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The Impact Of Polished Text: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Part 4


This series is predicated on the belief that the real difference between game prep and a lack of game prep could be summarized as felicity of style: better-presented maps and illustrations, better thought-out plans, better characterization of NPCs, better depiction of that characterization, and more stylish Narrative. This article is part 4 of a masterclass in the last of these.

More stylish narrative means creating concise, communicative, and flavorful words to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts that is nevertheless more easily assimilated because of the brevity. It is narrative that flows naturally instead of being disjointed and fragmented.

The process that I described in parts 2 and 3 of the series is not quick, and assumes unlimited time is available for revision and polishing, that you can spend as much time as it takes, however unrealistic that may be. However, efficiency is always a consideration and the technique eliminates as much wasted time as possible.

Even if the process is not carried through to completion, or some of the more time-consuming steps are skipped or short-cutted, it’s possible to get 90% of the quality for about 10% of the time investment. The secret is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing the entire process and where those strengths and weaknesses impact on the process, so that you can target the areas for effort that will give you the most bang for your temporal buck. And it’s always great to have an awareness of the whole process on tap to be called upon when the result matters – when it’s intended for publication, for example, and not just friends talking amongst themselves or tutoring each other.

Before we get down to business:

In any work as comprehensive as this in scope, it’s almost inevitable that a few points get overlooked. In fact, I have a number of quick drop-ins sections that got left out because I didn’t remember them at the critical times. These will get inserted appropriately into the PDF compilation of the series.

Insert at the end of Part 1:

Hierarchical Nesting Of General Statements
General Impressions persist. A general description of the entire setting applies to all subsequent areas within that setting, and a general impression of a single area persists to all descriptions of specific elements of that area – regardless of how much other narrative blocks might interrupt the descriptive totality.

Consider the following structure:

  • General Impression of area
    • Description of immediately-visible areas
      • Detailed description of immediately-ahead area (Reception)
      • Dialogue Scene Trigger: Receptionist

This is a structural analysis of a typical block of narrative text, such as the one offered as an example of stylish narrative at the start of the article:

“The elevator dings as the doors open to reveal the offices of Brash, Livercoat, Woodley, and Howe. Interns with arm-loads of law-books and harried expressions walk past with measured strides, deep in quiet conversation. Nineteenth century opulence masks modern convenience. The cream-colored soft carpets become mushroom-brown at the walls and are clearly custom-made for this office space, The walls are polished teak, oak, and maple panels decorated with portraits of partners past and present in identical gold frames. Alabaster-white molded ceilings are almost lost in the shadows above tasteful but modern cylindrical brass chandeliers, and the scent of new leather fills the air. Directly in front of you is a central reception area with the company logo in Gold set against splashes of red, white, and blue on a pane of frosted glass. The receptionist says ‘Good afternoon’ with a smile as she looks up.”

If I extend the structure, bearing in mind the basic plot outline (PCs are here to meet one of the lawyers), what I mean should become clear:

  • General Impression of Law Offices
      • Description of immediately-visible areas
      • Detailed description of immediately-ahead area (reception)
      • Inserted Narrative Block: General Impression of Receptionist
      • Dialogue Scene Trigger: Receptionist
      • Inserted Dialogue Scene: Receptionist
      • Inserted Narrative Block: Description of Receptionist
      • Inserted Action/Dialogue Sequence: Receptionist summons Secretary of Lawyer
      • Inserted Action Sequence: Secretary Arrives at Reception
      • Inserted Narrative Block: General description of Secretary
      • Inserted Dialogue Scene: Receptionist introduces Secretary to PCs, Debates where meeting can be accommodated, settles on Meeting Room number 2, tells secretary to make sure Lawyer has vacated it by 4:00 PM as another partner has booked it.
      • Inserted Action Sequence: Secretary leads PCs past partner’s offices with secretarial stations.
        • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Secretarial Stations
        • General Impression of Secretarial Stations/office layout
        • Inserted Action Sequence: Secretary pauses by desk of Secretary #2
        • Specific impression of Secretarial Station #2
        • Inserted Narrative Block: General description of Secretary #2
        • Inserted Dialogue Block: Secretary asks Secretary#2 to find Lawyer & tell him the PCs are here
      • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): Secretary leads PCs past water features…
        • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Water Features
      • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …past fish-tank…
        • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Fish-tank
      • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …to the meeting room
        • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Meeting Room

Everything that derives from our location bullet-points is shown above in plain text, everything that derives from somewhere else is in italics. The General Impression of the law-firm persists throughout, though it may be refined or extended by subsequent descriptive blocks. The General Impression of the receptionist and the reception area persists throughout the scenes that take place there but does not continue into the next narrative block of law office descriptions. Each piece of the law office that the PCs pass by or through presents an opportunity for additional dialogue or action sequences, which combine to give the impression of the office as an active location where people are constantly doing law-office-type things, bringing the location to life. If you don’t have some sort of interaction at a location, for example the fish-tank, all you need is the general impression of it with no need to go into details.

In theory, there is no need to repeat or reinforce the general impression once it’s given, because it persists throughout. Every subsequent detail does that for you. In practice, if there is an extended action sequence (especially one that modifies the general impression in some way, eg a disgruntled client shooting up the place) or dialogue sequence (eg the meeting with the lawyer), it may be necessary to reestablish it if there is any further significant action to take place at the law firm on this visit.

Deciding when a general impression needs to be reestablished and how to do it is part of the artistry of writing. It depends on too many factors to be subject to hard and fast rules, or even to consistent guidelines: the intensity of the original impression, the amount of material in between, any “built-in” reinforcement from subsequent descriptive passages, to name but a few. Ideally, you want it all to be consistent and accumulate towards an overall perception of the place and people, and – as I said – that’s more of an art than a matter of technique, and certainly beyond the scope of this article.

Insert into Part 2, Step 23:

When two narrative blocks should be one:
When you find that your general impressions of the areas are the same, and the content is similar or fits a continuous motion, it is usually more effective to combine two narrative blocks into the one. The only common exception is when there are inserted sections – dialogue or action – that are sufficiently different in style or content that they need to be separated from each other. This employs the descriptive narrative as punctuation to separate those other elements.

If you consider the narrative structure described earlier for the law-office example, you will find a section towards the end of the structure that looks like this:

  • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …past water features…
    • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Water Features
  • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …past fish-tank…
    • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Fish-tank
  • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): …to the meeting room
  • Additional Narrative Block: Description of Meeting Room

At the time I made the comment that each of these represents an opportunity for a new dialogue or action passage. If this was lending too much importance and activity to the sequence at the law firm, however, you might instead choose:

  • Inserted Action Sequence (cont): ….to the Meeting room.
    • Additional Narrative Block: General Impression of water features, fish-tank, meeting room.
    • Additional Narrative Block (cont): Details of meeting room.

Until you reach an endpoint, specified as a trigger for a significant dialogue or action sequence, it is all part of the one narrative block, and should be treated as such.

Sidebar: “Significant” dialogue?
The observant will have noted that I slipped a new qualifying term into the preceding statement: “Significant” dialogue or action. Significance requires that the text in question have a specific purpose beyond color and embellishment. That purpose may be to require a decision on the part of the PCs or an activity in response to events, or it may be to establish the personality of an NPC because that is going to be important to subsequent scenes or to the PCs interpretation of this scene.

If your dialogue doesn’t meet this criterion, it can be considered just another way of expressing the narrative, and should not form a break-point within the narrative block – which means that your two narrative blocks should, in fact, be one.

Insert into Part 2, Step 23, immediately after the above:

When one narrative block should be two or more:
It’s at least as common to encounter a narrative block that tries to incorporate too much. This leads to situations in which the GM has to interrupt the narration to deal with a PC response to the content, then resume, even though resuming at that point has broken the flow of the game.

It’s up to the PCs when they react. It follows that there must be no cause for them to react until the entire scene is described to them or there will be subsequent complaints of “I wouldn’t have done [x] if I had known [y]“.

The most usual cause of this problem is the choice of flow within the sequence. Because a trigger for interaction of some sort is always the signal to end the narration, such should always be the last item in the narration, and everything that the PCs need to know must therefore precede it.

While there are too many permutations of the possibilities to list them all, one or two examples should serve: Never, ever, describe an NPC before you have finished describing the environment around them. Never describe a piece of the environment that a PC might choose to interact with before describing any other elements with which they might interact, even if that means that the two have to be contained within the one sentence, i.e. the one action trigger. For an example of that, don’t mention a chest in the room as part of the description if you are describing a dungeon scene if there is some creature guarding it – instead, fuse both calls to action into the one statement: “Guarding a chest in the middle of the room is…”

Insert into Part 2, Step 29:

Narrative Flow and Reciprocating Perspective:
Unless you have good reason to vary it, you can often achieve more “punch” and greater seamlessness in your narrative passages if each employs the opposite perspective flow as the narrative block that precedes it. For example, if the preceding narrative block flows left-to-right, try to use a right-to-left flow in the one you are currently working on.

The only time this doesn’t work is when a motion or change of perspective is incorporated in the call to interaction at the end of the preceding narrative block, which supersedes the established flow.

However, this seamlessness and punch comes at a price: mental fatigue on the part of the reader/player. You are making them subconsciously work harder because they can’t compartmentalize each piece of the scene, just add to it. “L-to-R, R-to-L, L-to-R, R-to-L” has an obvious problem. The pattern itself becomes somewhat hypnotic, eyes will begin to glaze over, and important details can be missed. The solution is to ensure that there is some superseding motion incorporated after every one or two such narrative blocks.

I have seen this problem occur quite frequently when too much diversity is incorporated into an area, for example making all four walls of a room significantly different. Consider the description of a room with five alcoves, one directly ahead and two each on the left and right walls respectively, each with different content. Rather than describing each as part of the one narrative block, give a general impression and mention the arrangement of alcoves, but only describe the content of the one directly in front; then have the PCs move into the room before they can see the contents of the other alcoves, and then only the two closest to the entrance. Build up the description of the room rather than overloading the one narrative block. This is especially true if the content of each alcove requires detailed description with its own internal narrative flow.

Employed within limits, reciprocating perspective can be a powerful tool. Over-used, it overloads the description, and indicates that the narrative needs to be broken up and punctuated with a small action of some kind.

Okay, with those out of the way…

Having spent most of this series focusing on how to produce better narrative, it’s time to look at the implications and consequences of employing such narrative in an RPG setting.

The effect on player thinking

There are a number of effects that can be anticipated as a result of better crafted narrative when employed in an RPG context. I’ve divided these into three broad categories: The Effects on Players, Other positive effects, and the downsides.

Blurring the focus on spoilers

Poorly-crafted narrative either focuses on the significant before it is recognized by the readers/players as significant, telegraphing where they should place their attention, or it overwhelms with massive blocks of prose that swims with unnecessary detail in an attempt to conceal what’s significant amongst what is not. Neither is all that desirable. Far better for the players and characters to interact with their environment, assessing the significance of each element in turn, and leaving it up to them to decide what’s significant.

By providing a simple snapshot that cues areas or subjects for further investigation, well-crafted narrative eliminates the telegraphing without the problems of drowning it in detail. That in turn has two consequent effects: the adventures that the GM runs will be better and more interactive and richer, and he no longer needs to spend time either planning for the telegraphing of his plot cues or coming up with that swarm of details.

Make no mistake: the process of creating better narrative described may be lengthy and involved, but it is still a lot faster (especially with a little practice) than spending hours detailing the woodgraining here and the leather there. If a room contains 20 objects (and the room I’m in at as I write has far more than that), consider spending 20 minutes or so on each – 400 minutes – compared to touching generally on the four or five most significant and then spending an hour each crafting exceptional narrative for those four for a total of perhaps 250 minutes – less if you cut corners. That’s more than 2 hours prep time saved, at least.

It actually can take more time to craft bad narrative than good. That’s because with good narrative, you have a reason for everything that is included being there, and can use that logic as a guide to what to spend time on.

The result is that the players can be both more aware of and engaged in their immediate environment, while still getting the full benefit of rich detail when it matters or is useful.

The capacity to forget a detail

The alternative to being too obvious is to drown the players in details, as mentioned. Burying the important details makes them less obvious, to be sure, but it also encourages players to forget one or more items of significance. This can slow a plot or even bring it to a shuddering halt, or create ill-will between players and GM – “I wouldn’t have done [x] if I had known about [y]” rears its head once again.

The GM’s job, in terms of narrative, is to communicate effectively to the players what is around them, and then get out of the way of the plot. Doing so not only uses less game-time than the alternative – a point I’ll come to in a moment in more detail – but it reinvests some that time in additional play.

Although it won’t happen right away, as players get used to a higher quality of narrative, and grow accustomed to being certain that everything of significance has been brought to their attention sufficiently for further investigation, so they will grow in confidence in their interactions with the environment, and will place greater confidence in the GM’s neutrality. That’s a lot of benefit, but it doesn’t stop there.

The integration of situational awareness

Greater situational awareness can’t help but result from making the salient details more accessible to the players. That, in turn, makes the players more aware of the plot and more capable of interacting with it. This tends to derail any plot trains, forcing the GM to further improve his plot structures. Ultimately, the results are that plots become richer and deeper, while remaining accessible to the players. In other words, better storytelling by the combined whole, the collaboration between players and GM.


Greater awareness of their surroundings, richer plots, and more substantial interaction with their environment can be summed up as greater immersion in the game. That, in turn, brings other benefits – the game itself becomes more vibrant, alive, and responsive to the style of play that the players want. The game becomes more vibrant and at the same time more fun for the players. If the GM is able to cope with the demands that this places upon his skills and abilities, it becomes more fun for him too – not a bad return for less work on his part.


I’m closing the discussion of the impact on player mentality with an entry that is six of one and half-a-dozen of the other – consistency. Better narrative structures presents the players with greater capacity for consistency of characterization, as expressed through their roleplay and choices of actions. That’s the plus-side of the ledger.

However, it requires greater effort on the players’ side of the table for this to be achieved, so this capacity – if misused – can actually be detrimental to the game, as I’ll discuss in The Downsides in a little bit.

Other benefits

Beyond the impacts on the players, there are a number of other effects that can be expected from improving the narrative employed in the game.

Maximizing play time

There is a direct correlation between the amount of prep time beyond the necessary and the amount of wasted play time at the table. For example, drowning the players in detail not only consumes more prep time but it takes up more time at the game table. Both can be considered wasted time. Some of these savings are reinvested, as noted earlier, in greater interaction between the PCs and the game world, but even without counting that, less time wasted at the table still increases the amount of play that is achieved in any game session.

Better mental mapping of situations

Better narrative not only helps the players grasp what is going on, it helps the GM keep track of what is going on. This is of obvious benefit to both sides, which only amplifies all the other benefits mentioned so far.

In general, any prep time invested in doing better instead of doing more yields secondary benefits that more than justify the effort, provided that enough material is prepared to cover the anticipated game needs. This is a key consideration in prioritization of prep as outlined in Fire Fighting, Systems Analysis, and RPG Problem Solving Part 2 of 3: Prioritization, which focuses on first, achieving the minimum work needed, and then secondly, prioritization based on the expected yield in improvement of the game as played, taking into account the individual abilities of the GM doing the prep.

Better situational awareness on the part of the GM results in better game calls when he needs to adjudicate the results of PC actions, with fewer disputed calls (nothing will eliminate them altogether). And that yields a further return in reduction of wasted time at the game table, happier players, and a happier GM.

More appropriate interactions with environment

Better awareness of the circumstances on both sides also means that there will be less likelihood of stupid choices on the part of the players; these usually result from player frustration, and by minimizing the causes of that frustration, you improve the quality of player choices. That, in turn, means that the GM is able to use the combination of better awareness and better choices of action to adjudicate to produce better responses, which yields further improvements in player interaction with their environment. It’s a feedback loop of improvement in the game, and in the player’s appreciation of the quality of GMing.

More appropriate interactions with NPCs

Better descriptions of an environment leave the players with greater capacity for relating to NPCs and makes it easier for the GM to make the NPCs appropriate to the environment. This is another win-win for both sides, and – as shown previously – leads to further benefits. A better environment and better descriptions of NPCs leads to better NPCs and better interactions between PCs and NPCs.

These benefits come about in four ways:

  • It becomes easier for the GM to keep the environment and other game/plot requirements in mind when crafting the NPCs because better narrative descriptions make the overall situation more accessible to him or her. This results in better NPC characterization choices;
  • Better characterization leads to character descriptions reflecting more closely the character of the NPC;
  • Better character descriptions that reflect the personality of the NPC make the characterization more accessible to the players;
  • Better characterization leads to better dialogue, which is the primary means of exposing NPC characterization to the players.

All of these in combination can only produce better, more individual NPCs and more individualized interactions between players and NPCs – better role-play, in other words.

Better roleplay through immersion

Finally, with the immersion of both sides of the table being improved through the mechanisms described above, better roleplay can only result from the reduction of distraction by both sides. It’s as though everyone at the table decided to make a greater effort to roleplay well at the same time.

The Downsides

That’s a powerful truckload of benefit to the game. Most people tend to under-rate the benefits from better narrative, from working “smarter” not “harder”. But it does come at a price, and that side of the ledger needs to be examined as well.

GM Time

At least at first, while the GM is learning how to craft better narrative, he can expect to be less productive. How quickly the benefits begin to materialize away from the game table will vary from individual to individual, but it is unlikely to be immediate. For a while, then, an increase in the demands on a GM’s time can be expected. If you are already stretched to the limit, that can be a real problem.

It’s a hurdle that can be managed, however. Choosing a simpler plot with fewer time requirements – the sort of thing you might do if you were anticipating a temporary reduction in the amount of prep time that you have – can free up enough prep time to enable the transition to happen, and is probably the simplest solution.

Wasted Prep

Until you get the hang of the process and it comes naturally to you – which may take 3 weeks, 3 months, or a year, depending on how ingrained old habits are – you can expect to go down a few blind alleys, make a few mistakes, and – in general – have more wasted prep. This can be frustrating to the GM and even cause him to give up on the process before the benefits start to flow. Being forewarned – and allowing a little extra GM prep time – mitigates this problem.

In particular, it will take time for the players to get used to the new approach, especially if they are used to being spoon-fed the next plot hook. They may also grow frustrated, and this can add to the pressure on the GM to give up on the process of improving their narratives, or set it aside for use in a less-immediate context – something to use when prepping an adventure for publication somewhere, for example, but not during their day-to-day, week-to-week game prep.

Again, being aware of the problem and being prepared to lead your players through the process by hand can mitigate these negative impacts. Provided that the GM remains convinced that the end result will justify the short-term problems, he can usually convince the players; it is for that reason that I have spent quite a lot of time “selling” the benefits earlier. Above all, he should resist any urges to give the players what they want if they are resisting the changes. This sacrifices all the gains that can be achieved in return for some short-term relief.

GM inflexibility

GMs who aren’t used to the flexibility that this approach yields to the players are likely to struggle with it, at least at first, opening up a third front on which problems can manifest. Some GMs respond by becoming more inflexible in an effort to restrict player choices to a more manageable range. It’s very easy to fall into this trap because you can often get away with it for quite a long time without the players recognizing what is happening because the options presented include the one that they would opt for anyway, and it makes life for the GM much easier. Inevitably, eventually one of the PCs will attempt to go off-script, and that’s when things fall apart spectacularly. Even seasoned GMs have to relearn this lesson periodically.

GM inflexibility attempts to mitigate the problems already noted by reducing the prep and in-game workload of the GM, but this is the wrong approach to take. Virtually all the benefits mentioned earlier are predicated on giving the players greater flexibility to interact with the game world and NPCs; this approach eases the pain of implementation of the process by sacrificing the bulk of the benefit, making it much easier to decide that the effort is not producing any real benefit and should be abandoned.

And that assessment completely ignores the potential fallout when the wheels come off, and the players insist on doing something other than the options allowed by the GM.

Plot Railroading

The other aspect of the inflexibility response is that it tends to lead to plot railroading, or to be seen as tantamount to plot railroading. Players hate this far more than GMs do; they want to be in command of their characters at all times, and to have free choice of what their PCs do, even if it makes no sense.

Even the structural outline of the law-office example I prepared earlier shows some tendencies in this direction, simply by presuming how the PCs will respond to the receptionist and that they will be cooperative within the scene. Just because there is no reason to expect the PCs to deviate from this “script” does not mean that they won’t.

In this case, the tendency is actually an illusion, resulting from deliberately linking one scene (encounter with the receptionist) to another (encounter with the secretary) to another (encounter between the two secretaries) en route to the meeting room in order to show the way in which past narrative remains in effect even though the action itself has moved on. In reality, these should be separated into separate encounters so that if the PCs choose a response other than that expected, the GM can accommodate it.

Writer’s Block

One of the ongoing prices that has to be paid for better narrative is an increased susceptibility to writer’s block. By separating out the brainstorming of ideas (part of the bullet-listing stage) and the organization of ideas and conversion into functional narrative, the process tries to mitigate against the problem, but it can’t fully eliminate it. If you find yourself in trouble with writer’s block, I advise you to refer to my series on the subject, Breaking Through Writer’s Block.

Many writers come to anticipate losing X percent of their time to writer’s block and build in sufficient cushion to ensure they still meet deadlines. After all, if you finish early, there’s always something else you can spend time doing! This is the approach that I recommend.

Other writers tend to assume that writer’s block won’t hinder them because it usually doesn’t, and that the adventure will only proceed as far as they have prepared when play begins, anyway. I can’t argue too loudly against this approach, because I’m guilty of it myself most of the time – I rarely write articles for Campaign Mastery until the day they are to be published, for example. That means that I’m fairly confident of my ability to overcome any writer’s block; occasionally, I have a close shave with the deadline, but that’s as bad as it gets. If this is your preferred approach, I can only wish you luck.

It’s too much like work

When you’re used to writing as fast as the ideas can flow, the process described can seem profoundly hard work that`sucks all the fun out of game prep, replacing it with metaphoric sweat and toil. This is actually the result of being undisciplined in your approach to game prep; the “lack of fun” or “stifling of creativity” are actually a reaction to being forced to adjust to the more disciplined approach that this process requires.

In other words, this is another short-term problem that may be faced. Once you are used to the technique, you will become adept at dropping in additional bullet points and reminders to self regarding future parts of the prep as you write, and will find that you can be just as creative while still delivering the better results.

Game prep is always work, but often-times the pleasure of being creative and imaginative masks this fact. Changing your technique can strip that mask away for a while. As long as you have been forewarned, you can put up with the phenomenon for as long as it lasts.


I noted earlier that consistency was one benefit that could result from better narrative because it gives the players greater opportunity for self-expression through the choices they make for both themselves and the PCs that they play. It is, however, equally possible for characters to be expressed more inconsistently as a result of the greater freedom afforded to players. It can become much harder to predict how characters will respond to a given situation, which makes the job of adventure creation harder for the GM, and can lead to GM inflexibility in response.

There’s not a lot that the GM can do about this. The best answer involves a deeper understanding and definition of the personality profiles of the PCs generated by the player and subsequently communicated to the GM, but even that is only a partial solution. No matter how tempting it may be, resist any urge to force a player to justify his character’s choices in terms of his personality or mindset; it can only end badly. The farthest that a GM should go is telling the player (after the game) that he doesn’t understand why his character made those choices.

It’s actually relatively common for this to turn out to be a result of incorrect dramatic emphasis within the GM’s narrative, making something seem more important than it actually is, frequently on an earlier occasion to the actual manifestation of the problem. More often than not, inconsistency of play is the result of inconsistency of narrative when viewed as a whole, progressing from start to finish of the adventure.

Relative Importance To The Scene
One of the advantages of the process provided here (as opposed to other approaches to “better writing” that I’ve seen) is that it defines more clearly a relative importance to the contents of the scene, by stripping out the details of those elements that do and don’t matter equally, then putting the significance back only in response to PC interaction with the narrative elements.

I’m afraid that I’m not explaining this very clearly, so let me try an alternative phrasing by quoting something Hungry at Ravenous Role Playing had to say about one of the earlier posts in this article. He wrote, Players love to think (I think it’s an ingrained human condition), “Oh! The blue book was mentioned on the shelf, but none of the others were detailed, so that blue book must be the important thing in the room, so I’m going to grab the blue book and see what’s in it as soon as I can!”. This is a perfect example of what I had in mind when I talked about bad narrative telegraphing the next step in the plot.

This process removes that problem by not detailing any of the contents of the room until they are closely examined by the PCs – just listing them in a very general way: “The books on the bookshelves suggest that the resident is well-educated,” for example. However, the strength of language employed can still lead to a relative indication of significance, and this can cause inconsistency when the wrong thing receives unwarranted emphasis. This can result simply from seeing something more clearly in your mind when writing it, or because a particular turn of phrase came to mind.

Two Ways this can manifest
It’s bitten me in the past, when I have presented two problems to the PCs – one that is intended to restrict the possible solutions to the second by imposing additional consequences to most of those solutions – and they have decided that this means that the restricting problem is the more important one, the one that needs their immediate attention. Which is a perfect example of GM inflexibility leading to inconsistency of characterization. Instead of the problem that was supposed to matter taking front and center, the language employed caused a misdirection of player focus, and a wasted hour of discussion/investigation on the part of the players.

The other way that this manifests is when players are playing to the plot and not playing to the personality of their characters. “My character is more inclined to focus on problem X, but if I do that, problem Y will get out of hand. I should deal with the immediate plot problem first because it makes sense to do so in terms of the plot and not indulge my character’s personal preferences.” This becomes a problem when problem X is only part of the plot because of the character’s expected reaction to it, and that the solution is supposed to give key information needed in order to solve the other problem.

This can be restated as a problem in character prioritization of the problems being presented to them by the GM, resulting in an inconsistency of characterization; but players prioritize based on the information the GM gives them, and especially the dramatic strength of the narrative used to describe the circumstances. In other words, this is the GM’s fault. If you want a PC to take one problem as more serious than the other, load your words accordingly when describing it to the players.

The Reality of Sandboxing & Other GMing philosophies

Sandboxing and other such approaches to the art of GMing all aim to restrict or better-target the subjects of GM prep, enabling the benefits of limited prep time to be maximized, while minimizing downsides and excess. The key word there is target.

At first, it can appear that these philosophies are incompatible with the process detailed herein because they emphasize detailed preparation and then extracting the relevant details for further development. Further reflection will show that this is not the case, however; the process I have outlined is based on the approach of defining a general context and then only developing the resulting elements that are relevant to the expected adventure and its constituents.

Sandboxing is effectively built into the process. The only compromise is in defining that overall context before you start, thereby avoiding one of the great pitfalls of the pure sand-boxing approach – trying to create that context after the fact when the action moves beyond the area immediately detailed.

This compromise represents an overhead on the pure sand-boxing approach, but one that is an investment in the future of the campaign. Subsequent development will flow all the more easily for having that general context defined in advance.

Modifying the process for RPG needs

RPGs are a little different from other forms of text that require narrative. To some extent, these differences are already accommodated within the process, simply adding a new type of Passage (player decision points) to the list provided at the beginning, while modifying the content and structure of some of the others (context passages, location passages, and action passages). The requirement is still to prepare the narrative passage in such a way that it leads to one of the others. The only thing that really changes is the sequence with which different passages take place, which is dictated by a force external to the writer, i.e. the players.

In general, the basic structure of a narrative block remains the same: a general impression, content, and the trigger for a form of interaction between players and plot.

It is not all that difficult to modify the process accordingly. In fact, because it reduces the need for a seamless flow from one passage to the next by creating discontinuities and independent passages, writing better narrative for an RPG is actually easier in a lot of ways. Furthermore, less polish is typically required, because the GM can incorporate additional details as required, if necessary, inventing them on the spot.

It starts with the planning of the adventure.

Planning the adventure

A synopsis of what the adventure is about is the perfect starting point. This synopsis should not rely on any player decisions that have not already been made; it is far better to frame it in terms of what one or more NPCs are doing to create the situation that the PCs have to resolve.

The next step is to identify all the key locations and all the key NPCs.

Next step: map out a flow between inevitable sections of the plot, in the most general terms. This breaks the adventure down into sections that have to happen, regardless of the outcome of any individual events or encounters within; they are the logical building blocks of the overall plot. The goal is to synopsize the circumstances with which the PCs will be presented in the course of each of the major section.

Finally, identify from the above any inevitable set scenes that will occur. These typically include introductions to the key NPCs.

Define the locations

If these have appeared before, the details can be recycled from that earlier appearance. For those which have not, produce an overview of each, which will form the general impression of the location. You don’t want specific details, just a general concept.

Define the NPCs

Once again, if any have appeared before, the details can be recycled from that earlier appearance. For the rest, a general idea of their appearance and personality is all that’s needed at this point.

Breakdown The Acts

Bullet-point brainstorm the overall structure of the plot in each of the major sections, where it will take place, and who will be involved (from an NPC point of view). This is your list of scenes within each act.

Breakdown each location

Bullet-point brainstorm the descriptions of each of the locations you’ve identified, based on the guideline that you have already created.

Create the NPCs

Develop the personalities, histories, etc, of the NPCs, using your preferred approach, then synopsize that into a set of bullet points.

Narrative sections: Locations

List the narrative sections that apply to each location. In the case of the law firm example, this would be 1. reception; 2. secretarial/offices; 3. other locations en route to meeting room; and 4. meeting room.

Organize your bullet-points into each of these narrative sections. Duplicate as necessary.

Write the overall narrative passage for each section, and immediately after writing each, perform the first and second review phases in one step. In other words, edit bullet-list, flow, draft, clarify, compress, review, next section. Delete each bullet point as it is incorporated into the narrative. Append any remainder to the narrative as a bullet list.

Narrative sections: NPC Set-scenes

Use the combination of where they are occurring and the NPC bullet points to craft an introduction to each using the same steps outlined above: edit bullet-list, flow, draft, clarify, compress, review, next. Once again, delete each bullet point as it is incorporated into the narrative and append any remainder to the narrative as a bullet-list.

After each, make sure to note the NPCs objectives within the scene and how they intend to achieve them.

Narrative: Other Set Scenes

Bullet-point and then write narrative for any scenes in which the players will witness action but not be able to intervene.

Connect the dots

You now know where events are to occur, who is going to be involved, and what the basic events are. This step involves filling in the blanks, writing any canned dialogue, and so on. In particular, you need to note how each scene is supposed to lead to the next.

Final review

Once it’s all written, read the whole thing from start to finish, performing stages 7 & 8 and correcting/clarifying as you go.

Other prep

You can then move on to any other prep you think necessary or desirable, indexing them into the main text as you go. If you produce a map, for example, make a note of the map at the appropriate location description.

Adventure Done!

As quickly as that, the adventure is done. You have only general indications of how each scene will work out, based on the personalities and objectives of the NPCs involved, but you have everything you need in order to referee the adventure.

The typical adventure will have about half-a-dozen broad locations, with up to four areas detailed for each. A larger one may have more, a smaller one may have less. Similarly, most adventures will involve half-a-dozen or so major NPCs and potentially many more minor ones who have not been fully developed. (Use The Ubercharacter Wimp and The Flunkie Equation as tools). Instead of one large writing job, this turns the adventure into thirty or so smaller, more discrete, ones. It leaves all the details that you didn’t think you’d need available for use if the occasion merits it, but only turns into narrative the parts that you will definitely want to read to the players.

Each part should take 5 minutes at most to write – so that’s 150 minutes, or about 2 1/2 hours of prep. Figure maybe ten minutes brainstorming for each of the major locations, and about 10 minutes each for nine or so other narrative blocks, and that’s roughly another 2 1/2 hours. Throw in an hour for the initial planning, and that’s a complete ready-to-play adventure in 6 hours – or in one late night before play. Or an hour a night each night before the weekly game. That time frame is comparable to the time it takes to outline a more traditional adventure, if not less – I speak from experience.

