatively manageable. And if it’s a quality result, if it works in the context of the game and the adventures you run, the credibility you gain as a creator and as a GM far outweighs the gains in any single campaign.

Opening your mind to new possibilities is always painful, but it is also frequently exhilarating, fascinating, terrifying, and a spur to creativity. It gets your adrenalin pumping behind the game screen, and imparts a sense of mastery of your game.

So, don’t ask why?, ask Why Not? and then answer the question for yourself, for your next campaign: What is magic?

Comments (1)

An Investment Too Far? – Ensuring the future of RPGs


Image Credit: / Carlos Ventura

Although this article is written from a D&D / Pathfinder perspective, since they are the two biggest games in terms of global popularity, the contents should be appliccable to any game system with a little tweaking as necessary.

RPG sourcebooks these days can easily cost $80-$100 or more Australian – $40-60 US. In a conversation a little while back, the thought arose – are books of this price level enough to deter new players from entering the hobby?

The answer is obviously yes – and equally obviously no.

In a previous two-part article, Value for money and the pricing of RPG materials, I argued that perceived value-for-money was a better metric because it incorporated everything from expected production standards to postage and shipping – an important factor when you live on the far side of the world, and then proceeded to break down the production costs that went into game supplements and rulebooks with a view to assessing how each cost functioned as an investment in perceived value for money.

The first part looked at traditional print media, and the second dealt with e-books and Print-on-demand.

Wages growth world-wide has been slow-to-stagnant since the Global Financial Crisis. That’s shown as true in Australia by this article (The Guardian – Is Australia stuck in a ‘new normal’ of low wages growth?) and also this article (ABC News – Fact check: Is wages growth now the lowest since records began?), and this PDF working paper by the I.M.F. shows it to be also true of the US economy. Finally, this report by the London School Of Economics shows the same story taking place in the UK. While there have been a few gains here and there, in general, the best outcome has been a treading of water on real incomes (i.e. adjusted for inflation) and most countries have fallen well short of even achieving that much.

That effectively means that disposable incomes have been getting tighter. Quite obviously, that means that at least some potential purchasers are being put off by the price tags involved. There have certainly been a few items that I would have bought since the publication of the previous articles in September 2012, but the money simply wasn’t there. So that’s a definite ‘yes’.

But, at the same time, D&D 5e continues to sell well, and while Pathfinder sales may have peaked (because most of the people who want it already have the core books), there is still demand for adventures, and there are enough people making game supplements that there is a solid implication of continued popularity. So there is a strong “no” case to be argued, as well – at least according to this recent report (EnWorld – Is Pathfinder “In Its Twilight”? Observations From A Retailer).

gem 1 by CazGDesign

Image Credit: / CazGDesign

A Kickstarter Perspective

Adding to the confusion is the success of Crowdfunding, which effectively adds extra discounts and/or supplementary bonuses that kick up the perceived value-for-money at what is usually a bargain price. Over the last couple of years there have been some astonishing successes (most notable 7th Sea second edition) and an equal number of perplexing failures.

Having looked over several of these, some of which I have reviewed here at Campaign Mastery, it’s my impression that the Value-For-Money impression is now a razor-sharp cut-off. Land on the happy side of it, and even quite high prices are seen as justified and the fundraising campaign succeeds (whether or not a lower price and lower production standards would have been an even greater success is an entirely separate question, though one worth exploring if you have the industry sales knowledge to do so intelligently; I don’t). But land on the wrong side of it, and fundraising campaigns fail catastrophically.

There seems to be less room in the market for an “only just achieved target” result – projects either succeed brilliantly, unlocking several (or more than several) stretch goals, or they bomb out. Though this might not be a correct assessment, that’s my impression, anyway.

This also seems to suggest the ‘yes’ case, but with enough uncertainty to be definitive.

Is Kickstarter moving the goal-posts?

It’s also fair to ask whether or not the Kickstarter fundraising model (with its stretch goals and inherent discounting relative to the prices of subsequent commercial release of products funded in that way) is changing the base-level expectations of the marketplace? In other words, is some degree of price discounting, either directly or in the form of bonus content, now assumed by customers, or are these still viewed as bonuses earned by being an early-bird investor?

Despite their best attempts to persuade people otherwise, most people who back a project through Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding sites feel as though they are pre-ordering a product that will be delivered when work is complete. This is quite evident by the angry responses when a supposedly fully-funded project fails to deliver the promised article, because of mismanagement, or under-estimating the difficulty or expenses, or due to ill-health on the part of a creator, or any of a dozen other reasons, both understandable (but regrettable and legitimate) and unconscionable.

Backing a kickstarter project is a promise to invest in the attempt to bring a product to market in exchange for a copy of that product (and any promised extras) if that attempt is subsequently successful.

Probably the biggest success of Kickstarter fundraising in RPG terms in the last year has been the unparalleled success of the second edition of 7th Sea. 11,483 backers pledged $1.3 million plus US dollars against a target of just $30,000. Part of the reason for that success was the long string of stretch goals which are expected to take years for the authors and artists to complete. I can no longer recall if there were 14 or 15 additional supplements promised, but it was a quite staggering total as I recall – and they had to add more several times in the course of the campaign because the project backing had already exceeded all possible expectations.

Because many of these, if not most of them, were grandfathered into pledges that had already been made, the net effect was a snowballing of the perceived value for money received by backers, something that made it easier and easier for the unconvinced to continue to sign up for the project. It’s telling that the first day of funding produced pledges of about 1000% of the funding goal.

This is obviously an extreme case. No game producer in their right mind would ever launch a fundraising project with any expectation of achieving a similar outcome. But I can’t help but feel that this very extreme success changed the public perception of the publishing landscape simply by showing that it was even possible to achieve that level of success.

I can’t give a definitive answer to the question, but my gut response is that for at least some customers – perhaps half the potential customer base, give or take – the answer is ‘yes,’ Kickstarter and crowdfunding have now raised expectations in terms of value for money. Certainly, people are more acutely aware of what they can expect to receive, all going well, and with the inevitable tightening of belts that comes with ‘soft’ wages growth and diminishing disposable incomes, that can tip the balance between choosing to back a project or not – hence the pattern of great-success-or-complete-failure identified earlier.

What the industry needs (Caution, Speculative)

There is at least one way that the games industry could boost their perceived value for money for most of the world. That would be for someone to start a multinational locally-based print-on-demand service.

Such an organization would then negotiate contracts with ‘trusted local printers’ in a whole host of countries – that’s the “locally-based” part of the description – to fulfill orders placed through the game producer or vendor by means of the central organization and electronic document transfers.

When a customer purchased a physical game product (as opposed to an e-book), the retailer would notify the multinational service of the specifics of the order. The products ordered would be sent by the central point-of-contact of the service to the printer most local to the customer as one or more electronic documents (if they didn’t have them already) who would then print and bind the print-on-demand product and ship the purchase to the customer.

This eliminates one of the biggest overheads faced by the retailer, international postage and customs duties. It’s a single-contact print-on-demand service with – eventually – something approaching a global reach.

It benefits the retailers and the multinational service, too; the larger the operation, the more impact economies of scale have on the overheads of production. So it becomes a lower-cost higher-profitability production option.

But its success would hinge on a return to a lower expectation of production values by the customer – or a technological improvement on the production side. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – if a product is designed to fit this production model from the start, other overheads and production costs can also be minimized or reduced, resulting in an overall reduction in the price of the products, further enhancing the appeal in terms of value for money.

In a world where there is ever-increasing competition for a slice of an ever-shrinking disposable income, the only alternative is for RPGs to risk pricing themselves out of existence by continuing to demand ever-higher production values.

Black Opal by Ra'ike

Image Credit: Black Opal By Ra’ike (see also: de:Benutzer:Ra’ike) – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Prognosticating: If nothing changes

As effective reductions in the purchasing power of disposable income, the knife-edge will grow ever-sharper. A lot of politicians have made a lot of promises to ‘fix the problem’ but so far, no-one has found the magic bullet of policies that will do so. I’m starting to think that it will take a whole new economic theory, some radical change to the fundamental concepts of economic management, just as Keynesian economics was a fundamental shift in its time. Nothing short of that will solve the current distribution-of-wealth crisis being experienced world-wide, and the alternative – one that’s been played out many times in the past – is a violent redistribution of wealth at the hands of a revolutionary mob. The parallels with the French Revolution, and the American Revolution before that, are too clear to ignore. The current US election cycle is a symptom of the growing sense of discontent with the current situation.

But hopefully this is all a worst-case nightmare, and the problems can be solved without such radical and unwanted measures.

It’s reasonable to expect that those already in the hobby will continue to purchase new products that excite them. But this is an aging customer base, and one that is shrinking as a result, year-on-year. The challenge currently faced by the industry is one of luring new blood into the hobby, in a way that hasn’t really happened since D&D 3.0 came along.

If you study the sales of comics, you find a very similar pattern. When they shifted from being newsstand-based to being sold through specialist retailers, it enabled a major improvement in production values. This, coupled with an overheating collector’s market, led the major producers to start producing collector’s editions with different covers and all sorts of other sales gimmicks, and for a while this was incredibly successful; but it also meant that prices continued to creep up and up. I got out of comics collecting when they hit a price of Australian $10 a copy, going from collecting 30 or 40 titles a month to collecting none; they had priced themselves out of my range. Nor was I alone; a great many others followed suit over the next decade, and the result was a tremendous implosion in the market. Marvel Comics even went bankrupt. If you look at current sales figures, a successful book these days sells only about a tenth of the equivalent level of success back when I jumped out of the hobby. One of my friends still collects a few titles – but he’s gone from getting 10-15 titles a month to getting three.

There’s a very similar tale of woe from the Music Industry, too. They got greedy and started charging for everything, killing off many of the video programs (and channels like MTV) that used to provide their artists with free promotion by playing their video-clips. A lot of people turned to mp3s as a way of sampling product before investing in a purchase, because the prices of CDs kept going up and up. The music industry attacked them as pirates. When CDs first came out, there was a lot of hype about them lasting forever; when it became clear that this wasn’t the case, people started converting their collections to mp3 format so that they could put the source disks away. The industry labeled them as pirates, too. In a nutshell, the marketing channels available to the industry collapsed and sales collapsed with them, and the industry blamed a symptom instead of addressing the cause. These days, a number one single can sell one-tenth as many copies as was the case in the 80s and 90s, or less. Album sales have collapsed even further – just as was the case back when the Beatles were just starting out, an album is effectively just a collection of singles.

If RPGs make the same mistakes, in other words, if current trends continue, if we ever do reach the point of pricing out the casual new entrant into the hobby, it risks a similar fate.

What the industry needs (Caution, Speculative)

Awareness. Advertising. Marketing. Making the general public aware of a new game product while enhancing the value for money.

It’s a simple prescription – but it’s not that simple. These things cost money. There are ample free channels for people to get the word out to the existing customer base – blogs, and podcasts, and free samples, and Kickstarter (which lets you essentially market a product before it even exists and then use the funds raised to attempt to make the promotion a self-fulfilling prophecy), and social media, and company websites.

Increasing not just the perceived value for money but actually lowering the costs of production, passing some of that on to customers as reduced prices and investing the rest in marketing to people who don’t currently play RPGs would head off all potential disaster and reinvigorate the hobby.

Here’s another way to look at the whole situation: Printer companies make their money on the inks; they sell the printers for next to nothing in comparison. I’ve seen printers priced so low that when the toner runs out, it’s cheaper to throw away the whole printer and buy a new one – a practice that is not very sustainable for the industry. Similarly, mobile phone companies make their money on the data (it used to be on the phone calls, but those are a relatively negligible component these days). The phones themselves are ridiculously cheap unless you buy a state-of-the-art model. I’ve seen one phone company advertise a new phone for A$99 with a free printer for the digital photos you took with the built-in camera! You could argue that D&D 3.x was the success that it was because it adopted a similar philosophy – the core books were expensive, but the cost could be spread amongst multiple players; it was on the additional supplements and adventures that the real money was made. Viewed this way, WOTC’s problem with the generous terms of the OGL was simply that most of this money went to third parties and not to them – and the changes to the OGL in subsequent editions was a response on their part. It both worked, in that a much greater percentage of the profits from 4e went back to the company, and failed, in that the pie being divided up was nowhere near as big. 5e was supposed to be somewhere in between the two in its generosity of licensing – but by then, Pathfinder had come along.

This might be an oversimplification of a confluence of complex issues, and I certainly have no analysis that comes close to being proof of anything – but it’s an interesting perspective to consider!

treasure chest and silver dollars by Renaude Hatsedakis

Image Credit: / Renaude Hatsedakis

A model for the future (Caution, even more Speculative)

Can all of these thoughts be melded into a new model for future game publications that eases the barriers into the hobby for new players?

I hadn’t actually decided to write this article when I thought of one that might do the trick, which is what tipped the balance in favor of pubication. And it’s a solution that doesn’t require a massive multinational printing alliance (though it could benefit from one), or improving low-cost laser printers so that the output looks like it came from a D&D/Pathfinder core book (and which might not be possible); it’s practical today, at least as far as I can see.

The concept is to take a holistic, modular, approach to the entire product line’s lifespan that is designed to maximize the potential to get new players signing up to buy the product.

For Players:

  • A Low-cost (Print-on-demand?) player’s starter book that contains everything a player needs to run one specific class/race combination in table form, without explanations.
  • A mid-priced book (hardcover? softcover?) that contains all the explanations for the content of all the starter books without the tables in the starter books, that can be shared amongst the entire group.
  • A low-page-count glossy art book that illustrates all the combinations from the starter books that can be shared amongst all the players in a group and that serves as a catalog for the starter books.

For GMing:

  • A mid-cost single volume, mostly black and white, with perhaps a section of color plates, with the entire GMs guide.
  • A low-cost starter pack with three low-level adventures using only creatures from the monster starter pack (see below). That means that all you need to start playing is a player’s starter pack for each PC, the GM’s Guide, and a low-cost monster pack (possibly even bundled with the GM’s Guide). Call it US$10, maximum (and preferably half that) – but with LOTS of add-ons available.

Monster Packs:

  • A low-cost stat-block-only starter pack (Print-on-demand?) with only the most ubiquitous creatures and mundane creatures included – minimal art.
  • A larger monster volume that contains stat blocks, descriptions, and illustrations for a wider range of “core creatures”, and – as a bonus – descriptions and illustrations of the creatures in the starter pack without the stat blocks (no redundancy).
  • This one-two package is repeated for themed monster packs – dragons, undead, aberrations, etc, essentially splitting the monster manual up into a number of smaller, cheaper, books.
  • Further expansions follow the same principle – “Undead II”, “Aberrations II”, and so on.
  • Include “Enemies” by character level in volumes of their own – pre-packaged villains and flunkies ready for insertion into campaigns, as though they were a class of monsters in their own right.

Setting Packs:

  • A moderate-to-high central setting reference book with illustrations for each game setting.
  • Small, low-cost expansions that detail individual locations or a group of related locations. This one might detail a city, the next might describe 10 typical villages from Kingdom X, and so on. These would not be lavishly illustrated.
  • A “map book” with illustrations and maps from a group of themed expansions, which also serves as a catalog for the expansions covered within that “map book”.
  • Each expansion and map book to come with a single small adventure set in the location so that you can start using the setting pack right away, after only a small outlay – but, once again, with LOTS of add-ons and expansions to add to the collection.

Adventure Packs:

  • Adventures to be either a collection of 3-5 unrelated small adventures or one larger adventure, entirely stand-alone in nature. Each to specify on the cover which monster packs and setting packs are required – and ONE of those two to be a single volume common to all the adventures. So you might have one pack of “Underdark Adventures” (one common setting book) and then “Undead Adventures” (one common monster book) and then “Trolls, Trolls, Trolls” (a larger adventure with one common setting book). (The core books don’t count and are always considered to be available for use).
  • Adventure packs to be released monthly if not more frequently so that there is always more to play. Some of these can mid-priced but most should be relatively low-priced.

Campaign Packs:

  • These are larger, and each reprints an expanded adventure that’s already appeared in an Adventure Pack, and at least one or two larger adventures that haven’t appeared before, that are designed to integrate into a campaign structure. They would specify which monster and setting packs are required for use, but are not limited to the “one common” rule. They can vary from mid-price to high-price deluxe versions.
  • Each Campaign Pack is designed to take a single party 2-3 character levels, and combine to form a series that details an entire campaign by a single author. That means that they have a single unifying theme or overarching plotline. A key element of each would be how to adjust the contents if characters enter the module under- or over-powered, with a view to getting them back “in sync” with the series by the end of the campaign pack.
  • The goal would be to publish one campaign pack for each campaign series every three-to-six months.

Deluxe Editions:

  • Once the core books are all done, and you’re getting into “Dragons III” and “Undead IV”, and there are at least two or three campaign packs, and so on, it’s time to start compiling and releasing material into “deluxe editions” – these are the equivalents of the D&D/Pathfinder Core Books, glossy art throughout, premium-priced products.
  • Because the deluxe editions relieve the restrictions of earlier campaign packs and adventure packs, this is an opportunity for a whole new wave of adventures and campaigns with wider variety of encounters and content.
  • This “Phase II” of the game system supports overall product sales while material is prepared for the ‘next edition’. Key to success of this next generation is an “adapter book” that gives a clear and functional guide on how to adapt characters, creatures, and adventures from the previous edition and vice-versa. This enables an osmotic transition from one generation of the rules to another, and means that the investment in past material is respected.

The guiding principle: Smaller, cheaper, and more numerous products, not all of which are required, which compile and build into larger collections of related works, ultimately conflating into deluxe editions.

There is so much material to be published that no one game company could do it all. Beyond some form of OGL that permits third-party publishers to put out their own Campaign, Adventure, and Setting packs, the publisher should outsource the production of some of the ‘official’ content, retaining editorial oversight and sharing imprint rights and profits. They should also designate a single line editor to work with third party submissions of variant monster and player packs to ensure compatibility and uniform standards. This would combine the best aspects of the OGL with the greater control desired by publishers, enabling a liberal, even generous, approach toward fan contributions and small game publishers.

Obviously, a secondary publisher who puts out an approved variation on a core class or monster package is more likely to build adventures around those elements, enabling a number of coherent campaign ‘sets’ with a unified promotional effect on the whole. No two campaigns would be the same, but the central rules structure would unify everything.

Over to the industry

It’s long been one of the truisms of my gaming life that where there is one solution to a problem, there are apt to be many. Even if the solution I have proposed is not adopted, the mere possibility suggests that there are other solutions to the problem. Disaster for the RPG hobby is not inevitable. And that’s a cheery thought on which to conclude! But it’s all still a subject worth thinking about.

I’m not a game publisher, I don’t have access to the sales numbers to make definitive judgments. I have contact with a number of such publishers through Twitter, though, and I’d love to hear their thoughts on the matters and proposals raised in this article.

Leave a Comment

Three Coins In The Luck Machine: a different take on game control

A guest article by Boris R.

Poker Machines by William Picard

Image by / William Picard

If you think that slot machines and RPG games are complete opposites, you’re wrong. You can enhance your game world by taking a lesson from slots and increasing the unpredictability of your game.

Pure Luck

Let’s talk about Slot machines, also known as fruit machines and poker machines. These have been a staple attraction of Casinos and other gambling establishments since 1891, when the first was patented, but have changed drastically since the Internet came into our everyday lives. Nowadays, your favorite gaming establishment, your favorite game, is always close at hand. And I can’t be calm about that fact, I am beside myself with excitement.

Slot machines are extremely simple. There is no need to follow a certain strategy; you put in your coin and pull the lever. Everything is solved by destiny and you never know if the next attempt will be a winning one – or a losing one. This is exactly the thing that I love most about slot machines: pure luck. You can never be sure about the results and it brings even more excitement into the process. When our parents were young, they had to go to special places to enjoy the slot machines. I’m glad about the fact that casinos are now online; it gives me the chance to entertain myself whenever and wherever I want. You have the chance to tempt fate and see the unpredictable result!

