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The Care and Feeding Of Vehicles In RPGs 2: A 2-part guest article


Preface to Part 2, by Mike

This is the second half of Ian’s article on Vehicles.

The first half concentrated on the PCs acquiring a vehicle; this half is all about using one. I’ve also tossed in my two-cents worth here and there with the occasional aside and also jumped in with a few small additional sections.

In the meantime, here’s Ian…


Image from Germain

Just Crewing Around

So, by whatever means, the PCs have a ship of their own. If the ship is small, they might be the entire crew. If the group lacks certain necessary skills, or if the ship is larger, then extra NPC crew is necessary.

Plenty has been written elsewhere about the creation and uses of NPCs, and I can’t add much to that. Except to say that there is one absolutely vital function they serve in a ship-oriented Party. I refer to “care-taking”.

Not every adventure involves the PCs sitting in their ship. There will be times when they have to leave for one reason or another, usually to do with the acquisition of wealth and/or XP. Given all that goes into the ship’s care and upkeep, a fear of theft is entirely reasonable. Having one PC stay behind means that individual does not fully participate in whatever the Party gets up to. So having NPC crew who can be trusted to stay in the ship, and make sure it isn’t stolen while the PCs are away, is absolute gold for any Party. If the PCs get into serious trouble, there is also a chance that these NPCs can assist – rescue the PCs or stage a diversion or even just call somebody else for help.

Note that these same NPCs are in that job because of their (alleged) reliability, so the possibility of there being “highjinks” whilst the PCs are away should be unlikely. But not impossible – especially if the PCs skimp on benefits, set a bad example, or just haven’t been very nice to their employees lately.

NPC misbehavior doesn’t have to be outright treachery or mutiny either (unless the PCs have it coming). It could comprise the odd prank or scam. It could even mean “harmless” ventures done entirely off the NPC crew’s own bat. Watch old TV shows like ‘McHale’s Navy’ or ‘Sergeant Bilko’ for ideas. So the PCs return unexpectedly, to discover their ship has been turned into a high-class gambling den, or the lifeboat is crammed full of contraband, or that some Super-VIP honestly thinks the Ship’s Janitor is the REAL Captain, or maybe all of these things at the same time.

Again, this is NOT about screwing the Players over. But comedic situations like this can make the game more entertaining. If the PCs are sufficiently clever, maybe they can find a way out of the mess that leaves them better off, and even have some extra fun along the way.

Star Trek ‘Away Team’ Syndrome

If the PC’s ship is large with a large crew (Star Trek), or is huge with an IMMENSE crew (WH40K), then there is a set of PC / NPC crew-related problems that need addressing. I refer to this as Star Trek ‘Away Team’ Syndrome.

You have probably guessed where this goes – that old old habit of regularly having the entire command crew leave their ship to do all> the shooty-and-looty stuff. Much as I love Trek, the original was notorious for this; the later shows and movies less so, but not totally immune. For other SF shows, the tendency is mixed.

The PCs are typically a small group on a very big ship. They are usually the people in charge and the “stars of the show”, but that also means they can be, in a sense, too damn busy. A ship with hundreds or thousands of crew, and it always seems to be just these guys doing all the work. Or, rare but it happens, the PCs heroically stay on the Bridge no matter what, and send wave after wave of NPC “expendables” to fix their problems.

Either way, not good.

Many years ago, I ran a fairly successful ‘Star Trek’ campaign using the old FASA rules. It was set on a Star Fleet vessel (the USS ‘Axanar’, an Excelsior variant) circa the time of the Khitomer Accords (Star Trek #4).

An idea I tried was that each Player had three completely distinct and separate Characters. Everyone had one senior officer (Captain, First Officer, Department Heads) as the ‘primary’ character. Each Player also had a low-ranking ‘Red-shirt’ character (mostly Security, but a scientist, medic and techie were all in this tier as well); and, lastly, a Shuttle Pilot character (it was a carrier-type starship). Players used their senior officers most of the time. But when it came time for an Away Mission or special duties on-board (such as guarding a VIP guest), there would be a few minutes of “mix and match” as it was decided who was needed and where.

So, a typical ‘Axanar’ landing party would comprise 1-2 senior officers (selection based on known situation and individual preferences), plus Red-shirts (the remaining PCs), and maybe an NPC or two (to fill any skill gaps). If a shuttle was needed, someone’s Shuttle Pilot character would front up. If the situation called for a grouped shuttle mission, then everybody’s Shuttle Pilot characters would be on deck (with maybe a senior officer and/or specialist or two tagging along as “observers” or something). And so on.

A major benefit was that everybody had chances to be in charge of either Away Missions or (if the Captain was Away) the ship. Most Players got to do both at one time or another. It also encouraged intelligent play at both the command-chair and sapient-on-the-ground levels. When one of the ‘expendable’ Red-shirts sent planet-side is YOUR Character, you naturally take a bit more care about the landing party.

It led to interesting moments, such as the time one Player’s senior officer had to verbally reprimand the same Player’s Red-shirt over a minor misdemeanor. Then there was the time bad guys incapacitated the entire crew and tried to capture the ship (yes, unoriginal – but always an interesting problem), meaning it was up to the Shuttle Pilots (stuck in a remote part of the ship) to save the day.

(That last is the same bunch who used the Transporter to deal with bad guys, by re-materializing them UPSIDE-DOWN on the Platform, so they dropped on their heads from a foot or so up. Took a lot of fight out of said bad guys, though there was a mess afterwards .. )

I was fortunate in having a mature and very experienced group of Players, all with respect of the genre, and most of whom I had known for years. So this idea worked well for us and, for anyone out there planning a similar type of game, is worth serious consideration.

Since then, I have considered a possible variant of this idea, with each Player having a Senior Officer as their main character. There would also be a VERY ‘quick’n’dirty’ character generation system (probably involving templates with a choice of various overlays), whereby Players would create specialized low-ranking “extras” in just a couple of minutes. So, if ring-ins from Security (or Science, or Engineering, etc.) were needed for a specific part of the scenario, the Players just whip up suitable characters on the spot and carry on. These Characters could be kept and pooled for possible future use OR Players could opt to run a different Character the next time someone of that specialty was called for.


Image from Vincent

Don’t Mess With The Mojo

Player-groups can have an unfortunate tendency to treat their vehicle-of-choice like a .. well, a THING. If a ‘better’ component (read: weapon) becomes available, they think nothing of tearing their vehicle apart to make the new item fit. If a ‘better’ vehicle somehow becomes available, they will scrap their old conveyance and switch up without a second thought.

Consider some of the heroes I mentioned earlier. If Captains Mal or Solo were ever offered the chance to swap to “better” ships, I am certain they would flat-out refuse. Sentiment would be a major part of this, but those Captains are also comfortable with their ships. They know all the peculiarities of their respective craft, how to look after them, what NOT to do, and so on.

FASA’s ‘Renegade Legion’ group of games included an RPG and tactical combat games set at the AFV, starfighter and giant starship scales. One game mechanic I quite liked was that crews of AFVs or starfighters could, as they got more familiar with their craft, gradually accumulate skill bonuses for use with said specific craft. The pilot / driver got better at steering, the gunner shot straighter, and so on.

The mechanics used in the RL games were based on successful enemy kills made by the crew in that vehicle, but there are other possibilities as well – eg. Simple travel time, or by passing specific challenges set by the Referee. A very experienced crew could build up quite solid bonuses – the downside being that if their craft is destroyed, the crew (assuming they survived) would then have to restart from scratch with a replacement.

The idea can be used in other systems. It could even be that the PC crew builds up bonuses / levels for use with both that specific craft and whatever standard class / type / category it is part of. That is up to the Referee to decide.

In short, this can be an incentive for PCs to hang onto and genuinely look after their ship.

This approach can also be used from the other direction: that eccentric asteroid miner and his obsolete scout-ship may not seem like a challenge .. UNTIL the Party finds out the old geezer has running his ship for over fifty-some-odd years, and has therefore built up a HORRIFIC skill bonus with it. Then they might actually give the guy some room . and respect.

These bonuses can be lost, either partially or completely, if too many changes are made to the vehicle in one go – the Captain loses his ‘Lucky Chair’, or the controls “don’t feel right”. Those changes may stem from renovation or repairing serious damage.

I must caution against arbitrary or capricious changes to these bonuses, however. Clear guidelines should be known to all as to how easily bonuses can be lost or damaged, how much of a bonus is transferable, and so on. And if changes to a ship proposed by a PC run the risk of harming the bonuses, the players should be warned of this (both in-character and out-of-character); if they still choose to proceed, on their own heads be it.

That said, we have all heard of vessels being upgraded or repaired but “never feeling quite right” thereafter. Too great a change might not only void the bonus accumulated, it might prevent that crew from ever regaining it for this vessel. – Mike


Image from Groves

Destinations – an insert by Mike

Something the GM should always bear in mind when making a vehicle available to the PCs is the range of destinations to which that vehicle can travel. This should inform the choice of vehicle as well as how the vehicle will affect the adventures of the party.

Vehicle Choice

Think about where the adventures that you have in mind are likely to take the PCs, or even more broadly, about the types of adventure settings that you want your campaign to take advantage of. It is no good giving characters a luxury yacht if you expect them to delve into pirate dens and survive battlefields; it is no good giving the characters a land-based vehicle if there is no land-connection or reasonable facsimile such as a ferry service to get the vehicle (and its occupants) to the adventure.

Travel Time

The expected transit time between departure and arrival is also a very important consideration. In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, Ian’s character has the Antares, a tramp steamer, and may soon be expanding to a second vessel; when time permits a leisurely cruise from port to port in an adventure, this is the perfect conveyance, but often the press of events forces a different choice of vehicle on the party. The pulp setting is such that the players and GMs have this luxury; in a space-based campaign, things are not so simple. Sure, you could leave the deep-space freighter that the PCs usually use as a base of operations behind in a starport somewhere, unattended, for an indefinite period, enabling the PCs to use commercial travel arrangements – but the Players are not likely to be happy about it if they have invested considerable resources into obtaining their vessel.

Shaping The Campaign

It is therefore incumbent upon the GM to develop his campaign in such a way that the PCs vehicle receives the maximum use possible. That means structuring adventures accordingly, and possibly even changing the type of adventures that you tell. To date, in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, there have been five major uses made of the Antares:

  • In two adventures reasonably local to the home port, the Antares was used in a there-and-back-again capacity.
  • In an extended sojourn into Asia, the Antares provided transit from one location to another, each of which was the setting for an adventure.
  • In addition, there were (as part of this extended sojourn) a couple of adventures set on-board the Antares itself while it was in transit.
  • We have made extensive use of the crew as NPCs for delivery of plot hooks and side-adventures, even though little or no action actually took place on-board the vessel.
  • Finally, we have used the Antares as a plot device for the discovery of information relevant to a plot that was underway, even though the vessel was on the other side of the world to the PCs at the time.

In this way, the Antares has been a crucial and regular element within the campaign even though its relative lack of speed (compared with air travel) has restricted its use in what would initially seem its primary function as a means of travel. It’s a recurring part of the “furniture” of the campaign.


Image from Ambrozik

Encounters – an insert by Mike

Something else that should receive careful consideration by the GM is the type of encounter that can derive from the vehicle, whether it is doing its job by providing conveyance from A to B, a setting for an encounter with a passenger, or whatever. The Antares has had encounters with Pirates, with a Ghost Ship, with weather, and with Deep-Sea monsters (well, it was a hell-spawned River Kraken, but the principle is the same). This has not exhausted our repertoire of ideas, but we are spacing them out so that we don’t shoot our entire bolt all at once. There have been encounters with crew and potential crew, with passengers (both officially and unknowingly on-board), and with officials. And those are all entirely separate from the ship simply transporting the PCs to the place where the adventure was happening.

We (the GMs of the Adventurer’s Club campaign) actually think of the Antares as a soap-opera/adventure (with sitcom elements) taking place entirely separate to the primary campaign, but which occasionally guest-stars the PCs. Even when it is not doing anything else, it provides sub-plots for what Captain Ferguson (Ian’s character) is doing when he is not on an adventure with the rest of the PCs. This makes the Antares more than just a vehicle – which makes up for the limited use to which we can utilize it as a vehicle in the campaign.

Whenever a PC obtains a vehicle, make a list of as many ways to use the vehicle in adventures as possible, no matter how big or how small. If you don’t get at least half-a-dozen, you should find a way to tweak the normal function of the vehicle within the campaign to add to the tally (and I was strongly tempted to make that standard a dozen, minimum).

In Transit – an insert by Mike

It always pays dividends to think about the entire journey that a vehicle is expected to take. I’ve already mentioned travel time (but will do so again); but there are also departure, arrival, and intermediate points in the trip to consider. Yes, travel can be hand-waved, and the vehicle used as nothing more than a plot device, but that’s hardly making the most of the opportunities that it represents.

It’s like making The Joker the villain and never having him do something funny. The character is always at his best when doing something humorous tinged with homicidal madness; without that edge, he’s just a murderer in clown makeup.


What procedures and routines should be performed when getting underway? Are there superstitions to ensure a successful trip? What needs to be inspected? What bureaucratics need to be performed?

For an automobile, before you go on an extended trip, the brakes and tires need be checked, the battery needs to be checked, the radiator water level and oil need to be checked, the vehicle needs to be fueled up, and you need to make sure that you have the required documentation in the glove compartment or on your person – license, insurance, registration. There’s packing the vehicle and making sure that you have everything that you will need at the other end of the trip.

All of this can be handwaved to accelerate the pacing of an adventure, or roleplayed in varying depths of detail to get more closely into the lives of the people using the vehicle and to make the trip itself seem more real. And, if the characters are in a great hurry, you can always assume that there isn’t the time to perform these checks, opening the window to problems along the way. Having a soft brake pedal is not what you need when engaging in a high-speed pursuit!

With an aircraft, you need to inspect various physical attributes of the aircraft, check the weather, file and have approved a flight plan, fuel the aircraft, and so on. You may need to route around various controlled airspaces. You will need to know what load you have on board, how that will affect takeoff speeds and flight characteristics, and so on. Your radio (or radios) and instruments need to working.

A ship tends to have less routine before departure, but there are common elements to both of the above. Cargo, provisions, visual inspections, radio and possibly radar and/or sonar, ammunition and weapons, fuel, notifying the harbor-master of departure, possible harbor pilots, etc.

Starships could be treated as more like aircraft or more like ships, or some blending of the two. The way such vessels integrate into your campaign world is something that you need to know.


Once you’re underway, what are the on-board routines? Are jobs performed in shifts, or do you pull over for the night? What are the sights, the smells, the sounds? What are the personnel interactions?

Along The Way

In road vehicles, modern fuel efficiencies mean that you usually need to refuel less frequently except on very long trips, even though the fuel tanks are often smaller than in past generations. Knowing how far you can travel on the fuel you’ve got is vital.

It doesn’t matter so much with motor vehicles, but freighters, aircraft, and probably starships face an added burden: the more fuel you carry, the more fuel you need to use in order to bring that fuel with you. There is always pressure to carry the minimum possible fuel because any unused fuel is overhead; but landing and taking off also consume fuel, and you always need a safety reserve. For any given vehicle-and-cargo-and-journey combination, there is an optimum point of economy which is substantially less than the absolute maximum range; planning the trip with refueling stops along the way permits more cargo to be carried, or a faster travel time, or better handling, or some combination of the three – and they are all good things to have!

It doesn’t take much in the way of a problem or delay for you to start eating into that safety reserve, something that those who operate these vehicles never like to do, because a shortage of fuel compounds with any other problem to limit options and increase the level of drama. GMs should take advantage of this!


With road vehicles, arrival is not often a big deal. You get where you are going, end-of-story. In other forms of transport, it can be a much bigger deal. Once again, there will be bureaucracy to deal with, and reports to file, and so on. Think about the routines that are involved.

With ships, things become more interesting, especially in a pre-radio situation; essentially, you simply appear on someone’s horizon without warning, and they don’t know who you are or what your intentions are. You could be a pirate, a merchant, a passenger ship, a warship, a plague ship, or any combination of the above. They need to know before you get too close – and to be ready to do something about it.

It follows that the speed and availability of interstellar communications will have a marked impact on how a starship will be received on arrival. The slower and less efficient communications are, the closer the analogy with a pre-radio sailing ship. The faster and more reliable, the closer the resemblance will be to an international air trip; they will know you are coming, and who you say you are, and will have made preparations to receive you accordingly. Such a ship showing up without such notice would always be an immediate warning that something was wrong; depending on politics and local culture, the default assumption could be anything from hostile intent to radio malfunction or an incapacitated crew requiring rescue and/or quarantine.

Vehicles as settings

Sometimes, it’s not about the journey, it’s about being on a journey. Plots which take place entirely on-board ship have been a staple for many years; my impression is that they began with Star Trek finding a way to save budgetary resources but there were probably antecedents in early science-fiction, pulp, etc, that I don’t know about.

As a GM, you don’t have the budgetary restraints that caused Star Trek to devise entirely on-board plotlines, but just because you don’t have to go there is no reason not to have such as part or all of your adventure. The confined nature of the setting automatically adds intensity to some plots! Take advantage of it from time to time.

Seasoning and Flavoring

Every GM should think hard about what the look-and-feel of life on-board a vehicle will be like, and how to convey that. Furthermore, every recurring vessel should have its own distinct flavor, a seasoning that enhances the adventure in a number of subtle ways, and that makes the setting seem as familiar as it would be to the PCs. This is a very hard thing to do; I don’t know a single GM who has been able to really nail this aspect of gaming involving a vehicle, and I include both myself and Ian in this respect. To some extent, every vehicle has been interchangeable with another of similar capabilities.

Ian’s discussion of Quirks and Tweaks is the closest thing that I’ve seen to a method of achieving this, but even that is not enough to fully pull it off. Careful and consistent use of narrative technique would also be required, and that requires both some advance planning and remembering to use that prep when the time comes. Think of it as adding color and flavor to what is otherwise an ever-so-slightly bland dish.

I think a large measure of the problem is the assumption that such distinctiveness would arrive naturally, a blend of on-board memories and experiences coupled with vagaries of layout and individuality of crew. These contribute, certainly, but are not enough to do the job on their own. Each crew member should customize their workspace to some extent, and the GM should actively search out ways to engage sensory narrative in his descriptions of actions and events on-board the vessel; but even doing that is sufficient only to convey a sense that the PCs are on-board a craft of the generic type. Adding Quirks and Tweaks makes for a more unique vehicle intellectually and behaviorally, but not necessarily to the visceral sense of being on board this vessel as opposed to any other.

I can enunciate the difficulty, but have to admit that I don’t have a complete solution at hand, only the beginnings of one.

  • Restrict your choices of language and especially adjective to only a few of the options available, and to synonyms of those terms.
  • Incorporate dynamic and transitory sensory impressions using this restricted vocabulary frequently and carefully while avoiding repetition.
  • Be careful to achieve consistency in your narratives using the restricted terminology. It’s not enough to mention a swaying deck; mention a character adjusting to that sway, using hand-gestures as accompaniment, and always remember who’s good at it and who isn’t.
  • Prepare “canned partial phrases” that can be added to descriptions of locations on-board the vessel, and try to incorporate them in different ways every time a scene occurs there. Is there a particular sound that the carpet in the Captain’s Cabin makes? Is there a gangway or board that has a little more flex than others on-board? Does part of the ship have a unique but slight odor? Are there decorative flourishes here and there that are distinctive and with whom the NPCs (and PCs) can casually interact?

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“The Armor was How Permeable?” – an insert by Mike

In the Hero System, which permits the purchase of vessels (or anything else) with character points or with cash, I have a rule of thumb: if you pay points for it, it will be replaced, repaired, or restored if it is consumed or destroyed; but if you simply bought it, it’s fair game. That replacement may not occur immediately, but it will happen – or the character will be given his points back, with a little on the top for the inconvenience.

Things are a little trickier in games that don’t have a point-purchase system. The general assumption is that buying equipment (including vehicles) in in D&D, for example, makes them fair game at all times, and that there is no metagame mechanic for ensuring the re-provision of such equipment. The same is true of starships in various RPGs. This is something that the GM needs to think about quite carefully.

Is the metagame value of any particular item such that he needs to provide a metagame “guarantee” of replenishment – or replenishment opportunity to the players?

I think the answer becomes “yes” as soon as the presence of the item in question influences character development choices to any substantial degree. Putting a skill point into being better at using the item isn’t enough; but investing multiple skill points over several levels would be, or buying a feat that only has application on-board a vessel, or whatever.

Similarly, if significant in-game time is devoted to customizing or repairing of a vessel, it should not be treated capriciously by the GM; the players have invested themselves in the possession of the item. That does not mean that the characters should receive any such guarantee – from their point of view, the item should be at risk at all times, and as soon as they treat it as something that will always be there, it should be taken away from them!

It’s one thing to have an individual adventure in which Han Solo does not have access to the Millennium Falcon; it’s quite another to take it away permanently. Similarly, the absence of the Enterprise can raise the stakes on a particular episode of Star Trek but losing it for good would not be acceptable to a viewer.


Some might say that this is just another “How to screw the Player-Characters” missive. I disagree. Above all else, the Referee has to keep the Players engaged and entertained. Treat them badly, frustrate everything they try to do and they WILL leave, sooner or later. Whereupon the Referee becomes this dude sitting alone at a cluttered table, mumbling to himself – and that is just creepy.

Vehicles. They can be a useful addition to your campaign for a bunch of reasons, or – if you permit their abuse – a millstone around your neck. Give it some thought – before the next vehicle shows up in your campaign.


About The Author

Ian Mackinder is a long-time friend of Mike’s, and is almost as keen a gamer in his own twisted way. Over the years, he has been in several of Mike’s campaigns, and vice versa, but both seem none the worse for it.

In the past, Ian has refereed ‘Star Trek’ (FASA) and Classic Traveller. Currently, he is running a ‘7th Sea’ game, and resigned to apparently being the only Referee of that system in the entire Greater Sydney region – he would love to PLAY in a campaign himself some day. Ian regularly plays in various systems – including D&D4, Rogue Trader and Pulp HERO. He likes a lot of other systems but, after one bad experience, will NOT play ‘Runequest’ again – and if you aren’t careful enough, he will tell you why.

Ian’s other hobbies include history (Australian, military, weird, hidden, maritime, and combinations thereof), TV & Movies, Forteana, browsing the Internet, and SF in general (with occasional excursions into Fantasy). He is also a keen player of the ‘Fallout 3’ computer game, and currently writes a sort-of series about that called ‘The Walker Files,’ which can be found on the ‘Fallout 3 Nexus’. Happily, his amazing wife and brilliant daughter both manage to put up with all this.

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Fantastic Flop: GMing Lessons from a filmic failure

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I’ve been a fan of the Fantastic Four, off and on, since the halcyon days of Lee and Kirby. I was there, reading, when the being who would become Adam Warlock was first introduced. I was there for the first appearance of the Inhumans. I was there for the Silver Surfer and Galactus.

Through low-priced black-and-white Australian reprints, I saw Dr Doom shrink the Fantastic Four into the micro-world, saw the Submariner buy the Baxter Building, and saw the first appearance of the Mole Man. And there were what sometimes-seemed-to-be annual battles between the Hulk and the Thing.

Suffice it to say that I had high hopes for the rebooted film franchise, which appears to have been sucked into the Negative Zone in a cataclysmic release of overwhelming criticism since its release a few weeks ago. I’ve been reading other people’s opinions as to –

And of course, I’ve been thinking on the subject and analyzing all this critique, and realize that there are a few lessons for GMs out there on handling their campaigns and adventures. Most of it’s reasonably obvious stuff, but – like an iceberg – there are some hidden depths to plumb.

I have to admit that for financial reasons, I haven’t actually seen the movie. Everything I’ve written has been based on other reports and reviews, and I don’t often see eye-to-eye with the judgments of movie critics. But I’ve spoken to people who have seen it, and outlined this article, and they seem to agree with my analysis.

Analyzing The Downfall

It’s clear that both studio and director started off in accord, or they would not have hired him. It was also pretty inevitable that a movie needed to be made and released around now or Marvel could take back the license rights. But it’s also clear that there were a number of items left off the negotiating agenda, and that usually happens when people take things for granted, rush to get a job done by an arbitrary deadline, or both.

In this case, the latter is fairly evidently a factor and the former is possible but unproven. What did happen is that there was a dispute over casting, with the Studio demanding “name stars” and the Director insisting on a cast of relative unknowns. Aside from giving the Director greater freedom to execute his vision with fewer concessions to a cast with more Hollywood clout, this would probably have allowed him to lavish more money on other aspects of the production. Director Josh Trank won that battle, but in the process got the studio off-side. They subsequently cut the budget (obviously feeling that if he wasn’t spending the money on an A-grade cast, he didn’t need to spend as much money at all), and the bad blood between them began to extend to clashes in other areas such as script approval.

Fans began having their doubts when the cast was publicly announced, especially about the choice of Michael B. Jordan in the role of Johnny Storm (with no disrespect to the actor intended) – especially given the fact that the role of his sister was given to Kate Mara, an actress whose work I had previously enjoyed on 24 and Zoom: Academy For Superheros – but who is Caucasian. This choice seemed destined to load the movie with unnecessary social baggage.

I thought at the time that it would have been better to have made Ben Grimm (the Thing) an African American, or even Reed Richards, if you needed a prominent minority representation among the cast. Either of those would have been credible; there have been a great many African-American scientists, Footballers, and Fighter Pilots over the years. Heck, even casting both Johnny and Sue as African Americans would have made more sense.

It felt like tokenism, and sloppily-executed tokenism at that.

Then came the news about the “gritty” slant, and fandom winced.

The news emerged that O’Mara and the rest of the cast had been told not to bother reading any of the source material, and fandom cringed.

About a month after the release date was shifted from a competitive one to a far softer target – always a bad sign – we got told about the radical re-imagining of Dr Doom as a hacker, and finally fandom knew that this movie was centered around a total disrespect for the source material, and began to complain. It was all downhill from there.

Additional sources:

Analyzing The Disaster

This is a movie in which the director seems to have decided “characters don’t matter, it’s just a comic book movie”, and the studio seemed to have decided, “plot doesn’t matter, it’s just a comic book movie.”

Neither respected the source material or the fans of that source material – and those fans were always going to be the people generating the initial buzz, the core of the potential audience. Holding them in contempt is a sure recipe for a catastrophic reception.

Fans would have forgiven the casting, if the on-screen vibe had been right, if the Fantastic Four felt like a family first and a group of co-adventurers / superheros second. Instead, they felt like outcasts, first from scientific respectability and society, and then from humanity.

They would have forgiven the rewriting of the origins of the group as something that made a certain amount of sense in light of more modern physics – “there’s nothing we know of in space that could trigger these transformations, so have the group changed by an environment in which our physics doesn’t apply”. It works, and if they had called it The Negative Zone, fans would have lauded the concept as a plausible way to achieve suspension of disbelief in a more modern world.

Fans might have even forgiven – well, tolerated – the revision to Dr Doom if he had become a technological-genius-by-proxy, a brilliant hacker and robotics expert who stole technological developments by others and put them together to synthesize the iconic suit of armor and weapons systems.

Instead, what happened was this: the family vibe was thrown aside in favor of a pseudo-X-Men union of outsiders, forced to band together because they were ostracized and victimized by their transformations. That required a large part of the movie being set aside to establishing relationships between the title characters, and therefore always meant that the bulk of the film was going to be the origin story. Throw in Doom’s share of that origin story, and there was always going to be precious little screen time left for confrontations. Pacing was inevitably going to be a victim, and it was.

The kindest one-word review I saw on the opening weekend was “uneven”. The next best was “unbalanced”. Studio and director were both taking potshots at each other, making it clear that whatever unity was felt initially, the marriage between them had completely fallen apart early in production. The result comes across looking like a movie that was done for the sake of keeping the license because the potential for an X-Men scale franchise is still there, not because it was a good movie proposal.

It all showed at the Box Office. despite the “softer” competition, Fantastic Four failed to even exceed the week-2 earnings of Mission Impossible 5, which enjoyed a second week at the top of the box office charts. I’ve been told that some cinemas have already pulled the film from their schedules, suggesting that much of that opening weekend and subsequent negative reviews was generated by fans who went hoping for their worst fears to be misplaced, wanting to like the movie despite everything that they had heard – only to be freshly disappointed when the on-screen product was even worse than feared.

A few critics have subsequently emerged who laud the first half of the movie as an attempt to distance itself from the superhero genre. Unfortunately, those reviews come across as pretentious at best (at least the ones that I’ve seen). They attempt to show that there were nodding associations with the source material; there are suggestions that some scenes state that Sue was adopted, explaining the racial difference between siblings, and this can clearly be used to explain the lack of familial feelings between Sue and Johnny, for example. So, at least in the first half, some coherence and consistency in characterization can be found, if you turn over enough rocks looking for it. To me, all this shows is that the same mistake was made consistently throughout the movie.

There were no winners. The cast now have a turkey to live down. The director has lost the trust of a major studio, who are bad-mouthing him and have already pulled his participation in another big-name franchise movie. The studio have lost the trust of the public and yet more stories of “studio interference creating a flop” are doing the rounds, discouraging others from pushing the envelope – and look certain to take a loss on the movie. I don’t agree with those who are suggesting that this means the death of superhero-movie genre, though! The fans miss out, too – it will be years, if ever, before another attempt is made. Marvel might well look to buy back the rights, but their production schedule is full.

In fact, it’s Marvel who are the biggest losers in all this. They had no say in the casting, the script, or the production, but this is still being touted by some as “Marvel’s first stinker”. So it’s possible that they will reclaim the rights, or try to, purely as damage control.

Additional Sources:

An alternative vision

And yet, the potential for success is still there; it simply has to be unlocked with the right script and producer, with the right vision for what it could be. Someone is sure to ask what I think should have been done, so here’s a look at what might-have-been:

First, make it a TV show, not a movie. Not a sitcom, but a family drama that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with the plots largely a sci-fi action/adventure. Make it about the characters as a dysfunctional family who fly apart all the time but come together whenever they have to. Not The Simpsons with superpowers, but leaning a little in that direction. A lot like the first couple of seasons of Buffy but with an SF bent instead of a supernatural one.