Sure, there’s lots more that you could do, but that’s enough for play. The adventure is complete.

And so is this part of the series, because there is no way that I’m going to be able to do the final part and the checklist and the PDF of the combined article before the publishing deadline. This is mostly down to time lost in preparing the inserts that I started this part with, and which took fully as long to write as the rest of the article! So this series will wrap up with Part 5, later this week.

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Words, Like Raindrops, Fall: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Part 3


At the start if this series, I argued that the real difference between game prep and a lack of game prep could be summarized as felicity of style: better-presented maps and illustrations, better thought-out plans, better characterization of NPCs, better depiction of that characterization, and more stylish Narrative. This article is part 3 of a masterclass in the last of these.

To quote from earlier parts of the series:

More stylish narrative, when describing people, places, and events means creating concise, communicative, and flavorful words to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts while being more easily assimilated as a result of their brevity. They enable the narrative to flow naturally instead of being disjointed and fragmented.

The process of creating top-notch narrative is not quick, and the process that I am describing assumes that you have unlimited time on tap for polishing. This article is not about efficiency of prep, it’s about effective use of prep in one particular field within the skillset of preparing adventures. It assumes that you can spend as much time as it takes, however unrealistic that assumption may be. However, efficiency is always a consideration and the technique eliminates as much wasted time as possible.

Even if the process is not carried through to completion, or some of the more time-consuming steps are skipped or short-cutted, it’s possible to get 90% of the quality for about 10% of the time investment. The secret is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing the entire process and where those strengths and weaknesses impact on the process, so that you can target the areas for effort that will give you the most bang for your temporal buck. And it’s always great to have an awareness of the whole process on tap to be called upon when the result matters – when it’s intended for publication, for example, and not just friends talking amongst themselves or tutoring each other.

The Technique (continued)

I’ve based the “ideal” process that I describe on that used for the writing of a novel or other piece of fiction. It’s a compilation of many smaller processes and pieces of advice derived from a great many sources over the years that relate to that purpose. As pointed out in part 1, there are a lot of parallels between narrative for fiction-writing and narrative for use in a roleplaying adventure, so this process is directly importable; it’s then a case of determining where to compromise and by how much. Since every individual is different, those decisions should also be different in every case.

The exact technique that I have distilled consists of 56 (!) steps & processes that group naturally into eight stages. Stage 1 was about organizing your activities and your workspace. Stages 2 and three generated a series of ideas in the form of bullet points, organized them into three broad categories (the essential content for this narrative block, the extraneous and redundant, and material not required for the current narrative), then sequenced the essentials in a logical and progressive sequence. The idea is that if the bullet points flow naturally and artistically, and with the correct architecture to kick the plot into its next stage, so will the resulting narrative.

Today’s article details the process of converting bullet points into polished narrative. If I get that finished in time, I’ll look into the consequences of this approach and how to adapt it for use in writing narrative text for an RPG adventure, leaving clean-up and the question of further adapting it to improvised narrative for the final part in the series. If not – and based on part 2, I don’t expect to get that far – then those subjects will be deferred to the next part in the series.

The remaining steps in the process, and hence the primary subjects for discussion in this part of the article, are:

    Stage 4: Narrative Construction:

  1. Multitasking: Write from what’s been said
  2. Multitasking: Write to what comes next
  3. Multitasking: Insert Activity & Dynamics
  4. Expansion, Expression, and Compilation
  5. Reality Check: No Longer Than It Has To Be
  6. Breakpoint 4


    Stage 5: Narrative First Review:

  1. Reality Check: Re-read and Review
  2. Reality Check: Visualization
  3. Revision 1: Visualization and Clarity
  4. Breakpoint 5


    Stage 6: Second Review:

  1. Revision 2: Compression
  2. Reality Check: Re-read and Review 2
  3. Revision 3: Blend to the break-point
  4. Breakpoint 6


    Stage 7: Final Polish:

  1. Revision 4: Nuanced Synonyms
  2. Reality Check: Re-read and Review 3
  3. Reality Check: Vividness & Excitement
  4. Revision 5: Flow, Visualization and Clarity
  5. Repeat Stage 6 as necessary
  6. Breakpoint 7


    Stage 8: Completion:

  1. Aggregate working
  2. Index the aggregate
  3. Archive the aggregate
  4. Replace placeholders in master with final draft
  5. Archive master checklist
  6. Done! For Now

So, with no further ado, let’s get to work…

Stage 4: Narrative Construction:

There are three things to maintain awareness of when turning an outline into actual prose. These are detailed in steps 31-33. Step 34 is the actual writing process, while step 35 determines whether or not to throw out that attempt and start this stage of the process over again.

31. Multitasking: Write from what’s been said

It seems obvious, but it’s actually relatively easy to trip over every now and then: what you write has to connect seamlessly to whatever it is that you’ve just written. And when that linkage breaks down, the default assumption (and mistake) that many writers seem to make is that it’s the fault of the part that you’re writing at the time, and not of the part that was just written. Equally invalid is the proposition that you are better to throw everything away and start over on both passages.

One quick test that can save you a lot of grief is to go over the bullet points that you have selected for inclusion, and ensure that you can discern from them what the progression was that you used to sequence them. Of course, this test doesn’t work if there is an inadequate gap between organization of the bullet points and starting this step – one reason why I recommended taking a break from your work to clear your head at the end of Stage 3.

Looking at it another way, treat this as your last chance to get the narrative flow right.

If you have generated your bullet points from pre-existing prose, this step becomes all the more important. Many authors fall in love with their own prose or with a particular turn of phrase; the bullet points place some insulation between the original phrasing and the needs of the completed narrative passage.

32. Multitasking: Write to what comes next

If that was all there was to it, writing would be relatively easy. It’s not. At the same time, you must always craft your words so that they set up and prepare the ground for whatever the next phrase is going to be, and – beyond that – for whatever the next block of narrative or interaction is intended to be. You have to establish the context for what is to follow, and do so without repeating yourself or incorporating unnecessary text. And that’s a lot harder once words are actually on the page.

If dialogue doesn’t seem to be flowing naturally, many authors seem to blame their characters, or write and rewrite that dialogue, or give up and scrap whole swathes of their stories. In reality, the problem can lie with the preceding narrative text and the foundations that it lays for that dialogue; a different context or perspective (even if only subtly variant) can make all the difference in the world.

One of the major elements to be established in that narrative passage for context is micro-setting. Exactly where are the characters when the dialogue takes place? I don’t care how lyrical and poetic your description of the place is, if it gets in the way of the dialogue, you have to at least consider changing the micro-setting. And it’s all a lot less work if you choose your micro-setting correctly in the first place.

I suppose I should explain what I mean by the term “micro-setting” even though I think it’s fairly self-explanatory.

If the setting were a shopping mall, the micro-setting would define what the actual businesses around the characters were, and hence the sights, sounds, and smells that create the backdrop of whatever is happening.

Or let’s say that we’re using the law firm example from part one. You can create a very different context for whatever is to take place by beginning your description before you even get there, setting up expectations in advance. These can either reinforce the overall description that you have in mind or can markedly contrast with it – though the latter is more difficult and always needs explanation within the scene. For example, if the building were a run-down office block with fading paint peeling from the outside walls and an elevator that creaks and groans, your expectations of the law firm would be very different to the decadent polish of the actual description. Or, if the building was polished and modern and well-maintained, you have all sorts of opportunities to describe the law offices before you actually get to them. Or, option three, the description used as an example might reflect the expectations raised by the trappings, only for the reality when the players/protagonists arrive to be very different.

Finally, remember that whatever the superficial appearances might be, they may bear little or no resemblance to the reality behind the scenes; but if you are going down that route, you will need to plant some subtle clues when describing that superficial appearance. These need to be sufficiently subtle as to not disturb the overall surface appearance, and even to go unnoticed; you certainly don’t want to make a fuss about them. They have to be subliminal. It’s also easy to be too subtle – so it’s a fine line to walk.

What you write now always has to flow from what you wrote a moment ago and has to lead to whatever comes next. The second is generally much harder than the first, and is often where the real artistry of writing lies.

33. Multitasking: Insert Activity & Dynamics

The biggest trap that amateur writers fall into (excluding inadequate attention to the narrative block in the first place) is of describing their settings and micro-settings as still lifes, suspended in time. This can be a special danger when dealing with technical explanations as narrative blocks.

Narrative blocks work far more effectively if they contain activity and dynamics that express the throb and pulse of the activities that are occurring as the object of the narrative is being examined. With every type of text block – narrative, action, or dialogue – you should be looking to infuse as much from the other types of scenes as you can.

In action blocks, you want to incorporate little details from the descriptive bullet points that you set aside. In dialogue, you want more descriptive details, and you want movement and activity. And, in your narrative scenes, you definitely want activity, and you want dynamics so that the result is not a monotone whole. Dialogue is a little harder, because your players/protagonists will normally want to react to it, so it is generally better in a narrative passage to describe the background dialogue than to actually quote it.

These things don’t happen in writing by accident.

Sure, you can always go back after the description passages are written and sprinkle them with such additional content, but this is fraught with the danger of disrupting the flow you have carefully constructed, of being too little, too much, or too attention-getting, or of exposing basic flaws in the scenes you have written such as crowds or background characters who don’t react to events and who should.

This seems a great place to actually drop in something that I wanted to bring up in my recent article, Dr Who and the secrets of complex characterization but had to leave out for various reasons.

Sidebar: Actor contributions to characters

How much input do the actors have to the personality of the character they are portraying? Some people might think it’s all in the script, and almost everything of significance is contained there, in terms of the immediate story. Some people might think that whatever is left is mostly in the vision of the producer or director, who can tell the actor what to do and how to do it on-set.

The fact is that while producer or director can override any choice, there are simply too many characters for them to do it all. In general, actors influence the characterization of the role they are playing in four ways (disregarding the image or associated baggage of the actor from past roles): the focus of their character’s attention when lines are being delivered or action is taking place, the incidental movements and activities of their character at such times when they aren’t doing something directly mandated by the script for the purposes of the immediate plot, the way they deliver their lines & actions (and in particular the emotional content they invest in them) and the expressions on their face when they act. That’s a lot to think of while performing, never mind the cumulative impact of these things on other actor’s performances, and is the reason why a lot of amateur actors give “wooden” performances.

These are what actors are referring to when they talk about another actor giving them a lot to work with, or being “generous”, and what distinguishes a great actor from a not-so-great actor (using the term in a unisex manner, let me hasten to add). All these things add up to two things: characterization in action and believability in the role.

A production’s executives and writers take on board these elements of the emergent persona being portrayed and a feedback loop is established, where the nuances that the actor is bringing to the role are used to refine the persona as written (perhaps with a little tweaking) and create springboards for the actor to further express their interpretation of the role.

Acting is a process and it is impossible to state in any generic way how much input the actor has on the personality of their role. They are one of several inputs to the characterization process. All that you can really say is that the longer the actor has in a given role, the more they will evolve it and the more substantial their cumulative contribution will be to it.

I would contend that it takes most of a season, if not a full season, for an actor’s input to really shine through; they have to grow into the role and come to understand it themselves.

Why doesn’t this phenomenon cause a problem with movies? Why aren’t personalities less well defined or expressed in the scenes that are filmed first? The answer is that much of the development work is done in rehearsals, and multiple takes, and that the best performances are extracted from the whole during the editing process, and furthermore, that many more takes are filmed than are possible under television schedules. So, while it may be there to some extent, it is relatively easily hidden from public scrutiny.

That doesn’t mean that one medium is better or worse than the others, or actors within that medium more or less able; it means the skills required are different, and the two are not directly comparable.

When writing fiction or narrative, the author has to take the place of all these people, supplying all the creative inputs. Characters should always be doing something when speaking, and the background should always have something going on, even when describing a location. Even if the scene is supposed to be quiet, with no activity – when the characters have broken into an office block late at night, for example – you need to contrast that lack of activity with something going on in the distance in order to highlight the stillness of the setting.

Reviewing all the above, I note that I haven’t really said enough about Dynamics in writing. Narrative blocks should never be monotone and expressionless; they should never fail to move the emotions of the players/reader in whatever direction is required (refer to my earlier series on emotional pacing in RPGs: Part One and Part Two for more on that subject).

34. Expansion, Expression, and Compilation

And so, with a clear idea of how the current bullet point is going to link to the previous one, and how it will lead inevitably to the next, and how all that fits into the bigger picture, and actively looking for opportunities to add activity and dynamism to the narrative, you are ready to take that bullet point and turn it into prose.

This step of the process essentially consists of three interactive and interrelated activities: Expansion, Expression, and Compilation.

Expansion is the process of turning your intentionally-succinct bullet point into sentences with an acceptable grammatic form.

Expression is the employment of specific terms and phrases to compact and deliver more strongly, more lyrically, or more poetically, but always more succinctly, what would otherwise take many more words to describe. In particular, it’s about choosing synonyms and metaphors that impart or imply an overtone that supplements the actual words used elsewhere in the narrative block to clarify or enrich the depth of the prose.

Always look for a way to incorporate what you are trying to say into either the preceding sentence or the next. In general, it’s easier creatively to choose the former (because it is already on the screen) and easier to choose in terms of work-flow to choose the latter (because it is not yet on the screen). This highlights one of the biggest differences to the writing process that a word processor makes possible – the ease of revision – relative to older manual writing techniques such as longhand with pen and paper or with a manual typewriter.

Sidebar: Longhand
One writer I once knew advocated doing a first draft in black-lead pencil with an eraser handy, then writing in ink over the top. Another took advantage of the contrast of red ink and black or blue to do a first draft in red pen and write the second draft over the top of it in darker ink. Both of these techniques have found electronic analogues in the word-processor approach that I employ in more modern times. For those employing the most basic technique of writing, I thought them worth pointing out.

Sidebar: Typewriters
You can write a novel with a typewriter, single spaced. I’ve done so. I don’t recommend it – certainly, no publisher would even look at such a manuscript.

The editorial standard is generally double-spaced, i.e. one blank line for every line with text on it. This leaves room for notes and corrections, or at least it used to be – I’m not sure that this is still the case, in the modern era of word processors. It’s certainly easy to write your manuscript single-spaced and tell your printer to use double-spacing for anyone who wants to employ the old-school approach. But if you are using the older technology, this is certainly the way to go.

Except for first drafts, where it is even better to use triple-spacing in many respects, allowing room for one line of corrections and another for the inserting of entire phrases and clauses or a complete redrafting of a line during the revision process. Just some food for thought.

How much to agonize
Writing should not be hard work. Writing well might be, but one of the important objectives of this process is to take as much of that “hard work” out of the process as possible. You already have enough to keep in mind during this phase of the literary process; this is not the time to agonize over your word choices. There will be plenty of time for that later – to decide that this word is not as effective or satisfactory as it could be, and to seek out replacements, and to sweat bullets over your choices. The goal right now is to get a first draft down and get the whole passage to flow seamlessly, and that means that your first choices are frequently not only good enough, but by moving you quickly to the next bullet point without interruption, can actually facilitate a better result in the long term.

35. Reality Check: No Longer Than It Has To Be

How much text should one bullet point become? How long is a piece of string?

There is no one right answer; it depends on what is being described in the narration, and on it’s purpose in terms of the greater whole, and on the genre conventions, and on the individual’s writing style. Once you have your first draft of the entire narrative block, it’s time to think about how long you want it to be in the final draft.

First drafts are notorious for being longer than necessary. That’s fine, we’ll make allowances, so use whatever length you think the finished product should be.

You can then apply some reasonable estimate of the number of words per line that you usually achieve if you think that necessary – again, something that will vary from individual to individual (I average 14.8 in the word processor that I use to draft these posts, but that can go down when page formatting is taken into account. I get about 12.5 in the fancier word processor that I currently use to format e-books and create PDFs, for example. 15 and 12 respectively are near enough if you need to use a word count).

But, realistically, a line count is good enough.

So, if the actual line count of your first count is:

  • Target or less: Gold star, Look for any additional content you can incorporate. Double-check dynamics and activity inclusion. You have room for more, so is there anything else you can add?
  • 1-2 x Target: On the money. Move on.
  • 2-3 x Target: If we hadn’t chopped redundancies already, this would have been acceptable. As it stands, either your prose is too long-winded or your expectations are unrealistic. Decide which by assessing the importance of this narrative passage to the big picture. Is your setting too complicated for your plot needs? Can you still convey what you have to by skipping every second bullet point? You may find that for the most part, the answer to that question is yes, though there are one or two specific points that are still necessary. Is your incidental action too big a deal, too detailed in description? If you can’t cut content to get the length down, the answer is that your target is unrealistic for everything you want the passage to do – so either look at simplifying its task within the overall plot, or reassess your target. Either edit or replace what you’ve just written if the target’s not at fault. Back to the start of this phase for you, I’m afraid.
  • More than 3 x Target: Too much, and your targets need reassessment. Cut or simplify as above, reassess, then redo.

This step of the process can be a little trickier when it comes to an RPG because at least part of the relative significance is attached by the players and what they will have their characters react to. The best solution is to have a minimalist narrative passage with additional details available for anything the the players decide to investigate more closely or interact with, again using bullet points and indexing key terms as shown earlier.

This poses an additional danger that your writing needs to accommodate: you can fall into the trap of sequence, of leaving something out because it’s covered in an earlier bullet point or narrative sub-section. My solution to this problem is to deliberately write these narrative in a different order and then re-sequence them into a different order to make sure that they still make sense. I will permit redundancy in such narrative sub-sections but enclose any redundancy in square brackets [like this] so that I know I only have to use it the first time. This ensures that delivery of the information can be discontinuous. Another key technique employed is to make sure there is a list – nested as necessary – of the things that the players might focus on incorporated in natural progression.

36. Breakpoint 4

You achieve a lot in this stage of the process, and definitely need to clear your head afterwards – or move on to performing stage 4 for the next block of text, and take a break when you’ve finished with this process.

Some people use one of these approaches, others use the second. I used to swear by the notion of outlining the whole document in chunks (step 1, then repeat steps 2 and 3 until the whole is bullet-pointed, then perform stage 4 until finished, then move on to stages 5+; I employed that for writing a short story every day, and still employ that approach to writing these blog posts.

But for anything longer than a single blog post, this is a dangerous approach. The risks are two-fold: first, you run the risk of diverting yourself down some literary cul-de-sac, or getting too caught up in discussing some side-issue; second, everyone employs a mental shorthand when creating their bullet points, and you run the risk of forgetting exactly what you meant by one.

Both of these have bitten me on the tail more often that I would like. The longer a planned work (page count), the greater the risk of it happening. If any breaks in the writing process are even marginally possible, the risks escalate both severely and rapidly. So it’s no longer my recommended approach for anything of more substance than a single blog post, of more length than 10-12 pages.

For anything of such length, I use a different work-flow organization – I developed it for the Orcs & Elves series, based on lessons learned during the writing of Assassin’s Amulet, and employed it in writing this series:

  • Bullet-point breakdown to determine major sections.
  • Synopsize each major section.
  • Bullet-point each major section into sub-sections only as you come to it.
  • Detailed bullet-point only what you expect to write before the next break of 24 hours or more.
  • Write each such sub-section before you bullet-point the next. [Make any notes needed relating to future major sections as you go, attaching them to the synopsis.]
  • Revise and edit each major section as an independent part of the whole.
  • Revise and edit the whole when everything is written.

However you organize the overall writing process, when you stop writing, it’s important to take a break before commencing the revision stages.

Sidebar: The unexpected benefit of collaboration
It’s worth noting that this mimics an essential aspect of the process of collaboration. An effective collaboration requires communication between the different contributors and that starts with listing and then synopsizing each proposed component of the whole so that each knows what they are responsible for delivering, then checking each actual contribution to be sure that it actually delivers on those promises. If the logic of each section is clear to another contributor, it will also be clear to the reader. And so on.

Stage 5: Narrative First Review:

How many times should you review what you have written? The answer varies, but when it comes to narrative, the short answer is more times than you think necessary.

Actually, scratch that: No matter what you’re writing, the short answer is more times than you think necessary!

The reason is that each review should focus on different aspects and attributes required of the whole. I have specified two review stages and one final polish phase in this process. But between them, these contain no less than five revisions, and the only reason why there aren’t more review stages is because some of these revisions are mutually compatible and conducive to being conducted at the same time.

The writing stage is about creating narrative flow. The first review stage verifies that the results contain all the actual content required – and no more than can be reasonably accommodated.

37. Reality Check: Re-read and Review

The first step within this stage is really simple – read what you’ve written, from start to finish. Put a cross or something on every part that isn’t clear. Don’t worry too much about waffling on at this point; compression comes in a later stage.

You want to minimize any interruption to your reading of the text. If there was a way to note sections that need revision without interrupting your reading at all, I’d take it – but that’s unrealistic.

If this is done too soon after your writing, there is too much danger of reading what you meant to say or what you thought you had said instead of what you actually wrote. It’s actually relatively common: the eye skims over the text, picking up a phrase here and there, and the mind assumes that everything that’s supposed to be in between actually is where it’s supposed to be, filling in the bits in between.

Many writer’s guides recommend at least 24 hours to clear your head of the preconceptions that lead to this mistake. I find that a shorter period works, especially if you use a little trick that I discovered by accident: changing the window size or the font. Either causes the text to re-flow, so that assumed patterns don’t register, though some gap is still required.

38. Reality Check: Visualization

Having read it through once, and noted obvious problem areas, the next step is to identify the problems and give a more robust examination to the parts that passed the first test. In this test, the goal is to take the words as written and try to visualize the description. Again, this is not possible if there has been insufficient interval between the writing and the review because the original visualization that you built up will still be too fresh in your mind.

There are two things that can be done to aid the process. The first is to have someone other than the author perform these tests. This nullifies any possibility of preconceptions getting in the way. The second trick is to work on a number of different narrative passages before you review any of them; the details of one will be clouded by the more recent memories of another, and hence so will those preconceptions. But this trick is not as effective as the text-re-flow technique mentioned above, and neither is as effective as a more substantial interval.

All that being said, if you are a careful reader, there are advantages to taking a shorter break.

39. Revision 1: Visualization and Clarity

Once the problem areas, in terms of visual coherence and clarity, have been identified, it’s time to fix them. This may involve replacing part of a sentence or it may mean replacing the entire section of narrative, or anything in between.

Read the specific part with the problem, identify the specific nature of the problem, and work out what specifically needs to be replaced, redone, or amended to correct that problem.

Once you think the problem has been corrected, read the passage together with those immediately before and after it to ensure that no flow problems have been introduced. If they have, your solution is not good enough; try again.

If it passes that test, review any later text that relates to the specific narrative change that you have introduced to be sure that you have not introduced an inconsistency or continuity error – the equivalent of a phone jumping from one side of a desk in one scene to the other in a later scene, or something being held in the left hand and then the right. These crop up in movies frequently and in TV all the time, even though they are usually fixed when noticed. Production schedules don’t allow enough time to spot them all, never mind fix them all – and most productions employ one or more people specifically to watch for such things.

You have an unlimited time budget (the base assumption of this process), so you have no such excuse. And trust me, people will notice if you don’t.

Taking a shorter break and more care in the review process can pay off big time at this point, because the original visualization is still relatively recent in mind and can be used as a guide to your clarification text. If you are the type of reader who can force themselves to read every word as written, rather than skimming through, take advantage of the fact; not many can do so with sufficient reliability.

40. Breakpoint 5

I recommend a break at this point, but this is probably the least important break of them all. The reason is that your next set of reviews will be looking for something else completely, so all you really need to do is ensure that you can maintain your focus during the next stage of the process. Ten minutes is frequently ample unless you are tired out from lots of revisions.

As a rule of thumb, assume that stage six will take twice as long as stage 5 did to complete. So if you’ve spent two hours on the first review, ask yourself if you can concentrate for another four hours. If you’ve spent five hours on the first review, can you work for ten hours with minimal breaks? Most people would say yes to the first (depending on the time of day) and no to the second, unless they absolutely had to do it.

Stage 6: Second Review:

The purpose of the second review is to compress your text to a reasonable length. This is best done working on one passage at a time, copying and pasting a copy of each passage as you go. My technique is to change the font color of the whole document to something else – usually blue – then select a passage of text, copy it, change the color of the selected passage back to black, then paste the copied text just below it; with most word processors, it will retain the color of the original. If that’s not available as an approach, you will need to find some other means of distinguishing working copy from original.

There are two reasons for this approach: first, it permits you to scrap your work on a passage and start over; and second, it saves the need to retype everything. Actually, there’s a third reason, but I’ll get to that in a little while.

41. Revision 2: Compression:

Step 41 of this writing process (I know! Fourty-one! it seems never-ending…) is to attempt to rewrite what you have so that it takes only half as many words (judged by the rough standard of number of lines). With most narrative text, without having taken special efforts to eliminate redundancy, this is usually achievable – barely.

Since we have already taken those special efforts to eliminate the soft targets, it should be extremely difficult if not impossible to get down to that length without cutting text. So, as judiciously as possible, that’s what you have to do to try and get the word-count down.

  • Can two sentences become one at the price of only a few added words?
  • Can you trim an adjective here and an unnecessary detail there?M/li>
  • Can you rely more heavily on the broad beginning statement that sets the tone for the entire narrative passage, perhaps padded ever so slightly?
  • Can you find a more expressive term to replace a noun that implies any adjective currently attached to the noun?

Trim and cut until it bleeds. Look for wasteful words and phrases like “and” and “but” and “although” and “except”. If you have a sentence of the format [description clause] [listed word] [further description], there is almost always a way to rephrase the first description clause such that the listed word and the further description that follows it can be eliminated.

I have seen it suggested that the more experience a writer has, the harder it will be to achieve such targets, because they will naturally compress as they write. To some extent, this is true, but the more experienced the writer, the more time they have had to develop bad habits (especially if primarily self-edited) – which easily compensates. Experience just means that larger chunks can get taken out.

42. Reality Check: Re-read and Review 2

Once the bloodletting (ink-letting?) is done, it’s time to re-read and review the end product. Are things still clear? Has anything been cut out that you really want or need to include? What’s satisfactory, and what’s now too sparse in description?

As I noted in the previous step, if it weren’t for the redundancy weeding, the half-words target would be achievable, if just barely – but the easy targets were already eliminated. The fact that we’re working on a line-count gives a little wriggle room, but not much; in order to get anywhere close to the target, you usually have to cut too far.

This review is to identify where something needs to be put back.

43. Revision 3: Blend to the break-point

The next step is to copy and paste from the original, longer version into the too-short version until an acceptable balance is achieved. At the same time, review the bullet-point list; anything that doesn’t get described in the integrated version should get cut-and-pasted to join the other deferred material at the bottom of the list, available for use as color and micro-setting detail in action and dialogue scenes.

44. Breakpoint 6

Let’s be honest: this is a lot harder than writing the first draft. That’s why, even though some of the compressed material will be fine, I suggested allowing a lot of time for this stage. This is where all that agonizing over this word or that happens, all that sweat of trying alternative formulations and phrasings in search of the one that expresses the description, and does it succinctly, and doesn’t break the narrative flow, and is accessible to the anticipated readers / players. For any serious length of text, you finish this stage absolutely worn out, mentally exhausted – because if you aren’t, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.

You definitely need a break afterwards. At least 24 hours not spent doing second revision. Get some rest, then work on a different passage of text that is currently in a completely different stage of development; engage some different mental muscles.

Stage 7: Final Polish:

By now, most of the text is in pretty good shape. It’s time for nit-picking and nuance and one last check that you haven’t shot yourself in the pen somewhere along the way – for the final polish, in other words.

45. Revision 4: Nuanced Synonyms

The starting point is to consider each of the terms used in your narrative and actively think about possible synonyms that may be more expressive. In particular, this applies to any subsection of the narrative that wasn’t subject to intense scrutiny in the course of Stage 6.

46. Reality Check: Re-read and Review 3

Once that’s done, it’s time to re-read it again, trying to get an overall impression. Good, bad, too frilly or flowery, too weak, too strong, too direct… the possibilities are almost endless. Clarity, vividness, flow, voice, and style are the things you’re looking for. In particular, you are concerned with the emotional intensity being conveyed and whether it is of the correct tone and intensity.

47. Reality Check: Vividness & Excitement

And, as usual, once you’ve identified the problem areas with a relatively-uninterrupted read-through, it’s time to go through it again and work out exactly what the problems are, ready to solve them. While you’re at it, check on the levels of vividness and excitement that you are incorporating. Exclamation marks are easy to over-use!!

Add these to the sub-sections to be revised, with appropriate notes.

48. Revision 5: Flow, Visualization and Clarity

Make the revisions and corrections you’ve noted in steps 46 and 47, always with the goal of fixing the problems without breaking the things you’ve been writing to achieve so far- flow, visualization, and clarity. This is also the time to bear in mind that the narrative passage will have to be clear enough that its afterimage, reinforced with tidbits from the deferred bullet list, will have to remain clear despite the distractions of whatever is to follow the narrative passage.

While a little fuzziness can help in creating a gestalt impression from the compounding of words, it can also make the narrative too weak for that impression to survive. It often helps to provide a concrete detail or two from the deferred list – even if it’s something you’d cut earlier – by providing a focal point for the impression to hang from. You only need one, somewhere close to the end of the narrative passage, if you don’t have some present already.

49. Repeat Stage 6 as necessary

It would be great if this only had to be done once. For most passages in a work of fiction, that may well be the case. But there will usually be something that needs greater attention because the changes have broken one of the many objectives you have for this piece of writing: Narrative flow, vividness, clarity, tone, intensity, and accessibility – and conveying the actual content of the scene. Once you have made a change, re-read the passage from the subsection before through the one that follows and verify that everything still works the way it should. If it doesn’t, scrap the changes to that subsection or sentence and try again.

You can find at this stage that you have fixed something that wasn’t actually broken, while failing to fix what was. Non-writers would be astonished at how frequently that happens; it’s a manifestation of being unable to see the forest for the trees.

50. Breakpoint 7

There are – or should be – fewer passages that need revision within phase seven, but the ones that do need further work are generally the most difficult to work with. This is especially true if you’re trying to subliminally hint at something more than is obvious, which adds a whole new layer of difficulty. Is the narrative supposed to capture a metaphor for something? Does it do so? Does it represent a metaphor when it isn’t supposed to? While this stage should take about the same length of time as stage 5, it is easily as intense as stage 6. Afterwards, you need a break.

Stage 8: Completion:

The final steps all deal with clean-up and compilation.

51. Aggregate working

The first thing to do is to aggregate all the working that you’ve done so that it’s available for later use. In particular, you want the bullet points and finished text together so that you can refer to both when working on later passages of text. It does no good to establish a staircase in the initial description and then have people trapped later on without mentioning – and explicitly dismissing as an exit – that staircase. There will be action sequences and dialogue and narrative descriptions of people, and this compilation is your notes on where they will be and what parts of their environment they can be interacting with while those things are happening.

52. Index the aggregate

I showed this in the law office example at the start of part 1, at least in part. I number the draft paragraphs by draft number and paragraph number and put a list of them at the end of the document where it will be out of the way, make any notes on color coding, and so on. This is so that you can find whatever you need to from your working if you later need it.

There was a time when I would have suggested including features in your narrative simply to provide something to react dramatically to whatever the action sequence was. A shop-front sign, a billboard, a glass fish-tank, whatever – I made sure that it was specified in the final description so that it was at the ready to demonstrate catastrophic damage later on.

This approach sometimes works just fine; but if, for whatever reason, your action sequence and the chosen object don’t correctly interact, if the sequence evolves or changes before it’s finished, you can be left with the extraneous and superfluous detail contributing nothing.

So these days I advocate leaving such details in an accessible format – the bullet list – until you write the action sequence, and if it turns out that you need it, you can go back and prepare the ground for the action sequence by inserting mention of that narrative element in the appropriate place.