My brother from Germany often loves to tell me: Als ich 18 war, spielte ich spielautomaten kostenlos mit meinen Freunden (translation: “When I was 18, I played slot machines for free with my friends”) Now I can claim that I have continued the family tradition: since I turned 18, I started playing slot machines with my friends just as my brother did. Today we have one more hobby in common: RPGs. And there are some surprising similarities between the two. Interesting, right?

How are RPGs related to slot machines? Well, let’s take a look…


First, they are both social. There is no better way to enjoy your free time than to play an RPG with your friends. I Especially like RPGs with dice of different types, like Dungeons & Dragons and a high probability of different random events. That’s what really spices up the game for me and makes it even more realistic – as real life is always unpredictable!


Secondly, they’re cheap. Well, not all them, for sure. But once you are really into RPGs you can invent your own system together with your buddies. I am pretty sure most of you have tried to do it yourselves. It’s always dirt cheap when you do it yourself. In the meantime, you can always get one set for the entire group since you always play together – and that makes even expensive games a lot more affordable.

Making Your Own

RPGs, unlike slot machines, are totally customizable. Once you’ve created the campaign of your dreams, you can make it even better: put your favorite heroes into the brand new surrounding and see what will happen. Turn your favorite movie into a game and explore the roads not taken.

Rules Are Not Enough

Of course, you need rules. For home sessions, you don’t need to write a whole rulebook with detailed descriptions of every aspect of your game, but you need something every player can rely on. But rules are not enough. A Videogame is all rules, all buried under the surface where you can’t even see them. Yet Videogames rarely make an even passable RPG.

Most video games have a serious drawback: the lack of stories behind the facade. The standard game has restricted storylines programmed into it, with little or no flexibility in their execution – and no capability for change by the GM.

In RPGs the situation is completely different. The narrator can change the story on the fly dozens of times, rewarding players with the most unpredictable twists and turns in the plot. And to bolster their creativity (and prevent subconscious bias), the GM can use random generators, based on dice or cards. Unpredictability makes the gameplay way more interesting for players! It’s one thing that RPGs have in common with slot machines – you never know what will happen, you just have to wait and see.


There is more to both slot machines and RPGs than meets the eye. At first sight, slot machines are based on the pure luck, while RPGs demand the skill of strategic building by both players and GM. Yet, if you look closer, there are underlying principles common to both, like probability and statistics, and RPGs are more random than you think, while Slot Machines are bound by the laws of probability – if they were not, Casinos could never rely on them making a profit.

Blunting the Whimseys Of Fortune

It may be surprising, but understanding how slots function, and why they are popular, increases your RPG mastery.

Many sites propose meticulous planning, but the more precisely you plan as a GM, the more susceptible your games are to disruption by wild mischance on a critical die roll or unpredictability on the part of the players. Paradoxically, the more randomness you have in your games, the more precise your control can be; over many avenues of randomness, the tendency of probability is to the center, the average. Increasing the randomness in a controlled manner makes the game as a whole less random, burying the truly disruptive outcomes behind a layer of probabilistic noise.

The main thing is to add more randomness into the game, in a controlled manner, by adding dice or cards. Just imagine the ocean of options that you can present and explore! Life is anarchy with a trend – and that’s a great philosophy by which to direct a game. Mastering this technique brings an excitement to the game by having a plot that leaves room for random events to disrupt the lives of player characters.

An education in spontaneity

Last, the randomness of slots, when applied to RPGs, make you a better GM. It boosts and stimulates your creativity to whole new levels, keeping the game loose and fun without bogging down in excessive seriousness and grimness. The need to do so on the fly teaches you to communicate more effectively with others and not to be ashamed of your ideas. If this is your approach, keep going, you are on the right track!

There are many surprising connections between the two apparently-unrelated pursuits. And that’s why I love both of my hobbies equally.

Control what you need to control and let dice dictate the rest – an interesting idea, and certainly a very different approach to my own (I treat luck more as a Sorcerer’s Apprentice who can barely be trusted to wash the floor correctly); but that doesn’t make it either invalid or incorrect.

But it would be remiss of me not to include a note to the effect that Campaign Mastery encourages the free enjoyment of responsible gambling.

If you think you may have a problem, even if you are unsure, seek professional help. It’s usually free and completely anonymous.

Comments (2)

Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 9: Rewards With Intent

dice by Armin Mechanist and frame by Billy Alexander

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

This 15-part series is an attempt to answer the question, “what advice do you have for a beginning GM?”, three articles at a time – while throwing in tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the last article of the current trilogy.

Rewards: Tabula Rasa

To most beginning GMs, and many more experienced GMs who really should know better, Rewards are a way for players to keep score, track when they are ready to advance in capabilities, and something to be either dreaded (because they can lead to a complete loss of control over the campaign) or reveled in (bribing the players not to use their capabilities to completely destroy the campaign after all control has been lost). Beyond these functions, rewards are devoid of purpose and meaning, a Tabula Rasa, a blank slate.

This mentality has probably destroyed almost as many campaigns as the wanton distribution of rewards without regard for their potential impact on the campaign and on the power level of the PCs.

I realize that this is a bold statement, but I think I can back it up. It’s too easy to give away too much in rewards, indeed the system seems to encourage it (one of the reasons I House-ruled it way back in A Different Experience: A variation on the D&D 3.x Experience Points System. While some GMs learn to “live” with the resulting Monty Haul catastrophes, most respond by becoming misers when it comes to rewards, a solution that is no better than the disease; it makes players unhappy, and without players, you have no game.

There was probably more advice on this one issue clogging up bulletin boards and newsgroups than anything else, back in the days of AD&D and 2nd Ed, and even today, with 4e and 5e being very clean in this respect, there are still 620,000 results from a Google Search on the subject. Heck, there are 200,000 results from “Monty Haul campaign” alone!

A pair of articles that I wrote back in 2011, Experience For The Ordinary Person and Objective-Oriented Experience Points, began to point me in a different direction. Just as the latter was an expansion of the principles proposed in the first, so what I propose in this article is an expansion on what is contained therein. You don’t have to have read those articles to follow the advice that I offer herein, but reading them afterwards might definitely be helpful.

Rewards: In Finum

These days, I tend to think of rewards “In Finum”, which means “with purpose”. In fact, there are four types of purpose that any given reward can provide as a system function for the GM: Character Evolution, Campaign Development, Keys to Background, and Plot Service – and, of them all, the last is most important, because it offers a metagame framework for the defining of how much reward the GM should provide to the PCs.

I should emphasize before going any further that this approach is definitely not canonical. Bear that in mind.

Purpose 1: Character Evolution

Character Evolution is the player-perspective on rewards, and is a function of increased capabilities (either direct or indirect) as a result of rewards, or of increased capabilities obtained through the accumulation of experience points.

Level-based systems generally are more granular in their awards but less granular in translating experience into enhanced capabilities; as a rule of thumb, there can be considerable difference between two characters separated by a single character level.

Points-buy systems tend to be relatively frugal in the awards they hand out but since these can often be instantly translated into a weakened form of whatever enhancement the character wants to acquire, they can be considered far more granular in terms of their impact on the character. Instead of a large number of enhancements all coming into effect at the same time, they arrive in smaller increments over a shorter span of time.

Either way, characters getting better at adventuring is a definite function of rewards, enabling the GM to continually increase the danger posed by the enemies that are encountered in the interests of a more thrilling story.

Purpose 2: Campaign Development

One of the best ways to illuminate a part of the campaign that the players have not yet encountered is by presenting them with a legacy of that part of the campaign. If you’ve never met an elf, finding a ring with some obscure elvish text engraved on it is a great way to start “leaking” bits of elven lore into the players’ (and PCs’) awareness.

Another example: The PCs discover a crown with Dwarfish inscription revealing it to be the one true crown of the King Of The Dwarves. So who is the person on the throne and what is it that he seems to be wearing, and how did it come to be where the PCs found it?

Purpose 3: The Keys to Background

Similarly, obscure passages in campaign history assume fresh relevance when a non-standard magic item designed and constructed in that period comes into the possession of the PCs. They might have little interest in the campaign background per se (some players don’t) but investigating what the magic item is and does will inevitably let a little of that history leak into their consciousness – and make it relevant to their day-to-day lives.

One of the first questions to arise when you come into possession of a treasure map is “who made it, and what treasure are they likely to have had?” In other words, “is it likely to be worth following?”

Purpose 4: Here Comes The Plot

Rewards can “push” a campaign plotline in a certain direction – or, at least, open a door to that direction (its’ always up to the players whether or not they step through it). Other rewards “pull” a campaign in a given direction, but do not provide a specific response, simply changing the circumstances surrounding the PCs.

A “Push” is a reward that offers the potential to cause a major change in the campaign’s circumstances if the PCs choose to pursue it, like a treasure map to something of campaign-level significance.

A “Pull” is a reward that causes the change in the campaign whether the PCs like it or not, but that the PCs can then choose to oppose or investigate, for example the discovery of a magic stone that makes undead immune to turning and that can only be destroyed after a difficult quest. This might be an effect that the PCs inadvertently trigger, or it might be an external event triggered by an NPC that the PCs first have to understand.

Types Of Rewards

Rewards can therefore expand the scope of a campaign, enrich a campaign, illuminate obscurities within the campaign, or drive the plot of a campaign further. Thinking about them solely in terms of the first of these options is like having an eight-cylinder engine in your car – and never using six of them. To suggest that it would be lacking in horsepower is an understatement!

But not all forms of reward are created equal. Some can perform several of these functions, others perform only one or two. Richness therefore exists as a function of variety of reward. It therefore behooves me to list all the varieties of reward that I can think of before going any further.


If you were to ask a non-gamer to list the first type of reward that comes to mind, this will be the number one most common response. Yet, money in itself is worthless; what matters is what you can buy with it. Always use the principle of what you want the players to be able to afford to determine what cash rewards you hand out.

Valuables: Art, Jewelery, Rarities, Maps, Consumables

Most valuables are like a zip file, compressing the money value into a more transportable form – you usually need the equivalent of the right software to “unzip the file”, i.e. convert the valuable into currency. That’s usually a buyer of such commodities.

One of the most common mistakes that GMs make is assuming that the first such buyer actually has the liquid funds on hand to purchase valuables from PCs. Most fantasy campaigns take place in an era before what we think of as banks, and certainly before chequebooks (which are themselves becoming things of the past) and credit cards. Most small businesses have enough liquidity on hand to make change, and even a prosperous one converts virtually all its profits into providing an appropriate standard of living. Very few will ever have the funds on hand to redeem a windfall.

The second most-common mistake is assuming that a buyer will come anywhere close to the actual cash value of an item. Their livelihood lies in quick turnover; they can’t afford to have inventory sit, waiting for “the right buyer”. That usually means that they will expect, at best, to get that cash value when they resell the valuable, and will usually need to discount it in order to achieve a quick sale. Even with such discounting, they have to assume that some items will linger for a while, effectively costing the business turnover (because the trader could have spent his money on something, or many smaller somethings, that would sell more quickly). On top of that, they have expenses and a reasonable profit margin, and taxes and licenses and fees to deduct. The rule of thumb in the modern world is that a fair price for second-hand goods is between 10 and 25% of retail value. On rare occasions, a store may go to 33 1/3%, on even more improbable occasions, 50%.

These numbers can’t be translated directly into a fantasy milieu; most legal codes require pawnbrokers to hold onto what they buy for a certain period of time in case it turns out to be stolen, in which case it gets returned to the owners and the store is out whatever they paid AND the item they thought they were buying, and all the overheads. That’s less likely to be a problem in a medieval time-frame, but counterbalancing that is the fact that there is no internet or official valuation source; an item is worth no more than the least they can expect to pay for it.

Throw in haggling, and the fact that the purchaser does it all the time and is therefore far more of an expert than most PCs, and 5-15% is the most reasonable result. For simplicity, call it d10+5 per cent.

This is the price paid for the portability of the value. It’s not ripping off the PCs, no matter what the players might think; it’s just the way the real world works. To save arguments, I will usually quote not the full price of the valuables when the PCs get them appraised; instead, I tell them what they can reasonably expect to get (i.e. 10%) and then get to the Haggling.

The third biggest mistake is in having most of the buyers be honest – and having them assume that the PCs are honest, too. But you can have fun occasionally changing that up on the players – in one game I ran, they “buyer” was a member of the watch, trying to get a line on the local thieves guild, who then became convinced that the PCs were trying to offload stolen merchandise. “We found it” doesn’t quite sound plausible to those folks!

On top of all that, some treasures are damaged by exposure to conditions and can be considerably more trouble than they are actually worth.

Tapestries and paintings are notorious in this respect.

And statues.

And Crystal.

I once persuaded a PC that I was offering him the bargain of a lifetime in rare coins, worth five or six times the face value – if he bought them for triple that face value right now. Unknown to him, word had recently circulated of an enemy nation counterfeiting that particular coin, dropping the market to about 1% of it’s usual level…

The long and the short of it is that valuables, generally, aren’t as valuable as they seem, but come laden with sub-plot potential.

The major exception to all of that comes in the form of consumables. Because these can save the party from having to buy them, which can involve time and trouble as well as the direct expense, these are actually worth more to the adventurers than their face value – if the adventurers can make use of them. Offer them a barrel of pickled sea slug (with appropriate descriptions of the flavor and texture) and few players will have the stomach for them, no matter how great a delicacy they are supposed to be.

And never neglect the potential for some rare allergy to provide amusement. A particular PC in one of my games used to break out in hives every time he ate the stew at a particular inn. Nowhere else, and no-one else; just him, and there. It turns out that the meat was troll; the owners kept a troll leg and sliced an inch off every time it had regenerated enough, then hacked it up and pickled it in vinegar before dumping a portion into the soup. It was a lot cheaper than goat or rabbit… The PC in question had once been badly wounded by a troll, sensitizing them to troll meat…


Equipment like weapons and armor (and so on) that the PCs can use directly to their benefit is, like consumables, worth more than base value to the PCs. If it doesn’t fall into this category, then it becomes a Valuable – unless there is some prospect of being able to use it in the future. Players rarely make this sort of value correction, they simply decide instinctively that an item is worth more to them than its cash value would be.

Forcing players to make hard choices with respect to equipment relates to carrying capacity, and another common mistake is too easily giving away magic items that permit the violation of that restriction. This is a mistake that I’ve made myself.

Opportunities & Training

One reward type that is more commonly overlooked is being granted an opportunity – whether that’s a chance to join the aristocracy, being granted a mining concession, or whatever. Less commonly overlooked but only usually offered is the chance to join an organization for some specific training (or even being given a certain amount of instruction without joining).

If these are commercially available, their value is whatever the price is that would normally be charged. If they are not, then the value is whatever it would reasonably have cost in bribes to make it happen.


Information is often given away gratis by the GM as a “bonus reward” simply because they don’t think of it as a reward often enough. One of the reasons for this is that it can be very hard to put a firm value on.

I had the same problem, but found a solution. I value information as being the greatest of: How much the character would have had to pay someone else to obtain the information on their behalf (using the least-expensive means possible), or 1/10th of how much the character MIGHT be able to earn in the immediate future as a result of the information, or one half of how much someone else would pay the PC for the information (assuming they wanted it), whichever is greater. I then halve the result if it’s information that I want the PC to have for plot purposes.

This tends to over-value information that only a character of a similar level as that of the PC can obtain, but that’s fair enough – they are taking the risks, anyone else would want danger money.

Some information only has conditional value – i.e. it’s only worth something if it is acted upon. Such information is discounted according to my estimate of the likelihood of the PC receiving it actually acting on it; if there’s only a 1-in-5 chance, it’s only worth 1/5th as much.

Information may also ‘decay’, i.e. be time-sensitive – worth something now, not worth as much next week, next month, or next year. Again, I apply a discount based on how likely it is that the information will be of use within the time-frame in which it is likely to be used.


The value of contacts used to give me a lot of trouble. Then I figured out how to value opportunities (as described above), and the problem of valuing contacts was solved as a side-benefit. The value of the contact is whatever it would have cost in bribes to achieve the same result. So, the more effective a contact is, the more it’s worth; the more reliable it is, the more it’s worth; the more the contact is ‘willing’ to risk, the more it’s worth.

Note that a contact is very different from an Ally; a contact will do something for the character, but will charge reasonable fees and expenses for his trouble. What the character has ‘bought’ with his reward is access without the need to jump through the usual hoops. That means that a contact usually costs a lot less than you initially think.


Allies, on the other hand, work toward what is perceived as a mutual benefit. They are more likely to take risks, because they potentially benefit as well. Nor do they charge (except, perhaps, for a share of out-of-pocket expenses). Reliability and loyalty don’t come cheap in allies, though; so a good ally can be a very valuable reward.

Balancing that value is the repeat value of the ally. They might be a whole-hearted ally who will stick until betrayed or the mutual goal is achieved (expensive), or it might be a matter of repaying a debt – good for one occasion, no more. Allies, then, range from ‘full value’ to little more than a contact. But the valuation is the same, in principle – it’s whatever the character would have to have spent in cash, either directly or indirectly, to achieve the same level of assistance.

Debts & Favors

Of course, there is a wide range in between a Contact and an Ally. Having an organization owe you a debt, for example, or some noble who doesn’t have to repay it personally. Or simply having someone the party have helped say, “You’ve done me a favor, and someday I’ll return it. You have my word as a gentleman” – which permits them to choose the time and manner of assistance. Both of these variations decrease the personal inconvenience to the person making the promise, but risk others not feeling as bound by the obligation when the time comes. Such variations are always evaluated as though they were contacts or allies and then discounted to reflect the reduction in value. There’s not much in the way of real guidelines, here; the GM simply has to take the baseline, factor in what he knows of the organization and its culture, allow for his best estimation of the future of the campaign, and then go with his gut to assess the value. Some may even be worth more than a direct contact or one-time ally, simply because there are more vectors for repayment when dealing with a wide-spread organization.

Of course, getting anything in writing makes life a lot simpler because it turns it into a tradable commodity, allowing a direct decision on the basis of how much one would cost to buy. Posing this as a “what would the value be if…” is a great reality check for that gut-intuition-based valuation.

Rights & Commissions

Giving someone the right to do something can be a very clever form of reward from the perspective of the giver. It costs them relatively little, and may even be beneficial to them in the medium- or long-term. Clever people routinely find ways to turn liabilities into advantages. When a notoriously crafty individual is thinking about what he will tender in repayment of a debt, I always ask if there is something they can give that will also be beneficial to them.

For example, offering the PCs a mining concession, in a region where the NPC already has business interests, that are currently having problems with monsters and/or bandits is a great way of getting the PCs to solve the monsters-and/or-bandits problem.

A commission is a less underhanded form of the same thing. Granting the PCs a commission to build a road or scout out a trade route in return for permission to charge a toll on traffic gets them to work on behalf of whoever is granting the commission. They will then get paid from the profitability of the completed service or utility.

Sometimes, the right has no directly-tangible value. “You may hereafter designate yourselves as Consultants To The Crown.” Sounds grand, doesn’t it? The value here is indirect; it enhances and increases the amount that the PCs can demand of others for their services, and acts as an enhancement to reputation. The value has to be assessed as the difference that this will ultimately make to the income earned by the characters.


In fact, any sort of bragging rights has a definite value as a reward, even if it’s only a good story to tell at each new tavern the PCs visit in exchange for a free ale or two. This is often neglected by GMs when calculating rewards, but can add up to substantial benefits in the long run.

I’m always careful to track the current reputations of the characters in my campaigns, especially when these are inflated by rumor and gossip, because these in turn set expectations on the part of others, and that – sooner or later – always puts the PCs in a situation in which it’s impossible to live up to unrealistic expectations.