Dispose of the origins of the team in five or ten minutes – tops – of the first episode. Keep the “Negative Zone” origin. Make Ben a decorated pilot from the Gulf Wars who signed up post 9/11, abandoning a promising football career, newly retired from the Service. Make Johnny a garage mechanic, make Sue a computer security student, and Reed a scientist. Reed develops machine designs but has trouble building it, so Sue calls in Johnny to help with the more practical elements of the fabrication. Johnny, in turn, knows Ben (who used to be one of his customers) and so does Reed (they went to school together, Ben several years ahead of Reed, but Reed was given early admission into senior classes and Ben protected Reed from bullies). Between the two of them, Johnny and Reed persuade Ben to ditch the airline job he’s taken (it’s boring) and sign on as the pilot and commander of the Transition Vehicle they are building. They finish the machine, and the quartet take it into the Otherworld, where it is attacked and damaged by the monsters that inhabit it; they get exposed to strange energy fields that rewrites and morphs their DNA, and become the FF, barely escaping in their crippled craft.

Then we go into flashback mode for the origins of Dr Doom, or of whatever our menace of the week is. Again, keep this to 5-10 minutes or even less. Look to Dr Who for inspiration – we get just enough of a hint of whatever the menace is to intrigue us, but then discover the specifics at the same time as the FF do.

Keep Dr Doom more or less as he was in the comics – though you might lose the Latverian Ruler element to keep budgets down. In particular, keep his desperate attempts to rescue his mother from Hell (or someplace similar – I’ll get to that in a moment). Make him a brilliant hacker and roboticist, who is first rate at taking other people’s ideas and putting them together to achieve something new – not quite the same as the Julian McMahon version, but similar. Here’s the story: Doom, as a young man, cobbles together some bits and pieces and creates a dimension-lock or teleport field or whatever you want to call it; something starts to come through from the other side, Doom tries desperately to shut down his creation, and then to smash it, but before he can do so, his mother (wrong place, wrong time) is captured by the emerging big bad and pulled back into the other-world. Doom tries to mount a rescue mission but can’t get his rebuilt device to work. He needs further education in higher physics to understand what happened the first time.

Reed, a student at university, is studying the theory and exploring the potential of creating a dimension-lock, work that will eventually lead to the origin story we have already witnessed. He and Doom are fellow students, and have several run-ins. Doom recognizes Reed’s work as exactly what he needs, and steals his designs and unfinished research paper, but Reed discovers the theft because Doom didn’t completely erase his tracks, and Reed’s girlfriend, Sue, is studying advanced computer security and is no slouch at this stuff, either. Reed goes to confront Doom, discovers Doom’s half-built replica of Reed’s machine, recognizes that Doom has made a dangerous mistake, and puts aside his own anger to warn Doom – but Doom won’t listen, and fires up the half-built machine believing Reed is about to alert the university authorities. Explosion, Doom scarred both physically and mentally, blames Reed, expelled from the University.

Unshown on screen at the time, Doom becomes a “professional” hacker, living an underground life, perpetrating various cybercrimes for cash.

Shifting our point-of-view back into the modern day, he cracks Sue’s security and discovers that Reed finished his machine and that he and the others were transformed. He tries to get the plans, but Sue is still no slouch at this stuff and discovers the hack while it is still in progress, tossing Doom out. He realizes that if he wants the machine, he’s going to have to take it by force. He uses his money and expertise to construct his armor and build in various experimental weapons systems and defensive gadgets, first to enable him to steal the device from Reed, second to enable him to survive the transition to Other-space unharmed, and third to enable him to defeat the evil monstrosity and rescue his Mother at last.

Instead of seeing this, we see the FF coming to terms with the impact of their transformations on their everyday lives. Reed is searching for a way to undo Ben’s transformation and is worried about the psychological effects of what happened on them all. They are recluses for the most part. It’s been a year or more since their transformations, so a lot of the adjustment has already taken place, and they have already had a few adventures together that have made them a group.

Doom, using robots, attacks as a distraction, then invades their lab to get the device – but Reed needs it for his attempts to cure Ben. Conflict. Doom gets the device, activates it, and bad things start trying to get through into our world, something he doesn’t care about. He prepares to go after his mother, but the FF arrive and Reed smashes the machine to prevent the mass escape of horrors into the world – sacrificing Ben’s chances at a normal life, something Ben finds hard to take. Doom escapes.

Reed realizes that he can’t build another machine, the risks are too great; he will have to search for a cure the hard way. Doom is now obsessed with the concept of Reed as his enemy; twice (in Doom’s mind), he has been denied by Reed. All the (imagined) pain that his mother suffers from now on is on Reed’s head. However, even above revenge, his goal henceforth will be to force Reed to rebuild his machine – by force, by deception, by blackmail – by whatever means it takes. End episode one, and away the series goes from there.

In subsequent episodes, a 30-second recap of the origin story leads into the menace teaser, which leads into the title sequence, which leads into the main plot, starting with the ordinary lives of four extraordinary and slightly dysfunctional people who have been forced together by continually-strained bonds of friendship and love. Johnny can invent things, build things, etc; Reed can discover strange phenomena; Sue can investigate curious happenings reported on the net; and Ben can try and build a life around his unique disfigurement. And every now and then, Doom will emerge from the shadows to try again, moving further away from the one strategy that might succeed with every defeat – admitting that he needs Reed’s help, and why. His ego, already wounded and maimed by his disfigurement, won’t bend that far.

The Lessons

Okay, so moving on from that piece of whimsy. There are some definite and fairly important lessons for GMs from the crash-and-burn Fantastic Four, 2015 version. Some may be obvious, others subtle, but they are all important and useful.

Respect the characters

The character concepts need to respect, and work in harmony with, the theme of the campaign. The central questions are always, “why are these people together? What’s their motivation? How does that motivation express itself in their relationships, and in the plotlines?”

Define interaction modes between the characters

Each character should have one or more subjects or activities or “interaction modes” which bring them together with one of the other featured characters. They don’t have to agree, or have a mutual goal in terms of that interaction mode – they simply need to have a relationship with each other that manifests within the domain of that subject. Two of them might have an interest in sport – but like wildly different sports, or back opposing teams. Two of them might be interested in politics, but one is conservative and the other progressive – and neither of them is completely right, or right all the time. One might be a conspiracy theory buff, while the other enjoys debunking conspiracy theories. One likes dance music and another likes ballet, or opera. One’s mischievous, and another’s a straight man (and perpetual easy target).

This sort of thing rarely happens by accident, and even more rarely happens without deliberate encouragement by the GM. There are two ways to achieve it: before the fact (during character generation) or after the fact (post-play). It’s easiest during character generation, when you can tweak designs and personalities to create the desired interaction modes; after the fact, it’s more square pegs into round holes, though it’s still possible. The best approach is to get the players to talk to each other and the GM about their characters, actively looking for interaction modes.

Once the modes have been defined, the GM has to make room in his plans for their expression; he needs to use them to give the players space in which to roleplay each character relating to the other characters. He needs to plant barbs and subplots and conversational or activity hooks that populate the interaction modes with topics of conversation, or accord, or disagreement.

Respect the genre

Players, Characters, and the GM need to all respect the genre and the conventions that go with it. These should be violated only with great care, and usually because some sub-genre element overrides the central genre in this particular respect. The campaign and characters should fit comfortably within the scope of the primary genre.

All this comes down to the GM understanding both the Genre and the campaign, and ensuring compatibility between the two. If your campaign is a spy drama, don’t make Cthulhu the chief villain. If Sci-fi is your game, don’t involve too many inexplicable phenomena – magic doesn’t fit very well. If you’re running a Western, leave out talking dogs. High Fantasy should emphasize the fantastic.

Good plots

An awful lot can be forgiven or ignored if you have good plotlines. James Bond in a high-fantasy setting in which rival deities are continually plotting against one another? It can be done.

On the other hand, no matter how well-matched characters and setting might be, no campaign will survive if the plots are dull, insipid, boring, or confused. An awful lot of campaign planning and development is aimed – without actually saying so – at creating an environment that inspires you, as GM, to come up with interesting plots.

Style pointers

Be especially wary of contradictions. “Home Alone” doesn’t work as “Grim and Gritty”, the Fantastic Four don’t work as outcasts, the X-men don’t work without the political and social issues over “Homo Superior”.

Don’t try to make anything into something it’s not

Most of these pointers can all be summed up in this one statement. If some element is desired within your campaign, your style, your characters, find a way to make it fit naturally. There’s usually a way, if you look hard enough.

Respect Your Audience

Last, but by no means least, don’t ever – ever – take your audiance for granted. Don’t look down on them. Don’t assume that they are not as smart as you. Don’t assume that they don’t matter.

We all know these things, but sometimes, we get caught up in our own cleverness and forget it.

If the characters are your cast, the players are your audience. And they will forgive just about anything – if you don’t take them for granted. That is the most obvious and most important lesson to be learned, and it doesn’t matter if Fantastic Four is as bad as everyone says, or if it is a gem that no-one else appreciates but you; no matter how good or bad a film it is, it can remind you of this most important lesson. And that makes it pretty Fantastic in my book.

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The Care and Feeding Of Vehicles In RPGs 1: A 2-part guest article


Preface, by Mike

Today, I’m providing the first half of a guest article by my long-time friend, Ian Mackinder. Ian’s been nuancing this article for quite some time, and that shows in its depth. Part one deals with acquiring and designing vehicles, part two with using and abusing them. I’ve also tossed in my two-cents worth here and there in asides, and in a few short extra sections that I’ve added to part 2. But we’ll get to that in due course; in the meantime, here’s Ian…


Image from Leinonen

Introduction: The rantings of an ‘old school’ gamer

In role-playing games, I lean towards being a “vehicle junkie”.

My characters tend to acquire them, blow them up, or both. As a GM, I like having vehicles around as convenient plot devices for my victi… er, players.

But if you ask many RPGers about transportation in their campaigns, one of two things happens:

  1. Minimal awareness that vehicles (in which category I also include riding beasts, wagons, canoes, planes, etc.) exist in the game;
  2. The PCs indeed have a vehicle, happily detail its “improvements”, and list achievements (read: kill scores). But ask a trick question like “What color is it?” or “What’s its name?” and the response is “Um, er….”

These situations bother me. For me, gaming is all about characters trying to be heroic, and a lot of heroes have transportation indisputably theirs – James Bond and his Aston Martin, Kirk and various ‘Enterprises’, The Doctor and the TARDIS, Mal and ‘Serenity’, Jack Sparrow and ‘The Black Pearl’, etcetera. Creating a kick-@$$ character for an action-adventure(-ish) campaign and NOT giving that worthy a suitably personalized transport seems …. well, a missed opportunity. But a character’s vehicle used only as a combination gun emplacement and storage closet is a terrible waste.

What follows are my thoughts on the use and misuse of vehicles in role-playing games, plus a few semi-related side issues. Being a long-time devotee of things Trek, (Classic) ‘Traveller’ and ‘7th Sea’, I think mainly in terms of ships and starships, but most of these ideas can also be applied to other conveyances in varying genres.

Why Do We Need A Vehicle?

The main purpose of an in-game vehicle is to move the PCs and their stuff from place to place. More specifically, to get the Party from one adventure to the next – or from one part of an adventure to the next. Sure, they could beg / borrow / hire / steal something to make each trip, but owning a vehicle suitable for the job gives feelings of being in control, rather than being subject to the whims of the GM.

The vehicle may represent the Party’s common purpose, their means of travel as a group, and even be their living space as well. From the Referee’s standpoint, it is also a great way of encouraging the Party to stay together. Where do the Characters all rest and recuperate? In the vehicle. Where do they keep all their stuff? Same answer. How do they get into / out of trouble? Same answer, again.

There are also the role-playing aspects.

The vehicle can represent a Character’s back-story. The scion of a rich’n’powerful family, sent off to “make his own fortune” with his personal yacht. The disillusioned warrior who takes (steals?) a vehicle when she has finally had enough and quits (deserts?) whatever organization she has been serving. The down-on-his-luck scavenger who finds a wrecked vehicle of uncertain origins. Many possibilities to, as always, to be hammered out by the Referee and Player(s) involved.

Being part of the vehicle crew also provides sound reason for diversified PCs right from the start – PC #1 is the Captain, PC #2 the Engineer (and employee of PC #1), PC #3 the Steward (and minority shareholder), and so on. Rather than a bunch of thugs with the only visible differences being personal choices of weaponry, each PC has a very specific role in the team. Think of the ‘Firefly’ TV series. If your Character is The Captain, she’d better have some idea how to make decisions and operate the ship. For the Engineer, knowing how to make repairs is essential. And if the Party has no one who can do either, then they better find people to fill those jobs before the trouble starts. Arguably, perhaps, it already has…


Money, Money, Money..

A vehicle can be a solid source of income, whether the Party is honest and law-abiding …. or not. A sturdy ship and crew can always find (or be found by) lucrative opportunities.

And again, there is the other side of the financial coin to consider. Vehicles are a helpful means of earning cash. But they are also an excellent means to lose money. Whatever they do, whether earning $$$ or blowing things up or sitting idle, vehicles will need upkeep (maintenance, parking / docking fees, fuel, licenses / bureaucratic ahhh “support”, ammo, and so on), which means money spent just to keep the status quo – in turn, meaning that the Party treasury can be kept at a manageable level.

(Ideally, the Referee avoids having PCs throw around ridiculous amounts of cash to blow up his meticulously planned, deep and meaningful scenario. The endgame is the epic confrontation the Ref aimed for, instead of the PCs bribing all and sundry to have the Complex Villain put away on trumped-up charges of sheep-worrying.

In Act #1.

Never happened in any game I was in, but surely this has happened SOMEwhere, to SOMEone.) – Ian

Caveat Princeps (“(Game) Master Beware”)

It is easy for Referees to overdo measures thought sensible, such as siphoning off the Party’s excess money. But Players get frustrated if their efforts are blocked too often, and react poorly if their Characters’ hoard is “arbitrarily” messed with – either of which will lead to trouble. The best move is to keep the in-game cash-flow highly variable and mobile in both directions.


GM (in the guise of an NPC, addressing a PC: ”Yo, Harry. Good news. The client paid up, and he even added the full bonus! But the Port dues have just risen another 10%, they say because of the war.”

“AGAIN with the Port costs?!? Dangit!!!! Oh well, could be much worse. We now have the cash to finish repairs AND refuel, right?”

“Errrrr. Refuel, you say?.”).

Acquisition – The ‘Traveller’ Way™

In most versions of the ‘Traveller’ RPG, certain career paths provide starships as part of a Character’s mustering out / pre-adventuring benefits. Strings are often attached – such as bank loans to be paid off, or the ship is a ‘loaner’ with the Character having certain obligations to the rightful owner.

Within the system’s constraints, this usually works well, but there are things the Referee should watch out for.

1. “Let’s Be Bad Guys”

The PCs want the ship, but not the obligations. So they dodge the latter, either actively (eg. “skip out” on making payments, and basically go on the run) or passively (e.g. they “somehow” never seem to be any place where the ship’s rightful owner can contact them).

But – any interstellar empire in which organizations routinely loan out starships and/or large sums of money, should have scary ways of dealing with abusers of this trust. That means not only law enforcement (bad enough), but professional skip tracers and bounty hunters – stubborn, mean-spirited, inventive people who do not play nice OR fair (in short, act just like Player-Characters). Besides which, once word gets out, Character benefits such as Pensions or TAS Memberships or valuable properties or even average-plus Social stats are all going to vanish or at least be frozen. Point out all this to the Party before they get started. Odds are they will reconsider.

Not to mention the potential for built-in technological solutions, the starship equivalent of the immobilizers built into modern autos – Mike

2. Multiple Ship Benefits

I’ve had this happen to me a few times in my Traveller refereeing days. Different PCs ALL roll up ship benefits (very easy to do, there being several career paths with this). Instead of a bunch of adventurers on one ship, you get a bunch of adventurers with their own frackin’ navy.

A fun game can still be had. But it tends to be an administrative horror as everybody struggles to keep track of where everybody else is and what their own ships are up to, etc., etc.. But there are ways:

  • Amalgamation. - IF those involved are OK with the idea, have one large starship jointly-owned by the PCs (with suitable adjustments to their respective backstories) instead of a bunch of lesser craft. To this end, one of exactly 2.3 things I liked about ‘Traveller: The New Era’ was the table in it specifically for amalgamating ship benefits. Like most things TNE, it left much unstated, but it is a basis from which to start.
  • Conversion. - Allow “excess” starship benefits to be turned into either other benefits on the Mustering Out tables, or into improving skills or stats. One-for-one works well in both cases, I have found. Warning: Converting excess ship benefits directly into their cash equivalent might SEEM fair, but the PCs will then be awash in money, so be warned (see above).
  • Separation. - Most of the PC “fleet” is kept out-of-game elsewhere (rented / loaned / leased to NPCs), and busily generating a steady income for the owner. Many PCs aren’t keen on this, NPCs being an inherently untrustworthy bunch after all. But the idea is worth consideration and, if the Referee is seen as trustworthy enough, is a possibility.
  • Inconvenience. - Arrange circumstances that make being separated across multiple shops inconvenient for the PCs. Economies of scale invert with inconvenience – so a berthing fee for one, larger, ship might be considerably lower than the berthing fees for many smaller ships in aggregate. Ditto loading fees, double ditto admin fees, etc. And when three of the ships need the same replacement part and there are only two available because supply is governed by demand, let the PCs fight it out. Skilled Manpower is another limited resource – there’s only one “best maintenance crew at the starbase” and if they are already busy on the first PC’s ship, the others either wait, or accept second best – and then third best, and fourth best. Then there are the problems with secure communications between multiple ships at the same time, which makes coordination of plans, and changes in plan, logistically difficult – unless the PCs are willing to have their discussion very publicly. – Mike
Acquisition – The Usual Ways

There are several more generic means of acquiring a vehicle.

1. Purchase

The mechanics of Purchase depends on the circumstances. Think of buying a used car today. If buying from or through an organization with a solid reputation, expect hard bargaining (they know their item’s worth) but the buyer will (usually) get exactly what s/he paid for (just be sure to read the fine print before signing). If buying super-cheap and/or in a hurry from a stranger in a bar, then the buyers deserve everything they get – and I do mean that. Really.

2. Theft

Theft is exactly what it sounds like – the Party taking a ship away from its prior owners without their consent. Maybe the previous users had it coming (eg. pirates or other hostiles), or maybe they didn’t (in brief: “Nice ship. We’ll take it.”). Other than the likelihood of running afoul of law-enforcement and bureaucracy as a result, a big problem is that you are never certain of the vehicle’s true condition until it’s too late.

Not to mention that any enemies the previous owner had will think they are still operating it. This can be anybody from organized crime to debt collectors to law enforcement. The PCs may well find themselves on wanted posters for being stooges of the person they boosted the vessel from! Always ask yourself, when transport is being stolen, how and from where did the previous “owner” acquire it, and what did they do with it before the PCs took possession? And maybe it was just a little too easy to steal….. – Mike

3. Salvage

There is Salvage, the recovery and restoration of a wrecked or otherwise lost ship. The key word here should be “fixer upper”, since whatever befell the ship and its previous owner / crew was almost certainly dire. Noting also that the line between “Salvage” and “Theft” can blur – especially if the ‘previous’ owner is still somewhere in the picture.

4. Gift

A Gift may seem the least likely way to get a ship but, from a Refereeing point of view, might be the most direct way to get the game started. No obfuscating – the ship is flat-out given to the PCs, “inherited” from a relative, or handed over as payment for something (refer PC back-stories) – or in expectation of services yet to be provided (Heh, heh, heh).

based on "tie fighter" from, background by Mike Bourke

based on “tie fighter” from, background by Mike Bourke

Vehicle Back-stories

However acquired, a second-hand vehicle will have back-story, with varying repercussions for the PCs.

Consider where, why and for whom the vehicle was built; what previous users did with (or to) it; where it has been; how well it has been looked after; what enemies, rivals and allies may have been made along the way; and the circumstances under which the PCs acquire the ship.

Any of these may be a factor at some point.

Take the time to create a few minor details as part of the backstory, as complete or as cryptic as the Referee wants. Note that working out all details to the last percentile place beforehand is not the best move. Let Players speculate about the “clues” and decide for themselves which will be followed up on, and how. Odds are at least a few good ideas will come from this, and the Ref’s Grand Plan can be amended accordingly.

So, maybe…

  • the Ship’s Log has a hidden list of mysterious coordinates.
  • the Galley has the complete set of ‘Souvenir Of Altair VI’ coffee mugs.
  • there are ‘odd’ fittings in the Hold, suggesting haulage of ‘unusual’ cargo at some stage.
  • the Captain’s Cabin is decorated entirely in mauve and puce stripes.
  • the PCs happen to meet an “interesting” NPC with a story (accuracy indeterminate) to tell about the ship.

Some of these things will be lead-ins to adventures involving the ship’s past, others will be just .. there for possible use in the future, or to simply mess with the PCs’ minds. Very few should actually affect the ship’s stats or functions (more on that later).


There are times when PCs have the resources and inclination to build their own vehicle from scratch. Or to revamp an existing vehicle beyond all recognition.

In either case, consider this project a Custom-Build. Oddly, not being up on construction techniques of the far future, the best we can do is relate it to vehicle building in the present.

(For all we know, 24th century vehicle builders will all be gigantic replicators / 3-D printers, with financial details and individual preferences entered at one end. The buyer then relaxes and waits for the new conveyance to emerge from the other end. Efficient but, from an RPG point of view, perhaps not very exciting.) – Ian

There are ways around that problem if you really want to go down the 3-D printer route. Intelligence/Police Forces surreptitiously incorporating tracking/monitoring devices in the designs, organized crime monkeying with the specs to create hidden compartments on all ships of a given model for use in smuggling, turning the PCs into “mules” without knowledge or profit-participation, heck even a ship-maintenance union who employs hackers to add interesting “new ship issues” (design/manufacturing flaws) that have to be fixed with a very expensive service before the vehicle will work – until the next built-in fault manifests, of course. It doesn’t even have to be malicious – think of this as the equivalent of constructing a PC from the basic components and circuit boards; sometimes, it’s as easy as inserting tab “a” into slot “b”, but sometimes it isn’t – and the problems can be a nightmare to solve.

A friend was telling me the story of a relative who bought a new laptop a little while back, and who attempted to upgrade the device to a later version of Windows. Unexpected, inexplicable, error. Contact Microsoft, who advise returning it to the vendor for assistance. Vendor advises a complete reset and reinstall of the Operating System. Install fails – new unexpected, inexplicable, error, a variation on the original problem. Telephone the vendor, who suggests contacting the manufacturer. Manufacturer says to take it back to the vendor, the process may not have been completed properly. So, back to the vendor, coincidentally at a time when a manufacturer’s representative just happens to be in-store. Attempted fix produces the same result, ending in a conference call between the manufacturer’s head office, the vendor, and Microsoft, at the conclusion of which it emerges that there is a design incompatibility between the hardware and the new operating system, a known issue for which there is no known solution. I’ve encountered similar problems in the past and know that sometimes, you can’t even reinstall the old operating system successfully without completely scrubbing hard discs to remove files overwritten by “newer” versions. In this case, the problem was eventually solved by choosing a different Operating System – with the attendant hassles of learning to use that new system.

So, get creative, but don’t hit the PCs with both barrels at once – wait until you can reload the first before firing the second shot…. – Mike


The first thing the Party will do is trawl through the game’s design system, and produce a wish-list or “plan” of what they want. In-game, the PCs take these requirements to a designer (naval architect for ships and starships). After perusing the PCs’ list of demands (and probably laughing hysterically), the designer converts this into a format that the prospective builder can use. The PCs make payment, sign things (with or without lawyers present), and arrange to pick up their new toy on a specific date. At which time the PCs climb aboard, run a quick systems check and sail off into the sunset. Cue music.

It should be more complicated than that. Watch TV shows like ‘American Chopper’ and it is clear that custom builds are NEVER as simple as they first seem. Start with the designer and builder. We‘ll take an obvious shortcut by assuming the people selected for these jobs are both competent and honest. Even so, individual designers and builders will have their own methods, specialties and preferences.

For example:

  • Shipyard Capability: Specific shipyards may specialize in certain designs or types. If PCs expect a shipyard known for its freighters to build what amounts to a major warship (or vice versa), then hesitation on their part might be understandable. Not to mention that various groups will take an interest in anyone building such warships outside of the normal manufacturers!
  • Component Specialization: Both designers and shipyards may specialize in the use of specific components and not necessarily the SAME components at that. If specifications are outside comfort zones (eg. The designer likes LSP hulls, the yard ‘always’ uses General Products hulls, and the Party wants a Yoyodyne frame), then adjusting to this change in routine may take extra time, introduce failure modes, and will inevitably cost more.
  • Skills: If going with a designer / builder team renowned as the absolute BEST at what they do, expect higher prices and, very probably, being on a long waiting list. At the bottom. And, being expensive and well-paid, thoroughly immune to bribes to change this status – except in the negative.
  • DIY: Maybe a Party member invested in the necessary skills to do the design work themselves. Well and good – chance for role-play there maybe. A possible downside is that said designer will have to severely curtail other activities for a while, if s/he wants to make a proper job of it. Another downside is if the designer makes any serious errors – the rest of the party may be faced with the choice of suing their teammate OR ponying up extra cash themselves to put things right.

Following that is the build process itself. Components are built, or shipped in from other sources, then fitted together. Simple, in theory. Except that there are always complications – shipments delayed or gone astray or even stolen outright; errors such as wrong items being sent (“These are Mark 4A Wossnames, we NEED Mark 5Vs.”); surprise compatibility issues between components (necessitating extra work); accidental(?) breakages and ‘incidents’ on-site, shenanigans within the business itself (“… Ehhh. Haint seen Bob OR the comp’nee payroll since Wensdee.”), and so on.

Even local or national politics can have a part.

Quick Historical Example: Just prior to WW1, the Ottoman Empire paid for two large cruisers to be built in British shipyards for their navy. When war broke out, the Royal Navy promptly took over both near-complete vessels for its own use, leaving the at-that-time-neutral Ottomans nothing except promises of compensation “after the war”. Needless to say, the Ottomans were ticked off about it. – Ian

So, how are the politics wherever the PCs’ new ship is being built? If local authorities get in a jam, then “borrowing” the tricked-out and semi-complete ship in their jurisdiction (or even just certain of its equipment) may seem like a solution to their problem(s). The nature, amount and timing of any compensation promised the owners (not to mention actual return of the borrowed items) will largely depend on the final outcome, the honesty of the borrowers and their ability to make amends.


The next phase in the build is the test drive / shakedown cruise. In the movies or on TV, there is a tendency for heroes to grab an untried vehicle literally straight out of construction and go directly into action. The reality is that going this path should equate with shooting oneself in the foot. The entire reason for shakedowns is to make sure that everything works properly in a safe and controlled manner. “In combat” or during “The Big Race” are NOT the times to discover defective components, design flaws, sabotage, or manufacturer errors. At least not from the PC’s point of view, heh!

And then comes the real shakedown, as the people who can fix it tot up the bill for parts and manpower – and try and fix the problems that have been spotted this time.

Caveat Princeps again:

Unless the Party fully deserve it, then dropping most of the above on them just for trying to custom-build their own ship is a dick move. If, as Referee, you don’t want them doing that stuff, then just say so up front and offer other outlets for their time and their cash. But, to shake up PCs and stop them from being complacent, the threat of a few of the things mentioned here (plus maybe some “minor”(?) incidents) provides plenty of scope for interesting scenarios.

Creating Your Own

Build Your Own Vehicle is not a common choice for PCs, but is doable if they have access to all that is needed. Note, when I say “Build Your Own”, I am not referring to having a bunch of NPCs do the job, with the PCs looking in now and again. I’m thinking of a couple of ‘MacGyver’ episodes, many episodes of the ‘A Team’, and the movie ‘Flight Of The Phoenix’ (the original is well worth watching). The PCs are stuck someplace, and their survival depends on building a means of escape using items immediately at hand (a junkyard’s contents, remnants of a crashed aircraft, local raw materials, etc.).

Unless the PCs get overly ambitious (read: silly) about whatever they build, it is fair to give them some breaks on this particular idea. Whatever the PCs build should be a one (or limited) use item and, as long as they treat it as such (Ie. carefully), they deserve special consideration for their ingenuity.

Quirks And Tweaks

Both Quirks and Tweaks are ways of giving a vehicle extra “character”. When working out details, the Referee should consider assigning a few of these.


Quirks are something that owners of any complex device / system should understand fully. The production run for a specific vehicle design could run anywhere from “several” to hundreds of thousands, but there can still be little oddities making each of said vehicles more of an ‘individual’. Maybe the PC vehicle only starts after the third try on cold mornings. Maybe opening or closing a specific door requires jiggling the lever “just so”. Maybe the left-side reading light is the only one that ever breaks, or there is that faint rattle under one seat whenever the brakes are hit TOO hard, or the Lighter sometimes gets stuck in its mount.

All of these things may technically be malfunctions, but are so trivial that effects on vehicle operation are almost always non-existent. There may be rare exceptions – difficulties getting started or in using a specific function can be entertaining complications in-game. But usually, the removal / eradication of individual Quirks are very probably much more trouble (and expense) than it is worth.

Of course, some PCs get downright obsessive about their vehicle being in perfect running order, and will go to extreme lengths to ‘cure’ anything that threatens this belief. My advice to GMs in this instance is “Let them” – let the PCs spend time, money and effort to put the ‘problem’ exactly right, then allow them a little time of apparent perfection before another Quirk eventually surfaces in another part of the vehicle. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

One last bit of advice regarding Vehicular Quirks is this. NEVER allow the PCs to make up their own. That way lies abuse of the system, as the vehicle’s Quirks almost certainly become an el cheapo anti-theft system (do such-and-such to open the door, do such-and-such to turn on the ignition, and do such-and-such to put the vehicle in gear),

Image from Knight

Image from Knight


Tweaks are quite distinct from Quirks. They are alterations intentionally made to the vehicle in order to improve specific capabilities. For a sufficiently-skilled technician, it should be possible to make minor improvements to any of a vehicles’ stats. However, there should always be trade-offs, a price to be paid, which may be direct or indirect.

The direct trade-offs are obvious. For example, trick out the engine so the vehicle can go faster, and this probably means fuel efficiency changes for the worse and/or the engine reliability suffers. How big the trade-off should depend on how major the change is.

The indirect trade-offs, are, strangely, inobvious. For example, one might tweak a vehicular weapon so that it has a higher Rate Of Fire. Due care is taken beforehand, so the weapon mount is up to the job and the weapon itself can withstand the additional stress. However, when fired for long enough, side-effects crop up in unexpected places. Maybe the extra vibration from firing damages adjacent components, or the additional heat keeps triggering the fire alarm. They may not be noticed immediately, and dealing with them may call for further tweaks. Noting that there is a slight possibility of additional problems being spawned.

The GM and Quirks & Tweaks

In either case, the administering of Quirks and Tweaks should be at the discretion of the Referee. The complexity of the vehicle, the extent of any changes made to it, the skill of the person(s) making the changes and the quality of the tools / equipment used for the work should all be factors. Allow for chances that the work being done will go wrong – and remember that most of it will probably void the warranty.


