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A Singular Performance: Roleplay and General Principles in one-player games


The image is “Algarrobo Beach 2″ by Pepo.

A brief recap:

Quite some time back, in an Ask-The-GMs, I discussed singe-player campaigns in what seemed at the time like quite a lot of detail. After recently starting a Dr Who single-player campaign, I decided to review that article to see if there was anything more to be said.

It turned out that there was quite a lot. So much so that what I thought might be a single follow-up article quickly became a major four-part series.

If you want to see the Table Of Contents, it was included in Part One; In Part Two, I am going to look at Roleplaying in the single-player game and offer up some general design principles for solo campaigns and adventures within such campaigns.


The tone of any campaign can be anything you want it to be, whether it is a campaign in which for every two steps forward that the PCs make they take a step back, or one which focuses on low-level gritty street stories, or big sweeping epics; whether the characters can only deal with the little picture, or are capable of sweeping big-picture changes; and so on.

This includes the single-player campaign, but the fact that there is only one PC does have ramifications on the campaign tone.

Imparting & Controlling Tone

In a multiplayer game, the multiplicity of personal character objectives washes out a lot of player input into the tone of the campaign. It’s necessary for the players to compromise with each other, and the result is that it can be a lot easier for the GM – the point of commonality between the players – to impose an overall tone.

In a solo campaign, by definition, the “players” speak with one voice. That gives that one player a much greater capacity to steer and dictate the adventure and campaign tone, and the person who may have to do most of the compromising is the GM.

- Targeting -

At the same time, there are a couple of other influences on campaign tone that also have considerable impact. The first of these is that it can be easier to impart the tone you want within the solo-player campaign than it is in a group campaign, you simply have to use the right bait.

In a multiplayer campaign, you always have to play to the crowd. What one player may react to, the next may not, and a third might react in a completely different way. This means that while the GM can initiate a campaign or adventure tone more easily, it’s very hard to create consistency and equal intensity for all the PCs. Any given tone will resonate with some while others resist, and some try to move the game in a completely different direction in response to the tonal trigger.

This inevitably compromises the purity of the tone, and may overcome it completely. At the very least, those resisting will ensure that overall, the intensity of tone experienced will be weaker, more bland.

That’s not at all the case with a solo-player campaign. If the player is inclined towards the tonal direction that the GM is targeting, the result will be a lot more intense than the GM was expecting. If the player is inclined to resist, they will not yield to the tone the GM is trying to create, and it simply won’t happen even to the extent that it normally would in a multiplayer campaign. For any given adventure, the tone will usually be either much more or much less intense than the GM expects.

To some extent, stability and control can be exerted by employing a principle from ball sports, which is also sometimes used as a metaphor in politics: “play the man, not the ball”. Because you have only the one player, you can fine-tune and tweak the tone to resonate with that particular combination of player and PC. If you want a particular emotional response, include a trigger that you know will induce the player to respond in that particular way. If the potential is for the tone to be excessive, you can soft-pedal it by using cues to which the character will respond but that won’t especially affect the player.

- Reinforcement -

Moods can be contagious. It’s a known fact that if you see a person smile, electrical activity is triggered within the brain of the observer as though they were the person who smiled – which often induces them to smile back, and to feel an emotional response appropriate to their having smiled. (Smiles quite literally brighten other people’s day).

The same is true of all sorts of phenomena. If you see a violin being played, you associate the sounds you are hearing with the movement of the violinist’s fingers, partially learning how to play the violin in the process – preparing the ground to learn, as it were. By reading what someone else has written, you begin to learn how to write yourself. The style and tone of what you read impacts on the style and tone that you put on the page, as well. This phenomenon is the foundation of Empathy, of seeing someone else’s situation and being able to relate to it by putting yourself in their shoes.

In a multiplayer game, GMs can take advantage of this unless the effect is overcome by deliberate resistance. You target one player with a stimulus that you know will trigger a particular response, and that makes it easier for the other players to adopt that response as well. There are no guarantees, of course. Some players will have more effect on the rest of the table than others, some players are more predictable than others, and player reaction should always (in theory) be filtered through the personality of the character.

In a single-player campaign, your options are quite limited – down to one, in fact. There is no reinforcement – the player/PC combination either goes along with the tone that you are trying to establish, or he doesn’t. There are no back doors open to you.

- Tonal Persistence -

The absence of reinforcement also affects tonal shifts within the adventure. Cutting a long story short, the essential phenomenon is the same: in a multiplayer campaign, tone has a momentum that his harder to shift once it is established. In a single-player campaign, tone is able to turn on a bottle-cap. This can require periodic reinforcement of the tone from in-campaign events and/or NPCs, substituting for what other players would normally do for you.

This gives you the freedom to let the tone drift freely after it’s been established; tone can be more of a recurring theme within an adventure than a constant. There is a greater tolerance for the game briefly going “off-message”.

This, in turn, supports some varieties of adventure that don’t work as well in a multiplayer environment – for example, changing the objective multiple times within the adventure as original goals move out of reach and new goals open up. You could have a dark “Empire Strikes Back” plotline in which the bad guys keep winning, overall, while small victories keep hope alive, or you digress into melancholy, or mystery or a party atmosphere, or even a bit of musical burlesque. These adventures don’t work well in a group setting because some players always shift tone less readily than others, lagging behind where the adventure is, “now”. Consider the table of tonal events below:
tone lag1

In this situation, the GM is taking his cues from player 1, and to a lesser extent, player 2. Quick changes of mood, hopes raised and dashed with lightning speed, brief diversions into humor… it’s all too much for players 3 and 4, and player 5 can barely be motivated to try and keep up because the initial sense of doom and gloom is not to his liking, even though only 5 of the 19 game events fall into that category. Eventually, he does get into the swing of things but then persists in being a pessimistic sourpuss for the rest of the game (and, hopefully, having enormous fun in the process, and serving as a foil for players one and two – though that may be optimistic to aim for). The player who really misses out and can’t keep up is player 4, who starts off grim and dark (quite correctly) but who, after a while, finds it impossible to take the adventure seriously, getting stuck in position half-way between optimistic and pessimistic, and always filling the game with inappropriate humor that interferes with player 3 getting into mood.

Ideally, at any given time, 3 or more out of the 5 players would either be responding correctly to the tone of events, or getting into the correct tone. The first quarter of the adventure fits this profile, with a brief humorous interruption that falls flat for most of them – but it then goes completely downhill in the second quarter, and only begins to recover in the third, before falling apart again in the run-up to the conclusion. That’s usually a sign of the GM trying to do too much in one adventure – simply transitioning from one piece of bad news to another until finally a slim ray of hope is revealed, perhaps with the occasional humorous interlude, would be enough.

With just one player, the situation is entirely different. Because everything is targeted at the one player/PC combination, the “player one” pattern, or at worst, the “player two” pattern, is achieved virtually every time.

- Tonal Objective -

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Tonal Objective in a single-player campaign is a lot simpler than that of a multiplayer campaign. Instead of trying to manufacture a consensus of tone and response in such a way that everyone’s happy to enjoy the ride and work within the tonal parameters that you have established, you have only one player to satisfy.

In fact, another way to look at single-player campaigns is to consider them “no compromise” campaigns. It’s not quite true – in fact there are still massive compromises between desire and practicality – but it’s often a lot closer to the truth than any other sort of campaign.

The Tonal Dissonance Problem

Having just suggested that solo games be considered “no compromise” campaigns, it’s time to mandate an element of compromise – one that has less impact on multiplayer games.

A single player means that there will be Less tolerance for disliked gameplay situations, less room for compromise on the part of the player. Well, if the player won’t bend (not having to do so in order to keep other players happy and give them their share of the spotlight), then it’s up to the GM to yield.

But the GM can only bend so far; the needs of plot and verisimilitude in NPC reactions to events can force him into Tonal Dissonance, i.e. adopting a tone that doesn’t fit the prevalent tone at the table, or that the player is unhappy with. The results can be akin to forcing someone to sing and dance on stage for the first time when they don’t really want to, or public speaking.

- The Hand-wave solution -

Fortunately, there is a solution, at least some of the time, and quite a simple one: Consider hand-waving those parts of play that the player dislikes, leaving an NPC ally to supervise if necessary. Why tolerate tedium when you don’t have to?

If the pacing is critical, so that you don’t want to simply skip over the intervening period of game play, add a subplot to occupy the player while the hand-waved activity is taking place.

GMs do this sort of thing regularly, anyway – we hand-wave dialogue if we’re having trouble getting into character, for example, or if it’s likely to exclude large parts of the table for any length of time. I have a rule of thumb that no dialogue scene that doesn’t involve two or more players should go on for more than 6 minutes in total, and should be subdivided if necessary into blocks of 2 or 3 minutes each – and then touch base with at least one other player and what their PC is doing. Anything more than this gets handwaved, or summarized at the very least, unless it’s absolutely plot-critical.

Well, that’s not so much of an issue in a single-player game, for obvious reasons, but the principle can be employed to solve the problem of tonal dissonance instead – again, unless it’s absolutely plot-critical that the PC be involved first-hand.

The effect on game pace, and the problem of the combat monster

One side-effect of hand-waving game-play is an acceleration of the pace of that gameplay. Or, more accurately, a further acceleration, since game pace is already quickened by the deemphasis on combat.

And that brings me to one final element in terms of tone. Every player wants something different from an RPG. Some like problem-solving, some like interaction with NPCs, some want a gosh-wow-awesome, some want great stories and plotlines, some want the limelight, some enjoy putting on their character’s shoes and being someone else for a while – and some like the vicarious thrill of combat.

The last type pose a serious problem for a solo campaign. Combat is necessarily de-emphasized, and the trend is for the GM to hand-wave anything else that the player doesn’t like – and in the case of the combat monster, that’s just about everything. The player might as well not bother turning up, if that’s all they’re looking for.

That last “if” is vital. An answer in the affirmative means that you would both be better off playing a board game or a computer game; a solo campaign is simply not suited to giving this type of player what they want.

Game Pace

Before I got side-tracked, I was discussing Game Pace. The two phenomena mentioned so far are not the only ones to affect this aspect of play.

There are No side Discussions between players. There’s a greater focus on the adventures. There’s less time between (player) idea and implementation because they don’t have to explain it to the other players and persuade them to go along with it. There’s less need for coordination between several plot threads and layers of story. You only have to explain things until one player understands them, instead of continuing until the player who is slowest to understand whatever has caught up.

All of these accelerate game pace massively.

Let’s say that hand-waving combat saves about 25% of seat-time in any given adventure, and that each of these other factors reduces playing time by ten percent. If that’s the case, then an adventure takes 0.75 x 0.9 ^ 6 = 39.86% of it’s usual playing time. Or, to put it another way, you get two-and-a-half times as much game play into any given game session.

Those numbers are quite fuzzy. Combat can be 10% of an adventure, or 50%. Each factor might save 20% in one adventure and 5% in the next. The number given is very much a rough guideline only.

The most extreme result: 0.5 x 0.8 ^ 6 = 13.11%, or 7.63 times as much adventure played in a given time span. The least extreme result: 0.9 x 0.95 ^ 6 = 66.16%, or 1.5 times as much gameplay in a given time span.

But the factors listed aren’t the only ones. There are some that can slow the game – on occasion.

Single-player games can stall more easily. There’s only one player to achieve an understanding, no-one for them to collaborate with besides the GM, no outside inspiration to draw upon. A team that’s not working at cross-purposes is always more functionally effective than one person on their own. And, in general, individual Player strengths and weaknesses are magnified relative to a group situation.

- Playing Time Estimates -

After you’ve run a solo game a couple of times, you will start to get an idea of roughly how long things are likely to take, but it’s an estimate that is very sensitive to slight variations. I divided Dr Who adventure #3 into six roughly-equal parts. By my first estimate, it was going to take about 10 hours to play. My second estimate increased the amount of hand-waving in encounters and decreased the allowances I was making for the above problems, reasoning that while a delay might come up at any point, it was unlikely that there would be more than one or two such delays – and that they would take only ten minutes to resolve, not twenty. That gave me a worst-case scenario of 8 hours play required, and a best case of six – plus a break for lunch, and a possible break for dinner, pushing the whole thing back out to the ten hours mark.

But it’s always tricky making those estimates before you’ve finished writing the adventure, tying up loose ends, etc. I notified the player accordingly, and we decided to start an hour earlier than usual, eliminating the loss of time due to a lunch break, and see how things went. The night before we played, I reviewed the adventure from start to finish, as I usually do, and ended with a result of between 30 minutes and an hour for each of the six parts – an average of 45 minutes each, which totaled 4.5 hours, plus 30 minutes for incidentals and side-chatter between us and set-up and so on. Plus an hour for lunch.

In actual play, one “episode” took 30 minutes to play, one took an hour, lunch only took about 45 minutes, and so did each of the other “episodes” – we started an hour early and finished within shouting distance of our usual time. The final total was about 5 1/4 hours from arrival to completion – 5.5 would have been bang on our usual finishing time. The player and I had freed up our early evenings “just in case” unnecessarily. But I will warn the player once more, if the same thing ever looks like happening, just in case.

Oh, and the actual ratio of game play on that occasion: I estimated that it would be 3-4 sessions of 4.5 hours each, to play the same adventure with the entire Zenith-3 group participating. The five-minute teaser alone, multiplied by 5-7 for the number of PCs/Pseudo-PCs, and perhaps taking an extra five minutes each, would have cost up to an hour. Playing the combat out would EASILY have added another 4-5 hours. Final total would have been 13.5 – 18 hrs, call it about 16 hrs on average. Heck, three lunch breaks would have cost at least 2.5 hours! We got it done, without rushing, in 5.5 hours – a ratio of 2.9 to 1.

You can take it as a given that you’re going to need more adventure than you would normally provide. The only question is, how much more? As a rule of thumb, double-plus is not far off the mark, but rules of thumb deserve to be notorious in this area of game planning.

Intensity Of Play

If you run the pads of your fingers slowly and lightly over a piece of coarse sandpaper, it seems that you can feel each individual grain that is attached, and the sensation is not all that intense. Do it at three times the speed, and you’ll definitely find the intensity to be at least three times as intense, even painful. Increasing the pressure exerted against the sandpaper by pressing more firmly, and there will be another increase again, and definitely be painful, possibly even harmful.

Similarly, you can slowly slide across gravel without injury, but fall off a bike on a gravel road without protection and gravel rash is the minimum that you can expect (Everyone skins their knee when learning to ride). Add mechanical speeds to the mix, and you can achieve severe abrasions – which is why motorcycle leathers are so much thicker and heavier than ordinary clothing. Do the same thing with a heavy load – a backpack, for example, or the bike landing on top of you in the case of a motorcycle – and the effect will, once again, be far more severe.

In an RPG, game pace is the equivalent of speed in these illustrations, and simply increasing the speed increases the intensity of the game. Plot and deliberate intensity resulting from it are equivalent to pressing down with greater pressure or weight.

With more players, this weight is more distributed, so it has less effect than in a single-player game, which has only a point of contact. You can see this for yourself, by analogy: sharpen a piece of 5mm dowel to a point, while smoothing the other end flat (Use a soft wood, it shouldn’t be too difficult). Heck, you can buy this sort of thing for use with toffee apples! Slide the blunt end across a piece of coarse sandpaper two or three times, putting a fair amount of weight on it. While there will be some erosion of the stick – perhaps as much as half a millimeter – it won’t be anywhere near as much as if you repeat the experiment with the sharpened end, where you may well lose two or three millimeters.

Intensity of play is increased by the (relatively) high tempo of the game, and tends to over-respond to any ramping up that takes place as a result of plot and the events within it, and these increases tend to be felt more keenly because there is only a single point of contact taking the full brunt of the effect – at each end of the “stick”, this affects both player and GM.

At the same time, familiarity breeds contempt; you get used to the greater intensity to at least some extent, so there is a threshold of increase due to non-pace factors that must be overcome before any increase is noticed.

All of which takes some getting used to in play, and more getting used to in order to be able to gauge how strongly events within the plot will be felt at the time of writing the adventure.

- Still more intensity-boosting factors -

On top of all that, you need to remember that one player is devoting all his attention to the game, not several, and that you are targeting that character more precisely instead of accommodating a group. There are fewer distractions, and a much greater focus on game events as a result.

These also boost the intensity of the gaming session; in combination with the other factors, to the point where no group session can possibly match it except on the very rarest of perfect storms.


Greater intensity is more exhausting. When you’re tired, you get sloppy and make mistakes. It follows that there is a greater need for breaks within sessions.

I’ve mentioned Australian Public Service guidelines before. In a nutshell, for any computer-intensive duty or task that requires high levels of concentration, the guideline is – or was, anyway – at least 10 minutes in at most two hours. To ensure that every employee had the capacity to work for two hours straight without a break and without violating these OH&S guidelines, the policy when I worked on processing the Census was ten minutes every hour.

Now, playing and running an RPG is fun, no matter how intense it gets – in some ways, the more intense, the more fun it is. So smaller, less frequent breaks are needed. But it is still a mentally-intensive and tiring task which demands high levels of concentration – while multitasking to an extent that most OH&S officers would baulk at; so some breaks are necessary. I basically halve the Public Service requirement – at least five minutes every hour – for solo games. For group games, there’s often a cue to use the facilities etc, so I halve it the other way – ten minutes or more every two hours of play (or so).

Some GMs and players don’t like taking breaks during play. Some even penalize players who do, by making decisions for the characters while the player is away from the table and forcing the player to abide by them. I don’t agree with those practices in general, and certainly not for solo games.


Downtime is something different from a break, because it happens in-game; it’s a deliberate slowing of the pace and easing of the intensity for a while. When designing adventures for solo play, ensure you build some downtime into each game session. The pace can be so frantic and intense that different flavors of scene have a tendency to blend together, after a while; deliberately altering the mood or tone and intensity, even if just for a minute or two, can firewall one type of scene from another.

The problem with building in downtime is the unanswerable question of how much is enough – and how much is too much. The answer changes with every adventure and every game session, and once again the problem of Tone Lag manifests itself. The best answer is to base the amount required on your own needs, since the GM arguably has the most stressful job at the game table, and then to note whether or not this is enough for the players.

Oh, and note that going “Downtime – Break – Whatever” doesn’t work. If Downtime is enough to carry you through to the point where you would normally call a break, finish the downtime sequence and start the active sequence that follows, using it as a cliff-hanger if necessary.

- More On Pace Control -

I’ll have more to say on the subject of controlling the pace, and therefore the intensity, of the game in a few minutes. But first, we need to come at the game from a whole different angle.


Contradictions abound when you start looking into single-player games, because some established elements of RPG theory get tossed on their head while others don’t. There are a mass of influences pulling game content in all sorts of unusual directions.

The Dice Do More Talking

By definition, in a solo game, there is a greater reliance on one central character and one player. This means that any differences between the capabilities of the two are emphasized even more than in a group game, where this is always an ongoing problem. As usual, skill rolls are used to plug the gap – make the roll, and the GM informs the player of what his character knows, and he doesn’t. Or, at least, what the character thinks he knows.

The Dice Do Less Talking

At the same time, there is more hand-waving by the GM of things that he might require a roll for. This is because the game pace has a momentum all its own and both player and GM tend to feel that momentum as a source of excitement – an excitement that goes away if there are too many interruptions.

As a general rule, unless there’s a critical timing element, or it’s a straight up-and-down yes-or-no answer, it can be assumed that the character will succeed eventually in making the roll. So why bother making the player roll? At most, one roll is justified, giving the GM some basis for estimating how long it will take the player to succeed. You then roleplay the character thinking hard (or other appropriate behavior) until either the indicated time is achieved – or the player gets tired of beating his head against a brick wall and looks for an alternative solution. Either way, play never comes to a shuddering halt, and while the momentum of play may be reduced temporarily, it never comes to a shuddering halt.

Controlling the Pace

These two factors combine to provide a tool for controlling the game pace, at least somewhat. You can use die rolls to slow the action down when necessary, and use hand-waving to speed things up when that’s desirable. As an added bonus, because a large part of the increased intensity of the game results from the pace of play, this also gives the GM a tool by which he can manipulate the intensity – if the pace is manipulated properly.

- Controlling Intensity using Pace -

There are two tricks that can be employed to manipulate intensity by means of game pace alteration.

The first is to slow things right down when you get to the scenes that you want to have higher intensity. Going into slow-motion mode, where each tiny slice of the usual pace with which things are done, and the focus is on each tiny detail, implies (subconsciously if not consciously) that those details are especially important, and therefore the scene is of maximum importance. And, when you resume “normal time”, it feels faster and more intense than it is – so use that for the climax of the scene. Then drop back into “Bullet Time” if you need to. (The mention of Bullet Time is very important, because this is exactly how it was used – slow the action right down, change orientation or perspective, focus tightly on the details, then WHAM! action – then slow it down again. It works in the movies, it works on TV, and it will work in an RPG. I’m not so sure about in a book…)

The second is to speed the pace up momentarily immediately prior to a scene that you want to underplay or to have low intensity, then slow it down as though the world beyond the scene has stopped in it’s tracks. Romantic interludes, quiet conversations of deep significance, stunned silences after revelations, anything in that line can benefit from this technique. The speed-up is the equivalent of a long, sweeping camera-crane move that then focuses in on the characters in a tight shot – a technique that’s been used in Hollywood since the 1930s or 40s.

Puzzles & Mysteries

This is a point that I know I’ve made in the previous article, because it was a hard-earned lesson at the time. Whenever you present a Puzzle or a Mystery that needs to be solved, you strike trouble in the solo campaign. Because you have only one mind trying to find a solution, and because these are always plot-critical and shouldn’t be handwaved, gameplay can come to a screeching halt while the lone player grapples with the conundrum you have set before him.

On rare occasions, the player will get the right answer immediately. It happened in Dr Who Adventure #2, and sliced the best part of an hour out of the gameplay. Fortunately, I was able to pad subsequent events enough that it wasn’t all that obvious to the player.

But more often, these are intended to be difficult and they succeed in fulfilling that intention.

There are only two solutions, really.

- Option One: Deemphasis -

Much as you might be tempted, save your puzzles and mysteries for the times when they are genuinely interesting and plot-significant. Anything less than that, and you either don’t incorporate it into the plot, or have the solution come up even if the player operates on autopilot.

- Option Two: Breadcrumbs -

Which implies that there are still going to be times when a Puzzle or Mystery can’t be avoided, or shouldn’t be. When this happens, the only alternative available is to deliberately lay a trail of breadcrumbs that will eventually lead the player to the solution. The fun isn’t about trying to solve the puzzle, it’s about the shape of the puzzle when it is solved. This is usually a relatively minor adjustment to the normal plotting style of an adventure.

- Pacing and Puzzles -

Either way, Puzzles are going to have a substantial impact on pacing when they occur, and an unpredictable one. I’ve seen players solve problems in a few seconds that should have consumed hours of play and investigation of bread-crumbed clues; and I’ve seen players struggle for hours on something that should have taken minutes.

I intend to start incorporating an optional subplot into my adventure designs if they feature a mystery or puzzle that needs solution, to be invoked if the player gets to the solution too quickly, from now on.

The consequences for Pacing of Puzzles and Mysteries once again forms the perfect lead-in to part three of this series, in which Plots and Adventure design (in isolation from Campaign considerations) within the solo campaign are the focus…

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New Beginnings: Introduction


Not sure what this is and why it is relevant? All will become clear in subsequent parts of the series! Until then, feel free to speculate – but I will neither confirm nor deny…

There are times when we all have to make a fresh start. Creatively – and GMing is a creative aspect of the broader RPG hobby – a change of scene may be needed.

Enthusiasm may have waned.

The old campaign may have ended.

One or more key players may have dropped out and you want to make a new beginning with the core players who remain.

There are many different reasons why it may need to happen. They aren’t important right now.

This article is about the process, which is a bit more complicated to get right than people sometimes realize.

There are nine phases:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Baggage Dump
  3. Reinvigoration
  4. Development
  5. Surroundings
  6. Mindset
  7. Skeleton
  8. Enfleshing
  9. Beginning

There is a limited capacity for some of these to move around within the sequence, but in general, those are the sequential steps that need to take place.

Back when I was younger and more foolish (about 30 minutes ago, as I write this) I thought that it might be possible to deal with everything that needs saying in one big article; but each of these needs an article in their own right (at the very least). This introduction is only going to hit the high points so that the reader has a coherent framework providing context into which detailed examinations of each phase can be slotted. This is just the starting point, a preface to what has turned into an 11-part series which, if all goes according to plan, will feature on Mondays all the way through to the end of March! Some parts will be bigger than others, but I’m deliberately giving myself time, and room, to roam and explore any byways and side-topics that come up.

The intention is for this series to be as systemless as possible – tricky when you’re talking game mechanics – but when necessary, I will prefer to retreat into D&D / Pathfinder mode as an example of the general principles. Except for those times when I diverge into some other game system because that seems more illustrative (or free from copyright headaches). But the general intent is for this to work for ANY campaign genre.

Because I don’t want to be forever writing synopses of past parts of the series, I’m going to employ the same methodology as I’m using for the “One Player Is Enough” series – which is to say, Table Of Contents at the start only, and very short introductions/recaps.

The content of some parts of the series is very clear to me, as you can judge from the detail in the ToC. Other parts require further thought and research, and will be further broken down into sub-topics and sub-sub-topics when I get there.

Anytime a new section or subsection is inserted (or, heaven forbid, one gets removed), I will come back and adjust this table of contents. Right now, it spells out my intentions; by the end of the series, it will index the actual content.

Table Of Contents:

Phase 0: New Horizons

  • Introduction
  • Preface: Reinventing The Wheel
    • The Fumanor Example
    • The Relevance
  • Strange New Worlds
    • New World, New Beginning
    • The “Reality But Not As We Know It” campaign idea
    • How much world do you really need? The Cosmological Headache Scale
      • The Gameplay Axis
      • The Detail Axis
      • The Headache Scale
    • Don’t Get Wedded To Procedure
    • The Modular, Story-based Approach
      • Defining the modules
      • The Inputs: What does each “module” need?
      • The Fundamental Need: Inspiration
      • Work backwards to the top
      • Work forwards from the beginning
      • Enough Is Never Enough
      • Room For Growth
      • Assemble The Adventure
      • Who Needs To Know What?
    • The Fractal Microscope

Phase 1: Inspiration

  • Finding Inspiration
    • Concept
    • Rules Mechanic
    • Sequel
    • Reaction
    • External
    • Philosophies
    • Art & Music
    • Lyrics & Poetry
    • Genre Fiction
    • Related-Genre Fiction
    • Non-Genre Fiction
    • Non-Fiction
    • Fact (Anecdote/Transposition)
    • Fact (Metaphor/Symbolic)
    • Myth
    • Domesticity/News
    • Radio
    • Older TV
    • Newer TV
    • Movies
    • Intersections & Collisions
  • Working with inspiration
    • Don’t Be Derivative
    • Inversion has been done before
    • The Metaphor Looking Glass
    • The Wrong Idea

Phase 2: Baggage Dump

  • Why To Dump
  • When To Dump
  • How to Dump
    • The System For Review
    • Needs/Dump Analysis Processing
    • Interpretation
      • Broad Interpretation
      • Verdict Fringes
  • Clearing Your Head
    • Avoiding The Red Line
  • What to dump: categories of baggage
    • 1. Old Assumptions
      • Timeframe
    • Old Rules
      • 2. House Rules
      • 3. Official Rules
    • 4. Old Rulings
    • 5. Old Interpretations
    • 6. Old Background
      • Old Background, existing campaign
        • Nexus Points
        • Conspiracies
        • The X-files mistake
        • The Key Person
      • Old Background, new campaign
        • Background Elements (sidebar)
        • No Written Background? (sidebar)
    • 7. Old Attitude
    • 8. Old PCs
      • Old PCs, New Campaign
      • Old PCs, Revitalized Campaign
    • 9. Old NPCs
    • 10. Old Assumptions Redux
  • What to keep – for now

Phase 3: Reinvigoration

  • Unwind & Recharge
  • Three Moods
  • Three Surprises
  • Three Things The Pcs Will Hate But The Players Will Love
  • Three Things The Players Will Want To Do
  • Preliminary Games Session Structure
  • Rulebook Reference Skim

Phase 4: Development

  • Basic Research
  • Theme Development
    • The Sets Of Threes
  • Still More Ideas
    • Reinterpret the list of discards

      • Possible Alternatives
      • Links to Theme
      • Links to the sets of threes
    • Reinterpret the list of undecided items
      • Questions Answered
      • Questions to be answered
  • Research
    • Rulebook Reference Reading

      • Rules Conflicts
      • Rules Extensions
    • Other Reference Sources
  • The Sea Of Ideas
  • Organization
    • Incorporate the Three Moods
    • Incorporate the Three Surprises
    • Incorporate the Three Things The Players Will Love To Hate
    • Choose Three Nexii
      • The Primary Plot Nexus
      • The Secondary Plot Nexus
      • The Tertiary Plot Nexus
    • The PC Focus
      • Incorporate The Three Things The Players Will Want To Do
      • Character Arcs
    • Compile, Cross-link, Cross-reference
      • Compile
      • Cross-link
      • Cross-reference
      • Tonal Similarity
      • Tonal Contrast
      • What you throw away
    • The Campaign Plan
      • Recompile
      • Sequence & Sandbox
      • Collate & Compact

Phase 5: Surroundings & Environment

  • Where?
  • When?
  • Oddities?
  • Neighbors
  • Authority
  • History & Geography
  • Society
  • Economy
  • Connections
  • What Has Been, What Is, and What Will Be

Phase 6: Mindset & Underpinnings

  • Philosophy & The Game
    • The Deliberate ‘Why’
    • Central Philosophy – In Game
    • Central Philosophy – Behind Screen
    • Central Philosophy – Secrets & Surprises
    • Central Philosophy – Players
    • Central Philosophy – Briefings
    • The Attitude to Game
  • Theme
    • The Pigeonholes
      • Archetypes
      • Key Races
      • Key Plot Types
    • The Free Association Exercise
    • Brevity vs Succinctness

Phase 7: Skeleton

  • Archetypes
    • Connect Archetypes to Nexi
  • Broad Strokes
    • Beginning, Middle, and End – Nexus #1
    • Beginning, Middle, and End – Nexus #2
    • Beginning, Middle, and End – Nexus #3
    • Tone
    • Part Zero: Introduction/Grounding
  • The Keys to The Ten
  • Organizations & Relationships

Phase 8: Enfleshing

  • Connect Ideas to the ten parts
    • Flow
  • A Tale for each Archetype
    • Revising the Archetypes
  • A Tale for each key Race<
    • Revising the key Races
  • The Initial Sandbox
  • Phase 9: Beginning

    • Campaign Structure
    • House Rules
    • PCs
    • Briefings
    • Infrastructure
    • Adventure Format
    • Initial Adventure

    The Wrap-Up: Connecting The Dots

It’s going to be a wild, wild, ride…

Preface: Reinventing The Wheel

If your current campaign has lost some of its sparkle but is still working to some extent, consider applying the process described in this series to it, retroactively. You might just reinvigorate it.