Not to mention the problems of people doing things in the PCs names that they think the PCs would approve of (because that is what their reputations suggest) but which are appalling to the PCs. Or simply trading on the PCs good names for their own benefit. Or deciding that the PCs reputations are exaggerated (hard to argue when they are exaggerated) and deciding to prove yourself better than they are. Or simply wanting to hang around them so that some of the reputation rubs off on you, too.

Reputations equal fame, and fame not only does strange things to some people, it definitely does strange things to the lives of even those who don’t let it go to their heads.

Sometimes PCs try to manipulate these situations, or even engineer them, for their own benefit. One time, a group of 4th-level PCs traveling from A to B responded (in jest), to the question of where they were going, that they intended to defeat the dreaded Lich Of Nagra-scombe Keep – making both the place and the Lich up out of whole cloth. This went down very well with the relatively-ignorant locals, who feted the characters and bought them free drinks and meals for the duration of their stay.

The PCs then went about their business, leaving a growing rumor in their wake – which became, in due course, that they had now defeated the dreaded Lich, and were slowly making their way home, burdened down with the hoarded wealth the Lich had accumulated in it’s protracted lifetime. Many local bandit organizations put their heads together; individually, they were no match for anyone who could kill a Lich, but by unifying into a bandit army, they could relieve the PCs of the burden of all that loot. And maybe pick off a few other prizes for good measure, before going their separate ways.

Meanwhile, some people under the thumb of a real Lich, and desperate for rescue, heard the rumors and started one of their own: that the PCs were coming here, next, to deal with their problem. Word of this reached the Lich, who hadn’t beaten death by passively waiting for it to claim him; she immediately sent her lieutenants – a Vampiric Troll, A Vampiric Half-Dragon, and a Vampiric Beholder – to attack the PCs. Who suddenly found themselves under attack on all sides from enemies who vastly outmatched them, in a hammer-and-anvil situation (three Vampires as the hammer, and the bandit army as the anvil). By playing one side off against the other, they narrowly managed to escape. hidden beneath a load of horse-dung being taken to market by a local farmer, only to discover that their reputation had grown as a result of their “victories” over the bandits and Vampires, and were now ordered by the King to deal with the Dark God on the southern doorstep…

For some years later, whenever the same players were in a campaign (any campaign) and the player who had thought up the boastful claims in order to score some free meals and a couple of ales opened his mouth to start a rumor, the rest would immediately plug his character’s mouth with soap!

The way to value fame is always to compare what the characters can get now for a given price with what those items would have cost them without the reputation. A reputation is thus a valuable commodity – but one that the GM can turn against the PCs when it comes time to pay the piper.

If you wanted to get all mathematical, you could equate the growth of reputation to compound interest, accumulated daily.

In the example above, the initial value was low – a dozen ales, four meals, and a night’s free accommodations. Call it one gold piece for convenience. The value then grew at a rate of 10% a day, let’s say.

In Eight days, it had more than doubled.

In 21 days, it was worth 7.4 GP.

In 42 days, it was approaching 55gp, all of which sounds entirely manageable. But then the second rumor started as a logical development of the initial story, and since it was that the PCs now had hundreds of thousands of GP, it had an initial value along the same scale. With two rumors now adding to the growth, it also increased – to about 15% per day.

In another week, the value was 266,000GP, and the bandits started talking to each other.

A week after that, it was over 700,000GP and the bandit army was formed – creating a source of a third set of rumors and gossip, and increasing the growth to 20% per day.

Another week on, and their reputation is now worth 2,535,353 GP, and the Lich hears of it, and sends his Vampires.

A week after that, and everybody comes together, and the PCs escape – generating a fourth generation of rumors and reputation, and a growth of 22.5%.

The story outraces the plodding animal cart in which the PCs are cowering, and is a week old in the capital when the PCs emerge from the hiding place with a reputation valued at more than 10 million GP – more than enough to buy the close attention of any Monarch, and completely impossible for a bunch of fourth – now fifth – level characters to live up to.

Showered with gifts and adoration wherever they went, famous throughout the land, the value of their reputation could be reset at perhaps 10,000GP – but with a new assignment, a new set of rumors, and a new growth rate of expectations of 25% per day.

This is an extreme example. Their reputation’s real growth was a lot slower than the inflation of rumor, but people reacted to, and based their expectations on, the rumor and not the reality.

But I don’t think the math is necessary, and don’t think the numbers would be that consistent; so I keep the basic principles in mind and set the value to what the reputation is really worth, which is always less than rumor would have it.


Secrets are another common form of reward that few GMs factor into their valuations. Initially, I tried doing so based on the principle of how much it would cost the PCs to pay someone to unearth the secret, multiplied by the chance that the PCs would actually know that there was a secret to be unearthed, but eventually I found a simpler approach that works most of the time.

If it was known to someone that the PCs knew this secret, how much would they pay the PCs to posses it? How much would they pay to suppress it? Highest bid is the winning valuation.

Who was ruler or primary political power in your country 200 years ago, in 1816? What value would you place on some dark secret about them if revelation were to occur now? At most, it might be of passing interest.

100 years ago? 1916? That’s a little more current, in that it would aid understanding of the foundations of far more recent events – but few secrets would still be worth killing for (never mind paying substantial sums of money for) from so long ago.

50 years ago – 1966? Now we’re getting into the realm of living memory. I was born in ’63, so I have vague recollections of ’66. My surviving Aunts and Uncles, who have 10 or 15 more years on them than that, certainly would. There will always be people with a passionate perspective on events that had a direct influence on their lives, Vietnam, the Space Race, “Paint It Black”, “Pet Sounds”, Star Trek, the Black Panther party, Dr Who’s first regeneration, Lennon first meets Yoko Ono, Barbados achieves independence – these are but a few of the events of 1966 about which people still have strong feelings today.

But it’s still so long ago that while the needle of the value meter might be starting to twitch, it isn’t rising all that much. With each year closer to ‘now’, the value will rise, sometimes quite sharply- depending on the subject matter.

There are still revelations coming to light about the Second World War, though I think we’re probably now getting close to being able to definitively understand the events. Every year since 1945 increases the number of secrets that are still held, each with the potential to rewrite our understanding of events that people care about very strongly. And that means that those secrets hold value. Some would pay to suppress them, others to have them revealed, but either way, they have value.

This is a much better approach because it keeps the GM thinking about who would be interested in the secret, which in turn identifies what the PCs can do with it, i.e. its plot value. I still factor in the likelihood that this group or individual would know that there is a secret to buy, and also think about the ‘half-life’ of the secret, i.e. how well it will retain its value. All secrets have a built-in use-by date – sometimes, that’s measured in centuries, sometimes in days – which is always directly connected to the impact that the secret would have on the modern day and the people who live in it.

If someone willfully or negligently ruins your life, the very understandable tendency is to hold a grudge against them. If someone willfully or negligently ruins your father’s life, you are still directly affected – same story. If someone did harm to your Grandfather’s life, some would feel it deeply, while for others, distance in time lends remoteness, a separation from the events. Perspectives shift from the personal to the institutional somewhere around this point; if harm was done to a great-grandparent, the individuals responsible are held less to blame than the institutions of the time that permitted them, or licensed them, to do so.

That enables us to put the valuation of secrets into a context appropriate to any genre of game. It’s about how the secret would affect people now that determines its value to people, and how it would affect institutions that determines its value to those institutions. Elves have (typically) much longer lives than humans; that means that either they find a way to assume a loftier moral position, or that secrets would remain ‘radioactive’ in Elvish Society long after they come to be regarded as trivia in human society. Either Elves are much better than humans at holding a grudge (and we’re pretty good at it) or they have a way of doing away with grudges altogether. This thinking has always been central to my positioning of Elf-Drow relations, and Elf-Dwarf relations for that matter.

One final truth about secrets deserves mention, before I move on: People are often protective of secrets long after they cease to have a reason to be so. Protecting secrets can be habit-forming. That’s another factor that I bear in mind when valuing some revelation that’s come into the possession of the PCs in one of my campaigns.


I don’t have very much to say on this subject, because a guest contributor has already said it all – I’ll simply refer the reader to The Care and Feeding Of Vehicles In RPGs Part 1 and Part 2, and state that a vehicle is usually a substantial reward, and one that should be taken into account by the GM.


This is probably the most counter-intuitive entry on the list. How can an enemy be a reward? It makes more sense if you make a slight adjustment to your thinking, however – if a reward or event gives you the opportunity to go after an enemy that was previously out of reach, then that is very definitely a reward in and of itself.

It’s the type of reward that can be difficult to value. It’s rarely going to be an acceptable practice to ask the players, “How much would you give to have a crack at bringing down Baron Mechlivan (or whoever)?” Instead, you have to infer that from the players comments after an encounter with his minions or henchmen or the enemy indirectly making life more miserable for the PCs without even knowing or caring who they are.

There is also the question of disconnection to consider. The reward might place the PCs feet on a path to eventual confrontation with the enemy in question, but there may need to be several more steps in between now and then, more dominos to fall. The value of the reward is how much the PCs would pay NOW to have an effective crack NOW at the enemy, amortized (i.e. spread evenly amongst) all the intervening steps between now and the eventual confrontation, halving each time (so that the final step is worth a lot more than the first step).

Let’s say, for example, that confrontation with this enemy is the ultimate goal of the campaign. The characters are currently 5th level and the campaign plan calls for 4 more ‘dominos’ to have to fall between now and then, making this the first step of 5 before that confrontation can actually take place. Right now, the PCs would give their lives to destroy the enemy in question, and there are four of them. A fifth level Pathfinder character has 15,000XP (on the medium-advancement track), so 4 of them have a total of 60,000 XP. That gives first-estimate values as follows:

  • Final step (fifth of five) leading to Confrontation: 30,000XP
  • Penultimate step (fourth of five): 15,000XP
  • Third step of five: 7,500XP
  • 2nd step of five: 3,750XP
  • 1st step (i,e. the one just achieved): 1875XP

The problem is that if you add these up, they don’t quite come to the 60,000 total that we’re looking for. So there is a corrective factor to be applied: multiplying each of these by 60,000/58,125 (which is the current total). That gives corrected values of:

  • Final step (fifth of five) leading to Confrontation: 30,967XP
  • Penultimate step (fourth of five): 15,484XP
  • Third step of five: 7,742XP
  • 2nd step of five: 3,871XP
  • 1st step (i,e. the one just achieved): 1935XP

Of course, as characters gain levels, if their passion for the cause remains undimmed, the value of each step will rise. This is simply a matter of adjusting the pre-calculated value by the ratio of new total to old.

Let’s say that the characters are 7th level by the time they achieve the second step, but their commitment remains unchanged in intensity (that’s not always the case). The characters are now worth 35,000XP each, not 15K. So the value of each step has to be adjusted by 35/15, more than doubling:

  • Final step (fifth of five) leading to Confrontation: 72,256XP
  • Penultimate step (fourth of five): 36,129XP
  • Third step of five: 18,065XP
  • 2nd step of five (the one just achieved): 9,032XP
  • 1st step (i,e. the first one achieved): 4,515XP

Of course, you can’t retroactively increase the value placed on the first step. Either you make a further correction to spread the difference over the rest of the steps, or you simply state “this is close enough” – which is what I would do. After all, we’re talking about roughly 2600 XP, half of it in the final step, half that in the next step, and so on, and then ANOTHER adjustment because that will still leave a small amount – it will come to maybe 350 more in the current step, which is probably not enough to bother with.

In fact, I wouldn’t even go as far as I have above, rounding off to the nearest hundred, and living with the resulting margin of error.


If the value of potentially going after a thorn in your side is hard to measure, how much more difficult would it be to measure the satisfaction of some other achievement along the way? Not only would this vary from one character to another, it would vary with the difficulties overcome, and the degree of desire to achieve the goal in the first place.

It’s also incredibly difficult to separate player satisfaction from character satisfaction. The former is what we care about in terms of this article, but the latter is the only thing we have any way to measure, and that entirely indirectly.

I’ve thought about this problem for a while, finding absolutely no solution – but realizing that this doesn’t matter very much. This is an intangible reward that doesn’t have a great deal of impact in any of our four purposes; so long as the factor that we can (and should) be aware of, player satisfaction, remains high enough, character satisfaction can be considered an inherent ‘background noise’ that stops us getting too hung up on absolute precision.

Hence the ‘nearest 100’ advice in the preceding section.


Of all the disservices perpetuated on gaming in general by AD&D and 2nd ed, it’s the notion that experience points be treated independently, separately, and differently from all the other types of reward. More than anything else, this is responsible for Monty Haul syndrome.

Why? Because when XP are awarded, the resulting total XP of the character tells the GM immediately if he’s given away too many or too few by the level attained by the character relative to the problems that the GM intends to present in the next adventure within the campaign. You can see immediately if a character’s capabilities have increased, and even have some idea of how much they have increased, just by looking at the rule book. There always needs to be an allowance for synergies, but as a rough indicator, it works fine.

Or it would, if not for magic items and other add-on rewards. Give away too much of this, and the characters grow in power vastly beyond the standards outlined in the rules. Most GMs make this mistake not once, but several times, on each occasion thinking that they have learned from the experience. Every other type of reward listed in this section qualifies, or can qualify, as such an add-on reward.

Quantifying Rewards

One of the most vigorous debates I’ve ever had with regular contributor and collaborator Ian Gray about D&D 3.x was over his contention that the D&D system presumed that a certain level of magical accoutrement was intended and expected to take place. He hung his argument on the tables for NPC generation, which gave suggested values for such magical enhancements by level, and then suggested that since the XP award tables made no distinctions over whether or not the recipient of the xp was an NPC or a PC, it meant that they needed to be treated the same, and that included equity in the distribution of magic items – so why wasn’t I handing out more magic items in (name the campaign)?

My response was that equity was an important principle, and that so long as the items I was awarding were commensurate with the number and potency of the items I was giving the NPCs, he had no grounds for a beef; and that, furthermore, the party had overlooked or refused a number of opportunities at acquiring additional magical resources (always true), but that if they had obtained those resources, I would either have had to match them to provide an equitable challenge, risking a magical “arms race” that I had seen destabilize more than one campaign, or continued to hold NPCs at current levels of augmentation, permitting the PCs easy victories for a while, and – as required by the system – reducing the XP awards accordingly.

Since more powerful items did slowly make their way into the hands of the PCs, at more or less just the right rate to keep adventures challenging, the matter was dropped – until the next time.

While I still stand by my responses, as is often the case, the reality was a little more complicated. Rather than XP being calculated as a party and then divided equally amongst the members, I was employing a system that gave me greater flexibility in mixing-and-matching creatures of differing encounter levels, that gave individual earnings for each party member, that biased xp rewards to those who were of a lower level, permitting them to slowly catch up to the others (on the presumption that they would learn things that the more experienced PCs already knew), that elevated PCs over NPCs in terms of awards, and that deducted a fraction of the value of other forms of reward from the total while accumulating value-owed-in-magic-items until the total reached a balance sufficient to pay for the inclusion of an additional reward ‘item’ for that character (I described this system in one of the articles I linked to earlier). In other words, my management of the XP-and-rewards system was a lot more sophisticated than my response indicated.

These days, I don’t use that system; instead,I have shifted to Objective-Oriented awards, also described in articles to which I have already linked. But I am now in a position to go even further, and describe a methodology that not only confers greater flexibility on the GM but that accounts almost completely for every type of reward that can result from an adventure.

Describing that system (and a variation) is what the rest of this section is about.

Objective-Oriented Awards

The basic principle remains the same: divide the campaign up into a series of checkpoints based on the capabilities that the PCs will need in order to overcome the challenges that you intend to present to them; determine the differences between these levels, categorize the adventures within each interval by significance with regards to progress toward the checkpoint, and divide the total to be awarded by the indicated share of the progress to get whole-of-adventure awards.

Whole-Of-Adventure (WOA) Awards

So a Whole-Of-Adventure award is the total amount of xp that each adventure should be worth, based on the story of the campaign as you project it to be.

The next step is to break down the adventure into sections, and rate each section in terms of its contribution towards moving from the beginning of the adventure to the end, Those sections can be by act, by critical PC decision point, or by encounter.

Applying the same technique of dividing the total to be awarded amongst the different sections of the adventure according to the rating it has been given, you determine what xp each decision or encounter should be worth. These are Intermediate Awards.

Intermediate (IM) Awards

The “by encounter” method is especially valuable because you can use the current level of the PCs and the standard xp charts to then determine what the EL of the opposition should be, using the methods described at the start of A Different Experience: A variation on the D&D 3.x Experience Points System and working backwards.

In other words, this technique maps out the danger levels that each encounter should pose to the characters at each step along the way from now to the end of the campaign.

The big advantage of this is that no final decisions need be made until you are actually prepping the day’s play. If the characters earn extra experience somehow (perhaps as a result of an extra encounter or an encounter that they make harder going of than expected, the system automatically weakens future opposition to ensure that the actual target is achieved.

Value to Character

But it can go even further than that. If you factor into your checkpoints, and hence your Whole-Of-Adventure awards, the amount of Non-XP rewards that you expect the characters to have acquired by that point, you can apply any breakup of the resulting adventure and encounter rewards that you see fit – and if you give away a magic item that is too powerful prematurely, or because of plot needs, the system will automatically compensate.

Monty Haul has left the building.

In effect, this is tailoring the rewards that you dispense to the requirements of the next part of the plot, and using the results to determine the strength of the opposition that has to be overcome.

Finally, because virtually every type of possible reward has been identified and a rational in-game valuation in GP placed upon it, using the basic equivalence of 1 gp = 1 XP, every reward that you hand out can be accounted for. Again, you can manipulate these to alter the mix to whatever best serves the plot needs.

But that’s not the only way that these concepts can be applied.

Variation 1: WOA in XP, Core Goodies, Valuables & Reputation, IM in Incidental Goodies & Other Intangibles

Yeah, it looks unwieldy, doesn’t it. Let’s spell it out like this:

In the course of an adventure, characters gain possession of certain goodies (magic items) dictated by the plot in order to prepare them for the next adventure. They also accumulate some valuables, and – because these are the major events in their stories – some reputation. At the end of the adventure, they receive whatever the end-of-adventure XP award is supposed to be, less the XP-equivalent value of these specific other forms of reward.

Also in the course of the adventure, they will face a number of encounters. These earn the “indicated” XP according to how difficult the story says the encounters should be, but that XP value is completely converted into the other forms of reward described – magic items that aren’t necessary, favors, etc.

You might also choose to move Valuables from the WOA reward to become the major element of the IM rewards. In other words, encounters earn cash and intangible rewards and the occasional non-critical magic item; but the campaign-significant stuff is earned by completing parts of the campaign.

This variation also achieves all the positive benefits described earlier, but it adds another: independence of challenge determination. This enables consistency, and a match between challenge difficulty and plot value.

But wait, there’s still more:

Variation 2: WOA less accumulated IM

You can effectively divorce Encounters and Campaign Requirements completely, taking you back to the situation prior to the implementation of this planning tool – while still keeping all of the benefits that it offers.

All you have to do is ensure that the cumulative value of the rewards generated by the encounters and challenges within each adventure total less than the Whole-Of-Adventure award – and then make up the difference at the end of each adventure in additional rewards. XP should be given out for completing the adventure, the other forms of reward should be “salted” into the next adventure so that they are received in-play.

An example calculation

Let’s say that the characters are currently 5th level, and that in three adventure’s time, you want them to be 7th level – but to have acquired 30,000GP worth of magic items specifically useful to their characters in the course of those three adventures, plus 5000 GP each, and 20% again of the xp earnings in the form of other rewards. Let’s further assume the Pathfinder slow track.