53. Archive the aggregate

Once you’ve got the aggregate ready to use, file it away until you need it again – someplace where it will be safe. How would you feel if, after months of solid work, you were in the final stages of creating an adventure or a book and there was a computer crash in the middle of saving the document, corrupting it? It’s happened to me!

Hopefully, you would have a backup, and hopefully that backup would be accessible (unlike most of the backups that I used to make with WinXP’s basic backup software – something discovered the hard way).

Okay, let’s consider a more likely scenario: you have your description done, and three chapters later, you have something else happen at the same location. Obviously, you want access to the master description of the location without having to search the whole document for it. Equally obviously you don’t want to simply repeat the same description that you gave the first time around, and there will be some differences from that appearance anyway – different things should be prominent if only because the characters have already been there once. Throw in all the differences in emotional tone and intensity and it’s a lot easier to go back to an earlier draft, copy-and-paste it, and then develop it through stages 5, 6, and 7 to achieve these different goals.

54. Replace placeholders in master with final draft

Next, copy the final version from the archive and insert it into the appropriate location in the master document. As soon as you have done that and saved it, your text is “official” and you’re ready to move on/

55. Archive master checklist

Finally, put away any checklists that you may have used, and make permanent copies of the blank version of any new checklists that you may have put together so that they can be used again.

56. Done! For Now

This process doesn’t try to do too much at once. It’s a lot of small steps, and as both Marco Pierre White and Ray Lewis have noted, quoting Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie, “Perfection is many small things done well” (though Lewis may not have known the source).

And so, hopefully, is this article! But done well or not, it is at least done, leaving us ready to move on to part 4, which (hopefully) will wrap things up – if I can get it all written in time. But, even if I don’t get that far, it will bring us one step closer!

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Bullet To The Point: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Part 2


The real difference between game prep and a lack of game prep, in a lot of ways, can be summarized as felicity of style: better-presented maps and illustrations, better thought-out plans, better characterization of NPCs, better depiction of that characterization, and more stylish Narrative. This article is part 2 of a masterclass in the last of these.

More stylish narrative, when describing people, places, and events means creating concise, communicative, and flavorful words to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts while being more easily assimilated as a result of their brevity. They enable the narrative to flow naturally instead of being disjointed and fragmented.

The process of creating top-notch narrative is not quick, and the process that I am describing assumes that you have unlimited time on tap for polishing. This article is not about efficiency of prep, it’s about effective use of prep in one particular field within the skillset of preparing adventures. It assumes that you can spend as much time as it takes, however unrealistic that assumption may be. However, efficiency is always a consideration and the technique eliminates as much wasted time as possible.

Even if the process is not carried through to completion, or some of the more time-consuming steps are skipped or short-cutted, it’s possible to get 90% of the quality for about 10% of the time investment. The secret is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing the entire process and where those strengths and weaknesses impact on the process, so that you can target the areas for effort that will give you the most bang for your temporal buck. And it’s always great to have an awareness of the whole process on tap to be called upon when the result matters – when it’s intended for publication, for example, and not just friends talking amongst themselves or tutoring each other.

Okay, three parts are not going to be enough. I’m only half-way through the process. As a sidebar to part 1, I listed the planned breakdown of the series with all its alternatives. Because I think it important for reference and usage purposes that the whole be available in one piece, I will be editing the parts – however many of them there end up being – into a free PDF. I also intend to produce a checklist for people to follow when employing the full process, in a PDF. So let’s get to it!

I refer a number of times to the example offered last time. I’m not going to quote the whole thing again, but here for reference is the “stylish” example once again:

“The elevator dings as the doors open to reveal the offices of Brash, Livercoat, Woodley, and Howe. Interns with arm-loads of law-books and harried expressions walk past with measured strides, deep in quiet conversation. Eighteenth century opulence masks modern convenience. The cream-colored soft carpets become mushroom-brown at the walls and are clearly custom-made for this office space, The walls are polished teak, oak, and maple panels decorated with portraits of partners past and present in identical gold frames. Alabaster-white molded ceilings are almost lost in the shadows above tasteful but modern cylindrical brass chandeliers, and the scent of new leather fills the air. Directly in front of you is a central reception area with the company logo in Gold set against splashes of red, white, and blue on a pane of frosted glass. The receptionist says ‘Good afternoon’ with a smile as she looks up.”

The Technique

This process is intended for writing of a novel or other piece of fiction, or part thereof, and is a compilation of many smaller processes derived from many sources that come together for that purpose. As pointed out in part 1, there are a lot of parallels between narrative for fiction-writing and narrative for use in a roleplaying adventure, so this process is directly importable; it’s then a case of determining where to compromise and by how much. Since every individual is different, those decisions will also be different in every case.

The exact technique that I have distilled from a great many contributing sources in combination with my own experiences consists of 56 (!) steps & processes that group naturally into eight stages. Today’s article will deal with the first three of these:

    Stage 1: Preliminaries:

  1. Organization & Planning
  2. Placeholders
  3. Use a scratch document
  4. Index by placeholder
  5. The retention of progress
  6. Checklist
  7. Breakpoint 1


    Stage 2: Bullet-pointing:

  1. Multitasking: Personality
  2. Visualize
  3. Reference
  4. Polish: Sensory Cues
  5. Bullet Points
  6. Breakpoint 2


    Stage 3: Narrative Organization:

  1. Mistake #1: A sentence to each bullet point
  2. Mistake #2: The Six Surfaces
  3. Mistake #3: Over-adjectivizing
  4. Mistake #4: Drowning in detail
  5. Multitasking: Tone
  6. Multitasking: Mood
  7. Multitasking: Interaction
  8. Multitasking: Oddities & Anomalies
  9. Mistake #5: Textual Chunks
  10. Synopsis
  11. Narrative Flow: The ubiquitous elements
  12. Polish: Synonym Weeding
  13. Polish: Reasonable Assumptions
  14. Polish: Deferred Narrative
  15. Narrative Flow: The endpoint
  16. Narrative Flow: The In-between
  17. Breakpoint 3

Part 3 will complete the description of the process:

    Stage 4: Narrative Construction
    Stage 5: Narrative First Review
    Stage 6: Second Review
    Stage 7: Final Polish
    Stage 8: Completion

The whole is so large that I’m only going to be able to touch on each step or process fairly briefly. The goal here is to present an overview – and a whole bunch of tips along the way. Many of these deserve expansion into a full article in their own right, and in some cases, that has already been done. Where that’s the case, I’ll link to those articles.

A sidebar on Style

Everyone has their own writing style, but the targets of style remain the same: clear, effective, and interesting communication of whatever the writer is trying to communicate. However, differences in style can make a big difference to the amount of effort required.

I aim for a natural style that flows in much the same way as it would if I were having a conversation. This has the advantage of requiring less polishing and refinement; other people and purposes demand or desire a more formal style. The downside is that it tends to come off sounding more authoritative than is necessarily intended. It’s never my intent to suggest “this is THE way, the ONLY way, to do [X]” – just that this is the way that works for me, or that I think will work for me.

For RPG purposes, my usual style has big advantages because it treats any narrative text as something to be communicated to the players. I get similar advantages employing it to write blog posts. It means that I can simply get on with the writing and not worry about the niceties too much.

Always keep the intended delivery method in mind, and write to that intended application of your words.

A second side-bar on style

The other important consideration in terms of style is the intended audience. If you are writing to a relatively specific target group, such as your players, there is always a certain amount of explanation that can be taken as read; you will have many frames of reference in common. The more you expand the target, the more assumed knowledge and context you have to explain. This trips me up all the time when expanding something written for one of my RPGs into a blog post.

If I’m writing for my player’s benefit, I only have to name a prominent NPC and a flood of backstory becomes accessible to them that provides immediate context to whatever I have to say. If I’m writing for my readers here at Campaign Mastery, I have to fill in at least part of that context without hindering the flow of the main narrative, but I can still assume a certain degree of familiarity with common gaming terms and usages. If I write for the general public, I not only can’t assume any of that inherent background knowledge, but I have to explain things that we gamers take for granted – and do so in such a way as not to bore the pants off anyone who already knows it, just to make the process harder.

Always remember who you are writing for; anything you can reasonably assume they already know is something you don’t have to explain, letting you get on with the meaningful content.

Stage 1: Preliminaries:

The first stage is concerned with preparing to write. These preliminaries deal with the mechanics of writing, and are something that changes with the technology available. The process that I employ now is very different to the process that I would have had to employ back in the days of manual typewriters and no internet.

1. Organization & Planning

The first step is always to know what you are trying to write about. What’s the point of your communication, what are you trying to achieve? Do you have everything that you need in order to write without interruption? This step ensures that you have all the tools you need, from printer paper to internet access. It also covers when you are going to write and how your time is going to be organized.

2. Placeholders

As I explained in One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post, I break an article down into discrete components – sections and subsections – before I start writing. I employ the same technique when writing an RPG adventure with only minor differences. I employed a similar strategy to generate the bullet list used in the example in part 1 of this series – floor, walls, ceiling, what’s in front and what’s behind. In the more compressed, more stylish form of the example, the same pattern can be observed, though I’ve inserted a general impression at the top of the list.

Each of these sections and subsections is a placeholder. When it comes to a blog post, they usually become headings and subheadings. When writing for an RPG, sections become paragraphs and subsections become specific content to be incorporated into that paragraph.

Quite often, if there is a substantial gap between planning and execution, the shorthand labels that you use to summarize your intent – the headings and subheadings – can become obscure, the meaning forgotten. Whenever I think there is any risk whatsoever of that happening, I will incorporate a “sub-subheading” that synopsizes what is meant. That leaves me free to be highly compact when the meaning is more obvious.

3. Use a scratch document

I always write in a scratch document. The simpler the word processor you use, the better, at least for your first drafts; if you have few or no formatting options, you have no distractions from the process of actually putting one word after another. In fact, when writing an e-book, I try to work on each article or chapter in a separate document – so that if there is a catastrophic failure of some kind, or I chase my tail down a blind alley, I can lose that part without losing the whole.

It’s called modular thinking, the notion that you break whatever you have to write down into discrete chunks and work on them individually, then assemble the whole; if you find that one “plug-in module” isn’t right, you can pull it out and rework it without affecting the whole.

In terms of RPGs, I tend to break an adventure down into acts, then into scenes within the act, as though I were working on a play or on a TV/movie script. Each Act will usually then become a separate sub-document, as self-contained as possible. When it’s finished, copy-and-paste inserts the draft into the main document.

The big advantage of this approach is that I can keep both the main document and the current chapter open in separate windows at the same time. I will often use plain-text for the draft and a richer file format for the compilation (which opens with different software) so that this approach is naturally implemented for me by the computer software.

It goes further. I can use placeholders in my draft to indicate the need to insert an illustration or a table, then generate those separately, again using copy-and-paste when compiling the main document. This enables me to choose the best tool for whatever the job is at the moment.

Even when writing an email, I will frequently employ the same approach – drafting the content in a scratch document and then copy-and-pasting into the email itself. I find that preferable because if I try writing the email in the actual email web-page or client, I will often find that I’ve been logged off by the time I’m ready to hit ‘send’.

4. Index by placeholder

When writing an adventure, placeholders usually include the names of NPCs and location references. At the top of the scratch document, I’ll keep a master list of these placeholders and the acts/scenes in which they participate. These are accumulated in the main document when compiling it, and then sorted by act/scene. That mandates using a consistent format throughout the adventure, but it makes it much easier to refer back to their last appearance within the adventure.

This has so many advantages its hard to know where to start. I can write all of an NPCs canned dialogue for the whole adventure at once, so that they always have a consistent speech pattern. I can evolve a description over the course of its appearances within the adventure, so that Lessons From The West Wing III: Time Happens In The Background. I can describe a setting or location and add further details as they become relevant, i.e. noticeable by, or significant to, the players.

It’s also convenient for the generation of ToCs (Tables of Contents) such as the list earlier in this article, which in turn enables me to see “the whole plan” at once.

In terms of narrative, it means that I can put the bullet points into a logical sequence and get an overall flow to the narrative that makes sense, simply by reordering the individual snippets of text being indexed with copy and paste.

Let me expound a little more on this point. The order in which I write passages of text can be whatever is most efficient and need not have any resemblance to the order in which they will appear in the finished adventure. When the time comes to compile the material in the scratch document into a coherent whole, I can (1) copy-&-paste a duplicate of the final order; (2) select-and-cut the text snippets that combine to make up that scene or act one at a time, then (3) paste it immediately after the appropriate index entry in the duplicate list. The placeholder then becomes a heading or subheading with the content immediately following it.

At a campaign level, there are even more advantages to be extracted from this approach. You can keep a separate document for each NPC and compile, as you go, a copy of every appearance that NPC makes. Such an NPC “contact dossier”, when preceded by any game mechanics like stats, becomes incredibly useful when the same NPC makes a return appearance weeks or months later. What’s more, by reviewing the “contact dossier” before you start writing, you can immediately assess the last-established status quo of the character (so that you can evolve their circumstances), and can facilitate consistency of personality across both appearances.

Finally, by keeping all your “contact dossiers” in a single folder dedicated to that purpose, you can avoid the mistake of using the same name for two different characters – which can otherwise happen at the most inconvenient and confusing times.

5. The retention of progress

Save your work. Do it often. I do it at the end of each section or subsection, and before starting any sort of major revision. Another big advantage of the modular approach is that you can save your progress without updating the master document, so that you are not committed to anything permanently – with most word processors, loading an existing version of the document doesn’t permit you to backtrack through past changes, each session starts off with a clean “undo” list.

Whenever I start a major update, for example formatting the final document, I will always work on a copy – and then overwrite the master version only when I’m sure that what has just been saved is correct. This lets me always fall back to the last point at which everything was right – something that has saved my bacon any number of times.

6. Checklist

When one will be useful, I prepare a checklist of things to do, and prioritize them according to their degree of necessity. I’ve offered several ways of such prioritization in past articles – Fire Fighting, Systems Analysis, and RPG Problem Solving Part 2 of 3: Prioritization for example.

When you have unlimited time, you want to tick off every last item on that checklist. When you’re up against a deadline, with limited time between now and then, that may not be practical, which is where the article linked to above becomes more useful.

It’s helpful to have a general master checklist that you can use time and time again. Don’t rely on memory if you don’t have to – the one time you forget to spell-check will inevitably be the time you make a horrendous spelling mistake. Why? Because you will have also forgotten on other occasions, and without that terrible blunder to point it out to you, you will not have noticed. Hence, items seem to get missed only at the worst possible times – when you’re in a hurry, and you’ve made a colossal blunder, and are already stressed and under pressure. It’s a confluence of circumstances that inevitably bites you on the tail.

7. Breakpoint 1

When you have ensured that everything is ready to go, the first thing to do is STOP. At the end of each of the major stages of writing, take a break and clear your mind. This is infinitely preferable to interrupting a major stage because you need to take a break. Believe me, it will actually be more efficient to take a break now (even if you don’t think you need one, or are eager to get going) than it will be to accommodate unscheduled pauses that break your chain of thought when neck-deep in the act of being creative.

Sidebar: Efficiency from OH&S

I don’t know about other countries, but here in Australia, the Public Service Union is one of the strongest and best organized in terms of protecting the workforce and maximizing efficiency. You can generally take their OH&S guidelines as a solid representation of ‘best practice’ for ensuring productivity and long-term occupational health.

There have been studies that show that taking a 10-minute break or more every 2 hours actually results in higher productivity than not doing so. So the Australian Public Service recommends taking scheduled 10-minute breaks every hour so that you can miss one when you have to and still hit the real target. Get up, stretch, walk around, get a beverage, relax. Read a book, play cards, whatever. The mental relief is as important as being away from a computer screen. While individual needs may vary, it’s still a good foundation that enables you to focus on working hard and efficiently the rest of the time. You will get more done.

I employ a cheat: A put a CD on when I start work, and take a ten-minute break when it finishes playing. These are usually between 45 and 75 minutes long, so this technique takes all the clock-watching and stress out of the situation.

Sidebar: Enough sleep

I am going to do a separate article on this subject at a later point. For now, suffice it to say that people need a lot less sleep than you think – if you manage it properly.

Sleep can be broken into two parts: a 30-minute part and a 60-minute part. These two form a repeating cycle while you sleep, from the moment you fall asleep. You want to wake up during that 30-minute window. Naps should be less than 30 minutes long. Allow time to actually fall asleep. Plan your wakeup time accordingly.

There’s a lot more to say on the subject, but I’ll save that for that separate article I mentioned. For now, suffice it to say: You will be more creative, more productive, more healthy, and more happy if you get enough sleep.

Stage 2: Bullet-pointing:

So you know what you’re going to write about, and you have your workspace and tools all organized; you’re fresh and ready to go. The place to start is bullet-pointing, as explained earlier.

Bullet-pointing captures the maximum number of thoughts in the shortest space of time per thought. It forces brevity. If you have to, you can even run an adventure that’s been bullet-pointed with no additional prep.

An example of bullet-pointing Scenes to appear within an Act from an RPG might be:

  • Back-door call to PCs
  • Lab Location, description
  • Meet Research Director
  • Meet Lab Assistant
  • Lab Purpose
  • Consultation by Museum
  • Strange Discovery
  • Report to Authority
  • Disappearance of Researcher
  • Cover-up?
  • Decision to involve PCs

I’ve actually been a little more explicit in the above list than I might be when actually writing the scene. Instead of “Lab Location, description”, I would probably just write “Lab”; instead of “Meet Research Director” I would simply say “Research Director”.

8. Multitasking: Personality

Characters are the heart and soul of RPGs. When compiling a bullet-point list, I always try and capture the personalities of the NPCs and institutions involved. If I am describing a scene, as I did in the earlier example, I will decide what personality I want the location to have and use that as my starting point. It is so much easier to proceed in this way than to try and tack a personality in afterwards, because it means that I can be actively looking for ways in which to display that personality, and because it means that the personality of the subject can influence the content instead of being superficially tacked on.

The easiest approach is to actually append a superficial personality profile, just a word or two long, after their introduction in the scene. “Research Director – Stuffy, Worried” is a lot more useful than just “Research Director”.

Point-of-view is always something to bear in mind as a subtext within the Personality consideration. If I’m describing the scene where something happened, I always bear in mind the personality of whoever was responsible even if they are not an active presence in the scene. I will usually include such a presence as a bullet-point item, but put it in brackets as a reminder. Of course, if I have a contact dossier, all I need to do is reference that dossier.

9. Visualize

It’s a lot easier for you to visualize a scene in your imagination and then describe what you “see” than it is to describe it without doing so. It’s also a lot more effective – after all, if you can’t visualize the scene, how can you expect your players to do so? Throughout the bullet-point example above, I was picturing the Research Director constantly wringing his hands with worry. I have no idea why he’s worried – perhaps it’s just that he’s going outside the usual routine, perhaps he’s taking a risk that makes him uncomfortable, or perhaps he’s a concerned boss – or perhaps he’s guilty of something and worried he will be discovered.

The bullet point notation, “worried,” not only serves as a reminder as to the behavior to keep in mind while writing the scene, it reminds that there needs to be an explanation for this behavior. What’s more, the rest of the personality should intimate this reason – insisting that the PCs sign in and wear passes at all times suggests the first reason for the worry, eyes darting back and forth while he asks if this can be kept off-the-record suggests the second, exhibiting concern for the lab assistant suggests the third, and a statement that “getting you involved was not my idea” leaves room for the fourth while suggesting a fifth, some form of prejudice against the PCs, or against their presence if it can be viewed as a rebuke of his management of the facility.

Throughout the law-firm example, I was able to visualize both the appearance and the layout quite clearly from the very beginning, and simply sketched in additional details as each element presented itself for further delineation within the bullet list. Nor was the version of the bullet list provided the same as the one I initially came up with – one idea suggested another, which suggested still another; they were subsequently placed in logical order to make the connections to the more “stylish” version clearer to readers. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

10. Reference

The other sort of notation that I will make on the bullet list is a connection to any reference material I have, or that I need to locate. This might be a map, it might be a photograph, it might be to an RPG supplement, it might be to a contact dossier, it might be to an earlier adventure in which one or more elements might be located. In particular, in the above list, “Strange Discovery” is a little vague and needs to be more explicitly described.

Not only will I list any research required, I will actively seek out the sources at this point. You want to collect your research before you start writing so that it can be incorporated into narrative consistently. If, for example, I’m thinking of something strange about the axes of atomic rotation in whatever was being tested, I will want to know how these things occur in nature, how they are detected, and what the machines used for such analysis look like. I may want to research “Magnetic Resonance”.

If I wanted whatever it was to have a different radiological signature, I will want to research radioactive decay and elements with unusual half-lives so that I know what the strangeness is. I will want to know about isotope identification. Since the chemical properties of different isotopes tend to be the same, I know that a spectrograph won’t do that job – so, while I might note that a mass spectrometer might be normal equipment for a lab handling such analyses, it won’t be especially prominent, and will get mentioned in passing if at all.

11. Polish: Sensory Cues

Once I have all my reference material, and have at least a preliminary idea of what it says, I will go back over my bullet list and add to it. The first of several steps that polish the material, I want to note any specific sensory cues other than the visual for incorporation. Sounds and Smells are the big two; taste and touch tend to be less frequent, though they may be present in specific items where they are relevant.

12. Bullet Points

Here’s a simple checklist: general impression, front, sides, back, top, bottom, the obvious. That’s the sort of checklist that I use when describing a room or location. Step 12 of the writing process is to go back over the bullet-point list making sure that nothing has been left out. For example, in the “laboratory” example, some notes on the missing researcher should be in place, and while I have described the Institution there is no description of the actual lab where the strangeness took place. There should be something about whether or not the Lab Assistant was present when whatever happened transpired, and if not, why not. And who were the authorities? And what raised suspicions of a cover-up, and why aren’t the lab personnel going along with it? There’s a lot more detail needed, and each of these needs a bullet point. In addition, I would add bullet points for the results of any research.

If the layout of the facility was going to be important, the time to at least roughly sketch out a map is before you start writing descriptions.

Another example, this time from the law-firm example, are the combined water features / drinking fountains. I can see these quite clearly in my mind’s eye, even now – but I gave minimal description in the bullet-point list. This is the point at which I might draw a quick sketch to help me make it clear – but, since this is a relatively unimportant piece of the description, I probably wouldn’t bother.

13. Breakpoint 2

Creating the bullet points involves a solid burst of creativity. When they are finished, it’s time to take another break. You need to clear your head of everything that’s irrelevant to the next step – and everything that’s relevant should now be in note form, ready for expansion.

Stage 3: Narrative Organization:

I made the point that by this time you have a collection of bullet points that aren’t necessarily in order. Stage three is about putting these points in the order that you want to use them in the final narrative, adding details and further notes as you go. Often, you will draft a small snippet of finished narrative as you go.

This is a stage that a lot of people seem to struggle with, or that people ignore only to find themselves in difficulty in subsequent stages. Your goal in this stage is to decide on the flow of the narrative, the order in which you want your bullet points to be presented to whoever your material is intended for – whether that’s players in an RPG or the readership of a blog, article, or e-book.

14. Mistake #1: A sentence to each bullet point

I want to start detailing this stage by making specific mention of common mistakes that people make. I consider the active avoidance of these mistakes to be something that is just as important as the more constructive steps in the process.

The first such mistake is usually putting each bullet point in a sentence by itself. To illustrate, let’s take the first three or four bullet points from the law firm list as I originally wrote them and translate them improperly:

  • Central elevator – to reception. Corridors – H pattern, broad enough stations each side.
  • Reception – company logo. Patriotic colors plus gold. Glass backing.
  • Luxurious carpets, custom.
  • Walls – wood panelings.

Compare that with the version presented last time, in which each of these has become one or more sentences:

  • A central elevator opens to the main reception. Corridors are in a H pattern, but are broad enough for secretarial stations to line each side.
  • Central reception area with company logo in Gold against splashes of red, white, and blue on frosted glass.
  • Luxurious soft carpets, custom-designed & fitted.
  • The walls are polished wood panels.

Now imagine yourself reading these aloud, exactly as they stand. Is this narrative that sings? Not by a long shot!

Always look for ways to bundle related items together. Don’t start describing one thing, break off to describe another, then return to describing the first thing – and treat these categories of information as broadly in definition as possible. Don’t, for example, describe one wall, and then the paintings on that wall, and then the next wall, and the paintings on that wall, and then…. well, you get the idea. Put all the walls together into one bundle.

15. Mistake #2: The Six Surfaces

At the same time, don’t repeat yourself. Collect like together with like, and make sure that you have every surface covered (floor, walls, ceiling for a room). The number of times I’ve seen people describe walls, furniture, and decorations in loving detail while failing to even mention the floor or ceiling is astonishing.

If you’re describing an outdoors scene, treat it as though it were being projected onto the walls of an imaginary room. Use this to make sure that you’re leaving nothing important out.

16. Mistake #3: Over-adjectivizing

Contemplate the following: “The small shimmering scales were opalescent beads of gold, with rainbow-like speckles of intense red, earthy brown, and pure white, joined by brightly-gleaming yellow golden scales of minuscule size, visible only upon close inspection.” Or, “the high-backed chair of soft velvet was well-padded and adorned with brightly-colored purple cushions filled with the softest down, matching in intensity the ruby-red velvet backing and rich, well-polished, deeply stained hardwood.”

Some writers seem to think that every detail that is described needs an adjective or three. Most of the time, one is too many – prune back to one for the entire object. You aren’t making the object more real in the readers’/players’ minds by overloading them with adjectives.

Even more to the point, use an adjective only to modify or contrast expectations raised by the general impression. A “richly-appointed chair” gives sufficient impression for most purposes. Adding “velvet” to that description is just about permissible because it tells you something about the construction. Don’t bother mentioning the wood, or the wood-stain; these are implied. Don’t describe them as soft until someone sits in one. Unless there is something notable or important about the cushions, they can pretty much be taken as read. Ditto any carving of the back or legs.

Be minimalist in your adjectives.

17. Mistake #4: Drowning in detail

This is a very easy mistake to make; it’s necessary to be constantly vigilant. In general, too much detail leads to too many adjectives, and too many adjectives tends to imply too much detail. What do your targets need to know? What do you need to specifically mention beyond what’s in the general impression?

Is there a more general, more inclusive term that can be used to refer collectively to the things that you are describing? Do you have to specifically detail both chairs and tables, or can you substitute “Dining Room furniture” – or simply “furniture”? – which can then be described all in one statement.

At the same time, don’t bother describing the settee when it’s the stuffing spilling out of the cut in the chair that’s of interest – unless the material of the chair makes the cut more significant. A chair of dragonscale is worth mentioning in this context, for example, because of the implied resistance to being cut.

Every detail that you explicitly mention should be relevant to the function or role of the object of the description.

18. Multitasking: Tone

There are a few things to keep actively in mind in a positive way while compiling your bullet points. The first is the tone that you want the object of your description to have.

Tone defines the emotionality of the circumstances that you want to convey, through a restriction on the vocabulary that you employ. If the tone you want is “Gothic Horror”, terms like “frilly” should be nowhere to be seen. On the other hand, if soft and romantic is the objective, then it might be entirely appropriate. It can be thought of as an emotional context.

Now is the time to decide on the tone that you want and actively cut or rephrase to achieve that tone.

19. Multitasking: Mood

Mood and tone work hand-in-hand. Mood defines the specific emotional direction or pattern that is to exist within the Tone. Is the mood to be oppressive, ominous, threatening, sad, up-beat? Mood relates more to events within the narrative, but can be manipulated to a certain extent simply by the sequence of details. The use of color, the use of language, the phrasing of descriptions, and the choice of which details to focus on, all manipulate the mood. The emotional state of characters (NPCs, in the case of a game) is also a driver of Mood more than Tone. Events and their sequence project mood, and more specifically, function to transition whatever the mood is prior to the scene and alter it in some respect.

Some moods simply don’t work very well in some tonal choices, and may need careful treatment. Others come naturally.

Mood has three roles to play at this point: first, one of the valid reasons for inclusion of details is to generate or isolate the desired mood; second, assessing the mood of the existing events; and third, supplementing the events with others of specific tonal value in order to alter the mood within the overall scene or act.

For more on mood I refer you to my article on emotional pacing in RPGs: Part One and Part Two. You might also find People, Places, and Narratives: Matching Locations to plot needs relevant at this point.

Decide on what the mood should be. Constantly monitor what the mood is, then insert or remove items to achieve that mood – but, if you remove anything essential, bear in mind that you will have to put it in somewhere.

20. Multitasking: Interaction

Another thing to keep in mind while working on this stage of the writing process is the interactions that you want your characters (fiction) or the PCs (RPG) to have with the circumstances and events around them. You want to be constantly aware of how events steer the characters, and how the characters steer events, and in particular for an RPG, how the players can steer events in directions other than those forecast in your outline.

Certain bullet points are calls to action, and these are high-risk points in terms of potential departures from plans. There are three possible reactions to such departures: you can try to force the players back on track, you can try to lead them back on track, or you can be prepared for them to off-track. The first is never recommended, as is the variation of never giving the players a choice of action. The second is possible but if manipulation is detected by players, it is generally resented. The best solution – and the most difficult – is the third one. Which is why there is so much GMing advice out there on how to do it.

Branch points – or points at which there is a higher than normal chance of divergence – should be noted by the author as they arise, and notes on how to handle them incorporated as you go.

The other piece of advice that should be noted in this context is direction. When moving from item to item, think about how the characters eyes are moving – if you start going left to right, don’t interrupt that by mentioning the ceiling unless there is something hanging from it within the character’s eye-line. Left to right, right to left, up to down, down to up, forward – these are all valid directions. Organize your descriptions appropriately.

21. Multitasking: Oddities & Anomalies

That’s already quite a lot to think about, but there’s one thing more to add to the stack: Oddities. As a general rule of thumb, less attention should be devoted to what fits within the boundaries of what has already been described or established within the narrative passage, and more attention given to things that don’t fit.

If you enter a clearing and it contained a charging dragon, how much attention would you pay to the color of the leaves on the trees? If you enter a room and some points a machine gun in your direction, don’t expect people to notice the wallpaper.

Have a good reason for any oddities that occur; if it doesn’t fit, and it isn’t necessary, think about cutting it. And if it is important, detail it – bearing in mind that an oddity of any sort is quite likely to provoke an action / reaction from the PCs.

22. Mistake #5: Textual Chunks

Sometimes, a writer will have small snippets of text already written. The best way of organizing these into a coherent narrative is to summarize these into bullet points, identifying each passage by means of paragraph numbering.

For example, “Quantum vibrations in the time stream are detectable, if the accumulated sum of such vibrations reach a certain threshold, and every event causes these vibrations. The more substantial the event, the greater the vibrations. Time traveling past such events is akin to jogging through an Earthquake, The Quantum Discriminator detects such significant events and measures their significance so that I know what to avoid.”

If this little piece of exposition were the fourth pre-generated by the author, it would be given the index entry E4 (E for “Exposition”) and a bullet point entry created which reads “E4 – Temporal Earthquakes”.

Now, the only reason why this particular piece of exposition would be important is because the character is about to experience such an event, or – more likely – has just done so. That means that there needs to be a separate item on the bullet list: Experience Temporal Earthquake.”

But that alone would still not be enough to justify the presence of this one-two piece of narrative. To be truly significant, there need to be two further bullet points – one that reads “establish location in space-time”, and a second that reads “There shouldn’t be a TQ at these coordinates.”

Personally, I would consider dividing this exposition up. This enables the description of the Quantum Discriminator to be separated from the event which triggers it, giving more flexibility in the ordering of the bullet points. The entire first sentence is pretty much redundant, for example. You don’t need it, and its inclusion might interfere with the smooth flow of the final narrative. Smaller chunks gives greater flexibility, so break them up.