This requires some alterations in Phase 2 – rather than a complete dump, you need to start with a stocktaking, deciding what is worth keeping. You should also find that the process proceeds rather more quickly because part of the work will already be done; but, be prepared for the possibility that it will take even longer than starting from scratch with a new campaign. This is because established campaign elements to be preserved each constrict and constrain your creative freedom.

The best attitude to take when setting out to reinvent the wheel is to actually think of the reinvigorated campaign as a sequel to what you are doing now. This mindset requires you to have material generated in the current “campaign” that will carry you through to “the grand unveiling” at the end of the reinvigoration process.

It may also be necessary to invest effort into a fourth plot nexus, the seeds of which you should begin to incorporate right away; the purpose of this fourth nexus, at a metagame level, is to justify sweeping transformations to the game environment. This can be a little tricky because until the completion of the penultimate step, you will have no fixed ideas as to what the changes should be.

For example, if you decide that Goblins need to be reinvented or reinterpreted head to toe, or that Orcish Society needs a radical transformation, or whatever, you will need some suitably massive in-game events to justify those changes. In some cases, these may be magical, in others they may be social or political.

The Fumanor Example

I wanted to reinvent the central Kingdom in Fumanor because it was growing too large and politically unwieldy to really work as a political entity. Population growth had outstripped the capacity for a single central point of authority, and as a result, on the larger estates, the nobility were ignoring that authority and doing whatever the heck they wanted – to the detriment of the authority, since what a lot of them wanted was to overthrow the current authority and replace it with themselves. In some cases, this was out of a sense of duty or obligation, because they thought they had the answer to the problems facing the Kingdom; in others the motives were rather less pure.

An Orcish invasion precipitated by an alliance with one of those rogue nobles as part of his play for the throne was just the ticket. As it played out, the Orcs were brought into the Kingdom and so were the Drow, while the Elves seceded; more than doubling the population. If the old system had been limping, it now faced imminent total collapse. However, physical barriers – some new, some old. (plus some political and theological ones) divided the Kingdom into three, where subordinate monarchs appointed by the central authority could rule in the name of the original Monarchy. This is very much a half-measure, a partial step in the process of growing from a Kingdom into an Empire.

In effect, these three semi-autonomous Kingdoms face, collectively, the problems of an Empire, including the attention of an older, larger, more powerful, and more established Imperial enemy. One way or another, the former Kingdom of Fumanor Will become an Empire; but whether that’s through it’s own internal political and social growth or through the conquest by one of several enemies, especially that aforementioned rival Empire, remains to be seen.

That’s the premise behind the two simultaneous campaigns that are ongoing in this campaign world – one looking at the internal pre-Imperial development within the old Kingdoms (from the perspective of the Church Establishment, half of which oppose the changes and half of which are more progressive; and the other dealing with a couple of the most significant external threats – the Golden Empire, the Elves (and their new Draconic allies), Drow in whom old habits die hard, and a population of Orcish new citizens, whose own society is not really up to the job of being part of a Kingdom, never mind an Empire, and who outnumber the rest of the population two to one or more – but who are cut off from the main Kingdom/nascent-Empire by the presence of those afore-mentioned Elves.

These are legitimate sequel campaigns, but they serve as illustration of how dramatic and sweeping the alterations in a refurbishing can be. The problems and plot threads of the pre-War Kingdom have either been transformed (usually exacerbated) by the new context or have been swept away, irrelevant in the face of bigger problems.

The Relevance

When creating the sequel campaign, I viewed everything that I wanted to keep from the old campaigns as a starting point, to be modified in response to the changed circumstances of the new Campaign(s) – they started out with the intent of being one, but were bifurcated for real-world reasons.

This avoided the worst of the problems of these established elements being “set in stone”, clearing the decks for a complete reappraisal as necessary.

There are times when the best thing to do is to reinvent the wheel!
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Strange New Worlds

Back when this article was first being conceived, it was intended to be part of the January 2015 Blog Carnival. At the time, all I knew about the subject of the carnival was the working title, “New Beginnings”. While the article was growing into the 11-part monster that it has now become, the subject of the carnival changed to “New Year, New World.” That’s the sort of headache that you encounter now and then when you jump the gun.

It’s not akin to spending time doing speculative prep for a game session or campaign only for events to move in an entirely unexpected direction. A lot of GMs seem to throw away or archive such displaced prep-work, but a fair amount of the time, that’s not actually necessary; whatever you’ve done can be re-skinned, relocated, or adapted to suit the new circumstance.

So it was in this case. Having finished the series outline, and deciding how many parts it needed to be broken into to be a practical exercise in writing, I contemplated what I would write on the subject of creating a new world to be part of an existing campaign, and found that a lot of the material that would be involved overlapped with what was already planned for the article. Creating a new world is a cut-down mini-sized application of the same basic principles; some of the steps involved could be skipped, and others abbreviated, but the overall process was remarkably similar.

And that makes this month’s Blog Carnival discussion a great prelude to the main series to come. And that’s why this introduction is still offered as part of the January Blog Carnival being hosted by Nils at Enderra, and why this section has been included in this series.

New World, New Beginning

Every new world that you create for the PCs to explore – taking a fairly liberal interpretation of the term “World” – represents a new beginning within the established campaign. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new Plane Of Existence, or a new City or Realm within the same game world, or a whole new planet. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for D&D, for Pulp, or for a Sci-Fi campaign. The process, and opportunities, are the same.

The new world represents the opportunity to tweak your existing designs and principles, the chance to revise structural errors, even the chance to rewrite the past if that’s necessary. After all, if the world is to be different, you would expect things to work just a little differently there – at the very least.

The “Reality But Not As We Know It” campaign idea

To show just how far this principle can be pushed, I have devised the “Reality But Not As We Know It” campaign as a blend of Space Opera and Star Trek.

The PCs are the captain and crew of a science vessel akin to the Enterprise – Let’s call it the USS Schroedinger. Their normal mission is to explore and understand the universe, traveling from world to world and cosmic phenomenon to cosmic phenomenon, getting to know the natives, showing the flag in a strange and sometimes hostile universe.

For three years now, their 5-year mission has been going smoothly, a new location every week or two being examined, cataloged, analyzed, and stored. The ship’s course is a series of loops through space, hitting top speed whenever they are in known space and slowing down to smell the roses only when they push the boundaries. This looping course, like a slinky, explores a series of flat slices through the unknown before the ship loops back to Earth to report their findings, take on fresh crew, enjoy a little R&R, and replenish their supplies.

For the fifth time since their mission began, they are approaching just such a break in their mission, and eagerly looking forward to a little time off.

That’s all Player briefing. They have also been told what the game system is that they are to use to generate their characters – this can be any game system that is appropriate and that the GM knows well.

At first, as the crew approach the outer limits of the Solar System, everything appears routine as Adventure One gets underway. The GM gives the players a chance to introduce the PCs to each other, to interact with the ship (which badly needs maintenance), and do a little unimportant roleplay. This is officially known as “The Calm Before The Storm.”

In mid-communication, everything goes crazy. Earth stops responding, sensor readings make no sense, and the first thought should be that there has been an accident or calamity of some kind. The PCs are already approaching Earth as fast as they can safely go, though they can push the speed higher if they want to risk something breaking that they might need when they get there.

When they arrive, they discover that Humans have been reduced to a technologically barbaric society, that they are vastly outnumbered by all sorts of sentient non-human species that no-one has ever heard of before that also appear to be native to earth, that many of these species have strange powers, as do some humans. Several mountain ranges have been extensively hollowed out with tunnels, forests cover large swathes of the planet, huge winged beasts are spotted flying from place to place – the earth has been Pathfinder-ized! Or D&D-ized, if the GM prefers. Has the ship somehow broken through into a parallel world? (Answer: No – something has actually transformed the Earth and the natural laws of the planet.)

As soon as the PCs touch down/beam down, the GM gets out his PFRPG rulebooks or his D&D core books. Everything except the PCs and their ship operates according to the rules therein.

Exploring the strange new world that used to be home, they eventually make contact with someone who has records, hundreds of years old, which mark the beginning of history – no-one knew what the world was like before this date. A strange obelisk appeared amongst the people, who had no memory of it never having been there before (or of anything else prior to its discovery). The obelisk then rose up into the sky and flew off. This scholar has collected accounts from many different places of many different groups seeing the same thing, and has compiled their statements as to the direction of flight through the heavens of the obelisk.

Feeding this information into the ship’s computer, the PCs are able to extrapolate a course through space for the obelisk, and even data-mine their own records to reveal it approaching the earth from deep space, unnoticed by anyone at the time. Ordinary sensors don’t show it. The precise moment that its course intersected that of the Earth is when everything changed.

And so begins the quest, chasing the obelisk through space in search of a way to undo what it has done, and ever-so-slowly catching it. Each adventure on a new inhabited world, run using a different game system, and incorporating the setting and precepts of that game system. This week they are privateers fighting pirates on an almost-endless sea; next week, they are dealing with Vampires in a Gothic nightmare; the week after, it’s feudal Japan; after that, Lovecraftian Horrors; and so on.

Anytime the PCs attempt something while on-planet, the GM uses the base rules initially specified to evaluate the results, then interprets those results within the context of the game-system-of-the-week. None of the transformations extend beyond the inner solar system of the planet in question (out far enough to contain a Ringworld, for example). Only when the GM starts to run out of interesting game systems should the PCs finally catch up with the Obelisk and discover who or what is behind it, and why, and can attempt to establish a solution to their problems. It could all be a practical joke by Q, or a piece of scientific research by another from the Q continuum, or it might be some almost-Q-level power, or it might be that the obelisk has inadvertently traveled from its own reality into this one and keeps trying to recreate the world it’s expecting to find – each time getting it all completely wrong. There are lots of possible explanations for you to choose between.

Here’s the whole point: Each new world represents a new game system, showing that in ANY campaign, anything up to and including the rules can change when the PCs discover or enter a new world for the first time. There are no rules save those you permit, and reality bends to your will and whim, because you are the GM and the creator.
Cosmological Headache Scale

How much world do you really need? The Cosmological Headache Scale

Creating a world can be a lot of fun. It can also be a hellacious amount of work, depending on how rigorous you want the process to be. You can spend months creating and fleshing out a world, or you can just hit the high notes and produce a sketch of an environment and a population.

The more work that’s involved, the bigger the cosmological headache it creates. I’ve seen individual adventures that were along the lines of “Seven Worlds In Seven Days” – which doesn’t leave more than a few hours to create each one, at best. And I’ve seen multi-year campaigns in which the GM has spent years building up the physics, the politics, the economy, the politics, the populace, the laws, the religions, the societies, the tensions, and the histories. There aren’t too many games that hit any sort of intermediate scale, because world-creation has an exponentially-increasing degree of detail required.

Create too much, and it will never get used. Create too little, and you’re forced to get inventive on the spot.

I’ve tried to analyze what I think is the “right amount” below, in terms of how big a headache we’re talking about, but the results will be fuzzier than the theoretical values that result.

The Gameplay Axis

The vertical Axis is gameplay, in terms of the number of hours of play that you expect the PCs to be on this particular world. Clearly, the more time the players are going to spend playing there, the more effort you should invest. It’s divided into five regions: 1 session or less, 3 game sessions or less, 6 months or less, less than 2 years, and 2 or more years.

The Detail Axis

The horizontal axis is how much detail you need to go into, in terms of how much time to spend in intensive prep. It is also divided into 5 zones. At the far left we have 5-10 minutes, then 10 minutes to an hour, then 3-6 hrs, 10-15 hrs, and finally, 30+ hrs.

The Headache Scale

The headache scale is color-coded into zones. White indicates a The first zone indicates a broad summary without looking at any topic in detail. The Yellow Zone indicates that you will want to consider each of the major subjects listed previously (which are by no means definitive, there can be more), but won’t want to spend more than a couple of minutes (2-5, max) on any one of them. The Green Zone indicates that you will want to spend a little time – 5-10 minutes – in at least thinking about each of the subjects involved in defining a world. The Blue Zone indicates the need to spend at least an hour on each subject, while the Purple Zone indicates the need to spend at least a six-hour day on each subject. Finally, Red indicates that for some of the subjects, you might need to spend multiple six-days.

How this time is broken up is up to you. If the indicator is 6 hours per subject, that might be an hour a day for a week, or an hour a week for 6 weeks, or whatever you can accommodate.

The Cosmological Headaches

It might look simple, but there’s actually a lot of information buried in this chart. The hatching indicates the areas of greatest probability. The closer to the top-right corner, the greater the number of headaches you are going to get from the creation process, as detail “X” clashes with detail “Y”, as idea “A” doesn’t pan out and has to be scrapped, and as you need an idea to fill slot “B” in your creation – and your mind is inconveniently blank.

The further to the right you are, the more prep time is your enemy. The closer to the top, creativity is the more important requirement.

But the more creative you are, the more time you need to explore your ideas; and the more detail that you need, the more interesting the product had better be, or what’s the point? These two problems – prep time and creativity – are each other’s complications, and each tend to push the creator – that’s you – one step further toward the top right than you would like to be for each step removed from the white and yellow “safe zones”. A shortage of Prep Time requires a couple of good ideas, but those ideas demand an investment in additional prep time to explore – so before you know it, green zone has been pushed into blue territory, and blue has been pushed into purple or even the fringes of red, and red has gone off the charts.

When creating Earth-Halo, the adventure setting for an intended 5 years of play (that turned out to be 12 years), I spent 6 months developing the setting, spending at least 6 hours every day, 5 days a week on the task, usually more. Call it a minimum of 780 hours, but I think the thousand probably comes closer. The campaign background – with no game setting information at all – was over 100 pages in length.

When creating the current game setting for the Zenith-3 campaign, I spent 5 years working a couple of hours a week, plus an intensive 12 week period of 4 hours a day, 5 days a week at the end – Again, about 760 hours. After 3 years of play, we’re about 1/6th of the way through the campaign. Events speed up as it progresses, but the individual adventures will get longer. If it (and I) last that long, it should wrap sometime between 2020 and 2025.

In terms of return on time invested, these are good numbers. 12 years at 6 hrs each session, 13 times a year, is 936 hours of play, close enough to 1:1 in terms of development. 16 years (or so) at 5 hrs each session, 13 times a year, is 1040 hrs of play – a ratio of about 44 minutes of prep to every hour of game play.

Many groups play more frequently, or for longer – so let’s assume a weekly game of 8 hrs play each week. Those two campaigns would have lasted for about 2 1/4 years and will last for about 2.5 years, respectively.

Don’t Get Wedded To Procedure

I would estimate that getting locked into a single approach adds as much as a third to prep time, over and above anything that you might save because you know the procedure. Sometimes, it’s more efficient not to start with the physical environment and then do the societies and then the politics and so on, and then work on the adventures that are possible in the geopolitical environment that you’ve created. There are definitely times when it’s better to put the cart before the horse, working out what the adventures are going to be and then positioning the necessary world elements around them. If the adventures that you create have a logical flow, so will the ingredients that you have to emplace upon the world.

The basic premise of sandboxing is not to develop more than you need in the near future. That’s the sort of principle that I mean when I say “a procedure”. Others live by the slightly more old-school approach of creating the world (at least in general) and then applying sandboxing as necessary to flesh out what you need. This has the advantage of providing context to everything that you sandbox, and at least gives a foundation if the PCs zig when you expected them to Zag.

Other GMs have been known to insist on the really old-school approach of creating the entire game world in all its’ details before a PC sets one foot on the place, or using storytelling methods and political-history-simulations to get the players to do a lot of the world-generation for you.

These all have their place, occasions when they are the best answer. But there’s at least one other approach, not as well known, that can be more useful than any of these: the Modular, Story-based approach.

The Modular, Story-based Approach

A module – in this context – is a black box of plot. Put a series of them together in a (reasonably) straight line and you get a plot. Put several plots together in such a way that they can interact with each other, and you will soon have a campaign. Or, in this case, a place for a campaign to happen.

You don’t know the shape of the Module, or it’s color, or anything in particular about it, except as follows: Modules are defined in terms of inputs, or initial conditions, and outputs, i.e. changes made to those initial conditions. A sufficiently-comprehensive set of modules would predict the future history of the game world, blow for blow, if it weren’t for the wild factor – usually found in the form of a pesky set of PCs who won’t follow the-rest-of-the-world’s script.

A Module can also be considered to be an organic plot element that can work it’s magic anywhere within the net plotline, and may even function repeatedly in the overall plotline.

Defining the modules

Creating synopses for a couple of plotlines and breaking them into required Modules is the quickest way to begin defining the modules. Once defined, each module is in existence for every plot event subsequent to their origins, and may also come into existence as a reaction to a set of circumstances.

For example, let’s look at a D&D/Pathfinder module set:

  1. Conflict over an inheritance. 3 prospective heirs, one wants the wealth, one wants the power, one wants the prestige & social rank.
  2. A Dark Assassin is on the loose.
  3. A magical sphere is sought by the servant of Dark Power.
  4. Human guard posts to enforce a no-man’s-land between Elves, Orcs, & Dwarves who would all be at war with their neighbors otherwise.
  5. An evil, ambitious, man is promoted to a position of authority.
  6. An arcane treasure was stolen from the Dwarves long ago. They will take insane risks to get it back, but don’t know where to look.
  7. Drow seek to fulfill a prophecy.
  8. A Mage is “evolving” Kobolds into something far more dangerous.
  9. Something is killing all the Druids.
  10. The Black Citadel, long thought destroyed, has reappeared. Has its’ master also survived to threaten all that lives with his tainted magics?

There are lots of ways to connect these 10 plot elements together to form a coherent view of the current situation. For example, 5 might be in the service of the master of 10, who is also the Dark Power mentioned in 3; 5 may have hired 2, killing the present officeholder of a position that he covets (5 again); this has produced 1, which has stripped the guards of 3. One of the three heirs (1 again) has sought alliance with a Kingdom who are not as adept at security as thought, telling the Dwarves about 3, which is the same thing as 6. But ambition is not the only reason for 5, because 3 and 6 are also 2, and the artifact is also central to 7. This produces a three-way race for the artifact, each fronted by one of the heirs (3). As for 9, this might be the result of 10, or it may be an act of the Master of 10, or it might be a side-effect of 3 itself. 8 might be a desperate attempt by a learned man to produce warriors capable of opposing 7, on the basis that the long-term gains outweigh the short-term pain that they may inflict. 4 doesn’t link directly to any of them, but serves as an obstacle to several of them that will need to be overcome or corrupted.

This linkage – the initial situation – describes both the the primary inputs and the various factions with a direct interest in the plotline, i.e. the modules. What actions will each faction make in order to achieve their goals – i.e., what are the outputs? What are their plans? Will any of those actions be anticipated by other factions, and if so what will they be doing about them? What will each faction do when they learn of the actions of the other factions in advancing their agenda? Action and reaction ripple through the situation until there is a hellacious confrontation to resolve the plotline, or one emerges the winner.

Further questions add to the stockpile of factions and interested parties who are only involved indirectly. Is the initial situation the result of any prior actions that should be revealed in-game? Who’s missing from this lineup? (Elves are an obvious one).

Put two or more of these plotlines together and you have yourself a campaign (some of the Modules can overlap – just because it was incorporated into plot #1 doesn’t mean that it isn’t there for plots #2, 3 or 4) . One alone is a major adventure – one that mandates, and begins providing specifications for a new world to function as the stage for game events.

It’s worth noting that these “modules” have been defined only in terms of their involvement in the plot. Each of them will need a lot more definition before anything is ready to run.

Secondary Inputs: What does each “module” need?

The process of so defining the Modules is started by considering what resources each Module requires to be available. Taking just one as an example, #7 states “Drow seek to fulfill a prophecy”. For that, we need a Drow Society, and a prophecy, and someone to make the prophecy. Each of these “secondary inputs” are what is needed to create, or emplace in a position to function, one of the primary Modules.

More ideas will occur to you as you populate the world with Modules. By all means, include them – these are tertiary inputs, that can be discarded if they don’t work out.

Nothing not explicitly mentioned is set in stone.

To illustrate both the preceding points, while writing the above paragraphs, I thought of the following: “Drow Society requires Lolth. What if Lolth, as the rest of the game universe understands her, is a Myth? Lolth was a pretender/zealot who was killed long ago and replaced by a succession of Dopplegangers. The primary influence over Drow Society has been a succession of measures to make the Drow too afraid to get close enough to discover this secret.” This puts an entirely new spin on established Drow society, while not changing that society very much.

While mentioning Elves as an obvious omission – and they are clearly something else that is required for a Drow Society to exist – I also thought, “What if the prophecy was Draconic in origin, and the real difference between colored and metallic Dragons is a philosophic one on how to deal with the threat posed by the prophecy?” I didn’t mention this at the time, because it wasn’t relevant to the point being made – but I made careful note to mention it now, when it is relevant.

Another example of the point in bold is this: While it might be assumed that the heirs were human, and so is the “evil, ambitious man” – and I freely admit that was what I was thinking at the time – it doesn’t have to be so. Maybe they were Orcs, or maybe they were Bugbears, or Halflings.

The Fundamental Need: Inspiration

All these primary Modules were created by free association around the idea of three different factions competing for the same prize for completely different reasons, an idea inherent in the first module. They all orbit that central premise, directly or indirectly.

And that’s the key principle behind this modular approach. Any of the modules can be ripped out and replaced with something else, always in the service of the overall plotline concept.

Instead of human guard posts, perhaps Storm Giants are the ultimate rulers of the world, maintaining the peace whether lesser races like it or not. Perhaps, instead of Druids dying, its Mages, or Paladins.

Perhaps your plot is more linear than the above example: A does B, which brings it into conflict with C. A defeats C, creating an opportunity for D to do E. F, alarmed over E, attempts to undo B. To defeat F, A allies with G. The alliance defeats F, but in the process, A is forced to tolerate actions by G that would normally be anathema, dividing A into two factions: A and H.

The same principles apply. These, too, are Modules; they are just arranged in a string instead of a tapestry.

The Game World exists purely as a stage for the (potential) story. Anything more is a bonus.

And that’s the premise of this system of world creation – that you come up with a single, central idea or two, flesh them out a little, then build the world around them.

Work backwards to the top

So the starting point is always an idea, and you need to backtrack into history to provide everything that the idea needs to come into existence. If the idea is a war over water, you might need an arid environment, and a reason why it’s so arid, and what it used to be like, and at least two societies to go to war (or perhaps two factions within the one society, giving a civil war. If the idea is the mining of a superconductor, you need a planet or moon at cryogenic temperatures, you need a mining industry to do the mining, you will need some unique technologies to make the mining possible, you need a society that has need of superconductors and knows what to do with them, and so on. And, since these are secondary module elements, you need to know where they came from, as well.

All this will eventually go into your adventure or campaign background. The objective in this stage is to ensure that all the seeds of the plotline are planted in that background; you need to go backwards until everything that is to occur in the course of the adventure has its antecedents mapped out, because those antecedents shape the character, needs, and resources of the “module” that is the cause of the role the module is playing in the adventure.

If the idea was of a world that has unexpectedly become very wealthy overnight, and the plotline is all about how they are using (or misusing) that wealth, and the attempts of various groups to separate them from it, you need to know where the wealth came from, and how it was discovered, and what the society in question has to do in order to extract it.

More than one Star Trek adventure (especially in the Novels) is based around the idea of a World discovering that it has a resource that somebody wants, but that has to do something morally undesirable by the standards of those who want it in order to extract the resource. Dilithium that is mined by slave labor. Rare alloys that can only be refined using extremely toxic pollutants. A rare stellar phenomenon that carries the promise of a new generation of Warp Drive once understood, but the monitoring of which requires tolerance of barbaric religious practices on the part of the locals.

In all such cases, the briefing that the players receive when the adventure or campaign begins will be shallow and completely implausible if it does not cast its roots back to what was there before to produce the current situation.

Work forwards from the beginning

All these precursors are also “Modules”, as explained earlier. Their “output” is the situation at the start of play. Some may have been terminated as a result of the action, or as a result of some other module’s effect on that initial situation; others persist.

It follows that once you have gone back in time far enough, you have to reverse course and go forwards, because the modules don’t exist in isolation; they have to take into account all the circumstances and events that take place from the point of their origins forward. Just because you need Klingons, or The Shadows, or a Dark Lord Of The Sith at point X in order to complicate situation Y does not mean that they are ignoring everything else that happens. If there’s an opportunity, they will attempt to seize it. If there’s the possibility of an opportunity, they will investigate it. If there is a threat, they will attack it, or undermine it, or seek to isolate it (usually in that order of preference). And since you never know today what it will be useful to know tomorrow, if there is a mystery, they will study it.

Some of these actions may well change the nature of the Module from the expected and desired to something else. There are several possible solutions to this problem: One, you can rip out the module in question and replace it with something that won’t be changed; two, you can modify the original module so that the change that occurs transforms it from something that wouldn’t fulfill the role you desire into something that will; or three, you can block or interfere with the module in question’s ability to perform the logical action by inserting another module with that express purpose.

All three solutions then require a return to the beginning of this step to keep your plausibility intact. You might not have to do much work to get back to this point, but you need to verify that every connection that you made thus far is unaffected by the solution, and – if you have added a new Module to the plot – have to backtrack and plot-fill around it as well.

Enough Is Never Enough

There will come a point at which you feel that you have done enough, that the world is ready to receive the PCs. The initial situation is defined, it is justified and explained, the intersections of all the actions represented by the modules have been mapped out and the plot has an overall shape in terms of how it will proceed without PC intervention. You know the script, and you know the cast.

Without fail, whenever I have thought that, I have been tripped up by someone asking the simplest of questions – about something I hadn’t thought of. If you tell your players that the sun rises in the morning because the planet rotates, they will want to know how fast, or what makes it rotate.

I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to have at least a vague idea of what came before whatever I think I need than not to. It doesn’t have to be as developed or fleshed out as the earliest material you definitely need, but some notion is infinitely better than none.

So, as soon as you think you’ve done enough, at least think for a minute or two about what created the situation previous to that point.

It works the other way, too – you might be intending to sandbox your players and only develop those parts of the world in more detail that become necessary, but it’s a lot easier to do that development if you aren’t completely in the dark.

Room For Growth

Another key principle is to leave a little room for growth. None of the ideas that you have set in iron are permanently welded in place until they actually appear before the PCs, and sometimes (given the realities of rumor, propaganda, ignorance, and misinformation) not even then. Know what really is “locked in” and what can be changed or amplified if a new idea presents itself.

In addition, most of the emphasis so far has been rather coldly logical – A does B because C has created the opportunity for D – and few societies are that rational. There are prejudices, and blind spots, and myths, and ideologies, and philosophies, and emotions, and overreactions, and plain old ordinary mistakes – all on top of rumor, propaganda, ignorance, and misinformation. It’s all well and good to forecast that A will do B and this is how C will react – but when the time comes, that reaction may not be exactly what you expected, especially with PCs sticking their 2 cents worth here and there. It’s like trying to predict the exact shape of the branches when you plant a seed – you’ll be lucky if you even get the count somewhere in the ballpark.

Leave room for your plotline to grow and evolve. One solution is, for every critical plot step, to have a secondary agency who will act if the group that you were expecting to act can’t or won’t, when the time comes.

Assemble The Adventure

Nothing that you’ve created so far is from the PC’s perspective – not even the “adventure”. All you have is a list of ingredients. From those ingredients, it’s time to assemble the adventure.

What does the current situation appear to be? How are the PCs going to get involved, initially? What’s the first thread of this tangled narrative that you are going to let them pull on? Are they being manipulated or deceived? Are they doing someone’s dirty work?

If I were planning to run the example offered earlier, I might start by thinking: the Assassin knows too much. The evil, ambitious man will want to get rid of him. He can’t spare the time to do it personally, and he’s far too high-profile as a result of his elevation to do it secretly anyway. And if he doesn’t investigate the assassination of his predecessor, it will look suspicious. So send the PCs to capture or kill the Assassin, and arrange some circumstances that ensure they can’t afford to let him live, or even to bargain for his life. The assassin is disguised as a guard at one of the border keeps. From there, maybe the PCs will make contact with Elves, or Dwarves, or one of the siblings. Let the plot unfold as it will, once the first stone has been thrown.

Who does the assassin think hired him, anyway? Might not the ambitious man have posed as an agent for one of the fractious siblings? That would kill several birds with one stone.

Who Needs To Know What?

The final step is to ensure that the players get whatever briefing materials they need before they need them, or at the time they need them, or – if it’s desirable and plausible – that they won’t find out about a situation until it’s too late for them to interfere.

I never like plots which rely on the PCs figuring something out in time. They are often dull to roleplay and even anticlimactic, especially if it comes down to a die roll that the GM can’t afford a player to fail.

If necessary, prepare a trail of breadcrumbs that lead the PCs from adventure to adventure without them figuring anything out – at least until you get to the climax. Better yet, since you know what is supposed to happen if the PCs don’t intervene, let it happen – right up until the final point at which it is possible to prevent it. Give the players time, and let them figure things out for themselves.

Another useful technique is to have a series of standby plot elements that will force the Module that is supposed to act next into a delay to give the players more time. But there’s only so far you can go with that line of thinking, so it’s not a total solution to the problem.

Every little bit helps.

And finally, be prepared if necessary to scrap your entire plotline from whatever point it has reached and build a new one, salvaging whatever you can. The goal is not to demonstrate your brilliance as a planner or writer, it’s to entertain everyone. Do whatever you have to do to achieve that.

The Fractal Microscope

When you zoom in on a fractal image, you find exactly the same details being repeated. So it is with this series and the preceding discussion of new worlds: the process of creating a campaign is exactly the same as the process of creating a new world, it’s just bigger. However, the smaller we zoom, the less consequential to the bigger picture any detail becomes; we can throw away mountains of detail, compromising the integrity of the true image, to create a compromise that appears indistinguishable from the original. The top image above is not a true fractal image – not any more. It’s been saved in a lossy format and compressed, throwing away detail that will never be missed – unless you zoom in and look for it – as has been done in the lower image.