  • 5th level: 23K xp.
  • 7th level: 53K xp.
  • Difference: 30K xp.
  • Add 20% in other rewards: 36K total. Add Magic Items: 66K. Add cash: 71K.

So, the next three adventures – call them A, B, and C – are to earn a total of 71K in rewards.

Next, the GM rates each according to the expected contribution to the plotline, using any scale that he likes, so long as he’s consistent. I’ll use a rating out of 10.

  • Adventure A: deals with character stuff and consequences of past adventures. Rating: 3.
  • Adventure B: deals with the acquisition of information and critical magic items. Rating: 7.
  • Adventure C: deals with the identity of the major enemy to be confronted in the next part of the campaign and resolves the major enemy that the PCs have been dealing with so far. Rating: 9.

Add up those ratings: 3+7+9 = 19. So 3/19ths of the total rewards attach themselves to adventure A, 7/19ths to adventure B, and 9/19ths to Adventure C. Adventure A will be valuables and cash-heavy and intangibles heavy, Adventure B will contain the 30K in magic items and some in information as well as enough xp to get the characters to 6th level (35K xp less 23K = 12K). Adventure C will deal mostly in XP and Reputation and Information and Enemy, with just enough of the other types of reward to be plausible.

In real life, this probably goes a little too far. Instead of using the raw ratings, I would have this be just half of the reward allocation, with the other half distributed equally across the three adventures. This would increase the reward value of Adventures A and B. That, in turn, would alter the distribution slightly – some of the magic items from B might appear in A, for example.

  • 71K xp / 3 = aprox 23.6K xp. Half that is 11.8K xp.
  • Adventure A: 3/19ths of 71K = 11.21K. Half of that is about 5.6K. So the total value assigned to Adventure A is 11.8K+5.6K = 17.4K xp. This would be broken up into:
    • aprox 3.5K in GP (leaving 13.9K to allocate).
    • aprox 2K in magic items (leaving 11.9K to allocate).
    • aprox 8K in experience (leaving 3.9K to allocate).
    • aprox 1K in information (leaving 2.9K to allocate).
    • 2.9K in other rewards.
  • Adventure B: 7/19ths of 71K = 26.1K. Half of that is 13.05K – call it 13K for convenience. The total value to be assigned to Adventure B is 11.8+13 = 24.8K. This is to be broken up as:
    • aprox 1K in GP (leaving 23.8K to allocate);
    • aprox 1K in information (leaving 22.8K to allocate);
    • aprox 4K in XP (because 12K is needed to transition from 5th level to 6th level, which is one of the goals for this adventure; leaving 18.8K to allocate);
    • aprox 0.8K in other intangible rewards (leaving 18K to allocate);
    • 18K in magic items (which, with the 2K from Adventure A, accounts for 20K of the 30K total to be awarded over the three adventures).
  • Adventure C: 71K – 17.4 (adventure A) = 53.6K, less 24.8K (adventure B) = 28.8K. This would be broken up, based on the notes given above, something like:
    • 10K in magic items (leaving 18.8K to allocate);
    • 0.5K in valuables (leaving 18.3K to allocate);
    • 18K in experience (enough to transition PCs from 6th level to 7th level, as required, and leaving 300 xp to allocate);
    • 300xp in information, enemy, and reputation. This doesn’t seem enough, so the decision is made arbitrarily to increase these rewards by an extra 2000xp, indicating that our initial estimates were also off by that amount.

Notice how errors are self-highlighting for easy correction. You could just as easily argue that the increase should be 5,000xp worth, not 2,000 – but because this is all in “virtual xp”, that’s irellevant; all you have to do is specify in the adventure how the PCs will be treated afterwards by the public, and the mathematics then cease to matter; they are nothing more than a guideline.

Perhaps more significant is that there is not a lot of room for enemy, if the bulk of that 2,000 or 5,000 is reputation, as seems likely. That suggests that, rather than a direct and verifiable line to their defeated enemy’s mastermind boss, they recieve nothing more than a tantalizing hint, a single clue as to his existence and identity. That’s fine; all it does is alter the dynamic at the start of adventure D, which will be part of the next stage of the campaign.

From this point, how the GM proceeds depends on which of the three options he chooses to employ. But you at least have some very reliable guidelines and parameters for each adventure.

NB: I plucked the “30,000 xp” figure from out of thin air. It’s a fairly substantial amount, since that’s per PC and not shared amongst the party. Not, perhaps, so much that it’s entirely unreasonable, but enough that I would look very closely at it if this were a real life proposal. To look at why and how, let’s now turn our attention to:

Controlling Rewards

Just because I have declared the Monty Haul problem solved doesn’t mean that it will work out that way in real life. Because it’s such a delicate issue, and yet so commonly experienced, I thought that I would attach some general advice and guidelines that would help out even if you don’t adopt the system discussed above.

Scrooge Had No Friends

Rule one is that as convenient as it might be for GMs to try and emulate the rate of character advancement that you observe in most fantasy novels, it simply ain’t gonna happen. Players are not used to such glacial rates of improvement and simply won’t wear it. You can buy yourself a little more tolerance if rewards form a steady stream, even if the flow is small, but it’s far better to assume that your PCs will be improving at a pace that will make you uncomfortable – and prepare for it, accordingly, building it into your campaign plans.

Of course, you could choose to be sanctimonious and protective of your decisions regarding the pace of rewards; but as I said in the heading above, Scrooge had no friends. Is it really worth potentially alienating your friends over the issue?

That said, there’s no need to bend over backwards to pander to players in this respect, either. If your decisions are justifiably fair, then do what you can to increase the rate at which rewards are dispensed even if the total volume doesn’t increase.

On of the simplest ways of ensuring the perception of fairness is this:

  • Assume that the NPCs are doing things even if the PCs aren’t there to see what they are up to.
  • Assume that sometimes those actions will be more successful than the PCs in gathering rewards and sometimes less; overall, the two rates should balance out, and that is how you are defining ‘fair’.
  • Therefore, for every point of reward that you give the PCs, give the same to the NPCs.
  • Differences in levels sufficient for the NPCs to pose a serious threat also mean that the pace of significant improvement is slower per point/gp of reward.
  • Give NPC allies rewards at less than the pace of PCs to ‘reflect’ the reduction in pace of the important NPCs resulting from this effect.
  • As the PCs start to pull ahead of the NPCs around them, they naturally rise to prominence. This makes players feel that they are achieving the desired pace of advance relative to their enemies.

For example, let’s look at Adventure A from earlier in the article. It’s worth 3,855 XP to 5th level characters. Let’s say that the ultimate enemy that the PCs will eventually have to face in the campaign is currently 10th level – enough that he would currently mop the floor with the PCs in a direct confrontation. 3,855 XP is about 32% of the difference between 5th and 6th level; even though some of that will take non-XP forms of reward, it’s the right basis of comparison. So the enemy NPC also does things that earn them 3,855 XP in rewards – but that’s only about 5% of the gap from 10th to 11th level. 5 is about one-sixth of 32, so a 5th level NPC ally should get somewhere midway between 5% and 32% of the XP that the PCs get – call it about 20%.

The result is that the even though the NPC allies started at the same level of capability as the PCs, and the enemy started much stronger, the PCs will see themselves slowly pulling ahead of their allies, becoming the stars of the story, and will mentally equate their progress in this respect to their gains relative to their enemy. The numbers don’t actually matter, per se; this is psychological, a result of PCs succeeding in skill rolls that the NPCs struggle with, becoming more effective in combat, becoming leaders who make the decisions instead of having decisions made for them, and so on.

Why not make the NPC ally advancement rate the same 5% of the enemy? Because of the psychology – this will create the impression in the player’s minds of a certain rate of progress relative to their enemy that doesn’t properly take into account how great a head-start he had in the beginning. They will overestimate their rate of progress and underestimate how dangerous he will be, and put the entire campaign at risk by courting a TPK. You want the PCs to advance relative to those around them, but at a pace that creates the right mental impression.

Excessive Rewards

I’ve never met any GM who hasn’t given out an excessive reward at some point. It’s almost a right of passage. And, as I indicated at the start of the article, the proximate cause of GMs becoming parsimonious to the point of stinginess.

There are three significant potential snowball effects that GMs need to be wary of – one resulting from too little reward, one resulting from overcompensating for too little reward, and one resulting from too much. Of these, the last is the one that most people will be aware of, so that’s where I’ll start.

The Snowball Of Excess

Give away too much reward, PCs grow too strong, GM ups the enemies in capability to make the game interesting, which means that the PCs grow even more severely overpowered relative to where they should be. Unless nipped in the bud almost immediately, or better yet, prevented from starting at all, this can cause campaigns to self-destruct. When GMs tell me that they prefer low-level campaigns, my immediate suspicion is that what they really mean is that they prefer campaigns that terminate before this snowball completely overwhelms them – and never learn from the experience.

The Snowball Of Insufficiency

Some GMs go the other way as a result, as noted above. I was once advised by an experienced GM – back when I was relatively new – to take whatever rewards I was thinking of handing out and dividing them by two or three.

Here’s what happens: PCs become underpowered for their level. They struggle to overcome enemies they should be able to match, but the GM likes the fact that he can challenge the players in almost every encounter they face, so he persists. PCs become even more underpowered relative to their enemies. Players complain. GM doesn’t listen. Players either get cornered into facing too powerful a foe, resulting in a TPK, or they leave the game and join another. Campaign implodes.

The Dirty Snowball

But, quite often, the GM will react to threats of a walk-out by throwing in some gratuitous extra oomph on the next rewards, in an effort to keep the game functional, and will overcompensate. This wraps a snowball of insufficiency in a snowball of excess; for a while, it will appear to work, and the players will be mollified. Wary of the dangers of excess, the GM then returns to a policy of insufficient reward, but this time he tries to anticipate when the players will again grow discontent, and head the trouble off at the pass with another brief wave of generosity. The problem is that the power level of rewards, especially in combination, do not grow in a linear fashion, but in a geometric one or even an exponential one. Each wave of generosity needs to be larger than the one before, and it grows progressively harder to get the balance right; eventually, one will be so excessive that the snowball of excess can no longer be contained. Catastrophic collapse seems to come out of nowhere.

This is a dirty snowball, layers of insufficiency being wrapped in layers of excess.

A victim of cool

Dirty snowballs and snowballs of excess can also result from the GM being seduced by the notion of a reward that seems “cool” to him, especially if he has thought something interesting to do with the reward in the short term that he thinks is original. He may very well be right, but by living for the moment and indulging himself without a long-term plan, the GM triggers a wave of excess from which the campaign never recovers – usually because the really “cool” ideas tend to be relatively mid-to-high level to start with.

Quite often, the GM will even think that he has the long-term covered, but be deluding themselves, making the cardinal error of underestimating the cleverness of players when safeguarding an advantage for their characters.

I was once told of a GM who had the wonderful idea of a wand which contained no charges of its own, instead drawing its charges from the nearest active spellcaster, who wasn’t even aware that his daily spell levels were being consumed until he went to use one and found it empty. What the GM had in mind for this item, I don’t know for sure; I think he was just entranced by the “cool idea”, and had only vague notions that on discovering how the wand was powered, the PCs would destroy it. But he made the fatal mistake of underestimating his players.

The mage immediately went dual-class as a fairly mediocre Fighter, and took charge of the wand, on the basis that if it was using his Spell levels, he wanted to be the one in charge of when it did so. What’s more, he ‘charged up’ as few spells in the level that the wand consumed as he thought he could get away with, whereas most mages loaded up as heavily as possible. The party then undertook great risks to earn themselves a Wish, which they used to obtain a duplicate of the wand for each member of the group. Thereafter, whenever they encountered a mage, they all whipped out these wands, rapidly sucking the enemy dry of magic and using it to attack any protective muscle around him; none could stand against them.

Against his better judgment, the GM was then convinced that spell-like effects that replicated spells of the appropriate level could also power the wands.

Eventually, the mage/fighter was corrupted and converted by a Vampire. The other players, for whom the campaign had started to grow stale, were easily convinced by him to begin a war of conquest and hang the alignment problems. Now reasonably high level, the party found ways to create hundreds of duplicates of the wand, giving one to each unit of their revolutionary army. The vampire player then pointed out that many of the most common ‘traditional’ wands also contained spells of the appropriate level which could be used to empower their wands, sucking the source dry. This final advantage became too much to be overcome; the PCs and their Vampire Lord conquered the entire known world and began to expand into the elemental planes, at which point the GM gave up and closed the whole thing down.

Breaking The Cycle

Any cycle which consistently under- or over-rewards the PCs needs to be broken – immediately. Even a pattern of inconsistency is dangerously unstable. Awareness of the potential problems and keeping a sharp eye out can solve problems a lot of the time, but relying on this alone is to constantly flirt with the dangers. I have a solution to offer, but this is a solution with a price tag.

In the October 2011 Blog Carnival (Topic: Loot As Part Of The Plot), I offered Making, Earning, Finding, Analyzing, Using, Selling, and Destroying Loot. Under the heading of “Analyzing” I vented about the spell, Identify (readers should also consume the dialogue in the comments section triggered by that rant).

Well, if there is one thing that will kill this solution stone dead, it’s access to Identify, at least as it is written in the rulebooks. Just about any of the solutions to the problem that I describe in the course of that multi-paragraph venting will deal with the issue, but something has to be done to Identify for this solution to work.

So, to the solution: Ultimately, it comes down to taking precautions that you can ‘activate’ when you need to:

Sprinkle with mystery

For the first character level or two, every time you hand out a substantial reward of some sort that isn’t just XP or cash, incorporate mystery into the reward – as much mystery as you can muster. Mystery about where the reward came from, about what can be done with it, about what else it can do, about what limits there might be on what it can already seemingly do, even about the fact that there might be something else to discover about it.

When you need to give the characters a minor power boost – something less than a whole new magic item or reward – release a new power or application in an existing item, again without revealing the full story of what the limitations on the power are. If it proves to be a little too much, have it be a temporary power that only operates because of a short-term circumstance, and when the PCs use the power to end that circumstance, the power goes away, or perhaps lingers in a weakened form.

Another variation on this approach is to add in a new power – but when that power is used, it turns off the existing power that the PC has become used to relying on.

Incorporating complexities and mysteries like this solves all your problems because you can tweak and re-tweak the benefits until they are neither too much nor too little. In fact, the capabilities that the PCs have available to them become another tool that the GM has at his disposal to influence and facilitate the plot.

Which is more or less the door that we wandered into here from. So, instead, let’s turn left for a moment.

It’s no good doing this without a plot-based justification. A suit of magic armor that can do this, and can sometimes do that, and so on, is a lot more than a standard suit of magical armor. It needs a legend in back of it and – essentially – a subplot of its own regarding “who” it is and what happens to it in the end, one that runs through many adventures. Here, again, the GM has an advantage; because he knows, however vaguely, what the long-term direction of the campaign is going to be, he can tailor the “hidden facets” of the rewards to fit with them. Eventually, of course, that hidden backstory will need to be discovered by the PC who is serving as the vehicle for the reward; do it right, and it will look like it was always planned that way!

Let’s Sum Up

Okay, let’s recap the high points and wrap this article up, before it gets any bigger.

  • Rewards can have four different purposes, and your first priority as a GM should always be the fourth of them, Plot.
  • There are many forms of reward, but virtually all of them can be equated to a financial value, and that (in turn) can be treated as an xp-equivalent.
  • Set your own pacing & policies regarding the amount of rewards that you hand out, but –
  • Don’t be a miser, nor a spendthrift. Either will get you into trouble. And don’t try to bounce from one to the other in hopes of striking a balance, either – it won’t work forever.
  • Sprinkle your rewards with mystery, which can be used as a handle to increase, control, or manipulate the effectiveness of the rewards you have given out.
  • Everything still has to make sense in the end – so have a plausible explanation for why the manipulations you perform using the mysteries are taking place, and share it when the time is right.
  • Use campaign-level considerations to define adventure level rewards, use adventure level reward totals to define the difficulty (and reward value) of the encounters within each adventure.
  • Use psychological manipulation on your players as necessary to manage their expectations of rewards, most practically by manipulating the rewards of NPCs.

In other words, there should be nothing “accidental” about the rewards you grant the PCs. Rewards are as much a part of the story of the campaign as the moves-and-counter-moves of the arch-villain. Have a plan, do your prep (it doesn’t take long), and take charge of your rewards structure – instead of letting your rewards control you.

This series will now take a hiatus for a while so that I can present an article or two for readers with different interests – maybe more. Never fear, I will get back to it in due course, when the subject will be the rhythms of the game table. It’s a jungle out there…

Leave a Comment

Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time

books on many subjects

Image Source: / Wynand Van Niekerk

One art that every GM should master is the knack of researching just enough information just as quickly as you can digest it. I sometimes call it the art of Lightning Research, and today I’m going to share a couple of tips for doing it successfully.

These tips come in two parts – one for Wikipedia, and the other for more general internet-based research (because Wikipedia doesn’t hold all the answers).


For those who may have heard otherwise, although there can be controversies relating to individual articles, Wikipedia in general is reliable.

The great secret of success in performing lightning research is to skim twice and read once, taking notes as necessary only in the latter phase.

Skim Once

I will very lightly skim through the introductory section of the Wikipedia page that seems relevant, not trying to absorb any real information but seeking to establish a number of things:

  • Is this the right page, with the information that I need?
  • Are there additional pages that I need to open in a new tab in order to understand the topic / get the answers that I need?
  • What is the context for understanding the sectional breakup of the page?
  • What do I need to skim through in the second skim?
The Right Page?

There are four possible answers to this question: ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Maybe’, and ‘In Part’.

  • ‘Yes’ means that this is the right page and should contain the information that I need.
  • ‘No’ means that this is the wrong page. Hopefully it will link to what I need but sometimes I need to add to or change completely my search terms on the Wikipedia site.
  • ‘Maybe’ means that I’m not sure and will have to at least reach the second-skim stage before I can answer this question. The more vague my question, the more likely this answer is to result.
  • ‘In Part’ usually means “I think so, but will need to open further pages for more detail, or to explain the contents, or to supplement what I’m reading”. The more specific my question, the more likely this is to be the result.
Additional pages?

Each time I encounter a link while skimming, I make a snap decision on whether or not the page being linked to is relevant. Will it provide supplementary information of value to me? Will it (hopefully) explain something that is unclear in the article? If the answer to either of these questions is ‘yes’, or even ‘maybe’, then I open the article in a new tab. If not, then I often consider a second question: does it look to be of interest? If so, then I might still open the link in a new tab, but I will take advantage of a trick Google chrome has up it’s sleeve and drag the resulting tab to the left of the page I am currently skimming. That separates out the research task efforts from these ‘of interest’ pages so that I don’t get side-tracked.

Contextual Breakup?

Aside from the fundamental questions posed already, one of the key things that I am looking to get out of this skim is an understanding of the way the subject matter is organized within the rest of the article.

Planning The Second Skim

That’s so that I can try and narrow down which sections of the Wikipedia Page are most likely to contain the information that I need. Sometimes, this is clear, or seems so; at other times, it is not clear at all.

Skim Twice:

The second skim is not of the introductory section, but is directed at the content of the article, and is a more thorough skim than the first. I’m not trying to get a real understanding of the subject, instead I’m trying to zero in on the parts of the article that are relevant to my query.

I’m also trying to get a vague idea as to the content so that the information gleaned in the proper reading of the article makes sense to me. The more distant the subject is from something that I know something about, the more important this is as a priority.

Again, there are some specific questions that I am trying to answer:

  • Does this section contain the information that I need?
  • Do I need to know this in order to understand the information that I need?

If the answer to either of these is ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ or ‘in part’ – using the same possible answers as described earlier – then I skim the section until I reach a part where that is no longer the case.