23. Synopsis

Bearing all these things in mind, and having further populated your bullet points list as necessary, it’s almost time to start organizing your bullet points into the order they will appear in the finished narrative.

The starting point that I always employ is a synopsis. It’s usually preferable to put this in writing so that you can refer back to it. If you can get this down to a single sentence, so much the better. There will be times when I will create a synopsis before I start listing bullet points, and this is entirely acceptable.

24. Narrative Flow: The ubiquitous elements

Once you have an idea of what the narrative passage is intended to convey, it’s time to do a rough sorting of the bullet points. I start with the Ubiquitous elements – these are anything that can be wholly subsumed by the general impression, or that should form part of that general impression; in other words, anything that will be present throughout the narrative text block. If necessary, I create a new bullet point at the top of the list to contain it.

25. Polish: Synonym Weeding

Once I have the ubiquitous elements listed, the next step is to go through the bullet points and cut or rephrase anything that is synonymous with one or more of those elements. In particular, any adjectives that are implied by a ubiquitous element should be expunged from the remaining bullet points.

26. Polish: Reasonable Assumptions

The next thing that I look to eliminate from the bullet point list is anything that can reasonably be assumed to be present and of no further note. The Law-firm example didn’t list cleaning closets or rest rooms, for example. But, going beyond that, is there anything so mundane that it can be reasonably assumed to exist?

If I say Police Station, I don’t need to list the front desk unless there’s something unusual about it – in which case, I don’t want to write about the desk, I want to write about the unusual feature. If I say Fire Station, the presence of Fire Trucks doesn’t need to be mentioned; the existence of so many bays is enough to imply a truck in each bay. An electrical sub-station implies cables and transformers. Get rid of anything you can reasonably assume to be present. Heck, a Lasker Wave Detector implies that such a thing as Lasker Waves exist; you don’t necessarily need to define and describe them, what you care about is what causes them, and therefore, what the presence of such waves implies.

But don’t eliminate these entirely; move them to the bottom of the list and cross them off. If your word processor supports no other way of doing so, you can underline them. My preferred method is to use a different font color like red, which is fairly self-explanatory. The reason is that you may want to reinsert some of these at a later point for reasons of characterization.

Remember, what you are compiling is not a set decoration work-order! You don’t have to list everything. Don’t bother listing a telephone on every office desk unless that’s highly unusual for the setting.

27. Polish: Deferred Narrative

Next, I move to the end of the list anything that can be deferred. What don’t you need to describe or explain right now? This is one of the primary acts illustrated by the generation of the concise Law Office description – there was an awful lot of detail that didn’t have to be mentioned right away.

This is a little trickier when it comes to RPGs, as I pointed out in discussing Good Storytelling Technique Or Bad? – Chekhov’s Gun and RPGs.

In a nutshell, if the players are going to be looking for something, you need to mention it up front. If not, it can be deferred until such a time as it becomes relevant.

28. Narrative Flow: The endpoint

We have now excluded everything that doesn’t need to be part of this particular narrative passage. We also have the content that is to form the general introduction and eliminated any redundancy that results, in other words, the beginning; and we have all the things that we need to take into account identified, and – hopefully – documented. As I noted in the law-office example, anything to which the players should be expected to respond, or that will lead into a dialogue scene or a different narrative passage such as an action sequence, should be the last thing in the narrative flow. The next step is therefore to select the endpoint of the narrative passage, which must be one of those types of passage elements.

You always have to end your narrative block with either a transition to a different narrative block, to an action of some kind, to a passage of dialogue, or – in the case of an RPG – with something that demands interaction with one or more players of some sort. If you don’t have one of these, you need to create and insert one.

29. Narrative Flow: The In-between

With beginning and end-point identified, all that remains is to establish the order of the bits in the middle. Is there some logical flow between those established points? I mentioned some of the possibilities earlier, but there are more, too many to list, depending on the nature of the narrative passage. Here are a couple more to contemplate: Input to Output, Cause to Effect, Mundane to Unusual, Outside to Inside, Macro to Micro, even Wet to Dry or vice-versa.

Look at the start and the endpoints, and identify the differences between what is being initially described and what is being described at the end. There will always be some difference, and often there will be more than one. What you want is the one that forms a natural progression through the majority of the in-between elements.

In the case of the law-firm example, I went from down to up, then to what was immediately in front (up to specific center) which led logically to the receptionist. From there, I could either go directly to the dialogue, or to a description of the receptionist – either of which meets the requirements of the endpoint as listed in the previous section.

This approach works no matter what the narrative block is about. It could be describing the appearance of a deity within a temple or the precessing of the watchamaguffins; the appearance of a pirate ship to the disappearance of a magician. With practice, it becomes almost instinctive, and you no longer need to actually carry out many of the steps – though it is always a good idea to tick each off on a checklist to ensure that you have at least thought about whether or not a given step is necessary for this particular narrative passage.

30. Breakpoint 3

Once you have your bullet list boiled down and sequenced properly, it’s time to clear your head of all those things that were used in this stage. All those mistakes to avoid and things to bear in mind are now embedded and embodied in the sequence of bullet points that you have compiled, so you’re all set to begin the process of turning it into polished text – which carries with it a whole new set of things to bear in mind. So now is the right time to take another break and prepare yourself mentally for the fourth stage of the narrative writing process.

And that’s something that I’ll get into next time – because I’m clean out of time for doing so in this part of the series!

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Polished Loquacity: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Part 1


What’s the real difference between game prep and a lack of game prep?

I think the most overt differences can all be summarized as felicity of style: better-presented maps and illustrations, better thought-out plans, better characterization of NPCs, better depiction of that characterization, and more stylish Narrative.

Better-presented maps & illustrations

Although this article is going to focus on the last of the differences, I thought it worth at least synopsizing the others. While you can get by with quick-and-dirty hand-drawn maps and sketches, investing some prep time makes it more certain that nothing important gets left out, and enables Google image searches for photos that help place your players mentally within their surroundings.

Better thought-out plans

Clever NPCs require better plans. You can argue that prep-time should be proportionate to the quality of the NPCs being encountered in the game. Not saying I agree with going that far, but there is an argument to be made in support of such a position. It’s a sure bet that some NPCs will supposedly be smarter than the GM, and the only way to simulate that is either to fake it or to do some of the NPCs thinking in advance, preparing plans, contingencies, and alternatives. Just because a scheme or response is off-the-cuff from an in-game perspective, it does not mean that it has to be so in the real world.

And then there is the case for characters who are simpler than the GM. That generally means having simpler goals – but that requires the character to have simpler priorities that derive directly from their personalities and ambitions. Which brings me to the next point:

Better Characterized NPCs

When people improvise, they usually employ one of a small selection of stock personas, perhaps modified to accommodate different ambitions or priorities. These are quick and easy and very cardboard in texture. There’s all sorts of advice and tools for creating more individual personalities that are available, and many more that can be adapted from traditional writer’s guides and the like. But they all take time and a little thought, and not every approach will suit every character. Prep time creates personalities.

Prep time also permits the GM to find or create effective ways of expressing those personalities through everything from costume to speech patterns to photographic or artistic expressions (including a little theme music, if your style accommodates it). The better your NPCs present themselves, the more the players can relate to them as they would “real people”, producing a better, more immersive, and more realistic game. Further, the more successful the NPCs are at stealing scenes by being more “real” than the PCs, the more it challenges the players to lift their own games, in effect laying off some of the burden of creating a better game onto their shoulders. Many hands make light work, as the old-time homily goes.

And still another benefit of game prep is that canned dialogue can be prepared and polished to better express the personality of the character. Don’t just tell the players that the NPC is nervous, find ways to reflect nerves and edginess in your performance as the NPC at the game table.

Finally, within this category, dialogue can be a tool for the NPC to achieve their goals, to show what they care about and how deeply they care, and to show what they know and can speak about with conviction and sincerity. This isn’t easy to fake, you need to be able to get inside the NPCs heads – and that often means reading up on a subject and on real people with similar beliefs. It can mean watching youTube videos of such people, or documentaries. It means game prep.

More stylish narrative

And finally, it means more stylish narrative to employ when describing people, places, and events. Concise, communicative, flavorful words can create a whole greater than the sum of their parts while being more easily assimilated as a result of their brevity. The narrative can flow naturally instead of being disjointed and fragmented.

Writers of the highest standard strip their narrative back to the barest essentials to make room for characterization and then polish the result until it gleams, They search for ways to convey dry narrative into dialogue, giving the characters something to talk about. They may draw up checklists of things they want a stretch of dialogue to convey and agonize over each and every word.

Great writing imparts setting information through description of scenes, and people and sounds perfectly natural in doing so, It imparts characterization through dialogue and behavior. It imparts a sense of time through dynamics. It builds a tone and a mood through choice of words employed, and ensures that no word is used that contradicts that tone and mood save when explicitly necessary for contrast. And it does all this while telling a story with emotional buildup and release. These are skills that no writer ever feels they have completely mastered; they never say that narrative and dialogue are perfect, they simply accept that the result is the best they are now capable of achieving with their current standard of expertise and within the constraints that have been imposed by deadlines, financial status, and editorial/publisher’s guidelines.

Well, you don’t have to make your narrative Great Writing. But you should aim for a “good” to “excellent” standard. And that takes time. And that’s the subject of today’s article.

What this article is not about

There are lots of articles and good advice out there on making efficient use of your prep time, on scheduling and prioritization and squeezing 150% out of every available second. I’ve written what I hope is some of it (a Google search within the Campaign Mastery site finds 190 articles that refer to “efficient” and “prep”, some redundant. Perhaps more usefully, a search using the site’s own search box selects those articles and presents them in four pages, ten or twelve articles to a page).

This article is not about efficiency of prep, it’s about effective use of prep in one particular field within the skillset of preparing adventures. It assumes that you can spend as much time as it takes, however unrealistic that assumption may be. However, efficiency is always a consideration and the technique eliminates as much wasted time as possible.

The other thing this article is not, at this point, is complete. It’s just too darned big for one post. So I’m going to split it up. I hope to be able to get it done in three parts, but length might necessitate a four-part split – and the real world, in the form of a subpoena to appear as a witness at a court case next week, might interfere in completion by the time of my normal publishing deadline, pushing the length out to five parts. Because it’s especially important that these be viewed as a whole in order for the technique to be effective, I don’t intend to interrupt the sequence with articles on other subjects, and the final part will include a PDF of the entire series as a complete e-book. I’m also going to put together a checklist for people to use in implementing the process, to appear towards the end of the series.

Here’s the anticipated breakdown:

  • Three-post version:
    • Part 1: Introduction, Example, Analysis.
    • Part 2: The prep-time process (8 stages).
    • Part 3: Full-process checklist, The consequences of the process for an RPG, Recycling discarded work as a GMing resource, Improv Narrative, and the full article as a PDF.
  • Four-post version:

    • Part 1: Introduction, Example, Analysis.
    • Part 2: The prep-time process (Stages 1-3).
    • Part 3: The prep-time process (Stages 4-8), A Full-process checklist, and The consequences of the process for an RPG.
    • Part 4: Recycling discarded work as a GMing resource, Improv Narrative, and the full article as a PDF.
  • Five-post version:

    • Part 1: Introduction, Example, Analysis.
    • Part 2: The prep-time process (Stages 1-3).
    • Part 3: The prep-time process (Stages 4-8).
    • Part 4: Full-process checklist, The consequences of the process for an RPG, and Recycling discarded work as a GMing resource.
    • Part 5: Improv Narrative, and the full article as a PDF.

Right now, the smart money would be on the 4-part version. But I’m shooting to get it done in three – so let’s get to it!

What is Narrative?

Bullet points break a narrative into bite-sized chunks. They are a great way to organize your material into smaller tasks. Here, for example, is a rough breakdown of a novel:

  • Synopsis of the story

    • Breakdown of the synopsis into chapters

      • Breakdown of each chapter into sections

        • Breakdown of each section into scenes

          • Breakdown of each scene into location/context passages, dialogue passages, and/or action passages

Location/Context passages are collectively considered Narrative. Some people might also include Action passages, and certainly within any context other than an RPG, they would fall within that category. This is because they are all described from some omniscient perspective (in the visual sense), even if the actual writing is from a first-person perspective (in the literary sense). The writer is communicating directly with the reader.

  • Context Passages – are either equivalent to a voice-over establishing the context of the action or dialogue that is about to take place, providing historical narrative or synopsizing events that have taken place between chapters, or describing/identifying the participants in an action or dialogue passage that’s to follow. They place the action or dialogue that is to follow into context, attaching meaning and significance; hence the name.
  • Location Passages – describe the environment within which action or dialogue will take place.
  • Action Passages – describe a series of events taking place within a location as a result of the context.

These are all different to some degree when applied to an RPG.

  • Context Passages – now include information for the GM to use in adjudicating roleplay and player choices, as well as making the players aware of anything they need to know in order to make those choices. This includes describing any NPCs. They still exist to place the action or dialogue that is to follow into context, attaching meaning and significance.
  • Location Passages – describe the environment within which action or dialogue will take place. Again, this is essential information for the players to make appropriate choices for their characters.
  • Action Passages – These detail the game mechanics of the situation and may include prompts for mandatory tests for environmental consequences. Most action is implied rather than being explicitly described; for example “Chest, locked, DC 22, contains…” implies the requirement for lock-picking or physical intervention, and is never required (beyond use as superficial description) if the players choose not to investigate the contents of the chest. If we assume that such descriptive elements are extracted into a context or location passage, Action sequences will no longer count as narrative because in an RPG they are interactive instead.

The Bullet-point Description

One of the big advantages of nested bullet points with appropriate highlighting of key terms is that they enable the GM to locate the relevant passages that convey the information necessary to interpret whatever is occurring as they needed – assuming they are concise enough. Sometimes they are used simply to index more detailed sections of text.

In a novel, passages are presented in a completely linear fashion – passage B follows passage A, and are always read in succession. You don’t read one paragraph, then skip to a later paragraph, then to another, and then go back to the paragraph that follows the first,
In an RPG, passages are explicitly non-linear, and the determination of which passage is relevant is the result of interpreting choices made by one or more of the participants (including the GM if the passage deals with a reaction to the PCs). In order to find what they are looking for, passages need to be organized in a relatively-rigid structural manner.

Bullet-point descriptions and numbered lists are the perfect ways of organizing such material. While these text arrangements would be highly unusual within a novel, except when being quoted verbatim, they – or analogous approaches – are very common in RPG adventures.

Law-firm example

For example, here’s a description of a Law Firm that might appear in an RPG:

  • A central elevator opens to the main reception. Corridors are in a H pattern, but are broad enough for secretarial stations to line each side.
  • Central reception area with company logo in Gold against splashes of red, white, and blue on frosted glass.
  • Luxurious soft carpets, custom-designed & fitted.
  • The walls are polished wood panels.
  • >Walls are never empty, each has something – usually a portrait or photograph of a past or current partner. Some date back to the firm’s founding in 1863. They are all exactly the same size and hung at the same height in identical frames.
  • The ceiling is vaulted and molded with paint used to suggest greater depth (it has darker tones in the center). Lighting is from tasteful brass cylindrical chandeliers with a slightly-modern design which illuminate the offices clearly but leave the ceiling in shadow. Almost-invisible apertures in the moldings conceal security cameras with at least two observing every point within the office.
  • Light switches, etc, are all concealed behind plants of various kinds in polished marble pots. Each has a small spotlight which also illuminates a label identifying the plant and certifying that it is pollen-free. All plants are in perfect health.
  • Private waiting rooms so a client can’t see any other client.
  • Each partner has at least one secretary’s desk next to the waiting room allocated to that partner and oriented at right angles to the central corridor, facing the partner’s waiting room. Each secretary has a polished wood desk with a glass panel embossed on the underside showing the company logo. Each desk has a nameplate, a computer terminal, a keyboard, and a pen holder. Filing cabinets are located beside each desk, also made of polished wood to blend in. They are all inset into the walls.
  • All the secretaries have custom-built and upholstered ergonomic chairs with plush blue velvet linings. Other chairs are constructed of leather and must be changed regularly because they all have that distinctive “new leather” smell.
  • Brass nameplates on the polished wooden doors in enameled black letters are beyond each secretarial station.
  • At regular intervals between the secretarial stations, water fountains in small alcoves of polished wood dispense drinkable water chilled to exactly 4 degrees centigrade. Each water fountain is backed by a small water feature.
  • One side-wall of the H is given over to a huge fish-tank full of large tropical fish. Lights are strategically located inside the tank to illuminate the fish.
  • Running along the corridor that runs alongside the fish-tank are four large conference rooms. Beyond these rooms at the bottom of the H are doors to the typing pool and switchboard. Between these two areas is a staff dining room which can be reached directly by means of an almost-invisible corridor running up from the bar of the H which has no other purpose. On the far side of the central reception, an identical corridor running in the opposite direction leads to a Partner’s Dining Room. Each Dining room has a small kitchen attached. These are relatively unused and the equipment is at least 10 years out of date.
  • Doorways at the top of the H lead to a large law library.
  • No windows are visible save one that fills the wall opposite the fish-tank. On closer inspection, that “window” is actually an electronically-controlled series of 40-feet-wide panoramic photographs capturing the city skyline at four points in time – midday, sunset, sunrise, and at night – as they would be seen from the point of view of the window. These photographs have been printed on a belt and are automatically rotated to synchronism with the outside world.

This description is great for supplying details of various elements of the law firm’s offices. There could be still more details – what color are the carpets? How many partners are there? Where are the Associates, who do the legal grunt work, located? Unfortunately it’s lousy in a couple of other ways, like giving a general impression the place before the PCs focus on the details. You could simply read the whole thing out, but that brings another problem – retention of details. Quick, without looking, when was the law firm established? I can remember because I just wrote it (and changed the date about three times before settling on my final choice) but a week from now? I wouldn’t put long odds on it. You’ve just read it, which is better than having it read to you according to neurological studies, but not by much – I’d be surprised if one in ten could answer the question.

You could draw a set of blueprints from the description, and even do a sketch or two of the place. But this will certainly never work in a narrative sense.

The Structural Problem

Some of the problems with this approach are inherent to the bullet-point approach, which lumps everything together in one place for the GM to work out for themselves. In other words, they are structural in nature, and exist because this list is trying to do it all at once. Before you could create any alternative, you need to know how to correct the structural problem.

A good narrative description should convey a general impression and provide cues for the players. In conjunction with a quick map, it should tell the players enough to know what areas they want to examine more closely – and, if they aren’t there to steal something, or investigate something, most of the details aren’t needed right now.

If, for example, the characters were there to meet one of the lawyers, here’s the order things should happen in:

  • General Narrative introduction (overall impression)
  • Details of the central reception area
  • Encounter with the receptionist(s), who escorts PCs to the secretarial station of the lawyer they are to meet
  • Narrative description of overall layout
  • Narrative description of secretarial station
  • Encounter with the secretary, who takes PCs to the waiting room assigned to the lawyer they are to meet
  • Time to look around from the waiting room
  • Encounter with the secretary, who takes PCs to the lawyer’s office or perhaps to one of the meeting rooms
  • Narrative description of the office or meeting room. Did anyone notice that there were no details of either in the list above?
  • Encounter with the lawyer.

In other words, the long list makes a great planning resource, but it’s not at all useful for the intended purpose. There are ways to convert it into a useful form, some better than others. You could, for example, simply read aloud the parts that are relevant to each of the narrative subsections listed above, skipping the rest. But this is terribly inefficient – employing this approach means that you have to read each item on the list to yourself five times, each time choosing whether or not to then read it aloud. By the time you were finished, you would have read it at least six times in-game – not counting any times you read it in advance of play!

The Stylish Alternative

I’m not going to do all of the narrative passages required, but one should be illustrative.

One of the problems with needing to break this article up now manifests itself. While I have the process outlined as a series of bullet points – there’s some irony there – I don’t have it fully detailed yet. Normally, I would leave this example until the process was detailed in full and then use it to generate the example, but I need the example now. So this example will not be a robust demonstration of the end-product of the process. The finished product should therefore be much better than this quick-and-dirty version. Just a caveat that I thought readers should be aware of before I get into the alternative form of the example.

I did a copy-and-paste of the list, then deleted everything that didn’t contribute to the initial narrative passage. From that, I wrote the following:

“The elevator dings as the doors open to reveal the offices of Brash, Livercoat, Woodley, and Howe. Interns with arm-loads of law-books and harried expressions walk past with measured strides, deep in quiet conversation. Nineteenth century opulence masks modern convenience. The cream-colored soft carpets become mushroom-brown at the walls and are clearly custom-made for this office space, The walls are polished teak, oak, and maple panels decorated with portraits of partners past and present in identical gold frames. Alabaster-white molded ceilings are almost lost in the shadows above tasteful but modern cylindrical brass chandeliers, and the scent of new leather fills the air. Directly in front of you is a central reception area with the company logo in Gold set against splashes of red, white, and blue on a pane of frosted glass. The receptionist says ‘Good afternoon’ with a smile as she looks up.”

From this point, it would be natural to let the PCs respond with an appropriate social nicety and a statement of their business. In the course of that encounter, a thumbnail description of the receptionist can be provided, or it could be given before they respond at all; either way, the narrative would flow naturally into the encounter.

The Difference

The difference between this version and the full description bullet list should be obvious. It lacks almost all the detail of the first version, but it plants the reader – or the player hearing it – definitively in the surroundings by painting a vivid overall picture of the law firm.

There is a definite narrative flow to the description – floor to walls to ceiling to lights to immediately in front, where the receptionist is located. It was important for that to come last because that logically leads to the next part of the scene, the receptionist encounter.

Everything that was not explicitly stated is either not needed (lunch rooms, law library, etc) or can be incorporated into a later narrative passage, and you know that because the narrative passages have already been defined. This enabled discrimination against the unnecessary and made room to answer a questions or two that would have otherwise arisen, like “How can we tell the carpets are custom-made?”, and sprinkling with the odd additional detail that is just enough to prevent it being obvious that this description is abbreviated and general.

Finally, the description is dynamic – there are things happening, in the form of the elevator doors, the interns, and the receptionist.

Even though the two versions are equally successful in painting a picture of the setting, the narrative passage is only 145 words, compared to the 605 of the bullet list, has additional details, and is better in a number of ways – vividness, dynamism, and accessibility. And you only have to read it once in-game, whereas processing the bullet list effectively involved reading it time and time again.

Now that the value of the technique I have compiled has hopefully been demonstrated, Part 2 will commence the process of actually describing it. Look for it early next week!

Comments (1)

A Population Of Dinosaurs and the impact on RPG ecologies


How many types of dinosaurs were there? And how can a theoretical examination of the question be applied to RPG games?

This is going to be one of the more unusual posts here at Campaign Mastery. For a start, it’s full of maths, and for another it’s about real science (at least at first). But the content is relevant to everything from Sci-Fi to D&D/PFRPG campaigns, and that makes it worth sharing.

I’m going to put the maths in bold so that readers can skip over my working and go straight to the results on the last bolded line – or to the next bit of explanation – simply by looking for the next bit that isn’t jumping up and screaming “Different! Different! Look at me!!” In addition, I’ll be putting occasional side comments and other irrelevancies in boxes to distinguish them from meaningful content.

How did I come to write this article?

A whole heap of elements had to gel to get me thinking the right thoughts at the right moment to get inspired to write this. The most proximate cause was watching the fourth and final part of a documentary series on Dinosaurs; not only was this about dinosaur breeding patterns, but (like most of the rest of the series) there was enough content recycled from earlier episodes that it encouraged drifting thoughts.

Throw in the occasional passing conversation with a twitter gaming bud, John Kahane, about Dinosaurs. I last mentioned John in connection with Stormy Weather – making unpleasant conditions player-palatable, about making climate-oriented encounters interesting for players in RPGs, who is heavily into dinosaurs for his Primeval the RPG campaign (or maybe that’s the other way around, and he’s into that RPG because he’s into dinosaurs).

Include various other minor stimuli and passing fancies lurking around in my subconscious and this is the result.

A brief warning to both Creationists and Science proponants

I totally respect my readers rights to believe as they wish, even if I disagree with those beliefs, and hope that they similarly afford me and the other readers of this site our own opinions.

I never want to be told what to think or what to believe, and that totally means that I refuse to tell others those things. I make my own assessments and judgments, and am happy to permit everyone else to do the same.

This article may be upsetting to those of a creationist doctrine or faith, because it assumes that the evidence that has been discovered, and the interpretation of that evidence by traditional science, is correct. If that is likely to anger or offend you, I would prefer it if you stop reading this article now. Upsetting readers – any readers – is not something I do willingly.

If you are able to treat what follows as an intellectual exercise, you should feel free to disregard that warning. If, on the other hand, you feel that a discussion of these matters will offend, save both of us the grief and move on to the next article, which I hope will be more acceptable. There are some good ones listed to the right of this page.

I will be monitoring comments very carefully; flame wars will not be tolerated. Theology- or ideology-based comments attacking the article or anyone else’s opinions, and any comment treating any faith in a derogatory manner, will not be accepted. Let’s all be civil to each other, Okay?

Mistakes can happen and things sometimes slip through cracks in the system (including the first draft of these words). If and when I become aware of such, they will be corrected ASAP.

The time available

According to the Geologic record, Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for 165 million years. There would almost certainly have been a prior period where they were around but had not yet become top dog of the evolutionary pile, though we have no idea how long that was. If it was as little as 1% of their reign, it’s 1,650,000 years – an impressive number in and of itself. If there was one first “true dinosaur species” at the beginning of their history, can we get some clue as to the number of different species of Dinosaur that ultimately came into existence? And how fast did evolution have to take place? What is the relationship between these two numbers?

Initially, I was very much feeling and fumbling my way through to a coherent answer to those questions, purely for my own intellectual curiosity. And I was very aware as I proceeded that I was making a number of rather dodgy assumptions. I’ll signpost those when we get to them.

To start with, we need some estimate of the number of generations, because it’s not time so much as the birth-maturity-breed-die cycle that dictates the pace of evolution.

To actually relate timespan to number of generations, you need to know the average lifespan of a dinosaur. Based purely on an intuitive value derived from modern animal lifespans, I picked an entirely arbitrary 15 years – remembering that this includes all dinosaurs from the very big to the very small, weighted according to relative populations, and counts every egg that was laid whether or not the young survived. I presumed that there were a large number of beasts that had quite lengthy lifespans (30-40 years), a few even more long-lived types (especially in the oceans), and an equally large number with shorter lifespans (1-2 years), with an even spread in between of a median value.

165 million divided by 15 years average lifespan over all species gives approximately 11 million generations.

The TV documentary in question, Clash Of The Dinosaurs, then provided a reality check by stating that more than 10 million generations of dinosaurs came and went. (I think they may have already suggested 10.6 million, but this was a factoid that I didn’t consciously absorb at the time, so I didn’t want to rely on it). But, between the vagueness and universality of the specific question, and the potential of a pre-rule time period of unknown length, I accepted 11 million as being a good round approximation.

Nevertheless, there are all sorts of assumptions implicit in this number that might not be all that accurate. It’s a working number that can be adjusted as necessary, or as better information comes to light.

If the average is closer to 10 years, we get a number that’s closer to 17 million generations. If the average is closer to 20 years, we get a generation count of about 9 or 10 million generations. The first number is much higher, but the second is not all that far removed from the 11 million value employed. In fact, to get the same ratio of number-of-generations – 17 million to 11 million – we need an average closer to 22-23 years to a generation, which gives 7.33 million generations.

To me, that means that the most likely direction of any error in the estimate is in the direction of vastly more generations; it takes a much more significant extension of average lifespan to have a drastic effect on the estimate being approximately right.

The Percentage Of Progress

The next significant decision was to define the process of evolution from one species into a new one. Because I was interested in how big a percentage change per generation was required, it was natural for me to define this as 100%. In other words, evolution was defined as an average percentage change per generation of unknown scale, but when enough of these changes accumulated, the total would reach 100 and one species would have become another.

I didn’t realize it at the time, though I came to appreciate as work on the problem continued, but this permitted me to sidestep all sorts of thorny issues, like a functional definition of the difference between a new species and its immediate evolutionary ancestors. I had all sorts of thoughts about traits that bred true, and an inability to breed with the precursor species, (except possibly to produce sterile offspring) and meaningful change vs natural variations between individuals; I didn’t end up needing any of it, because I stated at the outset that whatever the functional definition was,, the species had achieved it when the total reached 100% accumulated difference from the average member of the precursor species. A bullet dodged!

The effectiveness of change

As a general rule of thumb, there are three obvious outcomes of any evolutionary change experienced by an individual:

  • The change can better fit the individual creature to the needs of its environment or ecological niche
  • The change can make no immediate difference, though it may provide a platform for an advantage at a later date after other evolutionary changes; or
  • The change can make the individual a worse match to the needs of its environment or ecological niche.

I assumed that these three outcomes were equally likely, and that members of group 3 would not survive long enough to make a meaningful contribution to the development of a new species.

That means that whatever the rate of evolution was, only 2/3 of it would actually contribute to the accumulated % of evolution to the new species.

I now realize that this is makes a number of really dubious assumptions, and is a massive oversimplification, to boot.

You could argue that the existing mechanisms of biology are so evolved already toward success – the legacy of many generations of prior existence through the evolutionary chain – that almost all changes would be negative or neutral ones.

You could counter-ague that negative changes are more likely not to survive to breed, at least, not as often as more successful and neutral variations, but that the whole negative evolution should not be thrown away as non-contributing. For example, being a worse fit for the current environment or ecological niche makes the creature potentially better equipped to move into a new ecological niche or penetrate a new environment.

At the same time, this doesn’t account for the potential for beneficial genes to be lost through accident, or negative ones to be conserved by random chance – or that these two chances balance each other out, at the very least.

You can also point out that one generation may move in direction X – longer legs, for example – while the next generation moves in direction anti-X, i.e. toward shorter legs.

What’s more, this employs an extremely simple, even Mendelian, standard of genetics that I know to be a vast oversimplification. Some changes can be beneficial in one respect and negative in another at the same time, for example the propensity for sickle-cell anemia amongst African Americans – a potentially lethal impairment in blood chemistry that increases resistance to Malaria.

So this value is riddled with uncertainty. But it’s hard to argue that there shouldn’t be some allowance for the distribution of changes into a pattern of more likely to be conserved and less-likely to be conserved, which in turn reduces the actual rate of evolutionary change to a smaller “effective” rate, and which is defined as the “efficiency” of random evolutionary change. In the absence of a more meaningful number, I’ve stuck with the 2/3 assessment rate.

Generations to a new species

I’ve used logarithms to make the math easier to handle.

R = % rate of evolutionary change per generation (average),
T = % of accumulated change to produce a new species (defined as 100%),
E = Efficiency ratio, defined above as 2/3, and
n = Number of Generations,

we get:

formula 1

formula 1

taking the logarithm of both sides and substituting 100 for T, we get:

formula 2

formula 2

Solving for n gives:

formula 3

formula 3

This is as good a time as any to point out that this all assumes that there is a consistent overall evolutionary rate, an assumption that is almost certainly not true to at least some extent.

The level to which this is the case is subject to considerable debate. So the results at any given moment in time are probably more-or-less in the ballpark but may be wildly and radically wrong.

Statistics can predict a general outcome – and make no mistake, this is a statistical analysis – but it fails miserably at predicting actual concrete outcomes.

Species count

Using the resulting n, it becomes possible to calculate how many species result in a given time frame, defined as a number of generations:

G = number of generations
S = number of species at the end of G generations, starting with 1
n = number of generations to a new species

formula 4

formula 4

It was at about this point, having achieved my original goal and plugged various numbers into the formulae – something that we’ll do in a minute – that I started catching a glimpse of how useful this could be to GMs, and expanding my scope beyond simply satisfying my original intellectual curiosity.

The +1 and -1 within the calculation exclude the original parent species and then add it back at the end. This means that you get the right result if G=n, i.e. there is only long enough to produce one new species.