“The naming of cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games…
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?”

— From ‘The Naming Of Cats’ by T S Eliot.

Mr Eliot has the sense of it, and not only for cats. The name of a Party’s vehicle (indeed, of any vehicle encountered) deserves proper attention from both GM and Players. If pre-used, the vehicle should already have some kind of designation as part of its back-story.

Otherwise, the name can be a unifying symbol or badge of honor for the Party. “I’m the (Insert Rank / Job Description Here) of the (Insert Ship Name Here)” always sounds more impressive than “I’m the (Insert Rank / etc.), but I dunno what our ship is called”. I have witnessed games where Players said the latter. Ack!!!

Commonly, the ship name simply isn’t something that the Referee or the Players consider at all. Which, as you might reasonably guess, bothers me,

There are Players who think that, if their Character can’t be ‘The-Man-With-No-Name’, then being Captain / Crew of ‘The-Ship-With-No-Name’ is comparably Bad-@$$. Commonly, these are also the ones who put their Characters in Darth-Vader-with-chrome-trim outfits, and cosmetically alter their ship to resemble a Stealth Bomber (which is a terrible look if said ship is a 16th-century Galleon).

In a technological genre, vehicles will have an ID number at absolute minimum. Maybe several, including the one(s) allocated when it was built. A lack of even this should attract unwanted attention from people well-known for not having a sense of humor – law enforcers and bureaucrats and anyone who might hear about it and have a use for such a ship.

In a not-so-technological genre, there may be no ID number, but naming of vehicles could be a deadly serious matter of tradition and/or superstition. A lack of name may be commonly regarded as extremely unlucky (and, in certain genres, may actually BE unlucky).

There is also the chance that other people eventually give said ship a name, but this is unlikely to be anything any PC will like (“That @#$%^ Psycho’s Ship” being one likely favorite).

A few guidelines:

  • Most important, Be able to say the name out loud in polite / mixed company.,/em> It might seem hilarious to have the name be an obscenity or unpronounceable, but the novelty wears out quickly.
  • Set Cuteness On Low. In one ‘Stargate SG-1’ episode, Colonel Jack O’Neill wanted to name the SGC’s new starship ‘Enterprise’ because “he liked that show”. That’s fine, on the face of it – we all smiled, and it was very much in character for Jack. But overdoing cross-genre references (Trek in an SG-1 game, Star Wars in WH40K, etc.), can break immersion and even get annoying. If you must, then keep it at one or two, tops, and move on.

    How many people have ever tried to get cute when assigning a user-name for some website or another? How many people have found that the name is already gone? Websites solve the problem of needing a unique user-name by forcing people to attach numbers to the end of their chosen name – or make a new choice. GMs should use this as a way to “censor” excessively cute names by appending twelve-digit numbers to ensure “uniqueness”. When a reasonable name is chosen, miracle of miracles, the name is available. – Mike

  • Make Up Your Mind. Depending on the genre and the campaign, there may be times when it is appropriate and even necessary to change the ship’s ID / name. That time will not be every session and/or at the whim of the PCs. If nothing else, overdoing this should attract the wrong sort of attention from others. Also, if superstition is at all a thing in the game, changing a ship’s name is traditionally regarded as unlucky.

    Of course, if changing a name is bad luck, there will usually be a difficult, expensive, inconvenient, and/or time-consuming ritual to prevent the bad luck. Use NPC behavior to enforce the ritual, escalating to a new Quirk if necessary. – Mike

  • Respect The Background, (or DON’T Be An Obnoxious @$$). Look at what other ships in the game background are called, and get ideas there. Deliberately obnoxious names (eg. someone in a WH40K game who insists on naming their ship ‘The God-Emperor Is An @#$%^&*s’) should be smacked down hard.
But, Seriously, What Do I Name It?

After considering the above, anything you want. Originality is not required – eg. feel free to check how many ‘Enterprises’ there have been in the world. Check the game background for ideas. Otherwise, inspiration can be had from the names of people, animals, places, things, events, tactics, colors, mental traits, famous quotes, catch-phrases, puns, word-plays, literary references, jargon from specific sub-groups / sub-cultures, and combinations thereof.

More suggestions can be found in the “Ships and starships” section of With The Right Seasoning: Beyond Simple Names, part of the “A good name is hard to find” series. – Mike

We Can’t Agree On A Name…

Make a short list, eliminate any choices that some people really don’t like, then determine randomly from whatever is left. Whatever comes up is irrevocably final. Or just invoke your Ghod-given powers as Referee. Honestly, do I have to tell you EVERYTHING?

I agree with Ian’s first two steps.

There are two approaches to use: #1, In-game – in which case NPCs should not get to vote except to break a deadlock, and then in favor of the GM’s choice from the player-provided shortlist (see below); and #2, Metagame, in which case the GM may exercise veto authority but should not vote except to break a tie.

So which shortlisted name should the GM choose? After excluding any names that he really doesn’t like, I would choose the most evocative name – evocative being measured by the predicted fun factor of the adventure idea that the name inspires. After all, a ship with no name may be bad, a ship with a name may be better, but the best of all is a ship with a name and a story to go along with that name! – Mike

The second part of this article will appear next week. This article will be ever-so-minutely revised to replace this text with a link to it when that happens.


About The Author

Ian Mackinder is a long-time friend of Mike’s, and is almost as keen a gamer in his own twisted way. Over the years, he has been in several of Mike’s campaigns, and vice versa, but both seem none the worse for it.

In the past, Ian has refereed ‘Star Trek’ (FASA) and Classic Traveller. Currently, he is running a ‘7th Sea’ game, and resigned to apparently being the only Referee of that system in the entire Greater Sydney region – he would love to PLAY in a campaign himself some day. Ian regularly plays in various systems – including D&D4, Rogue Trader and Pulp HERO. He likes a lot of other systems but, after one bad experience, will NOT play ‘Runequest’ again – and if you aren’t careful enough, he will tell you why.

Ian’s other hobbies include history (Australian, military, weird, hidden, maritime, and combinations thereof), TV & Movies, Forteana, browsing the Internet, and SF in general (with occasional excursions into Fantasy). He is also a keen player of the ‘Fallout 3’ computer game, and currently writes a sort-of series about that called ‘The Walker Files,’ which can be found on the ‘Fallout 3 Nexus’. Happily, his amazing wife and brilliant daughter both manage to put up with all this.

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An AcadeCon For Your Consideration

AcadeCon 2015 Logorpg blog carnival logo

The Backstory

Michael (aka @TheRPGAcademy on Twitter) has been a supporter of Campaign Mastery and an occasional conversationalist on the subject of gaming for several years now. He is also one of the people behind the RPG Academy podcasts. Several months ago, he flattered me outrageously with an offer to be interviewed for the show as one of their “Show & Tell” guests; a technological handicap prevented me from accepting at the time, but I was chuffed nevertheless (anytime the circumstances change, he’ll be the first person I tell about it)!

Acadecon and the Kickstarter Campaign

Last week, he invited me to take a look at his Kickstarter fundraiser for AcadeCon and possibly promote the event if anything struck a chord. They are fully funded already, but there are some cool stretch goals that he would really like to see happen, so I took a look.

This will be the third AcadeCon (which I would pronounce “Akkaddakon”), a gaming convention in southern Ohio; the first two were limited by venue space, and so were invitation-only. The 2015 model will take the convention into Hueston Lodge, located in the Ohio State Park, a picturesque location just north of Cincinnati. That carries several advantages – more space, 24-hour gaming, and no real worries about disturbing the neighbors with gaming noise! The Con is scheduled to take place on the 13th, 14th, and 15th of November, 2015.

To quote Michael, and his partner-in-gaming-crime, Caleb, “Our only goal this year is to have fun. We are not making a profit from this convention. All funds received will go towards improving the quality of this event and preparing for a bigger and better convention in 2016.

“When the campaign is fully funded, we will be able to hold our event without losing any money. But at The RPG Academy, we always like to surpass our minimum plans. So please, take a look at the Stretch Goals below and check out our backer rewards. Also, we’ve included links to some of our favorite episodes of the podcast if you would like to hear what we’re all about.

“But, more than anything, remember to play more games and follow our motto: If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right!”

So check out the Kickstarter by clicking on the AcadeCon logo above, or on this link – you have until September 7th. If you want more information, you can also look at the convention page at the RPG Academy website.

There is some cool swag up for grabs, and most of the stretch goals are all about adding to the swag, so don’t miss out if you have any interest whatsoever! That deadline again is September 7, 2015.

Meanwhile, At The Blog Carnival

This month’s Blog Carnival is being hosted by Mark Clover at Creative Mountain Games, aka CMG.

Mark Clover (of CMG) (@MarkCMG on Twitter) is another long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery, often promoting my articles on social media, so I was eager to participate if I could – but as has been the case for the last couple of months, I was drawing a blank when it came to subjects (for reasons that will become clear a little later).

That was, until Michael extended his invitation, and a key phrase from the Kickstarter write-up (quoted above) leapt out of the woodwork to inspire me: “…preparing for a bigger and better convention in 2016…” and I asked myself, “what would I do to use one year’s first public convention as a springboard to a bigger and better convention the following year?” What strategies could I devise?

What would I do?

If I were designing a convention to grow into something bigger and better in future years, what would I do? How would I organize it? What would I like to see?

What would I do?

Ideas began to tumble forth, as though my subconscious had been thinking about the question for simply ages, and just waiting to be tickled in exactly the right way…

A Caveat: My limited gaming convention experience

Up front, I have to confess to an extremely limited experience when it comes to Gaming Conventions. I’ve been involved in the organization and running of two conventions – one Sci-Fi and one Tolkien-themed. I’ve been peripherally involved in one World Science-Fiction convention, co-hosted the official (and successful) bid party for another, and was a member of the organizing committee bidding to host a third – but not a lot of that is relevant. I’ve attended two gaming conventions, sitting in on one game session in one, and keeping a vendor in the huckster’s area company in another. And that’s the full extent of my convention experience.

So my ideas (as opposed to a couple of war-stories I’ve shared during the discussion to follow) have to be viewed in the context of being strictly theoretical, with no certainty that any of them are at all practical. I think they are both good and workable, but I have no grounding in expertise to give that opinion any credibility.

A further caveat: Organizer Surprise

I wouldn’t expect to see any of these ideas forming part of the structure of AcadeCon 2015, even if they are viable in the longer term, for the simple reason that organization of the convention is obviously already well-advanced, and Michael won’t have seen or heard any of them prior to the publication of this article. He’s going to be as taken by surprise as any other reader.

A reasonable expectation

Rather than expecting any of these proposals to be accepted, or even directly relevant, what I could reasonably hope to achieve is to spark a discussion of the proposals and their underlying thinking. Many of them relate to topics that don’t often get a public airing, for one reason or another, either because they might seem boring to outsiders, or there may be dirty laundry involved, or to preserve the mystique that organizers always know exactly what they are doing. There’s no university degree or even college class that I’m aware of that teaches you how to run a gaming convention! Most people learn from bitter experience, from assisting in the management of other people’s conventions, or – if they are lucky – from other organizers with more experience.

Some of the advice is potentially stating the obvious. I make no apologies for that; it’s better to have it said publicly than not said at all.


Gaming should be organized into sessions or units. Each should leave enough time for a meal and some shopping in the huxter’s area between games, plus transit from one to the next. In addition, each should have a “margin” built in in case they run long. My original thinking on this didn’t allow for 24-hour-a-day gaming but that makes little difference; if the day is 12 hours long, you get two sessions a day; 15-18, three; 24, four. Alternatively, you could use 8, 16, and 24. I would also recommend an in-the-middle-of-session break of 15 minutes.

Meal allowance: 30 mins should be long enough, given that more can be appropriated from other functions. Shopping: 15 minutes. Movement from one event to the next: another 15 minutes. Margin: 30 minutes.

That means that if the session plus extras are 6 hours long, each play “unit” would be four and one-quarter hours in length, which doesn’t include the 15-minute break somewhere in the middle. If the sessions are 8 hours long, each play “unit” would be six and one-quarter hours in length, not counting the 15-minute break.

Some of the games should be three units long, some two, and some single-sessions. These should occur on different days if possible, encouraging a variety of games for the attendees.

Experience Ratings

Gamers should be able to rate themselves on a four-step scale, and games of each length should be targeted at each of the steps. The terms I’ve chosen to refer to these ratings are Beginners, Apprentices, Journeymen, and Masters.


Growing a convention necessarily has a sub-context, at least in part, of growing the hobby. And that means encouraging new players to take it up. Beginners are those with less than 10 sessions of gaming under their belts. Playing once a month would get you out of Beginner standard in about a year; playing every week would get you there in about three months. In other words, this category really is reserved for those who don’t know exactly what they are doing yet, who still need the occasional reminder of what 4d8 means, and so on.


Apprentices are those who have started learning how to play, but have not yet really mastered it. If you have played or GM’d more than 10 game sessions, but have been at it for less than, say, three years, you would fall into this category. A journeyman probably only has experience of one or perhaps two game systems. One unresolved question is to what extent further breadth of experience should mitigate against the three-year boundary; while every different game system adds experience and variety to the gaming CV, it also limits the depth of expertise in any one of them. So there are factors to consider in both directions.

My gut feeling is that each extra game system (over the expected two) in which you have at least 4 months experience or 20 game sessions should add about 6 months to your experience, over and above the actual playing time, until you get to more than 6 in total. On a three-year basis, that would mean that you averaged 5 months to a game system – which at 4 weeks in the average month, is 20 game sessions. Beyond that, each extra should count for minus 1/4 of a year, with the final verdict to belong to the GM of the game.


Journeymen are probably the largest group – if your gaming experience is anywhere from three to fifteen or maybe 20 years, this is where you belong. You would be expected to have experience in at least 3 game systems over that long a period, and probably a great deal more. At this level of expertise, you should be able to learn a new game system as you play and with minimal instruction.


Masters are the real pro’s. Anyone with 15-20 years at the game table, in any capacity, is not likely to need a whole lot of hand-holding; on the contrary, they are likely to need a whole new order of challenge in order to test them.

Why Discriminate?

First, “Discriminate” should be viewed in the sense of choosing or characterizing, and not be understood in any pejorative sense. Nevertheless, I deliberately chose the term for its shock value.

I think that expectations of ability and difficulty of game would be different at the different levels of expertise, that the reward that you receive is more likely to be satisfying if those demands are in line with the level of expertise you posses, and that the presence of someone without the appropriate level of experience at a game table can interfere with the fun of other players, inducing frustration. In my first game, I played a first-level character amongst others ranging from 5th to 12th level, with challenges geared accordingly. I died very quickly – and if I had payed to participate, would not have been very happy about it. A game targeted at my level of expertise, possibly even with slightly higher character levels than first to give scope for making a mistake without the consequences being immediate death, would be a lot more reasonable – and fun.

So it’s to the benefit of the participants to rate the games for expertise levels.

As you’ll see a little later, it also permits the convention organizers the capacity to target each level of customer with benefits, inducements, and encouragement to grow both the hobby and future versions of the convention. So it’s a win all round, while the alternative can be a source of trouble.

I’ve seen convention modules published in magazines before, and (in general), they pay more attention to character level than they do to the level of player expertise, as though assuming that if you have a 9th level character, that your character has earned all nine of those levels in play. I think that’s an unwarranted assumption.

Hucksters & Advertising

Every convention should have an active hucksters area. Invite local game stores, local book stores, regional publishers. If there’s a store in the region that handles gamer-style t-shirts, invite them, too. Try to think outside the box and invite someone who normally doesn’t get a table at an RPG convention – DrivethruRPG or Amazon or Netflix. Even if they don’t accept the invite they might be interested in a promotional tie-in.

INVITE THE LOCAL MEDIA, and have a professional press-kit distributed to all local and several major national media outlets. You want first-time gamers – because a year from now, if you’ve done it right, they will be back, beginners no more.

Most conventions charge vendors for the privilege. That’s all well and good for the convention, but it doesn’t grow things very much because it imposes an additional overhead that must be met before the vendor can make a profit. There should be a better way of doing things, but short of imposing draconian accountancy, I have to admit that I can’t think of a general solution. My best idea is to charge customers an entrance fee into the huckster’s area, giving them a pass that’s valid all day – but that’s too easy to cheat. Maybe stamping hands the way they do at nightclubs is the answer. By charging each potential customer a small fee you can reduce what you charge the vendors for table space, and the convention makes money whether the customers buy or not.

The best that I can suggest is that you permit vendors to pre-book table space for the next year’s Convention right up to the end of this year’s con – and get a discount on that booking and a partial refund on this year’s con if they do. You want to generate word of mouth through these venues, and having their customers hear that they will be attending can help make them your customers. I would further offer a smaller discount on this year’s fees if a flier for the convention is displayed in their stores and/or websites prior to the con.


Do a deal with a local vendor – free space (ie payed for by the con) but if they do a certain amount of trade over the whole convention, they have to come back for the next one – at an agreed-in-advance fee based on huckster table rates. That’s assuming that the venue isn’t catered, of course.

Access to the food area should be through the huckster’s area. You want to encourage impulse shopping and the buzz of “look what I just bought” as people pass.

One of the first two conventions that I attended provided tea and coffee for A$1 a disposable Styrofoam cup (it was in the 80s, and this was comparable to vending-machine prices at the time). It was my responsibility that weekend to ensure that as each panel ended, a fresh supply of hot water was available, milk was restocked, etc. The convention was being held on the first-floor convention facilities of a city hotel, and the milk came from a store across the road with whom the convention organizers had done a deal – down two short flights of stairs and then back up them with the milk. It all sounds fair enough, doesn’t it?

The grab-a-quick-cuppa proved so popular that over the course of the 4-day convention, I carried more than 3,000 liters (3170 quarts) of milk up those two flights of stairs, 20 liters at a time (in 4 liter plastic bottles that are still in use today). It seemed like I no sooner got back than I would have to turn around and go back again, but carrying more didn’t seem to be a viable solution either. It caused panic attacks at the supplier, too, who went through their stock for the weekend – even though they had arranged to have extra – in just 6 hours. The convention made about A$1800 profit from the hot-drinks-between-sessions alone (and I’ve taken my coffee and tea black ever since).

Now, I haven’t looked up November weather in Ohio, but I suspect that the seasonal position (early winter) would have been comparable, if not a little warmer here in Sydney. There are valuable lessons in this story for any convention organizer!

“Corridor Space” and other mistakes

I’ve seen at least one convention that seriously underestimated the amount of space needed in the aisles between huckster tables, forming bottlenecks that resulted in a lot of problems – everything from theft to an entire display accidentally getting knocked over and injuring the knockee. I’ve also seen a convention which tried to organize them by type of business, so that you had all the vendors of second-hand books together, and all the people selling toys together, and so on. This facilitated price wars and ill-will between those vendors. At the same time, I’ve also seen vendors take advantage of greater distance between them and their rivals to secretly undercut those rivals. Finally, I’ve seen a convention that didn’t think that the Huckster’s area needed security. None of these worked out very well for either the con or the vendors, and one convention was almost sued by a Vendor as a result, claiming that the convention had made promises and failed to deliver on them, costing the vendor trade.

If I’ve seen these problems with my limited convention experience, how commonplace must they be?

It’s always worth investigating the price of insurance against damages claims by vendors. This includes event insurance in case the Con gets canceled for some reason.

Finally, I’ve seen one convention which seriously over-estimated the available space in the huckster’s area, only discovering the error the night before the convention; they had to set up the overflow in a separate space, and that caused considerable ill-will.

If you must charge a table fee, I suggest making it a sliding scale – one table for X, a second table for Y, a third for Z, and so on – and specifying the maximum size of each space considered a “table”.

First Aid Stations and other necessities

You need at least one of these, preferably two or three. At least one of them should be outside the huckster’s area, and at least one inside. You should notify the local police and ambulance services that there is going to be a convention going on, as a courtesy.

While I’m on the subject of telling people, warning any local merchants that there may be people in strange costumes wandering around and possible shopping in their stores can save a lot of trouble – one fellow almost got arrested, possibly shot, because he was in a (pre-movie) Starship Troopers ensemble, complete with dummy rifle, and went into the local 7-11 equivalent to buy snacks. The clerk thought the convention-goer was there to rob the store and hit the silent alarm…

Weapons policies are always a headache – both getting people to agree on what the policy should be, communicating it to the attendees in advance, and enforcing it.

You want to keep your convention-goers safe and you definitely don’t need the negative publicity that can result.


Of course, there should be panels and workshops and discussions between guests. But what should these be about? This was actually my initial thought of all those presented in this article, the stone that got the ball rolling, as it were.

While pre-registration for panels is possibly a necessity, with participating numbers limited, attendance of one panel that I immediately thought of should be encouraged as widely as possible: How to write, prepare, test, and run a convention adventure!

The more people who can contribute and run adventures, the more players can be serviced at the next convention. Attendance should come with all the paperwork that people will need to fill out in order to offer a game at that next convention – fill out the form, mail it by the date stamped on it, and it’s over to the organizers. If you can get 150 GMs, who have never run a convention game before, attending such a panel, and only one in twenty take the next steps and actually sign up to run their first convention game in a year’s time, that’s an extra 7-8 GMs next year. If you can up those numbers to 300 and one-in-ten, that’s 30 extra GMs. 600 and one-in-five, and that’s another 120 GMs!

You want bigger and better in twelve months time? Give your attendees the tools to make it happen! Work out what you will need to accommodate double or triple this year’s expected attendance and use this convention to achieve those requirements!

Everything else that I propose in this article has flowed from this one starting point.

Panels and related activities should be between 60 and 120 minutes in length. That means that in a single “game session” you can attend two or three panels instead of playing.

Admission vs Game Entry Fees

There are those who might argue that one fee, up front, is the better approach. It certainly has the virtue of elegance and simplicity. But I think there’s something to be said for a more pay-for-what-you-play approach.

First, it would enable you to keep general admission fees down – and that, in turn, encourages a strong turn-out. Young gamers in particular, by-and-large, are not the wealthiest of individuals. And the vast probability is that if they save money on admission, any extra will get spent in the huckster’s area, enhancing the reputation and likely future attendance of the next convention. It’s a snowball effect.

Second, it doesn’t mean any more work if you require pre-registration for events (other than those for beginners, perhaps). It simply means that instead of one item on the receipt, there are several. More, it means that convention goers who might not otherwise have the financing to attend will do so at least part of the time (NB: my thinking on this was, at the time, that the convention would be held in a city hotel), enabling participants to come and go.

Once I had this general thought, opportunities to encourage participation began to occur to me, mostly of the cross-promotional variety. The general principle was that most participants should pay for about 2/3 of the activities they are involved in, with the remaining 1/3 being subsidized by the first two-thirds or by convention-supporting activities.


A Beginner’s first session should be free with admission, and they should get one other session free. They should also get admission to one panel of their choice, free. The costs of running these should be subsidized by the convention because if their convention grows the hobby, the hobby will grow their convention.


Apprentices should also receive one session’s entry free with admission, plus a rebate of 1 other session free if they buy the appropriate core rules for that game from an on-site vendor, and an additional session free if they GM 2 sessions for beginners (subject to availability of convention space). (They should also get entrance to 1 panel free with their general admission). Finally, of course, GMs don’t pay entrance fees for any session that they GM.

This encourages the sale of product, keeping the vendors happy, and provides an incentive to game producers to feature their latest products – possibly in return for a partial subsidy of the cost – a reasonable marketing operation, especially in conjunction with the “How to GM a convention game” panels. Between this policy and the panel, you are giving young GMs everything they need to step forward and become the future backbone of the hobby.


Journeymen get 1 session free with admission, plus 1 other session free (via rebate) if they spend $100 (or $75 maybe?) in the huckster’s area, plus 1 free session of play for every 3 sessions they GM (subject to availability of convention space), and 1 panel free. I’ve already indicated that I expect this to be the most populous group of attendees, and this policy is aimed at persuading them to attend at a discount if they spend part of their time helping to make the convention a success. The “subject to availability” is an important point, because it means first in, best dressed (in terms of getting the discount) and prioritizes the most organized GMs. This settles the convention games roster ASAP.

Once again, GMs don’t pay entrance fees for any session that they GM.


Masters get their last session of play free with admission, plus one other session free for every 3 sessions they GM for others of Master or Journeyman level or 4 sessions they GM for Beginners or apprentices (subject to availability of convention space), and attendance of one panel free. This encourages those with the greatest mastery of the art of GMing to stay the course for the whole weekend.

And, as usual, GMs don’t pay entrance fees for any session that they GM.

Panel Presenters

Panel presenters and special guests should get free general admission and 1 free game session for each panel or workshop they participate in (subject to availability of space). This combines two principles: “all work and no play” and making contact with a potential fan-base. The assumption is that these are professionals, semi-professionals, or otherwise substantial figures within the industry. Of course, they would not pay entrance fees for any session that they GM, but on top of that, I would give them one session free for each session that they GM – encouraging them to bring and demonstrate their latest products, and enhancing the contribution they make to the convention, overall. Ideally, this should mean that a guest has his entire weekend filled with gaming and related activities without having to part with a dime, simply by staying with the optimum mix of activities – but affording them the flexibility to vary the convention’s idea of “optimum” to suit themselves.

Panel registration

If panels are to be about 1/3 of a game session in length, they should cost about 1/3 of the session fee. At least two different panels should be underway at any given time simultaneously, so that convention-goers have a choice of what to attend.


If possible, panels should be recorded on videotape and sold on DVD on the final day, so that if you wanted to attend a panel but couldn’t, you can do so retrospectively. “Profit” levels on these should be as near to zero as possible – because every time the resulting DVD gets played, the convention is promoted. Next best would be to upload the panels to youTube.

Furthermore, if the DVDs / videos are made more generally available (at a slight premium), it provides a mechanism whereby those who can’t attend the convention can still support it. That’s a win all round, in my book.

How to get these made on the cheap? Make contact with a school, technical college, or university in the area that is offering classes in video production, and try to do a deal – you supply the event, they supply camera, lighting, and sound crew and equipment. You want these to be reasonably impressive, because this is how those who didn’t attend will see your convention – and maybe decide it’s worth going to in a year’s time.

In Reality

I started by saying that I have no evidence to suggest that any of these ideas would work in real life. In fact, I can see practical difficulties that would need to be overcome in many cases. These are not insuperable; for example, I can see how a tailored SurveyMonkey “survey” could be used to pre-register attendance at different events. I don’t think any of the practical issues are insuperable.

Having them be practical for the particular convention under discussion is a whole different kettle of fish. But hopefully, they – or someone – can glean some advice of merit from my ruminations and recollections.

At the very least, as I stated earlier, I would hope to kick-start a discussion of these ideas. Heck, that would even make an interesting and useful panel at a gaming convention – “How to make next year bigger and better, or what you want from future versions of this convention”….

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Morgalad In Reflection

Morgalad Cover

I was recently invited to review the Morgalad Starter Book by John McNabb, available through DrivethruRPG.

Publication of Morgalad is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign which, like the result, is an interesting mixture of flawed ambition and success. The initial attempt at funding Morgalad sought to raise $20,000 and was a dismal failure; John reassessed his plans, setting his sights considerably lower, and succeeded in reaching the smaller target.

Morgalad is essentially a simplified version of the d20 rules built around a roll of 4d6, and aimed at generating an old-school flavor while incorporating the best aspects of the more modern game mechanics. Furthermore, character development paths can include increasing those dice to 5d6 or even 6d6 without altering the targets to be achieved.

The 4d6 mechanic

Morgalad’s game mechanics are quite straightforward. Roll dice, add any bonuses, and succeed if you achieve a defined total. This same principle is employed for skill checks, for attack rolls, for spellcasting, and for damage, where you need to better the armor of the target to damage it. There is, of course, more to the story, but that’s the central mechanic.

Using 4d6 is very interesting. Quite obviously, that produces a classical bell-curve, as shown below,

4d6 results plot

4d6 roll, base graph generated using AnyDice ( Click the image to visit the calculator.

The red line shows the 5% mark, ie the chance of a result on a d20, for comparison purposes. Clearly, your chances of rolling any number between 10 and 18 are higher than the chances of the same result coming up on a d20. This becomes significant when I tell you that the target for an Easy task is 10 or better (assuming that you have the requisite skill) while the target for an Extraordinarily difficult task is 19 or better – if you have the skill.

vs 5d6, 6d6

While the capacity to improve a character with experience by adding a modifier is clearly significant, the capacity to add another d6 or two is even more so – but not always in the way desired. That’s because 5d6 bunches the probably results even more closely toward the average (so fewer results are above the 5% line), and 6d6 is even more extreme. However, the increase in the maximum possible result more redeems the situation.

The graph below shows the results for all five target numbers:

chance of success 4d6 vs target numbers

Chances of achieving target or better on 4d6 (graphed), 5d6, and 6d6 (numeric percentages for comparison). Base Graph generated using AnyDice ( Click the image to visit the calculator.

With the standard 4d6 roll, there is almost a 10% chance of failure at an Easy task; with 5d6, that chance is less than 2%; and with 6d6, you would feel quite aggrieved at the world were you to fail such a check.

Looking at the other extreme, with a standard 4d6 roll, you have a slightly less than 10% chance at succeeding in an extraordinary task; with 5d6, that rises to almost 40%, and with 6d6, the chance is over 72%.

Spell Use

Spell use is kept within manageable limits by means of a simple energy points system – and the same points can be used by non-spellcasters for other special abilities. Most spells have an energy cost of about 15 points, while other abilities can be anywhere from 0 to 30 energy to use. Starting characters usually have something in the vicinity of 70 energy points to expend, and those are recovered after resting.

The Flaws

Morgalad is not without its flaws, I’m afraid.

The Writing

The syntax is often strained and the text that I saw, as a whole, needs a good editor. You can usually work out what is meant, but the absence of adequate punctuation is something you have to constantly struggle against. A typical example:

“Players are limited to 3 actions a standard action, a minor action, and a movement action.”

This is not the worst example I could have chosen, nor is it the best; it’s fairly typical. John knows what he is trying to communicate, and usually gets it across, but you have to decipher the text to understand it. If it were only occasional, this would probably be more forgivable, but it occurs at least once in almost every paragraph.

The Typography

My graphics design teacher once told our class, “there are more crimes committed with typography than could be accommodated in all the prisons in all the countries on earth.” I suspect she was exaggerating slightly, and employing a little hyperbole to boot, but the typography in Morgalad is appalling in places.