If the answer is ‘no’ then I either move on to the next possibly-relevant section, or the next tab that I have opened in skim one, or rethink the research approach if I have run out of resources to examine. If I’m sure that Wikipedia will contain the information that I need if I just tickle it right, I will attempt to formulate a new search term to see if I can find the right Wikipedia Page; if not, then I will need to think of other resources that I might know of, or formulate an appropriate Google Search. Either way, the process will move on to the second type of research effort, to be described a little later.

But, for the moment, let’s assume that Wikipedia contains at least some of the information that I need.

Additional Pages

As I skim for the second time, I am once again noting any links that I come across, and evaluating them the same way as I did in the first skim.

Multiple Skims In Succession

It’s also important to note that unless I find the specific information that I need in a format that I am confident of understanding and placing in context, before I move on to the third stage, “Read Once”, I will perform first and second skims on all the web pages open to the right of the initial search page. That’s to ensure that I have the greatest possible chance of understanding the relevance of what I’m reading when doing the actual research. What’s more, if any of the additional pages that have been opened are there to explain something that I need to understand in order to actually comprehend what I’m reading, I will move their tabs to the extreme right in the sequence.

That is so that I can work my way through them, right to left, and get the answers to the foundational questions before tackling the main subject. It also ensures that I don’t miss any of the pages.

Of course, if any of the pages turn out not to be relevant at all, I will simply close that tab.

Ultimately, if Wikipedia is to be my solution source, I will end up with a selected-and-vetted quick course in the specific subject that I need to research. This is often a far more specific question than my initial search term.

Read Once

The actual research consists of reading the selected sections of the selected Wikipedia entries, taking notes as I go. The actual nature of these notes depends on the function that the page in question is serving in relation to the research.

Where the page is a foundation or context item, I will do my best to synopsize the relevant information into a single sentence per page, or – in unusual cases – one per section. I’m not interested in the whole of the content, just in those parts that explain the main answer. This, in essence, assumes that the information being researched will need to be presented to the players in one of my campaigns at some point, and thus needs to function as an introductory sentence to the actual information – so I will attempt to construct the information into an appropriate narrative passage.

When I reach the first (or only) page containing the actual information of relevance, I will pay closer attention. I may quote specific sentences or rephrase them; I may synopsize the relevant parts of an entire section into a single sentence or paragraph. This largely depends on how much detail I need to provide to the players.

Footnotes and References

I pay specific attention to these, as they are often links to additional information of direct relevance. Each time I come to one, I mouse over it until the pop-up appears, enabling me to assess its value to the research; if it explains or might expand on a particularly-relevant part of the research, I will study it and add any notes before moving on. This is achieved by right-clicking on the reference and opening it in a new tab (so that my place in the main document of study is not altered).

Additional Resources

At the bottom of each Wikipedia page there is usually a section listing external resources. I give these specific consideration before declaring the research complete.

Related Subjects

Finally, at the very foot of the page, there are usually a section on related subjects. I will look over each of these and open (again in new tabs) any that seem relevant, and subject them to the same processes, inserting additional research content as necessary. The ultimate goal is a straightforward narrative passage that can be provided to the players when appropriate – one that strips out the irrelevancies and simple contains the information that they need to know.

Sometimes I will need to create two research results: a complete one for GM reference and an edited one giving partial information to the players. I always create the complete one first and then edit out anything that I specifically don’t want the players to know (yet). This editing may require some rephrasing to conceal the fact that something has been removed from the real research.


The process that I employ for research using Google Search is very similar.

Skim Once

Instead of an introductory paragraph, the first skim is of the excerpts that accompany the search results. The key is to seek out potential relevance. I am relatively unconcerned about redundancy at this point; I always bear in mind that Wikipedia is designed to be relatively self-contained, while a Google Search is – by definition – completely un-contained. Once again, all relevant pages are opened in new tabs (I have my options set to do this automatically, though it doesn’t always work, so I will usually go to the trouble of telling the browser specifically to do so with a right-click on the link).

The rest of the Skim Once process is then achieved by scrolling through the pages that have been opened from top to bottom and back again, usually using “page down” and then mouse-dragging the slider up. Again, I’m trying to initially verify that what seemed relevant really is, and then to determine what parts of the web-page are relevant, and trying to group them according to the nature of that relevance.

Treatment of links

I’m far more wary when clicking on links incorporated into what amount to randomly-selected seemingly-relevant web-pages. If it’s a link that’s internal to the site, I will open them if they appear relevant; if it’s an external link, I will defer doing so until the second skim. Hovering my pointer over the link should display the URL of the link. If it doesn’t, I’m doubly suspicious of the link.

I also pay close attention to any warnings that come up; sometimes, Google is overzealous in its protections and I know this because I know the website to which the link is pointing, other times I will not proceed upon receipt of a warning because I don’t know the site. There have been times when I will copy the link and paste it into my research notes and not open it until I have upgraded the browser’s level of paranoia, installed the latest security and anti-virus signatures, etc.

In cases of really deep suspicion, I have even resorted to a separate web search aimed specifically at establishing the trustworthiness of the website and any security risks that it poses. A key consideration is always whether or not I think I can find the information that I need from a more trusted website.

I rarely have virus/security trouble as a result of these precautions. Ultimately, if I have to, I will make it up before I will place my computer at risk.

Second Skim

The second skim is handled in exactly the same way as a Wikipedia second skim, with the additional problem that an external website is probably not broken into sections in the same manner as Wikipedia does it. The main purpose of the second skim is to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Quite often, what I will find is that some of the information on a relevant web-page is redundant, provided by another page that I have already looked at, and some of it will supplement the content in that other page. Only if completely convinced that the page adds nothing new to the research will I close it.

Read Once

This is also handled in the same manner, but I usually find that there is more jumping back and forth within the research notes required as I move from one page to another.

Subsequent Searches

It’s usually the case that one research effort is not enough on its own, and needs to be supplemented with additional research on more specific topics. Each of these is handled in exactly the same way.

Example: The Kasugi Smuggling Operation

At one point in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, we needed to have a PC stumble into his arch-enemies latest criminal enterprise while in London. This was intended to be a red herring with respect to the main plot.

That required my co-GM and I to come up with whatever that red-herring plot was; the arch-enemies are a bunch of modern-day (1930s) pirates & smugglers, primarily operating in the Asian Pacific region, but they have shown on a number of occasions a seriously clever streak, and a growing international presence. They aren’t exactly SPECTRE yet, but they are heading in that direction. Their last intrusion into the campaign also showed that they were diversifying beyond simple piracy, as the PCs landed in a Hong Kong nightclub run by them as a place to conduct negotiations and make money on the side.

The Research Begins

The first question to be answered was what might bring them to London, so far removed from their usual arena of operations.

One of the Kasugi Family’s established M.O.s was to capture vessels and “rebirth” them if they were in reasonable condition, expanding their ‘fleet’. Since a lot of ships are built and maintained through English shipyards, that was our starting point. But we had long ago decided that the Kasugis have their own facilities hidden somewhere in the Pacific, so why come to London?

I suggested the notion of insurance fraud. The Kasugis bring a derelict captured vessel to London, do a superficially-good refurbishment that lacks genuine substance, sell on the black market the materials (engines, pipes, etc) that were supposed to be used in the full refurbishment, pay off the inspectors, insure the ship to the gills, and then fake the sinking. It means rebirthing the ship twice, but that’s nothing too extreme for them.

Then what? The sea lanes around England/Western Europe are some of the busiest in the world; if they simply sailed the “refurbished” vessels home, it wouldn’t be long before someone spotted them. Lloyd’s of London, who (I vaguely recalled) got their start insuring ships and cargoes, would also be sniffing around the scheme very quickly. A quick check of Wikipedia established that Lloyds was definitely still active in maritime insurance, and the North Atlantic is notorious for it’s violent sea weather, especially in winter, so the idea had a ring of plausibility. It was a start, but not yet enough.

My co-GM, Blair, suggested that maybe they were smuggling something into Europe, and that this cargo would also be reported lost when it was actually being smuggled to its destination after the ship was reported lost, maybe in return for some alterations to the superstructure and other identifiable features at some other shipyard.

I took that ball and ran with it. What if what they were smuggling was something whose import into Germany was restricted by the Versailles Treaty because it was a war material? Blair pointed out that the Versailles treaty was more or less ignored by everyone by this point in history, but that other materials were slowly being prohibited, citing the example of Helium supply – that, notoriously, was why the Hindenburg had been supported by that very flammable material.

Another quick Wikipedia search led to a list of trade restrictions with pre-war Germany. Most were relatively inconsequential from our point of view, not worth enough to make the risks worth-while. We needed a material of high value by weight, and to which the Kasugis would have access. Fortunately, we already had found (and saved) a document from the US Department Of The Interior and US Geological Survey which listed the value of ores and refined metals by year, in some cases from 1900 on. as well as significant events in the history of trade of the material. Looking up each of the contenders from the trade restrictions list, we soon narrowed the choices down to one: Tungsten, used as an alloy in aircraft parts (especially engines), to create tungsten-tipped tools for industrial purposes, and in bullets – and China was the world’s leading source, right in the Kasugi’s back yard.

Neither of us could be sure that the aircraft application was relevant in the 1930s, it was more associated with the high temperatures of jet engines, but the munitions angle was definitely viable and plausible. The History provided by that document in the case of Tungsten more or less started with the 1950s, so we again turned to Wikipedia and the page on the subject, supplemented by a broader internet search for information on the ore, known as Wolframite.

We soon discovered that China wasn’t just the world leader, they have something like 80% of the world supply (and an even higher percentage of the known supplies back in the 1930s), and were not happy about the US restricting their trade in the commodity to Germany, which was one of the biggest importers of Wolframite until the ban.

Even while we were conducting this research, a thought occurred to me: why stop at merely altering the superstructure to disguise the “rebirthed” ships? Why not have a German shipyard do the full refurbishment for real, deducting the price for doing so from the value of the smuggled ores?

More research – how much would such a refit cost, how much would the ore be worth, did the numbers stack up as something close enough for plausibility? The short answer was yes.

From there, it was just a matter of compiling reference materials for our own reference (and briefing the players) and tidying up the logistics, then working out how the PC in question could ‘stumble into’ the plot, and how we were going to pass on the results of our research to him.

Encounter Scene 1

We started by contriving for everyone else to have something to do as part of the main plot, leaving only the PC who was free to investigate the Docks at Tilbury, center of a recent gang war which seemed related to the main plot. From the actual adventure, as we wrote it (the numbers refer to maps and photos used as illustrations):

At Tilbury docks, the drizzle has turned to light snow. Loading of the ship closest to the mouth of the dockyard is continuing well into the night (the far end of the docks relative to Captain Ferguson, the close end to picture 018). There is a steady stream of trucks coming and going along the access road (far left) and the sounds of swearing in English, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese echoes, mostly concerning the late delivery of the cargo. Someone, presumably the Captain of the vessel, has sworn numerous times that he intends to make the high tide this evening or he’ll personally spit and roast somebody.
   Ferguson has been able to explore somewhat without drawing attention to himself; the ship closest to his initial hiding place is the Calliope, which has the Italian flag painted on its hull but is flying a different flag, that he does not initially recognize (Pic 021) (Maritime Lore at -5 to identify it as the flag of Sicily), multiple attempts permitted).
   Next most distant is the Olga Dimitrov which has another unfamiliar flag painted on the hull to indicate it’s nation of registry (Pic 022) (Maritime Lore at -3 to identify it as Latvian).
   Currently being loaded and most distant on that side of the port is the Plymouth Rock, proudly sporting the Liberian Flag (Pic 023), which Captain Ferguson immediately recognizes.
   Opposite the Plymouth Rock on the far side of the dockyard is a tramp steamer named the Mersey Wanderer which is adorned with the Union Jack (024 for the sake of completeness). None of these sound particularly Asian in origin, and all are equally unlikely to be Kasugi vessels, with perhaps the exception of the Wanderer, simply because Singapore is under British rule.
   The lighting in the dockyard itself is dim except in the area where people are working, which is illuminated by portable lighting. Each yard services a single berth, and the yards are surrounded by 4m high wire-mesh fences topped with three strings of barbed wire. Finally, at around 11PM, the loading operation is complete (topped by more sulfurous blasphemies over the delays from the Captain in a thick Missoura accent), and the Plymouth Rock sails down the Thames toward open water. The dockyard workers vacate the premises with remarkable speed, more evidence that working this late is something unusual – they were all anxious to be somewhere else. Abruptly, silence descends over the docks, broken by the occasional barking of a stray dog somewhere in the distance. From his vantage point – wherever that now is – Captain Ferguson can spot a brick watchman’s hut which is brightly lit inside, with smoke rising from a small chimney.

Encounter Scene 2

The PC, Captain Ferguson, then observed events related to the main plotline and quite irrelevant to the Kasugi subplot. After these events, a follow-up scene took place:

Captain Ferguson at the docks, where the fog has well and truly rolled in: no further action, no sign of the Kasugi vessel that was expected to be here. He may as well return to the Hotel and get some sleep.

But this gave him three ship names to investigate. The next significant development took place the next day, when the PC in question kept an appointment made for M, the murder victim of the main plot (and head of MI6, of course) at Lloyd’s Of London:

Appointment at Lloyds Of London – Meeting with Chief Fraud Investigator, Chanda Dawson (043). NB: Chanda does not know M is dead. Chanda is Anglo-Indian, in his 40s, immaculately dressed, tall, thin, very precise in his speech and actions, capable of holding himself absolutely still at will. Every movement is deliberate and calculated. Has a large-caliber revolver in a shoulder-holster that the PCs have no trouble noticing.
   “For the last three months, several vessels owned by interests that are reputed to be covers for the criminal organization known as the Kasugi family have been brought to London for refurbishment. Timetables for these repairs have been closely adhered to under penalty of unusually strong contract terms. When repairs are complete, a new vessel arrives within 48 hours and transships its cargo to the refurbished vessel, and the new vessel takes its place in the dry-dock for its own maintenance. The refurbished vessel and its cargo of Rare Ore are then insured with our organization and depart for Sweden. Of the six vessels so dispatched, five have failed to reach their destination and were reported lost at sea. Claims were subsequently lodged, and in the case of the first three vessels, paid. We suspect insurance fraud. The losses of the vessels are bad enough, but on top of that, there were life insurance policies on the crew, payable to the company, and the insurance on the cargo, an ore known as Wolframite.
   “Currently almost complete are repairs to the seventh such vessel. Unless some substantiative evidence can be found in the next 48 hours, we will have no choice but to accept insurance on that vessel as well, the Spirit Of Shandong, and to pay the two outstanding claims. To date, this has cost Lloyds – including the outstanding claims – approximately £595,000, or almost $5 million of your American Dollars. We cannot afford to maintain this ruinous rate of loss, and can only increase premiums so far, because we have to charge the same basic premium on all European Shipping.
   “I don’t know how much you know about Wolframite, and there is not a whole lot that I can tell you – it’s covered under the Official Secrets Act, and even if you are authorized to know, I’m not authorized to know it – but I had arranged a follow-up meeting for M to be briefed on the subject by the Minister Of Trade. I presume that you will be keeping that appointment on his behalf.”
   “Since you aren’t restricted by M’s schedule, I will call the Minister’s Office and see if he can squeeze you in any earlier. In the meantime, here’s a list of the vessels that have been reported lost, for your reference while you investigate.” He hands over a list showing name, hull registry number, various other identifying serial numbers, the date it was insured and the date it was reported lost. While this list is being examined, he steps to the door and has a quiet word with his secretary. After a few minutes, he returns and tells you that he’s been able to squeeze you into the Minister’s schedule at 11:30 this morning. “It seems the Minister is so concerned by what’s going on that he is rearranging his schedule to meet with you as soon as possible.”

Encounter Scene 3

The set-up for the subplot was then completed with a subsequent scene:

Captain Ferguson is at The Cabinet Office, 9 Downing Street & Whitehall (045) to meet the Minister for Trade, Philip Cunliffe- Lister, 1st Earl of Swinton, (046).
   “Wolframite (047) is a rich source of Tungsten. Germany’s machining industry uses tungsten carbide almost exclusively, whereas the U.S. is still largely using inferior molybdenum tipped tools, primarily because of the cartel agreement GE holds with Krupp concerning carboloy or cemented tungsten carbide. Additionally, tungsten is useful in armor piercing munitions. Britain and the U.S. agree that Germany’s minimum requirements for Wolfram are 3,500 tons per year.
   “Despite Spain and Portugal being considered major sources of Wolframite, their total production amounts to a relatively small 2800 tons per annum, and much of this is not available to Germany.
   “Portugal’s economic success currently hinges on its rich wolfram ore deposits. They protect this very carefully. To maintain its neutrality, they set up a strict export quota system in 1932. The system allows each nation to export ore from their own mines and a fixed percentage of the output from independent mines. England owns the single largest mine, while Germany owns two mid-size concerns and several smaller mines. The output of Portugal’s second largest mine is owned by France.
   “The Nazis also acquire zinc, lead, mercury, fluorspar, celestite, mica, and amlygonite from Spain. However, wolfram is the most vital, as Spain is the only other European supplier of this ore to Germany.
   “British trade with Spain in recent years has had three main objectives. The first, as with any trading arrangement, was to obtain needed goods that were not readily available elsewhere. Secondly, by purchasing vital materials from Spain, we deny the Germans a source for these materials. Finally, by conducting trade in materials needed by the Spanish economy, we seek to lessen the influence of Germany on Spain. Without Wolframite, German industry is strongly contained and Germany cannot hope to wage war in Europe with any success. British Policy is aimed at controlling their access to Wolframite and restricting them to barely enough for their domestic needs.
   “Efforts to achieve this policy began in March 1930, when Britain signed a six month agreement to provide Spain with certain materials it needed, such as petroleum products and fertilizer, in return for iron ore, other minerals, and citrus fruit. The agreement is careful not to single out Wolframite as a key commodity, merely listing it in third place in the ‘other minerals’ section, but it was actually the one thing that we wanted most of all to control. That agreement has been renewed every six months thereafter.
   “The US has instituted a similar policy of buying up South American production of ore to keep it out of unfriendly hands while obtaining it for themselves.
   “Spain relies on an open market for wolfram, which favors the strong German economy. Last year, England only managed to purchase 32 tons of Wolframite from Spanish suppliers.
   “China also supplies Germany with tungsten and antimony as part of a deal by it to purchase German weapons and machines through the Chinesisch-Deutsche Kooperation.
   “The Kasugis are supposedly bringing in additional ore from China, whose deposits dwarf those of the rest of the world put together. Roughly 80% of the global tungsten deposits are believed to be in Southeastern China.
   “The current prince of Wolframite on the open market is US$4,762, or £578, per ton.”

Encounter Scene 3a

We also supplied some external information in the form of a telegram from Captain Ferguson’s ship, just to dot our I’s and cross our T’s:

A telegram arrives for Captain Ferguson (it finds him wherever he is). Give him the telegram:

(NB: I’m using to nested bullet points to get the formatting right because it’s a quick and easy solution. Formatting was done using tabs in the document presented to the player):


      • +++ ENCLOSED MSG BEGINS +++
        • +++ ENCLOSED MSG BEGINS +++
        • +++MSG RCVD EMBASSY OF CANADA NYC 11 DEC 193x (8 hrs 5 min ago) FWD TO PM CANADA FOR IMMED RELAY +++
          • +++ ENCLOSED MSG BEGINS +++
          • +++ MSG RCVD ADV CLUB NYC 11 DEC 193x (8hrs 15 min ago) FWD TO CAN EMBASSY NYC FOR IMMED RELAY +++
            • +++ ENCLOSED MSG BEGINS +++
            • +++ MESSAGE BEGINS +++
            • +++ MESSAGE ENDS +++
          • +++ ENCLOSED MSG ENDS +++
        • +++ ENCLOSED MSG ENDS +++
      • +++ ENCLOSED MSG ENDS +++
    • +++ ENCLOSED MSG ENDS +++

+++ MSG ENDS +++

Resuming the encounter:

   The numbers quoted by the telegram are very significant to Captain Ferguson – the Hull number quoted is one of those reported missing to Lloyds, the ships registry is not, and the Engine is by Vulkan, a German manufacturer that is now out of business. Why would someone take a perfectly good new engine, installed in Britain, out, and replace it with an old, out-of-date, used, German model? The significance was also not lost on the Antares First Officer, Mr McCallister – his telegram to the Adventurer’s Club would have cost about $35 to send, and the cost of routing it all over the world in pursuit of Captain Ferguson comes to the staggering sum of almost US$270 (1930s currency).