Of course, this throws in a whole other unwarranted assumption: that if you start with one species and wait the required number of generations, that you will only get one new species. Call this the Boom factor. I’ve set it to 2, so that at the end of n generations, one species has become two.

The reality could be two, three, four, or fifty, depending on all sorts of external factors, like the number of empty ecological niches to be populated – when the Dinosaurs were wiped out, this is what enabled Mammals to take over as the dominant land species. Instead of 2, the exponential base would have been something much higher. Five, ten, twenty? I don’t know, and I doubt anyone has ever seriously asked the question before, at least not in this exact way.

If those niches are already filled, however, it’s likely that the result is going to be fairly low and close to the 2 shown above simply as a result of competition.

Something else that needs to be pointed out: This calculation is all about how many species arise, not how many survive for an appreciable length of time. To factor that in, you would need to determine a survival rate for new species and then allow for that in the exponent – because a species that doesn’t survive doesn’t serve as the source for a new species.

You can simplify this problem somewhat by defining “an appreciable length of time” as long enough for a species to evolve into a new one. But this factor is too complex for my simple mathematical logic, so I have chosen to ignore it.

Generations to reach a species count

Redefining S to mean a target species count, and rearranging that last formula to solve for G gives the number of generations needed to reach that target:

formula 5

formula 5

This isn’t quite as simple as it could be – there’s a function performed on a constant value – the Boom Factor of 2. I mention this so that if anyone wants to experiment with different Boom Factors, they know they need to use this version of the formula, and replace the 2 with their new Boom Factor, as shown below:

formula 5, simplified version

formula 5, simplified version

If, however, you stay with the assumed B factor of 2, doing that calculation (anti-log of reciprocal log 2) and moving the result out of the exponent makes life a little easier:

formula 6

formula 6 – that’s 2099 multiplied by the result of 10 to the power of (S-1)

Actual calculations: R=0.1%

So, let’s plug in an actual number and see what happens in 165 million years, or 11 million generations. I’ll do the calculations step-by-step:

Formula 3:
1. R x E / 100 = 0.1 x 2/3 / 100 = 2/3000 = 0.000666666666667
2. +1 = 1.000666666666667
3. log of this = log (1.000667) = 0.000289433187589
4. reciprocal (1/x) of this = 3,455.02880416
5. times 2 = n = 6,910.05760832 = approx 6910 generations.
6. x 15 (assumed average generation length) = 103,650 years.
Formula 4:
7. G / n = 11,000,000 / 6910 = 1,591.89580318
8. -1 = 1590.89580318
9. 2 to the power of 1590.89580318 = overload on my calculator.
10. Logarithms to the rescue:
10 (cont): 0.30103 x 1590.89580318 = 478.907363631275
11: anti-log (0.907363631275) = 8.08
12: so 2^1590.89580318 = 8.08 x 10^478.

Jaws may drop at will.

That’s 80, 800, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 species.

Actual calculations: R=0.01%

Okay, so maybe 0.1% is too much. Let’s try 0.01%.

Formula 3:
1. R x E / 100 = 0.01 x 2/3 / 100 = 2/30,000 = 6.66666666667e-05
2. +1 = 1.00006666667
3. log of this = log (1.00006666667) = 2.89520004043e-05
4. reciprocal (1/x) of this = 34,539.9276747
5. times 2 = n = 69,079.8553493 = approx 69,080 generations.

Remarkably, slowing the evolution rate 10-fold has increased the generation count 10-fold. Exactly as it should have done!

6. x 15 (assumed average generation length) = 1,036,200 years.
Formula 4:
7. G / n = 11,000,000 / 69,080 = 159.23566879
8. -1 = 158.23566879
9. 2 to the power of 158.23566879 = 4.30212168052e+47. I don’t need the bigger powers-of-ten workaround this time.

Only in comparison to the earlier number does this result look anything other than completely preposterous.

430, 212, 168, 052, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000. Repeat: over 430 thousand million, million million million, million million million. This is less than the number of hydrogen atoms in the earth. In fact, it’s one for every 309 such atoms, or thereabouts.

Actual calculations: R=0.001%

More than anything else, this is putting into perspective exactly what eleven million generations actually means. It’s a huge number. So, 0.01% is still too much. Let’s try 0.001%.

Formula 3:
1. R x E / 100 = 0.001 x 2/3 / 100 = 2/300,000 = 6.66666666667e-06
2. +1 = 1.00000666667
3. log of this = log (1.00000666667) = 2.89528834264e-06
4. reciprocal (1/x) of this = 345,388.742556
5. times 2 = n = 690,777.485112 = approx 690,777 generations.
6. x 15 (assumed average generation length) = 10,361,662 years.
Formula 4:
7. G / n = 11,000,000 / 690,777.485112 = 15.9240858845
8. -1 = 14.9240858845
9. 2 to the power of 14.9240858845 = 31,088.338291.

From the ridiculous to the unlikely, but we’re in the ballpark all of a sudden, or so it seems.

Estimating the real species count

31,100 species seems too low, by quite a margin. Or too high. There are 4,800 species of lizard in the world right now, and 5,416 species of mammals, and new species are still being discovered all the time. In fact, one reputable estimate is that Eighty-six percent of all land-dwelling species and 91 percent in the water have yet to be discovered and cataloged – most of them insects and fish and other primitive life-forms, of course. In contrast, Wikipedia states that only 1,000 species of dinosaur have been discovered, and according to some sources, up to 1/3 of these are actually misidentified juveniles of other known species.

So, taking the pessimistic view, let’s say that there are actually only 666 known species. And that we have only found 14% of the species – that’s doing as well as we have in terms of the life forms living today. That works out to 4,757 species that are available for us to identify. Now let’s factor in the spottiness of the geologic record, and assume that these are in fact only 14% of all the species that could have ended up leaving fossils for us – and that a large majority therefore did not. We end up with 33,979.6 – call it 33,980. Suddenly that 31,088 result is looking very plausible.

Eleven Million Generations is a lot of time for species to come and go. I would not be at all surprised if the real number turned out to be higher than these 30-odd-thousand, perhaps MUCH higher – by a factor of 1,000. Don’t think that’s plausible? Try this for size:

An alternative approach

This time, let’s start with those 5.416 species of mammals, and add in 1/3 of the lizard species, representing them moving into ecological slots that were left vacant by the deaths of the dinosaurs, That’s 7,016 species. Now, mammals are one of the most closely-examined types of animals out there; I don’t think it’s reasonable that 86% of mammals remain undiscovered. Let’s halve that to 43%. That gets us to 16,316 species.

The primitive biosphere was a bit simpler than the world today – there was no such thing as grass, and a lot of animals live on grass. So let’s say that not all the full modern biodiversity can be accommodated. Let’s play it safe and drop the number of ecological vacancies to 80% of what we have so far. This will also reflect the increased competition that results from more of the world’s landmasses being in one or two super-continents. 13,050 species is the count so far.

Mammals first evolved about 165 million years ago – that’s not a lot different from the length of time that dinosaurs were in charge. Their period of dominance is much shorter, however, and that’s what matters in terms of evolution – how long they have had to reach the current species count from a relatively small beginning. That’s about 66 million years, only 40% as long as the dinosaurs. So we aren’t talking about 11 million generations – if we use the same average generational length of 15 years, we (unsurprisingly) get to about 4.4 million generations.

Taking the R=0.01 value and applying it to only 4.4 million generations:

7. G / n = 4,400,000 / 690,777.485112 = 6.3696343538
8. -1 = 5.3696343538
9. 2 to the power of 5.3696343538 = 41.3448105493

But we don’t want this number to be just 41 species; our R must be wrong, we want it to come out to 13,050. Working backwards, I get R = 0.00230340274661 and n of 14,671. And taking that rate forward for the full 11 million generations, I get:

Formula 3:
1. R x E / 100 = 0.00230340274661 x 2/3 / 100 = 1.53560183107e-05
2. +1 = 1.00001535602
3. log of this = log (1.00001535602) = 6.66898281197e-06
4. reciprocal (1/x) of this = 149,947.90483
5. times 2 = n = 299,895.80966 = approx 300,000 generations.
6. x 15 (assumed average generation length) = 4,500,000 years.
Formula 4:
7. G / n = 11,000,000 / 299,895.80966 = 36.6794054658
8. -1 = 35.6794054658
9. 2 to the power of 35.6794054658 = approx 55, 026, 421, 772

I don’t think the 34 million or so that I proposed as an extreme but possible result at the end of the previous section – an underestimate by 10,000 – is all that unreasonable in comparison to the 55 thousand million that the mammalian evolutionary rate offers? It’s only 0.06% of what it could arguably be!!

Once again, just when you think you have a handle on the size of 11 million generations it turns around and bites you on the dinosaur tail! That, plus the power of compound interest and exponential growth are all it takes. Quite frankly, I think it highly unlikely that humans will ever identify more than a fraction of 1% of the dinosaur species that once lived, for all the reasons listed in this section – and that’s being very generous. The 666 or so that we think we have now is a hair under 2% of even the 33,980 prediction.

The Sci-fi application

Planet X was colonized 20,000 years ago. How much genetic drift has there been? We very handily have a very accurate R% from the preceding section – which is why I reported it so precisely at the time: 0.00230340274661. Using the calculations given above, we get 300,000 generations; there hasn’t been anywhere near that much time. 20,000 years is only 1,333 generations. And that’s 0.44444% of the required timescale.

Ah, but we’re talking about willful genetic manipulation here. So forget that natural R – let’s take it right up to 1%, and not all of it intentional. And let’s assume that virtually of it is conserved or it never gets out of the test tube. And let’s assume that 5 years is plenty of time for an artificial generation, instead of 15. Now what happens?

Formula 3:
1. R x E / 100 = 1 x 1 / 100 = 0.01
2. +1 = 1.01
3. log of this = log (1.01) = 0.00432137378264
4. reciprocal (1/x) of this = 231.407892559
5. times 2 = n = 462.815785118 = approx 463 generations.
6. G = 20,000 /5 = 4,000 generations.
Formula 4:
7. G / n = 4,000 / 462.815785118 = 8.64274756528
8. -1 = 7.64274756528
9. 2 to the power of 7.64274756528 = 199.846371047.

There are nearly 200 fully-adapted new species. And even a small reduction in that generation length results in a massive increase in the number of generations and hence in the number of new species possible. 4 years instead of 5 is an extra 1000 generations and 694 additional new species. 3 years instead of 5 is an extra 2,667 generations and 10,635 additional new species!

Of course, what this fails to factor in is that it might take a long time to get genetic engineering right. Instead of almost complete conservation, we might be talking about a 99.99% failure rate – which is an E of 0.01, and takes that 1% and turns it back into 0.01%, effectively. The result is going to be only marginally faster than natural evolution. In fact, at an error rate of 99.993333%, it’s exactly as fast as mammalian evolution.

A failure rate of 0.1%, or 1 in 1,000 cases resulting in fatality, is enough to get a drug taken off the market by the in the US. A fatal reaction rate of 1 in 10,000 is marginal, and only used in the most extreme of cases, or where there is some way to mitigate against the possible danger. Only if the patient is already terminally ill is there any likelihood that such a medication’s use might be condoned. Even if the side effects are less serious, that 1 in 1000 cases may still be enough to leave the medication on shaky ground. This puts into perspective the suggested acceptable error rates for genetic engineering, and how low the E has to be.

Of course, if we aren’t doing the experimentation, or aren’t the subjects, we get a very different story. A 1% fatal-error rate in livestock or crops is entirely acceptable if there is a reasonable benefit to the other 99%.

It’s also worth remembering that 463 generations is still a lot, even at only 5 years each – better than 2300 years. At 3 years each, we’re talking 1,389 years to get a new species. 1389 years ago was the year 625. Persians were attacking Constantinople (unsuccessfully), Edinburgh had not yet been founded, and the Middle East was still reeling under an attack by the forces of Mohammad the previous year.

The Fantasy Application

The same sort of calculations – using a more natural evolutionary rate, possibly boosted by Magic – can be used to determine how long it has taken for all the creatures in the various monster sourcebooks have taken to evolve. It’s also worth remembering that herbivores are woefully under-represented, as I pointed out in my series on creating ecology-based encounters.

But things get even more interesting when you stop focusing on the whole population and look at just a single major group of species. Dragons, for example. Long-lived, implying a high generation length – perhaps a century. A known number of species – usually 12, but there can be more. How long have dragons been around?

Similarly, there are only 4 or 5 kinds of Elf.

If you listen to Tolkien, there are 3 races of Halfling – they have not yet diverged sufficiently to be counted as separate species, though they all have traits that breed true most of the time amongst their subpopulations. They are perhaps half-way to a dividing of the ways.

Using the step-by-step approach, it’s easy to set up a spreadsheet and play around with numbers to your heart’s content. And if the numbers you get don’t suit you, you know that you have to introduce some effect beyond the basic evolutionary rate to explain things – and can even quantify it. Is there some tainting quality that takes Metallic Dragon eggs and turns them into Colored Dragons? That would halve the number of species required. Of course, this would then require an adjustment to social practices of Dragons, or few of the colored dragons would survive hatching for very long. Perhaps the traits breed true most of the time after the initial metagenesis? No matter how you adapt and interpret the circumstances, you end up with interesting backstory for your game world.

And what if you end up with numbers that say that there are four times as many species as your sourcebooks present? That’s an open license to innovate and create variations – alternative species that will keep your characters guessing.

That’s the real value of these calculations: they offer insight and spur creativity. Make of them what you will.

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Seven Circles Of Hell – Creating Politics for an RPG


Politics is one of those inevitable conditions, like death and taxes, that every GM has to master to some extent because it will make its presence felt in every campaign. There’s always something more to say on the subject. In this article, I’m going to look at the basics of political relations between similarly-scaled entities; I’ll be using nations and kingdoms, but the same techniques scale to relations between regional divisions within a single nation, to relations between cities, relations within a single political body, even relations within an organization. The details might change, but the broad principles will be the same.

The First Circle: The Direct Approach

The most basic form of politics is direct – “Do this or we will do that”, “Do this and we will do that”. Cross this line on the map, and all Hell will break loose. Lower your tariffs and we will lower ours. Sell us wheat and we will sell you fish.

A lot of GMs, especially beginners and the young, have no greater understanding of politics than “war” and “peace” – a switch between two diametrically-opposing stances. Nation A is the enemy of Nation B. Nation C is the ally of Nation D. Cause-and-effect domino chains mean that a single incident completely changes the political landscape.

As they gain in sophistication and understanding of the GM’s craft, the length and complexity of these domino chains will usually increase, but the politics themselves remain binary-state switches. Players and GMs alike prefer the simplicity of these conditions because they are easily assimilated. And politicians love oversimplifying issues and relationships to this level because it strips away complications and presents simple choices that are harder to argue against.

This keeps politics simple and leaves the PCs free to adventure, and that’s the big appeal to the GM.

The Second Circle: Basic Subterfuge

Inevitably, one or two nations in such a web of basic political relations will enter the Second Circle, employing basic levels of subterfuge to obtain what they really want. This enables the deceivers to get into position to employ direct tactics to achieve what they desire. Which one of two attacks is a feint, with few men and many stuffed scarecrows, and which is the real assault that needs to be repelled? “We will sign a neutrality pact with our real enemies to lure them into a position of false confidence”. “Before you can stab someone in the back, it is necessary to first get behind them.” “We don’t want the enemy to know we are interested in their mining operations, so we will make a lot of noise about grain production.”

The more transient and short-term these deceptions, the easier they are for a GM to manage, because relations soon resolve back to the simplistic binary state described previously. Trying to maintain such deceptions for any length of time is usually achieved by the GM deciding that the simplistic relations and objectives that one of his simple nations has been pursuing throughout the game/recent history has really been a subterfuge, and it is now time for that subterfuge to end or to be exposed.

But this marks a turning point in the nature of the campaign, because for the first time, adventures begin to be internally-generated within the campaign world instead of representing explorations into the unknown.

It gets a LOT more complicated when every nation in the game world is practicing basic subterfuge. Every nation needs to have both overt objectives and plans to achieve them and their true objectives and plans recorded. The overt plans must be such that they don’t get in the way of the real objectives – and that often means artificially arranging apparent circumstances to rule out obvious approaches to achieving the overt desire. The politics of such a campaign are not simply twice as complicated – the relationship is exponential, and rises with the number of nations involved.

Every course of action, every event that takes place, must be analyzed in terms of both desires (overt and secret) for each and every nation in the game in order to determine how that nation will react or respond. And each of those reactions and responses then also has to be analyzed in the same way, and so on. Background politics requires more and more of the GM’s attention and prep, and over time, he will craft more and more adventures deriving from these efforts simply to kill two birds with one stone – in other words, since he has to do the political work in game prep, he wants to use that same political work as the basis of his adventures rather than having a completely separate load of prep to perform on top of the politics.

Inevitably, as prep time gets tighter, the campaign becomes more and more about game politics. Political subterfuge is a black hole sucking the campaign into it if the GM isn’t careful.

This is the level of sophistication achieved by a good GM with plenty of experience under his belt. Very few advance any further in complexity.

The Third Circle: Misinformation

The third level of sophistication involves deliberate misinformation to provoke desired actions or reactions on the part of a third party. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? A logical outgrowth of second circle activity?

It’s not; it’s a whole new level of political gamesmanship. Once again, once GMs reach the standard of being able to run a political campaign where the second-layer is the standard, they will employ this new level only in isolated individual cases.

The reason is that the second level takes over the direct-relations model completely. No-one has a simplistic relation with overt objectives; every objective is shrouded in secrecy, and direct relations become an oversimplification of the current situation used only to generate easily-digestible soundbites. Or, more properly, they are emergent behavior, the result of acting and reacting to what nations think the real desires are of the nations around them. No-one shows their hands any more, and politics is a perpetual game of mistakes and surprises.

If it were possible for one person to accurately model their game world politics with this degree of sophistication for every nation, the result would be remarkably similar to the real world. This is the degree of political understanding achieved by the best political analysts, but only because they don’t try and cover the whole world – they focus on one region or political activity (military, trade, whatever).

I think it is in fact possible to achieve this standard within a game by making most of the situations static instead of continually evolving; it then becomes possible to deal with in-game events in isolation with no greater game-prep demands than those of a good second-order game.

This is achieved by defining in your campaign notes the true state of affairs for each nation and the public face of that nation, which is the accumulated facade of secrecy, misinformation from all sources, and superficial appearances. You don’t worry about the direct, simple model; you let the events speak for themselves. At least, that’s the approach that I took in creating my Shards Of Divinity campaign in which no-one is exactly what they seem to be, and no-one knows what any of the participants really want.

In other words, while you create the simple relations and objectives of each nation, you never explicitly state what they are; instead you state what they want the world to think as though it were fact, and play political games of shadows and deception. It is at this level of sophistication that each nation needs to develop some form of intelligence agency to try and ferret out the secrets everyone is trying to hide.

The Fourth Circle: The Middleman

It’s a short step to the next level of subtlety, using middlemen for the most important maneuvers. Once again, as soon as the third level of sophistication becomes the standard throughout the campaign, isolated instances of this level start cropping up.

This is the level of sophistication of the recent Chinese plot in the Adventurer’s Club campaign – assassinating a political figure within an allied country and making it look like it was the handiwork of your enemy, so that the alliance would be strengthened when that enemy actually moved against you. They employed a middleman in the expectation that they would be able to maintain political distance between themselves and the plot if it went awry. If that middleman hadn’t tried to further his own ambitions on the side and had simply returned home after the assignment, the plot would never have been exposed.

This is the sort of politics where instead of trying to befriend another nation directly, you befriend a friend of theirs. The direct relationship becomes a three-cornered triangle. This puts distance between you and your intended friend so that if they turn out to be very different from what you think their agenda is, you aren’t committed to a course of action and can stand by on the sidelines.

World War One happened because this level of political sophistication was not reflected in the alliances of the various Imperial Powers – one went to war with another, which caused the allies of each to get involved (whether they wanted to or not), which in turn pulled in the allies of those allies, and so on. The treaties between the parties were of the direct type – “If we go to war to defend ourselves against an aggressor, you are committed to join in our defense, and vice-versa.”

This is also the level of politics in which third party nations are used as political footballs – the Korean and Vietnam wars, for example, in which the real confrontation was between the Communist powers and the West, but this confrontation was indirect.

The problem with middlemen is that they all have their own agendas; they are not mere puppets dancing to your tune, and may not be what they seem.

I have never seen an RPG campaign which simulated every nation employing this standard of political subtlety. In theory, it is possible to achieve by treating each middleman as a separate “nation”, and employing an artificially-limited number of such middlemen; having many nations use the same “middleman” as a power-broker would also reduce the complexities enough that it might be manageable. For now, though, this remains a tool that is used occasionally in a campaign as an indicator that the world has that depth without actually implementing it as a general practice within the game world.

The Fifth Circle: Lies within Lies

The combination of misinformation and making every nations agenda secret naturally gains entrance to the fifth circle of political subtlety in which the secret agenda that is actively being pursued is itself just a cover for an even more secret ambition. An example would be manipulating one nation in such a way that it behaves in a way that furthers your true agenda for you in a third. In other words, this uses entire independent nations as “middlemen” for a secret political agenda.

Allying with the ally of an enemy who doesn’t realize that they are your target so that they will be less prone to interpret your actions as hostile to them. Allying with a nation and then feeding them misinformation designed to foster hostility between them and your real target. The Machiavellian depths and complexities that would be achieved in any game where this was the default state of international relations boggles the mind.

The problem with such convoluted plots is that they rely on a correct interpretation of the true agendas of the nation in the middle so that their reactions become predictable. It’s fair to assume that 90% or more of such plots would partially or completely fail. This is a world in which you can’t tell who your real enemies are, any more than you can tell who your real allies are. Things grow even more complex when sub-behaviors are isolated – a nation may be your enemy militarily, your ally in trade, and a cats-paw in your intelligence activities.

A general implementation of this standard of political chicanery is so difficult to achieve because it raises the number of assessments of events and responses many-fold. In terms of difficulty and required prep involvement, it’s akin to the difference between the first and second orders of sophistication. The best that most GMs can expect to be able to achieve is the individual isolated instance.

Such complexity gives rise to situations in which a respected enemy can be more valuable than any number of paper allies who can’t be trusted – at least with the enemy, you know where you stand, and it may even be possible to have limited, short-term cooperative efforts that benefit both.

My Team Neon Phi campaign, also known as the Agents campaign, in which the PCs were members of an international intelligence agency and opposed to multinational extra-legal organizations and conspiracies in a superheroic world – think Agents of SHIELD but with more enemy organizations – reached this level of sophistication in a very limited way if you consider each of those enemy organizations as nations-within-nations or criminal conspiracies, with their own agendas, rules and policies. That campaign assumed that every nation on Earth would have at least one such conspiracy operating within its borders. Because they had very limited and straightforward agendas – Viper wanted to rule Crime, Genocide wanted “human purity”, the Yakuza aimed at high-tech white-collar & computer crime, Demon wanted to rule the supernatural – and they all wanted political power or influence on the side – it was manageable. The complexities started to arise when traditional intelligence agencies began formulating their own agendas targeting the local branches of these organizations in the same way that the conspiracies had been infiltrating their governments, and you started to get double and triple agents and conspiracies within conspiracies.

Without such narrow restrictions of scope, fragmented implementation of this standard of political subtlety is the best that can be realistically achieved.

The Sixth Circle: The Abstract Advantage

In fact, it doesn’t take very much of the fourth- and fifth-order activities for plots to grow too sophisticated for any but the most able masterminds to find themselves out of their depth. And that leads inevitably to the sixth circle, in which the complexities are too great for practical implementation or manipulation. Instead of concrete ambitions at this level, people simply aim to achieve some sort of advantage down the track sometime that they can use to implement more short-term goals. That’s something that a GM can handle, and is the basis of the mechanisms by which I simulate the activities of such masterminds – refer to my December 2012 article Making a Great Villain Part 1 of 3 – The Mastermind.

Instead of actually implementing this degree of sophistication, you simplify the situation and simulate the greater depth.

Effectively, this adds a third tier of political planning for each nation or nation-equivalent. In addition to the secret agenda, and the hidden true agenda, you add a third more general agenda to create a favorable future environment, a situation in which opportunities will arise for shorter-term plots and plans. Broad goals and philosophies take the place of long-term agendas because such agendas are unsustainable in an unpredictable world.

Ironically, this level of sophistication is far more achievable in an RPG than the fourth and fifth, because it abstracts the complexities and simulates the existence of deeper plotting that can be assumed but only gets shown in concrete terms within individual adventures. Quite often, I will go directly from the second order or third order to the sixth in my campaign backgrounds for this reason. That’s what I do in my superhero campaigns (for the most part) and in most of my D&D campaigns.

The caveat is necessary because some characters do have sophisticated long-term plans. Most of their activities within the campaign prior to those plans becoming overt relate to protecting the conditions necessary for success. Which uses the sixth layer of sophistication in a subtly different way. This results in characters that are really one-trick ponies assuming a depth and sophistication that their single-plan ambitions could not sustain if it were obvious what their plans really were. I mention this because it’s one of my favorite plotting tricks – and sometimes the characters find that the things they have been doing in support of their ultimate goals are actually more fun or profitable than satisfying that underlying ambition, and go native. Enemies can become allies, and false allies can become genuine, and there’s a whole gamut of possibilities in between.

The Seventh Circle: The Characterization Of Power

Every organization is composed of individuals, and Governments are no different. The path to the ultimate level of political sophistication in an RPG is revealed by the sixth circle, and specifically by the technique for some of the masterminds in my Zenith-3 campaigns that I described in the preceding paragraph.

If it works for characters, why not for nations? Why not treat organizations – of any size and stripe – as though they were NPCs, with distinctive personalities, profiles, abilities, flaws, and limitations?

In American law, corporations are treated as “people” for the purposes of law. This principle is what permits an organization to have rights, to own property, and to do all sorts things that people can do. This is a distinction that only matters when business sophistication goes beyond the sole trader or single owner, and there is a natural line of development that leads from individual business operations to general partnerships to limited partnerships to corporations in which no one person or defined group owns the business, it is owned by shareholders and those shares of ownership can be traded as though they were commodities.

If treating organizations as people simplifies legal problems in the real world, why not treat them as people in an RPG to achieve a similar simplification?

NPCs in an RPG come down to four things, when all is said and done: What events can they know about, how will they react to that knowledge, what are their ambitions & goals, and what can they do about those reactions, ambitions, and goals? Organizations in an RPG can be treated as possessing exactly the same four key aspects, with their personnel considered analogous to henchmen and hirelings. It doesn’t matter what the organization is – it could be a town council, a trader’s guild, a church, or a government; the same principles hold.

Achieving the seventh level of sophistication in political planning within your campaign has all sorts of benefits beyond the obvious. First, it permits employees/members to have relationships with the organization the same as they have with other NPCs. Second, it enables all the subtleties and benefits of characterization to apply to organizations and vice-versa. Third, it folds game prep for organizations into game prep for adventures, giving the GM a broader palette to draw upon for his adventures and erasing the artificial distinction between political campaigns and non-political campaigns, and putting the emphasis back onto whatever will be the most entertaining plots for the players to deal with.

I want to look at these in a little more detail before I wrap this article up.


Defining the relationship between an individual and an organization becomes much simpler when they both have personalities. You simply have to look for commonalities and for points of disagreement, just as you would in deciding what relationship would arise between two individuals brought together by the campaign. What’s more, the players will be profiling organizations as though they were individuals because that’s the way we humans tend to think about such things; so this makes it easier for them to assimilate the game world, and also means that you are able to take advantage of that abstraction the same way that they do. Why make things more difficult for yourself?

Characterization of Organizations

It becomes a lot easier to decide how organizations will react to an in-game event because you are now thinking about how a personality will react to that event rather than this nebulous collection of complexities. The benefit for organizations and governments in your game is that all the tools that are available for character interactions and personality definitions suddenly become available for the manipulation and treatment of those organizations and their plans and plots. This broadens the organization beyond single-issue plotting and planning, so they ultimately become more sophisticated entities within the game.

What’s more, it means that all those books for writers that are around on the subject of character interactions suddenly become tools for understanding and manipulating politics within your game!

Characterization of Individuals

Systems that a GM inevitably puts in place for dealing with the reactions of organizations to in-game developments also get applied to individuals. I’ll go into those systems in a little bit – take them as read for the moment. This benefits NPCs by making them less static; just as the game world evolves in response to in-game events, so do the opinions and activities of individuals.

Diversity of Adventures

This approach liberates the GM from all that political game-prep in many ways, and enables him to create a more sophisticated game world with more varieties of adventure. There is no longer a distinction between political campaigns and non-political campaigns. Instead there are in-game events and reactions to those events, an evolving world in which the PCs experience changes as a result of their activities. Every act acquires a political dimension if one is warranted. Because necessary game prep no longer forces the GMs hand in terms of the adventures that become possible, the emphasis shifts back into whatever sounds most entertaining and a lot of stuff going on in the background.

The Entity Binder

Imagine a Binder in which all the important NPCs are recorded. Now add pages characterizing all the important organizations and political bodies as though they were individuals. Organize them in terms of proximity to awareness of PC actions, using tabbed inserts: In a fantasy game, I would use Immediate, one day, one week, one month, longer. If you can remember that those in the front are “immediate”, use that tab for a “two weeks” or a “three months” category (your choice). In a modern campaign, these times would be compressed – Immediate, 1-2 hrs, 6-8 hrs, day, week, month or longer (again, you can manage this with a packet of 5 tabs if you take “Immediate” as being obvious and unlabeled).

You will need also need a diary, in which you will place an entry containing a very brief synopsis of the important events from the last time you played, if you haven’t already. This should be no more than three-to-five lines in length; less is better, if you can manage it. Make sure to note the game dates, even if it’s only in relative terms. The amount of space available will be dictated by the type of diary that you get.

Finally, you need a second diary with matching dates for use as a campaign planner.

The results are one of the most powerful gaming-prep tools you can get.

Here’s how game prep works using such tools: The speed of information awareness – the tabs – show you which groups and individuals (hereafter referred to by the collective term “entities”) know about those events, and which don’t. Go through the binder and ask if this personality will care about the events, and record on that character’s profile an entry referring to the diary entry. Decide what their reactions are, and record both reaction and what they will do about it after that notation (is there an opportunity? is there a threat?), Then ask yourself how soon the PCs will learn of any action taken and make a note in your campaign planning diary of when that reaction will influence the game world around the PCs.

Once you’ve been through the “immediate” knowledge, go through it again looking not at what the PCs have done but at what the entities are doing as a result, and again looking for responses and reactions. Repeat the process for the actions that they take in response, and so on. If you restrict yourself to a very general one- or two- line summary of actions and reactions, this should take less than an hour, two at the outside.

This technique takes advantage of solipsist theory: nothing actually happens until the PCs become aware that it has happened. You don’t really care how long it is before entity X reacts to an event, what you care about is when the PCs will become aware of that reaction. You don’t really care how long it takes for entity Y to react to entity X’s actions in response to the event, either, but you do care about when the PCs will hear about that reaction.

Next, turn to the next time period and look at any past entries in the campaign synopsis diary that this group is only now becoming aware of, and how they will react, in exactly the same way.

Your campaign planner now consists of multiple entries showing what relative game date it will be when the PCs become aware of developments and events in the game world, and how out-of-date that information is. Part of your game planning consists of compiling “the latest news” for the players – though it will still be up to the players when their characters are somewhere that this information can be provided to them. These entries are just brief synopses, so feel free to flesh them out with additional details.