Some of the text is rendered in a quite legible font. Some is rendered in a fancy “handwritten” font that is also reasonably legible, but becomes visually tiring after a while, and achieves little beyond padding the page count. Chapter headings are in a singularly-inappropriate “Riverboat” font that should not be seen anywhere near a fantasy document, but at least it’s legible. Major headings are in two fonts – a fancy and totally-illegible drop capital and a fancy but more legible “handwritten” font for the rest of each word; Minor headings and some text are purely in the second font of those two. You can usually guess what the illegible letter is – a section labeled “[something]ombat” is clearly meant to read “Combat”. But it’s all totally unnecessary.

I would use the legible sans-serif font from the tables for virtually all the text, reserve the fancy “content” font for minor headings, the legible “fancy” font for the major headings and, in a larger size and greater weight (bolded), for the chapter headings. And be consistent about it. If you really want to use a hand-written font from time to time for the flavor, use the fancy “content” font in a size more visually similar to that of the plain text for the first line of each major section or each Chapter.


A large section of the introduction simply repeats and rephrases material from the “How To Play” and is redundant. The language used is so strikingly similar that it is off-putting; I would move the introduction to precede “How To Play” and cut the second and third paragraphs from the introduction completely – more than half a page is wasted on redundant information. It would also be quite acceptable to simply mention the subject of those paragraphs in the introduction and then refer the reader to the “How to play” section.

The Terminology

The text is full of terms that have different meanings to the ones that I am used to. For example, “Cinematic” is used to describe “tactical” combat in which every blow and detail is individually resolved, instead of describing the most visceral combat structure. I could probably live with that, but there are a number of terms that seem different to standard for the sake of being different.


It might be there somewhere, but I could not find where the rules tell players or GMs how characters get killed. Being reduced to zero Health leaves a character unconscious and incapacitated, not dead; the rules elsewhere specifically warn that characters can get killed, but there is no definition of how that happens.


In a game system so strongly reminiscent of D&D 3.x / Pathfinder, I kept looking for the originality. There isn’t a lot of it on evidence, but what there is has been used quite cleverly. The level progression system is simple and straightforward; the combat mechanisms and spellcasting, ditto; and the alignment infraction system is both more sophisticated and simpler to administer than many others that I’ve seen. The use of 4d6 instead of a d20 has been cleverly used to good advantage, as shown by the graph above. And the way different weapon and armor materials have been applied to the mechanics is excellent.

The Success

Maybe it’s because I’ve been writing the series on Beginners lately, so it’s on my mind, but throughout my reading of the Morgalad Starter Book, I was continually struck by how similar it all was to a vastly simplified form of 3.x / Pathfinder – albeit one that uses different terminology for key concepts without changing the substance and basic principles overmuch.

The Morgalad Starter Book is the ideal vehicle for teaching new players, especially younger ones (ages 5+, perhaps?) how to play. It would also be a more than acceptable system for a novice GM to cut his teeth on. When ready for a more sophisticated approach, the full Morgalad Core Book would (I expect) provide a natural stepping-stone and progression path to the more complex systems. But I can’t help thinking that players and GMs making such a step forward would find themselves thinking that the bigger systems at least call a spade, a spade.

Convention games, in which the priority is a playable game over the full sophistication of a robust and complex rules system, would also be a very apt application of the Morgalad rules, making it easy for any player to drop into the game without hours spent studying the rules.

In many ways, the very “shortcomings” of the starter book can be an advantage. When dealing with children, even the absence of defining a “death level” becomes a benefit, making the game suitable for smaller children. All this book really needs is simpler typography and a half-decent editor to become something exceptional, an asset to the entire RPG community.


If it were priced appropriately for such purposes, I would recommend it – flaws and all – unreservedly. I would certainly keep a copy on hand for introducing family and friends to gaming for the first time. But the price is two-to-three times what I would expect to pay for a game that I expected to leave on a shelf (or a hard disc) against such a need; and that represents a caveat.

If you know that you are going to be introducing players who have never gamed before to the hobby, then it is still a worthy purchase, but if that is merely something that might happen in the future, it is probably priced out of the range of casual purchase. Similarly, if you know that you are going to GM a convention game targeted at novice players, it is a choice well worth considering – but if that’s not the case, the price is probably too high.

It is available in softcover for US $25 from Amazon in 8×11 page size or 6×9 page size and for US $9.95 from Amazon (6×9 Softcover) or DriveThruRPG as a PDF. However, the latter seemed also to be offering their “Pay What You Want” option; if that is really the case, then I would withdraw all reservations and recommend purchasing!

An Update

I offered the author, John McNabb, a preview of this review, and the opportunity to respond to my criticisms and comments.

He states that the high price on Amazon is the result of the product listing being made by the printing company that he used, and that he disagrees with it so much that he has created his own shopfront to sell copies directly at the lower price being charged on RPGNow.

I’ve updated the article above to link to both, so be careful which link you click on!

Johnn also tells me that many of the other issues I have identified are either in the process of being rectified, or have already been cleaned up relative to the version that I’ve seen, but I can only review what’s in front of me. I have no reason to doubt him, so the version you get might well be substantially improved over the review version discussed above – something to bear in mind!

The bottom line: The Morgalad Starter Book is well worth considering if you have need of it.

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 3: Preparations


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

I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This will probably be the last in the series for a little while, I don’t want to exhaust myself (or reader’s attentions) on the subject.

There’s always a danger when you write big, comprehensive articles like those that appear at Campaign Mastery that you will say all that there is to say on a subject, and I have to admit that I was concerned that I might have already said it all on the subject of Prep. After all, and setting aside articles on specific types of game prep, I’ve already given my best advice on the subject – and linked to the articles in question in the course of this series, to boot.

In a nutshell, that best advice would be:

  • Know how much time you have available for prep;
  • Know how much time each element to be prepped will require to achieve the minimum possible satisfactory standard;
  • Know how to prioritize the elements that are most important for the next session of play;
  • Know which prep will have a life beyond the immediate session of play, rewarding an investment of time in achieving a higher quality of result; and
  • If necessary, plan and schedule prep sessions before the results will be needed.

Most of this advice is incorporated into two articles, as I said in the last post: the first is Fire Fighting, Systems Analysis, and RPG Problem Solving Part 2 of 3: Prioritization and the second is Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity. Choice number one is simpler, and so easier for a Beginner to use, but makes no distinction in terms of quality of prep; choice number two is more useful because it does incorporate those different standards of prep. Try them both, choose the one that suits your best, and learn when each of the techniques is going to be most useful to you.

On top of that, this is a perennial favorite topic for RPG blogs, making it still harder to find new insights to offer. Nevertheless I’ve found that I do have a couple of insights to share. Some of this applies specifically to beginners, and represents practices that I explicitly don’t recommend for experienced GMs attempting to improve their games (unless they feel a need to go all the way back to the basics, which does occasionally happen). Other points will be equally applicable to everyone.

The intimidation of experience

It’s an inevitable fact: being a beginner GM means that you are inexperienced at being a GM. That inexperience can seem overwhelming in the face of greater expertise. There are two ways that experience can intimidate, so let’s get them out of the way up-front.

The intimidation of experience: Players

I’ve seen a number of potential GMs who lacked the confidence to even try getting behind the GM’s screen, simply because the potential players were all far more experienced than they were. Experienced players can take over your campaign if you let them, it’s true; but you will learn more in a single session, even if that happens, than you would in a year of playing with people closer to your own level of expertise.

But the intimidation of experienced players goes beyond even that concern; you might even question why experienced players would even be interested in playing a campaign being run by a novice GM. I have three answers to that:

  • First, gaming is a social activity, which means that most players feel a certain level of responsibility to the activity and the society that has grown up around it; this is not only why GMs are almost always thrilled to introduce new players to the hobby, it is why they are enthusiastically in favor of giving a new GM their start. See my article, Bringing on the next generation, Part Two: Gamemaster Mentors.
  • Second, you might be brilliant at it, and no GM worth his dice would pass up the chance to have fun gaming – whether they were behind the screen, or not; and
  • Third, an awful lot of advances are achieved not by the experienced, who know all the reasons why something won’t work, but by the amateur who doesn’t know any better – and who then finds a way to make it work. GMs join other campaigns, especially those run by beginners, for the chance to discover something new that they can expropriate and add to their own toolkits.

And, of course, there’s the ego-boost of being able to show off your experience, which is just the cherry on top.

Seek out the most experienced players you can find, and offer them a one-off game (so that it doesn’t matter if it goes off the rails or you find yourself out of your depth, and learn. Soak up as much second-hand expertise as you can find. (If you do this, make sure to leave plenty of time for a session debriefing after the game, ask these experienced players what they would have done differently, and why, and what they found original or interesting about your game so that you can feature it more prominently in the future).

Don’t let yourself be intimidated by experienced players; treat them as a compliment and opportunity.

The intimidation of experience: GMs

But don’t expect to run before you can walk. I was mortified when one of my players once told me that he didn’t think he would ever be a GM because he didn’t think he could live up to the standard that I set behind the metaphoric GM’s Screen (as well as being greatly complimented); no beginner should ever expect to have to compete with someone who’s been investing time and effort into an activity for decades.

I’ve known five other GMs for about as long as I’ve been gaming; One spent long periods as a player, even though he was a published game author; one stepped away from gaming completely for a solid 20 or more years. We’re all pretty set in our ways, to the extent that we can read each other’s playbooks fairly well even before we sit at the table, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and styles. New ideas enter those playbooks from three sources: New game systems that emphasize something different to what we’ve mastered – a minor but regular source; New campaigns – if we’re open to letting them take on a life of their own, and simply learning from the experience, which happens less often than you might think; and new Players and GMs, that show us the old things from a new perspective.

Don’t try and compete with experienced GMs; learn from them! Enlist their help from time to time; ask them to join as a player; give one a difficult or complicated NPC to run as a “guest player” every now and then; even get one to co-GM. (My article, An Adventure Into Writing: The Co-GMing Difference spells out how the co-GM of the Adventurer’s Club campaign and I collaborate). Use the expertise of an experienced GM to enhance and supplement your originality.


A common mistake that results from the intimidation effect of experience is to try and make your campaign more complicated and richer than you are able to handle at your current levels of expertise and time. This is always a recipe for disaster; game prep requirements always grow, and grow far faster than improvements in skill and technique make room for more. At least initially, aim for a four-to-one ratio between play time and prep time, including time invested in creating the campaign. Don’t try and do it all in advance; leave things flexible and let them grow with your skills.

Find a child and play a game of “let’s pretend” – aside from the very basic initial premise, how much creation happens in advance, and how much on the spot? Zero and 100%, right?

More mature game-play requires a little more than that, but only a little. Avoid over-committing; no-one expects a first adventure to be on the scale of The Lord Of The Rings.

There are also advantages to choosing a genre that both interests you but in which you are NOT an expert. If your primary experience as a player is D&D, explore Pulp, or Sci-Fi, or Superheros, or whatever; the fact that you aren’t an expert means that you won’t be too entrapped by your past experiences as a player.

Your biggest and grandest concepts will always derive from the genre that you know best. This is a trap, because you will usually know just enough to get yourself trapped, bogged down in detail, and over-committed. Save your grand ideas, develop them in the background even while you are cutting your teeth on something else. This minimizes the intimidation effect.

If you feel you absolutely have to stay in-genre, look for a simpler set of rules than those of the game you usually play. That way, you won’t be as tempted to use your best material right away, before you are ready to execute it to the standard you want to achieve.

Starting with an RPG based on a TV show, novels, or a movie can also help by giving common frames of reference between players and GM.

Start with improbable media mash-ups and develop the resulting ideas until they are neither of the original sources. For example, what if the Stargate team emerged into the world of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, or the Charmed Ones teamed up with Sabrina in a Scooby-doo adventure? Make sense of the results and you’ll have something original and different.

Core Prep

Most of the advice that I’m offering today doesn’t actually derive from the best practices or practicalities of generating prep, it comes from the subsequent usage of that effort. Too often, it seems that game prep becomes viewed as this activity that is necessary in its own right, and while there is an element of truth in that, it sends the wrong message to the beginner.

Most prep is strictly unnecessary, performed either because it will (potentially) enhance the game experience, or yield dividends at some point in the future. The number of beginners I have encountered who thought that NPCs needed to be prepared to the same standards of completeness and game mechanics as a PC is astonishing. No, no, no, a thousand times no!

Characters need only to be built to the minimum standard possible, abbreviating and abstracting as much as possible. How is an NPC going to be required to interact with the game mechanics? Prep those aspects, and give them a personality, and move on!

Similarly, adventures and plotting – something that I’ll deal with in more detail in a later article in this series – all you Need to spend time on is the central, essential, core; anything beyond that is simply window dressing and polish. Is the game improved by doing so? Yes, if it actually manifests within the game in a favorable way; but the more you invest in an idea, the more you subconsciously push towards that idea manifesting, even if you have to force that path onto the players. This is the road to disaster, paved with the best of intentions!

At its core, all you need to know is:

  • Who is participating in the plot;
  • What is their personality;
  • What they want to achieve;
  • What is stopping them from achieving that goal;
  • How they are going about removing or overcoming those obstacles; and,
  • Where is it happening?

On top of that, and purely as a convenience during play,

  • What key metrics and values will the character use to interact with the game mechanics?

If you are building a villain for a Hero System -based campaign, that means that you need to know what powers the bad guy has, not how much that power costs to buy according to the appropriate character construction mechanics, nor where they got the points to build it.

Here’s why this principle is important: time is a precious and very limited commodity, and there is always more prep that you can do. It follows that aside from the absolute essentials, you need to focus your expenditure of time on the areas that will yield the best rewards for your efforts; and those rewards are measured by the quality and entertainment value of what happens at the game table. The problem is that every GM is different; every Campaign run by that GM will be different; every adventure within that campaign will be different from all the others, and just a little different even from similar adventures that may have occurred in other campaigns by this GM. Even changing the players or PCs without altering a single word of the adventure will take it in a different direction. That, in turn, means that no-one else can tell you what is going to be needed for a particular game session, no matter how much experience they may have; and that poses a genuine problem for the beginner, who has not yet found his “voice” and style, and so doesn’t know, either.

Deciding what prep you need before you have the tools and experience to make that determination is not a case of chicken and egg; it’s a case of cart before horse. At best, you might make a lucky guess or two; at worst, you will unknowingly force yourself down an unproductive path of personal development as a GM, continuing through inertia and enthusiasm for a while until the whole thing grinds to a halt. I’ve known some quite promising GMs who have simply given up when they have hit rocky ground that was entirely self-inflicted.

Identify your core requirements; see to them, to a minimum acceptable standard; and learn from actual play what areas you can most profitably spend time enhancing.

Applying The Central Core

Your goal is to make sure that the adventure is as much fun as possible; to some extent, that means that characters have to be consistent in the pursuit of their goals, and that when players go off-script (as they inevitably will), you need to adapt your adventure to suit. Once you have the adventure Core, as spelt out above, use it as a guideline to assessing what happens in the game, and how you – and your NPCs – will respond.

It doesn’t matter whether your players take the high road or the low road from A to B; you simply need to ensure that each step along the way leads to a satisfactory resolution of the current plotline. If the next vital piece of that plotline is at C, that’s where the players ultimately need to go.

So, let’s say the players decide to go to “F” instead, for reasons that seem good to them. That might be a matter of deciding to investigate something that seems superficial or even irrelevant to you; it might be undertaking action against a side-issue that they feel is more important than you considered; it might be that they have swallowed whole a red herring that you expected them to see through; or it might simply be pursuing some goal of their own, ignoring the plot completely.

Or it might be that an idea occurs to you for something an NPC might do.

Whenever this happens, there are four possible responses for you to choose from.

The A answer: Yes

If the point is for the PCs to get an important piece of information, say “yes” if you can rewrite the adventure on-the-fly to let them earn/acquire that information from whatever they are trying to achieve. If the PCs are chasing moonbeams, put a signpost back toward the plot. If they don’t think whatever is going on is as important as it should seem, look for a way to make the plotline matter to them. If there is an opportunity for the villain to advance his plot by doing something, say yes to the opportunity presented.

It’s always important to remember what’s been established as fact within the campaign, and what is merely “potential fact” in your core notes. Be prepared to completely reinvent an NPC if you can see a way to do so that keeps the main adventure on-track and the established facts are not contradicted in a way that cannot be explained away.

Always let the players do whatever they want to do, and find a way to make that choice deliver the adventure to them (or vice-versa) in a completely natural way, as a consequence of their choices. Rewrite the adventure a little to achieve that result if you have to.

The B answer: No

If there is no way to connect the plot’s next stage to whatever the players have chosen to focus on, or if the opportunity doesn’t advance the villain’s plot, the answer will be no. That doesn’t mean saying “no” to the players, it means linking the adventure with some obstruction to them achieving their immediate goals – so that completing the adventure becomes a stepping-stone to the PCs succeeding.

In other words, never use a straight “no” to a player. Instead, use an implied “no” with a qualification: “No, but…” or “Not yet…” or “Not until…”

Oh, and never ignore the possibility of the villain making a mistake or a misstep. Consider: the villain has identified the PCs as a threat to his plans, and has some reason to suspect that they know what he’s up to (they are often a paranoid bunch). because in the plot set-up, they stumbled across part of his operation, and shut it down. Instead of pursuing that operation, they have chosen to head for a nearby city (the “F”) – in pursuit of their own goals, though the villain doesn’t know that. Instead, he suspects that they have identified some advantage against him that they can gain from there, even though he doesn’t know what it might be. He will then act accordingly: Sending agents to disrupt whatever the PCs are trying to do, sending other agents to simply try to stop the PCs, slowing activities that might be vulnerable to exposure as a result of assuming the worst, while hastening other preparations in case the plan has to be brought forward and implemented prematurely. A perfect plan has to be baked perfectly in order to succeed, just like a good meal; without realizing it, by ignoring the plot, the PCs have disrupted it slightly and earned the direct attentions of the villain, exactly as they might have done by pursuing the plot!

The C answer: Maybe

Choosing “yes” or “no” on purely deterministic grounds is all well and good, but what do you do when the right answer is “maybe”? If this occurs, tactical considerations and goals are no longer relevant to the GM deciding what happens as a result of the in-game development; instead, we’re in the province of personality. If the villain is the obsessive, driven, type, he will probably just go about his business. If he’s the vengeful type, he will risk disrupting his entire plan just to be sure the PCs don’t interfere again.

If there’s no obvious path from what the PCs are trying to do to the next part of the plotline, create one. For example, if the PCs are chasing a red herring, at least consider the possibility that the red herring is the real plot of the villain, and the two simply got mislabeled in your adventure planning – remember, if it’s only a “potential fact” than you can rewrite it completely as necessary, so long as you don’t conflict with an established fact in a way that you can’t explain away! Or perhaps the goal doesn’t need to change, just the means by which the villain is going to achieve it.

If that doesn’t work, due to such a contradiction, let the villain adopt a tactic of feeding the PCs enough rope, expanding on the red herring, and playing games with them at the expense of pursuing his goals – which will only make the players angrier at the NPC when they eventually discover the truth.

None Of The Above

And if none of the above gets your plot back on track, invent a new one and insert it. Perhaps the villain’s plans conflict with the plans of some new enemy (that you are inventing purely to advance the plot) – and that second villain plans (whatever they are) are going to be thwarted by whatever the PCs are doing. “The enemy of my enemy” then comes into play – with the original villain discovering the existence of the second through the PCs actions, and perhaps even trying to manipulate them into dealing with the unforeseen problem.

In the past, I’ve even had a Villain become a hero of a plot, and a hero become the real villain of the plot, because the PCs backed the wrong horse or skewed off in some strange direction. No-one ever expects the Spanish Inquis – err, the Spanish Pimpernel!

The Index Snippet

When you synopsize a story, you do so by extracting selected snippets. These key excerpts “index” the story. I use this process in reverse to write (refer One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post, but you can also use the concept in other ways to benefit your game.

  • Every adventure should have an iconic moment that encapsulates and brings to mind that entire adventure.
  • Every game session should have an iconic moment that encapsulates and reminds of events.
  • Every adventure should also start with some memorable moment relatively early on.

Investing extra time and effort in these “moments” has cumulative, sometimes intangible (but nevertheless very real) benefits for the overall adventure and for the campaign as a whole. Sometimes, though, the real key moment will come as a surprise.

In a Zenith-3 adventure from a year or two back, the “iconic moment early on” came as the PCs were going through a list of stolen property – wealth and collectibles in various forms – and one of them discovered the following on the list (transcribed from table form into narrative): “Stolen in 2029, police report 2029598407, from Mrs Adela Evangelina Love, property valued at £44.5, one hand-puppet: the original “Kermit The Frog” manufactured by Jim Henson for the Children’s Television Workshop.” This so outraged one of the players that to recapture the moment, I simply had to mention the theft and the player’s motivation to solve the crimes was instantly renewed. There were many items of greater value on the list, but it was that personal reaction that became a capstone to the entire adventure.

To show the power of them, here are a few iconic moments that should be immediately recognizable:

  • “Darth Vader. Only you would be so bold!”
  • “Vader betrayed and murdered your father.”
  • “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…”
  • “We’d like to avoid any… Imperial entanglements.”
  • “That’s no moon, that’s a space station!”
  • “No reward is worth this!”
  • “Use The Force, Luke!”
  • “You’re all clear, kid – now let’s blow this thing and go home!”

I would lay odds that each of these snippets of dialogue brought a key scene from Star Wars to mind – and between them, they synopsize just about the entire movie. They were so memorable to me that I was able to create the list from memory (hopefully without errors) – which is, of course, the point that I’m making.

Movie trailers use this technique all the time, to sell audiences on the idea of seeing the film. To maintain suspense, you might leave off the last two, but you get the idea.

The writing process that I use generates these all the time. I look for them, and spend a little extra time enhancing, and (where possible) illustrating them. This helps cement them in place – so that showing the image while relating the synopsis of past events helps recapture them in the mind of the players.

Because of the compounding effect on immersion, look-and-feel, and verisimilitude, these amply repay a little additional effort.

Let The Prep Take Care Of Itself

Aside from these few items, I would advise beginners to let the prep take care of itself, at least initially. That isn’t to say, do no prep beyond the minimum – but don’t obsess about it.

There will always be prep that you consider necessary for any given adventure, whether its a map or a diagram or whatever. Learn what gives you the most bang for your prep time “buck”, and don’t try to do it all; it can be an advantage to be under-prepared, encouraging flexibility and experimentation.

So long as you have a broad outline of the adventure and the Core taken care of, everything else is window-dressing – nice to have, but not essential. If there’s one tendency that almost all beginners have in common, it’s being too invested in creating prep, considering too many things to be essential that really aren’t. Develop your improv skills and articulation and the other fundamentals of delivery first, or when you find yourself caught short by real life with your normal prep unfinished, you will be at a loss.

I also strongly recommend leaving some prep time in reserve – you never know when you’ll need it!

Find Your Campaign’s Own Style

As you develop your own style as a GM, you will discover strengths and weaknesses. Use prep to compensate for the weaknesses and to enhance the strengths. Keep track of the time it takes for each type of prep and each item of prep, be it a prop, a handout, a detail, a passage of canned dialogue, or whatever. Pay attention to what your players respond to – and to what prep lies unused at the end of each day’s play.

Over time, a campaign develops its own playing structure, the equivalent of the format of a TV show. Teaser or not? Cliffhangers or not? Tight continuity or a more episodic approach? Synopses at the beginning, or reminders as they become necessary? Quick cuts between scenes or a more natural progression?

Support these with the use of prep to enhance. Prep is never as important as play, and beyond a certain minimum, never as important as GMs think it is. That changes with time, as the complexity of the campaigns that you run grows; but unless you over-commit, running a campaign should never take over your life.

With three parts now under my belt, it’s now time to take a break from this series. While I feel like I’m just hitting my stride (Part 3 took half the time that each of the first two needed to write), and I therefore expect no real trouble in writing parts 4, 5, and 6, I’m concerned by the possibility of getting up to, say, Part 9, and running out of steam – with half the series still to write.

Fifteen parts is a LONG series!

Next week, then, expect to find something completely different! But fear not, if you’ve been enjoying this series so far; it will return. Parts 4, 5, and 6 are already scheduled – and while I might tinker with that schedule, any change will only serve to bring them forward in time.


Those used to the regularity of my usual publication schedule, or to whom I promised that this post would appear at a certain time, may have noticed that it is a little late in going public. I regret this, which is the result of internet connectivity circumstances beyond my control.

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Tales from the front line: The Initiative Conflict

first place medal

Image courtesy of Edenberg

I originally intended to present the Tavern Generator that I promised on Monday as today’s post, but it will take longer than I initially thought. Probably one more day of designing the tables and two days to format them – largely because what I am offering is far more robust and advanced than the basic version outlined in the Beginner’s series. With any luck, it will be finished next week! But in the meantime, I needed a quick fill-in article to plug the gap…

When the time came to post it, I realized that it deserved to be the first part of an occasional series analyzing conflicting points of view at the gaming table from the perspective of actual “battlefield” experience. I have no idea at the moment when there will be another, but the time will come…

I have to admit that of all the 3.x rules constructs, the Initiative system was the hardest to get my head around, for two reasons: first, the player who is best at building efficient and effective PCs seemed to focus on achieving a high Initiative Score, making the value seem more important than it was; and secondly because my thinking was contaminated by considerations of real time.

Distributions Of Time?

Rather than making an Initiative total an abstract measure that signified nothing more than who went first, I tried to synchronize them with distinct in-game passages of time, so that a character with half the initiative score of another took his action half-way through the latter’s action round, and was half-way through his action when the character with that higher initiative total took his next action.

This gave a character with a substantially different initiative score an opportunity to see what the first character was doing and act to block or counter them – something that was especially important in terms of giving one character the chance to counter a spell being cast by another.

Furthermore, the concept lent itself to the distribution throughout a character’s round of multiple attacks – in other words, if you had two attacks, the second took place half-way through that character’s combat round. It also means that character movement did not have to happen instantaneously, but took a measurable real-time interval to get the character where he was going.

On the face of it, an interpretation with far greater verisimilitude – or, perhaps, the interpretation which placed the least strain on my suspension of disbelief, because that was the issue – no alternative interpretation seemed credible to me.
Action Sequencing

The diagram above illustrates my thinking. It depicts 3 characters – one with 3 attacks, one with 2 attacks, and one with a single attack, with Initiative Totals of 20, 18, and 15, respectively.

If Character #1 had a movement rate of 60′, movement of more than 1/3 this, or 20′, would mean that he was not in position to attack with his first attack, so he would only get 2 attacks in that round. Character #2 doesn’t try and pack as much into his combat round; he could easily move that 20′ and still get both attacks in, so long as he had a movement rate better than 40′.

Assuming that Character #3 is a spell caster, and cast a spell on Initiative Count 15, any spells with a casting time of Instantaneous would go off before the first event in Initiative Count 14 but after the last event in Initiative Count 15; any spells with a casting time of 1 round would go off as the last event in the next round’s Initiative Count 16, leaving him free to do something else in his next combat round. If he consumed 1/2 his movement getting into position to cast the spell, he would actually get to cast it on initiative count 15-(1/2 of 20)=5; an instant spell would go off prior to Initiative count 4, a full-round spell would activate just prior to initiative 15 next round, as usual.

Anyone who wanted to attempt to prevent the successful casting of a 1-round spell would have a whole round in which to do so, either by attacking the caster or casting an appropriate counter-spell; if you wanted to counter an instantaneous spell, you either had to be in striking position and with the appropriate Initiative Total to do so, or to have specified that you were waiting for someone to begin casting a spell (effectively changing your Initiative Total).

Maximum realism, minimal complication. And it very closely reflects the rules and explanations given within the 3.x rulebooks. The player I mentioned earlier hated it, and wouldn’t or couldn’t explain why.

The Practicalities: How It Works

The highest initiative total defines both the starting point of the Initiative Count each combat round and the number of slices the combat round is broken into. In the example given, it was 20, but it could just has easily have been 26, or 32, or 41 or whatever. Half a combat round is half of this value, rounded off, 1/4 is 1/4 of the value, rounded off, and so on. Lower initiative totals change the starting point of a character’s combat round, but not the length of the round.

Half a character’s full round movement takes half a combat round.

If a character gets multiple attacks, they are spread as evenly as possible throughout his combat round. 3 attacks means that the 2nd attack takes place 1/3 of a combat round after the first, and the 3rd, 2/3 of the way through his combat round.

The Hero System Connection

It’s ironic, given that I later adapted the 3.x initiative game mechanics to the Hero System, replacing the subdivided turn with multiple actions per turn that those rules have, but a lot of my thinking on the subject was clearly influenced by the Hero System, which I had been GMing (in one incarnation or another) for nigh-on 20 years at the time.

It uses combat Turns instead of Combat Rounds as its foundation, and defines these as a standard 12 seconds long. Characters get as many combat rounds as their Speed stat within those 12 seconds, spaced as evenly as possible. In each combat round, a character gets his movement and gets to attack, to use a power, or whatever.

In the standard Hero System mechanics, you get a situation in which everyone acts on Segment 12, with the consequence that this segment frequently took as long as the rest of the turn put together; one of the first house rules that I instituted in version 2.0 of my campaign House Rules distributed the actions more evenly, eliminating this bottleneck. If you only had a Speed of 1, you got your action on Segment 7, for example.

The similarities between the approach to the two different systems should be obvious.

Why did Initiative matter?

So, what’s the real value of a high initiative score? From a position midway through a combat, it makes no difference whatsoever, because the initiative count rolls through the characters one after another in the sequence in which they get to act and then restarts; the difference between one combat round and another is purely a matter of labeling. Nor does it help you if your character is surprised, because you are then caught flat-footed and don’t get to act in the surprise round, anyway.

It took me a long time to work out why this particular player obsessed so much over a high initiative total, and why he disliked my interpretation of the combat mechanics so much.

The answer lies in those occasions when the character is not surprised; a high initiative score lets the character act first, and if all three of his attacks take place instantaneously, he has the best possible choice of both taking one or more enemies out of action before they even get to act, and of taking tactical control of the battle. Furthermore, as the character rose in levels, not only did his increased combat effectiveness make this a more likely outcome from a first strike, but it became harder to take the character by surprise, enabling the resulting advantage to come into play more frequently.

What he wanted was a rules interpretation that supported his entire round’s actions taking place on the one initiative count (or on his fraction of it should someone else match his initiative total), and anything else was detracting from the design philosophy that he had employed in creating his character. This less-realistic interpretation is, furthermore, implied by the rules as written.


Once the light had dawned, I was able to “get lazy” (because his interpretation was less work to GM), accept his desired interpretation, and design my encounters accordingly – either configured to withstand his massive first-strike capability, or with targets present to do nothing but soak it up before the real threat showed itself. Placing mages out of his reach, or invisible foes that he could not target, for example.