This prelude is nothing more than a fuzzy, small-scale zoom into the content of this series. Of necessity, a lot of explanation, a lot of procedure, a wealth of detail have been left out in order to arrive at something manageable within the scope of a single article. The real story, and the real adventure into creativity, is still to come.

That’s just the start of what’s going to be a very big series here at Campaign Mastery – 12 parts, according to current plans. Having thought about it for some time, I’ve decided that every few weeks I’ll take a break before resuming the series, just to inject a little variety into the schedule. But, until the first such break, I’ll be forging onward. The next part will focus on Inspiration, the first phase of the process.

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Me, Myself, and Him: Combat and Characters in one-player games


It’s been quite a while since I looked at the topic of the one-player campaign, also known as the solo campaign. The last time was back in May of 2010 in an Ask The GMs article, “Ask The GMs: How to GM solo PCs (especially in combat), and because the question was specifically about a D&D 3.5 Eberron Campaign, much of the advice is very D&D-centric. Since I’ve recently started an occasional Dr Who solo campaign for one of the players in my Zenith-3 campaign (both of us were at loose ends and I had a campaign idea… – the latter should come as no surprise to anyone!), I thought the time was right to revisit the topic in a more general sense.

This is particularly the case because, when I looked at that earlier article, I found that there was an awful lot of ground within the subject which wasn’t well-covered, if at all. So much so that by the time I finished outlining this article, I found that what I had was a four-BIG-post series, way too big to be covered in one gulp.

While some of the material may cover the same ground as that earlier article, I’m going to do my best not to refer to it at all, making this an entirely fresh take on the subject. That means that there may well be additional tips in the original article, and even some contradictory advice representing options for you to choose between.

Since prep and planning should always be driven by the needs of the game, I’m going to look at other aspects of solo games first, then work backwards. The broader subject has been divided into four parts, as I mentioned a moment ago, each of which has been further subdivided.

The place to start is with a table of contents:


Table Of Contents

Part 1: Me, Myself, and Him: Combat & Characters in one-player games

  • Combat

    • Opponents
    • Danger
  • Allies
    • The Benefits Of Allies
    • Limits To Allies
    • The Importance Of Motivation
  • Battlemaps & Miniatures
  • Characterization Focus
  • In Play
  • Characterization Requirements

Part 2: A Singular Performance: Roleplay & General Principles in one-player games

  • Tone

    • Imparting Tone
    • The Tonal Dissonance Problem
    • The Hand-wave Solution
  • Game Pace
  • Intensity of Play
    • Rest
    • Downtime
  • Roleplay
    • The Dice Do More Talking
    • The Dice Do Less Talking
    • Controlling The Pace
  • Puzzles & Mysteries

Part 3: The Solitary Thread, Frayed: Plots in one-player games

  • Heading Due North

    • Multi-prong Plot Vectoring
    • Critical Path Redundancy
    • Accommodating The Compass Needle
    • Global Plot Thinking
  • The Complexity Conflict
    • Knocking down the Straw Man
    • The Hollywood Analogy
    • Do as I say, Not as I say
  • Adventure Length
    • Optional Complications
    • Optional Clarification Scenes
    • Optional Adventure Shortcuts
    • Set a Kickoff deadline
    • Adventure Milestones
    • Plot Over-complication
    • Plot Oversimplification
    • “Nothing in my left hand”
    • “…what’s this, in my Right?”
  • The Persuasion Effect
    • The Clarity Minefield
  • Script Divergence
  • Trimming The Fat for a faster resolution
    • Secret shortcuts to success
    • Serendipity is your Secret Weapon
  • Additional Padding with Idle Conversation
  • Typical adventure length

Part 4: The Crochet Masterpiece: One-player games as Campaigns

  • The Fragility Of Memory

    • Mnemonic Reminders
    • The Carry-forward
  • What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate
    • Resets
    • Logic Breakers
    • Rationality Bombs
    • Placement
    • Concealment
  • Assembling The Big Picture
    • Campaign-level Plot Needs
    • Continuity And The Single Player
    • Clarity & Confusion
    • Flexibility
    • Recuperation
    • Campaign Emphasis
  • The GMing Challenge
    • The Value Of Success

(See what I mean about it being too much for one article?)

I’m not going to repeat this entire introduction or the ToC for each subsequent post. In fact, I’m going to keep introductory text for subsequent parts of the series to a minimum – so that if you compile the print-friendly versions of the posts (look for the button near the bottom of each article) they will combine almost seamlessly into an e-book. IF I can find the time between now and then, I’ll do that for you, offering a download of the entire series as a single PDF as a freebie accompanying the final part – but the odds are stacked against that happening, so don’t count on it.

And, of course, the longer I waffle on here in this introduction, the less time there will be for writing the text in question. So let’s get going!

One-player games can be the best games for a GM to run, the most challenging, the most educational, the most rewarding. They can also be a nightmare that skids completely out of control at the slightest hint of a provocation. But that problem only occurs when the campaign structure and content are not designed to suit this particular situation, because GMing a solo game can be very different to GMing a group. My mission, over the next four parts of this series, is to take the danger out of running a solo game, to give every reader the tools, techniques, and know-how they need in order to reach for these most dizzying of RPG heights. We start with the subjects of Combat and Characters…

Combat in the single-player game

For reasons that should become obvious once you’ve read what’s below, Combat in general should be de-emphasized in single-player table-top RPGs. When it is necessary that the character engages in battle, take advantage of the one-on-one metagame situation to hand-wave as much as possible into dramatic narrative back and forth, punch and counter-punch, without worrying about game mechanics too much.

The simple fact is that game mechanics are inherently boring in actual usage. When you have a group of players, the interaction between them and their respective application of game mechanics keeps this boredom from becoming overwhelming, but when it’s just one player, that safety blanket gets removed. The level of interaction between GM and players narrows in focus to interaction with – by definition – just one player.

So the normal sort of interplay, when you don’t deemphasize combat, runs something along the lines of: GM – game mechanics – die roll – game mechanics – player – game mechanics – die roll – game mechanics – GM – game mechanics – GM-player interaction – repeat a dozen times or more.

What’s more, because there’s only one PC doing the work of what would normally be several, and he or she can only be in one place at once, combat takes four or five times as long as you would normally expect. So multiply the preceding at least three-fold, and the true scale of the problem begins to reveal itself.

- An alternative -

Here’s an alternative mechanism that I have employed to good effect: Single Die Rolls – for the entire combat.

The player rolls one normal die roll, whatever is required according to the game system (R). I take an average result (M) as a second input, and the average of the two (A) as a third – and I’m not actually interested in the results per se, just in the relative result compared to what the other side has generated.

On the player’s side, the sequence runs A – R – M – A – M.
On the GM’s side, I use the sequence A – M – R – A – M.

So I use A(pc) vs A(npc), R(pc) vs M(npc), M(pc) vs R(npc), A vs A again, and M vs M again. This is inherently fair in terms of die roll emphasis, biased according to the relative capabilities, but one side and then the other gets the better of the random element. The longer the battle runs on, however, the more it will trend to the overall outcome that is somewhere in between the roll and the flat-neutral result.

What then happens is that the player describes what their PC is attempting, and the GM then interprets the comparative “virtual roll” to determine the outcome of that attempt, what the NPCs will attempt in response, and how well that will work, then delivers all of that as a small block of narrative. The player then responds, and the process repeats.

This puts the roleplay back into combat and turns the weakness of the single-player game into an asset.

- Some Numbers -

I realize that the preceding would be far more meaningful with some actual numbers to serve as an example. So let’s say that the player needs 14 on d20 to hit and gets +3 in bonuses, and that the NPC needs 9 to hit but only gets +1 in bonuses; that the PCs strikes, when they do occur, are about twice as damaging as those of the NPC in terms of typical damage inflicted; and that the die roll results are 15+3=18 for the PC and 12+1=13 for the NPC.

  • Average result for the PC (M) is 13.5, which rounds to 13 half the time and 14 the other half, which is the difference between hitting and missing.
  • Average result for the NPC (M) is 11.5, which rounds to either 11 or 12, both of which hit.
  • The mean result for the PC (A) – and yes, I know those are back to front, but it makes the Mnemonic ARMAM AMRAM work – is 1/2 x (18+13.5) = 31.5/2 = 15.75 which rounds to 16.
  • The mean result for the NPC (A) is 1/2 x (13+11.5) = 24.5/2 = 12.25, which rounds to 12.

Finally, assume that the quality of the hit (i.e. the damage done) is proportionate to the degree of success of the hit, rather than rolling separately.

  • R(pc) succeeds by 4, quite a bit, so damage will be close to maximum possible. Let’s call that 12 for argument’s sake.
  • R(npc) also succeeds by 4, so damage is also close to maximum – which is about half what the PC does at such times, so 6.
  • M(pc) succeeds about half the time, and does very close to the average damage result when it happens – 6 points.
  • M(npc) succeeds every time by 2 or 3, so better than average damage – call it 4 points alternating with 5 pts.
  • A(pc) succeeds by 2, which isn’t all that much, so just above average – call it 7 points.
  • A(npc) succeeds by 3, which is a solid amount – again, 4 alternating with 5 points.
  • A(pc) vs A(npc): The PC hits half the time, doing 7 points when he does. The NPC hits every time, doing 4 and then 5 points, alternately.
  • R(pc) vs M(npc): The PC hits very solidly, doing 12 points when he does. The NPC hits every time, doing 4 and then 5 points, alternately.
  • M(pc) vs R(npc): The PC hits half the time, doing 6 points when he does. The NPC hits solidly every time, doing 6 points.
  • M(pc) vs M(npc): The PC hits half the time, doing 6 points when he does. The NPC hits every time, doing 4 and then 5 points, alternately.

It’s when these results are used as a guideline to the effectiveness of combat tactics and other actions that things get really interesting.

  • A(pc) vs A(npc): PC actions that are reasonable and sensible will succeed; more risky or flamboyant actions will fail. NPC actions, unless they are really difficult, will succeed, often by a narrow margin, but may not be as effective as he would hope. Advantage to the PC.
  • R(pc) vs M(npc): PC actions will succeed, no matter how risky or flamboyant. Sensible NPC actions will succeed, and more risky moves will also succeed but often not by much. Advantage to the PC.
  • M(pc) vs R(npc): PC actions that are reasonable and sensible will succeed; more risky or flamboyant actions will fail. NPC actions will usually succeed, no matter how flamboyant or risky, but will not be as spectacular as the PC’s flamboyant actions previously were. Advantage to the NPC.
  • M(pc) vs M(npc): PC actions that are reasonable and sensible will succeed; more risky or flamboyant actions will fail. NPC actions will usually succeed, no matter how flamboyant or risky. Advantage to the NPC.

You can have two or three “combat rounds” of back-and-forth between PC and NPC in each phase. I usually use the attempt to do something critical or decisive as the flag-points, the culmination of each stage of the battle. Some battles will end after just one or two phases, others will end after a longer back and forth.

In the case of the example battle, the ARMAM AMRAM pattern means that the battle will swing: from

  • even, with a slight advantage to the PC, to:
  • a strong advantage to the PC, to:
  • a slight advantage to the NPC, to:
  • even, with a slight advantage to the PC, to:
  • a strong advantage to the NPC;
  • and repeat.

The PC has the edge in three of five battle stages, but most of the time, spectacular end-the-battle moves will fail, giving a tactical advantage to the NPC. The NPC is steadier, and the longer the fight goes on, risks grinding the PC down.

It took quite a lot of work, shown above, to reach that overall “shape of events” determination – but that’s because I took the time to measure out and describe each individual step. In reality, a snap assessment takes only five or ten seconds and can be done by comparing the die rolls on each side with what they need in order to succeed, and then on with the show!


The de-emphasis of game mechanics in favor of freeform roleplay means that one of the simpler differentiators between opponents also goes by the wayside. The results may be more opportunity for roleplay differentiation, but that won’t happen without conscious effort on the part of the GM.

- Variety Of Threat -

Since re-skinning doesn’t work without game mechanics to be re-skinned, the emphasis has to be placed on a genuine variety in threat forms. In the first session of the Dr Who “Legacies Of Lovecraft” campaign, the villain dismissed the Doctor as an irrelevance, no different from any other Gallifrean. This obviously did not work out well for him, and he was very quickly beaten. In the second, the villain spent half his time setting and baiting a trap for the Doctor while the rest of his efforts went into accomplishing his goal. The Doctor took the bait, was trapped, and was only able to escape through the foresight of having friends and allies working alongside him, especially the current Companion, a Tibetan monk. The trap, it should be noted, was not especially lethal – more a case of being confined indefinitely in a manufactured pseudo-dimension. In the third, the villain deliberately attacked the interfering Time Lord, with an even more insidious trap – and a backup trap beyond that, and a tertiary trap in case the first two didn’t work – and succeeded in luring the Doctor to a seemingly-inevitable destruction. It took a lot of Bill-and-Ted bootstrapping, a touch of genius, a lot of outside assistance from friends and allies, and the combination of two incarnations of the Doctor, to solve that one.

Each time, the threat posed has been different in nature, pushing the Doctor’s knowledge of temporal physics to the limits and even a little beyond – the first time, the threat was posed by the imminent success of the villains’ objectives (releasing the Lovecraftian Old Ones from their confinement, stealing their powers in process if possible); the second, “stealing” one of the Doctor’s spacial dimensions and replacing his temporal dimension with it, effectively turning the passage of time into the walls of the ‘cell’ within which he was trapped; and in the third, it was a Gallifrean Terror Weapon created, banned, and subsequently deployed during the time war (as were most of their forbidden arsenal), or an unreasonable facsimile thereof.

Next time, the encounter will take place during a Dalek invasion and attempted conquest of Earth. What that means for the Doctor remains to be seen (I’m only getting glimmers of the shape of the plotline at this point), but the threat will be a markedly different one to those encountered by the PC to date, simply because the backdrop and available tools will be radically different.

- Variable Difficulty -

Combat becomes something more akin to a puzzle-solving exercise, in which the correct combination of tactics, correctly applied, solves “the problem” posed by the opponent. Since the goal is always to involve the player in “a cracking good story” in which genuine danger lurks, it’s important to have the flexibility and nous to set a level of threat commensurate with the circumstances. If everything is going the PCs way at the time, the threat needs to be one that is very difficult to overcome; if the PC has already experienced a number of setbacks, and the circumstances are arrayed against them, the difficulty required to pose the same degree of danger is far lower.

Plot needs outweigh game-mechanical consistency, in other words, and you need to build the required flexibility of opposition challenge into your encounters that you are able to match threat with circumstance. In the first three episodes of the Dr Who campaign, the primary threat was posed by the villain, one way or another. In the next, the environment will be inherently hazardous, so the villain needs to pose less of a direct threat in order to achieve the same level of danger and tension – i.e. just enough to make it entertaining for the player. If that player scores a quick success early on in the confrontation, the danger levels from one of the two threats to be encountered – the enemies and the Dalek invaders – will need to increase in order to keep tension high and leave the ultimate outcome up in the air until the very last minute.

This is actually more easily accomplished than you might at first think, simply by having the PCs enemies be enemies of each other as well – so any weakness on the part of one foe (as a result of clever PC action) automatically increases the strength and threat posed by the other. That’s not the only way to arrange circumstances, of course – which is why I’m happy to point out the general principle. (Another consideration is that the villain has had things entirely too much his own way so far, and it’s time that he encountered a few difficulties to be overcome – while I use the Daleks to keep the PC busy).

I’ve talked about the general solution in a different context and a different way on a previous occasion, when discussing the roleplaying of Masterminds (Making a Great Villain Part 1 of 3 – The Mastermind). It’s simply this – the more effective the player is, up until the final point of the confrontation, the more effective you let the villain’s preparations be, determined retrospectively.

- Opponent Selection -

Turning to the application of these principles to the more general case, such as a fantasy game or a superhero game or whatever, it doesn’t take very much thought to determine that opponent selection is more difficult and needs to be more precise in a solo campaign because combat is all about objectives and the flavor that the opponent brings to the plot than what they are capable of in a game-mechanics sense.

For years, I’ve emphasized the importance of flavor text in even my more traditional group games. In a single-player game, everything else is stripped away, replaced with narrative and variable difficulty; only that flavor text remains. It follows that choosing the right flavor text is even more important.

In a traditional game, you can retroactively re-skin your flavor text as necessary by first varying, and then focusing on, the game mechanics that makes this example of the general Orc or Elf or whatever, different. This is a tool that is not in your kit in a solo game. This requires you to do something that you should be doing anyway – which is, assessing how the different game-mechanical abilities presented should shape the personalities and attitudes of the creatures they are applied to.

Consider the example of the Green Dragon. In traditional D&D, the Green Dragon has a noxious gas as a breath weapon, usually chlorine. In 3.x, this became an acid cloud. If you have an encounter planned with a unique Green Dragon whose breath reanimates the dead as minions under its control, how does that change of abilities alter the way that the Dragon thinks, the way he acts, the places he’s likely to choose as battlefields, etc?

While this is important every time, it’s absolutely critical to the solo player campaign, because interaction and narrative are more important and more present in game-play than the game mechanics are. Everything gets amplified – including any logic gaps or false notes in your creature creation. In a traditional game, you could probably get away with simply specifying the game mechanic and letting the difference reveal itself in play through the dynamic of the encounter. Simply changing the game mechanic might not be enough to get a gold star as a GM, but it’s enough to skate by on. In the solo game, if that’s the only way that the difference between this Dragon and any other gets displayed, it may never even be on show, and if it does appear, it can easily seem tacked on and inconsistent with the personality that has been put on display; the only solution is to spend time on the ramifications and consequences of the change. Express the difference through dialog and narrative, because those might be all you have to work with in-play.

A major implication of this phenomenon is this: solo play places a greater emphasis on the depth of understanding of the game systems by the GM, especially NPCs and Monsters, than group play ever does. The better you understand the nuances, consequences, and implications of each entry in your Monster Manual (or equivalent), the better you can GM a solo game.


In fact, danger levels in general need far greater consideration in a solo game. There are two primary reasons for this; one is a direct consequence of the differences between solo and group play, and the other is a secondary effect of the deemphasis of game mechanics.

- Solo Vs Group Play -

In a group, one PC can fall and be rescued by other PCs. In solo play, if the only PC falls, he can only be rescued by NPCs. The difference is profound.

I once raised the question, for each GM out there to answer for themselves, of whether or not their campaign was an Ensemble or a Star Vehicle. This question has no real relevance to a solo campaign, because there is only one PC – which should make them automatically the star of the show, and the campaign therefore automatically becomes a wagon hitched to that star.

It’s in battle that this difference is most keenly felt. No matter what the perceived danger levels might be, the actual danger levels can never risk taking the PC out of the game outright. Use Red Shirts as necessary to emphasize the lethality and then never permit the full force to impact the PC.

Of course, your objective has to be to keep this transparent from the player (even though he or she may be intellectually aware of what you are doing). They should still have to sweat for the answers, and never be handed victory on a silver platter. This is a very delicate balancing act, and one of the unique challenges of solo gameplay. My answer to that challenge lies in the variable difficulty levels described earlier, and the deemphasis on the mindless application of game mechanics.

- Consequence: De-emphasis of Game Mechanics -

In group game-play, if you get the lethality wrong, you can fudge die rolls as necessary to get your out of the situation. You can retroactively limit the number of charges that a particular effect has, or shorten its duration. You can adjust the encounter’s parameters to suit the situation – because no matter how thrilling a TPK might be for the GM, it’s not actually all that good for the ongoing campaign. In fact, it usually kills that campaign just as dead as the PCs, unless the GM can get very clever. Some game systems strive to accommodate this problem, for example protégées in Hackmaster.

Most of these remedial actions are glaringly obvious in their inconsistency when not hidden behind the wall of game mechanics that is traditional combat. There needs to be much greater emphasis placed on getting it right the first time, rather than handing out what appear to be “free gifts” to the PCs that make any subsequent victory seem hollow and unearned.

- Traps -

As a general principle, there should be a greater emphasis on non-lethal traps, for the same reasons. No matter how deadly a trap might appear to be, there always has to be a way out for the sole PC.

One of the changes over time has been a deemphasis on the lethality of traps, anyway. In the AD&D days of old, the following would be completely acceptable:

“There is a tunnel about a foot tall, which you can crawl along. It appears to be a ventilation shaft leading directly to the heart of the Dungeon. You can’t see the end of it; it swallows the light from your torches as a starving peasant might devour a free meal.” In fact, the tunnel is cloaked in a permanent Darkness spell. Twenty feet in, body heat from anyone crawling into the tunnel will trigger a hidden portcullis ten feet from the entrance, STR 40 to open. Note that characters on their backs can only exert 10% of their normal strength, and there isn’t room to stand up within the tunnel. Sixty Feet from the entrance, the tunnel ends in a Sphere Of Annihilation that silently disintegrates anyone who touches it. Anyone trapped within the tunnel after the sphere is discovered have the choice of starving to death or a quick end from the Sphere, there is no escape.

The most rudimentary of old-school dungeon death-traps, this feature has no purpose other than to kill one or more party members, either quickly or slowly, their choice.

In some ways, this sort of trap makes perfect sense – it’s designed to kill an intruder, not hold their hand. It’s like a 10′ pit that fills with acid over the next three rounds after someone falls in, another golden oldie. In others, it makes no sense at all – that’s easily 20,000GPs cost to create, and their are lots of cheaper ways to kill people. And what’s holding the sphere in place? Goodwill?

But setting all that aside, the trap that’s designed to kill one or more PCs assumes a whole different significance when all you have is one PC. And while you can occasionally let that PC be rescued by an NPC brought along for the purpose, it’s not exactly heroic to have it happen – not without providing some mechanism of logic by which the PC plays an active role in the rescue.

- The danger to verisimilitude

So traps, and combat encounters in general, need to look lethal, but never actually be lethal, to the PC. It’s a battle of wits between the player and the GM, and one in which the GM is secretly dealing winning hands to the PC under the table; but this should never be obvious to the player. That, in itself, is a difficult challenge for any GM.

Worse still, it carries baggage that has to be overcome in the medium- to long-term. After a while it will become harder to ignore the fact that the GM is going soft on the PC, no matter how well he hides it from day-to-day. This produces a direct challenge to the verisimilitude of the campaign, one that can undermine the credibility of anything the GM can throw at the game.

Inevitably, to counter this threat, the GM needs to gradually move toward placing the PC in genuine risk. As a result, solo games are far harder to operate as an ongoing, open-ended, campaign. They are far more suited to campaigns that have a definite end-point, a built-in terminus in which an all-or-nothing confrontation occurs.

That sort of thing rarely comes about by accident – and even more rarely works well when it is accidental. It should be built into the campaign design from day one.


Allies can be all-important. They give the GM another “voice” to use in communications with the player, filling out the world around his character. They can ask leading questions that get the player to expound his thoughts, preparing the GM to handle the decisions that will result from that thinking. They can dispute what the player is thinking when it is dangerously misleading (in terms of the campaign), by speaking to the PC who is effectively “hard-wired” to the player, or when the player’s capabilities and those of his character are mismatched, and so producing an error in logic or environmental processing that the PC should be experiencing.

They can transform the PC into a multi-sensory organ, able to see and hear many different things in many different places at the same time.

They bring areas of expertise and skills and perspectives to the player that his PC alone cannot supply. That makes it easier for the player to make sense of the game world and the events that surround the PC, enabling a correct and reasonable interaction with that game world.

This is useful in a multiplayer game, but it’s essential in a single-player campaign. That is because one of the key mechanisms available to a PC in a multiplayer game is the interaction with other players, each of whom has a different impression and a different understanding of events; no one needs to be completely right because a gestalt world view evolves through intra-party conversation about the situation and the environment, filling in gaps and making corrections to misinterpretations.

When there’s only one player, there is no such conversation, and it’s up to the GM to plug that gap.

In combat, they act as meat barriers and chess pieces that can be manipulated by the player to effectively enable his character to be in many places at once.

They are “Clayton’s PCs” – the PCs that you have when you don’t have a PC.

All of which is very good news. But that’s not the end of the story…

- Limits to Allies -

Of course, the more useful an NPC is, the greater the danger that he – and through him, the GM – will commit the cardinal sin of overshadowing the PC. In a multiplayer environment, this risk is minimized because there are multiple PCs to carry the load; in a single-player campaign, there is that much more focus on the NPCs.

The bottom line is that you can’t completely make up for the absence of PCs with NPCs; you have to find ways of enabling the PC to do more. The hardest time to do that is in combat, another reason why it’s so important to get the opposition strength and numbers exactly right.

- The Importance of Motivation, or Characterization to the Rescue -

NPC allies can sometimes get away with breaking these guidelines if it’s as a consequence of their personalities. Their motivations in acting can excuse a momentary overshadowing of the PC; after all, the player is only too aware that they are on their own and that their PC needs all the help he can get!

Here are a few specifications for an ally that can serve as the GM’s secret weapon in making the game playable for a lone PC:

  • The ally needs to be dependent on the PC in some way;
  • The ally needs to be treated as an extension of the PC. Actions need to be what another PC would do if it were a dependent of the PC;
  • The ally needs to be differentiated from the PC in some way;
  • The ally needs a strong characterization that can shine through with minimal attention from the GM;
  • The ally needs a complex characterization that can sustain interaction with the PC;
- Reconciling the Irreconcilable Difference -

It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that some of the above advice is contradictory at best, especially the last two points. The solution is to embrace the irreconcilable difference. Give the NPC ally two contradictory attributes, one of which reflects the contribution that the ally is expected to make to the PC’s endeavors. A man of peace who is a skilled fighter. A scientist who is fascinated by horoscopes and superstition. A soldier who suffers from attacks of nerves. By making the contradiction the central focus of the personality, you deliver a complex personality with minimal effort in play.

Battlemaps & Minis

There’s very little about gaming that isn’t affected by the solo-player vs group-game transformation, and the utility of Maps and Miniatures is just another in a very long list.

The primary purpose these serve is not that of providing eye candy; they serve to provide a representation of the battle scene that enables everyone to be on the same page as to what is happening, with less capacity for the confusion that can result from multiple interpretations of even a relatively straightforward narrative, and that can quite literally cut thousands of words of such narrative back to the features of interest.

In a non-miniatures game, you need to describe the interesting and important, and you need to furnish dimensions, and you need to “dress” the environment enough that the players can conjure up an imaginary reality, visualize the situation and plan their tactics. More than half this workload gets cut directly when you employ miniatures; dimensions become reasonably obvious right away, eliminating a huge amount of boring technicality. You no longer need to “dress” the environment to the same extent, providing just enough targeted narrative to bridge the gap from representation to imagined environment, which not only reduces the required verbiage but permits greater “bang for your buck” on the narrative that you do need to provide.

Against these benefits you have to set the set-up time required, which can be anything from a few seconds (one tile laid down and the participants positioned on it) to half an hour for a complex set-up covering a large area. Because of the potential reduction in player confusion and error, making the choice is not as simple as comparing the time required for set-up with the time saved in writing and delivering verbiage.

My personal impression is that for one player, the equilibrium point is slightly more than 1:1. Call it set-up time vs 1.1 x narrative savings.. In other words, if set-up time is anything below 110% of the estimated narrative savings, you’re justified in using miniatures. With each additional player, you can add a fraction to the ratio: 1.1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 + 1/5 + 1/6, and so on. This gives ratios of 1.6, 1.93, 2.18, 2.38, 2.55, 2.69, and 2.82, for 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 players respectively. I use these diminishing fractions because each time, the gains that can be expected overlap more and more with those already factored in.

But, in the solo-player campaign, you also have to factor in the deemphasis on combat, and subsequent devaluation of miniature representations, and the reality that one player is having to process the entire situation – both “x-factors” that apply to different sides of the equation, respectively. The old standards simply don’t apply as neatly as before.

I have identified four impacts on the value for further consideration.

- Battlemaps & Minis: Can be more useful -

I mentioned this item in the previous paragraph. One player is having to process the entire combat situation; in a group-player game, this workload is shared to some extent. This is so significant that my first inclination would be to equate each NPC as a “virtual” player at the table. Depreciating this inclination is the relative singularity of purpose that comes from having only one ringmaster on the PC-and-allies side of the table, with the GM taking most of the workload of running the allies, Maybe every 2 Allies are the equivalent of an additional PC in the value equation, maybe that underrates the workload and it should be 1.5 allies to a PC; the exact numbers don’t matter, but the principle that the number of allies involved increases the value of using battlemaps and miniatures is what needs to be taken from this consideration.

- Battlemaps & Minis: Can be more confusing -

This is the other side of the same coin. There’s now only one player trying to keep track of who everyone is on the Battlemap, instead of one player to each figure plus the enemy. However, it would be very dangerous to assume that this simply cancels out the first effect; for one thing, this is NOT depreciated by the GM handling the workload, if anything, it could be exacerbated; the constant handling of each miniature would provide a mnemonic foundation by which the player has a better chance of identifying each ally. It follows that if the GM is to control the allies, as would normally be the case, the principle is that the number of allies involved reduces the value of using battlemaps and miniatures to an unknown degree. However, if the GM is able to cede partial control of the allies to the player, this factor is diminished and so battlemaps and miniatures are more likely to be useful in any given encounter.

- Battlemaps & Minis: Can be more work -

At least, they can be proportionately more work relative to their value to the game. In a group game, a single player takes charge of each PC. With four PCs, players can be responsible for as much as 80% of the movement of figures, depending on how many enemy figures there are to be controlled – four PCs and one enemy. In a single player game, the equivalent is one PC and three allies plus one enemy – and instead of players doing 80% of the work, it’s the GM. That means that the workload has effectively quadrupled.

Again, if some of this workload can be offloaded onto the shoulders of the player, this can be offset somewhat, but it’s worth remembering that the player already has as big a workload, or more, as they would normally have; there’s no-one helping him keep track of the battle, the objectives, the bigger picture, who’s who, who’s vulnerable, who’s low on hit points… At best, this is only a partial cure for the problem.

It’s worth noting that this 4x factor is easily bigger than even the 8-PC factor identified earlier. That’s how significant it is.

- Battlemaps & Minis: Can be a distraction -

And the downsides don’t stop there. Because the one player is trying to do everything, as explained in the above discussion, even the task of keeping track of who’s who can be a huge distraction from the bigger picture elements of the encounter – things like why it’s happening and what the objective is and why, and what his character’s personality is, and so on.