At first, there may not be very many entries. As the game proceeds, more and more will accumulate. Think for a moment of the variety of reactions that people might have to an event. It might be anything from an official sent to ask the PCs to explain, to warrants for arrest, to hit squads being dispatched and assassins being hired. Wars may begin or end. As the events with which the PCs are involved grow more significant, so will the importance of reactions to those events, and these will shift from being purely background material to the sources of internally-generated adventures. Campaign Seeds that were planted at the start of the campaign will sprout, and become the focus of new adventures. And you can always drop a few more campaign seeds into this fertile soil if your planner shows a dead period.

And your world will go from being static to one that is dynamic and interesting, with a heck of a lot less game prep because it builds on prep that you have already done.

The final analysis

To a GM, politics within a campaign should be both an ever-present reality and a game tool. Too many GMs don’t invest the time they should into this aspect of their game worlds because they want to avoid running “a political campaign” or because their own understanding of politics is limited. Neither of these considerations should hold you back; the techniques and information provided in this article give you both the answers you need and all the reasons you should need to change that state of affairs.

In conclusion, I really should also point to a couple of older articles here at Campaign Mastery that are relevant:

Politics may seem like the seven circles of Hell to a GM, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Dr Who and the secrets of complex characterization


I’m going to do something a bit unusual for Campaign Mastery today, and talk about one character and one TV show in depth. Specifically, as you should be able to tell from the title, I’m going to talk about Doctor Who, the iconic British sci-fi series that has just celebrated it’s 50th Anniversary and which has a new season that has just kicked off featuring the 13th actor to play the role on television (The movies with X are not considered Canon and have been excluded from the series.

And then I’m going to use this discussion as a window of insight into the secret of complex characterization. Bear with me, it will all make sense in the end!

Doctor Who

I’ve just re-watched a television special, Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide, and part of the narrative mirrored thoughts that I had been nurturing on the subject of the TV series and the eponymous role of the title character for some years. But it didn’t complete the picture, and so that’s my first step: to simultaneously bring everybody up to date and at the same time extend the analysis offered to bring it right up to date – well, as up-to-date as it can be without my having seen more than the ads for the new season.

In order to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show, you first have to accept the premise that all the different actors, and all the incarnations of The Doctor, are in fact aspects of the one singular character. This in turn gives great depth of character to that role. Each of the actors who have played the part have contributed something to that many-aspected identity, and it’s relevant to examine what each of these are.

William Hartnell, the first Doctor

Not afraid to be the smartest person in the room, intensely curious, eccentric at times but warm-hearted under a crusty exterior. He established the character and laid the foundations for the series.

Patrick Troughton, The Second Doctor

Eccentric to the point of comedy, Troughton established the principle of regeneration into a new version of the title character, and did not try to play Hartnell’s Doctor, instead establishing that with the change of actor came a complete reworking of character – within limits. Those limits were those of the character itself, but Troughton established through his performances that neither Hartnell’s version nor his own were the “definitive” versions, they were merely different faces, different themes of personality belonging to that one mythical and undefined “definitive” role. This enabled each actor to add whatever he wished to the role provided that it did not conflict with those established themes. Troughton’s Doctor never seemed to take things seriously until he had no choice – or his curiosity was engaged.

Jon Pertwee, The Third Doctor

Pertwee Added physicality, and never being short of an answer as to what to do – though sometimes he stalled for time, bluffed about how much he knew, or dug for information before forming a definitive response to whatever was going on. And if ever he was wrong, he was clever enough (for the most part) to twist his interpretation of events to show that what ultimately happened was what he intended all along. In other words, he made it up as he went along but did so with such speed and aplomb that he was never caught out. He added ‘action hero’ to the Doctor’s characteristics – but only when that was the right answer to the problem at hand. Like Troughton’s Doctor, he seemed to have a love/hate relationship with authority – it was fine as long as it did what he wanted, and he ignored it the rest of the time. Importantly, there were enough common elements between “The Dandy” and “The Clown” that you could accept the basic premise.

Tom Baker, The Fourth Doctor

Baker retreated from the Action Hero element somewhat, extending the charisma of the Pertwee version (something I neglected to mention) into a boyish charm and revealing – at times – that the eccentricity was (at least in part) a subterfuge to keep his opponents, and those in general who would get in his way or otherwise restrict him, off-balance. In many ways, Baker’s Doctor was the deepest thinker of the four versions so far, but he never showed his hand until he was good and ready.

Personally, much as I enjoyed many of his adventures, I think Baker stayed in the role too long (1974-1981, seven years). While the epic Key To Time plot was one of his high points in many ways, it also exhausted my love of the character for a long time – so I have never personally seen the performances of the next batch of Doctors. I am therefore completely dependent upon impressions from scant sources and the content of the documentary for the next few sections.

Peter Davidson, The Fifth Doctor

Davidson was already a beloved actor thanks to prior roles, and he (and the producers) were smart enough to take advantage of that – or at least not to put the actor’s history and the demands of the role at odds with each other. The result brought a vulnerability and a soft, tender aspect to the role that came in for a lot of criticism as “Doctor Who Lite”.

I personally don’t think Davidson was given a fair chance because there was absolutely nothing he could do about his biggest handicap – he wasn’t Tom Baker, whose extended tenure on the series had taken the character to iconic mass-popularity.

The Fifth Doctor was a staunch pacifist and a tendency towards indecisiveness, according to Wikipedia. It was the latter trait, which directly contradicted the Third and Fourth incarnations, that seemed to upset a lot of fans at the time, and started some thinking about the deeper implications of the series central motifs. Eventually, the apparent contradiction was resolved with the suggestion that this indecisiveness was present in all versions of the character, but some hid it in various ways – Troughton with comedy, Pertwee with action and energy, Baker with Charisma, scarf, banter, and Jellybabies.

Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor

One of the most polarizing incarnations of the role, the sixth Doctor was either loved or hated at the time. This Regeneration was initially unstable, hinting at an underlying instability within the character.

To quote Wikipedia, “The Sixth Doctor was an unpredictable and somewhat petulant egoist, whose garish, multicolored attire reflected his volatile personality. He was both portentous and eloquent, even for the Doctor – of whom he saw himself as the finest incarnation yet – and his unpredictability was made even wilder by his mood swings, manic behavior, bombastic outbursts and glib, unflappable wit. His personality also displayed occasionally fatalistic overtones.” … “However, not only did his melodramatic arrogance and caustic wit eventually subside, it actually hid the fact that this incarnation retained the Doctor’s strong moral sense and empathy”.

It’s probably fair to say that Colin Baker’s contribution to the role was undervalued and under-rated at the time, because many of the characteristics grated on viewers. This led to his tenure as the Doctor being cut short, and to Baker’s subsequent complaint that he was not given enough time to ‘unpeel the layers’ of his interpretation of the character. What would have emerged had he been given that time was evidenced by the audio plays, in which he came across as somewhat calmer and much happier version of the Doctor, a difference largely attributed to the interaction between Baker and the Doctor’s companion of the time, Evelyn Smythe. In 2001, a poll in Doctor Who magazine voted this incarnation to be “the greatest incarnation” of the audio plays.

Many of the more controversial elements of the incarnation have been referenced in various ways during the series’ modern revival. Perhaps most polarizing was the Sixth Doctor’s chosen wardrobe, which to fans of the time seemed to mock and caricature the series’ premise (aside from being an eyesore). It is, perhaps, notable that this costume was foisted upon the actor, who wished to be dressed in black, especially in Black Velvet, to reflect his character’s darker personality.

It’s also reasonable to suggest that criticism of the Davidson interpretation was probably a factor, and that – just possibly – the initial instability and ego was an overreaction in an attempt to contrast with that interpretation of the role.

Silvester McCoy, The Seventh Doctor

The McCoy version was the most ruthless and manipulative incarnation of the character, though this was frequently concealed beneath a bumbling exterior that harkened back to the Troughton interpretation. Wikipedia describes him as displaying an ” affable, curious, knowledgeable, easygoing, excitable, and charming air” while also presenting “more serious, contemplative, secretive, wistful, and manipulative sides with undercurrents of mischief and authority (constantly giving the impression that there was more to him than met the eye)”, and that sums him up remarkably well.

McCoy himself has said that he wanted to bring the darkness and mystery back to the character. The biggest problem that the series faced under McCoy was that the impressions and performances did nothing to woo back the disenfranchised followers who had been turned off by the 5th Doctor’s indecision, the 6th Doctor’s ego and/or costume, casual viewers lost because the stories themselves had moved in a darker and more adult direction during the 22nd season, or simply because it wasn’t Tom Baker in the role.

The series had been on shaky ground for a while – evidenced by the 18-month break in production between seasons 22 and 23, and at the end of Season 26, the show was canceled. It had pursued it’s own tail out the window, becoming too closely focused on the fans of the show and lacking appeal to the casual viewer.

Paul McGann, The Eighth Doctor

In 1996 there was an unsuccessful attempt to relaunch the series with a telemovie starring Paul McGann. While this failed to woo sufficient audience numbers, McGann played the role extensively in subsequent spin-off media. In modern interviews, McGann takes great delight in his inclusion within the show and appears an unabashed fan.

Criticism at the time suggested that the show had been too Americanized, that the role was not played with any depth, and that special effects and action-adventure elements were too dominant. Personally, I quite enjoyed the telemovie. If Colin Baker can complain about not having enough time to fully explore the role, McGann has an even better basis upon which to voice such a complaint.

Most of the characterization of the Eighth Doctor stems from those spin-off appearances, and shows this Doctor to be youthful, energetic, wide-eyed and full of enthusiasm, encouraging those around him to engage in and celebrate life rather than withdrawing from it.

Disregarding that for the most part, I see the eighth Doctor as restoring the Pertwee-established man of action character thread, while bringing an energetic aspect to the character.

This is also the incarnation that establishes the romantic aspects of the Doctor, something that had been eschewed in the past. Although controversial at the time, it has since become accepted canon that the Doctor can experience romantic love for others. In that respect, the Eighth Doctor makes just as pivotal a contribution to the collective characterization as any of the others.

John Hurt, The War Doctor

Hurt’s version was retroactively inserted into the continuity as part of the 50th anniversary special “The Day Of The Doctor” (with appearances in the closing moments of the 2013 episode “The Name Of The Doctor” and a featured role in the webcast “The Night Of The Doctor”).

The story is that the Eighth Doctor to take up arms and become a warrior, fighting in the “Time War”. This is an incarnation that subsequent versions of the character would not acknowledge because he became so disheartened by the “Time War” that he committed what the other incarnations of the Doctor consider an unforgivable act – he committed an act of total genocide against his own people and that of their enemy, the Daleks, and went so far as to renounce the title/name, “Doctor”.

In the course of the 50th anniversary special, this incarnation finds redemption and salvation by teaming with two of his subsequent incarnations, but the “Doctor” doesn’t know this at the time.

In this incarnation, pre-redemption, the characters sense of hope and morality are ground away by the brutality of war. This leads to an utterly ruthless driving determination to end the violence at any cost; there are clearly elements of the Pertwee, McGann, and McCoy Doctors together with the Egotism of the Colin Baker Doctor coming together to form this personality.

Christopher Eccleston, The Ninth Doctor

In 2005, the show was relaunched with Eccleston in the title role, and he deserves credit for revitalizing the series.

Ecclestone’s version was dark and brooding, without a lot of the eccentricity and foppishness of earlier incarnations while retaining an element of charm and frivolity. This was a character haunted by guilt over his role in the Time War, and much of that charm and frivolity was a mask for his survivor’s guilt, in just the same way that many of the mannerisms Ecclestone rejected are now seen as being exaggerated by past incarnations. Ecclestone’s version is also a tourist and dilettante in many respects, fighting depression by refusing – as much as possible – to get involved.

Ironically, this makes him more perfectly Gallifrean, since non-intervention is their law and credo, and something that his past incarnations have repeatedly been punished for violating. It’s also ironic that the Time War had destroyed Gallifrean morality and led them to employ every forbidden weapon (save one, which is used by the War Doctor) and break every one of their own laws. In other words, his people had become, in the course of the Time War, a perverted version of the Doctor, and the War Doctor had been forced to end their existence, in the process becoming a persona that this and subsequent incarnations would reject utterly and completely.

Beneath the surface, this incarnation is trying to deny his own nature, because that nature can lead to the Gallifrean Madness, his own acts of Genocidal destruction being simply a representative example of that madness.

This was the first incarnation to actively draw on elements of all the past Doctors, and that was Ecclestone’s other great achievement: he unified the character. It can be argued that his interpretation came closest of all to that mythical “definitive” personality. It is actually both reasonable and utterly essential that this be the case; all the veneers have been, or are, stripped away in the course of Ecclestone’s one season as The Doctor, rejected or abandoned or penetrated. Only the core of the character remains.

Nevertheless, he reluctantly begins to care again, and to “interfere” again in the troubles of those he encounters, and ultimately this leads to a catharsis. His companion of the time, Rose Tyler, sacrifices herself to save him, and he discovers that he still cares, more deeply than he had realized; he then, in turn, sacrifices himself to save her.

David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor

Having started to open up, Healing can begin, and that’s the premise of the Tenth Doctor’s personality. Superficially, he has started to come to terms with his past, and is “light-hearted, talkative, easy-going, witty, and cheeky” most of the time – though he still nurses profound anger, regret, and vulnerability beneath this glib exterior. He is far less merciful than he has been in the past, and is quick to anger at the perception of injustice. When Prime Minister Harriet Jones destroys the retreating Sycorax ship after they have accepted his terms of surrender, he ruins her political career in retribution. In “The Waters of Mars”, he goes so far as to declare himself above the laws of time – harkening back to the Egotism of the Colin Baker incarnation – though there are catastrophic consequences as a result.

But, having come to terms with his own destructive capabilities, he now has to deal with another issue – the price paid by those who accompany him.

Sidebar: The Companions

When the series began, the role of the companion was simply to ask questions and furnish an opportunity for exposition – while needing to be rescued on a regular basis. As the roles of women on television and women in society at large evolved, the companions became more substantial and integral.

Although many sources cite Sarah Jane Smith as the pivotal companion who brought Women’s Liberation to the Doctor Who mythos, I actually prefer to point at Jo Grant, her predecessor, who started back in the Troughton period as a “typical companion” and who ultimately left the Pertwee incarnation to pursue a more personally fulfilling life. This character’s role evolved through the series in step with the changing attitudes of the time, and it was her growth through the series that made a professional, liberated woman acceptable – Sarah was only possible because Jo had been there before her.

There is a principle which is thematically recurring within the tenure of the Eleventh Doctor – that he should not be alone. Think about this for a minute – you’ve done it all, you’ve been everywhere worth going; what’s left but to enjoy those things vicariously through the eyes of another?

At the same time, the companions provide a moral anchor for the Doctor, who – by definition – must see human lives as ephemeral, here one minute and gone the next. He comes to care for individuals, and by extension, those who surround them, and by further extension, the lives of the race from which they arise. It’s the companions that drive him to intervene, time and time again, and who at the same time tell him when he is going too far. Without them, the Doctor is incomplete, and that’s when he’s in danger of his underlying instability – the result of all the grief and tragedy that he has encountered – becoming overwhelming; which can lead to acts of self-destruction and acts of externalized destruction.

To quote Wikipedia again, “Loneliness is the Tenth Doctor’s most persistent personal demon: His relationship with various companions is always short-lived and often ends in tragedy.”

In particular, the final loss of Rose Tyler, with whom the Tenth Doctor has fallen in love, hits him hard; and with the subsequent loss of Martha Jones (who experiences unrequited love for the Doctor) and Donna Noble, with whom his relationship is more platonic but no less deep, he resolves to travel alone, seeking extreme isolationism. Each time that he does so, however, a new companion falls into his life and a variation on the same pattern repeats itself.

The encounter with a much older Sarah Jane Smith drives home the point. Life with the Doctor can be exciting, enthralling, intellectually stimulating, and intensely uplifting and rewarding – but it is also very dangerous, and can be both stifling and confining, subordinating the life of the companion to the (perhaps) more meaningful life of The Doctor. If you stay too long, sooner or later, you will pay the price.

There is a strong sense of making up for lost time in the Tennant version of the character. Having shed most of his survivor’s guilt and melancholy. the Tennant version is outgoing and exuberant, recalling aspects of the Tom Baker incarnation. Tennant is able to build on the unification achieved by Ecclestone to make the character one that finally begins to evolve as a result of his experiences, rather than simply being another static reflection of the one central “definitive” persona.

The final contribution of Tennant’s Doctor was that, for the first time, the character was able to express – and demonstrate – fallibility. Once again, it was therefore necessary for consistency of character that the fallibility flaw be retroactively inserted into all the preceding incarnations and accounted for; the descriptions offered herein have all taken this trait into account.

Matt Smith, The Eleventh Doctor

The Eleventh Doctor is the one who has to come to terms with “the companion issue” once and for all (or at least for now). The exuberance of the Tenth Doctor becomes almost manic at times in this incarnation, but overall the personality of this incarnation is compassionate but quick-tempered. At times, the frivolity/eccentricity/instability comes to the surface and is clearly revealed as a mask for the serious person underneath – Smith is adept at dropping that mask in the middle of a line of dialogue, his entire attitude and demeanor changing to one of grim determination.

More than any other, this is the Doctor who begins to take control of his life, having overcome the brooding melancholy and survivor’s guilt of the Ecclestone version and then had a long, restorative holiday as the Tennant version. His initial plans to do so immediately go awry, however, as he quite literally drops into the life of young Amy Pond, and inadvertently utterly ruins it for the next decade or so. This incarnation spends much of its tenure making up for that by fulfilling the promise of a life of wonder and adventure that he made while still recovering from Regeneration. In fact, the Eleventh Doctor’s life becomes inextricably tied to that of the Pond family, whose daughter is eventually revealed as The Doctor’s future wife, River Song.

Along the way, the “companion issue” is explicitly addressed a number of times during Smith’s tenure.

At the same time, the Eleventh Doctor decides that he is becoming too well known and begins systematic efforts to restore his anonymity, a reaction to the “companion issue” when he is confronted by the Superman Curse – if who you are is known, who you care about is also known, and that makes them potential victims of those seeking to get to you. (This is not explicitly stated, but is clearly implied). He begins with a convoluted scheme to fake his own death, and things only get more involved from there.

The deaths of Amy and Rory at the “hands” of a Weeping Angel after many adventures with the Doctor hits him harder than the loss of any previous companions, including that of Rose. Brooding, melancholy, and isolationist to an extent never previously seen, he is eventually pulled back into life by the Doctor’s other great characteristic, his Curiosity, in the form of a new companion, Clara Oswald.

When the “Impossible Girl” plot thread is eventually resolved, Clara stands as the instigator of the reconciliation between the Doctors (Tenth and Eleventh) and the War Doctor and the impetus to the rehabilitation of the latter.

Peter Capaldi, The Twelfth Doctor

Technically, with that rehabilitation, Capaldi should be the thirteenth. Having only seen the promos for the upcoming season, his first, there is not a lot for me to go on – and I have deliberately waited to watch yesterday’s season premier to get this article written. So this is all forecast and on scanty evidence.

With the rehabilitation of the War Doctor, the Twelfth incarnation is finally free of any guilt over the Time War, and is thus the culmination of the emotional journey that has been at the heart of the character since the series’ revival. Spurred on by Clara, the Eleventh Doctor has “fixed things”, because “that’s what The Doctor does.” The soundbite from the season promos states, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. It’s time I did something about them” or words to that effect.

This character is therefore the beneficiary of those who came before him, who is finally healed from his experiences and ready to move on with his life. One of the most important steps in any rehabilitation programme is making restitution to those who have been victims of your excesses in the past, and that is the one phase of his rehabilitation that the Doctor hasn’t done so far. So I expect the twelfth Doctor to be more serious, and more active in the universe around him, unfettered by guilt, fame, or notoriety. For the first time, we have a Doctor who is in full command of his life and his faculties – a very dangerous man to get on the wrong side of.

And one of the foremost things for him to think about is that despite his actions in the Time War, the Daleks managed to survive – something they have rubbed the character’s nose in on several occasions – and remain his biggest threat. What’s more, they are free to grow and spread, exactly as they did prior to the Time War, this time with nothing to stop them – except him.

This will be a character with a reasonably strong Ego, recalling the Colin Baker incarnation, and one with a determination to solve certain problems at almost any cost, reminiscent of the Silvester McCoy version. All that adds up to a lot of Hubris, and Davros – creator of the Daleks – is just the being to rub his nose in it. In interviews, there have been hints that the 51st season, and the twelfth Doctor, will take the show in a slightly darker direction, which seems to match this prognostication to a T. Will these speculations be borne out? Only time will tell.

The Secrets Of Complex Characterization

Every actor who has played the Doctor has added something to the character, an element that has lasted and added to the depth of the characterization. The Doctor is rich and deep as a character because of these contributions.


I’ve seen the same thing happen twice in RPGs. The first was the story of Blackwing, where successive players took what had been built by the preceding player and reinvented the character while staying true to its central core. This exactly parallels what happened with Doctor Who, and hence is the initial point of inspiration for this article. I’ve written about the Blackwing story many times here at Campaign Mastery, usually as part of some other article.

(The irony is that the current player is also a Doctor Who fan, and this connection has been lurking under his nose for years…)


The second occasion is an NPC – Ullar – who started as a Hero and Playtesting vehicle for me to learn the rules of the Hero System, became an iconic, even mythical character in death in two subsequent campaigns, was then resurrected/rescued at the last moment and found himself constrained and confined by the ideals embodied in his public profile. Initially a Hero only because that was needed and he was an instinctive problem-solver, his entire character was shaped by destiny into something he would not have recognized at the beginning. Eventually the character became something akin to a God, and rebuilt the universe after Ragnerok, sacrificing much of his individual existence and all his independence in the process.

But one of the great sources of ideas for GMs is to ask “What If?” and I did exactly that in devising the first Zenith-3 campaign. What if Ullar had arrived a few years later, and never been softened by his exposure to the suffering of bystanders at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What if he developed plans to implement his original ambitions, and took advantage of McCarthyism and fear of “The Red Menace” to obtain the power and influence behind the scenes needed to make it work? This was the premise of that first Zenith-3 campaign, and it added new potentials to the original character by showing how the same personality with exactly the same motivations could have become a villain under other circumstances.

This character has also been on my mind lately, because the PCs in the new Zenith-3 are currently dealing with the legacies of a version of the original who arrived pre-WWII and attempted to insinuate himself into the Nazi regime, which has many characteristics in common with his native society. By the time he realized his error, it was far too late. That was decades ago, local time; the Nazis won the war, and went on to world domination, and now stand poised to start conquering other dimensions – unless the PCs have something to say about it.

The Development Spotlight

This shows that there’s no need to wait when developing a deep characterization. A couple of central truths that can manifest in a variety of ways, a capacity for personal growth, and – above all – being affected by what’s going on around you, and depth of character is the inevitable result.

I’m not talking about improvement in external circumstances or in simple combat capabilities – I’m talking about growth in terms of who and what the character cares about, what they are prepared to do in pursuit of satisfying those cares, and the character paying the personal price that results. Character growth is marked by an evolution of actions, reactions, and relationships.

While it’s possible to achieve character growth without GM support, it’s a lot easier if you actively collaborate with the GM. However, if multiple characters are seeking the same thing at the same time, it can get unpredictable and lose coherence. The solution is for the GM to “theme” adventures for a while, and give each character their own share of the “development spotlight”, then move on to the next while the first character is evolving as a result. Clear communication between the player owning the developing character and the rest of the table is essential.

It’s a simple principle – the character changes; the character exhibits that change by reacting in an unexpected manner to some circumstance (which is what the GM’s cooperation is needed for); everyone comes to terms with the evolution; move on to the next character while the first explores the ramifications of the change. By the time he’s finished doing that, the Development Spotlight has swung back around to him again.

On top of that, the GM will always be looking for adventures with meaning for the PCs, because ultimately, they are a lot more interesting and entertaining for all concerned, so there will also be opportunities for shared development in spontaneous response to outside events, plus developments in reaction to the evolution of other characters.

Character development leading to a rich characterization is easier than you might think. It just takes getting involved in the life of your character, and not being locked into a rigid personality structure.

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Shades Of Suspense Pt 2 – Fourteen Types of Cliffhanger Finishes


For those who came in late:

Cliffhangers are a wonderful way to end a gaming session.

Ending play at a moment of high drama leaves players anxious to get back to the gaming table, and makes a gaming session memorable. They serve as milestones within the adventure.

In Part 1, I listed eight general tips for Cliffhanger finishes in RPGs, and pointed out that the forgotten element of the cliffhanger is the restart of play in the following session.

This article will build on that general advice by listing fourteen cliffhanger techniques for creating and using cliffhangers, with some specific tips, advice, and notes on each.

Types Of Cliffhanger

Don’t think there are fourteen types of cliffhanger? You would not be alone. The Wikipedia article on cliffhangers only lists two:

  • a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma; or
  • a main character confronted with a shocking revelation.

(To qualify as a Cliffhanger, the danger or revelation has to occur at the end of the episode of serialized fiction, which either means this definition doesn’t apply to RPG game sessions or that these are considered serialized fiction – or haven’t been considered at all.)

That’s fine for a theoretical overview of the concept, but when it comes to practical usage, I think that variations in implementation technique are distinguishing features that characterize cliffhangers, distinguishing one type from another. Each requires you to do things a little differently, and you need to know those differences in procedure before you can actually use that cliffhanger approach.

The techniques that I have identified are:

  1. The Skip-a-scene Technique
  2. The Gasp Technique
  3. The Plot Twist Technique
  4. The Ominous Sign Technique
  5. The Gloat Technique
  6. The Mistaken Identity Technique
  7. The It’s Not Too Late Technique
  8. The Blind Fools and Heroes Technique
  9. The Impossible Shot Technique I
  10. The Impossible Shot Technique II
  11. The Gotcha Technique
  12. I’ll Explain Later!
  13. From Out Of The Blue
  14. The Awakening

So, let’s get started (PS: I’m going to be deliberately tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top in the few examples I felt it necessary to offer…).

1. The Skip-a-scene Technique

I commented in the first part of this two-part discussion that the proximate inspiration for the article was watching the 1944 serial, “Captain America“, which relies extensively on this technique. The general principle is this:

  • (a) Put one or more PCs in a dangerous situation;
  • (b) let them decide what they are going to do about it;
  • (c) decide what the consequences are (i.e. whether it will succeed or fail); and
  • (d) what will happen next.
At The Cliffhanger

In the cliffhanger ending, you describe (a), (b), and (d), but leave out (c).

“As the berserk robot herds you into the corner, the reactor edges towards critical overload.”
   “I throw my shoe past the robot to press the emergency crash button on the reactor. It powers the robot, right?”
   “You think so, but aren’t sure. Roll to hit with your shoe.”
   “11! That should be good enough!”
   “Ducking beneath the flailing robotic arms, you wrench off your shoe, Dodging to one side, you judge the weight and throw it towards the control panel. Deflecting off one of the robotic arms, it lands at the top of the control panel and balances precariously. Pipes burst from the steam pressure and klaxons sound as the reactor overloads and the robot aims a killing blow that will crush your skull like a melon hit by a sledgehammer. Seconds later, the reactor dome explodes… And that’s where we’ll end this week’s session. Next time, we’ll see if your desperate shoe-toss hits the mark – and if it does any good…”

When play resumes

To start the next session, you describe all four elements, with (c) in its proper place:

“Last time: The berserk robot reprogrammed by Doctor Noxx herded you into the corner, while the reactor edged towards critical overload. Pauly [The name of the PC] decided to throw his shoe past the robot to press the emergency crash button on the reactor, in the hope that it also powers the robot, and rolled an eleven. Ducking beneath the flailing robotic arms, he wrenched off his shoe. Dodging to one side, he judged the weight for a moment, then and throw it towards the control panel. Deflecting off one of the robotic arms, it lands on the top of the control panel and balances precariously before sliding off and landing on the reactor’s emergency shut-off button, crashing the reactor control rods back into the superheated Positron Reactor. Pipes burst from the steam pressure within and klaxons sounded as the reactor overloaded The robot aimed a killing blow that would crush Pauly’s skull like a melon hit by a sledgehammer – and freezes, it’s capacitors draining of power. The klaxons warning of dangerous overpressure in the reactor dome continue, it’s too late to stop an explosion. You race from the building in the nick of time as, seconds later, the reactor dome explodes, venting the positronically-charged steam into the sky.”

Analysis & Comments

Notice how the omitted scene completely conceals the success of the character’s action and how it permits him to escape in the nick of time, even hinting that it might have failed, and also fills in the action in between the shoe landing and “seconds later” by assuming that the character will do the only reasonable thing under the circumstances. (Also notice that the pseudo-science is flowing thick and fast). The cliffhanger ends on a spectacular note after a dramatic buildup. That spectacular note then becomes the kick-off for the next session of play proper.

Finally, note that the resumption narrative recast everything from present tense, as used in the cliffhanger sequence, to the past tense. In other words, it’s too late for the player to change his mind about his action (no matter what clever way out he may have thought of in the meantime); his decision was already made and the consequent desperate action had already happened.

A note on the absence of synopsis

A lot of GMs start the day’s play with a synopsis of what had happened previously, explaining what had happened and what the backstory was. This deflates all the tension of a cliffhanger, so the example GM didn’t do it, figuring that there would be plenty of time to do that later. He was able to drop a couple of references to past events into his opening sentence to give the immediate situation a broader context and left it at that – the bare essentials.

2. The Gasp Technique

The premise of the gasp technique is to end the cliffhanger on the reactions of the PCs without showing what they are reacting to (though you can hint at it). This has to be a strong reaction of some sort, even if it is only momentary, and should not commit the PCs to a course of action or a state of mind beyond that initial moment. You have to be careful to ensure that whatever the PCs are reacting to is surprising or shocking enough that the reaction is justified in the player’s minds when they finally find out what it is.

At The Cliffhanger

The Gasp technique is about the unexpected, and I’m specifically excluding surprise threats – these are dealt with under “From Out Of The Blue” below. That means that there is little opportunity for a big buildup, which makes this type of cliffhanger more difficult to use effectively. The best approach is to employ secondary senses for the buildup – a loud “thrummm” sound coming from somewhere up ahead (with whatever it is shielded from vision by obstacles), a huge shadow, of irregular shape, whatever.

It is obviously essential to allow for any extraordinary senses that the PCs might have access to if the surprise is to be maintained.

But, depending on what the PCs are reacting to, all of these problems can be bypassed.

So the basic anatomy of this cliffhanger is:

  • (a) vague hints or a threat;
  • (b) identification of the threat without revealing the surprise;
  • (c) the moment of revelation, without revealing the surprise;
  • (d) the reactions of the PCs, without revealing the surprise, and avoiding the other restrictions imposed earlier.

“The intruder alarm sounds as, in the control room, the camera covering the Baker-nine corridor whites out and then cuts to static.”
   “I alert the others that I’ve lost eyes and can’t ID the intruder.”
   “Fine, Garrock. Harmony, you and Fringe are racing down the adjoining Mike-two corridor and approaching the intersection, with you in the lead. A bright glow is coming from down corridor Baker-nine, from somewhere near the armory.”
   “The Armory? Then there’s no time for intelligence-gathering. I’m turning down Baker-nine as quickly as I can and yelling at whoever it is to Halt. Fringe, hang back and cover my back from the intersection.”
   “Got it.”
   “You round the corner and see a figure sheathed in arcs of lightning, glowing so brightly that you can barely make out a vague outline, and using a brightly-white hand to melt through the lock into the armory. You skid to a halt and your jaw drops as the figure turns toward you, the electrical discharge momentarily pausing long enough for you to see into its face. Your jaw drops in disbelief when you recognize the intruder…”
   “Who is it?”
   “A question for next time,” replies the GM, an evil smile on his face.

Notice that the example GM followed the prescribed pattern to a ‘T’, and also saved most of his buildup for that final burst of narrative.