It’s not even clear that he gained all that big an advantage, even without these tactics. Spell use becomes much harder to counter under his preferred interpretation, and by ruling that spell-like abilities etc worked the same way as spells in terms of combat mechanics, I was able to take advantage of this fact on a number of occasions.

With these tactics, I was able to let him have his fun without his high Initiative score totally overwhelming the game, and that’s the important point to be made. I still disagree with his interpretation, but purity of game concept is, and should always be, compromised if that’s what it takes to make the game fun.

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Pt 2: Creation


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

I’ve been asked on more than one occasion what advice I would have for a beginning GM. It’s a question that troubled me; I’ve been GMing for so long that I thought I might have lost contact with the beginner. I have also resisted the topic because Campaign Mastery is more targeted at experienced GMs. It was only when something reminded me that the basics and fundamentals never go out of fashion that I found the touchstone to both problems. This 15-part series (which won’t run as a continuous block of articles) is the result.


I was once told by a veteran player, of more than ten years experience of weekly play, that he wasn’t creative enough to be a GM. I thought this a load of nonsense – anyone with enough imagination to roleplay has sufficient creativity to be a GM – and dug deeper. As it turned out, he wasn’t so much doubting his creativity as he was his ability to think quickly enough to be creative whenever things departed from a prepared script.

There are therefore three separate issues that were holding this player back: Ability to improvise, creative speed, and a lack of self-confidence resulting from awareness of the first two problems.

You Don’t Have To Be Creative (but it helps)

He wasn’t alone. Based on my experience, if you were to poll a bunch of GMs, you would find that more suffer from overconfidence than self-doubt (at least from time-to-time), but that an almost equal number suffered from weak self-confidence, a conviction that what they were doing was adequate for a bunch of friends but nothing that would stand up to independent outside scrutiny.

You see the same thing in all sorts of creative endeavor; everyone from writers to artists to musicians. So let me clue you all in on a little secret (read it in a whisper): creativity is overrated as a necessity for being a GM.

It may be more important when it comes to being a great GM, but not everyone needs to aim so high – and even there, I’m not fully convinced. Your job is not to be inventive, or creative, or original, though those are all assets; your job as GM is to facilitate entertainment. Heck, you don’t even need to be entertaining, so long as your time behind the screen enables others to be entertained by what they are doing.

There’s one GM that I know who has been behind the screen for longer than I have (and I started back in 1981) who, to the best of my knowledge, has not run anything but canned modules for that entire time period. His campaign still gets players. I’m not one of them for other reasons of GM style, but that doesn’t invalidate what he does.

In the meantime, if you can’t make it, fake it. Let’s look at how:

Faking Creativity

There are all sorts of ways to fake being creative, or to make yourself sufficiently creative to get by. I’ve broken creativity down into eight categories – there’s a lot not covered, but these eight are the essentials, and in this section I’m going to show you how to cheat at being creative in each of them. I’m not going to go into exhaustive detail in some cases because they will be dealt with in greater detail in a subsequent part of this series.

1. Monsters

There’s an easy way to fake monsters – get them from a different sourcebook. If it matches your game system, so much the better. There are parts of Fumanor where magic ran wild, and a substantial number of encounters are drawn from Creature Collection I and II, published by Swords & Sorcery Studios. There are parts of the game world where things are just different, and over half the encounters are drawn from Monster Manuals II-V instead of the Core Rules Monster Manual.

Beyond this simple remedy, there’s something called “Re-skinning” where you take an existing creature’s stats and clothe it in a new description to suit a new environment, and maybe swap one or two of its abilities for something that is more appropriate. For example, Golden Lizard-skinned people from the Tuorn Desert might be Goblins with different skin color and something about them that’s been changed – maybe they’ve got Troll Regeneration or they burrow underground or something.

If that’s too far for you to go, try your hand at Mashups. Pick one creature and extract it’s description, and then pick another creature and extract its abilities and stats, and then get rid of any contradictions. An Example from the Pathfinder Bestiary: A Medusa is a “slender, attractive woman” with “strangely glowing eyes” and “a full head of hissing snakes for hair”. A Night Hag is ugly (implied by the name), has Damage Reduction, is immune to various spells, has Darkvision, has an array of spell-like abilities including Invisibility, Magic Missile, and Ray Of Enfeeblement, has a bite that causes the disease “Demon Fever”, and can haunt the dreams of chaotic or evil individuals. So why not a “Moon Medusa” who is pale yellow in color but otherwise matches the description given above, and who has all the abilities of the Night Hag – except maybe that it’s not her bite that causes “Demon Fever”, it’s a bite from one of the Snakes. That implies that the snakes can attack independently, so look up Snake, Venomous, and add a dozen of them to the package – maybe losing the Magic Missile for the sake of Game Balance. You then give this creature an environment to inhabit and amend the description to suit: “Moon Medusas” appear to be completely normal (and rather attractive) humans during the day, with their true form only being revealed at night. They spend their days appearing to be ordinary citizens or travelers amongst a population, and selecting a male to prey upon at night. The snakebites cause temporary paralysis as well as “Demon Fever”, enabling the Moon Medusa to feast on the victim; this feasting mimics the effects of a Ray Of Enfeeblement. By the time the victim recovers, the Moon Medusa has feasted and moved on, possibly taking his money as well. Moon Medusas are rare, and are usually encountered either in an urban environment or in transit between such environments.

There’s one completely original beastie, with minimal creativity involved – but you’d never know it from the result.

2. Maps

Draw a blob on a piece of paper. Draw a more-or-less straight line through the blob leading to the other end of the paper. Somewhere on that line, put a dot. Crossing the first line at the dot is a more crooked line (no sharp corners). Congratulations! You’ve just made a perfectly serviceable map. You have a forest, or a swamp, or a mountainous region; you have a road going through it; you have a town on that road; and you have a river crossing the road at the town.

Anything more than this level of complexity in a map is merely a “nice to have”, not essential to a game. But if this is still beyond you, there’s an even simpler solution: steal a map from somewhere else. A canned module. A module from a different game system. A map that you bought on RPGnow. A screen grab from Google Maps. A map that you’ve found through a Google image search.

Maps are no problem.

3. Places

Locations need to be a little more detailed. Reinvent real buildings for your layouts if you don’t feel confident in creating one from scratch. For example: This building is about 60′ x 40′. The doorway is in one corner. 2/3rds of the way down the building from the door is a counter. Behind the counter is a kitchen and storage area. Between the door and the counter are several windows, and a large number of small tables and chairs. Immediately in front of the counter is an open area railed off from the tables, but the rail does not extend the entire width of the room.

This could be a bar or tavern. It’s actually the Kentucky Fried Chicken near my place.

Once you have one location of this type, all you need to do is add or change one detail to get a different one. Instead of windows, there are shields, or weapons, or stuffed heads on the walls. On one side there is a set of stairs going up to lodgings. Instead of a lot of little tables there are two or three large communal ones. To one side there is a dartboard, or an alcove for the playing of Horseshoes, or a poker table, or a stage with a musician, or a comic. Change the look of the timber – reddish stained wood, or purplish, or dark-stained wood, or pale stained wood, or gray wood, or raw dark wood or brown wood or pinewood; planks or halved trees or whole trees or panels or seamless wood; visible grain or invisible or painted in any of a whole spectrum of colors; grain swirling, or vertical, or horizontal, or inclined.

Use a “critical element” checklist – vary each item on the list and you have a whole new location: “Walls, Lighting, Tables, Decorations, Barman, Entertainment, Clientèle, Accommodations” would be my checklist for a basic tavern. I might also add “Behind-the-Bar”. “Accommodations” covers where the rooms are, how big they are, and how you get to them. Eight or nine variables – even if there were only two options for each, that gives 512 combinations, but several of those variables have many many more options than a mere two – so the number of options is many many thousands, maybe even many tens or hundreds of thousands. How many different taverns will you need in the course of a campaign? Fifty, one hundred? A minuscule fraction of the varieties on offer, no creativity required.

You could even create a set of tables – I’ll offer such a set in the next week or two (I’ve already started working on it).

Again, there are alternatives. Instead of a map, search for an illustration. Look on RPGNow for a map that you can use. Get a map from a canned module. Look for blogs and websites that offer free maps for RPGs.

There are two essential skills to master, though you can work on both as you go:

  • Using Google Image Search; and
  • Adapting Period details to Game Climate.
Google Image Search

I started to write up a section on how to use Google Image Search but it quickly became clear that this one section would be as large as the rest of this article put together – not that it’s very complicated, there’s just a lot to say on the subject. In fact, it threatened to derail any prospect of getting the article done on time. I’ve solved both problems at the same time by excerpting the entire discussion into a separate article, also to be published in the next week or two.

Adapting Period details to Game Climate

So you’ve found an image using Google (or some other source) that you like the basic feeling of, but it has a rifle on the wall, and photos of WW2, and electric lighting. This is the skill of taking those details that belong to a different time-period to the one of your game, and replacing them with some equivalent from your game’s era without damaging the overall ambiance that appealed in the first place.

There are two aspects to doing this; the first lies in knowing what to change so that what you don’t want to change remains unaffected, and the second lies in taking into account other aspects of the description that do change as a result, and you need to be able to do both in order to be successful.

There’s a simple creative writing exercise that develops this skill. It only takes a few minutes a day, so if you aren’t sure this element of your toolkit is up to standard, it’s worthwhile.

Get an image from somewhere. A building interior with people doing something mundane and ordinary in it is the best choice. You’ll be working with this image for most of the next week, so save a copy of it.

  • Day 1: Write a description of the image, exactly as you see it.
  • Day 2: Imagine what the same image would have looked like if it were set in the 1950s, or 1960s, or even the 1970s, changing the details without changing the overall “feeling” that the image conveys, i,e, the emotional context and associations. Now, without referring to the text you wrote on Day 1, write a description of that scene. When you’ve finished, compare the two descriptions, making mental note of what’s different and what is essentially the same in both.
  • Day 3: Imagine what the same image would have looked like if it were set in any time period from the late 1800s through to World War II, your choice, again changing specifics that don’t fit the time period without altering the overall “feeling” that the image conveys, i,e, the emotional context and associations. Now, without referring to the text you have previously written, write a description of that scene. When you’ve finished, compare with the Day 1 description, making mental note of what’s different and what is essentially the same in both.
  • Day 4: Imagine what the same image would have looked like if it were set in a fantasy (i.e. pseudo-medieval) setting and write a description, in the same way as on previous days. Compare with the Day 2 description, just for a change.
  • Day 5: Imagine the same image set in some distant future. It could be in a Star Trek universe, or a Star Wars setting, or the sort of future that was imagined in the 1930s-40s-50s, whatever you like; it could be 50 years from now or 500 years from now. Write a description, same conditions as previously. You can keep it simple, or throw in a zero-gravity environment, as you want. Compare with the Day 4 description.
  • Day 6 (optional): Imagine that the image is a painting and not a photograph. How might different art styles/materials – water colors, oil painting, tapestry, charcoal sketch – alter the way the image is presented? How can you retain the ambiance while changing the overall look of the scene so profoundly? Don’t bother writing anything, just spend the time imagining it in different ways.
  • Day 7: Compare all five written versions. What’s consistent over them all? What’s different? How have the differences changed the overall scene? What could you have done better on Days 1 or 2 that you know how to do on Day 5?
  • Day 8: Pick a new image and start over.

Two or three weeks of this – no more than 5 or 10 minutes a day – and you’ll be astonished at how quickly you build up those mental “muscles”. Then destroy all your written drafts – never let anyone see these baby steps!

There is only so far you can go without an independent assessment, so don’t keep this up indefinitely. Nor is it necessary for you to seek creative writing reviews or classes; your goal isn’t to become a novelist or poet, it’s simply to get good enough to convey a scene or setting to the players in words. Efficiency, economy, concision, and poetic nuance – these are all things that will either come of their own accord with experience or they won’t. Good enough is good enough, and your players will make it clear when your descriptions are vague or unclear simply through the questions they ask, the clarifications that they request, and the misinterpretations that they make, so they will provide sufficient review and feedback as a byproduct of the process of GMing.

4. Adventures

Faking adventures is easy to do and hard to do well. I’m not going to go into detail about how to do so, for two reasons: First, there’s an entire article within this series to be dedicated to the subject of advice on adventures for Beginner GMs, and Second, I’ve already written articles on the subject – and linked to them in part 1 of this series. So it’s already been covered.

5. NPCs

It’s the same story here. Quick-And-Dirty NPCs are so valuable to a GM, of any experience level, that I’ve offered several techniques in the past for creating them, and linked to those articles in part 1. So, while I have some advice for beginning GMs to offer on the subject of NPCs, I’ll save that for the dedicated chapter on the subject.

6. Dialogue, & 7. Expression

Dialogue is what an NPC says, Expression is how they say it – content and style, in other words. Dialogue itself can be divided into three subtypes or Modes: casual conversation, info-dumps, and statements for effect. While an NPC will have an overall style, that style may be modified slightly depending on which dialogue mode the NPC is engaged in.


The first piece of advice that I would give beginner GMs is to wrap their head around this principle thoroughly, then watch TV and note how different characters will change their “verbal expression” depending on the mode they are in. TV is a better choice than a movie because you see many different programs and characters in a relatively short time. Avoid documentary, news, and reality TV for this; stick with dramas and sitcoms. An evening or two of watching and analyzing what you see on-screen will thoroughly ground you in the theory and application of the principle.

Next, it’s time to learn how to use this theory to your advantage. This requires you to watch TV shows that you know reasonably well. Before you do, make a note of one or two major characters in each show that you are going to watch and describe their personality in a nutshell. Then summarize their general manner of expression in a word or two, and note the relationship between the character and the overall style of Expression. You can then watch the TV shows and note how the general style of expression impacts on the different Modes of the character’s dialogue, and how each Mode derives from that overall personality. Again, an evening or two’s TV watching – with the right preparation – is enough of a foundation.


When you create an NPC (as opposed to using an ad-hoc NPC), in addition to specifying the personality, think about how that personality and background will give a particular general style of expression, and then how you are going to refine that into the three modes. Write it down, both in your character notes and in the adventure. Highlight it. Then make sure that you check it each time the NPC appears.

It’s important that you choose a style of expression that you can deliver. Change the NPC if necessary. If you have any doubt, practice by watching your favorite TV shows, once again, and substituting your character for the character on-screen; work out how he would say each line of dialogue, then say that dialogue out loud (it’s probably best to do this when you’re alone, or everyone else will both think you’re being strange and will get annoyed for disrupting their ability to watch the show). Using a DVD that you can pause after each line of dialogue can also be very useful.

Focus not on what they are saying but on how they are saying it. Once you have that down pat, you can work on changing the content to what you want the NPC to say.

Overact. Outrageously.

Actors have body language and camera angles and lighting and sets to interact with. Writers get to add as much descriptive text as they want in between verbal statements. You’re in what is effectively a radio play or a “naked” (without props or costumes) stage drama – you have to do 95% of it, or more, with nothing but your voice. And you often have to do it in a noisy environment, or while being disrupted by game admin, dropping in and out of character at the drop of a die.

At the same time, use your hands and body language as much as you can; it’s astonishing how much of a difference it makes to your vocal performance.

Improv NPCs

When you have an NPC that you haven’t built in advance. identify the NPC with someone that you’ve practiced on from a TV show. Don’t worry too much about racial or gender or profile stereotypes; think about character and personality. If Adam from Mythbusters is right for the Captain of the Guard, if Wolverine conveys the sense of danger that you want for a bartender, or Abby from NCIS has the frenetic energy that you want in a shopkeeper, use them.

Here’s another exercise for you to try: For a week, watch as many different TV shows as you can. Don’t watch more than one episode of any given show – switch from COPS to Bones to The Simpsons to The Blacklist to whatever – and just mentally catalog as many different characters as you can. You aren’t watching these shows for fun, this is research. Make the assumption that you already know most of the characters in your favorite shows, so ignore them and watch things that you normally wouldn’t and just stock up on characters.

8. Description

You have to describe all sorts of things when you’re a GM. Strange Objects, Haunted Longboats, Funeral Pyres, Throne Rooms, Exotic Books, Weird Creatures, Frenetic Action, Faces, Mountains, Tunnels…. the list is endless.

Some of these you can prep in advance, and only think about improvising when you have enough GMing experience under your belt. You can practice simply by reading descriptions from your core rules to yourself – while thinking about why the things you’re reading have been described that way.

But there are some things that you can’t prep in advance and will have to describe from day one, whether you like it or not: Outcomes, responses, and reactions to player (and independent NPC) actions.

When a character attempts a skill check, you have to describe the outcome (including attempting to hit an enemy in combat). When events – or random chance – provide an unexpected opportunity or setback, the emotions of the NPCs affected have to be described. And when those not under the control of the NPC act, you need to describe how the NPC responds and reacts.

The first of these is qualitatively different to the other two; while these all have simple solutions, those solutions are not always easy to implement on the run.


In theory, it’s simple – you visualize the situation prior to the action, visualize the changed situation as a result of the skill check, and then determine what might account for the differences in in-game terms – then describe what you are imagining.

If only it were always as easy as that makes it sound, but complex situations can be difficult to see in your imagination. There are three tools that I use to get me through such problems, and these are all tools that the beginner can use as readily as an experienced GM. (NB: these presume that you have already determined whether or not the outcome is a success or failure).

  1. use the die roll as an index for the difficulty faced in achieving whatever the outcome is, regardless of the eventual success or failure of the check;
  2. imagine positive or negative intermediate stages en route to the success until you come up with a combination that you feel reflects that index of difficulty;
  3. construct your visualization starting with the character acting and enlarge your view of the overall changed situation one variable at a time.

The first means that if the character rolls a “15” (in a system in which low is better), then regardless of the eventual success or failure of the check being carried out, any success will be achieved despite things going wrong in a fairly bad way. Not as bad as if the character rolled a “17”, but pretty close to it. The second means that the events that you describe have to reflect those difficulties, so I think about what might go wrong without altering the actual result of the die roll, and keep coming up with more until I find one that fits. Quite often, it will be possible to go directly to something appropriate, but occasionally you may have to think about it for a few seconds, and with practice and experience this will occur more and more frequently. If necessary, take a five-minute break, telling the players that you need time to think about the way the situation will play out. It’s better to GM slowly than badly!

The third one means that in a complicated situation where a lot hinges on the outcome, determine one effect at a time – taking notes if necessary – and then think about the next consequence of the outcome, and then the next, and so on.

For example, consider a bar in the wild west, and an accusation of cheating at poker that has everyone leaping to their feet and pulling out their guns. The first person to react rolls to hit – and misses, badly. Unknown to this person, a third party suffering from shell shock is also playing cards at a neighboring table, and a fourth is about to throw a dart, and a heavy (the fifth party) is menacing the barman, and there’s a whole bunch of drunken onlookers ready to blow off steam. So, when the attacker misses quite badly, what happens?

  • Primary effect (explaining the failure): when the person being shot at leapt to his feet and drew his weapon, he also knocked the card table over, disturbing the aim of the shooter, whose bullet goes wild.
  • Second domino: the shell-shock victim leaps up from the table, screaming.
  • Third domino: the dart thrower is distracted by the sound of the shot and his dart flies wildly, hitting the bar right next to the heavy, who’s distracted by it for a moment.
  • Fourth domino: the bartender jerks in surprise, involuntarily throwing the shot-glass of whiskey he was about to try to use to mollify the heavy into the heavy’s eyes, momentarily blinding him.
  • Fifth domino: a member of the crowd grabs a chair and breaks it over the back of the screaming shell-shock sufferer.
  • Sixth domino: another member of the crowd breaks a bottle over the head of the intended victim of the original shot.
  • Seventh domino: half the rest of the crowd dive for cover, the other half grab improvised weapons or throw punches at whoever’s next to them.
  • Eighth domino: the bullet from the missed shot ricochets off something – a stone fireplace, perhaps? – and severs the rope holding the chandelier overhead, which comes crashing down into the middle of the room.

By breaking the scene down into smaller elements, and determining how each in turn will be affected by everything that’s happened as a result of the original action, the complicated situation in the bar advances a round. The next person to act might be the heavy, or might be the intended victim of the shot, or it might be the sheriff hearing the fracas as he walks to the saloon doors, or it might be the bartender; it doesn’t matter who it is, you determine what they are doing, determine the success or failure of the move, then work through the list of people present dealing with the consequences.

Responses and Reactions

The one technique works for both of these – getting into the head of the NPC who is to respond or react. But, like the Outcomes technique, that can sometimes be easier said than done.

To help me through such problems, I use a checklist – any one of which can either determine the way the NPC behaves or can pass the question on to the next item on the list.

  • Does the character have a prepared or planned action that is appropriate? He will attempt to carry it out.
  • Does the character have an instinctive reaction that is appropriate? He will attempt to carry it out.
  • Does the character have a trained reaction that is triggered? He will attempt to perform it.
  • Is the character primed to react by an extreme emotional state? He will do so, or attempt to do so.
  • Is the character shocked, stunned, or surprised AND not a quick thinker? He will gape or otherwise display this emotional reaction.
  • Is there a way for the character to (attempt to) take advantage of the situation? He will attempt to do so unless there is a compelling reason not to.
  • Is the character facing potential imminent harm, and if so, what is the best move he can make to protect himself? He will attempt to perform it.
  • Does the character have anything that he wanted to do? He will attempt to do so unless there is a compelling reason not to.
  • The character will continue to do whatever he was doing before the triggering event, or will hesitate.

Again, by breaking the question down into smaller, more specific, possible responses/reactions and considering them one by one, in the sequence “Prepped – Instinct – Training – Emotion – Self-preservation – Surprise – Intelligent response”, you can quickly decide what the reaction is – then all you need do is work out how to describe that reaction.

Note that in some cases, it is plausible for training to come before instinct, and that training can include non-professional life experience – a character who was bullied at school might react in the same way as he did back then, if it worked, a character who was a bully might react violently, and so on. These can be considered conditioned responses as much as military, police, or other emergency training.

Creation Guidelines

Transitioning from player to GM for the first time involves a major mental shift, and one of the first places that needs to manifest is when you are creating things for your campaign. There is an overwhelming temptation to put in place everything you ever wanted as a player. Fight that temptation with all your strength of will.

There is also a temptation to be even more hard-line than past GMs that you’ve played under “because they must have known what they were doing” and because they were the ones you’ve learned from. Don’t do that, either.

If there was ever anything in a game you played in that you, or another player, wanted something but the GM denied the request, study that decision and understand why it was made. Only then can you decide whether or not it was the correct decision, and let that be your guide. And don’t rule out the possibility that the decision was an error.

GMing is a tightrope between keeping players happy and keeping the game world in one piece so that they can be happy again, tomorrow (or smashing it into a million pieces if they will have fun putting it back together again!). There will be mistakes made – accustom yourself to that fact before you ever get behind the screen. Try not to second-guess yourself too much, but when it does become clear that you’ve made a mistake, own up to it and try to set things right – and above all, try not to let that particular mistake happen again.

These lessons and principles are especially important when it comes to creating things for yourself – new magic items, new monsters, new enemies, new characters, new campaigns. I once saw a new AD&D GM offer a first-level character a +10 longsword of Vorpel Dancing with Flame Tongue (younger readers might not know what all those terms mean – don’t sweat it, I’ll explain). Most columns would focus first on how inappropriate it is for such a powerful magic item to be in the hands of a relative novice character, or in the sheer wrongness of making such a powerful item in the first place; they both miss the other half of the story. A weapon this powerful – capable of independent action, self-targeting towards severing heads from bodies, burning with fire, and with a greater attack bonus than anything in the sourcebooks – not only shouldn’t exist in a campaign, but if it does, it should be the ultimate quest item, recovery of which ends the campaign because no opposition can stand against the possessor. (The GM’s excuse? He thought the item was “cool”).

I have also seen a GM hit a first-level party with a 20 hit-dice blue dragon with spellcasting abilities and two heads so that one could breathe “blue flame” at the same time as the other is spellcasting or using its breath weapon because the monster was “cool”.

It is all too easy to enter a Monty-Haul death-spiral with your first campaign. You make the PCs too powerful, and find that the encounters are too easy, and so they grow even more powerful. So you make the monsters powerful to the point of being ridiculous, overcompensating for the consequences of the original mistake – but doing so and following the standard guidelines for treasure placement means that as soon as the PCs win one battle, they again overtake even the overpowered monsters that you’ve created, and so it goes. Or perhaps the first mistake was making the monsters too powerful, and then “fixing” that mistake not by dialing the monsters down but by boosting the characters up in power level; the results are the same.

Self-censorship is one of the hardest skills for a GM to master. When you come up with one of these really “neat” ideas, show it to someone else and ask their opinion.

Character Classes: trouble of a greater magnitude

But the examples I’ve offered above are relatively easy to spot and fix; the real time-bombs lurk in character-class creation. There are so many combinations of character class and magic items that are possible that it’s almost impossible to ensure that a new character class, or more specifically, new class abilities, will not go out of control and unbalance the game. Quite often these problems won’t manifest until the character and class have been well and truly established – perhaps not until the character is quite advanced in levels – and it’s always messy changing them.

Thus is revealed a second balancing act that GMs must routinely negotiate: the dichotomous need for originality and the necessary conservatism required when it comes to creativity. To make your campaign distinctly your own, you need to be original, but at the same time, the creativity you employ has to be tightly controlled.

Here in Australia, as in many countries around the world, we have had problems with introduced species; any country kid down-under knows about the rabbit plague. Such things are always the result of introducing a species into a new environment without also introducing a predator or other control mechanism. And that is also the solution to this particular balancing act: Never introduce anything without also introducing a countermeasure of equal effect and slightly wider availability.

Monster Guidelines

I’ve touched on this a little in the previous section. RPGs in general don’t describe balanced ecologies; a game system that incorporated a rules structure for doing so would be more than a little interesting. Instead, most of the entries describe the apex predator of one or more environmental region or ecological niche (or a creature that can at least lay plausible claim to such status), and assume that there is enough food available for them to live on.

Balance is generally assumed to result from the conflict between competing claimants, a compounding of lifespan, breeding rate, and competition for resources. One creature may be more powerful than another but its numbers are inherently limited for some reason; another is less powerful, but exists in greater numbers and can unite into social organizations.

By maintaining this basic principle, most creatures that you can imagine can be accommodated. Consider the many variations on Trolls in my Fumanor campaign, for example, as described in Traditional Interpretations and Rituals Of Culture. Beginner’s problems with creature creations generally stem from one of two sources:

  1. a failure to respect the balanced-population principle; or
  2. under- or over-valuing a creature in terms of its power levels relative to the PCs at the time when it is encountered.

The first can be solved by introducing a new population-control measure – it might be a disease, or a shortage of some unusual dietary requirement, or a rival species competing for resources. The lesson of the cuckoo, an example of a brood parasite offers a wonderful solution – if not overused – for example. To a certain extent, this mimics what happens in nature from time to time as a consequence of overpopulation; in a nutshell, if there are too many of something, the population will eventually collapse in some form as a result, either as the result of a growth in numbers of some animal that learns to prey on the overpopulated species, or the gestation of a disease of some sort that spreads throughout the population, or simply out-consuming the available food. Such plagues are naturally self-limiting – eventually.

The second problem is more common and frequent. Over-rating a creature means that it is weaker than expected, and hence represents a reward give-away; under-rating a creature means that it is more powerful than it should be, which makes players unhappy about the size of the reward on offer.

My approach

When I create a new creature, I always start by listing what I want it to be able to do, and what is going to keep the population from excessive growth. I then locate in the official publications some creature that I deem to be roughly equivalent in combat effectiveness. From there, I apply the principles described in FFG’s Monster’s Handbook* to convert my comparison creature into my new creature.

* Limited numbers available through Amazon, I also found 5 copies on Ebay (search for “Legends & Lairs Monster’s Handbook”. Unfortunately, while RPGNow has listings for much of the Legends & Lairs series, Monster’s Handbook is not one of them.

The result not only helps keep the new creature’s abilities in balance relative to the target effectiveness, it helps me track what the end creature’s correct CL should be, which in turn enables me to determine what the correct reward levels will be.

Map Guidelines

I have two pieces of immediate advice for beginner GMs under this heading: Near enough is good enough; and don’t reinvent the wheel. Maps take quite a lot of time to produce if you are doing anything more than the most rudimentary job, even using some of the mapping software that’s out there, and there will almost certainly be better things that you can do with your time.

Of course, if a map is to be reused repeatedly within the campaign, you may be able to justify that expenditure of effort – but, quite often, maps simply lock into place things that you haven’t fully thought through yet, forcing future compromises onto your campaign.

I’ve offered two different approaches to the correct prioritization of game prep, I suggest Beginners try them both and pick the one that suits them best. The first is Fire Fighting, Systems Analysis, and RPG Problem Solving Part 2 of 3: Prioritization and the second is Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity (ironically, they were published in the reverse order, almost a year apart). Choice number one is simpler, and so easier for a Beginner to use; choice number two is more effective and nuanced because it incorporates different standards of prep.

Beyond that, here’s a simple checklist that I use in creating area maps:

  1. Plan before you start – make a list of requirements
  2. Start with a rough sketch – I always make a rough sketch before I start, using pencil so that I can erase and correct
  3. High Ground – where are the points of elevation
  4. Direction of drainage – which way to the coast? Which side or corner of the map has the lowest elevation?
  5. Follow the water – 3 and 4 tell me which way the water will flow. Desired geology tells me how convoluted the path will be – there will be lots of twists and turns through rocky ground, and more gentle, sweeping bends in softer soils
  6. Nearby settlements & other edge elements – What do I know about the areas just off the map? Is there a settlement, ie a likely source of a road? Is there a forest or something known to be there from other maps? etc
  7. Water the forests and fields – thinking about what I want the land use to be, I ensure that those usages that need more water have enough, even if I have to add extra watercourses to achieve it. Once I’ve done that, I can put in the actual land use.
  8. Defensible positions – where are the most naturally defensible positions on the map? These are the most likely first choices for settlements.
  9. Desirable Resources – where are the natural resources; the nearest defensible position will have a settlement, and, if more than an hour or two away, there will be a smaller settlement at the resource itself.
  10. Resource Usage efficiency – the closer to the point of extraction a resource can be utilized, the more efficient (and profitable) that resource will be. Minimize overland travel, but extend river traffic because nature “does the heavy lifting” of transporting the extracted resource. There may be another small settlement at the embarkation point of the resources.
  11. Trade Routes – the larger the total size of any two communities linked by road or navigable river, the more important the trade route will be. Use the knowledge of the settlements identified already to plan the roads and paths. Remember that, as much as possible, passes will be through low ground between peaks, and that the rockier the geology and greater the elevation changes, the more twists and turns roads will have.
  12. Settlements exist for a reason – Most settlements will already have been placed, but where trade routes intersect or cross a defensible point, there will be another. Add additional settlements accordingly – then create a list (using map references) and for each settlement, list all the reasons it has for existing.
  13. Separation depends on travel times and traffic – small settlements tend to spring up a whole-number of days travel apart, perhaps even a half-day apart if there is a lot of traffic – and subject to the relative danger levels. These can be little more than a guarded caravan rest-point (charging a toll), or something more substantial. Since river travel tends to be faster (and comes with it’s own built-in campgrounds both on the river or at any point along the banks) there will be greater separation between communities.
  14. Size is proportionate to reasons and inversely proportionate to separation and danger- the more reasons people have for residing there, the bigger the community will be, but if there are a lot of communities close by, this effect will be diffused over several of them – and if the communities are attacked regularly, they will be smaller than would otherwise be the case unless there are a LOT of reasons to justify the higher cost of security and defenses. Use these facts to decide the relative size of the communities and their basic natures, adjusting the map appropriately.
  15. People transform landscapes – people need to eat – set up farms and farmland appropriately. Look at the other effects people might have on the landscape over time, as well.
  16. With all that design done, you’re ready to produce the map in its final form.
Place Guidelines

A place is anywhere something interesting might potentially happen. There are three considerations when thinking about places: what the GM wants to have happen there (potentially or definitively); what should logically be there, based on the settlement/community size; and the broader and local society. I employ the same one-thing-at-a-time mentality that I described earlier in addressing these competing factors. For more information, I direct the reader’s attention to Location, Location, Location – How Do You Choose A Location? and People, Places, and Narratives: Matching Locations to plot needs.