NB: to convert 1930s currency into modern currency, we use the rough reckoner of multiplying by 10. So that is the equivalent of a US$2700 telegram today.

In fact, we spent a lot of time working on this telegram – working out the routing, the local arrival times, when it would be read and acted upon, how long it would take for the next leg in the chain to be identified, and how long it would take to reach that next leg in the chain. Some of the travel was electronic, but most of it was via government channels and back-channels – diplomatic bags and the like. Almost 2 hours were spent compressing the text as much as possible – back then, there was a cost per word and a cost per character on international telegrams, and no-one further along the chain would presume to ‘interpret’ the text in case they were in error. Transport speeds and business hours and the like – more research. Not to mention time zones! Heck, we even had to research telegram rates for the era!

But this was the only information reaching the PC from a completely trusted source, and hence we were hanging the credibility of the entire plotline on its believability.

Encounter Scene 4

All that was then needed was to point the PC at the plotline, and let events unfold of their own accord:

Captain Ferguson is contacted by Chanda Dawson. “I understand that the alleged Kasugi Vessel is not in dry-dock at Tilbury because the dockyard was double-booked. While he would never disclose anything on the job, if you find the Dock-master, Derek Marsh, after hours and apply some social lubricant of the 140-proof variety, you may be able to learn where the vessel is located. His favorite watering hole, I am told, is The Executioner’s Pleasure, located at Hangman’s Wood in Little Thurrock, not far from Gray’s New Cemetery.” That location is a short distance north of Tilbury, where he (of course) is employed.

Encounter Scene 5

This was followed (eventually) by a scene in the Pub, and then by the raid on the Kasugi ship, exposing the plot, recovering the log books and charted course (which proved the insurance fraud and the cargo), and which brought a new PC into the team (an engineer working as a dock-hand) – something we hadn’t expected when we wrote the adventure, but which was easily accommodated.

As an example, this shows how vital it is to be able to find the information you need and assimilate it quickly. To create this subplot, we needed to research Maritime Insurance, Lloyds, Flags of convenience, ship recognition, International Trade, Trade restrictions pre- World War II, Tungsten, Wolframite, International Trade with China, Spain, France, London Shipyards, London Weather (from a specific year in the 1930s), the structure of the British Government, Diplomatic Bags in the 1930s, Telegram prices, Telegram delivery times, Time Zones, and the speeds of various modes of travel in the era.

With that much research to do, you can’t afford NOT to master the art of Lightning Research – and you can’t not master it, if you use it regularly.

It’s not just for Pulp

I use the same research techniques for my superhero campaign, for my Dr Who campaign, and even for my fantasy campaigns. I might need the structure of a typical nobles estate in 12th century Japan (I did. in Fumanor) – with China as an alternative – or how long it takes to erect a defensive earthwork, or the properties of superconductors, or quantum theory, or astronomical phenomena, or the cellular mechanics of trees, or the most popular coffee shops in New Orleans. In fact, I’ve had to research every one of these, and many more, over the last three or four years. In order to synthesize knowledge of a field that doesn’t yet exist, like “Nanotechnology Mutation”, you need to understand something of both Nanotechnology and Mutation, and both are just the tips of very large icebergs.

I’ve stated in the past that a GM needs to at least appear to be an Expert In Everything. The processes and principles of Lightning Research are an essential tool in achieving this outcome (and it helps to have the memory of a pack-rat for odd factoids, too – Did you know that Cleopatra’s favorite fruit was the Fig…?).

Comments (2)

Not Just Another Pointy Stick: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 3b

ennies2016silver sm

For anyone who didn’t know,

and who hasn’t noticed the change to the masthead, Campaign Mastery was honored with the Silver Ennie for Best RPG Blog over the weekend, beaten only by the World Builder blog run by a long-time twitter-friend and supporter, James Introcaso. Congratulations again, James!

You never do something like Campaign Mastery for rewards or recognition.

You just do the best job you can, write the most interesting articles that you can, week after week. I treasure what feedback I get, but there is so little of it that sometimes you wonder if you it is truly representative. Any such doubts must now be laid to rest!

Silver is great, it’s a recognition that leaves room for improvement, it encourages without suggesting you have reached your peak.

I cannot thank everyone who voted for Campaign Mastery enough, or who has supported me on the journey to this point. Special thanks to those who have inspired me to write something, or have contributed to the site. In part, this is your honor too.

And, with that piece of happy news dispensed with, it’s back to the regularly-scheduled article!

Based on magic-1081149, licensed under CC0 via

Based on magic-1081149, licensed under CC0 via

In the first half of this article, I looked at the fundamental concepts at the foundation of wands and staves and the characteristics that define them, and offered several variations on those basics to vastly increase the variety of magic items within this category. But that was just the hors d’oeuvre; having established that, fundamentally (and excluding whatever the magical effect might be), wands and staves are basically just “sticks that point”, it’s time to get into the meat of this article: the great variety of objects that can also be defined as a “stick that points”, and which can therefore be interpreted by the creative GM as a wand or staff…

1. Arrows

Let’s start with a very obvious equivalent to a stick that you point – the arrow. Why not an arrow which releases a fireball when it hits? Or an illusion that appears wherever the arrow lands?

If you want to get technical, you could say that the arrow shaft is the wand, while the arrow head can contain all the standard magical-arrow effects.

Arrows break with distressing regularity when they hit something hard. There are two ways of using them, in a fantasy context: the ‘sniper’ option, where you take the time to aim at a specific target, and the massed-fire into a ‘killing field’ option where your shaft is but one of many, most of which will not find a target. Depending on the terrain (rocky or trees = bad, soil & sand = good) you may find that the latter gives a reduced chance of arrow breakage. The usual ratios that I have seen are 2 in 3 break and 1 in 3 break, respectively. Swamp and Water are good in terms of arrow breakage but bad in terms of arrow recoverability, so this is a third case again. Bolts, which are more often made of metal, are a different story again.

That gives the GM who implements this idea a decision to make. Wands tend to have a better breakage chance than ordinary arrows, i,e, they are frequently more durable. The choice is between preserving this durability in the face of completely different usage, or maintaining the normal arrow breakage rate; depending on the choices with respect to what happens when a wand breaks (Eager, Go-Getter, or Reluctant) this can have a major bearing on the combat effectiveness of a small unit, making such arrow-wands the equivalent of mortar shells (depending also on the spell chosen, of course).

There are more options than the purely destructive to consider. A Healing spell, area effect, on such an arrow would enable healing to be delivered to front-line combatants from the back lines. Cloud-kill attacks assume new potency. Any spell that is normally not castable at range becomes so – at worst, the GM might rule that the recipients have to touch the arrow after it has landed at their feet.

This also makes viable a new metamagic: Delay. For +1 spell level, the caster can delay the activation of a spell beyond the time of its being triggered by 1-3 combat rounds. Viable? It would be so useful that if it were possible, it would almost certainly be an inevitable development – though whether or not that development predates the commencement of the campaign is a whole different decision.

If these possibilities seem too overpowered to you, you might consider the ‘disposable wands’ variation in this context.

If it doesn’t, there are a whole range of traps that can be made simpler or more deadly or just more plausible as a result. You may trip the alarm, but have a small window to cancel the spell effect using an appropriate counterspell – if you already know what the spell is that is going to be activated.

These options vastly enrich the tactical complexity of combat. This can be a good thing (experienced players and GM who can handle the added complexity) or overwhelming (less experienced players and/or GM). So think carefully before adopting this idea.

2. Swords

Of course, a wand doesn’t have to be made of wood. Why not a metal one? A natural for lightning spells – but there is so much more that can be done with this idea. Why not a sword with Acid Splash? Or Daze? Or Disrupt Undead, Touch Of Fatigue, Obscuring Mist, True Strike, Hypnotism, Cause Fear, Chill Touch, Ray Of Enfeeblement, or Reduce Person – and that’s just the 0th- and 1st-level Sorcerer/Wizard spells that seem appropriate!

But the notion of swords as wands raises a question that was looked at briefly in the first half of the article: spells in wands that are usable by character classes other than the casting class. This egalitarianism of access to magic can go some way to mitigating class power imbalances, and that’s a pronounced up-side, but it can also diminish the uniqueness of the Wizard class, which is a significant down-side. If that is a concern, it may be wise to introduce a counter-balancing requirement, an additional “cost” that is required in construction of the magic item in order to make the magic accessible.

The ideal model for such a cost is the metamagic feat, in effect levying a spell-level penalty as an exchange for the accessibility. My personal feeling is that two or three levels would be appropriate, and certainly in line with the other metamagic feats; that means that if normal wands can contain 4th level spells or less, wands for non-mages could only (effectively) contain spells of 2nd or even 1st level. If you want greater flexibility, contemplate the Reducing Metamagics described in my 2009 article, Broadening Magical Horizons: Some Feats from Fumanor and Shards Of Divinity.

Sidebar: Compound Magics

Speaking of “so much more that can be done with Swords as a Wand”: Why not one spell in the hilt and another in the blade that work in concert? What can you do with that idea? A Cloud Kill and a gust of wind to move it away from the caster in a straight line? A shield spell in the hilt and a magic missile in the blade?

Another obvious possibility is that short- and long-swords are Wand equivalents, while larger swords are the equivalent of Staves or Rods. A whole new class of magic items (effectively) results. A sword that contains a set of Metamagically-enhanced Buff spells to boost the martial prowess of the wielder sounds like something that would be both unique and appealing to fighters and other such classes – or a nasty surprise for the PCs when these are in the hands of guards or the Watch!

3. Dowsing Rods

Dowsing Rods are either a Y-shaped stick or two stiff lengths of metal wire bent at 90 degrees that are held in each hand. In the former case, when they detect oil, or minerals, or water, or whatever the user is looking for (and they have to be specific), the toe of the Y dips; in the latter case, the two lengths of wire turn toward each other. In both cases, you have to be right on top of the deposit, i.e. in the same hex.

Dowsing rods are not something I’ve seen in any fantasy game, which is a little strange given that the idea can be verifiably traced to the 16th century and almost certainly pre-dates that historical record by an unknown period of time. This puts it squarely into the heart of the medieval time-frame.

The key with Dowsing (assuming that it works in your campaign) is that it is usable by anyone, though naturally-talented operators may have greater sensitivity to this commodity or that. Reliability remains suspect, of course, relative to a spell, which is generally thought of by a modern audience as being a scientific process for inducing a change in the environment or circumstance, universally-reliably by default, spell resistance notwithstanding.

If you want to undermine that pseudo-scientific faith in the reliability of magic, it’s easy to do. All you have to do is make the mage roll to cast a spell each time, while throwing out “spell resistance” in the form described by the rules, instead making it a modifier to the mage’s roll. Effectively, everyone and everything then has an innate level of spell resistance, but some have more than others. Mechanically, it’s a relatively small change that might well have very little effect on actual reliability, but psychologically, it’s huge. And it means that if you have a policy of “X always fails” in interpreting your die rolls, instead of the resistance being what fails, it’s the spell.

Why not dowsing rods that contain appropriate spells as though they were a wand?

Heck, why not dowsing rods that are a mundane form of Detect Magic? Less reliable, perhaps, than a spell, but a heck of a lot cheaper in terms of spell slots, freeing up one or more slots for something else. This makes very little difference at high levels, when characters have lots of spells they can cast, but it can be a life-saver at low levels and helps avoid the “helpless 1st level mage” problem – at least to some extent – enabling lower level characters to pull their own weight within the party.

Or perhaps Dowsing Rods can detect things for which there are no specific Detect spells? All you need to do to implement this is to write up a spell, “Detect [X] By Dowsing” and then provide a list of what X is permitted to be – the creator of the rods needs to specify what the rod can detect when the ‘magic item’ containing that spell is created.

I have seen some proposals (in very space-operaish science fiction, of the kind of para-psychological sci-fi that John W. Campbell loved) that mandates the dowsing rods be anointed with a sample of what is desired. This imparts a greater pseudo-scientific rigor to the concept – perhaps just enough to suspend disbelief in a cynical modern audience.

But the ultimate trick has to be dowsing rods that are actually two-handed wands – at least until the word gets around. “What’re you gonna do, Shorty – drown us with the water you’ve dowsed?” “Not quite. Lightning Bolt!”

A still better idea, in my opinion, is to restrict the magic that can be imbued in wand form to a type of spell that rarely comes to mind when creating wands: Ranger and Druid spells. In effect, this creates a whole new sub-class of magic item within the broad category of “wands”.

Sidebar: Detect Magic and it’s limits

Speaking of Detect Magic, this seems like an opportune moment to pontificate a little on the subject.

If there is one spell that GMs should routinely overhaul for every campaign, this is it. Why? Because it is, by its very nature, a flavor text delivery vehicle.

The traditional view of Detect Magic is that it makes magic items glow. But there’s a lot of flexibility. What if:

  • Mages felt a tingle instead of seeing a visual effect?
  • There was a bell tingle instead of a visual effect?
  • There was a particular scent instead of a visual effect?

But, even if we stick with the standard visual effect, there are variations to explore.

Can everyone see the effect?

Sometimes, I will have the effects of Detect Magic be a visible glow that everyone can see. In other campaigns, only the mage was able to see the effect. I once toyed with the possibility that only a random person within a given radius would be able to see the effect, different with every casting. Another time I had everything glow, but magic items glowed a different color for the mage. But the visible-to-everyone is the option that I most often go with, because that opens the door to other variations.

How Bright?

Sometimes, the intensity is fixed, at other times it depended on the strength of the magic, and on one occasion, it was a quantum effect based on the number of magic items, not their relative strength. Sometimes, the glow is soft, at other times its more pronounced, and in my first AD&D campaign it was bright enough to read by.

How big an area?

Sometimes, I will have the items affected surrounded by a glowing aura a few millimeters (maybe a tenth of an inch) deep. On other occasions, the glow has been s foot, and on still other occasions a full five feet was suffused with a glow in which the magical items were brighter.

Monochrome? What Color? Multicolored? Patterns!?

I’ve had interpretations of the spell in which the light was monochrome pearly white; and interpretations in which it was bright neon-like color – red, blue, green, yellow, or orange. I’ve also tied the color to the school of magic, and used patterns to distinguish arcane magic from clerical from Druidic and so on – psychedelic for wizard stuff, infused with fairy-dust effects for clerical, paisley in natural tones for Druidic, and so on. In that campaign, these were all human magical styles; Elves and Dwarves also had their own techniques. Elvish magic was like spreading tendrils or growing animated vines (Drow vs Surface Elves) and Dwarfish magic looked like a lava lamp made from real lava. Elementals also had their own magic, and these were all done as ripples in the water of different colors depending on the type of elemental – electric blue for air, red for fire, deep blue for water, and sepia for earth. But each of these different visual effects (and more besides) could be applied as “the” detect magic effect in a single campaign.

Expanding the detection benefits

One thing that I always like to do is have some visual distinctiveness to the displays that – for the player who pays attention – offers some clue as to the nature of the items being detected. Keeping these consistent is often a challenge, but worth the effort when the penny drops, because it means that instead of a roll that can be failed, all the player needs to do is keep their ears open. The benefits of having players listen because they know you might drop in a hint or clue makes the effort worthwhile.

Sometimes I’ve had words appear briefly in the shadows, or a visual representation of the command word, or some other iconographic representation of the actual spell. At other times the information I’m dropping clues about is something that an appropriate skill check won’t tell the player, like the spell level.

In the Shards Of Divinity campaign, there were clues in the descriptions of “Detect Magic” effects relating to who manufactured the item – Dwarves did things one way, Elves another, and so on.

Wand of Detect Magic

Like the Wand Of Healing, wands of Detect Magic, in combination with some of the ideas offered above, free up characters to be something more than mages if your players are limited in number – providing that non-mages can use them, of course. A rogue and a fighter and a couple of wands and you have a small, but effective, party.

Detect Magic as a class ability conferred by Spell

Finally, an option that I’ve never used but have had tucked away in my back pocket for a long time, a blend of psychometry and D&D magic. In order to qualify to be a mage, you must have the Talent, and the way they test for the Talent is to place an array of mundane objects in front of the prospective mage with one magic item included, which the character has to identify by picking up or touching each item. If they have the Talent, when they touch a magic item, they will feel a thrill in their arm, a thick, soft, shock. That is the Detect Magic ability, i.e. The Talent, and if you have it, the Magic will not be denied – but if you don’t, you can never cast a spell. The “Spell”, Detect Magic, doesn’t actually exist, but possessing it confers Detect Magic as a class ability.

Every character class covets members who have The Talent; they are automatically presumed to be The Elite, they have something that others don’t. But at the same time, many people who don’t have it resent those who do. Those with the Talent may pursue any career, become any character class they want, but the three areas that they tend to drift into are the spellcasting classes.

That’s about as far as I’ve ever taken thinking about the concept. There’s obviously a lot more development work to be done – at the moment, it’s the start of a campaign concept, but it’s not there yet. And that means that anyone who reads this can develop it, and everyone who does so will do something different with it. And that’s exciting!

4. Tridents

Another, slightly larger, “stick that points” is a trident. Whether one tine (prong) or all function as wands, or the whole serves as a staff, is up to the GM. But this raises still more ideas for the GM to consider. Perhaps its the shaft that serves as a Staff. Or maybe you can combine the ideas: Shaft as a staff and one or more prongs that function as wands!

Variants: ‘One Point’ or ‘Many Points’

This plays squarely into some of the variations discussed earlier (two-handed wand usage, discussed in “We Just Don’t Get Along”). If the tines require the same activation phrase and the same spell to be contained, this idea is far less flexible than if you can have one tine for a Druidic spell and one for a Clerical Spell and one for a Wizard spell all going off at the same time – or with only one activatable at a time.

In fact, I originally thought of this as a way to “one-up” a two-handed wand-wielder!

5. Lances

If swords and pole arms are at least worthy of being considered then why not something that only works if it’s pointed at an enemy? Why not a lance? If there was ever a weapon that might also serve as a staff or a rod… and the notion of a Lance with Telekinesis works well as a means of simulating effects from several fantasy novels, such as the Mallorean.

Redefinition as Mundane Weapons

But there’s a problem: the mundane properties of the lance hardly make it all that desirable as a weapon. 1d6/1d8 damage, doubled if mounted? Given the compromises that are necessary to use it – compromises that are inadequately described by the rules – this hardly seems an appropriate amount, even with a x3 critical potentially laden on top. Fully-armored novices were killed on any number of occasions by lances and so were experienced Knights. As for the comment that lances “could” be used one-handed while mounted, where do I start? It would be more accurate to say that Lances “could” be used two-handed but not one-handed when not mounted.

In fact, Lances are so clumsy a weapon when one isn’t riding a mount that I would impose huge disadvantages on such use. The most ridiculous thing I ever saw in the SSI computer games based on AD&D was the sight of a Dread Knight on foot swinging a lance around like it was a longsword while running around the battlefield.

Lances work in the real world by adding the weight (and strength) of the mount to the weight (and strength) to that of the rider and seeking to forcibly dismount an opponent by applying all that force to the target’s shield. It’s normal for them to be used one-handed. Against unshielded enemies, impaling is a distinct probability, and the risk of the sheer force driving the point of the lance through visors or even armor plate to crush bones and destroy internal organs is extremely grave.