Offloading any part of the workload of running the battle onto the player only makes this worse, potentially negating any advantage gained by doing so, and ensuring that every battlemap encounter is automatically a worst-case situation in terms of game management, or close to it.

- The basis of judgment: when to use Battlemaps & Minis -

As a result of all these considerations, the rule of thumb has to be that the use of Battlemaps and Minis is usually more trouble than they are worth, and that other approaches are more likely to yield useful gameplay. Find a photo that’s close enough to the scene. Lay out battlemap tiles to explain the scene to the player, but don’t use miniatures. Draw a 90-second sketch or diagram on a whiteboard. Give the player the actual map.

Of course, set-up narrative isn’t the only thing that can get abbreviated or simplified by the use of Battlemaps and Minis; descriptions of actions and subsequent situations are also eased. In a group-player situation, this is relatively negligible as a contribution, compared to everything else; in a single-player situation it becomes the decisive difference in answering the question of whether or not to employ these game aids at all.

Is the degree of confusion that is likely to result from not using miniatures anywhere close to the potential confusion that is likely to result from using them? That is the question that I always ask myself, and if the answer is ‘yes’ then miniatures are the better choice; if not, then use one of the alternatives listed above, and narrative.

In three adventures within the Dr Who campaign, containing a total of ten encounters, I have used miniatures and battlemaps exactly once. That was an encounter with three allies, the current companion, and the PC, against three waves of enemies, one of which was disguised as the objective of the battle, and which took place on multiple levels at the top of the Eiffel Tower, with several significant sub-locations within the overall encounter. I judged that the relative levels of confusion were less using the miniatures than trying to keep who was where straight through narrative alone. It worked, but there were still a few moments of confusion along the way, and enough to convince me that this standard was the right one to employ.

It’s also worth noting that in previous solo campaigns, miniatures were also only used on rare occasions, and I ran two entire solo campaigns with none whatsoever.

Characterization Focus

With an increase in roleplaying vs game mechanics and combat capabilities comes the need for a greater focus on the characterizations involved. This requirement on the part of the PC is the responsibility of the player, who should be warned of the need if necessary – use your own judgment on this point; but the responsibility for everyone else in the universe falls on the shoulders of the GM, and that’s the subject of this section.

In Play

The easiest way to derive functional requirements is to work backwards from expected use. It might seem like putting the cart before the horse, but it saves a lot of time backtracking from the flaws in a theoretical basis. I’ve identified three key elements of the performance “window” that character design has to achieve, and a fourth that bridges the gap between performance and design, but there are many others of lesser importance that will get mentioned along the way.

One of the major items that doesn’t rate “official” attention but deserves some mention is Game System. In a nutshell, this should not get in the way; the best system for solo game play is one that has been simplified and streamlined, and then streamlined and simplified again. With just one player, the GM can focus his attention on that one PC, requiring fewer support mechanics and formalized processes to deal with interactions between others, and emphasizing a more dynamic seat-of-the-pants approach. If you view the NPC “allies” as part of the game environment, the GM already has far more input and control over the game in a solo campaign; the last thing you need is to be hamstrung by intrusive mechanics.

- Less stimulus, more inventivity -

A normal game has a number of players interacting with any given NPC at a time, creating a variety of stimulus to which the NPC can respond in many different ways. With the other side of the table reduced to a single voice, there’s far less variation in discussion. Where you might have had one player asking a question on one topic, and another looking at a different (but related) issue entirely, you now have only the one conversation. If NPCs are to present themselves as rounded individuals, the GM needs to get more creative and adept at presenting nuance designed to hint at the depths of the characterization. It’s also much easier for the one PC to get sidetracked, so the NPC will need to steer the conversation without making it obvious that they are steering the conversation. This also places greater demands on the GM’s ability to roleplay, and the more of that workload that he can manage through inventivity in characterization and larger-than-life expressive personality, the easier the game will be from his side of the table. Finally, the fact that the GM has (usually) only one voice to offer for all the NPCs makes it easier for NPCs to be more one-note and less distinctive; this needs to be countered with deliberate efforts on the GM’s part. Spur-of-the-moment is the weakest and least effective approach to solving these problems; advance planning is by far a better solution.

- Fewer opportunities for variety in relationships -

NPC A talks to the PC. Then NPC B talks to the PC. Then NPC A talks to the PC again. Do you see the problem? No matter what the relationship is, on paper, it all comes across as GM talks to the PC.

Actually, the description of this problem offered in the heading is a bit of a misnomer. There is, in fact, more opportunity for variety in relationships because there is no need to compromise with the relationships to any other PC. For example, if you have four PCs, each of whom has an NPC with whom they have some sort of relationship, the relationships of those NPCs with PC#5 are likely to all fall into the category of “friend of a friend”, because the relationship between the NPCs and PC#5 are all secondary to the primary relevance of the NPC to the campaign. When there is only one PC, every relationship with that PC is the most important one within the campaign, by definition.

The problem actually is that there are fewer opportunities for variety of display of relationships.

The look-and-feel of the interactions that result from the relationship is therefore more important, as a distinguishing element of each NPC, than the substance of the relationship itself. It follows that choosing the relationships and their foundations such that they permit a more distinct mode of expression is one of the most important aspects of character creation. And that goes for incidental NPCs and enemies at least as much as it does for allies.

No matter how deep the characterization might be, all personalities in the single-player game will either be ‘flat’ or ‘over the top’ – unless you take deliberate steps in the NPC design process to create a platform for some middle ground.

The two most important NPC personalities in the Dr Who campaign are the enemy, who changes bodies with almost every encounter, and the Doctor’s Companion, who acts as foil, sounding board, occasional inspiration, and occasional muscle or warm body to be positioned on the metaphoric game board as surrogate for the PC.

The villain started by possessing the body of a Tibetan Monk from the 1840s, and it’s real name has never been revealed. It’s even possible that it doesn’t think in those terms. As a result, even though that body burned out long ago and was replaced with another of completely different race, he is still known by the name of that original host: Inchen. I have always portrayed this character as arrogant, condescending, and irritated by the Doctor. It views the PC as a lower life form, no matter how much respect it might develop for the PC’s interference and capabilities. Any defeats or setbacks are always it’s own fault, and not due to unsuspected capability on the part of the PC. This, of course, is completely the opposite of the persona of most arrogant villains, who blame anyone and everyone except themselves, and this dichotomy puts an edge on any words the protagonist and antagonist exchange. He is also at least as technologically adept, if not superior, to the PC. Remember my earlier advice about embracing the irreconcilable difference?

The Companion is also a Tibetan Monk, named Jangshen, from the 1840s. An older man with a calm and placid air, inclined to be philosophical, and to apply his philosophy in strange ways to strange situations (such as understanding how technology works), which often leads to incorrect choices on the mundane level – that are unusually frequently correct on a higher level, or in a broader context. He’s a big-picture thinker, who keeps the world at arm’s length – but at the same time, he has a soft and generous heart, is generally sympathetic and helpful towards the troubles of others, and is quite skilled at martial arts when necessary. Because he doesn’t understand a lot of it, he is not so distracted by the day-to-day world. His manner of expression is extremely humble and self-effacing. He doesn’t find answers or devise solutions; the universe “leads him to an understanding of [insert distant metaphor for the situation here]”. “The movement of leaves in the wind”, for example, or “the ripples of the pond”, or “the awareness of clouds”. He has a very poetic turn of phrase at times, but one that always turns out to be relevant if examined closely enough. Finally, thought and action are one with him; understanding a situation demands that he take the place within that situation that the universe has prepared for him. This can make him a little unpredictable and occasionally prone to seemingly-impulsive action. Again, this character definitely embraces the irreconcilable difference!

- Melodramatic Collapse and the Descent into Soap Opera -

There’s a natural trend toward overacting and a collapse of roleplaying into melodrama as a result of efforts to avoid the “flat” portrayal of characters, as suggested above. This is bad enough in and of itself, but it can trigger the campaign’s descent into Soap Opera.

There are two possible solutions: a genre that naturally lends itself to Melodrama and Soap Opera – Superhero games, for example, or Space Opera – or otherwise embracing the trend and making it an asset to the campaign; or finding ways to avoid this danger. And, since the proximate trigger is the characterization of the NPCs and their relationships with the sole PC, the best way to avoid the danger is to design a leavening agent into the primary NPCs from the very beginning.

The combination of arrogance and self-blame for setbacks on the part of the villain leads any “arch-villain” pronouncements to sound out-of-character. There is an almost British understatement to his versions of these – “Goodbye, meddling Gallifrean” (or perhaps it was “Farewell, meddling Time Lord”) are about the most extreme offerings that he has made thus far. And the self-effacement and tendency to speak in philosophic sound-bites (that are nevertheless relevant) keeps the Companion at arm’s-length from Melodrama – most of the time.

Three significant “guest” characters appeared in the last adventure (amongst others): Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, a leader who did not understand what was going on, and so had to be defensive and tentative except where the PC provided an opportunity for direct action towards a solution; River Song, who understood completely what was going on, and what the PC would want to do about it, and what he would need to enable that to happen (unless it was a mistaken choice of action), but who couldn’t reveal what she knew because it would damage time – so she could only act in seemingly-inexplicable ways that turned out to lay groundwork for the problem after next, giving the PC the chance to solve the problem; and the third incarnation of the Doctor, who saw the world very differently to the PC and responded accordingly, in particular being far more inclined to dive in and solve problems as they arose, and had the confidence, brashness, and yes, arrogance of youth – that he could solve any problem he encountered. This made him almost the complete opposite of the PC, despite the number of traits that they had in common – making it all the more ironic that a number of characters were able to remark, “he hasn’t changed at all, has he?” in the course of the adventure.

Again, each of these characters has something that is holding them back (or pushing them forward with inadequate preparation), and that avoids the descent into Soap Opera.

- Character Fuzziness -

Finally, given that the GM’s workload is going to be considerably higher in a one-player campaign, there is far less tolerance for fuzziness in personality than is usually the case. In a group game, the NPCs are expected to react to several players, and a little softness in the definition is only to be expected. With a single player game, not only does the GM need to work harder to distinguish each of the characters because he no longer has their responses to the other PCs to embellish them, but he has to be able to switch from one NPC to another with facility – both argue in favor of cleaner, more sharply delineated, characterizations.

This is an important requirement because so many other elements of the situation mandate a broader, more general, more “fuzzy” approach. You need to be able to comprehend the main personality points with little more than a glance, and that usually means painting with a broad brush.

At first glance, these objectives appear to be mutually exclusive. It’s very difficult to be both precise and far-reaching in your descriptive character attributes at the same time, and even harder to do so without resorting to cliché and the other enemies of genuine characterization.

Compatibility can be achieved, however, by considering the defined characteristics that summarize the personality for quick consumption as exemplars, the mole-hill sized tips of very large mountains, and further, by describing those definitions as much as possible with single words. For the Companion, I need only three words and a short phrase: “Humble, Philosophic, Abstract, Thought leads immediately to deed.” That lot I can take in with little more than a glance, and so long as I’m aware that this is not all that there is to the character, and have some notion of what’s been left out – adeptness at martial arts, for example – this is enough for me to roleplay the character. Ultimately – and very quickly – these become just the keywords used to index the personality in my mind, ensuring that the character has depth and can step beyond these boundaries as circumstances dictate.

Characterization Requirements

The section above, on character fuzziness, bridges the divide between in-play requirements defining character construction requirements and delivering solutions to those functional requirements, simply because I thought it might be confusing to have a section on “Character Fuzziness” followed by one on “Characterization Precision”, or some such combination. That required putting the solution in the same section as the problem, and so neatly brings me to the other requirements of a suitable characterization for use in a solo game, and how to satisfy them.

- A British approach -

There’s a fundamental difference between the British approach to characterization in media (TV and movies, especially) and the American approach. The latter is (generally) brash, direct, and straightforward; the latter is more restrained, more understated. Placed in its correct context, the American portrayal of a typical Texan works fine; the same performance, in a British show or movie, seems exaggerated to the point of being comic-book, using that term in it’s most pejorative sense.

The more over-the-top the role, the more it needs to be tempered with restraint. The question was raised on an episode of Top Gear (the BBC version) when Tom Hiddleston was the guest, “Why do British actors make such popular villains in American movies?” – something that’s been a noticeable trend (for me) ever since Alan Rickman’s performance in Die Hard – where he played a German, ironically – and, before that in the contrast between Jean Luc Picard (played by the very English Patrick Stewart) and his recurring adversary Q, played by the American John deLancie. deLancie has stated a couple of times in interviews that his secret to the role was to always be the opposite of Picard – if Picard was meditative or calm, Q was flamboyant and excited, if Picard was up, Q was down, if Picard was still, Q was bouncing around the set, and so on.

The British approach is understated, and in that fact, I think the answer to the question may be found – understatement is more, or even “less is more”. More powerful, more authoritative, more menacing, more grim, more serious, more dangerous. A single raised eyebrow can be just as effective as a shouted “Are you kidding me?” or “You’re not serious!” Underplaying the supporting cast and the antagonist gives room enough for the most flamboyant performances from your player, enabling him to “fill the room” with his PC when he wants to – and saving the GM a lot of effort in the meantime.

But it doesn’t come automatically. It takes practice on the part of the GM, sensitization on the part of the player, and intelligent character design on the part of the GM.

The Companion character in the Dr Who campaign is a naturally reserved personality, so I will seize any opportunity to have him behave a little flamboyantly – practicing his martial arts discipline in the control room, etc – but the more important what he is saying in a conversation might be, the more understated and humble I will make the delivery. The contrast accentuates the unique points of the character.

The Antagonist, on the other hand, is naturally flamboyant and arrogant, so I will both underplay his spoken performances and his behavior in encounters. His sole action “on screen” in the last adventure was to push a button, release another, and deliver three words of dialogue. Yet, his presence and past actions threw a shadow over everything else that occurred in the adventure. “He doesn’t need to advertise – he’s the real deal” is the unstated subtext.

In a standard game, this approach can lead to characters being drowned out by an overabundance of exuberance by PCs, so it needs to be used with care. In a single-player game, intensity is more important than volume.

- A unique manifestation of relationship -

Every NPC will have, or will develop, a relationship with the lone PC. In a group game, it’s enough that this relationship be unique with respect to one individual PC; in a solo campaign, uniqueness is not enough, there needs to be some unique mode of expression of the relationship. Because several different relationships can have the same mode of expression, this more tightly confines the personalities and roles of the NPCs with whom the PC is surrounded at any given time. If you want to bring in a new character with the same manifestation of relationship as an existing NPC, the latter needs to be shuffled off to the sidelines somehow.

It follows that in character creation, you have to be actively thinking about how you are going to play the character, and changing the design or dominant concerns of that character in order to achieve a unique mode of expression – or noting that X and Y should never appear together.

This was not something that I had fully appreciated until part-way through the second adventure of the Dr Who campaign, when I discovered that one of the guest characters – quiet, confident – had the same manifestation of personality as the Companion. I had to compensate quickly by accentuating secondary aspects of the guest character – a schoolgirl giddiness and excitability – simply to enable the two to contrast in their few scenes together.

- Simpler characters given depth -

If you accept the premise that abbreviated personality descriptions can be employed as guidelines and signposts without completely specifying the personality in question, as suggested earlier, then it becomes clear that your character designs for secondary roles can start off as simple constructs who will evolve additional depth as interaction with the campaign continues. That means that the characters you design can actually be a lot simpler than those you would normally create for a multiplayer game. Take advantage of this to give you the design and prep time you need to focus on more important things.

- The power of contradiction -

This is a lesson that I’ve repeated and echoed a number of times in this article, and it bears one more repetition. Build a contradiction into your characterization from the point of creation, then utilize the inherent contradiction to give your characters depth beyond the superficial.

The more important the character is, the more important it is that this technique be employed.

Don’t neglect the possibility that this behavior is not the usual mode of operation of the NPC in question, but is the one that manifests as a result of the situation in which they find themselves. Where this is the case, any opportunity to revert to more “normal” behavior will be seized by the character, adding a third layer of depth to the role. Making the creation of those opportunities dependent on the PC keeps them at the forefront of the action, even if their role in the action is much quieter and restrained than the role adopted as a consequence. The PC might be a scientist, or a scholar, and the NPC a man of action who nevertheless cannot act until released and pointed at a particular problem by the PC – which effectively makes the NPC a weapon under the PC’s control.

- Beware stereotypes and one-note characters

This is always good advice, but it’s even more important when relying on simplified characters, as has been recommended above. If any word or phrase in your shorthand summation of a character is in any way stock or clichéd or suggestive of stereotype, cross it out. If any word is the exact opposite of the stereotype, cross that out too – because that’s going to be almost as clichéd.

A good scientist might read, “Passionate, Artistic, Myopic” – because none of those are things that you would normally associate with a scientists’ role. “Myopic” is right on the borderline, but is tolerable. “Studious” or “Scholarly” or anything of that sort should be rejected out of hand – save those for a soldier, or a garbageman, or a slumlord.

As you can see, we’ve started edging into the territory of Roleplay in one-player games. That, and general campaign and adventure design principles, are the featured subjects in part two of this series…

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Random Encounter Tables – my old-school way


I spent ages enhancing the eyes of this giraffe to suggest heightened intelligence, only for most of the effect to be lost when it was reduced to publishable size… Oh well. At least there’s still a hint of it there.

This was originally intended to be part of my recent article, Pieces Of Everyday Randomness, but it quickly grew to dominate everything else in that article. So I’ve extracted, edited, and enhanced it into this stand-alone piece.

Some people are really opposed to the concept of Random Encounter Tables, aka Wilderness encounters, aka Wandering Monster encounters, simply because they don’t advance the plot of whatever adventure they are running, and because they can be difficult to compile.

I think this is unfair; games lose an element of verisimilitude without their inclusion, and that loss weakens those plots and their credibility. I’ll solve the “plot problem” by the end of this article, so that’s not a good enough reason not to do them, either.

Creating a Region-specific encounter table

This was something that I did frequently in my early days of AD&D, and would still do if I had the time. I don’t, but don’t let that stop you. I did my working on a draft table, longhand, and on scratch paper. Here are the steps that I follow (there are a lot of them, but they are simple and quick, at least for the most part):

  1. The first step is to realize that you actually need three tables, not one. Day, Night, and Dawn/Twilight.
  2. Take one of these as the default. I usually take Day or Night, and which one depends on which is likely to have the greatest number of “active” entries.
  3. List all the creatures that you want to have entries on the table as having a significant chance of being encountered in the default list, preferably in alphabetical order, and label them E01 to E-whatever. This table is called the RAW TABLE, and all work that follows is to this table or on scratch paper until further notice. I should point at this stage to a series I did from March-April 2013, Creating ecology-based random encounters, which is dedicated to the subject of choosing those entries on an ecological basis.
  4. Add any creatures that are to have significant entries in the other time frames but not in the default time frame. You end up with three alphabetic lists – one long, and two short.
  5. Categorize each of the entries into Frequent, Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Very Rare. This information is usually provided as part of the creature’s write-up, but you have to customize it for time of day, nocturnal vs diurnal, the environment and region that the table is to apply to, and so on. The latter two items go into the heading for the table and on every page of notes so that I don’t get one table confused with another.
  6. The assumption is that each of these categories is twice as likely to be encountered as the one before it, as a broad rule of thumb. But we need room to manipulate the results, so I start with 4% each for the very rares. So the second column gets 64%, 32%, 16%, 8%, or 4%, respectively, as a starting point. I don’t care what these add up to, especially not that they will almost certainly add up to more than 100% – not at this point.
  7. Each of these table entries then gets considered for their usual activities. I want to know how likely they are to be out and about, and how likely they are to be in their lair, home base, or equivalent. For the 64s and the 32s, I will also look at the most common activities and usually subdivide these encounters into different groups – “Orc Village”, “Orc Hunting Party”, “Orc Religious Activity”, “Orc Laborers”, “Orc Domestic activity”, “Orc Battle Training”, “Orc Romantic”, and “Orc – Unusual”, for example. The general rule of thumb is to try and get each entry down to 10% or less – so a 64% is likely to require 6-7 subdivisions or variations on the activity, a 32% gets divided into 3, and so on. I might even further subdivide these – “Orc hunting party 2 Orcs”, “3-6 Orcs”, “7-12 Orcs”.
  8. Look at each of the other entries – the creatures who aren’t likely to be encountered in the default time frame. What are they doing when they aren’t active? If they are in lairs, add an entry for those creatures with the subtype Lair to the night table. Again, think about how likely it is that these will be encountered under the circumstances; they are almost certainly going to be Uncommon, Rare, Or Very Rare, but sometimes there can be surprises.
  9. I add a “Stealth Modifier” to each of the encounters. This can be positive if the activity or creature is big and noticeable, or negative if it is subtle, quiet, camouflaged, disguised, or naturally stealthy in nature. I will take into account things that the PCs are likely to be on the lookout for, i.e. encounters that are likely to be hostile in nature. I’ll list the modifiers in one column and an updated total in the next.
  10. If I started with 45 entries on my table, I have a great deal more by this point. The next step is to tweak the encounter probabilities – do I feel that encounter E11 is too likely, relative to those around it, or encounter E32 is too unlikely? If an encounter is too likely, I add 5 to all the encounters above it on the table, if too unlikely I add 5 to it and subtract 1 from all the encounters above it, working through the table from encounter 1 all the way to encounter X. If any encounter gets to 0, I add 1 to all the other encounters on the table instead of subtracting 1 from the encounter in question.
  11. Same thing, but this time the adjustment is 4 instead of 5, and I work up from encounter X until I get to encounter 1.
  12. Same as step 10, but this time the adjustment is 3 instead of 5.
  13. Same as step 11, with an adjustment of 2 instead of 5.
  14. Same as step 10, with an adjustment of 1 instead of 5. That means that there is a potential adjustment on any given encounter of up to 15% increase or 5% decrease.
  15. Find the lowest value on the table. If that’s a 1, move on to the next step; if not, subtract enough from every entry on the table to bring it down to 1%.
  16. Add up all the percentages. The result is likely to be something absurd like 743%. Record this total. That completes work on the RAW TABLE – for now.
  17. On a fresh page, and leaving 1 blank line for every 100% or part thereof, list all the encounter entries for this time period in order of (adjusted) likelihood, high to low. This is called the WORKING TABLE and will be the focus of attention for some time to come.
  18. Starting with the lowest-likelihood items, I do a reverse tally until I get to a score of 100%. The entries so tagged go in the “most unlikely” encounter table. I then add a line to the top, “Most unlikely 100%”. As they get transferred into the final version of this table, they get crossed out on the working table.
  19. Divide all the results by 2, rounding up. This includes the entry just added.
  20. Look at the lowest remaining entry chance, which is probably something bigger than 1%. Subtract enough from it, and all the other remaining entries on the working table, to reduce it to 1%.
  21. This is quite likely to throw your relative values a little out of whack. So I repeat step 12…
  22. …then step 13…
  23. …and then step 14, for an additional +6% to -3% adjustment.
  24. Starting with the last remaining entry on the working table, go up the table, ensuring that each entry has the same % chance or more as the one you are currently looking at, i.e. that you don’t go 5,5,7,6,7,8… or anything like that. When you find an entry whose chances are less than the one below it on the table, add enough to it and every entry above it that relative order is maintained.
  25. Starting with the last remaining entry on the working table, add up the results until you get to 100%. These all go into the “Next most unlikely encounters table”. Again, transfer those entries into that table in the same way as was done in step 18 and cross them out, then add a “2nd most unlikely encounters” table with a value of 100%.
  26. Divide all the remaining results on the working table by 2, rounding up.
  27. Look at the lowest remaining entry chance, which is almost certainly something bigger than 1%. Subtract enough from it, and all the other remaining entries on the working table, to reduce it to 1%.
  28. Again, check your relative values by repeating steps 13…
  29. …and 14, for an additional +3% to -2% adjustment.
  30. Repeat step 24 for the remaining entries.
  31. Repeat steps 25 through 30, compiling a “third most unlikely”, then a fourth, and so on, until you reach the point where the remaining table entries total less than 100% after the division by 2. While there may be a few encounter entries remaining, most will have been spun off into subtables of successively lower encounter likelihood.
  32. Divide 100 by the total of the remaining entries. Multiply all the remaining entries by the result, rounded off.
  33. Generate a fresh total of the remaining entries. It’s likely to be a little over or under 100. Making most of your adjustments to the biggest entries (where they will have the lowest relative impact), tweak the values until you get to exactly 100%.
  34. Using these % values, create a Master Table for the time period.
  35. Go back to the RAW TABLE. Using the numbers and adjustments already there as a guideline, do the other major time period – so if you’ve done Night, now do Day. In effect, this takes you all the way back to step 5. Bear in mind that creature behavior is likely to be quite different – some of the entries from the preceding table might have 0% chance, and you may need fresh variations added to the table: “Orc hinting party 7-12, 2 guards, rest sleeping”. Generate a new Working Table, extract out a “least likely” encounter table, and so on, until you reach this step once again. Then move on to step 36.
  36. There are six hours of the day that are “in between” these two distinct time periods, and encounters are a bit of a muddled mix of both. I usually consider the two hours prior to sunset and the hour after, and the hour before dawn and two hours subsequent, to fall into this “Dawn/Twilight” Mix. Others use half this amount. Either way, the process is the same: Start by totaling the day and night values on the RAW TABLE to get a composite value.
  37. Halve each result, rounding up.
  38. Note that some encounters at this time will link to subsequent encounter probabilities – for example, a hunting party encountered at dawn is likely to be just setting off, and so indicates a possible village nearby. Adjust probabilities accordingly, and create new variations where necessary, extending the RAW TABLE.
  39. Some encounters may be more likely at dawn/twilight than at any other time of day. Adjust existing chances and add new ones as necessary.
  40. Perform Step 9 for any new entries on the table.
  41. Repeat Steps 10 to 34 to compile your Dawn/Twilight Encounter tables.

When to create a region-specific encounter table

This is quite a lengthy process when spelled out, step by step, but it doesn’t take all that long to actually do. Nevertheless, a lot of the time I simply won’t bother – or I’ll generate a more generic table instead of one that’s been customized to a particular region.

There are two considerations that I take into account when assessing whether or not a custom table is going to be useful. The first is how long the PCs are likely to be in this region – if it’s only a day or two, it’s not worth the effort; if it’s a week, it’s definitely worth the effort. The second is how frequently they are likely to return – a day or two now might not be worthwhile in and of itself, but if they have to spend that day or two every time they step outside their base of operations to go somewhere, that makes the effort worth the investment.

Sometimes, I will take a more geopolitical approach. I might do a single encounter table for a major trade route with a generic entry for “non-road encounters”. The same encounter table thus covers the entire length of the trade route, no matter where the PCs happen to be along its’ length, but it contains a pointer to a separate table for encounters deriving from the surrounding terrain, climate, and region. I’ll often use the same approach for major rivers.

Why to make your own

There are generic tables available. AD&D 2nd Ed had some quite good ones in their Monster Manual, and I still refer to these from time to time when I’m in a hurry.

But no-one else runs campaigns in my game world, with its unique creatures and variations, like “Black Trolls”. No-one else has the combination of monster sourcebooks that I do. There are regions of Fumanor where it is not impossible to encounter a 12′ tall satyr-leprechaun hybrid who wants to commit “suicide by PC”, and assumes that they won’t do so voluntarily, or a spider who’s half rattlesnake and has a necrotizing gaze. It’s not very likely mind you, but it’s possible.

No-one else GMs in my garden, so no-one else’s encounter tables will be exactly right for my game. Therefore, I need to grow my own.

Modernizing the technique

These days, I would use a table in an appropriate electronic document to do most of this work. That would let me copy and paste columns that need totaling into a spreadsheet to do the math quickly, it would let me easily color code variations, and so on. Most importantly, it would enable me to sort by whatever column I wanted to use as an index, and copy and paste to create the subtables, taking a lot of the manual labor out of the job.

Random Encounters as part of the plot

There was a time when I didn’t think I had to worry about this too much. Then a player started running a Druid and asking the wildlife what they knew about the places and circumstances that they were embroiled in. And an elf started talking to the trees, once it was established that they had a level of sentience sufficient for communications, at least at an elementary level. And suddenly, every encounter became part of a bigger picture.

These days, I retain an index listing the answers to one of five questions by random encounter number:

  • What can this encounter do to advance the current plotline(s)?
  • If he can’t advance it, what will this encounter do to complicate the current plotline(s)?
  • If he won’t complicate it, what does this encounter know (NB may be incorrect- or mis-information) about the current plotlines?
  • If he has no involvement in the current plotline, are there any plot hooks, clues, or teasers relating to future plotlines that he can throw out?
  • If none of the above, what are three pieces of idle (possibly incorrect) gossip that the encounter can relate? Includes what the encounter has been up to lately.

By making these part of the encounter, it stops being plot-irrelevant and becomes a tool for plot- and player- manipulation. What’s more, if the players start heading down a path I don’t want them to follow, or simply don’t see how the clues are supposed to fit together, I can select an appropriate random encounter to use as a conduit to getting information, or misinformation, into the PCs hands.

Finally, by keeping these in a separate list, indexed by “item number”, and keeping separate tables for correlating item number with encounter numbers, I can replace or alter one without changing the other. I can keep “old information” on tap. I can have multiple vectors for the same bit of news or information.

In fact, I can use random encounters as the glue that holds a campaign together, binding adventures into a coherent, cohesive, whole. When they can do all that, why on earth would you ignore them?

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3-D Battlemaps for the financially challenged – Updated & Enhanced

A very unusual article, this one. More than half of the article is contained within a set of images that I’ve put together in dribs and drabs over the last week or so.

The idea for what you’re about to “read” came to me when I opened a box of tissues – a box measuring roughly 4.5″ x 3.4″ x 8.5″…


The diagram below should tell you everything you need to know. In fact, my original intention was to post nothing but this image, which is why it contains the details it does…

3d battlemaps 1

All clear so far? If so, bear with me while I spell things out for those who aren’t dioramically-inclined.

I’ve tried cutting boxes in half before, and even with glue reinforcing, they never seemed to quite work; the corners were too prone to collapse. This design solves that problem by deliberately keeping the corners intact. That means that you no longer get two “structures” out of each box, but better to have one worthwhile result than two useless ones.

The key to this approach is what you don’t cut away, and especially the “lip” that is left at the top.:

3d battlemaps cuts2

Once you have the excess material removed, glue any pieces of cardboard that have come adrift back together (there shouldn’t be any, but I don’t know what sort of box you’ll use – I deliberately left the instructions open on that point).


So, what’s the point?