The starting point should always be, “what do I need?”. The second stage should always be, “what should logically be there?”. If you keep those two points in mind, you will be well served.

Concluding Advice

There’s a lot more that I could have written about creating other elements of a campaign, but they all have specific articles in this series dedicated to them, the length of this one is really getting to start getting out of hand, and much of the advice would simply be variations on the principles outlined above; so I’m going to boil everything else down to two final pieces of advice for beginners, and call it an article.

The Players come First

The first of those pieces of advice is this: Always remember that you aren’t a GM to indulge yourself or your own desires; you are there to facilitate the fun of others. In return, you can reasonably hope for their respect, and the vicarious thrill of watching them have that fun, and – as a fringe benefit – there will be parts of the process that you find enjoyable (there had better be, or you won’t last).

There are those who don’t enjoy GMing, even though they may be good at it. There are those who want to GM for the wrong reasons, whose games won’t last. There are those who want to do so for the right reasons but simply lack the ability or the self-confidence, or who simply cannot dedicate the time and effort required to do so – and, as I pointed out in the first article of this series, it will all take longer when you’re a beginner.

Keep It Practical

Being a GM requires dedication and making a commitment to those who sign up to play in your game – to do the job to the absolute best of your ability and circumstances. Your social life, your television viewing, your independence and freedom – all will suffer. If you aren’t careful, so will your health, if only from exhaustion and a shortage of sleep. For about a decade, I invested an average of roughly 60 hours a week into my campaigns.

It is incumbent on you to make sure it’s worth it. Always remember that your players have limited recreation time available, and they have chosen to expend it playing your game.

Not everyone can do the job, and do it well. There’s no shame in that – every game needs players. But these considerations are not black and white, yes or no; there is a gray area in the middle, where most GMs reside, the gap between the ideal and what can be practically achieved. Failing to keep the scope of your campaigns manageable is one of the most common mistakes GMs make – experienced or not. Keep your ambitions practical, and you are more likely to find yourself in the gray zone inhabited by a successful GM; as your expertise grows and develops, you will discover the capacity within yourself to do more in the time available.

Be aware, too, that your goal posts will have to move and change over time. Life is change, and what is practicable will have to change with your circumstances. Aim to start with small-scale success and grow from there; don’t attempt to be too ambitious to start with, or you will never get the chance to be a success as a GM, at any scale. Save those big ideas for when you are sufficiently experienced to realize them. And make sure that everyone has fun!

Wow, that was a big one – much more so than I expected when I started, or I might have split it into two! Hopefully, Part 3: Preperation will be a little more succinct! (After that, the series will probably take a break for a while… variety is the spice of life, as they say!)

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A target of inefficiency: from Dystopian trends to Utopia

post industrial ruins

Image courtesy fontaine

Some background

Before I can get to the main subject of today’s article, I need to tell a few short real-life stories to set the scene, putting the article into context.

The Story Of Canterbury Road

When I look out my front window, I am confronted by the somewhat depressing site of one of Sydney’s main thoroughfares, Canterbury Road. It’s distressing because of the state of repair that it appears to be in. Last year, as part of a major “improvement”, the bitumen surface was scraped off, leaving the underlying concrete, which was then patched here and there. New surfacing was carried out only at intersections, because the road surface needed to connect to cross-streets that were still paved.

Funding for a road upgrade was set aside by the State Government in 2011, but work didn’t start until 2014. The plan was for the whole road to be resurfaced, but when the surface was stripped back, the underlying damage was found to be worse than expected, needing far more repair than allowed for. Further delays were caused by weather, and the result is that traffic has been running on the under-surface, doing fresh damage that also needs repairs. Changes to traffic flows have produced additional wear and tear, and all that has to be repaired before the resurfacing can proceed, and the repairs aren’t keeping up with the ongoing damage.

As a result, it was named the worst road in Sydney in September 2014 and has only deteriorated since. I’d love to provide an image to show you just how bad it is, but the only ones I could find are subject to copyright. According to this report (which does include images – and these are not selected “worst bits”, they are typical), and according to everything I’ve heard from members of government, work was “expected to be complete” in October 2014. So here we are in July 2015 – and the road still looks as shown in those photos. Either the work never included a planned resurfacing, or the plan had to be abandoned. According to the most recent report I’ve been able to find – a press release dated November 2014 – “resurfacing” with fresh concrete was supposed to happen, and to be complete by now. It hasn’t and isn’t.

Poles and Wires

Telecommunications is another area where there have been long-standing maintenance issues. When I moved to Lakemba something like 25 years ago, it transpired that the phone lines were connected to the exchange via a pit that flooded during rainy weather, causing service disruptions – but the telecommunications carrier that owned the basic infrastructure, and was responsible for maintaining it, didn’t know which one.

Each connection is allocated two connections or ‘pairs’. One is in use, the other is in reserve for use when there is a problem with the first or maintenance is required. The second pair simply didn’t work, but whenever there was a connection problem because of water leaking into the ‘pit’, they would swap to that pair at the exchange and the whole thing would collapse – no phone, no internet. Thankfully, when I was forced to move a couple of years back, I left that particular problem behind, and while I still have the occasional connection drama once a year or so, the overall service has improved immeasurably. I can only sympathize with whoever’s been stuck with the old problems since I moved.

The problem is that maintenance costs have skyrocketed over the last 30 or 40 years, and an attitude of “fix it before it fails and make it last” has been replaced by one of “fix it when it fails, as quickly and cheaply as you can – and if it fails again in six months, fix it again.”

The same problem exists with our electrical network. About 18 months ago, there was an accident on Canterbury Road, caused from all appearances by a driver taking the corner too fast and mounting the curb to strike the power pole. I was watching TV at the time, and heard the crash from about 70m away, through a closed door, and over the top of the program, at the same time that the lights flickered. I summoned emergency services, who dealt with the accident itself, but nothing was done about the damage to the pole, now inclined at roughly a fifteen degree angle to the vertical, and seemingly held upright only by the power lines supplying electricity to residents.

After three days with no sign of repair activities, I contacted the electrical service provider who informed me that no damage to the pole had been reported to them, and who sent a crew out to inspect it. They decided that it was still sufficiently held by the hole in the ground – they do bury the base of those things quite deep – and no repair was needed; so it has been left leaning to one side and over the street. For over a year.

Eventually, the unbalanced strain will be too much for whatever is holding it up, or some other vehicle will hit it, and the result will be crushed vehicles, trapped drivers, and live wires in the street.

The same story gets repeated time and time again. Maintenance is expensive, and it is not profitable to repair things until you absolutely have to – and that’s not until it fails. I’d love to be able to blame someone, or to think that this was strictly a local or even a state issue – but any Google search for “Aging Infrastructure” will quickly show that the problem extends throughout the western world. Such a search produces more than 5 million hits.

It’s clear to me that our infrastructure is breaking down and has been for a long time. There simply hasn’t been enough financial incentive to maintain it, and infrastructure projects in recent years have suffered from financial blowouts that make them white elephants.

The Airport Rail Link Story

In 1990, the then-elected State Government called for private bids to build a rail link to connect Sydney’s airport, both Domestic and International terminals, to the CBD and hence to the rest of the public transport network. The tendering process took until July 1994, when a public-private partnership to build the rail link was announced.

The project involves four kilometers of tunnel through rock and six kilometers through soft ground. Three new suburban railway stations were built, in addition to the stations at the air terminals.

The deal was that a private company would be formed that would cover the costs of building four of these five stations and would receive the right to operate them for five years with the right to impose a surcharge on fares for their use, so generating a profitable return on the investment.

Construction began in February 1995 as part of the infrastructure development for the 2000 Summer Olympics, and the line opened in May 2000, three months prior to the commencement of the Games. It had cost the State Government A$700 million and the private investors A$200 million.

That was when the project really ran into trouble. There were two serious problems: the trains to the air terminals were ordinary suburban rolling stock without dedicated luggage space, and hence those using the service had to compete with ordinary domestic travelers; and the surcharge meant that it was actually cheaper for a lot of travelers to take a taxi to the airport than it was to use the public option. Even after the cancellation of a rival Airport Express bus service, and the imposition of Taxi Surcharges and Expensive airport parking, the Airport Link consistently failed to attract the projected levels of patronage.

In January 2001 it was announced that the private investor had gone into receivership, exposing the government to costs of around A$800 million on top of the A$700 million already spent on the rail link. What’s more, many of the alternatives had been wound up or rendered untenable in the Government’s efforts to drive traffic onto the service if a buyer for the failed private business was not found – and, of course, no-one would buy a failing business, so that sale would be contingent upon renegotiating the operating terms with the government.

The renegotiations took until October 2005 – more than four-and-a-half years – but they made it possible for the failed private business to be sold. Ultimately, the state government agreed to pay an additional A$111 million dollars to the private company and renegotiated the operating parameters of the link, and as a result, a buyer (one of the country’s largest Banks) was found.

Today, the rail link is profitable to both public and private stakeholders, but it took until 2009 to get there. This failure, and a few other high-profile public-private projects that encountered similar problems in becoming profitable due largely to wildly optimistic expectations, diverted much of the government’s capacity for infrastructure investment, and especially for the maintenance of existing assets, and soured private enterprise on the notion of investing in public infrastructure.

Recent Developments

Lately, that attitude has been changing a little; the Cross-Harbor tunnel beneath Sydney Harbor has been such a success that another is planned, the tollways have become far more popular following the introduction of e-tag payment systems and an accompanying decrease in the tolls, and the Airport Rail Link is turning a profit.

A new rail line, the North West Rail Link is currently being constructed for rapid transit between two major suburban centers without the need to transit the CBD. But there are new problems arising from short-term solutions taken despite longer-term cost blowouts – for example, the tunnel is being deliberately bored too small for existing rolling stock, necessitating the purchase of all new trains for the line, trains that are designed for many stops close together and not fewer stops spaced more widely apart as is the case with an express service. There are serious concerns that even if the projected number of passengers desiring to use the service proves accurate, the infrastructure won’t physically or logistically allow that level of service, because of bottlenecks and poor integration with existing services.

In addition, a new state government initiative taken to the polls as part of the last election sees the state government in the process of “leasing” part of the electrical infrastructure to private hands. Part of the reason for selling is that while it is substantially profitable now, rising infrastructure maintenance costs over the next ten years will demolish that profitability and devastate the value. The plan is for the purchaser of the lease to invest heavily in infrastructure improvements and maintenance immediately, which the state government can’t afford to do, so as to delay the date of that decline in value. The promise is that electricity prices will fall as a result – and, in the short term, they might. But this is more robbing of Peter to pay Paul; in the long term, the infrastructure costs will rise as predicted, delayed for a time at best – and prices will have to skyrocket as a result. A government has many options for dealing with such an increase in costs, and does not need to show a profit each and every year; a private “owner” doesn’t have that luxury.

Dystopian and Utopian Futures

All this – and more in the discussion to come – is good news for anyone creating a game set in a Dystopian future, because it all seems to add to the credibility of such a social prediction. It’s not so promising for anyone looking to establish a more Utopian future game setting because it adds to the problems that have to be solved – and if our best political and social minds haven’t been able to solve these problems, what makes you and I think we can do it?

I think I have an answer to the problem. It might not work in real life – I’m not for one minute arrogant enough to think that my little theory is enough to change the world – but it should be plausible enough to get sci-fi GMs and authors past the current dystopian trend.

I’ll get back to that in a little bit. First, I think it worth spelling out all the other challenges that a Utopian future faces.

Dystopian Breakdown

Infrastructure is breaking down because of a change in maintenance policy and rising costs. Social systems have been breaking down, too. The drive to generate profit has seen the gutting of standards of service in most areas, machinery replacing people as wages rose to make the artificial more cost-effective. This affects everything from customer service in Banks to call centers.

Disposable Products

The rising costs of labor have also influenced the products that we buy, producing an engineering ethic in which it is more cost-effective to throw broken products away rather than repairing them, producing unsustainable pressures on our waste disposal systems. (The news is not all bad on this front; a new counter-trend is emerging as a result of environmental consciousness on the part of consumers which priorities recyclable technology).

Distribution Of Wealth

Disparity of incomes has been rising as CEOs and money-spinners earn outrageous salaries while paying less and less, in real terms, to lower-level workers. Extremes of social class are evident now in the western world in a way that rivals or even dwarfs the only other real examples that we have – slave-based economies in the American South and Feudal economies in which Kings and Nobles had the wealth while the peasantry had virtually nothing.

Concentration of wealth has left media control in a relatively small number of hands. While the degree of influence of the modern media barons is a hotly-disputed subject, the potential remains for Kingmakers to control our economic destiny.


Unemployment is another modern problem, though it is one that may exhibit some relief in future decades; as the baby boomers retire, the workforce will thin at the same time as demand in the aged-care sector and related industries boom. The problem is that the jobs that are likely to be available are not those that most people want or aspire to. In the longer term, this won’t be an issue; as we Baby Boomers die off (I date from the extreme tail end of the social group), and this surge in demand will ease. Automation is a bigger issue; some estimates suggest that as many as 20% of current occupations will be automated out of existence over the next 20 years. Personally, I think that’s a little pessimistic, and fails to account for new jobs being created; but even a 10% rise in unemployment is a serious social issue.

Technological Retreat

At the same time, the world has been going backwards in other ways. With the end of the Concorde, supersonic intercontinental travel became a thing of the past. Modern aircraft move more people at once, more economically than ever before, but we have nevertheless retreated from the cutting edge of what was possible to focus on what is most efficient. At least there’s some positive news in that direction, with a new generation of supersonic passenger jets being announced recently. Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin have unveiled aircraft concepts, while Airbus is also developing a supersonic aircraft.

At the same time, operational costs and maintenance have been starved of funds by airlines struggling to stay profitable, producing corner-cutting and a deterioration in safety that is being masked by airlines going out of business – a problem that has existed for more than 20 years, but is growing progressively worse.

The Confinement Of Mankind

We first went to the moon in 1969; 5 more missions to the lunar surface followed, and then we stopped. Instead, NASA focused on the space shuttle because it promised to be a more efficient way of getting a payload into orbit, a promise that was never completely fulfilled, due to the expense and complications of the tiles. And now even that has been cast aside in favor of traditional launch vehicles. Surveys have shown that the general American public consistently overestimate the percentage of the US Federal Budget directed to NASA; the average according to the most recent such survey is 25%, a vast difference from the 0.5% that it actually is. This has made it an easy target for budget cuts, which is how they ended up with such a small budget in the first place. Similar surveys have shown that the public estimates NASA’s budget as being up to 75% of the total budget during the period of the moon landings, with 50%-60% the most common estimate, and not the 10% that it was at its’ peak.

It’s symptomatic of a common pattern: putting the short-term ahead of the long-term because the longer into the future you look, the greater the risks that any sort of investment will not pay off.

The Environment

And finally, the environment. Climate change is still a deeply-divisive subject, but my opinion on the subject is one that seems sensible to both myself and a lot of other people: While it may or may not be happening as a result of human agencies, the potential consequences make the subject too important to ignore. Action needs to be taken – but there is little profit in it, and so – for many organizations and industrial concerns – it remains a policy afterthought to pacify a very vocal minority. In effect, we have to assume that once again, the infrastructure is breaking down faster than it can be rebuilt, because excessive conservatism would be totally disastrous if the worst really is happening.

The Aggregate

Put it all together and it paints a pretty grim picture, doesn’t it? Small wonder that our visions of the future are far more dystopian in modern times than they were fifty-odd years ago. Even the banner-waver for an optimistic future, Star Trek, needed a dystopian reboot to remain popular enough to justify its ongoing adventures.

Chicken Little

There was a time when population pressure was seen as the driving force behind total collapse. Then the bogeyman became a shortage of fossil fuels. The first has been solved; the global population is stabilizing, and new methods and agricultural products are slowly solving the problem of feeding the masses. The second remains a problem that will have to be confronted, but doomsday deadline after doomsday deadline have come and gone, and advance after advance slowly pushes future ones farther away.

And yet, things don’t seem to be getting better, as that long list of problems makes clear.


I was mulling all of the above over, as I occasionally do, and musing on the need for a new social, political, and economic vision to get things moving in the right direction once again, when I had an idea.

I’m not an economist, so I have no doubt that my idea is as full of holes as a kitchen sieve, but it would seem to hold enough water to at least make a plausible premise for an optimistic future world.

Planned inefficiency.

Sounds crazy, right? But follow my logic, if you dare…

Planned Inefficiency Phase I

We start by making it profitable for organizations to employ more people than they need to have in order to be efficient. This can be achieved by raising the business tax rate, while allowing businesses a tax concession for each employee in excess of a mandated number based on the income of the business. Having more staff thereby becomes tax-deductible, dropping the effective tax rate back to something in the vicinity of what it is now, or even a little less. The balance point would be set so that the cost of the employees would be slightly less than the increased cost of the tax.

More staff means more paychecks which means more tax revenue from income taxes. These can be reduced somewhat even though they are at historic lows in many countries, and still leave more money for essential needs like infrastructure maintenance.

No business will take on extra staff and then have them sit around doing nothing. The challenge for business will cease to be efficiency and will become true productivity – defined as giving those extra staff something to do that benefits their employer. Things like improved customer service, for example, or a shift in engineering objectives to make simple servicing of broken/defective equipment possible with relatively little training.

Can you feel the paradigm shifting?

Planned Inefficiency Phase II

Next, we need to encourage industry to invest in areas that are not profitable, like the construction of new infrastructure and refurbishment of the old, by making them profitable.

We again lift the basic business tax rate, and put in place a new tax deduction: infrastructure constructed to an adequate standard and donated (not sold) to the public, with the Government to have oversight over the buildings etc. Smaller businesses don’t have to try to match the big boys; new investment funds can be set up designed to permit many smaller operators collaborate in funding projects beyond the scope of any singly can both spread the burdens and the risks.

Of course, these new projects will require more employees to build them, and to administer them, and to operate them, so employment goes up again, even as the effective business tax rate again falls.

That means that the government’s bills will start to decline; when something is new and properly cared for, maintenance becomes less expensive. This enables another round of tax cuts for both business and individuals, as well as a boost in support services.


It’s not realistic for all businesses to be measured against the same standards of expected profitability per employee; determining the correct indexing and classifications would be the most complicated part of implementing this new economic approach.

That’s about as far as my thinking has taken me. Would it work? I can’t see why not, but I’m not an expert. But it’s at least plausible enough for an RPG, and it solves almost all of that long line of problems. Go over them all again, if you don’t believe me. And from our Dystopian trends, a more Utopian future can emerge.

It’s certainly food for thought, wouldn’t you agree?

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Pt I: Beginnings


Frame: Alexander; Image: Mechanist; Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke


A little while back, I was asked by someone what advice I would have for someone’s first attempt at being a Gamesmaster.

Now, that subject takes in an awful lot of ground, but when I sat down and thought about it, I found that I had suggestions to offer – some simple, obvious things that are fundamental to the art of refereeing any roleplaying game, and a few more advanced tricks of the trade that a beginner (or an experienced GM) could quickly pick up and add to their repertoire. I also think that even an experienced GM can lose sight of the basics from time to time, getting so caught up in the artistic rendering of the leaves that we lose sight of the forest.

This is not an exhaustive breakdown of the subject, by any means. Nor can the advice offered be considered comprehensive in any way, shape, or form. It’s a somewhat eclectic starting point, nothing more. Nothing beats experience, learning from your own mistakes, and evolving your own techniques; this is just a starting point. I’ve divided this broad, broad subject into 15 (you heard me!) different subcategories, and given each it’s own Part in this series, in no particular order:

  • Part I: Beginnings
  • Part II: Creations
  • Part III: Preparations
  • Part IV: Players
  • Part V: Characters
  • Part VI: Challenges
  • Part VII: Adventures
  • Part VIII: Depths
  • Part IX: Rewards
  • Part X: Rhythms
  • Part XI: Campaigns
  • Part XII: Relations
  • Part XIII: Surprises
  • Part XIV: Mistakes
  • Part XV: Laughs

I’m not going to be working on these for week after week; I might do a run of two or three, and then take a break for several weeks or even months before resuming the series. I don’t want to overload newcomers to the GM’s screen! So, let’s get started:

Part I: Beginnings

The subject of this first part of the series, now that the preamble is out of the way, is to discuss the skills and expertise that you should have before you first sit in the GMs chair. If you have to GM without one or more of these, don’t panic; I’ll be here to hold your hand as you go forward, despite this handicap.

Because that’s all it is – an extra handicap, not a guarantee of automatic failure.

In the beginning, there should be a player

GMs have to be able to be able to bring multiple different characters to life in a distinctive, memorable, consistent, and identifiable way. If you can’t do that with a single character, as a player, you have no hope of doing it as a GM.

As a rule of thumb: if you can’t convey a conversation between three “people” with an outside observer being able to not only distinguish between each of the speakers but also to gain information about the personality and mood of the speakers, you aren’t yet ready to GM.

Actually, that’s probably not true. When you can do that, you’ll be a GREAT GM. But at the very least, you have to be able to describe the conversation and relay its essential content.

If you want to sharpen your skills in this respect, pick two or three characters from a novel, TV show, or movie that you know really well, and improvise a conversation between them about something. After you’ve become used to doing that, make a note (in writing) of 1 piece of information that you want each of them to convey to the others in a second conversation that you again improvise. After trying that a few times (different characters and pieces of information each time), prepare a sound-byte or snippet of canned dialogue and practice steering the conversation between them in such a way that each gets to segue into those sound-bytes in a natural dialogue; in other words, practice improvising the conversation around those fixed elements in the conversation. Doing this for 2 or 3 minutes at a time, 2 or 3 times a day for a week or two, and you’ll be ready to learn on-the-job.

Know The System

If you don’t know the rules at least as well as the players do, you are asking for trouble, and sooner or later you’ll get it. There are flaws and errors and issues within every game system, and eventually someone will attempt to exploit one or more.

With sufficient goodwill between players and GM, you might get away with limited knowledge for quite a while – perhaps even long enough to learn what you need to know. On the other hand, as the GM you already have more than enough to do – adding the burden of learning the game system is an aggravation you don’t need, as a beginner. At the very least, read the rules – cover to cover.

An experienced GM can draw on that experience to cover a lack of rules knowledge. A beginner can’t. The only exception to that rule of thumb is where the new GM has significant experience as a player with the same game system; if he has been paying attention to how his GM has handled similar problems, he at least has a head start.

If you don’t know the game system this well, don’t panic: all you need to do is practice finding information quickly within the source rules and skimming it. Master this and you can fake it well enough to GM and learn on-the-job.

Here’s an exercise to help you practice: Pick a spell or power, a magic item or gadget, a weapon, a creature or NPC, and a rules section that you know are in the core books because you’ve looked them up. Write these (but not the page numbers or volume names) that they came from on a piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in an unsealed envelope. Do this once a day for ten days while working on other things for the campaign or other GMing skills. Then take a 4-day break from it. At the end of this two weeks, each day thereafter for the next couple of weeks, randomly draw an envelope and time how long it takes you to find these different pieces of information, using only the information on your note. Ideally, it should take you less than a minute in total, but anything under 90 seconds is good enough to GM with.

An alternative, if you have a couple of hours a day to set aside: Generate a character and run a solo campaign for yourself for a week or two. It’s that simple to learn a new game system. And save any villains or NPCs that you create for use in the “real” campaign when the time comes.

Space, Time, and Matter

Be sure that you have everything you need to be a GM. That’s a copy of the rules, a creative streak, the ability to think about a lot of different things at the same time, a space to work in and a space to play in, pens, paper, reference materials, and time. LOTS of time. A player can get away with simply turning up without having done any work between sessions. Occasionally, the GM can, too – but if you can’t devote a lot of time to your campaign, it is doomed to eventual failure.

As a rule of thumb: For every major character (including every PC) in the campaign, you will need between an hour and a day for preparation for a day’s gaming.

  • In a solo campaign, where there is only one player, you can probably get by without drawing up detailed maps, without extensive background and briefing material, and without writing a 5,000 word scenario every session.
  • With two players, there is more than twice as much to keep track of, and you’ll need at least thumbnail sketches and plot summaries to keep things straight.
  • With three or more players, there is more than 6 times as much to keep track of and keep up to date.
  • With more than that, you need every tool and resource and reminder and road map that you can devise. And the level of detail required in everything goes up.

If you don’t have that sort of time to commit, don’t panic!! Here are a couple of articles to help you:


Decide how often you want to run the campaign. Once a week is great – but puts added pressure on you to come up with the requirements for next week’s game, each and every week. It’s also a lot harder to maintain consistent attendance; real life has a way of getting in the way from time to time, and everyone enjoys a break every now and then. Less than once a month, and you start running into problems of forgetfulness of past events, decisions, and so on. Players are more likely to find something else to do.

Arguably, once a fortnight is ideal; once a week is next best, one a month is doable. Above all, try and be regular about it!

Really, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration here. How long will it take you to do all the required prep work between sessions? Will expectations rise if you play less often? How often are your players available and willing to play? Are you more comfortable with longer play sessions further apart, or shorter but more frequent sessions?

It doesn’t really matter what the practical limits are on your frequency of play so long as you plan accordingly to accommodate those limits. But aim to get as close to the ideal as you can manage.


That brings us to the next important consideration. How long are you going to play for?

  • From experience, I can state that less than 3 hours is a waste of time; even weekly, it will take forever for anything to finish.
  • 4 hours is a reasonable minimum, 5 is better.
  • Between 6 and 10 hours is ideal, but you will need at least 1 break of at least 45 minutes for every 4 hours of play.
  • 12 hours is starting to be a strain, but having those extra couple of hours for play up your sleeve can be a lifesaver.
  • Fourteen Hours in one stretch is the normal maximum that I would consider except under unusual circumstances; people start getting tired and fuzzy and making mistakes. And because GMing is more work than playing, you are more likely to make those mistakes – and they can be campaign wreckers.

This actually brings us back to the issue of preparation time. The longer your game sessions, the more work you have to have done in order to fill that time.

At least one referee I know estimates the amount of preparation time between sessions as the number of players times the number of hours of play in a session, between each and every session. Personally, I don’t think it’s quite that rigid; sometimes you’ll need to have done more, other times you’ll need to have done less, and personal style makes a difference.

But so does experience – as a beginner, everything will take longer, and that will be true for months or years.

As with frequency, it doesn’t matter so much how long your gaming sessions are, so long as you know how much time you have to fill with gaming and plan accordingly. Oh, and always try to prep a little bit more than you think you are going to need, if you possibly can; it can save your bacon.


Duration has another implicit interpretation in this context as well – how long are the adventures? There’s a lot of difference between a half-hour TV show and a 2-hour movie!

I think of each 4-hour session of play as the equivalent of an hour of TV; if an adventure is to last one session, that’s the equivalent of an episode of a TV series like Star Trek, or a single sherlock Holmes mystery. If it’s to last 4 such sessions, that’s the equivalent of a shortish movie, like Terminator. Six sessions is the equivalent of a long movie or full novel.

Ten sessions, that’s a half-season of a TV series. 20 sessions is an entire season of a TV series, or a major trilogy of novels, or the original Star Wars trilogy. 40 sessions is roughly 5 years of once-a-month play, and that’s the equivalent of a major series like Babylon-5 (all 5 years) or Stargate SG-1.

The longer the “adventure” – actually a plot arc over several adventures when we’re talking about the more extreme examples – the more work there is behind the scenes.

One of the major elements of style in a series is the degree of continuity. Some TV series are “episodic” – effectively, each show has a “reset to where we started from” built in. Star Trek, most police shows – in fact, most television – is handled this way.

But there are series where every episode picks up where the last one left off, where the characters have a significant impact on the world around them. These can be deadly slow – minimizing the changes in any given episode – or they can be deadly quick.

The slower changes occur, the simpler the world, and the less work is involved in keeping things straight – but the harder you will have to work at making things interesting and exciting. The faster things change, the more you have to keep up with, and the harder you will have to work on that.

Here’s a tip: get an exercise book. Label a page for every place the characters go, and every person that they meet of significance. Note the number of days since the campaign started when the players encounter the location or character. If you do this, most of the time you DON”T HAVE TO update everything between each session – when they are about to re-encounter “X”, just look at how many days its been, and then update that item to show the effects of that length of time. Once or twice a real-time year, go through and make a few notes about the consequences on each item of changes brought about elsewhere in the campaign, so that everything is more or less in step. That takes a LOT of work out of the campaign.

That trick works well in fantasy games, not so well in any era or genre with advanced communications, where you may need to update your book far more frequently. That’s better done in some form of online document or wiki.


Yet another factor to think about is the degree of realism. You can be gritty or idealized or anything in between. But the more realistic, the harder you have to think about making sure everything makes sense. And the less realistic, the more you have to work at being creative.

A lot of early scenarios – especially in the fantasy genre – amount to “There’s a hole in the ground. We find a way in, kill all the nasties, and take all the loot. Next time, we do it all again.” These are not very realistic, and they are fairly episodic.

The more you think about the ecologies and cosmology and philosophy (and so on) of your setting, the more time and detail you have to put into your campaign.

If it’s so much more work, why do it? Because some players like that sort of thing. And because in the long run, it makes your job easier. And because it’s often a lot of fun, or very interesting, or both.