To remedy the problems with the representation of lances in RPGs is not simple. The simplest solution is for the weapon, when used dismounted, to add a bonus to the AC of the target (+4 seems about right); for the weapon to be so clumsy that you can only attack with it when dismounted on every third combat round; and for the base damage to be reduced a die size under those circumstances to d4/d6. When mounted, of course, all those penalties go away; the weight of the mount (and its armor) should be converted to additional STR according to the requirements for lifting that much weight, or a fixed fraction of that when charging, and that in turn to yield a bonus STR modifier that can be broken up by the wielder, split between a better chance to hit and better damage total, and for every 4 points of bonus modifier so allocated, the critical threat range increases by one.

Unfortunately, the monster manual doesn’t list the weights of a horse, but it is well known that these were smaller and lighter than modern animals. In cases like this, I turn to a reference that I have used before, “And a 10′ pole”. The “Renaissance Equipment” section lists a ‘Greater Warhorse’ as having a weight of 1100lb, a ‘Lesser Warhorse’ as having a weight of 950lb, a heavy horse as 1300lb, a medium horse as 900lb, and a light horse as 800lb. The same weights are shown in the Middle Ages section and the Iron Age / Roman Empire section. The Bronze Age section lists only Light and Medium horses, but their weights are unchanged. Personally, I suspect that these are being a little generous, an opinion that seems backed up by the “Size Of Warhorses” section of the Wikipedia article on Horses In The Middle Ages, but that doesn’t give weights for horses, only estimated sizes in Hands.

For those who want to go the extra step in accuracy of weights, I suggest you consult the web-page provided by the Department Of Agriculture of Victoria, Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation – note that you will have to convert the weights shown from kilograms to lb by multiplying them by 2.20462. Or you can simply increase it by 10% and then double the result and you should be close enough.

Based on these two sources, and using the lower boundary of “heavy load” for Warhorses and the upper boundary of “heavy load” for other horses, I propose the following weights:

  • Heavy Warhorse:
    • Bronze Age: n/a
    • Iron Age / Roman: n/a
    • Middle Ages: 850lb (STR 28)
    • Renaissance: 1100lb (STR 31)
  • Light Warhorse:
    • Bronze Age: n/a
    • Iron Age / Roman: n/a
    • Middle Ages: 760lb (STR 28)
    • Renaissance: 950lb (STR 30)
  • Heavy Horse:
    • Bronze Age: n/a
    • Iron Age / Roman: 720lb (STR 25)
    • Middle Ages: 870lb (STR 26)
    • Renaissance: 1180lb (STR 28)
  • Medium Horse:
    • Bronze Age: 600lb (STR 23)
    • Iron Age / Roman: 630lb (STR 24)
    • Middle Ages: 800lb (STR 25)
    • Renaissance: 870lb (STR 26)
  • Light Horse:
    • Bronze Age: 440lb (STR 21)
    • Iron Age / Roman: 510lb (STR 22)
    • Middle Ages: 640lb (STR 24)
    • Renaissance: 760lb (STR 25)

Of course, if you wanted to have a cart pulled by a team of horses as your “mount”, the GM would need to work out an ‘effective’ STR score for himself. It certainly wouldn’t be the sum of the dead loads. In fact, given that such transport (loaded) tends to increase in weight until the team for which it is designed is no faster than an unburdened horse, plus a little extra weight for good measure, you could argue for using exactly the same values as given above.

These weights give modifiers for distribution of between +5 and +10, but don’t make allowance for any armor on the horse, or for the weight of the rider and his armor, etc. So you could conceivably end up with a range of possible modifiers of +6 to +11 or maybe even +12. Those are not enough to be game-unbalancing, but they are enough that an armored character on horseback with a lance would be a significantly-greater threat than the current rules provide – bearing in mind that these bonuses are only while charging and such animals won’t turn on a dime! The balance feels about right, to me – your opinion may vary; at least this gives you a starting point for some informed decisions.

As magic items

And so to the possibilities of Magical Lances as Rods. On the basis of the metamagic penalty discussed earlier, let’s assume that the most potent spell that could be loaded into such an item is 6th or 7th level: what possibilities suggest themselves? Let’s look at the 6th-level possibilities: True Seeing is a clear contender. Greater Heroism is appropriate. Bigby’s Forceful Hand could make life interesting – for the enemy. Circle Of Death would be very potent, as would Undeath to Death under the right circumstances. Eyebight would be an effective choice. And Disintegrate is just vicious.

Any of these would make a potent magic weapon, easily on par with Rods and Staves.

6. Other Pole-arms

Having mentioned the possibility already, it’s only reasonable to state this possibility explicitly. I’ve seen spears which enhanced the wielder in fiction and legend a number of times, especially when it comes to Norse/Viking related material, for example.

One of the things that irks me on an ongoing basis is that there is not enough justification in the 3.x / Pathfinder rules for pole-arms, never mind for the vast number of variations. These all arose for a reason. I’m not suggesting for one second that anything as complex as Rolemaster be contemplated, but doing a little research on each and finding out what the intended purpose of the design refinement was, then giving the weapon +1 to hit and/or +1 critical threat when used in this way doesn’t seem out of place. Some designs might also yield a -1 to hit and/or to damage when not used for this purpose, depending on how clumsy they were. For example, a pike might (and I haven’t looked it up) be specific against chainmail, or might negate shield bonuses when used by chainmail-wearing foes.

7. Other Items

Finally, I want to look beyond the whole “stick that points” and suggest a range of items that might function as wands (in particular) to interesting, entertaining, and/or functional effect – when married to the right spell, of course.

7a. Compacts & Broaches

There are some magic items that already fall into this category – though I haven’t checked to see whether or not they survived into 3.x / Pathfinder. Things like Necklace of Missiles. I see absolutely no reason why a compact or broach couldn’t function as a wand. A compact, you wave around, and would be suitable for Divination magics; a broach would ‘point’ in the direction the character was facing, or might contain a magic that enhances the wearer in some respect.

7b. Gloves

Gloves are another obvious item, especially for spells that require a touch attack.

7c. Boots

You immediately think of mobility when Boots get mentioned. But why not something like Knock (requires a Kick) or Silence or Spider climb?

7d. Boot Buckles

Boot Buckles of protection? Or Eagle’s Splendour?

7e. Saddles

Saddles could enhance the rider – or the mount. Or both, or either, depending on how many charges were to be consumed. Protections, or Water Breathing, come to mind immediately, beyond the obvious mobility items. Bull’s Strength, Cat’s Grace, or Levitate are other good suggestions.

7f. Horseshoes

Horseshoes of Spider Climb? Or Mirror Image? There are other possibilities, but those two are enough to suggest that this has merit as a possibility. But beyond that, why not simulate “luck” with protection spells?

7g. Pots & Cups

Mage Hand comes to mind – for self-cleaning and stowing. Ghost Sound could create ambiance. Perhaps an Unseen Servant could use these to fetch fresh water from the nearest source on command, or carry small objects, or just get you a refill at the bar without interrupting your character’s poker game. Couple that with a Locate Object spell to get someone who can always find where you’ve left your keys – or your coin pouch.

7h. Spoons

Spoons that stir themselves (Mage Hand). Or that disguise you as someone who normally carries/uses a spoon, like a cook (Disguise Self).

7i. Brooms

The obvious choices here are Fly (a cut-down Witches Broom) and Mage Hand or Unseen Servant to simulate The Sorceror’s Apprentice!

7j. Spell Bottles

A particularly nasty idea – Spell Bottles with “Shatter” activated by a command word, possibly containing oil or acid.

Expanding Wands even further

I thought I would round this article out by further expanding the concept of just what sort of magics a wand could contain – especially when combined with some of the variations listed above.

Variant: Wands Of Metamagic

No trainee wizard should go adventuring with a Wand that grants him a metamagic. Assume that a Metamagic is a spell equal to the spell level modifier that it imposes on a caster and hey presto – these can easily be incorporated into a spell that does nothing but confer that metamagic on spells cast with the appropriate trigger. Better yet, because these metamagics are coming from the wand and not the caster, he suffers no spell-level penalty. Because this effect could be quite powerful with a lot of Charges, combining this with the disposable wands discussed last time would seem to be a prudent move – and restricts the benefits enough that actually obtaining the Feat would remain a good choice for a character.

This has less and less value as a character rises in levels, so this is a great tool for bolstering a low-level party.

Variant: Wands Of Feats

That naturally lends itself to the idea of a wand that can confer any specific feat on the recipient for a period of time. Need to turn your castle’s entire staff into archers? This can make it happen – for a while. A wand that gives someone the Perform Skill (Song) so that wherever the character goes, there will be someone to sing for them? Why not? It typically takes four character levels to obtain a feat on a permanent basis (some get them faster); four character levels are enough to grant a spellcasting class two new levels of spell; so receiving a Temporary Feat would be a reasonable second-level “spell”. The great advantage is that these are things that a Wizard can’t actually cast as a spell, so they are a genuine increase in the variety of magic items.

Variant: Wands Of Skill

A wand that confers temporary skill levels is another obvious choice. Four ranks seems a reasonable choice – for a temporary benefit. Two ranks might be a better choice in terms of game balance. If you were an adventurer, wouldn’t you want a wand that conferred +2 or +4 to the Cooking skill of a chef just long enough for them to prepare your meal? And that, of course, merely scratches the surface of the possibilities.

I suggest the GM think twice before allowing Knowledge skills to be distributed via wand, however.

Variant: Wands Of (Class) Ability

The most exotic possibility along this line of thinking is to temporarily confer a class skill upon someone of another class entirely. This is such a potent possibility that I suggest it be reserved for a Staff or Rod. I’ve already suggested that the class level at which a particular ability can be received be equated to the number of spell levels a spellcaster would gain in a like number of levels in order to determine a spell level equivalence, and we’ve already discussed the possibility of a penalty to permit non-spellcasters to use a magic item; combine those two ideas and you have a wand/staff that can temporarily give everyone the stealth abilities of a Rogue, or the Turn Undead of a cleric, or the martial prowess of a Fighter, or… well, you get the idea.

This makes plots possible that would otherwise be impossible. You don’t get much more powerful than that (in a good way) from a GM’s point of view.

My recharger doesn’t fit

The final thing to discuss is recharging of wands and staves. Is this just a matter of having someone who can cast the appropriate spell cast it into the item? Or perhaps it has to be someone with the “Craft” feat? Or perhaps the caster levels have to equal or exceed those of whoever recharged the magic item last time?

I particularly like the last one, because it means that no matter how useful a rare wand or staff might be, it will eventually reach the point of being impractical/impossible to recharge.

This consideration offers a way of counterbalancing the impact of releasing such variety of magic items into your campaign. That makes it worthy of serious consideration. Perhaps wands etc that simply do damage suffer from this restriction, while those that enhance roleplay and just add flavor to the campaign do not. THAT is worth VERY careful thought.

And is also the perfect note on which to conclude this discussion!

Part four of this series is tentatively scheduled for the end of the month, when the subject will be permanent enchantments, and (amongst other things) just how permanent they should really be…

Comments (2)

Decisions Of Plot: Encounter Planning and Prep

Image by Svilen Milev

Image: / Svilen Milev

A lot of coming up with subjects for Campaign Mastery is nothing more than paying attention to what you do and see at the gaming table. Things that you might do automatically without even thinking about it can make great topics, you just have to notice them – even while you are distracted by the tasks of GMing. Not always the easiest of tasks.

I was looking at the breakdown of an upcoming encounter in the Zenith-3 campaign – it was actually the cliffhanger finish to last Saturday’s game (as I write this) – and noticed that my usual practice is to discriminate in game prep allocation within an encounter. Some things I will plan in detail, some things I will plan in broad, and some things I will barely plan at all, leaving them to my improvisational skills with minimal direction planned in advance.

I’m only vaguely aware of the reasons why I structure my game prep this way; it’s something that’s evolved over many years of experience, an instinctive pattern more than a deliberate plan. It’s my hope that in describing what I’m doing (in abstract/general terms so that I don’t give anything away) I will be able to analyze for you all (and myself) why I’m doing it that way.

The combination will hopefully enable readers to access all that experience and bring the same sophistication of planning to their own games. But it’s equally possible that I will discover, along the way, that there is no good reason for doing things this way, and that a blend of laziness and compromises of timing have led me into bad habits – so this might turn into a cautionary tale or two, as well. Or even some exotic blend! We’ll see how we go.

Another thing that’s a bit up in the air is whether or not I can get this all finished in time. I hope to make it one article, but if I have to, I’ll split it in two. Part of the problem is that it will be very easy for the article’s important points to get lost in the detail. To combat that, I’m going to use indenting, but that formatting takes longer to achieve and get right.


To start with, I should describe the basic taxonomy I employ for a scripted encounter. I’ve done this before, though I’ve usually simplified it to address whichever aspect of the process was the focus relevant to the article.

The whole is subdivided into three unequal sections, which are usually unlabeled but which for the purposes of this article I will describe as “Introduction”, “Encounter”, and “Outcome”. These main sections are then subdivided into sub-sections, which are also normally unlabeled, existing merely as separate paragraphs on the page or even simply as bullet-point notes.

Once again, to facilitate discussion and analysis, I have assigned them labels as well:

  • Introduction
    • Preliminaries & Advance Knowledge
    • Locale Flavor
    • Environmental Specifics I
    • First Impressions
    • Enemy Appearance
    • Environmental Specifics II
    • Tactical Situation
  • Encounter
    • Initial Enemy Action / Reaction
    • Micro-environments
    • Encounter Outline, Complications & Prepared Dialogue
  • Outcome
    • Encounter Notes
    • Desired Outcome
    • Critical Beats

A large part of this article is describing four things about each of these: what they are, the format, the amount of prep that I do and what that prep consists of, and why I prep to that level of detail. Along the way, I may toss in the occasional side-note as usual, for example discussing why the items appear in the sequence that they do, just in case that’s not obvious.

So let’s get started…



The introduction section is all about what happens, in game-play terms, before the encounter actually starts. There’s a lot of flavor text, and how the PCs come to be in the encounter in the first place.

Preliminaries: Advance Knowledge

The first section always describes what (if anything) the PCs know before the encounter begins. If this is the return of an NPC they have encountered before, I will synopsize the NPC’s status and the relationship as it stood at the end of the last time that the character was encountered. If the relationship is complicated by temporal discontinuity, I will cover these from both the PCs and the NPC’s point of view, the former to relay to the players, and the latter for my reference in roleplaying the encounter.

Spacer Spacer

Content is in three forms: straightforward paragraphs to read to the players whenever they seem relevant; notes to myself; and optional information. I usually inset the latter two items, or precede them with a marker, or color-code them in some way – the whole point is to be able to distinguish these different types of content immediately. Optional information always starts with the trigger condition under which it is delivered. abbreviated as tersely as possible. I usually also put GM-only info in square brackets [like this] and optional information in carats (which you would probably describe as less-than and greater-than signs) <like this>.

Optional information is information that the PCs might find out or know if they make the right skill check, or ask the write question, or perform the right action. Sometimes things are a binary choice – If the trigger condition is met, read paragraph A, if not read paragraph B.

This can be further complicated if there is more than one paragraph within the one logical case. I use indenting and tabs to keep things together, something I learned as a computer programmer.

A typical format might look like this:

Encounter Name/Title
      (empty line)
Text to read to players
      (empty line)
***[GM’s note]
      (empty line)
—<If trigger condition,
   <Paragraph A1
      (empty line)
   <Paragraph A2 (and so on)
      (empty line)
—<If Not,
   <Paragraph B1
      (empty line)
   <Paragraph B2 (and so on, last one ends with >)
      (empty line)

I sometimes highlight key words in bold, and sometimes put one or more of the sections in italics – whatever is necessary to call attention to the fact that the content is different and highlight things that I need to be aware of or emphasize, once the actual encounter begins. I don’t want to have to take the time to analyze what I’ve written, I want it to be as clear as possible at a glance what I am supposed to do with the information.

Finally, no matter how complex the formatting ends up needing to be, I work very hard to establish and maintain conventions through the course of a single adventure, again in the interests of making the right content easy to find when I need it.

Prep Amount

I prep this in as much detail as I can.

Prep Description

Prep consists, first, of determining whether or not an immediate response is necessary by the PCs or if they have time to investigate the situation first, and second of detailing what the PCs are to know about the encounter (and what they might be able to find out) before it actually begins.

Anything to be read to the PCs is written in full narrative form so that all I have to do is choose when to read it aloud and then just read. If there are any tricky names, I will usually write them phonetically in some format that I will understand, for example “Ngombo” might be written “Neg-Ommm-bow”, usually in brackets after the actual name.


Two reasons: first, this helps me write the rest of the encounter, and second, because it’s usually important to nail these details down fairly precisely; there isn’t a lot of room for improv, and the delivery needs the polish that comes from pre-writing the narrative.

On the sequencing Of Content

As much as possible, I want the presentation in-play to be as straightforward and linear as possible; I don’t want to be hunting for the right paragraph to read. That’s why the content is in the sequence that I have described it in, and I will vary that sequence as necessary to achieve that goal.

Locale Flavor

I will prep a brief paragraph of flavor text to describe the locale as it usually is. This is a technique that I have lifted from novels that I have read. I want it to establish the general setting and provide at least one point of uniqueness or distinctiveness. If this is not the first encounter to take place here, I will further abbreviate the overall description and add a little more specifics to the description, making sure that the broad description references the prior encounter.

Spacer Spacer

Format is a prose paragraph. For example, if an encounter were to take place in an Alpine Town, I might write something along the lines of “Nestled in a small valley between two stern peaks is the small community of Alpine Springs, population 102. One store, one post-office (with postmaster doubling as sheriff because not much happens around here), the village used to contain an active logging industry but the sawmill closed down and much of the town’s economy went with it. These days, the community is a winter resort town boasting a dozen bed-and-breakfasts (the largest of which is located in the old sawmill), a single gas station, and a general store. Snow covers the ground to varying depths for all but 40 days of the year (and this isn’t one of them), crunching sharply underfoot, and everything slopes this way or that quite steeply because of the jagged peak upon which the town has been built. Every building is half-raised on stilts and half-dug into the slope to keep the floors level, and every building has a roaring fire in the fireplace most of the year round.”

Prep Amount

This will be written in full prose, as succinctly as I can make it. I’ll leave details out that don’t contribute to giving an overall sense of what the location is like – whether it’s an alpine village, an alien control room, or a trench on the ocean floor. I generally don’t have to revise and polish much, but if I have the time, this paragraph is one of the first ones to receive extra attention.

Prep Description

Sometimes I need to do research. I might need a map or two (or more) to define exactly where the action is taking place – usually screen-grabbed from Google Maps and cropped as necessary. I also find that to be visible from across the table on a laptop, or printed clearly, a second copy of the map set to “multiply”, and often even a third, is necessary.

I might also need to look up the place on Wikipedia, or try to find a site dedicated to the location. If there isn’t one, I may need to search for somewhere similar that I can use as a template. Or, if I can see the place clearly in my head, I’ll just make something up.


This paragraph is all about putting the location of the encounter into the player’s minds and making it feel real. That calls for as much polish as I can provide. Because it provides context for everything that follows, it’s the first thing after ‘what the players already know (or can find out)’.

Environmental Specifics I

What, if anything, needs to be known about the environment where the encounter is to take place. I’m not talking about generalities here, such as I might use in the general description, and I’m not talking about the tactical situation. Often this will be an introductory description of a specific location within the broader setting established already.

Spacer Spacer

I use the same format as described previously. That means that if there are no GM’s notes and no conditional information, one text paragraph simply follows another.