Well, here are three configuration examples for you to chew on.

3d battlemaps 2a

Configuration one is the basic one, using a 4 x 8 battlemap for the floor and another one for the wall. Note how the wall one is held securely by the slot and the paddle-pop sticks.

3d battlemaps 2b

Configuration 2 is a little more ambitious. The floor is a different 4×8 tile. The back is now an 8×8 sheet, so it extends a long way above the “scaffolding”, and two 1×2 torch tiles are leaned up against it on the lip. Remember, the vertical scale can be anything you want it to be. If each division represented 1′, these torches would be roughly at head height, just about perfectly positioned.

3d battlemaps 2c

The third configuration is a little wilder. The floor now consists of a 4×4 tile, a 2×4 tile, and two 2×2 staircase tiles. A 4×2 staircase tile is leaning against the back wall, held by the gap between the 2×2 staircase tiles. Other tiles may be placed on top of these as dressing, as usual. The back now consists of four different 8×2 tiles, inserted vertically. This shows how you can create waterfalls, castle walls, or whatever else you want using a combination of tiles. Of course, more tiles can be leaned up against the wall at the bottom, representing bushes or pots or whatever.

This arrangement is easily as quick to set up as normal battlemaps, but it depicts 3D in a functional way. In an article or a comment a couple of years ago, it was suggested that poker chips be used to indicate height; assuming that each now represents 1 vertical division makes this an even more functional idea. There is still a completely open space for hands to reach in and move figures.

Advanced Construction

Finally, consider the cross-section below:
3d battlemaps adv2

This is a more difficult cutting operation, and more difficult reinforcement with the paddle-pop sticks – but it preserves all edges of the box, which means that it should be strong enough to support placing a second battlemap (b) on the top, as shown – creating a multilevel structure. (I would also contemplate some vertical paddle-pops for still greater structural rigidity.

Sure, you could use the two battlemaps more or less side by side to achieve the same thing – but isn’t it better to be able to see one character above another? Usage might be a little more cramped, but you can always lift off the tile on top if necessary to get access to figures in the room below. As an alternative, consider a pair of chopsticks, or – if you are chopstick-challenged, like me – a pair of large tweezers. In a pinch, a pair of needle-nose pliers would also probably do the trick.

What to put on the back

You don’t have to follow this suggestion, but I would reach for a roll of self-adhesive vinyl kitchen counter material. It’s just like contact plastic except that it’s heavier, more durable, opaque, and available in a number of patterns. Check your local hardware supplier! In fact, it’s strong enough to count as stiffening the bare cardboard of the box in it’s own right.

And the beauty of the whole thing is that once its been built, it takes no longer to set up than any other battlemap! 3D doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive – not any more…

Update 10 Jan 2015

I’ve received a couple of requests for clarification regarding the dimensions of the strips left on the sides, top, and front, and thought up one additional refinement worth adding to the overall description.
dimensions query and design refinement

Supplemental Dimensions – Sides

The width of the narrow part of the sides should be the width of one paddlepop stick (about 1cm). I thought that was fairly obvious from the suggestion that extra sticks could be glued there for structural reinforcement, but some people wanted to be sure.

The thicker parts of the sides, where the corners are, should be 1 additional paddlepop-stick-width wide. the length of these should be 2 paddlepop sticks wide, except in one case (shown with a circle) which should be a maximum of 2. I would actually probably use 1 as my preferred dimension.

The added width is needed at the base because people will be reaching over it to move miniatures and change battlemap “floors”, so these will be subject to extra wear and tear.

Supplemental Dimensions – Front

The same goes for the front: One paddlepop stick in height for the front lip, except at the corners, where two give a little extra rigidity. The horizontal length of these corner tabs should be no more than 2 paddlepop sticks in width, and I would probably use 1, so that there was as little in the way of seeing what was going on as possible.

Supplemental Dimensions – Top

I would make the top section a little wider, say 1.5 paddlepop sticks for the narrow part and two for the thicker part at the sides. The width of the tabs should definitely only be one paddlepop stick in width. This provides a wider “lip” on which other tiles can be stood up to lean against the back, as was shown in configuration 2, above.

Enhanced Design

However, while preparing the illustration above, I thought of an additional refinement to the design. Instead of cutting the complete width of the top strip back to the indicated narrow-width dimension, consider cutting a little deeper – back to the 1-paddlepop stick mark – but only removing a triangle of material, leaving a tab running almost the entire length of the box. This can then be bent (into the shape indicated below the label “Bend Lines” to provide a narrow lip that would help prevent tiles leaning against the back from slipping.

The easy way to get cardboard to bend is to use a ballpoint pen or bread-and-butter knife with a ruler to score the side facing the bend – so the bend down would be done on the inside of the box and the bend up on the outside. Use the ruler to score a straight line with your chosen implement without cutting it – all you want to do is compress the wood pulp in the soft cardboard.

This will sometimes cause a bend in the opposite direction to the one you want, but that’s okay. You can then use the ruler to apply force evenly across the whole section to be bent at the same time by placing it on the opposite side, in line with the scoring on the other side of the cardboard, giving a consistent bend. The scoring line will usually be visible on the other side of the cardboard with no need for measurements.

— Mike

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The Final Twist: Dec 2014 Blog Carnival Roundup

rpg blog carnival logo

So the month is over, ending with the Bang of New Year’s Fireworks, and the Blog Carnival has migrated to the care and attention Nils over at Enderra – best of luck, Nils!

Every time you propose a topic for one of these, you have to worry that it will not inspire others; that it may be too narrow, or too broad, or simply not resonate with your fellow bloggers. Until the entries actually start rolling in, you never really know how well your theme will actually be received.

In general, I found that “With A Twist” was a much harder topic than I was expecting it to be, and I think others discovered the same thing. at least to begin with. Once a necessary shift in mindset occurred, however, the floodgates opened; what was intended to be two entries from Campaign Mastery became three, then four, then five, until most of the month was spent poking into different aspects of the theme. At the same time, after a slightly slow start, submissions from other participants began to trickle in, gradually accumulating to a far more impressive total than I expected at the beginning.

My final obligation as the outgoing host is to compile a roundup of the submissions, and there were some interesting and diverse ones. Thanks to everyone who participated! I’ve classified these under some general headings to help make it easier to find what you may be looking for. The Order of categories might seem strange, but there’s method in my madness…

Surprise [Theory & Mechanics]

  • Campaign Mastery: The Unexpected Creeps Up Behind You: I kicked off the carnival in advance with this item. Past practice has been to create an anchor post to which participants can link, and to use it to discuss and explore the theme in terms of what participants could write about, but because I was beginning to discover how tricky the topic could be, I was having trouble coming up with ideas, and because this was appearing prior to the actual commencement of the month, I decided to lead off with an actual article, looking at what people actually experienced when surprised and how various game mechanics could be tweaked to more accurately represent the phenomenon.

Plot Twist Theory

  • Campaign Mastery: Pretzel Thinking – 11 types of Plot Twist for RPGs, Part 1: The first “Official” post of the Carnival. Originally, this was intended to be a straightforward article about how to use the different types of Plot Twist. It came as something of a shock to discover that for one reason or another, none of the established literary plot twist techniques would actually work in an RPG; I had to devise entirely new ones (based on experience in actually using plot twists in my adventures, of course). The resulting article quickly grew too large to be housed in a single piece.

    One minor point: Some people seem under the impression that the three twist types examined in detail in Part One were the ones that I considered the most important. Not so – they just happened to be the first three that I listed!

  • John, of Red Dice Diaries then offered With A Twist, in which he expands on the thoughts contained in “Pretzel Thinking”, anticipating the second part of my article with some thoughts of his own. Unfortunately, when I visited the page just now, he was having some layout problems; hopefully they will be fixed by the time you look in on what he’s had to say, it’s worth reading.
  • Back at Campaign Mastery, I followed up part 1 of the two-part article on plot twists with Let’s Twist Again – Eleven types of Plot Twist for RPGs pt 2, in which I discuss the remaining types of plot twist that I came up with in response to the problem identified in Part one of the article.
  • The Gaming Blog Of General Tangent, in RPG Blog Carnival December 2014 – With A Twist, discusses plot twists in general, and has some sage advice about when to use them and avoiding over-use. A plot twist should be unpredictable; it’s self-defeating if the players are expecting one in every adventure! I think it would be possible to actually craft the adventure The General describes at the end of his article by having the glitch be only partial, so that the adventure still qualifies for the label on “the tin” – but the path takes some very strange byways. You have to rescue the princess from the dragon so that you get the codes to shut down the tractor beams on the death star before you can walk the dog for the vampire heiress (avoiding the ninja assassins) because only its’ super-delicate sense of smell can discover the suburban drugs lab in which Professor Heinous is building the Negabomb which threatens to wipe out the Dwarfish Kingdom before George Washington can cross the Delaware… none of which will make any sense until you read his contribution to the Carnival to obtain some context!
  • I have another entry within this round-up category from Campaign Mastery. There’s Something About Christmas looks at why some plots and plot twists are more effective, or carry extra impact or baggage, at this particular time of year, providing twists on the usual seasonal plotline.

Surprises & The Unexpected

  • Campaign Mastery‘s submission in this category is Gifts In Gaming: Overlooked Seasonal Plot Hooks, which looks at the plot hook potential of the unexpected gift. As a Christmas bonus, I offer a number of idea seeds for memorable characters with opinions on the subject.
  • In a similar vein, Jesse C Cohoon of Fantasy Roleplaying Planes offers, as one of two submissions to the carnival, Good Unexpected Events… And Twists to them to Make them Not as Good, in which he lists six pleasant surprises and multiple ways to use them to cause trouble for your PCs. The architecture of his article reveals a very organized approach to examining the subject which is worth noting and studying in itself; it might initially be a little off-putting as it appears to be a solid block of text, but the formatting of nested lists is a tricky art to master, and the format has the benefit of compressing the content into as small a space as possible, making it easier to see the bigger picture that is inferred by that organized approach. As an experienced blogger, I can tell you that the formatting of his list would have been very tricky, and not something I would have liked to attempt! As might be expected, some of the surprises and twists are familiar, almost clichéd, but some are quite novel; this is the sort of article that you can delve into time after time and extract something new each time. Good Stuff, worth digging for!
  • Jesse’s second article via Fantasy Roleplaying Planes, 12 Reasons Why Someone Might Not Be Dead is more straightforward in format, but was much harder for me to categorize – it could have fitted into three or four separate sections within the roundup! What takes this entry beyond the boundaries of the title are the hints at the consequences of the revelation that rumors of the death were greatly exaggerated. I was reminded on first reading it of the scene in The Hobbit when Bilbo returns from his adventures to find that he has been declared dead, and much of his property given away to relatives, with an auction underway to dispose of the remainder – and how some of his relatives, who lost property they had begun to think of as their own, never did admit acceptance that he wasn’t actually dead. More usefully, perhaps, inspired by this memory, on re-reading the article for this roundup, I thought of an additional entry for the article that’s worth sharing: The person really is dead, and the returnee is actually a fake, assuming the dead person’s identity through convincing subterfuge for their own nefarious purposes…

Tricks and Trickery

  • Creative Mountain Games, offers an entry in their regular column, The Friday Grab Bag, Cursed Sword, an Alternate Reality Artifact, which offers a highly-entertaining tale from the trenches about a magic item that is a play on the old tale of “Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it.” I’d have loved to hear a bit more about the challenges, trials, and tribulations that had to be overcome in the PC’s efforts to undo the changes that had swept over their lives, but even without that, this is a fun read and a great contribution to the Carnival about a type of long-established plot twist (the Twisted Wish) that no-one else mentions.
  • Twisty Turny is another story from real life, this time from James Introcaso at his World Builder Blog, dealing with the introduction of Epic Tier adventures in his D&D 4th Ed Eberron campaign. Along the way, James offers some invaluable advice on keeping your plot twists under wraps until the time is right, and how to make your plot twist yield a strong pay-off. Definitely worth reading once just to enjoy the situation vicariously, and then again to dredge for insights.


  • Campaign Mastery has an entry in this category, too: Pieces of Ordinary Randomness: Random Techniques Of Chance, which is aimed at beginners and experienced GMs (and players) alike. In three distinct parts, it first offers some basic and advanced properties of die rolls and their results, then looks at how to randomly generate a whole bunch of useful information randomly, and wraps up by looking at the usefulness of each of the different die types that I was aware of (and a couple that were new to me!) I spent almost as long generating the tables and graphs as I did writing the article! I had to excerpt what was going to be a featured sub-section on the mechanics of generating encounter tables because it became too dominant; that is scheduled to appear a week after the publication of this roundup, the soonest I could squeeze it into the schedule.

Game Aids

  • Phil Nicholls, of Tales Of A GM, has offered Reading Around the RPG Blog Carnival: Plot Twist Cards, a detailed review of Paizo’s Plot Twist Cards, which sound like an interesting product that can either be used to take some of the work out of game prep or as play proceeds for those adept at Seat-of-the-pants GMing, aided by the fact that if one result doesn’t seem to fit or to be feasible, you can always draw another card.
  • Fitz, of Moebius Adventures. a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery and the RPG Community in general, provided perhaps the most surprising entry into the Carnival, by taking the theme, “With A Twist”, and associating it with Dance In RPG via Chubby Checker’s famous song. Read Let’s Do the Twist if you don’t believe me! Or better yet, go and read it because there are lot of great ideas lurking within this light-hearted submission.

Twist Examples

  • From Michael Christensen of Tiny Gork, RPG Blog Carnival Dec 2014 – Twists contains a stroll down memory lane as he recalls the most memorable plot twists of his past games, offering ideas and inspiration a-plenty. A great submission from a Blog Carnival newcomer!
  • At RPG Alchemy, Samuel Van Der Wall has provided a list of 10 Sci-Fi Plot Twists from famous movies and TV shows. Most of these can be adapted to other genres without difficulty if Sci-Fi isn’t your game. There’s also some good general advice in the closing paragraph. I offer an eleventh, original, twist in the comments, inspired by the changing relationships with the Soviet Union during World War II.
  • Finally, my former partner here at Campaign Mastery and longer-term ally & friend, Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips, brings the “Official” blog entries full circle, with Left Hooks: 24 Plot Twist Ideas & Design Patterns, in which he not only looks at 24 Plot Twists, he reverse-engineers them looking for patterns – and finds them. Full of ideas and useful advice, this makes a great entry to close out the Blog Carnival!

Seventeen submissions, all adopting a different slant on the theme, and all worth your time. Sounds like a success to me!

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Happy New Year! from Campaign Mastery

happy new year 2015

And so another year has either come to an end, or that end is nigh, depending on just where in the world you happen to be located at this precise moment.

I’m posting this earlier than usual to catch as many people in the middle of celebrating the changeover as possible – It’s been 2015 for just over 12 hours here in Australia, but in some parts of the world it’s still late in the 2014 year.

It’s been a year with a few challenges to be overcome, no matter where you’re from. International Crisis after International Crisis, the worst year for air travel in many, many years (if not ever), the threatened unraveling of the United Kingdom and the EU, an American Congress that seems locked into do-nothing-and-let-nothing-be-done mode, an Australian government that seems to have turned its back on everything that the Australian people pride themselves on through an unprecedented string of broken promises… in time, these will no doubt become fodder for contemporary-setting adventures, but at the moment most of them are too close to permit adequate perspective.

Closer to home, D&D’s 40th anniversary was not the love-fest that everyone hoped it would be, but the game remains the dominant single pastime within our hobby. I started the year reliant on an internet cafe for posting articles and ended it reliant on a second-hand laptop for posting articles, with my main computer still down for the count – due to a lack of time more than anything else. Unprecedented spam levels have threatened my ability to post on more than one occasion, and remains an ongoing issue that takes up to five hours a day to manage. All that, on top of health issues that are sometimes good and sometimes bad, but usually disabling to at least some extent…

But, through it all, there have been some great articles published at the end of the day. Ignoring those published in earlier years, the top ten most popular from the year were (in order):

  1. By Popular Demand: The Ergonomics Of Dwarves – Published May 9th, 2014
  2. Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 1 – Published March 21, 2014 (My birthday!)
  3. Seven Circles Of Hell – Creating Politics for an RPG – Published August 29, 2014
  4. Growing Plot Seeds Into Mighty Oaks – Published May 20, 2014
  5. Pretzel Thinking – 11 types of Plot Twist for RPGs, Part 1 – Published December 02, 2014
  6. Ten Million Stories: Breathing life into an urban population – Published April 1, 2014, but not an April Fool’s Day joke!
  7. The Envelope Is Ticking: Insanity In RPGs – Published March 7, 2014
  8. Alien In Innovation: Creating Original Non-human Species – Published November 18, 2014
  9. Tie:

    “I know what’s happening!” – Confirmation Bias and RPGs – Published November 14, 2014, and

    Polished Loquacity: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Part 1 – Published September 5th, 2014 – and I note that putting all the parts of this series together puts it in the top ten of all time here at Campaign Mastery. The compiled PDF is certainly the most popular download I’ve ever offered here, now approaching 200 downloads across both formats!

  10. Tie:

    The Heirarchy Of Deceipt: How and when to lie to your players – Published January 21, 2014, and,

    The Thinking Man’s Guide to Intelligence for Players and GMs – Published December 16, 2014

Overall, readership in 2014 was down about 20% on 2013 numbers, but it’s astonishing, encouraging, and deeply heartening to see that there are two entries from December and two from November on the list, given that the others have had between 3 and 24 times as long to accumulate page reads!

So there’s plenty to be cheerful and optimistic about, heading into a new year!

I wish all my readers Health, Comfort, Safety, Prosperity, and Happiness in the New Year, and bring on a fantastic 2015!

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There’s Something About Christmas

One last twist in the tale…

rpg blog carnival logo
This month’s Blog Carnival, hosted by Campaign Mastery, is almost finished yet – but there are still a few days left for those who want to contribute!. The subject is “With A Twist” and it covers anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, etc.

I started with an article on the rules interpretation of Surprise, and followed that with a two-part article looking at types of Plot Twist that would work in RPGs after discovering that the literary types all had problems when applied to a communal format (Part One, Part Two). After a mid-carnival break, I came back to the subject to look at the plot potential of the unexpected gift and random results, which are – by definition – always a bit of a surprise, in last weeks’ Pieces of Ordinary Randomness.

Early in the new year I will wrap up this Blog Carnival, having handed the baton on to the next host in line. But before we get there, I have one last shot to fire – on the plot potential of the Christmas Season itself…


The Christmas season carries a mindset that differs significantly from that of the rest of the year. This can be exploited by a GM to ratchet up the emotional intensity of an adventure or to make plots possible that would not be possible, otherwise.


Some things just seem worse against a background of “Peace and Goodwill amongst men”. Scrooge is both victim and villain of A Christmas Carol, and Mr Smith Goes To Washington is a perennial favorite for this time of year, for good reason.

Excessive Greed, Corruption, Cheating, Betrayal of trust, Conning the weak, elderly, or helpless, Stealing from Children – these and many other crimes are even more disgusting against the backdrop of Christmas, and are prone to even greater intensity when the real life season coincides with the adventure timing.


At the same time, the festive season brings with it unusual behaviors and rituals, and these can be exploited. There are a number of Santas, providing a natural disguise for villains. But the effectiveness of this disguise is wasted if you use it on simple bank robbers; with a little more creativity, you can employ it for industrial espionage or sabotage, or a spy ring, or an assassination – something with a little more cleverness, complexity, or flair.

People gather in groups and social circles that they don’t normally frequent. This was the cornerstone of an episode of NCIS entitled “Homesick”.

Synopsis, contains spoilers
The episode begins with a serviceman returning home from overseas deployment in Afghanistan just in time for Christmas. He is greeted by his wife, who tells him that their little girl is in bed with a cold. He goes upstairs to see her and discovers that what was a mildly elevated temperature such as you might get with a cold or flu is now a raging fever. After this teaser, we have some holiday-related interaction between the NCIS members before Tim McGee mentions that the daughter of some friends of his is in hospital with a mystery fever that has the doctors stumped. It isn’t stated explicitly that these are the couple we saw in the teaser, but that is the obvious inference. Gibbs then informs the team that it’s not one child with a mystery illness – it’s eight. (This introduces a plot device that is used repeatedly throughout the episode to increase tension, as the number of sick grows with every status update, all children of servicemen).

The Naval Medical Research Center and CDC are concerned at the potential that this is a bioterrorist attack on Naval and Marine servicemen, and the escalation of sick in various ICUs with similar symptoms lends credence to the possibility. Abby, Assistant M.E. Jimmy Palmer, and another scientist begin attempting to identify the illness in hopes that a cure is on file, while the rest of the team makes the necessary worst-case assumption (deliberately targeted bioterrorist attack) and begins hunting for suspects.

Dig hard enough with sufficient paranoia and eventually you can find a suspect for any crime, and the team eventually focus on a (lab tech? assistant?) who was fired for stealing biohazardous material from the lab where he worked and taking it home with him. Raiding the man’s home, they discover an opened container with biohazard warning labels and no contents, increasing suspicion. Eventually, they locate and intercept the suspect, who they take into custody and begin to interrogate, a process that is interrupted by Lab Tech and Forensic Specialist, Abby Sciuto, who slides a manila folder into the interrogation room advising that he’s not their man.

The material that was removed from the lab by the former suspect bears no resemblance to the disease that has afflicted the children. It’s molds and spores, not a viral agent. The investigation is back to square one.

The team focuses on trying to identify patient zero in hopes that this will generate a new lead. To do so, they resume searching for commonalities between the victims, something that had been happening in the background throughout, interrupted only by the investigation into the suspect. The problem is that they can’t find one. Eventually, they determine that the commonality is a seasonal factor, and that the outbreak is not a deliberate attack: a returning serviceman accidentally acted as a carrier for a rare African disease, which spread to the children when he played Santa Claus at several different Christmas parties for the children of servicemen. This lead narrows the search sufficiently for the lab trio to identify the virus and find that it is known to respond to a particular regimen of antibiotics.

When I watched the episode for the first time, I was drawn to the plot potential of the idea that the carrier may have been deliberately exposed, perhaps by contaminating the premises that house Santa costumes. This would have produced victims city-wide with even fewer commonalities.

To be honest, the seasonal aspect of the plot had been nagging at me for some time, as the investigation didn’t seem to be taking it into account. At Christmas time, people shop in places they don’t normally go. They gather in small groups for seasonal activities like carol singing, or pause to listen to such groups, even if only briefly. Many people volunteer time at hospitals and nursing homes. Social hierarchies are breached both up and down in ways that rarely occur at other times; normal social behavior undergoes a temporary metamorphosis into something completely different. And that represents an opportunity for plots that would also not be possible at any other time of year.

Still more plot opportunities

The principle doesn’t end there. Christmas is one of those rare occasions when a character of iconic appearance is a common sight. There is often a subconscious expectation that the people wearing the disguises and costumes needed to assume this role will share in the personality traits attributed to the role. It is always particularly shocking when one Santa turns out to be someone bad, or is the victim of a crime or injustice.

Inverting expectations in this way can produce a great plot. One of the first plotlines that I ran in the current Zenith-3 campaign was the quest for a serial bomber who struck one random post office each year, and had been doing so for many years, by mailing the explosives in a standard parcel envelope addressed as being from “Poppa Christmas”. Each year was spent planning the next attack – a random mailbox or post office at which to dispatch the device into the mail system, timing how long it would take the parcel to reach the place it was to be detonated, and so on.

The adventure was designed as a way to introduce the team to various aspects of their new environment – the technologies that were in place, how they had altered everyday life, and so on – and to give them the opportunity to interact with different levels of society. The whole thing was inspired by a piece of art that I had stumbled across on the net called “Bad Santa” or “Evil Santa” and which may be related to the movie “Bad Santa” (2003). The earliest reference to it that I can find on the ‘net these days is this page (in traditional Chinese but there aren’t a lot of words to worry about), and the image clearly predates it’s Jul 4, 2008 dating (The image in question is the first one shown, the page is clearly a collection of themed images).

The concept seems to be German in origin, based on the folklore description of Krampus at Wikipedia. But most concepts of Santa seem to have discarded this element or aspect of the myth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the sheer variety of ways that Christmas is celebrated around the world – spend some time at Christmas Traditions around the world and how Christmas is celebrated in different countries and cultures and you’ll see what I mean; if there’s not fodder on that page for an adventure or two, in any given genre, I would be very surprised! (Brief side-note: These articles only scratch the surface, leaving out as much as they include and focusing on ephemeral differences, to judge from the entry on Australia).

Holiday Celebrations are what we make of them. But our duty, as GMs, is to explore the potential for taking the social & cultural norm, flipping it on it’s head, giving the box a shake, and seeing how we can use the results as backdrop or story element to both make the adventures we create seasonally topical and more entertaining to the players. And if that means that we need to get into the holiday mood weeks or months ahead of everyone else, that’s not necessarily all that bad a thing, either!

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Merry Christmas

xmas 2014

Wishing a very Merry Christmas to each and every one of Campaign Mastery’s valued readers … or Happy Hanukkah, or Seasons Greetings, or whatever else is appropriate at this time of year!

I’ll be back with our regular post next week. Until then, best wishes to you, your family, and your friends for a safe and pleasurable Holiday Season.

A critical success to you all on your enjoy-Holidays Check!

Comments (6)

Pieces of Ordinary Randomness: Random Techniques Of Chance

The Twists haven’t stopped yet!

rpg blog carnival logo
This month’s Blog Carnival, hosted by Campaign Mastery, isn’t finished yet!. The subject is still “With A Twist” and it covers anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, etc.

I started with an article on the rules interpretation of Surprise, and followed that with a two-part article looking at types of Plot Twist that would work in RPGs after discovering that the literary types all had problems when applied to a communal format (Part One, Part Two). After a mid-carnival break, I came back to the subject to look at the plot potential of the unexpected gift.

Next week, I have one final salvo to fire in the Blog Carnival department, plus the wrap-up at the start of January, but for now: By definition, the one thing that is supposed to be a surprise, by definition, is the result of a die roll…


I thought I’d throw out a post for everyone from absolute beginners to experienced GMs today, about die rolls, and a few little tricks that I use regularly.

In particular, I want to look at all the exotic dice that are out there, and what they can be used for.

This article is divided into three sections. First some basics, then some practical solutions for random-rolling of values that are frequently needed, and finally the dice roster.

With well over 40 sections and sub-sections to get through, I can’t spend much time on any one section (and there should be something for everybody), so let’s get busy…

Flat Probability

When you roll one die, and each of the sides have the same chance of coming up, you have what’s called a flat probability when you graph the chances of getting each result. It doesn’t matter too much what that chance actually is, just that it’s the same for every result.

2 dice probability

As soon as you add a second dice to the mix, this changes. Instead of a flat probability line, you now have something often described as a curve but which is, in reality, a stepped triangle. That’s because dice don’t roll completely randomly, they only roll integers, In other words, we’re talking about rounding error.

If you count out the number of chances of getting each result on two dice, do a quick table with one die roll across the top and another down the side. Fill in the possible results. When you do this, you find that there’s 1 chance in whatever of getting the minimum result, 2 chances in whatever of getting the next highest result, 3 of the one after that, and so on up to the integer of the average result. Then it starts back down, until you get to 1 chance in whatever of the maximum result.

Since this always happens, once you understand it, you will never go through the tedium of calculating the table again – you’ll just write it out.

The average result of two dice

Most dice I’ve ever seen that aren’t designed for cheating, or rolling averages, have results that run from 1 to maximum without gaps. That means that the average on each is half the maximum result, plus one-half.

  • The average of d4 is 2 + 0.5 = 2.5.
  • The average of d5 is 2.5 + 0.5 = 3.
  • The average of d6 is 3 + 0.5 = 3.5
    …and so on.

The number of outcomes is often something you need to know. You can work it out by multiplying all the maximums from each dice together. So there are 16 possible results from 2d4, 25 from 2d5, and 36 from 2d6. The difference between the maximum and the minimum, plus one, tells you how many results these are spread amongst. So the 16 possible outcomes on 2d4 are spread over 8-2+1=7 results; the 25 possible outcomes on 2d5 are spread over 10-2+1=9 results; and the 36 possible outcomes on 2d6 are spread over 12-2+1=11 results.

Multiple Dice averages

To average multiple dice, simply add the averages of the individual dice together. So:

  • The average of 2d4 is 2.5 + 2.5 = 5.
  • The average of 2d5 is 3 + 3 = 6.
  • The average of 2d6 is 3.5 + 3.5 = 7.
  • The average of d4 and d6 is 2.5 + 3.5 = 6.
  • The average of 3d6 is 7 + 3.5 = 10.5.

Which brings me to:


3 dice probability

Now we’re getting a proper curve, as you can see. In fact, what we have here is commonly known as a bell curve, or even a normal distribution – which is to say that there’s a section in the middle where results are far more likely, and where the average lives, and flatter lower sides where the extremes may be found. The shape is symmetrical, ie the part that’s above the average (right side of the diagram) is the mirror image of the part below it (left side of the diagram).

To work out what the chances are of getting any individual result, list one dice down the left and the tally from the rest across the top. Then, starting with the first row, copy the tally. With each subsequent row, start from one further to the right. When you’ve finished add them all up and that’s the number of ways that you can get the result indicated by the tally line. See the (partial) example below for 3d6.

The patterns should be fairly obvious.

The patterns should be fairly obvious.

So if you want to know what the chance is of getting, say, exactly 8 on 3d6, you take the tally, 21, divide it by the number of possible outcomes (6 x 6 x 6 = 216) and multiply by 100 to convert to a percentage – 9.7222222222%. Call it 10%.

Or, if you want to know what the chance is of getting eight or less, add up the tallies from the 8 result down (1 + 3 + 6 + 10 + 15 + 21 = 56) and divide by 216, and multiply by 100 for the percentage: 25.9259259259%. Near enough to 26%.

The Middle Third

I always find it useful, now and then, to know the middle third of a frequently-used die roll. That’s the result that discards the lowest 1/3 of the outcomes and the highest 1/3 and tells me which results are most likely to occur.

This sort of analysis makes that fairly easy. 33 1/3% of 216 is 72, so I simply need to count and exclude the bottom 72 of the accumulated tally. I already know that 8/- is 56 of that 72. The next tally is 25, for 9/-, which brings the total to 81, well in excess of the 72 target. So the middle third starts at 9 and runs through to the number on the far side that also receives a tally of 25 outcomes, 12.