The Fantastic

Almost every campaign has something in it that falls into this category. It might be metaphysical horrors, it might be high technology, it might be wondrous sorcery or flamboyant martial arts or super powers, but almost all of them will have something that falls into this category.

Before you can GM effectively, you have to think carefully about how this stuff works – not in the rules sense, but in the “real world” sense. What effect does its existence have on the world? On the people? On the society? On everyday life? How does it work? What can’t it do? These are all questions of metaphysics and philosophy.

If you don’t think about this issue in advance, you will find that assumptions will be made – by you, by the rules, by the players – and that sometimes these can paint you into a corner, or even worse, have you talking at cross-purposes either with a player or still worse again, with yourself.


If you know everything about everything, you can get by without research. If your adventures are nothing more sophisticated than “there’s a hole in the ground filled with monsters and treasure”, you can also get by without research. For everyone else, there will be an ongoing need to learn many things about many, many subjects.

Think about this for a moment: to be completely original, you have to either get unbelievably lucky or know everything that’s already been done. The secret is to take something that’s not original and put a twist on it. By the time you stack up the sheer number of variables of characters and situations, you can achieve a combination of well-worn elements that is nevertheless original and unique.

The more sophisticated your story-telling techniques and creativity, the more easily you can find the assumptions that haven’t been the subjects of a twist in the past, and do something creative with them. In addition, there will be plot ideas that you will become comfortable refereeing that you would once never have dreamed of. Improvements are made in your skills and experience inch by incremental inch, but they add up over time.


The problems faced by a Beginner GM aren’t unique. Others have gone through the same trials and tribulations, and unlike many other creative disciplines, gaming is very much a community. We help each other out, and – having received such help – generally feel obligated to help when others in turn come forward with problems.

Once, there was nothing, save the monthly magazines – and the best hope you had was to send a letter and wait months for a response from a seasoned GM. By then, you would usually have found someone local to lean on, or solved the problem yourself, or given up. The internet changed all that, and made the gaming community a global thing.

In the beginning, there was Usenet, and a bulletin-board oriented communication. You had a problem, you asked, and opinions flowed in.

Then came dedicated web pages, specific in topic and content. These were followed by websites that dealt with a range of often-related subject matter. Quite often, you would be able to email the authors of these pages or sites and make contact with a kindred spirit who would help you out when trouble struck, and simply enjoy the virtual company of others who shared your hobby.

There was a time when game discussion boards were everywhere, and you could find a thread devoted to any subject you could think of. One by one, most died, though a few survive – especially those operated by the gaming companies themselves.

After the Bulletin Boards came the Gaming Blogs like Campaign Mastery, and while a few have lasted, many of these have also died in the last year or two. Some people (who really should know better) think that this means that they are also a vanishing breed, but the reality is that there are still new ones being launched all the time. How long these will last is unknown; it takes talent, luck, support, persistence, and a slightly masochistic streak to keep going week after week after week.

There are milestones to watch for. Six months – when those who find it all too much work drop out. A year – long enough for life to change. Two years – when exhaustion begins; get through that and you’ll get a second wind. Five years – that’s the big one. The truism used to be that only the top 1% of the top 1% of websites would survive beyond that; I’m not sure that is completely accurate any more, but if the percentage of survivors that remain active for more than five years is anywhere close to 5% or mote, I will be utterly astonished.

In television, even long-running series have trouble lasting more than 7 seasons, and most movie franchises seem to run out of steam after just two or three entries – which usually take five-to-seven years to achieve..

But all of these are resources, little helpers that can get you out of a pinch. Even those that have vanished may still be found, archived away somewhere. Collect them, treasure them, use meaningful bookmarks that tell you why you saved it.

The first time you discover a helpful resource only to find that it is gone when you return (because you remember they had the very thing that you need right now, at least according to your bookmark), it’s irritating. The second time, it’s distressing. The third time, you realize that if a site has something that’s of value now, or might ever be of value in the future, you had better archive a copy of it, so that it will always be an ace up your sleeve. That’s why every article at Campaign Mastery has a little “print friendly” button at the bottom of the page, which enables you to print a copy of the article, or save it as a PDF. But, if the site doesn’t have that facility, try saving the web page, not just bookmarking it. Collect resources and reference materials like a magpie!

Articles on sites like Campaign Mastery fall into three categories: those that don’t tell you anything you don’t already know; those that are of immediate benefit or value, even if they do nothing more than make you think; and those that are either of no immediate benefit, or that are aimed at GMs with a lot more experience, that you have trouble making any sense of. There have been a number of occasions when I’ve been contacted by a new GM because they don’t understand an article, or because part of it is aimed at GMs with far more experience than they do. My advice is always the same – if you don’t understand something now, save it and look again in a year or so. The number of times something that is totally opaque becomes crystal clear with greater experience will astonish you – and if the words haven’t changed, then the difference must be in the reader.

But you already knew that, because you’re reading this article, right?

A License To Fail

I have one final recommendation to make before closing out this article. Make room for failure, and give yourself permission to try things and fail.

Too many Beginner GMs start by trying to create the game of their dreams with their first time at bat, and end up wasting the strokes of brilliance that they have accumulated through all the years when they weren’t behind the screen.

Instead, make your first campaign something that isn’t intended to last. Limit it in scope. Don’t use your best ideas right away. Learn to crawl before you line up to run the marathon.

Start with one adventure in isolation. Then a second. Then a sequel to one of these two. Experiment a little with genre and game systems and game mechanics. Balance the grim and gritty with the silly and frivolous, and work out for yourself where your strengths lie and where you aren’t as good as you need to be. Only then are you ready to begin work on the campaign that you’ve been dreaming of.

Beginners need all the help they can get, and I’d rather like this series to become a hub for a new GM to find as much advice as he can get, so at the end of each part I’m going to be posting an open call to every other GM out there: If you run a Gaming website and have an article targeting beginners, add a link via the comments. If you don’t run a site but know of such an article, link to it anyway!

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Imperfect Imbalance – Personal Injury Law in RPGs


Image courtesy troha

To really get to grips with your RPG world, you have to understand how the invented environment affects the everyday life of the inhabitants.

That’s more easily said than done.

One technique is to answer a long series of questions, progressing from the simple to the profound, as shown in my first series here at Campaign Mastery, Distilled Cultural Essence, but that series focused specifically on creating societies and cultures, and not on the bigger picture.

I’ve offered other techniques over the years, such as the one in The poetry of meaning: 16 words to synopsize a national identity, but that’s more focused on generating a broad general picture. I talked quite a lot about turning your ideas into concrete campaign elements in the course of the epic 11-part New Beginnings series, and how to create some of those ideas in the first place, but none of that really helps in assessing the impact of those ideas at the small scale of ordinary events. So there’s a gaping, somewhat swiss-cheesy hole in my treatment of the subject here at Campaign Mastery. This article aims to offer one way to plug those holes.


If you look at any painting or photograph really close up, you’ll find that it’s not an overall image at all – it’s composed of a few small details:


Part of the Campaign Mastery logo blown up about 1600 times. What looked like a straight, sharp line at an angle, isn’t it’s jagged and fuzzy, and what looked like texture elements are simply contrasts in color that fool the eye.


The original Campaign Mastery icon/logo for comparison purposes. The enlarged section is located on the upper left side, where the “C” is at its closest to the hex-side.

I talked about this a little in the discussion on Pointillism in Let’s Twist Again, part 2 of my collection of 11 types of plot twist for RPGs (specifically, in twist type 8). In this context, it means that if you really understand enough of the small details, the big picture will emerge of its own accord, shaped and filtered by campaign themes and other such overall campaign elements, because those are how you filter and process those small details. So, how to determine those small details?

Another technique for discovering the impact of the campaign world on everyday life is to live an ordinary day or week of your life and simply pay attention to everything you’re doing, then try to picture how that activity would be transformed by the game environment. Sometimes you need to translate it into some analog activity first, because the cultural, social, and technological milieu doesn’t match that of your contemporary existence.

It sounds simple enough, but it can be difficult in practice; the mental equivalent of blank page syndrome can result from being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of activities that need to be covered, and not really knowing where to start. An alternative approach that helps get you started when this is a problem is to examine one specific but sufficiently-broad aspect of life in detail, breaking it down and thinking about the impact of the campaign reality on as many aspects of the process as you can think of.

One of the best such microcosm representations can be found in, of all places, Personal Injury Law and Compensation.

Personal Injury Law 101 For Amateurs

Personal Injury law exists to provide compensation to injured parties for the harm done by another. If someone is injured in a car accident, that person is entitled to compensation from the person who caused the accident. Because these claims can be very expensive, most vehicle registrations include a requirement for compulsory insurance to cover them. Similarly, home insurance not only protects the policyholder against loss or damage to the home, but also covers compensation claims for visitors injured on the property.

It’s always fair to say that the law lags behind social reality and technology. The admissibility of evidence, the nature and expense of treatment, and the types of injury that can be sustained are always subject to revision as technology changes, and there is always a delay or lag before the law grows to accommodate new technology.

Often, the first attempts at framing such laws are achieved by using the laws applying to another technology, one that is already understood by the legal system, as a foundation; it takes even longer for the legal infrastructure to adjust and modify the laws that seek to regulate and deal with new technology in such a way that its unique properties and characteristics are given due consideration.

A lot of the legal problems arising from recent mergers and activities regarding internet regulation stem from considering the internet to be analogous to telephone communications (and other such services) as opposed to a unique service in its own right. The legal restrictions over what can be said online about someone are rooted in the laws pertaining to print communications and take minimal account of the speed with which modern communications occur – if you invent a rumor about a celebrity and take it down an hour later, after it has been spread far and wide by social media, and publish a retraction in its place, the laws (as they stand) have a hard time dealing with the question of whether or not the celebrity has been damaged, and to what extent.

I got to thinking about this, and how it might impact on RPGs of various types.

A mechanism for redress

The first requirement is that there needs to be a mechanism for redressing injuries in the society. In most Fantasy games, there is virtually no legal protection and no means to obtain compensation other than force, often in the form of a duel. Some fantasy societies incorporate the concept of Champions who can fight on behalf of an injured or challenged party – Sparhawk is “the Queen’s Champion” in the double trilogy by Eddings, for example. Paladins are often described as “righters of wrongs”, so this puts an entirely different spin on that social class.

Or take the legend of Robin Hood – we have a corrupt administration, against which the outlaw fights. The rich, who are considered responsible for the administration that has failed the ordinary citizen, or at the very least have the property of guilt through association, are plundered by Robin Hood and the wealth stolen from them is redistributed to the commons.

In any society, there needs to be some mechanism for the redress of alleged wrongs, and it will usually evolve very quickly into something quite sophisticated and complex. But it’s normal for not everyone to be protected, or to be protected to the same extent. Such egalitarian ideals are a relatively modern invention.

In medieval times, the lower classes had relatively little protection. The Lord to whom they looked offered what safeguards there were towards those from outside his domain, and there was usually a “lower court”, “moot court” or representational system of justice that set compensations to those injured by others of similar social standing, but that was the extent of it. How you were treated by your Lord was entirely up to him – though poor standards of treatment might diminish his character in the eyes of nobles higher placed within the peerage.

Regardless of the time period or the process, the beginning step of any process of redress is the issuance of a complaint by the “plaintiff” against the “respondent” alleging that the plaintiff has been harmed and that the respondent needs to compensate the plaintiff for that harm.

Challenge or Complaint

The form of such a complaint is frequently archaic and hearkens to an earlier period. It is always highly formal. Depending on the time and place, there may be some sort of preliminary hearing or evidentiary standard that must be met, so as to discourage frivolous litigation. There are parallels between practices of different eras that recur time and again.

Before a formal challenge may be issued in a medieval setting, for example, you might need to convince someone else that you have a legitimate grievance before you can even reach the noble against whom you have a complaint in order to issue your challenge, or perhaps it is customary for challenges to be issued through third parties who themselves are put at risk if the challenge is unwarranted. A third alternative is simply the need to convince someone to hear the case; in some fictional societies, civil justice functions by both sides paying the judge for his time and attention. This is a feature of the society in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein – I don’t know where he got the idea from, or if it was completely original to him. The Wikipedia article to which I have linked suggests a similarity to the Viking Althing, but the resemblance is subtle and vague, at least in my eyes.

The point is that there is a filter of some sort that screens trivial and absurd complaints from the process, a hoop that must be jumped through, and that this is wrapped in formality and tradition.

The reasons for that formality are two-fold; the first is to serve as a reminder of the seriousness of the situation, and the second is to begin placing the complaint at arms’ length from those directly involved; once the complaint or challenge is lodged, it becomes part of the society, and the judgment becomes a precedent for subsequent decisions. In any challenge of this sort, there will be a winner and there will be a loser, and this starts the process of preparing both sides for the possibility that it could be them.

It is usually necessary to notify the person alleged to be responsible for the alleged harm directly by “serving notice” to them; you can’t normally simply hand the paperwork to a third party, no matter how closely related to the individual in question they might be. There is an inherent presumption that the individual has the right to a fair opportunity to prepare their defense, and – in truth – they usually have less time than the complainant, who will normally have a fair amount of preparation complete before they even make the allegation.

“Personal Service” can be a whole new challenge when shape-shifting and other metahuman capabilities are taken into account, or when someone can simply pop into a neighboring plane. In fantasy games, there would need to be a variety of manhunter to pursue miscreants wherever they might flee – or a change in the society that finds some other way of dealing with public liability. The first offers employment opportunities for PCs, or can have one or more PCs being hunted; the other changes the society in a different way. It’s more difficult, and requires a bit more imagination and careful thought; the first option is, quite frankly, the easy option. For most of this article, I’ll assume that the first choice is in effect.

Which means the only opportunity to look at the second choice is right now. The simplest answer is to keep the known arrangements, but to permit penalties to be awarded in absentia – which effectively replaces the “manhunters” with “debt collectors”. There might be a social mechanism similar to that of a bail bondsman who pays the victims and then chases down the parties found liable to recoup their losses, for a percentage of the payout plus a fee paid by the state, or it (more likely) would be for the percentage, from which a licensing fee has to be paid to the state. There might also need to be a legal principle that states that descendants are responsible for this type of debt if it can be shown that the guilty party has died in the meantime – but, in a world with undead and resurrection, that opens a whole new can of worms.

Another approach might be for an increase in taxation, along the lines of a mandatory insurance, in which the state collects an annual fee plus a percentage of each person’s income, holding it in trust to cover the needs of any public liability event. This is the mandatory motor vehicle insurance concept extended to cover the entire populace; failure, or inability, to pay places the noble responsible for the trust, and the wider community, at risk, and so would be treated as a criminal act. Those who fail to pay might be required to discharge that debt through public service or service to the noble. This is a relatively small and subtle change, but domino effects mean that it would ripple through the entire community.

The poor in the middle ages struggled to pay their taxes even without this added burden. It would almost certainly become accepted practice that people had to work a set number of hours on behalf of the community or the lord of the domain through which a traveler passed, but that they could buy off this obligation. This is an unusual form of national service, but it would solve the problem.

Certain occupations would represent a greater risk to the community than others – and “adventuring” would be right up there, in that respect. They would need to pay more, either in service or in cash – in advance. Of course, if they do something that benefits the community, like freeing them from demonic domination or killing the dragon that is preying on the cattle, that would be credited to their accounts in that local community; PCs would be able to pay their obligation in one district by issuing a “cheque” or “bond” indicating that the bearer need only present the claim to the last community they had helped; no cash need change hands. This would generate fame and recognition of their past deeds.

It’s worth pointing out that what’s actually happening here is that the “adventuring” role adopted by most PCs is being integrated into the social and legal fabric of the world, purely as a byproduct of the task in hand…

Superheroic campaigns are a whole different kettle of fish. I thought Marvel Comic’s invention of Damage Control, about an organization that exists purely to clean-up and repair damage from superhero battles, to be a stroke of sheer brilliance, but one that didn’t go far enough. Unless the superheros are somehow affiliated and sanctioned by the government, and subject to the same laws and regulations as their normal police forces or equivalent national organizations, they would be liable for any property damage and injuries that took place as a consequence of their activities – every supervillain fight is a potential financial disaster. If they do receive government sanction, that means that the government is also accepting that liability on behalf of the superheros – the restrictions I mentioned would be aimed at limiting that liability. Once again, the society needs to adapt to the presence of these characters in their midst.

In the current Zenith-3 campaign, I found a variant on the solution. Since this is a world in which the British Empire reigns supreme over virtually half the planet – and the other half is under the control of a mysterious Empire from China named the Mao – and the British have a legendary reputation for tolerating, if not encouraging, eccentricity, I decided to enshrine that into “law”. Registered Eccentrics are subject to less restriction than other citizens in return for the obligation to “entertain the public” with their exploits, and to provide other social services as necessary. The government sanctions their activities and hence their liabilities, and exempts them from some of the legal restrictions and obligations to which others are subject; in return, they gain licensing rights and the capacity to make money from products bearing the likeness of the individual, which raises the funds to cover their liabilities. The PCs are thus required to sign posters and Christmas cards, their headquarters gives daily public tours, they have to make a certain number of public, television, and internet appearances, they have to have a nominated charity for which they do regular work, and so on. All this provides massive opportunities for getting plotlines and PCs to intersect in time and space, and provides an endless opportunity for subplots, which was part of the idea’s appeal. (It’s perhaps worth noting that the “registered eccentrics” law was intended to cover certain celebrities and scientists who were considered Imperial Treasures worth elevating just a little bit above the law in return for funding and encouraging them to continue their services to the community; it was not intended to cover superheros. But stretching an existing law to cover a new situation is a long-standing practice, and it works brilliantly well!)

Once again, this is an example of integrating the activities expected of the PCs into the social and legal fabric of the world – exactly what you would expect to happen.


In modern cases, the complaint must be proven with evidence, facts that can be proven to a satisfactory standard. If such evidence is not available, the complaint goes nowhere.

In older times, there was less or no reliance on evidence at all; instead, there was greater reliance on the character of the individuals involved. It was the rise to primacy of science that created the assumption that something could be definitively proven as fact. Prior to that time, there weren’t “facts”, there were “truths”, and truth was ordained by religious authority and tested by scholarly debate. The very meaning of the term “of good character” was subtly different, though many of the constituents remain unchanged – a reputation for honesty and fairness, for example.

In either case, the complaint is followed by some form of investigation. This is either the gathering of evidence or the solicitation of testimony, or both. Some of this evidence/testimony is designed to prove your case, and some is designed to undermine rebuttals by the other side.

In modern major civil lawsuits, the time available for the gathering of such evidence can be months or years; without the same evidentiary standards and obligations, the delay would be days at most. Quite often an entire community would gather for the hearing of complaints and judgments, and so it was a simple matter to ask who would vouch for the character or verify an account of events; “trials” were more like a community meeting, of the sort routinely seen on The Simpsons.

Of course, if justice is determined by a duel, no real investigation is required; but the parry and thrust of sword-fighting or even the acceptance of a duel and its conduct are often referred to as an examination of the character of the participants, so even in this “court of justice” there is some parallel to this phase of proceedings.

In modern or recent-period settings, this can be the most interesting part of the story, as the longevity of the CSI franchise makes clear – not to mention almost every other police procedural of the last 50 or 60 years that isn’t essentially a courtroom drama. Investigation is basically a detective story, and that can either be the plot in itself or simply a means of getting PCs and plot together.

Futuristic campaigns often struggle to make serviceable plots from this sort of activity, due to the expectation that Forensic Science will continue to evolve. For the Zenith-3 campaign, I decided that Forensic Science had become so sensitive that the meaningful results were buried in the torrent of “noise”, forcing people to adopt more “old-school” techniques most of the time. Testing a crime scene for DNA would produce a list of samples that covered anyone who had been in that location (or even passed it by if the window was open) in the last ten years; eliminating all of them as suspects would take so much legwork that it was impractical, even assuming that you could identify them all. This lets me have my forensic “cake” and eat it too – I can have Forensics provide as much or as little assistance as the plot needs.

Superheroic campaigns, which permit all sorts of action at a distance, pose special challenges to investigators. If the murder weapon was wielded Telekinetically, the killer didn’t even have to be in the same room as the crime. Other paranormal abilities would be needed to solve the crime.

Some abilities can take all the life out of this type of activity, however, and that’s something that needs to be carefully monitored. If you can see the past, or bring it back to life somehow, contemporary mysteries become too easily solved to be viable as plots. Coming to the rescue is the convenient requirement that evidence be “legally admissible”, and the legal doctrine “fruit of the poisonous tree” even prevents cheating by discovering who the guilty party was through such means and then using that knowledge to find proof that would otherwise be admissible. In other words, there is no substitute for working through the plot from beginning to end!

Evidentiary Hearings

Sometimes, it’s necessary for preliminary attendances at court for evidentiary hearings. These are where a judge determines whether certain evidence can be admitted or not, and is especially important where there is the possibility or even likelihood that a witness will not survive long enough to appear at the actual hearing, or for some other reason, may not be available. This stage of personal injury proceedings is new in comparison with the others being discussed.

Mitigating Factors & Contributory Actions

Criminal law is relatively straightforward; someone is either guilty, or they are not. Civil court cases and, in particular, personal injury cases, are far more complicated. There are three “fuzzy factors” that have little or no role in criminal cases, save perhaps in the sentencing phase; these are Mitigating Factors, Contributory Actions, and Shared Liability.

Mitigating Factors

A Mitigating Factor is a circumstance that reduces the level of harm done through outside factors. Negligence is, as a rule, not as bad as deliberate malice; an innocent mistake is not as damaging as willful intent or the circumventing of safeguards for personal gain. Creating a risk is never as bad as having someone actually suffer harm as a result of that risk.

Any form of diminished capacity that is not self-inflicted, say by the consumption of alcohol, is usually a mitigating factor. Some respondents are leery of making any presentation regarding mitigating factors because they feel an implicit acknowledgement of guilt that can weaken their primary position of not being responsible for the harm that was caused. This inevitably leads to dense legalese of the sort that non-lawyers hate: “My client contends that he is not responsible for any harm that has befallen the plaintiff for reasons (a) through (h) in our submission to the court, and that any one of these represents sufficient cause to dismiss the complaint, and further contents that even if responsibility is somehow imputed despite these completely reasonable grounds for the dismissal of the case against him that his responsibility is minimal due to the mitigating factors listed in points (i) through (m) of our response to the submission by the plaintiff, and that in aggregate these reduce his level of responsibility to beyond any reasonable measure or standard of culpability”. Because it is necessary to present these without an admission of guilt, the entire line of argument feels “oily”, the sort of thing that a “slick lawyer” might say. It’s not direct and to the point.

In some modern societies, defendants are given the opportunity to present arguments in mitigation after a verdict of responsibility has been handed down, and the primary part of the case simply establishes that the allegations of responsibility have only proven that the defendant shares some of the blame; this is usually described as the “penalty phase” of a court case. In others, you only get one shot at influencing those rendering the verdict.

Supposedly, the judge is the jury’s guide through this thicket, specifying exactly how they are to take any mitigating factors into account through his instructions – but sometimes these can be even more complicated than the arguments pro and con as a result. Things were (and are) much simpler when such cases don’t go before a jury, because the judge or arbiter then makes these decisions for themselves; but civil cases are still decided by a jury on many occasions to ensure that “community standards” are reflected in the verdict.

Mitigating factors reflect the social beliefs of the time; in the days when slavery was accepted in North America and in other places, the owner was responsible for any harm inflicted by a slave. This was because the slave was considered property and not a person; an injury caused by a slave was the same thing as an injury produced by a horse-and-cart; you can’t sue the horse, you sue the horse’s owner.

One source of disbelief amongst the lay public in modern times is the legal principle that equates a corporation with a person. This notion of responsibility is the source of that principle, because it inherently states that a corporation can be harmed in the same way that a person can be, and that it can inflict harm and bear responsibility in the same way that an individual can. Ultimately, it’s a piece of legal trickery that ensures that corporations and individuals are (theoretically) held to the same legal standards, and furthermore, it prevents complications by having two separate bodies of law to deal with such responsibility. On the face of it, it may seem absurd, but there’s a good reason behind it.

There is a good argument to be made that what a society deems a mitigating factor, and the extent to which it is deemed to mitigate responsibility for certain actions, is a good window into the values of that society.

If there are any mitigating factors, any award, compensation, or “relief” granted to the injured party must take this into account, either as a fixed sum deducted from the payout or as a percentage reduction of the compensation.

Mitigating factors become a major can of worms in any campaign with any form of mind-control. Unless there is some reliable form of independent testing to prove that an individual was or was not mentally controlled or even influenced, the whole concept of liability except by virtue of negligence goes out the window. Is a telepathic examination legal? Are a telepath’s findings admissible testimony? I somehow doubt it. The courts would probably view any allegation of mental control as an “affirmative defense“, something that the defense must prove if they make the claim; but that virtually guarantees that there will be miscarriages of justice in which someone is mind controlled and doesn’t claim that defense. The only solution that I can see is for state-sanctioned and qualified telepathic “experts” to be legally required to examine any such claims – at who knows what cost to the telepath?

There are lots more legal minefields to traipse through in the name of plot within this umbrella. The makers of a product are liable if reasonable use of the product results in injury or loss; it is up to the courts to define “reasonable use” if the makers disputes a claim rather than settling the matter out of court, or if the settlement offer is deemed unacceptable. So if a being made of liquid attempts to use an electrical appliance, is that “reasonable use” or is product liability reduced to a “caveat emptor” situation? Can the problem be covered by an additional warning label? And how many such warning labels can a product have, anyway? “On page 327 of the product manual, the manual clearly states that elementals and other liquid beings use the product at their own risk”.

If a blender, or a microwave oven, or a mobile phone, or whatever, emits telepathic “noise” that drives a psionic character around the bend, how reasonable is it to hold the maker liable?

In the fantasy arena, how liable is a wizard for a barn that was burnt down while he was driving out a demon? Is employing a fire elemental the same thing as maintaining a public nuisance or a dangerous dog?

Contributory Actions

The other legal principle that is largely unique to civil cases is the idea that the victim can share some measure of responsibility for the harm that was done to him, and that this can diminish the responsibility of others. This is a principle that is rarely held to be inequitable or unfair; if you get hurt because you were doing something silly with a piece of equipment, the culpability of the manufacturer or owner of that equipment is obviously affected, even if they were also participating in the activity.

While the principle is generally accepted as reasonable, its application in any given case is frequently far more contentious. For this reason, police and other public services frequently have an entirely separate system of internal hearings to those of the wider community, and while this can cause friction between differing standards, it is normally a necessity. For example, consider the case of a policeman who is injured rescuing a drunk from a dangerous situation, who is also injured in the process; the policeman can’t normally sue the drunk, and the drunk normally can’t sue the police officer, and it’s not reasonable for things to be any different. A bystander who is also injured in the course of the rescue, on the other hand, has a reasonable case against the drunk and a less reasonable case against the police department, but because the service can afford to pay and a drunk usually can’t, it is not at all uncommon for the department to be sued and not the drunk.

One area where this principle has become important in recent times, for example, is the culpability of police for injuries to third parties resulting from high-speed pursuits. The finding in some jurisdictions that the police were at least partially responsible for such injuries has a disproportionate impact on the ability of the police to perform their mandated social function; at the same time, completely exempting them from such responsibility is a license for them to behave irresponsibly. So there is no simple answer to the question, and the balance between these conflicting points of view swings back and forth over time.

Other social factors can have a strong influence over these questions. It can be argued that a robust and affordable public health system coupled with an appropriate form of insurance can mitigate against the need to allocate responsibility in court in such cases, for example; so if health-care is universally acceptable and the care and wellbeing of an injured party already provided for, there will be fewer cases of litigation against the police, and the need may in fact be so low as to justify an exemption for the police forces. Similarly, a greater emphasis on the personal responsibility of the individual for their own safety shields police forces from such lawsuits.

That means that the concept of Contributory actions is just as responsive to the social mores as Mitigating Factors are, though the relationship is more indirect and changes in community values take longer to become reflected in the legal standards.

If you’re a superhero and your secret identity’s neighbor, or your girlfriend, knows it, and they get hurt in a superhero fight, how liable are you? If Aunt May needs an operation, could Spider-man sue whoever it was that made the spider radioactive in the first place?

If Uncle Harry becomes an undead zombie, can you sue the Priest who performed the funeral ceremony?

If Superman stops someone from getting killed but injures them in the process, can he be sued? (This was the basis for a highly-entertaining episode of “Lois & Clark”).

Shared Liability

The third of the “Fuzzy Factors” is the potential for one act of harm to have many parents. Again, in criminal law, responsibility is fairly black-and-white, but in civil cases, many people can share responsibility for one outcome. A key decision in any case involving multiple parties who may be held liable in part or in whole for the outcome is whether to conduct these as separate court actions or as one big case; the first takes longer, but doesn’t bet the whole case on one bite of the legal cherry. However, there is a risk that court# one will find that the bulk of the blame should belong to party #2 (not part of that lawsuit), while court#2 finds that the bulk should belong to party #1 (not part of that lawsuit). For this reason, “separation” of the cases is usually thought to favor the respondents over the plaintiff, i.e. the people being sued, and the court will need good reason to go along with any such proposal – and the court gets to decide because the plaintiff will resist the move. (There are other disadvantages, too; for example, one respondent will get a preview of the evidence that the plaintiff has, and their arguments, and will therefore get more time to prepare counterarguments).

Shared Liability can vastly complicate the awarding of damages; the percentage to which one side is held to be liable will reduce the primary damages awarded, but there can be completely separate punitive damages awarded.

Class Actions

Class actions are very nearly a fourth fuzzy factor. They certainly don’t apply to criminal cases, where each act is considered in isolation as a separate offense, but in a civil case, the “plaintiff” may be a whole group of people affected by one action. The problem is that juries can get distracted by the size of the damages being sought by this “plaintiff” and fail to recognize the way in which those will get divided up.

For example, let’s say that 250 people are injured by faulty air bags, something that’s been a hot topic in the news lately. Awarding damages of $5,000,000 might seem like a lot, but the lawyers will often take a sizable percentage of that – up to 70% – because they have effectively just won 250 court cases at the same time. But let’s be more typical and say 40%. That’s the award down to $3,000,000. If all that went to the 250 people, that’s $12,000 each – when they might be facing medical bills in the hundreds of thousands. But the case isn’t limited to those 250; a class action sets up a fund from which anyone who falls into the group of individuals defined by the verdict can claim. If another 300 people come forward after the verdict to claim that they were also injured, that $3,000,000 can be split 550 ways instead of 250 – a total of less than $5500 each. I’m not 100% certain about it, but I think that this is also subject to taxes – so that might end up being only $3000.