Prep Amount

I spend a reasonable amount of time prepping this, and then redact out (read: cut-and-paste) anything that belongs in subsequent sections, i.e. Tactical notes and impressions on commencement of the encounter. Even so, the total time spent on the rest of the encounter is roughly equal to the amount of time spent already, excluding any canned dialogue or descriptive narrative that I need to insert. Ultimately, that means that not much time gets spent on this – just enough to get the basic situation clear in my head, and assemble some quick notes.

Prep Description

Before you can describe something, you need to have some idea of what it is that you are describing. Sometimes, the concept of the specific location comes first, sometimes the tactical situation comes first (often when I am basing the situation on a map expropriated from some other source)


Quite often, you will have a choice of locations for the encounter from a number of possibilities encompassed by the general description. Look over that description of an Alpine Town – there are residences, a gas station, a general store, a converted sawmill, a number of other bed-and-breakfasts that used to be residences, and a post office. There would probably be a town square, possibly a park. There would be streets. There might be an electrical substation. Outside the town itself, there would be densely wooded areas, areas that were logged some years ago and now boast immature trees, and clearings, plus the occasional logging road. There might be a creek or stream, a lake, or even some hot springs. That’s a very wide choice of locations for the actual encounter.

The purpose of this step is to visualize each, make a choice between them, and put down notes on what you visualized while it’s fresh in memory. Most of this information is then transferred elsewhere, leaving only a general statement and any preliminary impression of the chosen location.

First Impressions

Quite often there is a distinct difference to the description of a location that is supplied prior to actually eyeballing it yourself and the impression that you have after that experience. If nothing else, anything that the encounter has changed about the description will need to be described. If I chose the General Store from amongst the options in the Alpine Town setting, for example, you might get in the preceding section a general description (single-story, freezers in the back, narrow, long rows of shelves, semi-detached residence in back, a small parking lot, and a sign by the road), woodpile next to the dwelling). That sounds fine, as far as it goes. But, when you actually turn up in response to the call for help:

A pick-up and a sedan have collided in the parking lot; the sedan is on it’s side and leaking fuel from a split in the petrol tank; the pick-up rolled and collided with the sign at the side of the road, which has collapsed into the park lot and is shorting out on the snow, sending showers of sparks in every direction; the front of the store has wide panes of double-glass, one of which has been shot out from the inside by a shotgun; the armed driver of the pickup is between the shelves and out of view from the street; the owner of the general store and his wife are behind the counter with their hands up, while one of their customers is just visible in a pool of blood on the far side of the store. The woodpile behind the store appears to be on fire (judging from the smoke) and is threatening the gas bottles that supply the refrigerator units. Blocking the road at an angle is a police car with two police officers huddled and shivering behind it, staring intently at the front door of the General Store with their weapons drawn.

That preliminary description, containing just what the players could find out before they actually arrived on-scene, seems rather incomplete in comparison, don’t you think? Certainly any plans the players might have made before actually scoping out the situation would need to be revised – quickly.

You might also note that there’s a lot that isn’t said – who was driving the sedan, and their condition, and where the gunman actually is, and how serious a threat the burning woodpile poses, and what set it alight in the first place, and what condition the gunshot victim is in – these are all things that the PCs will have to actively ascertain for themselves.

Spacer Spacer

Format is a narrative paragraph, as shown in the example above. Quite often, I will append a bullet list of things that the PCs can determine by investigating the scene further; that’s where the answers to those ‘unanswered questions’ will be found.

Prep Amount

It took me about 30 seconds to visualize the scene, and a couple of minutes to write up that description. That’s a typical amount of prep; sometimes I will need less, sometimes more.

Prep Description

I may need a photographic foundation for my visualization of the scene. I may need to build around a map of the scene that I have expropriated from a commercial module or downloaded over the internet. These take time to find and evaluate. I may have doubts about some things (do commercial refrigerators actually use bottled gas? I don’t think so) – more research. Then write.


My experience is that if the players know everything about the circumstances before they arrive, or think they do, they will spend a tedious amount of time planning. If they don’t, they will spend about one-third as much time in an equally-tedious discussion of what they might find and might do before concluding that they don’t know enough and will have to play it by ear.

But, on top of that, there is a vitality that encounters posses when the players have to make it up as they go along rather than executing planned and scripted responses.

Enemy Appearance

Sooner or later, the PCs will come face-to-face with their enemy. This section describes what they see. Sometimes, I can save large chunks of description and lots of prep time with a photographic or digital art image. As a general rule of thumb, you are often better served with evocative generalities than detailed descriptions, if an image isn’t available – and that also saves on prep time. But you always want something distinctive about every encounter.

Even if this is to consist of little more than a page number in the Monster Manual, for a D&D encounter, I will insert some specific detail about each of the creatures encountered – very briefly.

Spacer Spacer

Unless the PCs can see their enemy in the ‘first impressions’ section, this will be a conditional narrative, only to be read when contact is actually made with the enemy. If the PCs can see their enemy, it will be an ordinary narrative paragraph attached to the first impressions. The time spent visualizing the scene previously makes this choice quick and easy.

Prep Amount

Before you can describe something, you need to be able to see it yourself – either mentally or with a picture. Sometimes that takes no time at all, and sometimes it can take hours of research.

One note that’s worth making: if you are describing members of a group, don’t make the one characteristic different in all of them. Take a group of goblins: give one watery eyes, another a long nose, a third might have big ears, a fourth has a vibrant green scar on his forehead, and a fifth sports a nose-ring. By varying what you are varying, you not only give each member of the group a label by which identification can be shortcut, you make those variations more distinctive.

I’ve seen any number of descriptions in which each member of the group is more vividly described and, by the time you get to the end of the descriptive passage, they have all started to blur together. Pick one item and make it the most noteworthy thing about the individual.

Prep Description

Research and visualization. There are times where I have had great success by doing a Google image search for an emotional or abstract quality and basing a description around an interpretation of a resulting image; I don’t do it this way all the time, but when I’m bereft of a starting point, this can get me started.


You’ll want to expend most of your narrative muscle on what the enemies are doing and any emotions that you want them to project. That mandates a minimum level of descriptive narrative outside of those essentials, but at the same time you don’t want blank cyphers, you want the enemies to be discrete individuals. Here’s a great writing exercise that I’ve found can really sharpen your skills: you have twelve words to describe three amorphous blobs, making each distinctive (ignore words like ‘and’ and ‘by’. Hint: don’t waste words by identifying which is which, let the order (as viewed by the PCs) do the work for you, and separate each by putting them on a different line.

Here’s an example:

   Translucent smoky swirls floating mid-air,
   Brain surrounded by gelatinous flesh,
   Silvery liquid pool.

Twelve words, plus ‘by’, nothing wasted.

Environmental Specifics II

This section doesn’t always appear; it’s where I note any game mechanics, especially regarding the environment. “PCs are at -4 to hit because of smoke”. “Lava does 6d12 if someone falls into it, 4d6 if you touch it.”

Spacer Spacer

These are notes for the GM and are formatted accordingly.

Prep Amount

Sometimes you can write these without cracking a book, sometimes you’ll need to look something up in the rules, and sometimes you will need to work a bit harder at listing all the environmental effects. I try to do as much as I can in prep so that I can save improvising for the things that I haven’t thought of. At the same time, these notes tend to be fairly minimal. The two examples offered above are typical.


Covering the key features of the environment in terms of game mechanics speeds things up by saving you from having to look things up. It’s often worth taking the time to note page numbers in the rulebooks. At the same time, it’s hard to anticipate everything, and if you try you end up wasting a lot of prep that never gets used. I prioritize the things that I know I’m going to need.

Tactical Situation

This details things about the situation that the PCs don’t initially know, and that will make a difference as the encounter proceeds. Things like where the bad guy is, what he’s doing, what’s his state of mind, and what his goals/objectives are. Sometimes this includes a narrative passage to be read to the PCs, and sometimes it’s all for my reference as I roleplay. If I have a pre-planned combat strategy for him, this is where that goes, as well. It’s entirely possible that there will be absolutely no content under this ‘heading’.

Spacer Spacer

Notes for the GM.

Prep Amount


Prep Description

Visualization and preparations for roleplay. A lot depends on what the PCs are most likely to do.


A lot of this material actually goes later in the encounter write-up, but it’s easier to do all my thinking on the subject at once and then cut-and-paste than it is to do that thinking piecemeal.


And so we come to the encounter itself, and what I need to know (and deliver) to have it unfold in an interesting way. Of course, this is very dynamic content, subject to change depending on what the players choose to do.

Initial Enemy Action / Reaction

When the enemy is initially encountered by the PCs, or vice-versa, what will he do? What does he know about who they are, specifically or in general terms?

One option that many GMs (including myself) fail to prep adequately for is an attempt to parley by the PCs. I’m starting to specifically plan for that these days, having been caught short once too often.

In between is a demand for the enemy to surrender, and this again is something that GMs often don’t prepare enough for.

Spacer Spacer

This is all information for GM reference with the possible exception of the initial reaction. As such, it becomes important to be able to distinguish between the three (or more) different sets of content that falls into this category. I (will) place the trigger in capitals at the start of a line giving a brief indication of the response of the NPC. As standard, I expect that there will be four such lines:

  • [INITIAL:]
  • [PARLEY:]

[INITIAL] describes the enemy’s response to catching sight of the PCs or otherwise learning of their presence. This might be an action, it might be a verbal demand, it might be an emotional response, or there might be no visible reaction if the enemy was expecting the PCs to show up at some point.

[SURRENDER DEMAND] states how the enemy will respond to a demand for his/her surrender. The same four broad categories of response are possible, with ‘verbal demand’ amended to ‘reply’.

[PEACE TERMS] is what the enemy will demand in order to leave in peace, if anything.

[PARLEY] is how the enemy will react to any more general attempt to negotiate by the players, or by an NPC who is on the player’s side in the mind of the enemy.

Prep Amount

To complete this section, I need to get into the head of the enemy. If my character write-up has been adequate prior to this point, that can be a very quick process, and I can toss off my answers almost as quickly as I can type; if not, it’s better to discover the shortcomings now, when I can do something about them.

Prep Description

Understanding an NPC occurs in two stages: analyzing the character and compressing that analysis into a form that can be rapidly digested. I’ve given more specific advice in this area in two articles: 3 Feet In Someone Else’s Shoes: Getting in character quickly, and Getting Into Character pt 1: NPCs (there is a sequel article about understanding PCs here.


I don’t need to make notes on this very often, but when I do, this is where I usually put them. A micro-environment is a part of the combat area that has such a different environment that I need to make separate notes about it.

Spacer Spacer

There are several types of information that might need to be presented under this heading, from flavor text to GM’s notes. But, fundamentally, both are optional information that is only to be read when a PC or NPC triggers the option by entering the micro-environment. And that’s the key: starting the first paragraph of this section with “<WHEN (micro-environment) IS ENTERED:”, subsequent paragraphs with “<“, and ending the final paragraph of the section with “>”, as well as applying any other formatting that is standard for optional information – color coding, italics, whatever.\

Within that “wrapper”, I can place prose paragraphs or my GM’s Notes indicator, as necessary.

Prep Amount

When a Micro-environment is present, it’s usually pretty significant. It could be anything from a floating bubble of Elemental Plane to a pocket dimension to a walk-in freezer like the ones used for preserving meat carcasses for butchery to a river or whatever. That means that prep could be quick or could take a little time.

One thing that usually makes this section faster is having done at least part of the work in advance – and that is in fact the case when you break the work up in this way (Scroll up looking for the word “lava”).

Prep Description

That means that prep is largely a matter of finding notes that have already been made, though some visualization of the micro-environment may also be needed to write a descriptive passage, and that may involve some additional research in rulebooks or elsewhere. Where that is the case, it is also normal for me to have noted the relevant page numbers or saved an illustration with those earlier references, making this prep relatively straightforward. There are exceptions where entering the micro-environment triggers an entirely new part of the plot, usually written up as a completely separate encounter with nothing more than a placeholder here.


There are two ways to interpret this heading, and I use them both as necessary. The first is complications to the plot that may result from the PCs doing something unexpected in the encounter, and the second is complications to the encounter to advance the plot.

Spacer Spacer

The first takes the form of GM Notes, and the second usually takes the form of optional content containing a narrative section or link to subsequent content in the adventure outside of the encounter. Note that in the latter case, I will rarely run the two sections of plot simultaneously, but have been known to do so on occasion.

Prep Amount/Description

Obviously, if this leads to an entirely section of plot, there is no prep to be done in terms of this encounter. The alternative involves spending a couple of minutes thinking about what could possibly go catastrophically wrong and how to deal with it if it does.


You will never think of everything that can possibly go wrong, and too much of the resulting prep would be wasted time, so I tend to only deal with the most obvious possible catastrophes and the most simple solutions. This doesn’t bind me to those solutions; they are there to give me a head start and keep me from freezing up at the game table.

Encounter Outline & Prepared Dialogue

In theory, this is where this section belongs. In practice, most of the time I put the encounter outline at the very top and any prepared dialogue here – but the encounter outline always starts off in this position. I’ll get to why, and when I move it, in a moment – it’s a clever little trick, learned the hard way.

Spacer Spacer

I always number encounters and sections within my adventures. Sometimes there will be Acts and Scenes, sometimes there will just be scenes. Either way, I write all my dialogue here, identifying each passage with a sub-number, and then move it to where it’s supposed to go within an optional text frame with trigger, i.e. “<When (x happens), (enemy name) says, (dialogue in inverted commas)>”

Let me explain that numbering scheme a little more clearly, it will only take a second. Let’s say that I have an encounter in scene 4 of Act 3 of an adventure.

The Scene would be entitled “3.4 Scene 4: (Encounter Title)”. The first passage of canned dialogue would be numbered 3.4.1, the second 3.4.2, and the 11th (if I got that far, not very likely) would be 3.4.11.

Prep Amount

Once again, this involves getting into the head of the enemy. I have a bad habit of under-prepping or (occasionally) over-prepping in this area; I rarely seem to hit the sweet spot of “just enough”.

Prep Description & Why

The encounter outline is a one-sentence summary of the encounter and its plot function. It’s always the first thing that I write after the heading/title of the encounter. But thereafter, I put some white space in between those two, which is where I write all the preceding content, until I reach this point. That means that when writing the rest of the encounter details, the encounter outline is always at hand, usually visible a couple of lines below where I happen to be typing at the time, where I can refer to it constantly.

The other half of the prep is the canned dialogue, and until you reach this point, you don’t know exactly what canned dialogue you are going to need, and what you can improvise. Doing it at this point is the most recent change to my normal practices, and it’s my hope that this will solve the under/over-prep problem mentioned earlier.

Why? Because, (1) it’s a lot easier to write all your dialogue at one time, and all in the one place (so that you can refer to previous dialogue to maintain a consistent style and characterization), and (2), as I said, it’s not until you get all the rest of the prep done that you know what canned prep you’re going to need. So I write it here, and then cut-and-paste to move it to where in the encounter seems most appropriate, moving the encounter outline while I’m at it.

I also intend to make lists of canned dialogue needed as I work on the preceding parts of the encounter, using the numbering scheme described above, to create a checklist of required dialogue.

The result, of course, is that this section usually ends up devoid of content. The only exception is when I have a substantial conversation between two NPCs; I may leave it here simply so that I can isolate it from any potential confusion, like leaving out the last line of the conversation because I thought it went with something else.

(As an aside, that’s also why I make sure to mark the end of each section with the appropriate “end-section” marker, something I’ve quietly stressed throughout this article).


Finally, it’s time to document how I want and expect the encounter to end, and where the plot goes from here.

Succeed-or-the-plot-stops encounters

I absolutely detest succeed-or-the-plot-stops encounters. I always prefer to do one of two things: either have the plot set up so that it makes no difference in the long term whether the PCs succeed or fail in the encounter, the plot can move forward anyway; or set it up so that the plot branches depending on the outcome before coming back together again at some later point. I talked some more about avoiding Succeed-or-the-plot-ends encounters in The Beginnings Of Plot, not long ago.

The only way that the plot should stop is if all the PCs get themselves killed, and I often have a contingency plan in my back pocket for dealing with that, too.

That’s not to say that encounters don’t matter; even if the outcome is irrelevant in plot terms, there can be complications and additional difficulties to be overcome as a result. There should always be consequences, most of them unpleasant.

Encounter Notes

There are three possible sections in the Outcome part of the Encounter Plan, of which this is the first. While this section encompasses any notes that don’t go anywhere else, by far the most frequent content relates to consequences going forward. After the end of play for the day, I will go back over my adventure plan and use Bold to highlight those notes that actually come to pass . When I first unlimber the adventure for the next game session, I will skim through the plan up to the current point of play, reminding myself of those boldfaced notes. And, of course, if something is no longer relevant, it gets un-boldfaced.

Spacer Spacer

These are GM’s notes, and are presented in that format.

Prep Amount

Existing campaign and adventure notes should make prep minimal. That can stop being the case when the players – or you – have gone off-script and need to work out how to get things back on some sort of track. That can involve completely rewriting the adventure (though I can usually avoid that), retconning events (something I deliberately avoid as much as possible), or simply mapping out a new path from where you are now to some point later in the adventure.

One of the most extreme revisions I’ve ever had to make involved taking everything that the PCs were supposed to learn from one batch of NPCs and putting the words in the mouths of entirely different characters, in an entirely new sequence of appearance, having employed entirely different means of learning the essential information. On top of that, the encounter that had steered the plot in this direction set up an additional obstacle that had to be overcome, and the PCs needed intelligence as to how to achieve that along the way. I don’t think the players ever realized – and I’ve been vague enough about the details that they probably can’t even identify which campaign it was in (never mind which adventure)!

Prep Description

Prep involves a very simply activity: read over the entire encounter and ask yourself “what do I need to remember after this encounter?”

I also put the XP value of the encounter in this section for ready reference, if the game system demands xp for encounters. Note that I have fully transitioned these days to the Objective-Oriented Experience Points system that I described more than 5 years ago.

Desired Outcome

Of course, if all goes anywhere close to according to plan, the ideal outcome deserves a bit more expansion, possibly some prepared narrative and/or dialogue. The less you have to improv this, the less likely your plot is to skew wildly in some unexpected direction.

Spacer Spacer

This is adventure content, either narrative text to be read to the players, canned dialogue to be read to the players, or – just possibly – optional inserts or inclusions to either or both of these two categories.

Prep Amount

This is pretty much the last major content of the encounter. It’s one area of the prep on which I spend as much time as needed, and if extra time is available, it’s one of the priority areas for a little extra polish.

Critical Beats

The final section in the encounter writeup is reserved for reminders of any campaign-level elements that are involved in the encounter, and whether I want to play up their significance or down-play them.

Spacer Spacer

These are GM’s notes, and may be added to in the course of play. I treat these like the Encounter Notes described above. At the end of the adventure, these should be the only things left in bold.

Prep Amount

Prep doesn’t take long.

Prep Description

I read over the campaign notes looking for anything that applies to this encounter. Then I read over the encounter looking for anything that will have ramifications beyond this adventure.


These come last because I want them to be easy to find.


Whew! Made it to the end! But I do have some final advice: I work hard to try and keep the entire encounter visible on a single page or screen. If that means trimming and pruning narrative sections, so be it. I find that infinitely preferable to trying to look at two pages at once, or continually using page up and page down and losing my place!

Although I’ve listed a lot of different sections of content, most encounters end up consisting of half-a-dozen of them, or less. Keeping them all visible at once should be routinely achievable.

Planning encounters is mostly making a few decisions and producing flavor text, just like any other part of an adventure. Use organization to make sure you don’t miss anything important and dressing them up should be a breeze.

Hey, what do you know – it looks like I do have reasons for my natural breakdown of encounter prep after all, even if it does sometimes seem counter-intuitive when the product is viewed on the page. Good to know!

Leave a Comment