The middle third of 3d6 is in the relatively narrow range of 8-12. If your target for success (needing to roll low) is less than 8, you have a worse than 1-in-3 chance of success, and so will probably fail any given check. If the target is 13 or better (needing to roll low), you have a better than 2-in-3 chance of success, and so will probably succeed on any given check. If you need to roll above the target number, these are reversed in sequence but the numbers still apply. Only in that middle third are chances so even that you can’t predict with any reliability what is going to be the result of any given check, success or failure.

I was going to include a table of common “Middle Third” results but decided not to, for two reasons:

  • First, there are too many combinations for one to be practical without being overly lengthy;
  • Second, they are so easy to work out using Anydice – use 3d6 and the data given above, have a play around, and you will soon work out how; and,
  • I ran out of time – which is probably the most important reason.

As a player, my goal in any encounter is to – at minimum – get my chances of success better than the low chance through manipulating circumstances into my favor. If possible, I also aim to get my enemy’s chances below the high by taking away advantages that he might have.

As a GM, my goal is to arrange circumstances so that the players are on the wrong ends of these numbers, but have the capacity to swing things the other way. They start out dealing with overwhelming opposition and, one-by-one, strip away the enemy’s advantages while adding to their own, until they end up with either a fair fight, or better yet, one in which they have the advantage.

At lower PC levels, this doesn’t make so much of a difference; characters have so few hit points that the fight is over before these subtleties really have an effect. With increasing levels, combat becomes more and more tactical in nature (at least in theory), and nuances become very important.

Sidebar: Average Blows To Death
Another value that I use in conjunction with the middle third on a frequent basis is “Average Blows To Death”. There are two scales to this: PC and Normal.

The PC value takes the weapon that the attacking character most commonly employs, determines its average damage, and adjusts for the chance of a critical hit; it then divides the total HP of the opposition within the encounter by this amount. The result is the average number of successful blows that the attacker has to succeed with in order to kill the opposition. Dividing by the chance of a successful hit gives an indicator of the number of combat rounds a battle is likely to take. Allow an extra 25% on the top for rounds spent maneuvering, and the results are usually pretty close, and a vital planning tool.

The normal value takes a typical NPC (1st level, if your game uses levels) and performs a similar calculation. This gives a clue as to the fearsomeness and general impression of the creature being attacked, another vital tool in the planning process.

more dice probability

You can keep adding more dice to the total using exactly the same technique. 4d6, 5d8, 17d4 – whatever you want to know. What you will find is that the more dice you add, the steeper the sides of the central curve get – though it’s not always obvious because the number of results contained within that central section of the curve also increases.

There’s a wonderful table that I found at Dragonsfoot which charts as percentages the shape of the curves for 2d6, 3d6, 4d6, and so on, all the way up to 9d6. It’s about half-way down this page.

Of course, if you need to calculate an exact result’s chances, curves like this aren’t all that useful; you need tables. There is a shortcut that may be of a great deal of value to you when this happens.

If you tally the results for a d6 across the top of a table, and b d6 down the side, you can quickly work out the chances of any given result from a and b, and therefore for a+b, by multiplying the respective tallies. To save table space, it’s a lot easier to write the totals for a+b in the same cell in a different color. Here’s a partial example, showing 3d6 by 2d6:

Calculating the outcomes of 5d6

Calculating the outcomes of 5d6

Tallying the 5d6 results

Tallying the 5d6 results

Look at these tables closely and the patterns should become fairly obvious. You use the top table to generate the entries for the bottom table. Any box in the top table that gives a red 5 result goes next to the red 5 in the bottom table, and the same for a result of 6, and 7, and so on, all the way up to the highest result possible (18+12=30). Once you understand the principles, you can work this trick with any combination of dice – you might have 3d8 across the top and 2d12 down the left, or anything else you can come up with.

One or two hints:

  • Always show your working. The number of times that I have gone “…4,5,6,7,8…” when I meant “…4,5,6,5,4…” beggars belief – and I know what I’m doing. Seriously, its almost impossible to find an error if you don’t. And there WILL be errors.
  • It’s often a lot easier to use every 2nd column instead of single columns as I’m doing here, but I wanted to clearly show both the result and the tally contribution in the same cell.

If you look to the right, you will see how to tally the results from the table above. There’s only one cell with an outcome of 5 in it, so that cell’s results stand alone for the 5 line. There are two cells with outcomes of 6, so the total of the tallies of each is the number of outcomes that gets you a six. There are three cells with outcomes of 7, so the total of those three is the number of outcomes on 5d6 that equal 7, and so on. The maximum number of results on a line is the smaller of the two table axes – in this case, the 2d6.

And, if you plot out the results of the 5d6 tallies, you end up with the curve below:

5d6 bell curve

5d6, generated using, click graph to visit the site

More and ignore highest (or lowest)

These techniques don’t work when trying to calculate NdX and ignore the highest (or lowest). To calculate this, you can’t simply accumulate the results, you need to work out every possible combination. There are still shortcuts, but they are nowhere near as short or as pretty.

Fortunately, there are several sites who have done this sort of maths and graphing for you.

For 4d6 and drop the lowest I recommend this page.

Next best is the graph below, also generated using anydice. Unfortunately, to make it fit, I’ve had to reduce it in size.


The first thing you should notice about the above is that the probability curve of “4d6 drop lowest” is the mirror image of “4d6 drop highest”, reflected about the average result of 3d6. When you think about it, this is exactly what you would expect to be the case, but it’s a great confirmation that I’ve done it right!

I’m a great believer in having the numbers to go with a graph – you never know when you’ll need them, as I’ve learned the hard way on a number of occasions. So, to wrap this section up, to the left are the actual results, obtained from anydice once again and fed into a spreadsheet – then pimped to look pretty:

Mixing Dice

These principles and techniques work regardless of the combinations of dice that you need. If d8+2d6 is what you think you need, the three-dice technique gives you numbers.

So why might you want to mix dice?

Answer: to get the probability curve that you want, with the maximum, minimum, and average result that you want.

For example: 3d6 gives a standard curve. Replacing one of those 3d6 with a d8 and tacking on a -1 gives you exactly the same shape of curve over the 3-18 range. but also extends the range of results down to 2 and up to 19. Replacing a second one and tacking on another -1 gives you a 1-20 roll that is very different in probability to a d20:

bell curve 1-20

Alternatively, you might want to replace one of the d6 of with d4+2 – which gives a 3-18 range, but boosts the average result by 1. Or even all three, to get 3d4+6 – which boosts the minimum result to 9 without changing the maximum.

Any time you want a range of results that bias toward the average, you’re talking about using multiple dice – and that requires understanding them.

Percentage Conversions

Some people convert a 3d6 result to a percentage by simply dividing by the maximum result, and then wonder why it doesn’t add up to 100%. They have neglected the effect of the minimum.

A slightly more sophisticated group simply subtract the minimum from the maximum and wonder why that doesn’t work, either. This ignores the fact that the minimum result is also a valid result.

To convert a range to a percentage, you have to spread the 100% evenly over a range equal to MAXIMUM-MINIMUM, Plus 1.

Why is this important?

There are all sorts of occasions when what you want is a flat roll, and others where you want a “normal” probability that clusters around the mean. On still others, you need still more complicated results. For atmospheric temperatures, for example, where you need two different normal probability curves on different scales – and, occasionally, a d% to fill in the gaps. But I’ll get to that a little later.

Which brings me to part 2 of this article…

Creating Small Custom Tables

So you have a list with an odd number of entries – 11, say – and you want to turn it into a random table. This is easy to do when the number of entries is exactly the same as a standard die size, but that’s why I made it an odd size. The easy answer is to make it a d12 table, and if you can’t come up with a twelfth entry, you can simply make it roll again.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The d12 solution works if you want a flat probability curve – but what if there are some results that seem more likely to you than others?

There are two obvious ways to handle this with a flat-probability die: minimum-and-add, and maximum, distribute, reduce, distribute. And then there’s a trick with multiple dice that can sometimes be simpler.


You need a die size that’s bigger than the number of table entries required. Divide the size by the target and that gives you the “minimum” per entry. Then distribute whatever’s left as you see fit. The bigger the die relative to the target, the more precision and flexibility you can get.

  • 11 on d12 gives a minimum of one and leaves one. So you can make one entry twice as likely as any other. That’s a fairly blunt weapon.
  • 11 on d20 gives a minimum of one and leaves seven, giving you lots of entries to spread around. So that shows rather more finesse.
  • 11 on d% gives a minimum of 9 and leaves 1 – not a lot of room – but reducing the minimum to 8 leaves 12, or reducing the minimum to 7 leaves 23 – and that’s a lot of wiggle room.
Maximum, Distribute, Reduce, Distribute

The flat-roll alternative is to take a large die like d%, decide how big the most common result will be, divide the remainder over the rest, reduce by one each, and distribute the excess.

  • Most common result set at 25%: leaves 75 to distribute over the remaining 10, so 7% each, and leaving 5 remainder. Reducing by one to 6% baseline gives an additional 10 remainder for a total of 15 to distribute. So you could have a 25-17-11-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6 pattern.
  • Most common result set at 20%: leaves 80 to distribute over the remaining 10, so 8% each. Reducing by one gives a remainder of ten to split up and spread around – probably adding 5% to the likelihood of the next two most likely results, giving 20-12-12-7-7-7-7-7-7-7-7.
  • Most common result set at 15%: leaves 85 to distribute over the remaining 10, so 8% each, with a remainder of 5. Reducing by one gives a baseline of 7% and leaves 15% to distribute. This can give a 15-12-10-9-9-8-8-8-7-7-7 pattern, a reasonably smooth curve.

In fact, there’s a shortcut that I often use: With a baseline of 9 under the minimum-and-add, I double it and round both up and down to get some idea of where the optimum pattern is likely to lie. More often than not, rounding down will be the better choice.

From this starting point, it’s easy to further tweak the resulting table. Taking the 15% maximum pattern and dropping the least likely to a 5 would permit +1 to the 10 and +1 to the first 9, giving an even smoother 15-12-11-10-9-8-7-7-5 pattern. Taking another 1 from the second seven to add to the first, or to the 5, further smooths the curve.

exotic solution

An exotic multidice solution

Here’s a solution that I’ve found useful a couple of times. The image to the right explains it – you start with a d12 or whatever die is larger than the list. If you go beyond the bounds of the solutions listed, you get “the roll to the right” result, dropping a die size. Keep going until you get to d4.

In the example offered, that means that there’s a one in twelve chance that is divided amongst 1 to 9 by the d10, and a one in 120 chance that is divided amongst 1-7 by the d8, and so on.

To save time, you can even roll all the dice at once, since they are all of different sizes.

Usually, when I employ this technique, I also save space by using different colors of text instead of explicitly including a column for each die type.

You can also spread the probabilities out a lot more by going up an additional die size without extending the table – so the first roll is on a d20 instead of a d12, the next is a d12 instead of a d10, and so on. That would mean that it’s 45% being divided up by the d12, and 15% being divided up by the d10, and so on.

I don’t use this very often, but it can be a useful trick to have in your back pocket.

Creating Big Custom Tables

How big is big?

Using a d6 x d6 array, two rolls give you a table for 36 random choices. Make it d10 x d10 and you have 100 – though why you wouldn’t simply use d100 is beyond me.

I once created (and will one day publish as an e-book) a table which used d20 to select from 20 subsequent tables of 20 personality traits and guidelines for integrating the results. An additional roll specified the number of rolls to be made on the table for any individual. That’s effectively a table with 400 entries, 20 across and 20 down. (The problem is that this doesn’t seem to go far enough these days – I have a lot more entries to add – but I can’t assume access to a d30. So I need to rethink the structure a little). And table weighting is another serious consideration. Anyway…)

These are all flat tables – each different result on the die rolls yields a different result on the table. They are relatively trivial problems. A rather more complex problem comes when you construct Encounter tables

…which I intended to demonstrate at this point. I soon realized that it was too big a topic and would have completely overshadowed everything else in this article, while not being granted the recognition that such a big topic warrants. So I made the decision to spin that off into a separate article, which I’ll publish sometime in early January. It probably won’t be in time for the Blog Carnival, unfortunately, but you can’t have everything.


Probably the easiest thing of all to determine. Roll a die with an even number of faces – if it comes up high, it’s PM, if low, it’s AM.

Hour of day

In conjunction with AM/PM, this is easy to determine – just roll a d12. If you would rather get more technical, you could ignore the AM/PM and roll a d24 (they do make those, don’t they?) but this seems an unnecessary complication.


The obvious way of determining this is by rolling for the hour. But sometimes that’s more information than you need; a d4 does the job just fine.

But it’s not always that simple. In summer, morning and afternoon are both longer than Evening and Night; in winter, it’s the other way around. Daylight savings may rob afternoon of an hour and give it to morning. And you might want a separate indication of Sunrise and Sunset as well. When you list out all these little bits and pieces that you might want to know, you end up with 16 slices of time of differing lengths.

There’s no easy way of expressing all this complexity in a die roll with any accuracy. So, a long time ago, I came up with a table to simulate it as simply as possible. It’s a little imperfect, as close examination will reveal, but it’s not too bad.


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There are times when you don’t even know what season it is – and need an answer. As with the period-of-day question, this can be simplified to a d4-roll-and-get-on-with-it approach, or you can dig into the quagmire of complexity. Northern Hemisphere? Southern? Latitude? Altitude? Climate? Variation? Sunspots? El Niño? Trade Winds? And on, and on, and on.

The easiest way to avoid all this complexity – well, to build it in under the skin of your die rolls – is to look at the topology of your location, then map it to an equivalent point on Earth – a point for which reliable and detailed climatic information can be accessed. Look for average daily maximums for each month of the year, then simply roll a d12. As a bonus, this is likely to give you information on average minimums, records maximums and minimums, precipitation, and so on. Next to talking to a local about the weather – at great length – this is as good as it’s going to get.

Of course, the more complex your game reality, and the more it differs from our terrestrial experience, the more difficulty you’re going to get yourself into. What is the relationship between climate and axial tilt, to name just one question that cannot be fully answered. We’re still getting to grips with Earth’s climate, and finding that it’s always more complex a question than we thought – never mind trying to take values that are fixed and turning them into variables!

Month Of The Year

A bit of an anticlimax, this – until you wonder how difficult it would be to take into account the different lengths of the months, and then you are suddenly in deep, deep, kumpcha (unless you use some sort of software die roller that lets you specify die size).

In order to work out the month of the year by days since January 1st, you’re looking at a d365 or d366, and knowing when to use which, and all sorts of other complications. Frankly, the easiest method that I’ve come across is d20 x 20 + d20 -20. This is the equivalent of a d400. Then just re-roll anything over 365/366, which will happen roughly 9% of the time. That can be cut back by realizing that a 20 on the first d20 is an automatic re-roll, and a 19 is almost certain to be a re-roll.

Random Month – bias winter

So you don’t know what time of year it is, but you know that it’s more likely to be winter than summer? There are two ways of handling this. The easier way is to roll 2d6 to get the month, with “1” being the middle month of summer. The first alternative is to roll 3d4-1, with “1” meaning the same thing; and the second alternative is to roll 2d4+2, again with “1” being the middle of summer.

The 2d6 still gives a chance of getting a summer result; it’s just not very likely, about 16 2/3 %. The 2d4 approach rules summer out of the question entirely, ruling 4 months of the year out of bounds on the results. That leaves the 3d4-1 approach; technically, it has to be “3d4-0.5″ in order to get the same average as the other results. Making it 3d4 biases results towards the end of winter, leaving it as 3d4-1 biases results toward the start of winter.

Which may make it astonishing to readers who don’t know their math when I suggest that the 3d4-1 approach is actually the most technically accurate. That’s because it isn’t 3d4-1; it’s INT[3d4-0.5], and it identifies the month that the die roll places you in the middle of. In other words, if it says October, the actual result is read as “the middle of October”. With the others, they are indicating the start of the given month, which only qualifies as being that month by the skin of it’s teeth and an accident of the calendar. Really, what’s the difference between August 30th and September 1st, in practical terms? A day in the middle of, say, October, is technically as “October” as it is possible to get.

So, which one should you pick? The answer is to forget all the technicalities and decide how much bias you want toward winter. If you list them in order of increasing severity of bias, the order is 2d6, 3d4-1, 2d4+2.

Personally, I’m lazy when I can be; I’ll use 2d6 unless I have darned good reason not to.

Random Month – bias summer

The same results work perfectly to give a summer bias; just set “1” as the middle of winter.

Month of the season

I’ve sometimes needed to know whether something was happening, or going to happen, at the start, middle, or end of a season. I use a d6 for this: 1-2 is early, 3-4 is middle, and 5-6 is late.

This is actually more convenient than it seems. Most months have 30 or 31 days, which is close enough to 30 for our purposes; so a “1” indicates the first 5 days, “2” indicates the second 5 days, and so on. If you have an extra day, tack it onto the end – so a “6” can indicate the last 5 or 6 days of the month. The only month where this doesn’t work is February, and even that is close enough for practical purposes – and closer on leap years.

Minute of the hour

d10 x 6 + d6 -6 gives you the exact minute of the hour.

Usually, it’s close enough to use d12 x 5 – 5, which gives you 5 minute intervals – H:00, H:05, H:10, and so on.

Seconds of the minute

If you need to, do this in exactly the same way.

Latitude and Longitude

Okay, now we need d360-180, where results <0 are South or West, and results >0 are North or East.

The best way to get d360 is to use d18 x 20 – 20 + d20. But most people don’t have a d18 handy, even though they exist.

d12 x 30 – 30 + d6 x 5 – 6 + d6 is a d360 with errors. You can simplify it to (d12 x 30) + (d6 x 5) + d6 – 36.

A better method, because it reduces the frequency of errors is (d20 – 1 ) * 18 + d20. It’s still not perfect; you can still get results of 361 or 362, and some results like 19, 20, 37, 38, and more, seem to come up more frequently than they should. But it’s only two dice being rolled and a bit of calculation.

Still better is a way that does away with that calculation altogether, even though it involves slightly more die rolls – a d4, to be specific.

Better yet is ((d4-1) * 90) + ((d10-1) * 10) + (d10-1).

But the best answer is (d36-1) x 10 + d10. You get a d36 with (d6-1) x 6 + d6.

Step by step:

  • Roll d6-1.
  • Multiply by 6.
  • Roll d6 and add it to the result.
  • That’s the 10’s place. For the digits, roll a d10.

That’s fairly straightforward. Then just subtract 180 – or (far easier) subtract add 20 and subtract 200.

Day of the week

If I didn’t know the date or couldn’t consult a universal calendar, I used to use d8 and re-roll 8’s. But these days you can get 7-sided dice marked with the days of the week. I don’t know when I’ll need it, but when I do, I have it handy.

Day of the month

I’ve already hinted at the trouble that odd lengths of months can cause. Well, here they are again. There are three different solutions to this particular problem, and a variation or two on those answers to consider, as well.

d30 method

The simplest technique is to roll a d30, assuming you have one. Re-roll the result if it’s too high, and ignore the possibility that a month might have 31 days.

d16 method

If you have a d16, roll d anything; on high, add 16 to the result of a d16 roll. For practicality, roll both at once. Re-roll if you get a date that doesn’t exist, like February 30th.

If you don’t have a d16, you can simulate one with a d8 by rolling a separate d-anything and adding 8 to the result if the d-anything is high.

For example, using d6 for the d8-to-d16 roll and d10 for the d16-to-d32 roll:

  • Rolls: d6:4 d8:5 d10:3
  • d6 is high, so d16 result is 8+d8=13
  • d10 is low, so d32 result is d16+0=13.
  • If the d10 result was a 7, the d32 result would be d16+16=29.
d7 & d4/d5 method

If you have a calendar, you can take advantage of the fact that there are 7 days in a week and never more than 5 of any given days in a month. d7 gives day of the week, and d4 or d5 (depending on how many of that day there are in the month) gives the occurrence of that day, i.e. the exact date.

For example, in December 2014, the first was a Monday and there are 31 days, so there are 5 Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and 4 of everything else.

If you don’t have a d7, use a d8 and re-roll 8’s.
If you don’t have a d5, you can either use half a d10, or a d6 and re-roll 6’s.

My Choice

Because it gives extra info and is so much easier than anything else, my first choice would be the d7/d4/d5 method. If I didn’t have a calendar, my second choice would be the d30 technique – but I don’t have a d30, so I would fall back on the d16 method.

Quick Temperature

How hot is it outside? How cold? Temperature is one of THE big questions that needs to be answered regularly in any RPG. It’s so big a topic that it might have to be excerpted out into an article of it’s own, just as I did with Encounter Tables, but I’m hopeful that I can trim it to size enough for it to be one this article’s centerpieces.

There are two key facts that you need to know for the simplest solution: What is the average daily high or low, for this location, at this time of year, and how much variation can be expected from that?

Average Daily High & Low

These are relatively easy to find for real places. For example, if the climate is the same as Southern Italy, fire up Google Maps, zoom out, find Italy, and zoom in until you find a town of reasonable size (more likely to have weather information online) that looks like it has something close to the right Geography – ocean to the correct side, mountains in the right places.

Next stop is Wikipedia. Enter the town name and see if there’s weather info – occasionally the answer will be yes, more often no. If you don’t find it, go to Google and search for “[Town Name]” +weather the inverted commas and plus sign are very important. If that gets you nowhere, look for a neighboring town – I leave Google Maps up in a separate tab just in case – or an alternative. And sometimes it can be useful to zoom out one or two steps, when the town is simply too small – wait for it to disappear and look at the places that are left.

For example, Ravenna is located towards the north of Italy, is on the coast of a narrow sea, has a mountain range some distance away to the west and a bigger one some distance to the north. The city has a Wikipedia page but no climate info. Google pulls up a number of sites offering forecasts, but I ignore those; I want less current information and more long-term statistics. A “Trip Advisor” website comes to eye, as does another entry listing “average temperatures” – opening both of these gives a gold mine. The Trip Advisor site includes a chart showing average monthly maximum and minimum temperatures for six months of the year, and a great narrative description of the climate. This would be immediately snaffled! The Weather site proves to be “” and contains a chart of daily temperature averages, both maximum and minimum, over the last four years – perfect! This would also be grabbed, if possible, for future reference – in this case, I can, but quite often this isn’t possible.

The problem you are likely to face is that you will often get winter low and summer high, and not a month-by-month value. That’s good enough – a little experience and one key fact is close enough for gaming purposes. But more specific information is better.


You either have this information, and need to analyze it, or you don’t, and need to make assumptions.

Frankly, you shouldn’t get too hung up on the analysis side of things; weather is so variable that it will make no real difference in the long run.

Let’s take a look at the weather chart from Ravenna, continuing the example from the previous section.


A simplified version of the Ravenna Weather Chart from

When I first glanced at the original, five facts leapt out, which I have carefully preserved in the simplified version to the right.

  • Peak temperatures are fairly flat over the peak of summer, which is July/August.
  • In midwinter there is a bump in temperature averages – December and February are both colder than January.
  • After summer, the temperature range between day (maximum) and night (minimum) gets much smaller very quickly and the drops in both averages are very consistent through into December.
  • In comparison, the spring range widens suddenly in May and then narrows again, due more to the nights staying cool while days continue to rise in average temperature.
  • The minimum day-to-night range is about 6º C / 15º F; the maximum is about 11ºC / 21ºF. These ranges seem relatively narrow, until you realize that we’re talking AVERAGE temperatures. Any given day can be hotter than the maximum indicated, or colder; any given night can be hotter or colder than the minimum.

Once I know the time of year, I can determine the day’s minimum and maximum temperatures; once I know the time of day, I can estimate where in that range the temperature currently sits.

What you want is a “normal” die roll, not a flat one, and a modifier so that the average result matches the appropriate average temperature.

The only unanswered question is how much variability to have. In winter, the nighttime temperature doesn’t seem to vary very much, while the daytime temperature can be a bit more variable, in my experience; in summer, daytime temperatures can be very variable, while night-time temperatures vary to about the same degree as winter daytime temperatures.

A good rule of thumb is that the extreme results from the daytime average must never be colder than the average minimum, and the extreme results from the night-time temperature must never be hotter than the lower 1/3 probability mark of the average maximum. Yes, there can be exceptions on rare days, but this gives a guideline that’s close enough.

Forecast Daily Maximum

So the place to start is with the daily maximum, because we’re using the results of that to get the daily minimum.

It’s easier to explain with an example, so let’s pick a month – April – and see what happens in Ravonna.

  • Average Maximum is about 18ºC / 65ºF, Average Minimum is about 10ºC / 49ºF.
  • The difference in temperature is about 2/3 of the the die difference (maximum-minimum) that we want. In this case, 18-10=8ºC / 65-49=16ºF; multiply by 1.5 (round up if necessary) to get 12ºC / 24ºF.
  • With 2 dice, 2 is always the minimum result, so the range is maximum-1. With 3 dice, 3 is the minimum, so the range is maximum-2.
  • One half of (Range-1) tells us the X in 2dX that is needed.
  • One-third of (Range-2) tells us the X in 3dX that is needed.
  • For Ravonna in April, half of 12ºC-1 = 5.5 – and there’s no such thing as a d5.5. But 2d6 should be close enough. Half of 24ºF-1=11.5; 2d12 is indicated.
  • Also for Ravonna in April, 1/3 of 12ºC-1 = 3.67. So 3d4 is acceptable. 1/3 of 24ºF-1=7.7, so 3d8 will work.
  • April is in spring, but a glance at the Ravonna chart says it’s closer to Winter than summer. So I would use the fewer dice option – ie the 2d4 for ºC / 2d6 for ºF – because there is less range for variation.
  • Work out the average results of these die rolls, rounding down if necessary. Average of 2d4 is 5; Average of 2d6 is 7, no rounding necessary.
  • We need a modifier that turns these averages into our average maximum temps – a simple subtraction. 18ºC-5=13; 65ºF-7=58.
  • So the Daily Maximum temperature for Ravonna in April is 2d4+13ºC or 2d6+58ºF.
  • The Middle Third is always useful in these circumstances, and we need it for the Forecast Daily Minimum. These show that the most likely maximum temperatures are 17-19ºC / 64-66ºF.
Forecast Daily Minimum

This process is very similar, but instead of using the daily average maximum, we are using the lowest of the most likely maximums.

  • Lowest Probable Maximum is 17ºC / 64ºF, Average Minimum is about 10ºC / 49ºF.
  • The difference in temperature is about 3/2 of the the die difference (maximum-minimum) that we want. In this case, 17-10=7ºC / 64-49=15ºF; multiply by 2/3 (round up if necessary) to get 5ºC / 10ºF.
  • Half of 5ºC-1=4. So 2d4 works. Half of 10ºF-1=4.5, so 2d5 are indicated.
  • For the same reasons as before, I’ll be using the 2dX choice. I already know that, so there’s no need to calculate the three dice version.
  • Work out the average results of these die rolls, rounding down if necessary. Average of 2d4 is 5; Average of 2d5 is 6, no rounding necessary.
  • We need a modifier that turns these averages into our average minimum temps – a simple subtraction. 10ºC-5=5; 49ºF-6=43.
  • So the Daily Minimum temperatures for Ravonna in April is 2d4+5ºC or 2d5+43ºF.
  • The Middle Third shows that the most likely minimum temperatures are 9-11ºC / 48-50ºF.
Current Temperature

Current temperature is best worked as a flat roll between the two rolled extremes. But why bother rolling, or even working out a die roll? Use your experience and the time of day to work out where you’re at in that range, and estimate the current temperature.

Using ºC:

  • Roll 2d4+5 for last night’s temperature: 12ºC.
  • Roll 2d4+5 for tonight’s forecast maximum: 9ºC.
  • Roll 2d4+13 for today’s forecast maximum: 18ºC.
  • Determine time of day. I get mid-morning, which in late winter or early spring means that the temperature is about 2/3 of the way between last night’s low and as hot as it’s going to get. So I estimate the current temp to be about 16ºC.

Using ºF:
This is done exactly the same way, only the die rolls change.

Quick Weather

So you know the temperature. There are a lot of complicated ways to determine weather, but here’s the simplest I’ve come up with:

  • Roll d5 for the amount of cloud cover. 1 = clear, 2 = scattered cloud, 3 = sunny breaks, 4 = cloud cover, 5 = threatening, heavy clouds. Make allowances for desert environments, etc.
  • Roll d6+1. If the result is less than or equal to the cloud cover, it’s precipitating.
  • Roll d4 for the intensity of the rain IF it’s raining. 1 = light showers/snowfalls, 2 = hvy showers/medium snowfalls, 3 = solid rain/snow, 4 = heavy precipitation/blizzard/hail. Use temperatures to determine the nature of the precipitation (rain/hail/snow). If you roll a 1, it may be fog instead, depending on temperature and time of day.
  • IF it’s hailing, roll d8/2 for the size of most of the hail, in 1/2 cm or 1/4 inches. Exceptions can be 2-3 times this size.
  • Roll d8-1 for the wind strength, in 5kph / 3 mph units. If you get a natural 8, roll again and add 7. If you get a second natural 8, roll again and add 14. If you roll a third natural 8, roll d5 and add 21. If the total is 25 or more, roll d5 for the category rating of the hurricane.
  • Roll 2d4-1 for the strength of gusts, in units of +10%. If you roll a double-four, roll and add d4-1. Average result = +40%, 6.25% chance of needing the 3rd die, 1.56% chance of a result of +100% ie double wind speed.
  • Roll d8 for direction – it’s up to you whether this is the direction it’s coming from or the direction it’s going to. Override the results if they don’t seem to fit the terrain. I usually count clockwise with “1” being North.

This doesn’t account for all weather phenomena, but it covers the most common. And it’s very quick.

Random Choice off a list of unusual length

And that brings me to the piece of ordinary randomness that I use most often of all – where I have a list, and I want to select a random entry from it.

There are two approaches that I use to this process: One Flat Roll and Divide and Conquer

One Flat Roll

For this, you always want a flat roll, and the most important thing is to know the length of the list.

That length divided by 10 and rounded up, becomes the X in my dX +10 -1.

That always leaves a few entries left over; the difference between list length and remainder get excluded if necessary, to leave a short-list of entries to get the “extra chance”.

It’s very quick and relatively straightforward.

Example: there are 39 first-level Sorcerer/Wizard spells listed in the PFRPG Core Rulebook (it took me about three seconds to count them). So I want a d4 for the tens place on the roll and a d10 for the digits. I have one entry left over; I’ll decide what to do with it if I need it. I roll a two on the d4 and a 6 on the d10 for a result of 26. Another count (I was a bit slower this time, it took about 5 seconds) gets me to “Magic Aura”.