A second example, this one Fantasy-oriented:

“Sporlock crouches on the beam in the rafters as the leader of the self-appointed Exulted emerges from the antechamber to meet the returning strike force.”
   “Maybe we’ll finally get to see who that bast**d really is. I’m staying absolutely still and silent, and breathing as shallowly as I can – I don’t want to gasp from holding my breath for too long.”
   “‘Aah, Strike Marshall. Did you succeed?’ asks the figure in scarlet robes and faceless mask. The Strike Marshall drops to one knee and bows, replying, ‘Up to a point, My Lord. The Watcher’s Guild intervened before we could finish the job, but we did retrieve the Thanatagral as you ordered.’”
   After pausing for a moment to give the player a chance to state any action, the GM continues: “‘The Watcher’s Guild, again? When the opportunity permits, we will have to chastise them properly for their impudence. Still, you achieved the primary objective. Bring the Thanatagral, and I shall inform our Master.’”
   “So the Exulted Leader is just a figurehead!”
   “So it would seem. He turns away from the Strike Marshall and heads toward the altar you noticed earlier, removing his face-mask. His face is finally revealed! So shocked are you by his identity that you involuntarily gasp, feel your fingers go numb with shock, and you begin to slip from your precarious perch… and that’s where we’ll end for the night!”

Again, there’s a buildup, and a minor revelation, and a few teasing hints, all of which build the drama, and promise that the PC, Sporlock, is in a position to discover something really juicy. A quick tease, and then the revelation and reaction – without revealing the actual surprise.

When play resumes

A key difference that may have been noted from the preceding examples is that in this technique, the GM has ended at the moment of revelation; it’s entirely logical for the reveal, which is going to occur simultaneous with the reaction, to follow the final moment of the information conveyed. Rather than leaving out a scene, the GM has simply performed what would be termed a ‘hard cut’ in the world of television. At most, there might be a “to be continued” caption over a freeze-frame.

Oh, and for the record: the surprise of example one was the rotting body of a former team-mate, which someone has reanimated, while the surprise of example two was that the arch-enemy that had run the PCs ragged was their landlord, who they saw at least once a week.

3. The Plot Twist Technique

Ending with a plot twist is always a great way to go – if it’s surprising enough, and big enough. Too often, plot twists fail on one or both measures, leaving an anticlimactic taste in the mouth.

There are two ways to use plot twists as cliffhangers – you either finish with the revelation, or you stop just short of the revelation while showing the character’s reactions to the cliffhanger, in a similar fashion to techniques number 1 and 2, respectively. However, I’m only listing the latter approach – because while actually ending with the revelation has all the impact you want at the time, when the next session starts, players have had days/weeks/months? to get used to the idea and it will have all the impact of wet spaghetti. In particular, they won’t react as though surprised.

The basic structure is therefore pretty much the same as that of Technique 2. The only real difference is that instead of using a reaction as a tease at the end, the plot twist is considered shocking enough to stand on its own. For my money, either of the examples used to illustrate the Gasp Technique would fit that bill, though the first one is probably better-suited to the plot twist technique. However, neither of them actually qualify as “plot twists”, which is why they were left in the technique 2 section.

Analysis & Comments

I’m not going to delve into how to ensure your plot twists are adequate; aside from being off-topic, and way too big a subject for a side-bar, it’s a subject that I’ve already written about, here and there:

…amongst others.

4. The Ominous Sign Technique

Ending with an ominous sign or portent can work quite well if not overused. Players have a definite saturation level for this sort of thing, and regain their capacity for a repeat of the technique very slowly. The other big danger with this approach is that the actual danger being signposted has to live up to the hype – and hype is very easy to generate. It’s a catch-22, though: if you dial down the hype, it often lacks sufficient intensity to justify its use as a cliffhanger. And one final danger: too big a gap between the warning sign and the event creates a disconnect between threat and event that completely drains it of dramatic tension.

The best solution is to:

  • (a) know in advance what the threat is going to be even though it won’t show up in-game until the next session;
  • (b) make sure that it’s big enough to justify being hyped to the max from the player’s point of view;
  • (c) ensure that the event triggering the ominous sign is front-and-center and appreciated as connecting to the ominous sign by the players within the first quarter of your next session.

While this is often used in television, that medium has one huge advantage over most RPGs: they can use music to induce, or reinforce, mood. So used to this are we that ominous signs without it are actually handicapped in effectiveness. In the past, I’ve tried replicating an ominous tune (duh-duh-duhhhhhh in the pattern low, very low, low again) with my voice, and while it succeeds in telling the players what the mood should be, it’s an abject failure at actually generating that mood. If anything, it reduces it to a caricature of what you want to achieve.

Lately, I’ve found that holding my hands up for quiet and remaining absolutely silent for a mental five-count is far more effective, especially if it precedes a spoken “to be continued…” In fact, this approach is so effective that a good half the time, one of my players will say those immortal words on my behalf; I simply nod in reply. I haven’t experimented with different time frames, though I suspect that much shorter won’t be effective, and much longer will simply become uncomfortable. Though, for whatever it’s worth, I did once completely freak out a group of players I was GMing by being silent for 5 minutes – no hand gestures, but look toward whoever’s speaking and use facial expressions to show that I wasn’t having some sort of seizure or something.

5. The Gloat Technique

One time-honored way of ending with a cliff-hanger is with the villain gloating about having succeeded, or it being too late to stop him. This one largely comes to us by way of Comic-books, and is often double-teamed with a plot twist. “The fools have been completely deceived into doing exactly what I wanted them to do. Now there is nothing to stop me…”

But there are a number of problems when it comes to replicating this approach in an RPG that make it far more difficult than it seems.

The first is that in comics, the reader occupies the position of a super-observer, able to go anywhere and see anything that is taking place. To use this approach in an RPG, you need one of the PCs to be in a position to observe or overhear the gloating, and that’s much harder to arrange.

The second is that in a comic, you can have the protagonists take the threat seriously, no matter how ridiculous the plot; engaging independent players is much harder. Your villain and his plot not only have to be credible, it has to engage not just the PCs, but also the players – and there are no shortcuts to achieving this.

On top of that, you have all the problems that usually come with a plot twist (discussed in technique 3, above) if you are using one – if you plot twist falls short, so will the monologue, and so will the villain doing the gloating. Followed shortly afterwards by your adventure.

This is a technique to be employed only when the stars align and you have all your ducks lined up in a shooting gallery.

At The Cliffhanger

Effectiveness is completely lost if the PCs or the players are permitted any sort of reaction. For that reason, whenever I use this technique, I make sure that, without pause:

  • (a) I give the villain his carefully pre-scripted gloat;
  • (b) Flash some sort of “to be continued” indicator – usually verbal, but occasionally a carefully-decorated sign works even better if I have a font and pattern that achieves both legibility and some stylistic reference that’s appropriate to the villain;
  • (c) Have some sort of game business that I can launch straight into, such as experience points, or a reminder of the next session. In fact, anything that takes the players away from responding to the final gloating statement by the villain.
When play resumes

The major reason for the careful pre-scripting is so that I can reprise it as faithfully as possible when play resumes. My immediate priority is then to do one of two things: Either surround him with overwhelming force (so that the PC is encouraged to back off with his priceless intelligence) or whisk him out of there ASAP or even faster. An elevator, a teleport, a mystic portal, a puff of smoke, a door closing between the PC and the gloating villain – I’ve used them all. I’ve even had one step out from a window ledge and onto the top of his invisible flying saucer (I wanted to have him leap and be caught by a tractor beam, but while he would have had the technology, it didn’t fit the arrogance and confidence of the character).

The reasons for undertaking one or both of these is so that the one or two PCs who were in a position to overhear can get all the other PCs onto the same page. I avoid taking players away from the table for either the cliffhanger or the resumption of play unless I have no other choice because their characters are elsewhere, already doing something, and their choices would be influenced by the knowledge. Sometimes you have to, but it’s still better to avoid it if you can.

6. The Mistaken Identity Technique

A variation on The Gloat Technique is the Mistaken Identity. In general, the PCs confront and/or defeat the villain only for him to be revealed as some third party in disguise.

Beyond this basic pattern, there are a number of variations. The disguised person may be another known enemy, or a supposed ally, or even a real ally/associate/ex-party-member who has been mind-controlled or reprogrammed/indoctrinated. You can end with the revelation, or have the real villain step forth from the shadows, having used their cat’s-paw to weaken the PCs. He will usually gloat, making this an application of The Gloat Technique, and reducing the Mistaken Identity to mere build-up; or the real villain may continue to lurk in the shadows, letting the PCs think they’ve won. Or perhaps the ally is actually the real villain, and has been all along.

A lot depends on how shocking the revelation of the identity really is, and how credible the duality is. If abilities match up, and past dialogue & attitudes can be reinterpreted in support of the “truth” of the revelation, and if the identity is someone who was especially trusted by both the players and the characters, the revelation can probably stand alone as a plot twist. If not, then you need something more.

Another factor whose importance can’t be underestimated is the degree of investment the players feel in the discovery of the identity of the villain, which depends on how much buildup there has been in the meantime. How long has he been a thorn in their side, and how much do they really care about taking him down? How much fear and respect do the PCs really have for the villain? The “weaker” the villain in terms of past campaign interaction, the more you should lean toward the added drama of having the real villain step from the shadows.

7. The It’s Not Too Late Technique

Most cliffhangers are downbeat in nature, with the PCs seemingly in danger or facing imminent disaster. This approach is relatively upbeat and positive in comparison, but it can only be used after very careful setup. Specifically, you have to have spent at least half the game session convincing the players and their characters that they are in a hopeless situation, shooting down their every notion. The cliffhanger consists of some third party stepping forward and announcing “all hope is not yet lost. We/You still have one last desperate chance, because…”

You then have the choice of ending with the revelation of why, if it can be compressed into a single general statement (“…I have discovered the enemy’s hidden weakness”), or implied through hyperbole (“…I stand with you” [NB: this works even better if the villain refers to themselves in the 3rd person]), or of leaving the “because” hanging. The more significant (and recognizable) the identity of the speaker, the more you can rely on the hyperbole or hanging reason, because the reason will have credibility even before it is announced.

There are dangers associated with this approach in an RPG. Chief amongst them: you have frustrated the players, and then offered a deus-ex-machina solution, something that I hate using as a plot device (see “A Monkey Wrench In The Deus-Ex-Machina: Limiting Divine Power” and, more recently, and to a lesser extent, “Deus Ex Machinas And The Plot Implications Of Divinity“). A lot depends on the identity of the speaker, and on the degree to which the glimmer of hope is faint and relies on the PCs stepping up to the plate. If the revelation lays railroad tracks to a victory, the adventure is in deep trouble, and so might be the campaign. If the speaker is exaggerating more than a little the significance of his revelation, and it’s going to take some inspired planning, hard work, and creativity on the part of the players and their characters in order to pull this hail-mary pass off, this approach is far more palatable – but the more important it is to make this clear to the players at the cliffhanger moment so that they don’t have time to stew on the possible negatives until the next game session.

If the speaker is a known enemy of the PCs, and one who has established his credibility as a force within the campaign, rather than a savior entering the campaign from stage left, this approach stands up far better in both comics and an RPG.

8. The Little Children, Fools and Heroes Technique

There is a line in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Contagion” that is possibly the best thing about what was a somewhat disappointing episode after an intriguing beginning: “Fate protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise.”

I’ve since seen the line, and variations, crop up in many other places. The line itself is a revision of a quote used (and recast) many other times, notably by Otto von Bismark in reference to the United States – see the section on Special Providence of the Wikiquotes page on von Bismark. Although the attribution indicated points to Abbe Correa in 1849, at least one source claims that it existed in French in the form “God always helps fools, lovers and drunkards” as far back as 1708, if not longer.

But it’s the version from Star Trek that inspired this cliffhanger technique. In essence, it is the delivery of this line, or something similar (and more appropriate in reference) by an NPC as the concluding statement when the PCs are about to attempt something they know to be monumentally foolhardy or risky. When I first devised this dialogue ending cliffhanger technique, I generalized the statement to read “Little Children, Fools, and Heroes” because quite often the PCs can achieve success despite impossible odds stacked against them. If Don Quixote had been a PC, there would be a lot less wind power in central Spain in the mid 17th century!

At The Cliffhanger

It’s important with this technique to have an NPC (you can’t trust a PC to do it for you) tot up the magnitude of the task, the odds that are stacked against the characters – though avoid assigning numbers to these chances if you can. If not, call them “roughly a million-to-one shot.” As everyone who has ever read Terry Pratchett knows, million to one chances succeed nine times out of ten – but getting the odds exactly right is a pain; a million-and-one-to-one and you’re in trouble.

This is one occasion when the cliffhanger ending is enhanced by letting the players react to this totting up. The last word should be some version of the quote offered, and for which this technique is named.

When play resumes

And the starting point of your reiteration should be that totting up of the odds. If the list is very lengthy, only repeat the last half-dozen items.

Analysis & Comments

This is a brilliant explanation for having humorous improbabilities litter the rest of the adventure. Each time the PCs start to gain traction, or suffering setbacks, these should start going against them, but as soon as they really need an improbable result to get them through, the odds should stack up in their favor.

Of course, going down this road requires careful choice of antagonist. Whoever you choose will forever be tainted with the humor tag; the odds that you will ever again be able to use them in a serious capacity are very slim. Perhaps even a million-to-one.

9. The Impossible Shot Technique I

There are two variations on the Impossible Shot Technique. They are sufficiently different that I have listed them separately. In the first version, one of the PCs has to make an impossible shot in order for the PCs to succeed/escape.

As the example offered at the time makes clear, the best approach to employ with this form of cliffhanger is the Missing Scene (technique 1, above), but with a greater emphasis on the odds against success, and “fading to black” as the character attempts the fateful shot. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should an NPC be required to make the impossible shot; if this is the situation, the “impossible shot” should be made before play concludes, and should seemingly fail. Having thus ramped up the danger to a PC, it’s time to end the session.

10. The Impossible Shot Technique II

The second variation has the villain needing to make an impossible shot in order to turn the tables on the PCs or escape. This is far more problematic because it leaves the GM open to allegations of bias toward the villain. As with the NPC taking the shot in the first variation, it is far better for the villain to take the shot before the cliffhanger – and emphasis should be placed on his succeeding through blind, improbable luck, or better yet, missing his original target but hitting something else that gives the villain a chance. You end with the villain missing the shot, and open the next session with the miss and subsequent expression of wild luck of what he actually hit. The idea is that he failed to make the impossible shot, but in the process hit an even less probable target that somehow gives him a chance.

It’s absolutely essential that the actual target hit should be more unlikely than the impossible shot; otherwise, common sense says that he would have gone for the easier target, and the ending becomes an anticlimactic celebration of stupidity.

11. The Gotcha Technique

The villain deceives the characters and the GM very carefully does nothing to hint to the players that the information their characters have found is not gospel truth until the moment comes to reveal the “Gotcha!” This approach is all about credibility: the apparent situation has to be completely credible, and the revelation also has to be completely credible, turning everything the players thought they knew on its head. It sounds incredibly hard, and sometimes it is, but there are ways of pulling it off.

In particular, having an enemy who acts like the PCs friend and ally, and who is publicly trusted by the PCs, forces any potential enemy the deceiver to ask questions about whether or not the PCs are dupes or accomplices. Make the friend and ally someone of authority, and you can fence the person who knows the truth into going outside the law, behaving as an enemy to test the PCs, and because his true enemy has spun and typecast the character. In addition, he may have anti-heroic tendencies, or a family to protect. Combinations of these justify the apparently-villainous behavior that puts the seeming-villain at odds with the PCs.

To apply this technique to the full, the PCs should, in the lead-up to the cliffhanger, have seemingly defeated the apparent villain. The true villain (or a henchman) then attempts to kill the seeming villain. Either he bungles the job (henchman) or the true villain reveals himself in order to succeed. If a henchman bungles the job, the seeming villain gets to drop the revelatory bombshell as the closing scene of the cliffhanger; if the real villain comes out of the shadows, unable to resist the opportunity to get rid of his real opposition, then you can use his unmasking as the cliffhanger. Or, better than either of these, use the shooting (and possible death) of the villain without warning as the cliffhanger and leave the players guessing until the next session – which should help the players react appropriately to the revelations that follow without giving them time to get used to the idea during the gap between sessions.

12. I’ll Explain Later!

This works best when you have experienced players who can read the signs of a cliffhanger buildup and make some educated guesses as to what’s going to happen at the end of the day’s play as a result. The GM pretends to be building toward one type of cliffhanger or plot resolution only to have something completely unexpected take place at the denouement without explanation – at the time.

The most important requirement to satisfy when employing this type of cliffhanger is to have an absolutely iron-clad explanation for the unexpected happening – not only what occurs, but why and even more importantly, why now, of all possible times. Get these things wrong and the whole cliffhanger becomes cheap sensationalism and reminiscent of the worst aspects of B-grade movies. It goes without saying, too, that the unexpected development has to be attention-getting in the extreme, and significant enough that it can potentially reshape relationships, policies, and attitudes within the campaign.

13. From Out Of The Blue

This technique is the simplest of the lot. The PCs are out and about, doing what they do, when from out of the blue, a menace threatens.

For all its ubiquity, this is also one of the easiest to foul up. The three most common mistakes are posing insufficient threat, posing too big a threat, and illogical surprise.

  • Insufficient Threat – if the party don’t feel threatened, the cliffhanger will produce no tension, and will be eminently forgettable.
  • Too Big A Threat – this is actually a problem of two parts. The first is that the players may feel picked on, i.e. that the GM is being unfair. The second is that the bigger the threat, the more illogical it is that the party would be surprised, that there were no warning signs that they would not have observed.
  • Illogical Surprise – “Towering over the low shrubs is an immense Black Dragon.” “Why didn’t we see it from miles away if it towers so much over the vegetation?” If it makes no sense that the party would be surprised, the whole encounter falls flat. There is no way out of this situation that ends well for the GM. And if the GM does provide the clues that should have avoided surprise, the encounter will lose most of its tension, and hence most of its value as a cliffhanger.

Avoiding these difficulties is tricky. PCs tend to be a fairly cocksure lot, so the line between the extremes can be extremely narrow, and more a matter of player psychology than game mechanics. And presenting logical hints and forewarning while still managing to surprise the players is even more difficult.

Not impossible, especially when the party are low-level and inexperienced; but the more powerful and experienced they become, the more difficult this dual balancing act becomes. Misdirection becomes the key to credibility, making the PCs think they are dealing with one threat when the reality is far worse. A Salamander Corpse, dead from some massive sting or bite, both explains the occasional scorch mark on the trees in the forest, and has the PCs looking for giant bees, wasps, or spiders. An Efreet raiding party riding giant lava-scorpions (including a riderless one) would come as a surprise, and two riders and three beasts might not be so far over the top that the encounter leaves the PCs completely outmatched.

14. The Awakening

The final cliffhanger is the discovery of a revelation by one or more of the PCs outside of a direct confrontation with another character (see the example if this isn’t clear). In a novel, comic, TV show, or even an act within a movie, you can actually make the revelation as the cliffhanger, and I used to employ that approach whenever this technique was used to deliver a cliffhanger. It’s only relatively recently that I have realized that it is far more effective if you conceal the actual revelation from the PCs during the cliffhanger – build up to the moment, then just as the players are anticipating the revelation, just as the long-awaited information comes up on the screen or the character turns the page to the critical fact – end play.

This achieves two things: first, it creates the state of suspense that you want in a cliffhanger (as opposed to a state of shock over the content of the revelation); and second, it means that the shock in question does not have time to dissipate in between game sessions as the information soaks into the players’ minds.

Again, it’s important that the revelation in question be something fairly earthshaking or your next session will start with a massive anticlimax.

Nothing Up My Sleeve…

This list comprises every cliffhanger technique that I know. Which means that if you have a technique that I haven’t listed, please share it! In the meantime, hopefully what I have presented will give you more options for cliffhangers than you ever thought possible. Have fun!

Comments (1)

Shades Of Suspense Pt 1 – Eight Tips for Cliffhanger Finishes


Cliffhangers are a wonderful way to end a gaming session because they end play at a moment of high drama that leaves the players anxious to get back to the gaming table, and that tend to be fairly memorable because of the drama. You can think of them as milestones within the adventure.

The primary source of inspiration drawn on is the 1944 Serial “Captain America” which has just been telecast on Public Broadcasting here in Australia. [Quite good, though they overused one of the techniques described below.] But that just got me thinking on the subject.

I had intended to take a break from the Pulp Genre for a while, having just wrapped up the House Rules series, but something that had been called off for yesterday was unexpectedly called back on again at the last minute, chewing up time I thought I would have for getting a head start on today’s article. I needed something quick, and this at least started that way (at least it can be applied to many different genres of game).

But, as I have said before, I don’t do “short” very well. In addition to word-count inflation, a black-out in the middle of writing has meant that this article can’t possibly be finished in one post. So I’ve broken it in two – Part 1 will list eight general tips for Cliffhanger finishes, and part 2 will list 11 techniques for creating and using cliffhangers, with additional specific tips and advice.

1. A cliffhanger definition

A cliffhanger is a scene that leaves the players wanting to know what happens next. The most obvious and common cliffhangers place a character in some sort of peril and don’t show if they survive it, but there are more subtle variations, and a number of different ways to resolve the cliffhanger. The more dramatic the moment of resolution is going to be, the more satisfying the cliffhanger as a punctuation mark within the adventure.

Timing is everything

Your cliffhanger will fall flat if the danger that forms the cliffhanger is less extreme than a danger that was overcome shortly before the cliffhanger takes place. You want the cliffhanger to be the most dramatic moment of the preceding 45 minutes to 1 hour’s play – longer than that and you can usually get away with it. Also, by definition, the Cliffhanger has to come at the end of the day’s play. So part of the trick is aligning these two events. Later, I’ll tell you about a couple`of ways to get the timing right.

The Lead Balloon

Dramatic Final Scenes are only one-half of any cliffhanger. The forgotten half is the resumption of play, when you have to resolve the cliffhanger. Get that wrong, and half your next session of play will go down like a lead balloon – and so will your next attempted cliffhanger. It takes time and repeated success before your players will fully trust that dramatic pause again. For each cliffhanger technique that I offer below, I will also take a hard look at the next-session kickoff – quite often, that’s the only difference between the techniques that I have to offer.

So the first tip that I have is this: Know what a cliffhanger is, in its many forms and permutations – in other words, know what you are doing, and then do it with deliberate intent and gusto.

2. Have a vague idea of where you will be up to

It helps immensely to have a rough idea of the pacing of your adventure, and how far the characters are likely to get by the end of play for the day.

Simply dropping a cliffhanger into proceedings is not good enough; for the cliffhanger to work at anything approaching its best, you need to build up to it. And that, in turn, works better when you have it planned to at least some extent; otherwise, you can find your adventure and your buildup in conflict instead of harmony.

The second tip, therefore, is: Plan to incorporate cliffhangers in your adventure, and position them around your projected end-of-play point.

3. Create more potential cliffhangers than you need

The relationship between adventure planning and a successful Cliffhanger Ending goes even deeper; if you have a reasonable idea of roughly where the adventure will get up to in the day’s play, you can make sure that you build in potential cliffhangers to exploit.

It’s never possible to forecast exactly how far the players will get in a single day’s play, there are simply too many variables. At best, you can get a close approximation. So the best approach is to incorporate one cliffhanger at the point you think the game will reach, plus two more at plus-or-minus 15 minutes, plus another 15-30 minutes before the earlier of those two. That gives you a 45-60 minute “window” to aim for. If the game session is more than six hours long, I would also think about dropping one in at about the four-hour mark, just in case.

My third tip for working with Cliffhangers is: Have more potential cliffhangers than you think you are going to need built into your adventure. A LOT more.

Actually, to be honest, most of the time, I don’t do this; decades of experience, a consistent GMing style, and a fairly stable game prep approach enable me to get fairly close to the mark most of the time. If you, too, enjoy all three of these benefits, then you can probably ignore this tip. Everyone else should take it to heart.

4. Have a way to downplay unused cliffhangers

By the same token, you don’t want the adventure to lurch from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, then go quiet at the start of the next day’s play, until the pattern repeats.

The easiest solution to this problem is to design each potential cliffhanger as an encounter, then plan for it to go in either of two ways – over-the-top (cliffhanger) or “normal”. But that’s additional prep that you really want to avoid, if you can; so a still better approach is to design them all as “normal” encounters, but with the potential to explode.

It’s worth observing that I am using the term “encounter” in a somewhat-broader sense than is normally the case. A character looking through a musty old tome is having an encounter with that tome. A character having an intimate soirée with an NPC is having an encounter of the roleplaying variety. A character querying a database is having an encounter with the computer, and another with the data being accessed. A character receiving a telegram is having an encounter with the information in the telegram. And so on.

The Fourth Tip is: Design your “encounters” within the “cliffhanger zone” with the potential for use as Cliffhangers.

5. Heighten the drama of the cliffhanger

There is a gap in play – it might be seconds, minutes, or more – between the commencement of an encounter and its transmutation into an actual cliffhanger. As soon as you know that this encounter is going to be the vehicle for the dramatic uncertainty that is a cliffhanger, heighten the drama of the encounter. This is your “big finish” for the day, so go all out to make it exciting, interesting, or whatever the dominant tone of the encounter is. Amplify it to lay the groundwork for the cliffhanger itself.

If a cliffhanger is a suspension of resolution, you need suspense to attach to the situation to be resolved. This of course distances the potential cliffhanger that is having that potential realized from all those encounters in which the potential was not exploited.

Hence, my fifth tip: Build up the lead-in to the Cliffhanger.

6. Set notes and Player Choices

Cliffhangers are more effective when the resumption of play matches very closely with the end of play of the preceding section. You want to be able to rewind the clock and repeat the last couple of seconds or more of play – in other words, if you end with a cliffhanger, you start the next session with the same cliffhanger.

This is very hard to do unless you were using prepared narrative and notes. Fortunately, Tips 2 and 3 advise you to prep such material in advance, focusing your efforts on the parts that matter.

The other thing that makes it very hard to do are the players. Player Choices must be carefully documented, and they aren’t allowed to change their minds between sessions even if they think of a better idea. The opening of the next session is not about relating what is happening, it’s about what has just happened.

The best time to do the prep for the start of the next game session is immediately following the last, if not sooner.

Sooner, you say? How is that possible?

By taking notes as the cliffhanger unfolds. A Microphone and a piece of audio recording software connected to a laptop. A dictaphone. A reel-to-reel recorder. A Mobile phone & app. Use something to record the last minute or two of the game session if you can, and take a photo or two of any battlemap showing character positions before and after each character moves, just for that last vital few seconds.

All this then becomes set in stone, immutable, past history. At the start of the next session, you relive it but don’t repeat it.

I also enforce something I call “Cliffhanger Rules” or “The Cliffhanger Zone” or even “Cliffhanger time”. Normally, you want to inform players of the results of their actions immediately they specify what those actions are. In the “Cliffhanger Zone” a player informs you of what their character is doing, but you deliberately withhold the results from your narrative unless they build the drama of the cliffhanger itself. Save those results for the opening sequence next time around!

Quite obviously, this also requires careful notes in some form.

So my sixth tip is: Document the cliffhanger as best you can immediately, so that you can replicate it at the start of the next game session.

7. Improvising a cliffhanger

Even with all this prep, it is sometimes necessary to improvise a cliffhanger. Not all the techniques that I have up my sleeve work well when used in this way; but there are three approaches that work especially well as improvised cliffhangers. For this reason, and the because there are no shortage of cliffhanger techniques that work just as well, if not better, given the correct advance prep, I reserve these approaches for the times when I need to improvise a cliffhanger.

The circumstances need to be appreciated; the only times when you should need to improvise a cliffhanger are when your pre-planning has gone seriously off the rails, or for some reason, simply didn’t get finished or done at all. The first indicates that either the players have gone off in some radically unexpected direction and you’ve been winging it for half the day, or they took a lot longer to get through an encounter of some sort than expected. I once had a game session where the PCs spent half the day talking to an NPC, discussing philosophy, history, and the NPC’s unique slant on the game-world theology, an encounter that was intended to take no more than ten of twenty minutes, game time. As a result, they were nowhere near any of the possible cliffhanger points in the adventure, leaving me with the choices of a low-key end to the session, or an improvised cliffhanger.

The second thing to bear in mind when improvising a cliffhanger is that there is a greater chance of your adventure going radically off the rails at this point than there is at any other time within the adventure. The reason should be obvious: You have the entire adventure planned out to at least some extent, and then you drop in something that is both extra, and dramatic. This is an obvious recipe for an unexpected shift in direction, and can often require the rest of the adventure to be completely scrapped and replaced.

If you use some of the plotting advice that has been offered at Campaign Mastery in the past, such issues can be minimized, but that’s about as good as you can get. The specific advice that I have in mind is, first and foremost, to know what the villains and NPCs are trying to achieve, and to build the adventure elements out of those ambitions and their efforts to satisfy them. That means that when you need to improvise a Cliffhanger, you can construct it from the same foundation elements of the plot on which the adventure is based. The NPC actions have an inherent plausibility as a result, and the overall shape of “the grand plan” better accommodates the addition of the cliffhanger.

The first improv technique: Withholding an outcome

The first of the techniques for improvising a cliffhanger is to withhold the outcome of a critical PC action or choice.

“Jerenkov hesitates for a moment, realizing how long the pumps and pipes have been left to rot without adequate maintenance, and how catastrophically it could all go horribly wrong, and then reaches out with a steady hand that doesn’t reflect his apprehension and pushes the button to start the abandoned geothermal reactor…”

The GM knows full well that the reactor is going to start up with no problems whatsoever because it’s critical to his plot that the PCs have power to run the systems that are still operational in the hidden base, but the players don’t. According to his planning, they simply push the button and the power systems come on-line, one after another, with no more than a host of warnings and reminders of scheduled maintenance that’s overdue.

By ramping up the drama and anticipation and then leaving it unresolved, withholding the outcome of the action, the GM has created an improvised cliffhanger. All he has to do is write down exactly what he said so that he can repeat the performance at the start of the next session and then continue with the outcome, also elevated in drama a little to maintain the established mood.

The second improv technique: Inserting a dramatic development

“Jannick steps silently along the leafy-strewn path, alert to the possibility of an ambush at any moment. As he reaches the next doorway, he feels the earth shift slightly beneath his foot and hears an ominous click…”

The PC has just stepped on a land mine that didn’t exist until the GM needed a cliffhanger. He could even have prepared the entire piece of narrative in advance with the intention of inserting it at the end of the day’s play, whenever that happened. This is an example of inserting a dramatic development.

Normally, you would (or should) forewarn the players that a minefield was nearby by having them spot a crater, or perhaps a mine whose leafy concealment had blown clear. Or perhaps its a fantasy game and instead of a mine, some other trap has just been activated. By foregoing that warning, you negate any opportunity that the players have of avoiding the problem – a minor bit of railroading of plot for the purposes of drama that is only acceptable if there is a clear solution available to the players affected. That solution then gets offered to the players at the start of the next session, so that triggering the trap has no practical impact on their character’s welfare except to offer warning of the possible existence of more traps.

The other point to note about this example is that the GM raised the drama of the scene with a piece of misdirection (the possibility of ambush) and then redirected the drama at the last moment to the real threat – the trap.

Of course, there will need to be some backstory provided in the next session to justify the existence of the trap at that exact place. Who put it there, why, and who was it intended for? If it was reasonable that the PCs would have been forewarned of the possibility of traps, this backstory also needs to make it clear that the information wasn’t given to them because there was no way that the people briefing the PCs could have known about it.

Finally, the GM needs to have a really clear understanding of any extra-normal sensory abilities of the PCs – it’s no good using this sort of cliffhanger if the PC had the ability to detect the mine before he set foot on it. In other words, the “dramatic development” needs to be crafted to fall within the limitations of those involved. (There is a way around this problem that will be shown by one of the more general techniques that I’ll describe later – I’ll make a point of bringing it to your attention when the time comes).