So let’s up the scale. Let’s say that each victim is to receive $500,000, of which $200,000 will be consumed by medical expenses (on average) and $300,000 will represent 5 or 10 years of fully- or partially-lost ability to work. $30,000 is not a very big annual wage, these days. $500,000 times the 250 initial victims comes to 125 million dollars.

But if you go into court and ask for $125 million, you’re going to look very greedy. And even if you get it, there will almost certainly be an appeal because of the scale of the payout, so it might be more years before you see a cent. And even if that appeal is lost, there’s no certainty that the corporation will have that sort of money to pay – it may have been a decade since the original incident, and a lot can change in terms of profitability in that sort of timescale. And in all that time, the 250 (and maybe the 300 too) have been partially or completely unable to earn an income – many will have lost everything as a result. So the lawyers for the corporation will offer to settle for maybe $25 million, and everyone will be motivated to accept. That’s 5 times our original example payout – so each victim might end up getting $15,000 at the end of the day.

250 isn’t a very big number of victims. A modern jet can have more than 400 passengers. Millions of defective cars might have been sold. That 300 might be 3000, or 30,000. A huge payout can give each victim a pittance, and that’s the reality of class action lawsuits.

America has a bad reputation for being a litigious society, one in which huge damages get paid out in civil court cases. Class Action lawsuits are the cause, in my opinion; they accustom everyone to telephone numbers in damages, setting a standard that is also used in individual cases, give the impression that the winners get a huge windfall, and that encourages other lawsuits – and it all stems from the practice of awarding, and reporting, those payouts in aggregate rather than per victim. Such a tiny detail, but it can have a huge impact.

All of these “fuzzy factors” are on display in A Civil Action by Jonathon Harr, and in the movie of the same name starring John Travolta, both of which I heartily recommend.

Validation or Refutation of Claim

The claim has been made, the evidence heard, and someone now gets to decide on the case. There are three types of decision-makers in modern law: arbitrators, who negotiate an outcome; judges, who decide an outcome; and juries, who have to agree upon an outcome. Duels are simpler – the winner is either the first person to wound the other, or the survivor. Decisions outside of duels were simpler in older times, too – the winner was the highest ranking noble (unless a higher ranking one overruled him, such as might happen in cases of treason), but the general principle holds. When members were of equal rank, well, that was where duels came in for the peerage – assuming that a complaint to a higher authority would not yield satisfaction. Ordinary people didn’t fight duels; sometimes, the Lord decided; sometimes, an individual appointed by the Lord decided; and sometimes, especially in minor infractions, a jury of the neighbors sat in judgment. This was not a jury appointed to hear a specific case; the same jury handled all matters as part of a regular town “council” that all attended.

It was counted an honor and mark of the respect of your peers to be appointed to the Jury; these were the most honest, trustworthy, and even-handed members of the community, in the judgment of the members of that community. “Who decides” is therefore yet another window into the values of the society. However, it is entirely reasonable for a visitor of “noble rank” or “heroic reputation” to be appointed to a jury for the duration of their stay in a particular location.

There is an obvious plot opportunity for a fantasy campaign here: PCs stay in an inn, a crime is allegedly committed or an accident occurs, and the PCs – because of their reputation – get added to the jury.

Compensation & Costs

Compensation comes in many forms. The modern form is financial, and is divided into two forms: restitution and punitive damages. Older forms were blood, material goods, or even the life of the guilty. Exile is rare but not unheard of; labor on behalf of the injured party was also acceptable in the past, as was removal of access to civil amenities, and fines to the community. Public apologies or retractions are also valid for some forms of harm. In theory, at least, juries, judges, and arbitrators are limited only by their imaginations as to the form that compensation may take. In cases of unfair dismissal, it’s not uncommon for the court to order that the person be given their position back, and sometimes they can also require that this be made retroactive, taking effect on the date of dismissal – so that the person unfairly dismissed from their position receives back pay.


The goal of restitution is to undo the harm done to the maximum reasonable extent that financial recompense is able to achieve. That requires whoever decides the case to put an economic value on the harm done, and then to apply the “fuzzy factors” to determine how much of that burden an individual “person” would be responsible for.

Restitution is sometimes simple and sometimes incredibly messy and – once again – responsive to social attitudes, as well as to the medical capabilities of the society. This is especially true when intangible harm has to be valued, or when the value of a life lost has to be calculated. Despite this, and the notoriety in which some awards for “pain and suffering” are sometimes held by cynical attorneys and members of the public, there generally isn’t a lot of dispute about these awards; there are well-established if blinkered and biased guidelines to follow that are generally accepted by all sides.

Even in medieval times, there was an accepted list of offenses and standardized restitutions; while a jury might vary these awards in unusual cases, this was not common.

The opportunities for court-ordered restitution can assume an entirely different scale when unusual abilities are available. The Wizard whose unseen servant leaves a bucket where someone can trip over it might be ordered to cast spells to assist the injured, for example. A superhero might be ordered to rebuild a bridge, or fly someone to and from medical treatment for an injury sustained in a superhero battle.

Punitive Damages

These are supposed to rap the guilty party over the figurative knuckles in order to dissuade them – and others – from similar offenses in the future. These days they are normally financial, and sometimes based on a percentage of the annual income of the responsible party, or on their net worth. Until some jurisdictions began legally capping these awards*, the sky used to be the limit when it came to punitive damages. As a result, these are often where the really disputable parts of a verdict can be found.

* at least, that’s been happening here in Australia; I can’t speak for the rest of the world.

In ages past, punitive damages could take a more direct form, and the term “punitive” meant far more literally. Everything from a certain number of lashes in a public flogging to time in the stocks could be ordered. Of course, in a duel situation, the ultimate punitive finding was death.

In a fantasy environment, it is entirely reasonable for each party in a duel to be required to provide healing to the winner if the duel is to the death, and the rules of dueling would prohibit healing potions during the contest, in fact, magical intervention of any sort would be prohibited.

But there can be thornier issues: what happens if a duel to the death is undone by a resurrection? Or permits the loser to be raised as an undead? Can those subsequently injured by the undead sue the winner of the duel?

New Types Of Injury

This is where things get really interesting. Magic. Psi. Karma. The Soul. Transfigurations and Transformations. Most genres of campaign will incorporate one or more new types of injury, and rules within the existing framework of law and custom will have evolved to accommodate these new kinds of harm. That requires ways of proving that the harm actually occurred, something that I touched on earlier, and some means of establishing the value of the injury.

Being bitten by a Vampire is obviously a criminal assault; but can the family of a victim claim compensation in addition to the criminal penalty? If a man extends his life through “unnatural means,” can his heirs claim that he is denying them their due inheritance?

If a superhero loses the ability to fly because of a supervillain’s device, can he sue the supervillain?

Domino Theory

If capabilities exist that are not recognized by the laws that we’re used to, the laws will have to evolve. Laws are a reflection of the societies that create them – though societies evolve far faster than the law does. The inevitable result is periodic waves of radical change to the law as it suddenly catches up. Sometimes, the law can actually get ahead of, and drive, social change; this is true of the recent ruling regarding same-sex marriage by the US Supreme Court. Being gay has been acceptable within society for some time; but this legal milestone has undoubtedly triggered another such wave of progress.

I was a big fan of the original Law And Order because it wasn’t afraid to tackle big issues, such as Hate Crime Legislation, and the way laws could be manipulated to achieve purposes far removed from their makers’ original intent. Changing a law, or changing a society, has a domino effect; it ends up altering far more than originally thought.

Completely reinventing society to accommodate the conventions and capabilities of your games’ milieu is too much work for one person to do. The best you can hope for is to tip over the first few dominoes and be aware of the issue as events transpire within your campaign. Personal Injury and Compensation law is a great doorway into these changes; it makes an excellent “first domino”.

That domino, or some alternative choice, has to be knocked down; verisimilitude demands it. Your most important task is to ensure that your campaign doesn’t bog down, that you make the choices that add to the entertainment value and the plot options open to you at the same time as satisfying that need. There’s ample scope and opportunity to do so; and that’s what I hope readers will take away from this article.

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Cinematic Combat Part 3 – The Absence Of Mechanics

absence mechanics

Why should the pace of gameplay be held hostage by combat mechanics?

Anything else we can take or leave – we can assume success on any skill roll and get straight to the results. But combat? No – not unless we hand victories to the players on a platter.

In part one of this series, I reduced attack rolls – regardless of game system – to a single d20 roll; and in part two, I showed how to abstract damage mechanics – again, no matter how complex the game system – to a single d10 roll. Between them, these sacrifice granularity and precision of result for speed of play and a focus on gameplay instead of game mechanics when that is particularly beneficial.

I call this sort of thing Cinematic Combat because it’s more focused on drama, action, and pace, than it is on precisely simulating every blow and movement.

Cinematic Combat isn’t my own term; others have used it before, and it has acquired a somewhat negative reputation as a result. Not everyone defines the term to mean the same thing, and some of the applications to which it has been put have been more successful than others. In particular, some people use the term to refer to diceless play, or to combat completely devoid of game mechanics – pure narrative.

Of course, in theory, if more abstract, faster combat mechanics are good, the complete absence of mechanics to interrupt the narrative is even better; but it hardly ever seems to work out that way. See, for example, the comments of Hungry at Ravenous Roleplaying in discussing the first part of this series:

quote start 150quote end 150
When someone breaks out the statement, “Let’s play a cinematic game!” I always cringe. This (in my experience) usually equates to, “I want to play a character where the rules don’t apply to me!” *sigh* I know that’s not the case. However, it’s happened to me too many times that the phrase still hurts me. I guess when I try to limit someone’s actions with a reasonable obstacle or circumstance, the player response has been, “I thought this was supposed to be cinematic?” Ugh.

Sans Mechanics

I think the place to start is where I think Hungry – and others – have gone wrong. Going Sans Mechanics doesn’t mean that there are no game mechanics in place and it certainly doesn’t mean that there are no rules; it simply means that the combat situation is such that the game mechanics will hinder more than they will help for this particular battle and have been set aside for that reason. I’ll get into the how of doing that a little later.

Playing the game without combat mechanics simply means that narrative replaces a strict interpretation, and that the Game Master chooses for the players to interface with the game situation without the barrier of mechanics so that both sides can concentrate on what is taking place in-game and the players can remain more deeply in character.

When to go Sans Mechanics

When to go without game mechanics is all tied up in why. There are two reasons why a GM might choose to do so:

  1. The combat situation is so complex that it’s going to take all of everyone’s concentration just to keep track of who’s where doing what; this situation occurs a lot less frequently if miniatures and battlemats can be employed, but even then, the occasional circumstance can demand this option.
  2. The other circumstance that might prompt going Sans Mechanics is when the combat situation is such that the actual battle poses no danger to the PCs taking part, and indeed, would be either boring or would consume lots of game time for no discernible benefit.

When either of these conditions apply, you should at least consider doing without the game mechanics for the battle. But before you can make that decision, there is one final option to consider: Cinematic Combat of the type described in parts one and two. This isn’t something that should be regarded as a compromise between full mechanics and no mechanics; instead, it should be the default option when you choose Cinematic Combat. Going completely Sans Mechanics should be reserved for those rare occasions when even this default option doesn’t go far enough.

There are several reasons for this.

  • The first is that the players need to be completely convinced of the GM’s fairness, and specifically confident that he isn’t making this choice in order to force an outcome that wouldn’t be possible if full mechanics were in place. If this is not the case, the players will feel like the GM is “cheating” to ensure an outcome.
  • The second is that it can be far more difficult for the GM than he is expecting, and if his descriptive skills or detail of imagination falls short, the whole game can collapse.
  • The third is that even the limited mechanics of the Abstract System provide a rules-based foundation for gameplay; players can go over the top or try to achieve too much at once when freed from this constraint, and so can a GM who’s not used to what he’s doing.
  • Fourth, the pace of the game can be too fast for the GM to keep up with, or – occasionally – for the players.
  • The fifth – as if that lot weren’t enough – is that the situation might not be as interesting to the players as the GM expects it to be, and the GM is pinning the entire enjoyment of the game on that entertainment value.
  • Finally, there are some players who derive the bulk of their entertainment from combat, and not from roleplay; those players can feel that the GM is picking on them and deliberately excluding them from enjoying the game. If there are some mechanics, no matter how abbreviated, the player can still focus on the tactical situation and enjoy his part of the adventure.

None of those reasons is sufficient to preclude going Sans Mechanics – but they are all good reasons to think very carefully about the alternatives before doing so, if you really are justified in the choice.

Game Flow Sans Mechanics

A decision that requires serious consideration as soon as the GM decides to go Sans Mechanics is how he is going to handle Game Flow. I’ve listed the two techniques that I normally use in separate sections below, but there may be others that I have not thought of.

Standard Combat Timing

ne alternative that some might consider an option is to employ standard combat timing – which means that you employ the standard initiative or combat sequence mechanics, and let each character have their full allocation of actions. You might think that this at least acknowledges the standard mechanics in a way that would mollify players disgruntled for one of the reasons listed previously.

I can’t advise against this approach strongly enough. Not only does the logic fail to stand up in reality, but it throws away a substantial degree of the benefit of going with combat mechanics. Players who are unhappy about being completely subject to the GMs interpretation of circumstances and attempted actions will still be unhappy, and the endless drag of turn-by-turn actions completely undoes the simplification of the situation or the bypassing of tedium – whichever motivation led to the choice of foregoing mechanics in the first place, it is totally undermined. On top of that, it unevenly divides screen time amongst the players. While there may be other options than those I’ve listed below, as I suggested a moment ago, this isn’t one of them.

N Subplots, Synchronized

Practical Option number one is to consider everything that’s going on to be a series of subplots being conducted virtually simultaneously – it might be one subplot per character, or two or more characters may be involved in a single subplot. It doesn’t matter if they are all taking place in the same location as long as they are doing separate things, or even combating separate opponents.

Go Around The Table

Practical Option number two is similar, but is player-based instead of character-based. You go around the table, giving each player identical screen time as measured in character actions or interactions. The recipe might be two exchanges of dialogue between a PC and an NPC, or one skill action, or a 30′ movement, or casting one spell, or a minute of fighting.

The time frame also needs thought when implementing this choice. Too long an interval and players will lose interest because for every occasion when their characters get to act, there is four times as much dead time while the others are acting. Too short an interval, and people won’t get the chance to do enough to advance their “subplot” significantly.

I recommend a maximum of three minutes, and a minimum of 30 seconds, but I have violated both those limits when the occasion seemed to warrant. Sometimes I’ve used a trigger condition – the conversation continues until “X” point comes out, then each of the other players gets a similar amount of screen time, and then it’s on to the next tour of the table; this means that the length of each circuit may be different, but each tour divides screen time evenly amongst the players.

This can be helped by not following the exact same sequence of players with each tour. You can select the player whose subplot is likely to be the next to reach a decisive moment first, and use that as your yardstick – which shows that one of the key benefits that you gain by leaving out the combat mechanics is flexibility.

Mental Mechanics

What both players and GM have to understand about combat without game mechanics is that the game mechanics still exist within the mind of the GM. He can abstract them as much as necessary, but he still uses them as a guideline to the narrative that he delivers and the interaction that the PCs have with events.

He probably won’t break things down into round-by-round action-by-action specifics, but will deal with such things in a more holistic manner, ascertaining what each PC is trying to do, determining how long it will be before success or failure become apparent, and describing the events and outcomes of each such intention, in exactly the same way that he would if he were GMing a conversation between a PC and an NPC.

When events reach the point at which he must describe an outcome, he determines the result on the informed basis of knowing both the mechanics and the interlocking intentions of both PC and NPC, describes the events in the form of narrative, and then prompts the player for a new intention based on that outcome – and the conflict then continues from that point.

The mechanics are still there – they are simply removed from directly interfacing with the players, leaving them to roleplay without mechanics to hide behind.

Imaginary Rolls

One of my favorite techniques for implementing mental mechanics is to use imaginary die rolls. These don’t specifically relate to attacks or skills or anything else, instead they synopsize the general trend of events for or against the PCs. Nor are they random; instead they follow one of two general trends, modified for PC and NPC intentions. The two general trends are the “Oscillating Trend”, and the “Roll-And-Reverse” Technique.

The Oscillating Trend

When one of the two factions starts out as dominant, and especially when the shape of the intended narrative casts the PCs as the underdogs, the technique to use is “The Oscillating Trend”.

oscillating trend diagram

An example of the Oscillating Trend. Click on the image for a larger version.

At the start of Cinematic Combat (Phase 1), the PCs are underdogs, and everything seems to go their enemy’s way, though little by little things improve for the PCs. In Phase 2, things make a pronounced swing in the PCs’ favor. During Phase 3, the PCs are dominant and look like achieving a hard-won victory against the odds, but in Phase 4, the enemy begin to fight back, striking a serious blow to the PCs’ hopes in Phase 5, and recovering to such an extent that in Phase 6 the outcome is in the balance. In Phase 7, momentum in the battle again shifts in the PCs’ favor until finally victory is achieved.

The number of times the battle swings this way or that, how long it stays to the advantage of one side or another, how quickly things change – these are all up to the GM. It might be that in a different battle, the PCs start out on top, and can reasonably anticipate an easy victory – but things don’t go their way, and the enemy reaches the point of almost total success before the PCs snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, having underestimated their opponents.

There is a narrative structure inherent in both these examples, and the idea is that the success of maneuvers, the success of attacks, the damage done – it is all synopsized by this trend line. Anything and everything that can affect the flow of combat is dictated by the trend, whether it is surprises or luck or the arrival of reinforcements to one side or the revelation of unexpected allies or betrayals or even a falling out between allies.

Intention Interpretation

Of course, these trends are influenced by what the characters on the battlefield are trying to achieve. In particular, characters who try to work with the trend and adjust their immediate goals accordingly – seeking smaller gains when things turn against them and chasing loftier goals when things are going their way – should prosper and eventually succeed. Trying for the spectacular, against-the-odds twist of fate when things are going against you tends to expose you to a higher likelihood of failure, and all you can hope to do is minimize the damage and hold out for the inevitable swing to your advantage.

Of course, the PCs aren’t going to be the only ones with immediate goals to try and achieve; the enemy will also have priorities and things that they want to achieve. The trend is obviously going to be modified by the likelihood of success of these immediate ambitions and actions in combat – attempt something that you would normally achieve easily, and the trend will likely begin to turn in your favor. Best of all is when both the PCs immediate ambitions and those of the enemy can be achieved because they don’t directly conflict; that’s when intentions are a wash and whatever trend there was continues. The tactical situation can be completely transformed without affecting the balance of advantage in the slightest.

The Roll-and-Reverse technique

When there is no obvious superiority between the forces and the circumstances of combat, I employ what I call the “Roll-and-Reverse” technique. This essentially means that for battle action #1, an imaginary die roll that is either at the 1/4 or 3/4 mark – eg 5 or 15 on d20 – dictates the balance of momentum (as described in “Oscillating Trend”, while in the next, the opposite value is used, so that a 5 follows a 15 and vice-versa. This continues until one side or the other establishes a clear superiority, when the “Oscillating Trend” becomes the pattern.

It might seem that this can’t happen if you continue to implement a policy of swapping 5’s and 15’s as the guideline to the action, but that impression fails to take into account intention interpretation. When the advantage is swapping back and forth at great rapidity, pursuing small, strategic, easily-achieved advantages accumulates an advantage with certainty – though a grand gesture when things are going in your favor can be decisive in terms of the initial advantage, too. Once again, it’s the combination of what the different participants try to achieve that eventually produces something decisive.

You might decide that the gain of a small advantage shifts things in the PCs favor by 1 in 20 – not a big improvement, but it means that the 15 becomes a 16, and the 5, a six. Repeat twice more, and it’s 18 and 8, and even when things are going against the PCs, an 8 means that they aren’t losing much ground – so the balance has shifted decisively to the PCs, and the GM can shift to trend oscillation. But, before that happens, if the enemy had tried something big when the trend was in their favor, the opposite could be true.

One point that should be made is that the enemy automatically have an advantage – they are controlled by the GM knows when chance is in their favor. That means that more often than not, the initial advantage will swing in their direction. Balancing against this are two advantages that the PCs have: because they are controlled by multiple players against the one GM, they can think about several different things at once; and secondly, players can be unpredictable at times. Surprise works in their favor. It is that double advantage that keeps the technique fair despite the advantage inherent in being an NPC under the circumstance.

Narrative & Interaction are Paramount

A point that was made earlier but bears both repetition and closer scrutiny is the importance of Narrative and Interaction. Narrative is when the GM is describing things to the players; Interaction is when he (in the role of an NPC) is conversing with a PC. When you forgo combat mechanics, these are what should take their place.

That means that they have to be good enough to justify their prioritization over standard gameplay. You can’t afford to waffle, or be vague, or bland; your delivery has to be rich and full of vivid imagery and character.

I know some people who think that doing away with combat mechanics is a lazy solution for the GM who is pressed for time, because generating mechanics-ready NPCs takes an effort. People who hold that opinion are usually the ones who come a cropper when they attempt Cinematic Combat because – to do it properly – Cinematic Combat, and especially Cinematic Combat Sans Mechanics, requires more prep and not less.

Such prep involves the careful characterization of NPCs, working on ways that characterization can manifest as actions and verbal cues, creating sub-paragraphs of prepared text that can be wrapped in a framing sentence and inserted at appropriate moments, practicing with voices and accents, picturing settings and locations from different positions – anything and everything that you can think of. On top of that, some of this prep can’t be done properly without having constructed the character to a sufficient extent that you could run a combat with full mechanics.

Combat Sans Mechanics

There is no bible to dictate how you should go about running a combat without the supporting game mechanics. Most game rules will, in fact, assume that you will always use the mechanics as written, barring the occasion tweak for unusual conditions. You may get some pointers from LARP-oriented game rulebooks, but that’s just an assumption on my part – I’ve never read one and certainly have never played a LARP, so I can’t speak from experience.

All that being said, I have evolved my own process, which I describe in following sections. I doubt this is the only way to do it, but it’s a technique that I have developed and utilized in campaigns from multiple genres and based on distinctly different game systems. It might not be the only solution, but it is one that works.

Action Rota

Step one is to always know who is going to act next. You have near-infinite flexibility; your guides have to be what works best for the overall narrative flow, and fairness in allocating screen time amongst the players. One of the easiest ways of representing one side or another being on top is to bunch their actions; this almost guarantees that the other side will then get the opportunity to swing the course of events their way.

One thing that you do have to be wary of is the combination of a “Call and response” pattern coupled with the Roll-and-reverse technique. It’s no good alternating “5 and 15″ if the “5” is always one faction and the “15” the other.

I sometimes attempt to second-guess the PCs, thinking at the start of each series of actions about what each character is most likely to want to achieve in the course of that round, based on the existing situation within the battle; then about how likely that is to succeed, and what the overall impact on the course of battle will be in the event of success or failure; and then using those results to decide the sequence that will be most entertaining/interesting for all concerned, and that will follow the intended overall narrative arc that I have in mind.

If the character plays it safe, they will probably succeed in what they are trying to do, but may not get much benefit or reward from it. If they are more ambitious, more interesting, they have a greater risk of failure – but will gain a greater benefit or advantage if they succeed. But there is also going to be some changes in plan as each character reacts to what has gone before, and players are sometimes unpredictable, so you can never be sure when you start what will happen. It takes only seconds for the battle to take on a direction and life of its own. I revise the action rota as I go, based on who is in the best position to react to whatever has just happened, bearing in mind the basic guidelines.

However you do it, the first decision is always who to throw the spotlight on first.


Once you know who the first character to act is going to be, next you need to decide what they are going to try and accomplish while the spotlight is on them.

What is reasonable?

Once you know what they are trying to accomplish, you can decide whether or not their current share of the spotlight is enough to see that task to the point of resolution, the alternative being for them to start it/continue it and get back to them the next time around. It’s also necessary at this point to start thinking about whether or not what they are attempting is reasonable at all; if it’s not, and I think the character is aware enough to realize that, I will let them start and then inform the player that they may have bitten off more than they can chew, giving them a clear choice to consider before their next spotlight time of whether they want to continue, or want to try something else.

Allowing For Conditions

You always have to make allowance for conditions. Often, the game mechanics serve as a checklist of sorts, a safety net that is no longer available to you; that makes it doubly important that you keep mental track of the combat situation at all times, and factor the current circumstances into your assessment of what is reasonable and what isn’t.

Part of those circumstances is the mental “trend indicator”; when things are going your way, difficult and challenging tasks can seem easy, and when things are going against you, even simple tasks can be too hard.

Unacceptable Narrative

While analyzing the stated intention of the character, I always have part of my attention focused on how I can describe both what is being attempted, what success or failure will “look” like, and what the consequences will be. This is because there’s not much that’s worse than waiting patiently for your turn of the spotlight only for the story to be “You’re still doing [X]” and the GM moving on to the next character. It’s not enough simply to “check in” on the character and signpost a continuing activity; this is unacceptable narrative. Each time you check in on the character, you want to be able to describe in specifics what they have done and what remains to do. You need to advance their “subplot” to a substantial degree before moving on to the next character.

When characters try too hard

Sometimes players will try to be general about what they are doing, either to get a large task done in one “hit” or because they don’t want to bog down in minutia. “I get the Grav-sled running”, or “I take out all the stormtroopers” or “I rescue the hostages”. When this happens, you have to give the player a direct choice – start task X knowing that they won’t get it finished in this “operating round”, or break the task down into a series of smaller bites. If the player chooses the first, and they have not specified how they are going to achieve the task, you can either prompt them for details of how they intend to go about it (unless you already know) or they have to accept your interpretation of how they will go about achieve their goal.


One thing that can quickly become confused in Cinematic Combat is where everybody is, and this can lead to colossal misjudgments. Not only should the GM make clear anything that the PC needs to know in terms of who is where in the course of a pre-intentions narrative, but he should be particularly vigilant for such errors, and permit sensible changes of intentions where that’s appropriate.

To assist with this, I will sometimes use battlemaps and miniatures to show the situation as it develops, and sometimes use the quick pencil-and-paper maps that I described and demonstrated in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly. Everyone has enough to concentrate on already, so unless the situation is completely straightforward and certain to stay that way these are just as useful in cinematic combat as they are at any other time.

Succeed Or Fail

Once I’ve got my head around what people are trying to do, and what the current circumstances are, I will determine whether or not they succeed or fail based on the relative difficulty of what they are attempting and the current trend indication – unless the task is going to take longer than this slice of spotlight time, in which event I will describe how far they have gotten and any problems or unexpected successes along the way.

  • “You get the first tumbler more easily than you expected, and have moved on to the second, which is proving a little harder; the lock is old and corroded internally, and this one seems rusted into place – either that, or you haven’t hit the sweet spot yet with your lock-picks.”
  • “With a splutter and a cough, the engine roars into life before it again coughs and cuts out. A cloud of thick black smoke erupts from the tailpipe and you smell the scent of gasoline. Running back to the vehicle’s cabin, you advance the choke a little further before returning to the crank and again grasp the handle firmly, preparing for a second attempt.”
  • “You tear pages out of the book five and ten at a time, throwing the sensitive data into the fire. It’s touch-and-go whether or not you’ll be finished before your position is overrun.”
  • “You leap from the second-story landing and reach out for the chandelier, grabbing hold of it firmly and swinging across the room. A creak from the timbers to which it is secured sends shivers down your spine, it’s a long way down. Carefully you check the angle of your swing and begin to adjust it to let you leap onto the fleeing courier before he reaches the door. At the last possible moment, you release your grasp and hurtle through the air! Meanwhile…”

That last “Meanwhile…” is a very important cue; that, and other similar phrases, indicate that the spotlight has moved on, and you’ll get back to the player the next time it’s his character’s turn to act.

Effects & Consequences

The other thing that the above examples also demonstrated was how to present the effects and consequences of the action, complete or not, and of success or failure. There are three possible statuses of a task: Success (so far), Failure (so far), and Continuing, too soon to tell. This status should be made clear by the narrative you provide.


Unless they are completely unaware of it, other characters involved in the combat should react to the success or failure, possibly amending their intended but unstated actions as a result.

Next, please

With that character’s action complete for this period of spotlight time, move on to the next. If the outcome of the last action significantly changed the circumstances, those characters who have not yet had their current turn in the spotlight act, but usually not in the order I initially determined; instead, I will rank those eligible according to their capability to react to the changed situation. This often means whoever is closest to the character who has just succeeded, then whoever is next closest, and so on.

Use “Off-camera” to your dramatic advantage

I often think of myself as a television or movie director when running Cinematic Combat, thinking about how best to show the course of events in a suitably dramatic fashion. This prompts me to use “off-camera” strategically.

For example, Character A begins to negotiate with an NPC for his assistance. So far as the player of the character is concerned, this action is unresolved; but before he gets his next action, the NPC with whom he was negotiating appears on the field of combat, the PC in tow. Clearly, the character has succeeded, but rather than actually showing the moment of success, I reveal the result by way of the consequences.

And so the pattern continues until the combat reaches a decisive conclusion.

An Even More Extreme Option

Cinematic Combat doesn’t have to stop there. You can compress events still more by having each PC declare what they are trying to do next all at the same time and then interpreting the trend as an indicator of the group’s overall success/failure; that means that on a more-or-less even value, roughly 50% of what they try will work and 50% won’t, and for every cataclysmic failure thrown in by the GM to liven things up, someone else will have an equally stupendous success.

In many ways, this is the easiest form of cinematic combat, despite the need for some closer attention to prep (as previously described). The conflict is distilled into a straightforward us-vs-them tug-of-war, or at least to something for which that is a metaphor! Things update for everyone all at once, smothering bureaucratic delays. You can even nuance in some acknowledgement that one character has more actions/attacks than others by letting them do a little more – remember, the mechanics are still there, they have simply been hidden behind a curtain that conveniently obscures them, some more than others.

And, to be honest and up-front about it, this is the variant of cinematic combat that I employ most frequently. Simple, robust, and direct – the players tell me what their PCs are trying to do, I decide what the NPCs are trying to do, and we roleplay for a bit. What could be simpler?

Cinematic Combat: The Wrap-up

Cinematic Combat is not something to be apprehensive about; it’s a tool that should be in every GM’s toolkit. When applied sparingly and at appropriate times, it can greatly benefit an adventure and a campaign. This series has hopefully given readers the instruction needed to do so with confidence and success!


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This article wraps up the series on Cinematic Combat, but just as importantly, it celebrates the milestone that was announced a couple of weeks ago – Yesterday at about 1:45 PM local time, Campaign Mastery received it’s 1,000,000th page view!

This Blog would not exist without its readers, so on behalf of everyone whose words have been published here, I offer my sincere thanks!! The next milestone: 7th Birthday, 750 posts, and Xmas 2015 – all at about the same time!

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