This might be the spell that has been cast on an area, a spell on a scroll, a spell that is nullified by a particular magic item – whatever I needed it for. Counting 1-2 seconds to pick up the dice, a second to roll them, and another 1-2 seconds to read them and get my answer, it took me less than 15 seconds to pick the spell at random.

Divide and Conquer

This technique employs 3d6, though if the list is really big, I may substitute one or more larger dice.

Roll all the dice you think you need, and line them up in the order they lie on the table after the roll, left to right. Then shift dice to the right according to die size.

The first d6 tells me top, middle, or bottom of the list. I do this quickly and roughly, by eye.

The second d6 tells me top, middle, or bottom of the selected part of the list. Again, this is done quickly and by eye.

There will be one entry in the middle of the selected range. I count up from that roughly half the size of the dice – well, when I say count, it doesn’t have to be exact. I then use the final dice to determine where in that range the actual result that’s been selected is. It only takes a second or two to nail down a result in quite a long list.

I’m looking at the double-page list of weapons in the Pathfinder Core Rules (table 6-4). I have no idea how many entries there are, but I want to pick a weapon off the list. First, I need some idea of how big my third die should be – I estimate by eye a tenth of the total list and then estimate by eye the number of entries in that span. I get a result of about 10 entries. So I’m actually using either 4d6 or 2d6 and d10. It’s always easier to go “start, middle, end” than to count to 10, so I’ll choose the 4d6 method.

I roll 3, 5, 1, and 4. The Three says the middle third of the list, which is roughly the last 1/3 of the first page and the top 1/3 of the second page. The Five says the last third of that range, which starts a couple of entries down from the top of page two – from somewhere in the vicinity of “Greatclub” to “Shortbow”, say. The one says to focus on the first part of that list, from “Greatclub” to “Guisarme”. The final roll puts me in the middle of that range – either Heavy Flail or Greatsword – and since it was on the high end of that middle, I choose Greatsword. Total time: about 6 seconds, 1/3 of which was spent deciding between 4d6 and 2d6,d10.

I can estimate by eye, taking into account entries that span two lines, very quickly. But others aren’t as adept at it. So your mileage may vary.

Rolling impractical numbers of dice

Have you ever rolled 860d6? I’ve had to, once, or more specifically, one of the players in the Zenith-3 campaign had to, a matter of various spell-amplifying circumstances, and a runaway chain reaction. (the rules that led to this are now a lot more constrained).

Here’s how to roll a ridiculous number of dice.

Once you get over 20 dice, there’s not going to be a lot of difference between four times the result of five dice and rolling all 20 dice. However, the final point or two can be crucial if we’re looking at thresholds and game mechanics that subtract from the total. So:

  1. pick a convenient factor, something that the number of dice will more-or-less be evenly divisible by. I’ll usually use 10 as the factor, but there have been times when something else has been more convenient.
  2. Do the division. Round the results down to get the Multiplier.
  3. Multiplier times factor will be less than the total number of dice required, which should always be a reasonable number – more than 6, say. Call this the remainder. Reduce multiplier if remainder isn’t a reasonable number.
  4. You can either roll factor-number-of-dice and multiply by multiplier, or roll multiplier number of dice and multiply by factor. Pick the one that’s most convenient.
  5. Make the roll, and multiply the result by the other part of the factor-multiplier pair. Then roll the remainder dice, and add them to the total.
  6. Job done!

It actually takes a lot more time to explain it than to do it. Here are a couple of examples:

  • 40d6. Roll 10d6, multiply by 4, and add a roll of 10d6. Note that the other way around, Rolling 4d6 and multiplying by 10, is too random it’s outcome. Rolling 8d6 and multiplying by 5 would be OK.
  • 63d8. Roll 10d8, multiply by 5, and add 13d8.
  • 124d6. Roll 11d6, multiply by 10, and add 14d6. Or add two rolls of 7d6, if you prefer.
  • 394d10. Roll 19d10, multiply by 20, and add 14d10.
  • 860d6. Roll 8d6 and multiply by 100. Roll 5d6, multiply by 10, and add to the result. Roll 10d6 and add to the result.
  • 1024d6. Roll 10d6 and multiply by 100. Roll 4d6 and double the result, then double it again; add to the total. Roll 10d6 and add to the total.
  • 1,120d6. Roll 10d6. Multiply by 100. Roll 6d6. Double it, then multiply by 10, and add. Subtract 35 (the average of 10d6). Roll 10d6 and add to the result.

It really is that quick.

Bonus Tip: quickly adding up lots of dice
This seems really obvious to me, but I’ve seen players who don’t know it, even after months or years of gaming experience.

Count in groups if you have to. Four people can total 20 dice as fast if not faster than one person can total 5 dice – if they are all using the technique outlined below.

Create 10s. Put 6’s and 4’s together, and pairs of 5’s and so on. Keep these in a line. You will be left with a few. Try using three dice to make tens – 4,4,2. 4,3,3. 6,2,2. It’s a lot easier to count 10, 20, 30… or 20, 40, 60, 80… and then have only a couple of oddballs left at the end.

If there are too many oddballs, or you are rolling d12s or something, get a third party to select pairs of dice that add up to less than 20 – then reduce one until it reads 10 while the other gets increased by the same amount, or reduce it to whatever you need to complete another 10-combination. The adjusted “other” goes back into the dice pool remaining to be counted, the 10 goes into the 10s stack or 20s stack (whichever one you’re using). Note that the third party has to pick them up so that no-one else grabs them to make up a ten-combination.

Count the 10 or 20 combos going around the table as necessary – person one gets to say, 40-and-that’s-it and the next person then starts their count with 50 or 60 or whatever’s appropriate. Meanwhile, person one has added up the odd dice that remained.

Part 3 of this article is relatively short and looks at the properties and usefulness of dice, by size.


Exotic, Beautiful, but absolutely worthless. Go to Awesome Dice if you want to look at one, and this page if you want one of your very own. They are even prettier in real life.


Not so attractive – by a long shot – and not of huge value, since it’s so easy to get a high/low result on a d6.


Similarly, there is not a lot of value in these when low/middle/high are so easy on a d6. However, those playing with younger children may find them useful.


The smallest of the traditional polyhedra, and a die shape which I don’t like at all. It takes practice to be able to actually roll them, and effort. I usually cup my hands together to form a chamber in which I can’t see the die or dice and give it a shake to randomize the result before “rolling” them – just in case.

I’m far more in favor of some of the modern alternatives for reasons of practicality – the crystal shaped ones in particular.


Most of these aren’t particularly attractive, either – but you can get some 10-sided dice marked only 1-5. The problem with the latter is that they are easy to confuse with a normal d10, and you don’t want to get the two mixed up. At best, it’s shooting yourself in the metaphoric foot, at worst it’s cheating, whether intentional or not. That said, Game Science make some very nice crystal ones.

That said, they are incredibly useful. There aren’t many dice out there with an odd number of faces, and that gives the d5 a niche that few other dice can fill.

However, it’s very easy to use a d10 and either divide by 2 (rounding up) or subtracting 5 from any result higher than 5, if you need a d5. Or you can simply roll a d6 and re-roll sixes. So they aren’t hard to simulate.


The six-sided die has been the workhorse of dice games since forever. It’s such a simple shape, and only has one more side than we have fingers on a hand – and both are relevant factors. I have about 120 of these – enough that I can extract a couple of d6 that are visibly distinct (and all I think I’ll need) and toss the remainder onto a battlemap as boulders or the locations of mines or whatever.


Except in exotic combination rolls, like some of the suggestions offered above, the d7 is useful only for days of the week. I have one for that purpose.


This used to be almost equal in the workhorse department with the d6, simply because AD&D used d8’s for most monsters’ hit points. There’s more variety in use these days, but the d8 remains incredibly useful.


The d10 was rarely useful in it’s own right; only when married to a partner to create a d% does it become almost irreplaceable.


The d12 has always felt like the ugly duckling to me, never really getting the respect and attention it deserves. It’s most obvious use is for time – hours, minutes, seconds.


I’ll be honest – I can’t think of a single reason for this dice to exist as anything but a curiosity. Days of the fortnight, perhaps? Either I’m overlooking something colossally obvious, or this is worthless in most practical senses most of the time. It’s probably just a showpiece, so if you buy a d14, make it a pretty one.


Almost the same story as the d14, to be honest. Now if they marked one up with the results of a 2d4 roll, that would be valuable. However, the d16 can do one thing that the d14 can’t – and it justifies the existence of both of them. A d16 plus a high-low roll that triggers a +16 to the roll on a high result is just about as easy a way to get days of the month as I’ve seen.


As a GM, I consider this a little more useful than you might think. Firstly, you can multiply the results by 5 to get a value of 5-90 – in combination with a d6-1, that gives a much simpler way to get latitude and longitude than I listed above.

Secondly, it’s great for a GM to use to cheat in the character’s favor, by making it impossible to roll a 20 in a d20-based game. You just slip your d18 in hand, and forget about inflicting critical hits – with most weapons, anyway. Use it when you find that you’ve overestimated how effective your monsters and tactics would be and don’t want to completely ruin your adventure by pounding the PCs into the pavement – and don’t want to ruin the fun (or your rep as GM) by admitting your mistake.

In any game where you need to roll low on a d20, the advantage swings the other way; 20 is impossible to reach, and you actually have a slightly higher chance of rolling a 1.

Use it with a GM Shield, for obvious reasons.


So ubiquitous it has multiple game systems named after it. Not much more needs to be said.


The other side of the coin from the d18 – so long as you remember that a 21 or 22 are to be treated as a “twenty”. Which makes twenties three times as likely (or thereabouts) as they are on a proper d20.


I didn’t know these existed. Greatest use is for hours of the day.


These are still treated as a novelty item by most gamers that I know, simply because it’s so easy to have three d10 tables selected by a d6 roll. But there are times when they can be quite useful.


Wait, they make a d60 now? Since when? Obvious use is for minutes and seconds. Anything else is a bonus.


I started this list with the sublime, and I end with the ridiculous. These are so hard to roll and keep within reasonable bounds that it’s not funny. And they can be hard to read – 100 results takes up a lot of space on a small die! I suspect that the d60 might suffer from similar problems, but I’ve never seen a real one. Use d10s, it really is MUCH easier.


A footnote, this: According to Wikipedia, you can also find d26s, d32s, d34s, and d50s. I can see obvious utility for the d32; the rest I’m not so sure of.

The d26 might suggest a set of alphabetic markings, but ignores the fact that distribution of letters in English is not uniform – not even first letters of words.

Which brings me to the end of this particular article. While pitched mainly at inexperienced players and GMs, I hope that everyone out there got something from it!

Comments (1)

Gifts In Gaming: Overlooked Seasonal Plot Hooks

rpg blog carnival logo

Still Twisting…

Campaign Mastery is hosting this month’s Blog Carnival. The subject I’ve chosen is “With A Twist” and anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, Plot Twists, etc, is right on topic.

I started with an article on the rules interpretation of Surprise, and followed that with a two-part article looking at types of Plot Twist that would work in RPGs after discovering that the literary types all had problems when applied to a communal format (Part One, Part Two).

This time around, I’m look at what should be the most pleasant surprise of all – the unexpected gift…

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It never fails to surprise me how many GMs fail to appreciate the plot potential of gifts, especially when coupled with the season of giving that is Christmas. I’ve often made a point of emphasizing the PCs giving gifts to each other in my campaigns at such times, something I discussed in ‘Tis The Season: A Christmas Scenario, in which I described an adventure from the Zenith-3 campaign that had this principle as its’ theme.

In fact, to be both seasonal and topical, you don’t need to have a version of the Christmas Holiday in your game at all; simply have an enemy of the PCs give them a gift and play the resulting adventure at the appropriate time of year, and your players will make a metagame connection to the Holiday Season with no need for in-game festivities at all. It could be any time of year, game time.

Using Gifts as adventure springboards ultimately comes down to three elements:

  • The Personality of the Giver;
  • The Motivation for the Gift; and,
  • The nature of the Gift.

The first two clearly shape the third, and are also strongly interelated.

I’ve chosen to use Motivation as the differentiator within this article, and have identified six different Motivations which could prompt the issuance of a Gift from Villain to PCs. Some are benign, some are anything but.

Christmas Bonus: Characters

I’ve offered up a quote to mark each of the Motivations. While some of these are traditional or from outside sources, most of them are original, offered up from fictitious (original) villains, and contain a lot of characterization. These character seeds are my Christmas gift to the readers of Campaign Mastery – take the names, or the personas, or both, and grow new characters for your games from them!

Have a very happy and safe Christmas season, everyone!

Gifts As Surprises

“I like to watch them scurry about like ants before the rain.”
— Uberlord The Cruel


Doing something nice for your enemies just to mess with their heads only works when you have already established a sufficient level of paranoia on the part of the players, but when it does, BOY does it work well!

These gifts need to be mysterious, tantalizing, and at the same time, innocent of any nasty surprises. Quite obviously, the villain won’t give away anything that could possibly be used against him, so that’s a second key criterion. And it should be something that reflects his personality in some way, so that’s criterion number three.

You can have it be something that’s vaguely or superficially threatening if you need to actively engage the PCs paranoia, but it’s far better if you forgo this and let their own inability to find anything wrong with it fuel the plot.

That’s all setup, the first act of the adventure. It obviously needs to link to something more substantial if it’s to stand alone; here, you have three options.

Option One

The first is to have this be part of a general Gift-giving between the PCs. This uses The Gift as a seasoning to this main plot, rather than the primary object of the day’s play; your adventure should be crafted accordingly, with this just one of several encounters or incidents along the way.

Option Two

The second is for the gift t3o lead to someone who’s in trouble and needs the PCs help, a breadcrumb that lets them be the Good Guys somewhere. Exactly where depends on what the transportation capabilities of the PCs are; if they are limited to foot- or horse- travel, you might need to incorporate a one-off travel gimmick into the gift.

What the Villain is actually offering as a gift is not the physical item (which may well be consumed in the process of transport), but the opportunity to feel good about themselves.

Taking that as the theme of the resolution of whatever the trouble is that the PCs end up in gives a significant clue as to the nature of that trouble. It also has to be something that will pose considerable difficulty for the PCs, but which they can ultimately overcome fairly quickly, and those requirements further restrict the nature of the plot.

Finally, the people to be helped should be isolated, so that they don’t form a resource for the PCs. It’s even possible that they will be massively ungrateful by nature, or rabidly xenophobic. That doesn’t matter, in fact it only helps (from the villain’s point of view).

Option Three

The third alternative is to focus on the mind-games aspect of the gift. This can be the hardest of the lot to do, but the most satisfying – to the GM, I doubt the players would agree – if it comes off.

In this approach, the gift is just the first breadcrumb in a series that ultimately proves a tail-chasing exercise of no significance. It’s effectively a boast on the part of the villain, a reminder that he’s out there and is not going to go away – and if he’s quiet for any length of time it’s because events are proceeding exactly to his liking, thank you very much.

This really works well as an opening salvo, assuming that the villain (and/or his machinations) are going to be central to the adventures of the next year or whatever. It can be viewed as a throwing down of the gauntlet. Again, use these themes and threads as the foundation for your decision-making in terms of what the gift is and what it invokes.

Option Four

Yes, I know I said that there were only three. I don’t consider this a full option because it is too dependent on player actions and behavior. Rather than making a general case, a quick example should explain everything:

The weather is absolutely miserable, either hot or cold (depending on the local season). If we’re talking Christmas, and the PCs are in the northern hemisphere, the bitterest winter imaginable is unfolding; if in the southern hemisphere at that time of year, use a heat wave. You then need one of the PCs to wish aloud for a change of weather or a bit of relief. The villain then flips the earth on it’s axis of rotation for 24 hours, reversing the seasons. Sure, there will be all sorts of other unwanted consequences, but he makes the PC’s wish come true and that’s the key point. Of course, there are all sorts of implications to this idea that may require scaling down, depending on the campaign; villain power level, villain awareness of what the PCs have said, and so on. And, at the end, you need some sort of connection to make it obvious why this has been done.

Gifts As Characterization

“Every once in a while, declare peace. It confuses the hell out of your enemies.”
Spacer– 76th Rule Of Acquisition,


Gifts can be a wonderful way to add depth of characterization, or to reinforce key personality attributes, on the part of the giver. The first is achieved with a gift that contradicts the perceived personality, in whole or in part; the second by reflecting the elements of the personality that are to be reinforced.

Clearly, the primary differentiator is the nature of the gift. Who exactly it is sent to is a secondary consideration, though it may be used to focus attention on a relationship (even if the PC receiving the gift isn’t aware that there is one, or even sent to the group as a whole.

Consider: You’re the Avengers and UPS contacts you to say they have a package for you with only the return address “Hydra HQ”. You’re Batman and you get a similar call about a package to you from the Joker. You’re the X-Men and something from Magneto turns up on your doorstep.

Is it a threat? Is it a trap? Is it a genuine gesture? What does it mean? Is it an attempt to curry favor, or repay a debt (real or perceived?)

More: the people or person who benefits most from the gift may not be the gift recipient. It might be a clue to a deep, unsolved mystery. It might be a breadcrumb leading to an entirely separate adventure – one with a villain, and victims who need rescuing. It doesn’t even have to be the usual genre of adventure if the gift provides transport into another realm, even as a one-shot. It might target a rival of the sender, or it might simply target someone who deserves to be taken down a notch.

One adventure for some future point in the Zenith-3 campaign is a gift from an enemy who forces the team into an opportunity to altar the villain’s past – just a little – in such a way that he is not as ruthless and consumed by his obsessions, by playing the part of the three ghosts to his Scrooge. It still needs a lot of work, and I don’t currently have the right villain for this plot on tap in the campaign, and the fact that there are more than three PCs is a plot hole that needs to be solved, but the basic principle is right. Even if the villain was certain that the attempt would end in failure, the opportunity is itself a priceless gift – and the mere offer (whether acceptance is forced on the PCs or not) makes the villain some shade less than pitch-black.

In a slightly-similar vein, I have a plot somewhere in the back of my head about a joker-style homicidal maniac who – for reasons not yet figured out – decides to gift the PCs with 48 hours in which he will do charitable things and help people and not let them end up dead if he can help it. Of course, everything is stacked against him succeeding, and he has the worst luck imaginable. Will the PCs apprehend him, or let him try and take one small step towards reform? Will they help him, overtly or surreptitiously? The last is what I will want circumstances to lead to, if I can manage it, but the choice of how to deal with the situation will be up to the players. Again, I don’t have most of the required building blocks in place for this adventure at the moment, and it has plot holes that I might never be able to solve – but the idea is there, and win, lose, or draw, it adds a lot to the character of the villain.

Because gift-giving only happens on rare occasions, they always represent an unusual circumstance, and that can bring about unusual actions and expose unseen corners of personalities – a rare opportunity to make things more interesting, as well as more “real”.

Gifts As Tactics

“Just because I’m a cyberdroid, that doesn’t mean I’m completely heartless. I keep several in jars on my shelf.”
Spacer– Vax Digitus


Some people are always looking for an advantage. Christmas represents a time when guards are lowered, when people want to think the best of everyone, and when opportunities, therefore, abound.

The more indirect the advantage that can be gained by a gift, the better the resulting campaign effect, at least in the long term. In the short-term, however, the more remote the consequences, the less engaging the adventure. Clearly, you need to find a way to make the two live with each other. The best solution is to have two targets, with one dependent on achieving the other. Target one could be just a distraction, but it’s even better if the opportunity to achieve target two is an unnoticed objective of achieving – or failing to achieve – target one.

You may be wondering how failure to achieve a target can have a positive effect without that target being a distraction. The answer can be characterized as “a contingency plan” – ie the bad guy uses a gift to go after an obvious advantage, which he would quite happily take if he can get it, but he is prepared to settle for something smaller and far less obvious that he can pick up along the way, or on the way out.

Think of this as a series of dominos, with the attempt to seize target one being just the first. Not the success, just the attempt. Every subsequent domino up until something close to the last is to take place in the shadows, unseen and unremarked by the PCs (at least at the time). So the PCs get to see, and stop, what they think is the first (and last) domino. Villain goes away, content with his hidden win, PCs go away, content with their overt win, everyone’s happy. At some later point, they notice one of the later dominos fall, but can’t work out how the villain gains from it. They start investigating and find a clue about the real significance of domino one, and start backtracking through the connection that leads to the later domino, and discover what the villain has really been up to. Two adventures and a lot of seemingly unimportant background stuff going on in the meantime.

Using this basic example as a template, you can design as many of these as you want; the shape and content of the dominos may vary, but the principle remains the same.

An alternative that might be fun is to have two villains trying the same basic ploy at the same time, and inadvertently interfering with each other, getting in each other’s way, drawing unwanted attention to what the other is up to, even leaking information on each other’s activities (anonymously) to the PCs.

There are lots of ways to have fun with this basic scenario. Another key point of difference is the end goal, which might in fact turn out to be something mundane, even trivial, from the point of view of the players (who have no doubt been imagining all the terrible things that might be done with the power and resources that the villain has accumulated) only to find that it’s merely something that has great personal value to him.

One adventure that I started to write, but never got to use, worked along similar lines; the supervillain went to a lot of trouble to kidnap one of the world’s greatest artists, went to even more trouble to steal a painting from the Louvre, and went to even more trouble to get his hands on the latest and greatest microscope and variant on the mass spectrometer. When he added a microbiologist to the list of kidnap victims, one who specialized in weaponizing disease organisms, they naturally began putting together all sorts of disaster scenarios built around the concept that plague bacteria had somehow survived in the natural pigments of the paint. The artist was needed to separate out samples of the different pigments, using the microscope; the mass spectrometer was needed to confirm the viability of the disease; and the microbiologist was needed to breed the bacteria and turn it into a weapon. In actual fact, the villains grandmother was in love with the stolen painting, and he had promised her a perfect copy for her birthday. He needed the artist to paint the copy, the mass spectrometer to ensure that the pigments were reproduced exactly, the microscope to study the brushwork, and the microbiologist to work the equipment.

The fact that the “gift” aspect of this plotline only happens at the end of the adventure – and might not happen at all, if the PCs get clumsy about things – doesn’t make it any less relevant to the theme of gift-related adventures. To make it even more relevant, you could change “birthday” to “Christmas”. Oh yes, the old woman is dying, this will be the final opportunity to make her happy.

If I were actually writing this up today, I would make sure that the PCs didn’t find the villain until he was actually giving the copy to his grandmother, and didn’t get to confront him until later – when they learn that it was a near-perfect copy, and the villain trades the location of his kidnap victims, the original, and the equipment for his freedom. Will the PCs take the deal? I would also have large sums of (possibly stolen) money paid into the kidnap victim’s bank accounts (payment for services rendered, even if the rendering was involuntary), just to muddy the waters along the way. And I do mean large – a couple of hundred thousand, enough that they might be payments for collaborating with an Enemy Of Mankind.

Random Acts Of Kindness

“Once a year I indulge my generous side just so that I can really enjoy being evil the rest of the year.”
Spacer– Grandmother Sinister


I love throwing morally-complex characters and difficult decisions at my players. The hard choices are the ones that really define who and what their characters are, what they want, and how far they are willing to go to get it. A black cat at midnight makes a great gimmick for a scary story, but it’s an awful visual. For black to really look black, it needs something to contrast with.

The best villains in comics have always had this – Kang The Conqueror, who wanted to restore his lost love Ravonna, almost as much as he wanted to conquer the earth throughout time. Doctor Doom, whose mother was trapped in hell, and who he would do anything to free – so long as that did not in any way injure his pride. The Dread Dormmammu, who was – at least initially – a noble (if despotic) ruler who cared for his subjects and sought to protect them – but saw nothing wrong with expanding his realm by conquest. And, of course, Magneto, who will go to any length to protect Mutant-kind from attacks from blind, bigoted, Homo Sapiens. Even the original Green Goblin, who was a good man gone bad, and who genuinely cared for his son – but thought that discipline and tough love were necessary to toughen the much weaker Harry up, even when it degenerated into abuse.

Of course, there are some villains who are only weakened and made more ambivalent by such humanizing characteristics. Deathstroke. The Joker. The Red Skull. Loki, as portrayed in the comics and movies.

It’s no coincidence that these lists contain the lead villain of most of the major superhero movies to date. Once, I would have included Lex Luthor in the second group, because he works very well that way, but the somewhat-softened versions that appeared in Lois & Clark and Smallville – refer this article on Wikipedia – shows that he is that rarest of creations, a villain which can be equally-effective both ways.

One of the best ways to show a humanizing streak is for the villain to perform a random act of kindness as a gift to whoever they help. The PCs hear about it taking place, of course, and assume the worst, and go off to stop whatever nefarious plan the villain has in mind, not realizing that they are casting themselves, in this light, as the villains.

Picture the following: the news carries a feel-good story about a community helping a crippled child who has experienced some sort of tragedy just prior to the Holidays. The boy’s condition is uncommon but not especially rare. Our Villain buys a couple of pharmaceutical labs that he didn’t have before, and directs them to find a cure for the boys’ condition, sparing no expense. He also announces to the press that he has been touched by the boys’ story, and what he has done in response, and that he is donating $10,000,000 to ease their burdens in the meantime, so that wheelchairs and medical attention and whatever else they need can be provided. Meanwhile, he carries on being an utterly evil villain, opposed by the PCs, so that when he subsequently (a week or two later) announces a breakthrough that will be given to the original victim free of charge, they will assume the worst. In fact, they may even think he has sunk lower than they thought possible, seeking to take advantage of the boy. Villain shows up, PCs show up, they fight, boy is accidentally endangered, villain rescues him. PCs make one final stab at convincing the boy not to trust the villain, but he has no other hope – he accepts the treatment, and lo and behold, it works – in front of the mass media who have been attracted to the story like flies to honey.

The next day, the Villain (back to being evil) announces to the media that the treatment will go on sale in (some market that doesn’t have a rigorous approvals regime) for $10,000 a dose – but that he will subsidize that down to a mere $100 a dose for anyone who comes to work for him, or who sends him credible intelligence on the PCs. And if the treatment should later turn out to be flawed, even if the PCs discover the problem, who’s going to listen to them after all this? They can have ironclad proof, and even if they did manage to convince others of the flaw – something that can be independently verified – any hint of allegation that the Villain knew about the flaw all along will be routinely assumed to have been fabricated by the PCs. Public Opinion is against them.

Of course, your plots can be simpler: Villain donates rare piece to a local museum. Villain rebuilds orphanage. Villain stops a runaway train, or averts a meltdown. Villain donates toys to a hospital. There doesn’t have to be a zing to it, a sting in the tail – it can simply be a random act of kindness. And if he can make the media, and through them the world, think that the PCs are just a little nuts where he’s concerned, so much the better!

Gifts as Traps

“Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Spacer– Traditional Roman Proverb

“…but always examine it’s droppings..”
Spacer– Azanar Quint’s rebuttal to the Roman Proverb


I’ve largely covered this already, but there so many possibilities, it’s hard to be sure that I’ve dealt with them all.

A trap is a situation designed to harm or hamper those affected. That covers a wide range of territory, of which direct attacks via gifts are only the most overt. Some measure of the subtlety that is possible was made evident in the previous section, where I described an attack on the reputation and credibility of the PCs.

To a large extent, the more overt and obvious the attack, the more insignificant the event, no matter how dangerous the attack itself might be. The more subtle and indirect the attack, the more interesting the resulting adventure will be.

For example, contemplate a Personality Bomb that swaps the minds of the PCs with the minds of ordinary passersby. This puts the PCs in a position of having no extraordinary abilities, or very reduced capacities, while three ordinary people now have the opportunity of a lifetime to do whatever. Will they try and be heroes? Will that act for their own gain? Will they seek revenge for some past slight, real or perceived? There are a great many possibilities – and none of them are good from the PC’s point of view.

Or perhaps, a Taint Ray, that simply amplifies negative instincts and behaviors – just for a while.

The Gift of Pandora’s Box

“It’s easy to take the high ground when you never have to make the hard choices.”
Spacer– Baron Zuker Von Darkholde


I mentioned earlier that I love to put my players in moral quandaries, and that I like to use enemies that do the same. Making things matter is an easy way to make the adventures more interesting. “Gifts” that offer such moral dilemmas are obvious fodder.

These adventures are actually harder than they appear. It can be quite difficult not to be clumsy, heavy-handed, or morally simplistic. For example: “There are two bombs. One will affect just one person of some importance, but has a very short fuse. The other will harm a great many people, of less importance, but has a much longer fuse. Which bomb do you want to arm, and which to disarm?”

Or, “I have overridden the controls of a nuclear reactor in France, and initiated a process that will lead to a meltdown in about an hour. I have also planted a cannister of biological agent in a subway station somewhere in the world with a timer that will detonate in just under an hour. For every person that you publicly sacrifice in the name of the Darker God Below All, I will reveal one letter from the name of one of these two targets. You have a little less than an hour to decide who lives and who dies. Don’t waste it.”

Or, “You have a simple choice. Take the pill, and your power will double for an hour – but somewhere, someone will die to empower you. Don’t take it, and the disease with which I have infected you will halve your power for that hour. And, did I mention that there’s an alien invasion fleet that I have lured into position to attack Earth any minute now?”


“It’s a gift. Take it,” he said with a smile.
Spacer– Any villain, any time


Gifts offer innumerable possibilities for GMs. They can enhance an existing plotline or character, or stand alone as a seasonal plotline. They can be a side-story, the main story, or can presage an even bigger story. Surprise “Gifts” are a Gift for the creative GM – take advantage of them!

The observant may have noted that I usually post articles here at Campaign Mastery on Mondays and Thursdays – and that both Christmas and New Year’s Day this year fall on Thursdays! I do have something I’ve prepared to post on those days, but it won’t be a full article – unless my plans change for something like the 15th time in the last six weeks, of course…

Comments (4)

The Thinking Man’s Guide to Intelligence for Players and GMs


A Message from the Writer/Publisher:

As I write, a hostage situation continues to unfold in Sydney, as it has for almost 15 hours, capturing world attention for all the worst reasons. For those who may be concerned, I am completely fine. But I must share my contempt for those who have attempted to politicize events even as they continued to unfold.

I have said before, and reiterate now, my belief that every time our behavior is changed as a result of such events, every time our freedom is eroded because of fear, every time xenophobia is given fresh impetus by such events, the terrorists win.

Every time the ill-informed speculate without hard facts, making it that much harder for those facts to be heard and acted upon correctly, they give the groups they name/accuse free publicity and support. As I first drafted this insert, the siege had just entered its fifth hour, and all that was known was that there was one gunman, with one confirmed weapon, one bag, and a widely-available flag with a verse from the Quran that is considered fundamental to all Islamic beliefs.

When something like this happens – and it will happen again – don’t speculate, don’t spread rumors, don’t accept unreasonable erosions of freedoms and surveillance of ordinary citizens in the aftermath, and don’t give terrorists or criminals what they want. The more we let ourselves change as a result of events of this type, the more the perpetrators win.

What I fear most is a knee-jerk reaction on the part of elements of the public. That, too, is a victory for those who would spread fear and terror. Every time an incident such as this excites xenophobia, causing intolerance and fear within the community, we marginalize citizens of our nations who would otherwise be good citizens, driving the vulnerable into the arms of the recruiters. Over-reactions play into their hands.

We’ve seen it so many times before; to what extent the threat of Islamic State is the result of the xenophobic reaction by the world following 9/11 is unknown, may never be known, but I remain convinced that it made it much easier for that group to gather its forces. 99.999% of those of the Muslim faith are just as horrified by these events as anyone else, if not more so, because by using the Quran to justify their actions, they commit what most regard as an act of blasphemy.

We are rightly horrified in modern times by the excesses of political correctness run amok during the McCarthy era. Yet, the 9/11 response of paranoia toward anyone of Islamic descent was almost a mirror image of that excess; only the target had changed. The phone-tapping, the surveillance, the acts of illegality that have recently come to light but that were always suspected, they exactly parallel the techniques in vogue in the 1950s, and will eventually be seen in exactly the same light, I’m sure.

The price we pay for freedom is the risk that someone will abuse it, or seek to take it away from us. Yet we accept a worse risk every time we cross the streets or get in a car – check the statistics!

We are also, and again quite rightly, horrified by the acts of violence by extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere. But I won’t, and you shouldn’t, let that, or these latest events, drive me into an overreaction, and neither should anyone else.

The message I want to send out to our readers is that it is Business As Usual here at Campaign Mastery, and in Australia. And that means that it’s time to get on with today’s article.


This article was originally intended for Roleplaying Tips, so it’s not quite in my usual style. Whether that makes it better or worse, I can’t really judge – but it was a lot harder to write than that usual style, so expect it to remain an aberration. To make matters worse, it has had to be extensively reformatted to work on a web page.

The backstory is this: I wrote an article for RPT on Charisma called Systems Of Attraction, (Part 1, Part 2) and was encouraged by Johnn to tackle the other D&D stats. I started on this article and one on Strength immediately; the Strength article is several times the length of this and also still unfinished. In fact, it is so large that in 2007 I split it into three parts (Let me know if you want me to finish it).

Getting back to this article, I started writing it way back in 2004 or 2005, long before there was a Campaign Mastery; it’s hung around my “unfinished articles” folder, 90% complete, for nine or ten years! I finally dusted it off and got it finished.

One of the more difficult aspects of roleplaying, both as a player and a referee, is handling characters of different intelligence levels to that of the person playing. Over the years, everyone works out methods of dealing with these situations, but they often don’t think to pass them on to others. So, for whatever they’re worth, here are my tips for playing characters of differing intelligence, for both players and referees.

Part One: Referees:

Simply by virtue of the fact that they have to play the parts of “everyone else”, Referees have to cope with characters of extremely different intelligence to their own more frequently. For that reason, this article will largely concentrate on techniques the referee can use to handle the problem.

Playing Low Intelligence NPCs

The way to play low intelligence NPCs is to simplify the situation and to slow their thinking down. Many referees make low-intelligence characters just plain dumb, and there are times when that’s appropriate – when an NPC has an INT of 3 or 4 on the D&D / Pathfinder Scale, for example. But most lower-intelligence characters aren’t really all that stupid, they’re just a bit slower than most. Here are some techniques to “Think simple” without “playing dumb”:

  • Halfway through speaking a sentence in character, stop and count silently to yourself, 1-2-3, before resuming.
  • Simplify the language. Low intelligence characters – INT 5-7 on the D&D Scale – generally understand anything said in 2 syllables or less, provided they are given time to digest each statement before the speaker moves on to the next. When they aren’t given that time, they will “lose” the end of the first statement and the start of the second; producing either gibberish (“I don’t understand” or just looking lost) or a complete misunderstanding.
  • They often misunderstand and mispronounce words of 3 syllables if the reference is a common one – an uncommon reference they simply won’t get.
  • Personality traits of such characters tend to be emphasized, even emphatic, and they don’t really follow the concept of exceptions to the rule – everything gets put into a given “shoe-box” of personal experience, and they can’t shift anything until they can re-address it to a different box.
  • They will often use slang and poor grammar.
  • They tend to stay fixed on one line of thought regardless of what is said.

For example, consider the following dialogue between an NPC whose dominant personality trait is “suspicion of foreigners” and a typical PC who needs to discuss the accidental contamination of the farmland:

“You ain’t from around these parts. Never trust a furriner…. (1-2-3)…. that’s what my ma used to tell me.”
    “But you can trust me, I’m from the government.”
    “And my Da, he told me that too.”
    “Do you understand? I’m your friend! I’m here to talk about your land.”
    “Told my brother, too. But he died.”
    “I have to talk to you about your land!”
    “Land’s mine all right. Been in my family since my grandpa was a kid.”
    “Yes, I’m sure. Look, there was an accident, right, and something was spilt on your land,” (PC is trying to dumb himself down to talk to the character)
    “Grows good corn. You tried our corn? Best in the county!”
    “I’m sure it is. Now the government’s going to clean it up, but we want you to sign this first.”
    “Came second at the state fair three years back with my corn.”
    “Just please sign here, all it says is that we’re going to fix everything and you agree not to sue the government.”
    “First prize went to one of them furriners from Black Ridge County, (1-2-3), over them hills a piece.”
    “Mr Farmer. please just sign here,”
    “Never trust a furriner, Mister…. (1-2-3) who did you say you were again?”

Of course, not all NPCs are going to be obstructions, as this one was; they simply use their base concepts as recurring themes, to which they keep returning, over and over. A generous person might offer to help – reacting to the same government rep by offering to cook the kind government men some (contaminated) corn for lunch. After the government man patiently explains that the corn is not safe, “So you don’t want any corn. Maybe for the workers?”.

GMing Very Low Intelligence NPCs

Characters with less than 50% of average INT scores (under 5 on the D&D Scale) are even more easily stereotyped and easily become less than realistic as a result. I learned how to simulate such people from 2 different sources almost simultaneously: “Benny” on LA Law, and “Camo” in Anne McCafferey’s “Dragonsinger”, part of the Pern series. The former is probably not something that’s easily tracked down, but the latter should not be hard to find. Another good reference is “Simon” from the movie “Mercury Rising”.

  • People at this extreme don’t understand complications, setbacks, difficulties, or obstacles. For them, deciding that they want something, or want to do something, is pretty much enough.
  • They usually aren’t unreasonably stubborn – that’s a cliché – they are just slow to change their minds. A good reason to do so will eventually get through to them – unless they are continually distracted by being told new things they have to figure out.
  • They have a normal emotional range of reactions, but view the world with an immediacy that can sometimes provoke seemingly out-of-place reactions. When they hear about a tragedy that took place 50 years ago, they react as though it had only just happened.
  • At the same time, they have no real sense of perspective or scale; last year was “a long time ago”. Numerically, they can often only count “1,2,3,4…. …10, many” – at best.
  • They don’t simplify what they don’t understand, they just ignore it. They oversimplify everything else.
  • They rarely differentiate between wants and needs.
  • Personality traits of such characters tend to be buried to a large extent, surfacing only Indirectly through behavior that is performed as rote – a generous person of this intellect will give a coin to anyone who helps them, or who they think helps them, or who needs it, or who they think needs it. A miserly person will not give anything to anyone. A warm-hearted person won’t ask if visitors want a cup of tea, they’ll just make it.
  • They don’t understand nuances and shades of gray – things are either good or bad. And they often think that they have been “bad” if they make a mistake, largely due to the way they have been treated by others of greater intellect. They are usually very, if not completely, trusting, though they can be very shy.
  • The latter point is the key to a society where everyone is on the slow side – Ogres, for example, as they are often portrayed in role-playing games. Because they DON’T get mistreated because of their intellect, they SHOULDN’T automatically consider themselves bad for making mistakes – they just shrug it off and ignore it. Mistakes are expected and even a source of humor – and the butt of the joked usually joins in the laughter.
  • They will often play simple games at seemingly inappropriate times – games that are sometimes made violent because of their strength, not because they want to hurt people.

GMing Extremely High Intelligence (EHI) NPCs

Some referees consider these bogeymen, impossible to play properly, and requiring lots of work. This is a reputation the character type does not deserve – these are frequently the EASIEST characters to play, provided that you acknowledge that they would be smarter than you are! (This entire article actually started out being about how to play these characters, but grew somewhat).

  • EHI Characters ALWAYS have an objective.
  • EHI Characters ALWAYS have a plan with multiple contingencies and fall-backs and bailout options.
  • EHI Characters usually only fail in the long term because of (1) changing objectives, or (2) loss of resources, or (3) opposition of equal caliber, or (4) personality flaws that limit the application of their intellect in, or to, one particular area, ie they have Blind Spots. In the short term, bad luck or lateral thinking can cause reversals, but overall these are little more than inconvenient bumps in the road.
EHI-initiated Plots

Realizing all of the above, and that you don’t have to do it all in advance, these characters can become extremely easy to play:

  • If the EHI character is the instigator of the current game situation, they have had time to plan in advance. The referee should, in advance, determine how events would proceed in an ideal world from the EHI character’s point of view. Assume that he knows, or can deduce, everything he could possibly know or deduce.
  • It follows that if events deviate from their expectations, they are being actively opposed, and both the plan and themselves are potentially at risk. They will immediately begin to prepare a fall-back plan, and a bailout/escape option, while at the same time performing whatever they can to counter the interference AND prevent further interference. I go into detail about how to determine these responses in a separate section below.
EHI NPCs seizing an advantage from someone else’s plot/circumstances
  • If the EHI NPC is simply stumbling in to complicate the plot, determine the maximum advantage that he can gain from the situation; that defines his objective within the scenario. In this case, he is going to be acting more off-the-cuff; simply treat events as though he has just suffered a setback at the hands of the PCs and is picking up the pieces, as described below.
  • Let the players do what they want, as usual. As soon as they realize the characteristics of who they are tangling with, they will start throwing out all sorts of ideas you can use, simply by discussing what the EHI character might do and what the PCs can do to stop it.
  • What’s more, you will think of your own variations as you listen.
When the PCs (or another NPC) do something to interfere with the plans of an EHI character
  • Work out what the EHI NPC needs to have done in to be in a position to counter or undo or interfere with the PCs actions. Assume that any necessary preparations have been made in advance. Check that the requirements do not exceed the resources they have available, that the PCs would not have discovered the preparations already, and that the PCs actions don’t fall within one of the blind spots of the NPC; if any of these apply, the PCs actions then become a Major Reversal of the NPCs fortunes (see below). But, if there’s no reason for them NOT to have done whatever it is, assume that they have everything all set up and ready to go, and describe events accordingly. These actions then become a contingency plan that the NPC has had “all along”.
  • If you can’t think of something on the spot to counter the PCs actions, try to think of what the EHI character could have set up to take advantage of the PCs actions, in order to further some other goal. Run the idea through the same list of possible personality / preparation infringements given above; if it’s “clean,” assume that this was the EHI character’s REAL objective all along, that he has everything in place ready to go, and describe the action accordingly.
  • If you can’t think of anything that falls into that category, either, then the PCs have once again dealt the NPCs plans a Major Setback, and the NPC will react accordingly, as described below.
  • There should be limits to the planning ability of the NPC, based on their intelligence. In general, a good rule of thumb is to have 1 additional fall-back or contingency plans for every multiple of average human intelligence. If 10 is the average human intelligence score, and the EHI has an INT of 40, then that’s four fall-backs or contingencies. If they have an INT of 100, that’s ten.
EHI NPCs encountering a Major Setback

Every EHI character sooner or later encounters a Major Setback. When that’s the case, it’s time to think of (a) their personal liberty & survival, and (b) their long-term plans.

  • Survival first. With that as the defined objective, determine what the character needs to have done in order to achieve it. If those things are within their means, they will have done so. Most REALLY smart types will have at least 1/3 of their contingency plans reserved for this sort of bailout. Better a temporary incarceration than a permanent death.
  • Liberty second. Better even than a temporary incarceration is a clean getaway. Fall guys, secret exits, temporally-suspended spells – whatever it took, an EHI character will have prepared it accordingly. Some may even have gone to the trouble of falsifying blind spots and flaws so that some escape routes believed to be closed to them are actually in readiness – but save that for Masterminds who expect to be opposed.
EHI Characters recovering from a Major Setback

Once they are free and clear, they – and the referee – can spend a bit of time working out how the situation has now changed, in terms of their long-term plans.

  • If possible, they will turn everything that happened to their long-term advantage! If not, they will simply pick up the pieces and start again.
  • In general, I like to allow 1 real-time week for every multiple of average intelligence they have, to equate to a game-time week. So the character with INT 100 should get 10 weeks real-time for me (as Referee) to work out what they would have done in the game week following the Setback.
  • In many cases, that time frame just won’t work in a practical sense. Time gets compressed and expanded dramatically during ongoing play, and there can be anything from seconds to years of game time between one game session and the next. To get around this handicap, take advantage of the GM’s power to rewrite the past, so as to have things happen that the PCs didn’t notice, or pay any attention to, at the time.
The Language and Dialogue of EHI NPCs

Another key point is the language of the NPC. In general, characters have to make an effort to make themselves understood by people with less than 75% of their INT score, and there is a real art to speaking in character as a person of exceptional intelligence.

The best method is to invest in a little effort in advance – select a number of useful phrases and write some “high-brow” equivalents, taking into account the personality of the speaker if at all possible. The very best role model for this aspect of intelligence comes from a pair of British comedy TV series, “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”. In addition to being hilarious, they are a perfect example of the art of speaking over someone’s head, intellectually. If you can’t get your hands on the DVDs, get the books – you won’t regret it.

In the meantime, here are some practical guidelines on how to go about it. The primary solution is to rewrite the phrasing, then the words, then the phrasing, then the words, and so on, as many times as necessary. Each subsequent rewrite is the equivalent of another multiple of average intelligence, but after a while you reach your personal limitations. The following example should give you a clearer notion of the process:

  • Start with the simplest, clearest, phrase possible. That then becomes the entry under which you “index” your stock phrases:
        “You can’t win, [NAME].”
  • Rewrite the phrasing to express the thought without contractions. Embellish it with one or two supplementary phrases:
        “You cannot win, [NAME]. I have prepared for anything you can possibly do.” (Int = Twice Average)
  • Rewrite the words – never use one word when three will do, never use one syllable when 3 will mean the same thing:
        “Your efforts are in vain, [NAME]! Any possible maneuver you might attempt has been anticipated and preparations put in place not merely to counter them, but even to use them to further MY ends and plans!” (Int = up to triple average).
  • Re-rewrite the phrasing to pad what’s said even further. Try to turn each phrase into a sentence in it’s own right:
        “Any effort you may make is futile, [NAME]. Any possible maneuver, any theoretical strategy, any hypothetical scenario you can conjure, all have been anticipated! Preparations not merely to counter any such, but to shape the consequences to ends of MY choosing, have been established and set in motion long ago. My ultimate victory is inevitable, your greatest efforts are mere thrashing within the nets and coils of my plans!” (Int = up to four times average).
  • Re-rewrite the words, adding adjectives, and look for alternatives in a Thesaurus if necessary. In particular, look for possible uses of alliteration, sub-phrases that repeat the same sounds:
        “Any endeavor you may undertake in opposition to the circumstances I have set before you is both futile and pitiful, [NAME]. Any possible maneuver, theoretical stratagem, or hypothetical scenario, no matter how improbable, has not merely been anticipated and countered prior to the first whispers of subconscious inspiration within your pathetic little minds; mechanisms set in motion by my hand will dynamically remap the confluence of consequences toward destinies that will ultimately further goals and ends of MY devising. My ultimate victory is inevitably proclaimed through the operation of the scientific applications of chaos mechanics and probability remapping, advances of unparalleled delicacy which only I have mastered. Your many-fold tomorrows are to me an open book, your potential destinies mere clay that will be reshaped and molded in whatever manner I see fit. Your most heroic enterprises are rendered mere thrashing within the indestructible coils of my net, in comparison to the intellect and resources applied to the achievement of goals that your barbaric understandings are incapable of appreciating!” (Int = up to five times average).
  • At this point, it’s all getting a little long-winded, so on the next rewrite, I would look for ways to compress the statement into a more concise form. There’s no easy way to do this, and I think an example might do more harm than good because it won’t be the only way to approach the problem, so this is where I will end the demonstration. You can get a few tips from my series, The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative even though that didn’t target dialogue.

Note that, when you boil it back down, all the above speech REALLY says is the original statement: “You can’t win, [NAME]!”

A technique that helps achieve these ends is to take advantage of the computer’s ability to cut and past and over-type text. Instead of starting fresh each time, simply make a copy of your last version and type over the top of it.

EHI NPCs Final Advice

Of course, that’s not all there is to it, but that’s 99% of the task of running super-smart NPCs as being super-smart. Using these guidelines, the referee can cope with just about any degree of extra intelligence just by dialing up or down the advantage that they confer to the NPC.

I should also refer you to my tips on the Mastermind at this point, as many of those will be relevant (and vice versa).

Players with PCs of Unusual Intelligence

Players face slightly different challenges than referees. In some ways, they face a more difficult task than the referee and in others, they have life a little easier.

Playing & GMing Low Intelligence PCs

All of the techniques described earlier for use by the referee work equally well when applied to a PC. However, there are some extra challenges involved for all concerned.

  • It can be difficult for the player to constantly change gears back and forth, mentally, between speaking as the player and the character.
  • The player can fall into the trap of only being “slow” when there is no penalty to the character. GMs should watch for this, and mandate an INT check when necessary.
  • The referee can mistake player statements for character statements, leading to unjustified accusations of poor roleplaying. So think twice before demanding an INT check as described above.
  • Synopses of past adventures generally describe what really happened and not what the character thought was happening, increasing the workload of the player, who has to keep track of the character’s mental processes and understanding – and misunderstandings – from session to session.

These problems all have cures in common.

  • Stay in character in group discussions and planning – it’s important to remember that the group doing the planning ARE the characters and not the players. The group supposedly doing the planning have certain mental resources and personality traits, and these should be roleplayed faithfully at such times. By enforcing this policy, the referee can help the player adopt the role he’s chosen.
  • That does not mean keeping quiet! The character has ideas and opinions and these should be expressed at such times, within the bounds of the personality. It’s when everyone else is metagaming that good roleplaying can be most noticeable. If there is an important point being missed, that the character would not understand, a quick note from the player of the Low-INT PC to the player of the most intelligent PC brings the point out for discussion without breaking character, helping both players stay in character.
  • The other players can quickly fall into the trap of disregarding the character’s contributions at such times, which can be a source of acute frustration for the player. Instead of getting worked up and indignant at such times, use it to your advantage – when they miss something important, jot it down, and bring it up only when everyone else thinks the discussion is over, or even a day or two later, completely out of context. Remember – SLOW, not STUPID. And when your character is proved right, work off all that frustration by crowing for days (in character!)
  • Get the referee on-side. Remind him occasionally that people often confuse Slow with Stupid, and so should the NPCs! They should occasionally let things slip that no-one else notices. For example, if the characters are being tricked into doing some dirty work by someone they think is a friend, the referee can quietly tip off the player during a break in play or between game sessions. The delay HELPS you roleplay. (This should not happen all the time, but should happen every now and then. Prod the referee about it whenever the other players start making the same mistake!)
  • It’s even more important than usual, at such times, to distinguish between player knowledge and character knowledge. This is because, in addition to these two distinct aspects of roleplaying, there is also player understanding and character understanding. Make sure that you distinguish between the two, and that the other players note that you are playing within the limitations of your character. It is common for players to use “I” as shorthand for “My character” – “I do this”, “I think”, “I want to” – DON’T DO IT when roleplaying a character of lower intelligence. Instead, be careful to always announce your character’s perspective as being just that.
  • KNOW THE SYSTEM. Take notes between game sessions, as necessary, to remind you how to do key things like saving throws, skill checks, and so on. It really spoils the momentum of roleplay that you build up using these techniques if you have to break character to ask “How do I…. ?” Also, learn the geography of your character sheet, for the same reason. Sure, this is good advice anytime, but it’s absolutely (and, perhaps, surprisingly) CRITICAL when playing a low-intelligence character.
  • Try putting a drawn-out “Aaah” or “Umm” or “Urrr”at the start every time your character starts to talk. In time, everyone will come to recognize this as shorthand for “I’m speaking in character”.
  • Obviously, even if you follow the advice above when participating in group discussions, you will have less to do as a player than the rest. This is when you get the opportunity to take notes on what’s going on, As Your Character Understands It, and anything that the character does NOT understand about what’s going on. These notes are your “translation” of the synopsis of events, enabling you to be consistent in your play from session to session.
  • And finally, get the referee on-side – again! Arrange with him that he will “pull his punch” when the character does something stupid in combat despite the player knowing better – but do it in advance! Point out that you are reducing your character’s effectiveness in order to better roleplay.

The following are two examples – these are versions of the same scene, differing only in that the low-INT character, Bone, has initiative in one and not in the other:

    Referee: “Into the firelight bounds a Sabretooth Tiger wearing a diamond-studded collar and a skullcap embroidered with the sygil of the Shape-changer’s Guild.”
    Bone: “Awwww, Nice Kitty. I am going to hug you and pet you and stroke you and…”
    Other Players: Draw weapons amidst calls for Bone to get back, get out of the way, etc.
    Referee: “As you approach the cat and start stroking it’s fur, it growls and takes a swipe at you, slashing your arm.” (Rolls To Hit) “You were not expecting it to attack, so it’s blow hits.” (Rolls Damage) “You take 32 points of damage, but because you weren’t tensed up,” (Note the very flimsy excuse) “…you are able to avoid the worst of it. I’m going to rule that you take 6 points of real damage and 24 points of shock damage from your surprise at its attack. Next round.”
    Bone: “Awww, You’re not a nice kitty at all! I will hurt you bad with my sword!” and makes gestures suggestive of drawing the weapon.

    Referee: “Into the firelight bounds a Sabretooth Tiger wearing a diamond-studded collar and a skullcap embroidered with the sygil of the Shape-changer’s Guild.” (exactly the same intro)
    Other Players: “Draw weapons!” – “Backs to the fire!” – “It’s a Were!” – “I grab some loose earth off the ground and try to fling it into it’s eyes!” – “Where’s my wand?”
    Bone: Draws Sword and says, “Awww, Don’t Hurt The nice Kitty!”…..

Playing & GMing Very Low Intelligence PCs

In terms of techniques, the suggestions outlined previously for use by referees are all that are needed to play these characters and play them well. However, very low intelligence PCs also face some extra challenges. Most of these were discussed above under the heading of “Low Intelligence NPCs”, as were the solutions.

It’s worth noting that some of the problems are actually diminished with a further reduction in character intelligence. It generally becomes easier for all concerned to tell when the player is roleplaying, for example.

With decreasing intelligence, the understanding of abstract concepts will also decrease. The player should discuss in advance with the referee how a given skill score or ability will be interpreted for the character. It’s fair to pick some aspect of each skill that the character cannot master, and to come up with ways to compensate.

Take, for example, the skill of picking locks. A clever character might master the art of using bent bits of wire, nails, etc etc. The thicker-witted character might learn to use a small hammer to “shock” a lock open with a precisely-judged rap after wrapping the lock in a cloth to muffle the noise.

Another example is the skill of tracking. I once played a scout with zero sense of direction. One of the players tried to explain north to him by pointing toward a mountain that was, at the time, to the north; from that moment on, to the character, north was in the direction of that mountain (even after we had climbed over it). The abstract concept was beyond the character’s understanding (the fools then trusted him to draw the map). But he could find tracks where no-one else could see them – he could follow anyone anywhere. He once tracked a magic carpet by following the line of dust dropped from it – it was a slightly different color to the local soil. A speck on this leaf, another on that flower…. the referee had agreed to accept an artificial limitation on the character’s abilities in exchange for brilliance in the remaining areas. The system was not D&D but the same thing could be achieved by a -10 skill modifier for abstract concepts and +10 on practical applications, with the referee deciding when the penalty applied (by raising or lowering the difficulty numbers). This means that, to the other players, the process is invisible – all they can tell is that the character is appalling at some things and brilliant at others.


Playing & GMing Extremely High Intelligence (EHI) PCs

I have met players who hold the opinion that these are the easiest characters of all to play; they frequently have skill levels so high that nothing is impossible, they have IQs so high that they can think of every possible contingency, can learn skills by merely glancing at a textbook, and they can never be tricked – or so those players like to think. Such thinking is incredibly sloppy and overconfident, and referees should take full advantage of it to educate the player in question.

More realistic players will realize that logic develops conclusions from assumptions and from known facts. If the assumptions are flawed, or the facts are deceptions or incomplete, the conclusions may also be incorrect. Furthermore, no matter how smart someone is, they are still capable of self-deception. They will still face challenges and difficulties that will have to be overcome.

Most of the tools needed are similar, if not identical, to those presented for referees earlier in this article, but they have one additional requirement that could be taken for granted for NPCs – the willing cooperation of the referee.

  • Players like to surprise GMs. If you are playing an EHI PC, DON’T DO IT. Tell the GM what your plans are, what your character’s immediate objectives are, and how you expect to go about achieving it. You aren’t (in theory) in competition with the GM, and getting him onside to assist with your planning both enables you to play your character as though he were more intelligent and permits the GM to take some of the burden from your shoulders. He can have the enemy do something that surprises everyone (including you) but then hands you a note telling you exactly how you have already prepared a counter-move, or what the counter-move should be, or he can simply have your character implement that countermove as though you had told him in advance that this was a contingency plan for this event.
  • Make sure that you and the GM have worked out in advance what your “blind spots” are. Occasions when these are applicable are when you want to be given no special advantages over the other PCs. Work out a signal between you and the GM that can be used to warn the other, “Blind Spot Engaged” – then trust each other. These are your opportunities to shine in terms of roleplay, make the most of them.
  • Give the GM a list of the resources you have built up. Let both of you add to this master list from time to time. Let the GM use these as Plot Devices, both to get your character into trouble and to get your character (and the group) out of trouble.
  • Work out ways of simulating appropriate pastimes with the GM. These let you challenge a PC (or an NPC) to a game of four-dimensional chess or whatever and actually play something rather than having it sound all contrived.
  • The GM should, in advance, determine how events would proceed in an ideal world from the EHI character’s point of view, taking into account his Blind Spots. Assume that he knows, or can deduce, everything he could possibly know or deduce. You can either then get a briefing from the GM in advance (it only takes a few minutes to hit the highlights) or can get tips of what is about to happen by way of notes, or some combination of the two. The GM may even e-mail you a carefully-censored excerpt of his adventure outline in advance of play, or give one to you during play on a flash drive – enabling it to be broken up as necessary.
  • The GM should look at his planned adventures to see if there’s an opportunity for the character to gain a resource or advantage, then communicate that fact to the player at the appropriate time – and what needs to be done by the player to achieve that advantage.
  • From time to time, the GM should craft adventures that are nothing but opportunities for the character to gain an advantage or resource, turning your PC into a plot instigator. You should co-operate with the GM when that happens, even if it does mean a little railroading to get everyone into the plot. Define things that your PC will NOT do in order to gain these advantages in advance so that the GM doesn’t have your character do anything too objectionable.
  • An alternative approach is for the GM and player to have a brief one-on-one roleplaying session – over the phone, over social media, whatever – when he is developing the plot. The GM walks the character through the possible advantage that he can gain, and makes it seem simple – then stops play at the moment that another PC would become aware that something was happening, and THEN writes the rest of the adventure.
  • Apply the advice given to GMs on how to roleplay EHI NPCs as though you were the GM. Prepare stock phrases. Practice delivering them between game sessions.
  • From time to time, the GM may need to “dumb your character down” in order to get the plot happening. Don’t kick up a fuss when that happens – when the GM decides for example that you failed a skill roll that you would not expect to fail – assume that the GM will make it up to your character later in the adventure.
  • When the GM exploits one of your character’s Blind Spots – and he will – concentrate on roleplay and let the other players take the lead in coming up with a way out of whatever mess “you’ve” just gotten “yourself” into.
  • Come up with a personal habit that the character can exhibit when he gets out of his depth (due to a blind spot) as a kickoff to that roleplay. Does he throw himself into an easy chair and close his eyes in deep concentration? Does he become (briefly) acutely depressed? Does he attempt to do something abnormally social in an attempt to curry favor with the other players? Or something obnoxiously anti-social in an attempt to be left alone? Does he reach for his violin, or play the 1812 overture on a beat-up old gramophone? Be consistent about it and the other players will learn the signal and start to pick up on the cue.
  • Look for ways, and relationships, that can humanize the character. If you are supposed to be the coldly logical type, or the geek, you can underplay these. Look at Spock in the original Star Trek, and in particular his relationships with McCoy, Kirk, and Uhura.
  • Master the art of the understated compliment. “Mr Scott is a competent engineer” speaks to both the high standards of the character speaking and delivers a major compliment – when it comes from someone like Spock – whereas it is very neutral, damning with faint praise, when it comes from just about anyone else.
  • Finally, and most importantly. Look for ways to have FUN with the character – and I don’t mean the vicarious thrill of hardly ever failing a skill-check. Most especially, look for ways for the CHARACTER to have fun – and how he will display it when he does.

Degrees Of Intelligence

You can reasonably assume that most PCs will fall into the “normal” range of intelligence – close enough that skill rolls etc will cover any differences, assuming average intelligence on the part of the Player. Anything from 8 to say, 17, 18, or 19 (on the D&D scale) fall into that range. Above or below that, characters are exceptional, and need to be treated in an exceptional manner by both Player and GM. The same is true of most game systems.

GMs are more likely to encounter the extremes, from Hill Giants and Ogres to The Lich In The Manor, in the form of NPCs. Playing these as average intelligence creatures who do stupid things (in the case of the lower INT races), or as average-INT creatures with high skill rolls, is doing your game, your players, and yourself a disservice – to say nothing of the creatures themselves.

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