The third improv technique: Insert a drop-in encounter

“You glare at the opposition and ready your weapons, as do they. One of the blue-skinned barbarians yells something in their untranslatable alien tongue; you aren’t sure of the content, but the tone suggests that it is an insult of some kind. Tension hangs in the air as each of you stares into the eyes of an enemy, and the first mistake will precipitate a general slaughter. Who will blink first? And then there is a whoosh of air from overhead, and a bright light rains down on the battlefield, as a somewhat prissy voice announces, ‘Oh my goodness, no, this won’t do at all!

This is an actual example from my archives; it occurred many, many years ago in my first AD&D campaign. All that my notes indicated was “the PCs encounter a hunting party from the nearby village.”

Everything else was improvised to heighten the drama of the moment, ready for the cliffhanger.

I knew that some tribes make mock charges to demonstrate their manhood – so I inserted that cultural trait into the society of the hunting party in question. The PCs knew nothing of the villager’s society, so they had no forewarning of what to expect; a potential disaster loomed, one that would have completely derailed the adventure, which required the Hunting Party and the PCs to cooperate, as a means of delivering essential briefing information to the players about the situation. I therefore also needed something to derail the potential bloodshed that could easily have resulted from the PCs misinterpreting the actions of the Hunting Party, thanks to the last-minute introduction of that social custom into the mix.

What I did have planned to use as a cliffhanger was an initial encounter between the PCs and the deranged Hologram (my AD&D campaign had a LOT of sci-fi elements in it) who was to be both ally and major villain for the adventure. I had no idea what the substance of that encounter was going to be – I did a lot of improv back then – only that something was going to happen. But improvising the dramatic buildup, then redirecting the tension in an unexpected direction with the appearance of the Hologram, while defusing the hostilities between the two factions, told me exactly how I needed the image to behave.

Of course, if I didn’t need a cliffhanger at that point in play, I would not have introduced that social custom at all; I would have introduced the hunters some other way, such as a bird dropping from the sky and crashing to the ground just in front of the PCs, the unfortunate foul spouting a couple of arrows through its gizzard. Encounter proceeds from there with a lot of gesturing and gibberish, the upshot of which would have been “OUR bird”, or perhaps, “OUR lunch”.

The Seventh tip

These techniques demonstrate my seventh tip: You can improvise a cliffhanger, and there are three ways of doing so – but such improv is even better if it’s prepared in advance!

8. The Mid-battle Muddle

Of course, the cliff-hanger comes to us courtesy of the Pulp-era serials, including such gems as the legendary “Perils Of Pauline” – which, ironically, didn’t actually employ cliffhanger endings.

More often than not, the dangerous situations that form the cliffhanger arise in the course of a battle. And that’s especially problematic for an RPG.

Combat sequences are the most complex situations to interrupt and resume. There are whole bunches of stats that receive temporary adjustments during a fight, such as current hit points, etc. Character’s positions and facings have to be preserved perfectly. There may be spells in mid-cast, spell effects waiting to expire, and all sorts of other complications. Even remembering the immediate goals and ambitions of each and every character and creature on the battlefield is either a pain in the backside or a consumer of vast amounts of time after the game. And that’s a waste of time that could be spent playing – you have to actually end the game early to have enough time to document everything.

Battle may be the natural breeding ground for cliffhangers, but it’s one that should be avoided in RPGs at all costs. Just before combat, or just after, or when something interrupts to bring the combat to a premature end – those are fine. But unless you are VERY sure of the arrangements you have made to preserve the current state of play, apply my final tip:

Cliffhangers and mid-battle scenes don’t mix in RPGs.

So that brings us to the end of my general hints for Cliffhangers. In part 2 of this article, I’ll detail eleven ready-to-implement cliffhanger techniques. And yes, I’ve been told there aren’t really that many. All I can say is that some people will be very surprised. If I can finish it in time, look for it later this week; if not, it will be published by this time next week, all going well.

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On the binding of Wounds – Everyday Healing For Pulp


This is the final part (at least for now) of a series presenting the House Rules that have been introduced into the Pulp Campaign that I co-GM. Today I look at the most recent addition to the rules, relating to the healing of injuries, look at the thinking behind the curtain, and why GMs from other game systems – especially Pathfinder/3.x – should consider incorporating something similar.


Credit where it’s due

As always, Blair Ramage deserves half the credit and half the blame for these rules. This article is partially based on discussions between us, but was written by Mike alone. The sections dealing with applying the principles to other RPGs is also Mike’s solo work.

Damage in the Hero System

The place to start is with a little context.

Damage in the Hero system is divided into two types, Stun and Body. Stun is recovered very quickly and represents shock and the capacity for coherence of thought as much as anything else; use up all your stun, and you are knocked unconscious.

Body damage is physical harm – it can be anything from burns to broken bones to holes being punched in the character by bullets. use up your Body Damage capacity and you are dying; you lose one additional point of body each time you would normally have acted, and when you have lost twice as much as your original Body capacity, you’re dead.

In order to inflict damage, you have to first get through a character’s defenses, which are subdivided into two forms: Physical and Energy. Attacks are classified into these two categories by the nature of the attack, and most are one or the other for simplicity.

Attacks are also divided into two types: Normal and Killing. In normal attacks, damage is rolled on a number of d6s depending on the severity of the attack. The total is the amount of stun – so 3d6 normal inflicts 3-18 points of Stun Damage. At the same time, each dice inflicts 1 point of body damage on a successful attack, -1 if you roll a 1 and +1 if you roll a six on that die when determining the stun damage inflicted. Your defense applies to both body and stun generated in this way.

Killing attacks are nastier. The total that you roll on Nd6 (depending on the severity of the attack) is the amount of Body Damage done, and a Stun Multiplier (usually determined with a separate d6-1 roll) is then applied to that total to determine the amount of Stun that results. Optional and House Rules often impose further variations on that Stun Multiplier, as does an optional Hit Location System (which multiplies the damage done by anywhere from x1/2 to x2). So 3d6 killing will inflict 3 - 18 body damage, possibly more if the hit location optional system is used, and 0 to 90 stun damage, possibly more if the optional system is used. In addition, if using a physical attack like a knife and not a firearm-type attack, the attacker’s Strength adds (or subtracts, if you are puny enough) to the base killing damage done. Furthermore, your defenses only apply to this damage if they have a special attribute applied to represent some form of armor.

Problems with the system

Four glaring problems eventually make themselves obvious to most Hero Games GMs: Killing attacks are either too lethal or not lethal enough; Killing attacks can inflict too much Stun damage; The Stun Multiplier is not granular enough; and Normal attacks are not lethal enough.

Killing Attacks Too Lethal
Other parts of the system permit an attacker to increase the lethality of their killing attacks, but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s look at a fairly typical 3d6 Killing firearm for a second: the average Joe has 10 body. The average shot from such a firearm is going to inflict 10.5 points of body damage. So an average shot puts the character into a dying condition instantly. The average character then has 20 actions to be saved. But if the initial attack did better than average, that twenty-round margin can be quickly eaten into – doing the maximum 18 points of body damage to a 10-body normal person puts them at -8, so they have already lost 8 of that 20-action margin. Three average hits is immediately lethal to the average person, and two average hits gives them only a few seconds – perhaps half-a-minute – to live.

But 3d6 doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuancing the differences between firearms. You can’t reduce the lethality much without making them all the same.

Depending on the genre of game you are running, this can be way too lethal. Of course, most PCs will be superior to the average-Joe Body capacity – but they can still be killed instantly by a single lucky shot.

This effect is due to a systems compromise to make the system more playable. Combat in the hero system is already slow, dividing the effect of a weapon into damage inflicted immediately and damage inflicted over time that might be prevented with appropriate medical treatment would slow it to the point of unplayability.

One solution is to give characters more Body, and that’s the approach that I employed when first creating my superhero rules. One problem with this approach is that this so diminishes the physical damage inflicted by Normal attacks that you may as well not record it. As I’ve said before in other articles, House Rules breed House Rules.

Killing Attacks Not Lethal Enough
As soon as you get into superheroic territory, especially high-end super-heroics, you quickly discover that they suffer from the opposite problem – most Killing attacks simply aren’t lethal enough. The characters are relatively invulnerable, and an arms race soon develops between characters increasing the lethality of their attacks and characters boosting their defenses. But that’s not an issue in a pulp campaign, so I’ll politely ignore that problem within this article.

Killing Attacks do too much Stun
The average Joe is going to have 10 stun. This is absolutely fine when it comes to Normal attacks. But let’s take a typical 3d6 killing attack: 10.5 body, times an average 2.5 stun multiplier, is 26.25 stun, on average. The actual range, as stated earlier is 0-90. So one shot is enough to knock the average person out cold.

The average PC, with a Stun of 15-20, is not really any better off.

One shot and a PC is out of the fight, with a player sitting around twiddling his thumbs.

The problem is infinitely worse in superhero campaigns, because the scale of the attacks increases faster than the typical STUN available.

There are lots of solutions available to this problem. You can increase the amount of Stun people get. You can rule that the character’s defense applies to the stun component of killing attacks. You can lower the variability of the stun multiplier. I employ all these techniques in my supers campaigns. Once again, it’s very easy to get into an arms-race situation, or need to inflate a villain’s capacities beyond something reasonable for their character concept just to make them viable enemies. KOing your villains with one shot is not much of a challenge.

At the same time, it’s easy to go too far.

The Stun Multiplier is not granular enough
If you have a killing attack that inflicts 10 points of body damage, the outcomes from your stun multiplier are 0, 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50. A lot of GMs inadvertently make things worse when using the hit location system by adding the stun multiplier from the hit location to whatever is rolled instead of replacing it – but doing it properly leads to no variation at all.

In a superhero campaign, where an average killing attack might do anywhere from 20 to 50 points (depending on the power scale of the campaign), this problem only gets worse.

One solution that has been employed successfully is to use 1/2 x (d12-1) instead of d6-1. This introduces half-way points – so the 10 points of body damage now has the potential to inflict 0. 5. 10. 15. 20. 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, or 55 points of stun. This makes the “too much stun from killing attacks” problem marginally worse, but provides a lot more granularity to the system. An even better solution for a pulp campaign is to use 1/2 x (d6-1) for the stun multiplier. This not only gives greater granularity, it solves the too-much-stun problem – the possible outcomes from a 10-body killing attack become 0. 5. 10. 15. 20, 25, 30. And an average result becomes 12.5 stun. If you also permit the “defense reduces stun from killing attacks” house rule, you reach the point where an average gunshot will knock a character out for one round by reducing them to exactly zero Stun, and force them to rest for a few more once they awaken, but won’t take them completely out of the game – and it will take a couple of hits to knock a PC out for a similar time frame.

So many design tweaks
At its root, all these problems result from the fact that the Hero system was designed to facilitate low-level superhero combats. The combat system needs to be tweaked to handle anything outside of those bounds. Batman, Green Arrow, Captain America, Black Widow, Daredevil – these characters work well when being simulated by the system. Even the early X-men and Fantastic Four (as depicted in the comics). Don’t try running Iron Man, or Thor, or Superman without changing the system.

And, to a somewhat lesser extent, the same is true of Pulp campaigns. Killing attacks are too lethal, and inflict too much stun, while normal attacks don’t do enough damage, to correctly simulate the genre.

One advantage of the complexity of the combat system is that there is a lot of capacity to tweak one element or aspect of it independently. You can introduce one primary change and easily manipulate away undesirable side effects from that change. The simpler a combat system, the fewer levers you have to change the settings of.

One disadvantage is that you don’t get one change to the combat system, you get a raft of them at the same time.

The Adventurer’s Club Campaign

Which brings me to the Adventurer’s Club campaign. For the most part, this is run using unmodified combat rules. I would like to introduce the reduced stun multiplier House Rule described above, and permit a character’s defense to reduce Stun from Killing attacks, but that’s a subject for future discussion with my co-GM. For the most part, we employ a more cinematic “go around the table” approach to combat rather than tracking each character’s specific opportunities to act, but in terms of the actual mechanics of hitting a target with an attack and inflicting damage, the rules are pretty much as written.

Healing & Recovery in the Hero System

With two types of damage comes two healing/recovery sub-systems.

STUN is recovered quickly. Characters have a separate stat call Recovery, which is how much Stun they get back in a turn. For the average character, this is 10. Heroes and superheros will have more. What’s more, so long as they aren’t stunned or unconscious, the character can rest for a phase instead of acting, and get an extra recovery. Provided the problem of Killing attacks doing too much stun has been addressed in some way, characters tend to be in an all-or-nothing STUN state – they are either at full capacity or close to it, at worst losing a little over time (provided they can rest when they need to), or they have virtually nothing left and need to rest immediately. Giving up a couple of actions is enough to get them back close to maximum capacity again. The only way to prevent this is to inflict a lot of STUN damage at the same time, in multiple attacks if necessary.

BODY is a different story. You get your Recovery in BODY back in a month. This is doubled if the character is resting in a hospital and receiving appropriate care. So the average person will get one body back every 3 days, while the average PC will get one back every 2 days. If you came very close to death – say to -18 body for a normal person, or perhaps -28 for a heroic PC – you will not get back to full capacity for 84 and 86 days, respectively – halved in a hospital setting. This not only takes you out of the current adventure, it may take you out of several adventures to come. These are quite reasonable results.

Even boosting recovery rates to 1 per day, 2 in a hospital setting, it is still slow enough that running out of BODY to any degree sidelines a character for entirely too long – for a PC. I would argue that in a pulp campaign, the rates should be REC every week or perhaps every 5 days – reducing those time frames from 84 and 86 to 20 and 21 days (7-day recovery) or 14 and 15 (5-day recovery), respectively. Instead of three months, we’re talking either 3 weeks or 2 weeks – and that’s resting at home, not receiving Hospital Treatment. I would even happily argue in favor of PCs and NPC Pulp Heroes & Villains getting the 5-day rate and ordinary people getting the 7-day rate. Or perhaps 7-days and 15-days would be more appropriate, or 10 and 15 – the exact numbers will be specific to each type of campaign and how quickly the GM wants a PC to be back to normal and back on his feet.

(NB: These numbers all assume that the average person has BODY 10 and REC 10, while the average Pulp Hero has BODY 15 and REC 15.)

But there’s something missing from the system: Surgical intervention and repair. Inflicting damage to speed the recovery process. Unless you assume that this is the reason for the more rapid recovery. Do stitches help a cut heal faster? Absolutely – and they also reduce the chance of infection of the wound. Can a surgeon repair internal damage, even if they inflict a little more damage in the process, boosting the recovery rate? Absolutely. Do these skills exist in the Hero System? Absolutely. Do they have any such benefit? Not on your Nelly.

But I’ll come back to that in a moment.

The Psychology of Woundings: Why change the rules?

Players are well aware of their character’s vulnerability to death, and how slow BODY recovery is. Becoming helpless on the battlefield is an open invitation to a quick termination of life-signs, usually with extreme prejudice. So, when a character is reduced to a low amount of remaining BODY, they will want to pull back, or even pull out of the adventure. That’s not especially heroic, and it’s a long way from being Pulp, where the assumption is that you will keep going – which implies the underlying assumption that you CAN keep going.

Take Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. No matter how badly beat up he is, he is not only able but is willing to keep going.

Take John McClane in Die Hard. He’s like a Terminator – he won’t let anything stop him until he gets the job done.

Both of these roles are very, very Pulp in outlook.

The last thing you want in a Pulp Campaign is a PC deciding the risks are too great to continue. And that requires the players to have confidence that their characters can survive and can contribute – without taking away the risks of death and danger entirely.

Reducing the damage done, as a general principle, reduces the danger, but also reduces the sense of danger within the game (reducing the Stun Damage done is a special case relating to keeping a PC active and able to act instead of sitting at the table unable to do anything). An alternative is needed, and the place to look for it is in the untapped potential of Medicine that I mentioned in the preceding section.

Beyond the Doctor

There are all sorts of medical skills available through the Hero System. None of them are adequately defined in terms of the abilities they confer on the character who has them.

We ended up listing four, and getting specific about what they do, adding in abilities as necessary. Note that one or more PCs within the game had these skills already, and that the Doctor PC within the group had already operated on a character to save his life – requiring us to ad-hoc a game subsystem on the spot.

Types Of Medical Assistance

The four are: First Aid, Paramedic, Professional Skill: Doctor, and Professional Skill: Surgeon. And the only one that the official rules mention and give game mechanics for is Paramedic.

  • “First Aid” is cleaning cuts and abrasions and applying bandages. It may extend to applying stitches to close a wound.
  • “Paramedic” is stabilizing a dying patient and emergency surgery to delay death by applying makeshift repairs. It includes temporary setting of bones, providing blood to offset internal bleeding, and definitely includes applying stitches. It also includes applying anti-venom and such emergency treatments. The official rules lump both First Aid and Paramedic together; we broke them apart again.
  • “Professional Skill: Doctor” is actually specified as a Science Skill in the game system and is useful for diagnosis and treatment with medications only. The Hero System assigns it no practical applications or benefits. We considered the skill to the equivalent of GP training, and gives the character the expertise to do anything that a GP can do that is not explicitly covered under Paramedic, and also permits the permanent setting of simple fractures and so on. Both Doctor and Paramedic permit the application of CPR if that technique has been invented (Modern CPR techniques begin in 1962, but precursors go back as far as 1767 – see The History Of CPR at Wikipedia). Simple surgical procedures are also covered, such as operating to remove an ingrown toenail.
  • “Professional Skill: Surgeon” deals with anything more invasive. We apply a general knowledge as to the state of the art in terms of what can be achieved. In a modern-day campaign, we may require more specific definition, e.g. “Professional Skill: Cardiovascular Surgeon”. As a general rule of thumb, the dividing line between non-specific “surgeon” and a mandatory specialist designation is completely arbitrarily placed somewhere in the 1950s.

One outstanding point of indecision is whether or not paramedic is sufficient to permit successful amputations, or whether that should be a capability of Surgeons. Since an amputation might well mandate the retirement of a PC, we hope never to actually reach the point of having to decide.

In almost all cases, despite the absence of realism in terms of practices and outcomes, we treat medical procedures as they would normally be depicted in television and media.

The Additional Healing Rules

The actual rules we have put in place are:

House Rules for Medical Treatment:

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Click the icon to download the Healing Rules as a PDF

  1. Successful use of Paramedic Skill to stabilize a dying patient may halt the decline in BODY of the patient, restore the character to zero BODY, or do something in-between, at the discretion of the GMs, based on the nature of the injury.
  2. Treatment by a Doctor will restore up to 7 HP per adventure to a character without requiring a skill roll.
  3. Use of a skill roll may restore additional hit points on a successful skill roll but will inflict additional damage on a failed roll:
    • First Aid: 1/2 d6 round up
    • Paramedic: 1/2 d8 round up
    • Medicine/Doctor: 1/2 d10 round up
    • Surgeon: (1/2 d12)+1 round up
  1. Which skill is employed is up to the treating character. A +2 skill bonus will be applied if the skill and corresponding treatment is appropriate to the description and cause of the injury.
  2. Some injuries may be specified by the GMs as requiring treatment with a specific skill or series of Skills e.g. Paramedic to stabilize a patient before surgery can commence. One character can only apply one Healing skill to a patient for one injury other than using Paramedic to stabilize a dying patient.
  3. Skill penalties may be applied for procedures carried out in hostile circumstances, difficult conditions, and/or using inadequate or improvised tools.
  4. Multiple healers may work on a single character, resulting in multiple rolls for additional healing, but a single healer cannot repair more than the 7 BODY per adventure healing to a single character. A single character cannot apply multiple healing rolls from different skills to treat one injury.

    e.g.: Character #1 has Paramedic. Character #2 has Surgeon. Character #3 has taken 12 points of BODY and has 2 BODY remaining.

    Character #1 succeeds in his Paramedic roll and rolls a 6 on the d8, repairing 4 points of damage. He can, on a subsequent occasion within the same adventure, use Paramedic skill again to repair an additional 3 points of damage before reaching the cap of 7 points for the adventure.

    Character #2 succeeds in his Surgeon roll and rolls a 9 on the d12, healing a further 6 points of damage. He can, on a subsequent occasion within the same adventure, use Surgeon skill again to repair an additional 1 point of damage before reaching the cap of 7 points for the adventure.

    Character #3 now has 2 + 4 + 6 = 12 BODY out of his normal total of 14.

These can be downloaded as a PDF by clicking on the icon above.

A Note to players Of The Adventurer’s Club Campaign:

This draws together house rules from several different adventures, and expands slightly on the existing rules, which is why they are a little more extensive than the version furnished in your last adventure. See Below.

Discussion & Notes

The first thing that will be noticed is that these are pretty short and sweet, as House Rules go. They are very simple, and designed to get characters back on their feet quickly. But there are a few subtle nuances that are worth noting.

Rule 1: Up From Zero

This lets us distinguish between serious wounds resulting in internal damage and a succession of smaller wounds that cumulatively have carried a character below the zero BODY threshold, or some combination. If all a character has received is “minor” wounds, stabilization will bring the patient back to zero BODY; if the damage all results from one major wound like a gunshot or impaling, stabilization will simply stop the losses, freezing the character’s BODY at whatever level it had deteriorated to; and if the result is somewhere in between, we can choose to ignore the minor injuries to evaluate what the character’s BODY level is actually restored to.

This means that the healing benefits from Rule 3 aren’t all used up getting the patient back up to zero BODY.

Rule 2: Back On Your Feet, Soldier!

Before you have to start worrying about the fancy stuff like skill rolls, you get to use this quick-and-dirty resuscitation. With some characters who are only moderately injured, this is enough to restore them to full health, but more often it will simply give them enough to get back on their feet, or increase the benefits that can be obtained from more serious intervention. If not still in a combat situation, it can often be better to save this quick “shot in the arm” against later need.

Rules 2 & 3: Delaying The Inevitable

This healing isn’t like “Cure” spells in D&D/Pathfinder. There’s a limit to how much healing one character can get, and a limit to how much healing one character can provide. This delays the danger of death or convalescence, enabling the character to continue in play, but doesn’t remove the danger of death or serious injury, especially if the patient takes foolhardy risks.

Rule 3: The Healing Rates

This is one of the more clever parts of these House Rules. First Aid doesn’t give much healing, and hence will take a long time to reach the 7-point cap. Paramedic does more, and hence will reach the cap more quickly. Doctor is still better – and reaches the cap more quickly as well. Surgeon is the most beneficial skill to apply – but can use up the entire cap in a single stroke. What’s more, all these skills come off a single cap – you can use 4 points from Doctor and 3 points from First Aid and that’s the entire 7 points gone for the adventure, for that character.

Rules 4, 5, and 6: Appropriate Course Of Treatment

Healers are more likely to succeed if they use the correct course of treatment according to the nature of the injury. For certain injuries, the GM can dictate what is needed, or state that a certain skill is not appropriate. This stops people from treating a gunshot with a band-aid and expecting to get any benefit from it. Finally, it isn’t stated explicitly, but it’s a reasonable assumption that the more invasive the course of treatment, the more strictly the GMs will look at adverse circumstances. Applying first aid in a fast-moving vehicle traveling over rough terrain is not as difficult or dangerous as attempting surgery under those conditions.

Rules 5 & 7: Many Hands

Not part of the original rules, but something that has subsequently been identified as needing to be addressed was the subject of multiple characters working together to heal one patient. So one character can use surgeon and another can use something else, but both can’t use surgeon; and one healer can’t use both First Aid and Surgeon to heal the same injury. Each character gets one shot at the healing.

A standard rule permits multiple characters to assist another, giving the assisted character a greater chance of success, so that’s how a surgical team works – one lead surgeon and one or more assistants.

Rule 7: Skill Justification

The final point worth emphasizing is that characters need to justify the skills that they have. It’s easy to get First Aid, just about anyone can take that. It requires professional training to have the Paramedic Skill. Our Spy might be able to justify it, and maybe the Ship Captain; the Priest and Engineer PCs certainly can’t. It takes even more education to become a Doctor, and still more to become a Surgeon. No PC except the Doctor can justify those.

The Captain’s Cook NPC is also the on-board medic, and a specialist in Chinese Medicine; he could justify both Paramedic and Doctor, but not Surgeon, because traditional Chinese medicine is non-invasive. We might let the character have a limited amount of Surgeon though, for the setting of badly-broken bones and the like, with the caveat that they would not heal perfectly.

Sidebar: The Irony Of Application

The first (and so far only) character to have been seriously injured since these rules were introduced was, ironically, the Doctor, who was shot through the hand. We permitted him to assist the character who was treating him sufficiently to protect his ability to perform surgery – stretching the rules – and between prescribing himself a painkiller and antibiotic, and the first aid/paramedic ability of the other character (I forget which was used) he recovered enough to continue in the adventure, and take part in the subsequent battle with the Tong “Ninjas”.

But it’s still ironic. Doctor, Heal Thyself…!

The Clerical Problem: healing in other game systems

Graham McDonald, a player, GM, and Friend who passed away a few years ago – I commemorated his passing in the unexpectedly appropriate Missing In Action: Maintaining a campaign in the face of player absence – could rail for hours about the “Holy Drip-Bottle” as he termed Clerics whose primary party function was to cast Cure spells all day. In a nutshell, the problem is that every other contribution that the class could make is either overshadowed by this ability, or the cleric is thrust into greater prominence than any other character if both aspects of the class are given prominence. The Cleric is supposed to be a Warrior Of God (or of ‘a’ God, or of a Pantheon, however your game world works it) while the Healing role demands the character operate from a protected back line for maximum tactical benefit – i.e. making sure that the Healer is alive to do his job at the end of Combat.

It doesn’t help matters that the Paladin & Blackguard classes frequently intrude into the non-Healing part of the Clerical Domain, further minimizing the Spiritual Guide & Guardian aspects of the class.

This problem existed through all versions of the D&D system and its offshoots until the release of 4e, which – I am told – finally succeeded in addressing it by spreading healing capacities amongst the other characters while limiting the healing that the cleric could provide. Earlier attempts to solve it in Second Edition AD&D and 3.x were only partially successful at best.

The Clerical Straitjacket

To some extent, this problem exists in most game systems – the healer has to be protected for practical reasons, and hence has limited engagement in any other aspect of the game. I’ve seen it in Star Trek The Roleplaying Game, I’ve seen it in Traveller, and I’ve seen it in Paranoia! It isn’t quite as significant in Call Of Cthulhu because the predominant damage form is to Sanity, which isn’t conducive to medical intervention; physical harm is usually a very secondary consideration. And it didn’t matter as much in the Klingons campaign I once played in, because the warrior ethos of the Klingons didn’t place the same emphasis on character healing and survival.

Nor does it impact on my superhero campaigns much, purely because I deliberately introduced a technological means of quick healing – or, more accurately, not only didn’t make it difficult for one of the PCs to come up with the gadget, I deliberately refrained from doing anywhere near as much with the idea plot-wise as I could have. I wanted characters to be able to rely on it, and the long-term benefits of doing so far outweighed any short-term benefits from exploiting flaws in the concept for plot purposes the way I did with just about every other convenience they came up with.

But this “Clerical Straitjacket” is not the only problem to be addressed within the context of the Healing System.

Realism vs Player Confidence

The other major difficulty that persists to some extent in all games is the old one of realism vs playability. Specifically, in order to make a good game, you want the characters to be willing to take chances and say yes to adventure when it knocks on the door. This is at odds with the principle of realistic inflicting of damage and the psychology that it inflicts on players. This is one respect in which you can be realistic or you can be fun, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to be both at the same time.

The result is a continual stress on the GM to get the balance right between these two elements – the potential damage to be done, and the ability of the PCs to heal and recover from it.

There are no universal “right answers” to this conundrum. Most GMs who become aware of the problem consider themselves lucky if there is a temporarily right answer for any one encounter that doesn’t have to be ringed with conditional elements.

As already indicated, solving this issue in the Adventurer’s Club campaign was the direct cause of these House Rules being introduced. And where it works for one, it will work for other genres of campaign.

Applying The Healing Rules To Other Systems

There are benefits and some practical problems involved in applying the Healing Rules to other game systems. Since the skill checks yield a simple succeed-or-fail result, it doesn’t matter what the skill mechanics of the system are, but that’s where the easy answers stop.


Simply spreading the Healing Capacity around to other characters automatically de-emphasizes it for the Spiritual Guide, leaving him free to explore the religious and theological elements of the game world. The tactical problem becomes less significant when other PCs can use their Healing ability to get the Cleric back on his feet. So the system will automatically confer all the benefits to any game system to which it is adapted.

Alternative Anatomy

The first real problem that has to be considered is the application of the technique to alternative anatomies. Aliens and non-human races abound in games – does the one skill cover all? Is Veterinary Medicine more applicable (a dodge that has been used any number of times in Science Fiction). Do you need additional House Rules to cover this situation?

I can think of several forms that such additional rules might take, but none of them are especially compelling. There is no universal “right answer” to the question, and each GM should decide for themselves in their own campaigns, if and when it becomes a problem.

The Inflatable Hit Points Problem

But the biggest problem to be overcome when adapting this system to other game systems is the dichotomy between fixed and inflatable hit point measures. In the Hero System, and many other game systems, the number of hit points that a character has is relatively fixed and won’t change much over the life of a character. In other game systems, increased capacity to absorb damage is a fundamental part of character growth, and poses an additional hurdle to be overcome if the system is to be adapted.

I have two alternatives for consideration, either of which would work with 3.x/Pathfinder/d20 game systems, who are the leading proponents of the Inflatable Hit Points game mechanic structure.

Scaling Recovery: Method 1: Multipliers & Skill-based Caps

The first option is to multiply the Hit Points recovered through these healing methods by 1, +1 for every 2nd character level possessed by the Healer. At level 2, the character heals twice as much as shown for the Hero Games system; at level 4, three times; at level 6, four times; and so on. This means that the capacity for healing is inflating at roughly half the progression in hit points.

The Cap also has to inflate from its initial seven points, and possibly be given a smaller starting value. I would drop the initial level to 3, and then increase it by one for every skill rank devoted to the healing skill in question. Four ranks – possible at 2nd level – would lift it back to 7. Eight ranks – possible at 4th level – takes it up to 11.

This results in a very tight cap, which may be less effective than desired. This is a problem because the increase is linear, while everything else is going up in geometric progression. I would solve this by applying a geometric factor, say x1 +1 for every 3rd level. This means that not only does the cap scale with healing expertise, but the cap also scales with the number of character levels – but at a slower rate than the deliverable healing, requiring the character to keep putting skill points into their healing skill as they advance in levels.

While indexing the cap to skill level results in a degree of realism, it also produces a more complex subsystem. If you wanted to, you could simply multiply the starting cap of 3 by the same factor as you apply to the healing method, or even simply by character level or – restoring the indexing – by total skill rank.

Scaling Recovery: Method 2: Percentage Of Harm and Healer Level-based Caps

The second approach I have to offer is even simpler, in many respects. Multiply the Cap (with an initial value of 3) by the Healer’s Character level or by his total healing skill, and multiply the healing shown by the rolls as given by 5 or 10 and call the result the % of the total hit points inflicted that are recovered.

So, first aid – nominally 1/2 d6 round up according to the rules – becomes 5x(1/2 d6), round up, per cent, or 5d6 per cent respectively, of the hit point damage the patient has suffered.

Setting The Boundaries

In addition to the specific controls incorporated into the system for the GM to use, there is one other that deserves some specific attention: the rather loaded phrase “per adventure”. Exactly what constitutes a discrete adventure? Is it a single game session? Can it be less? Or is it More? Is it every time the GM hands out experience points? Or every time a party returns to home base to replenish their stores?

Every GM will have his own thinking on the subject, and doesn’t have to explain how he reaches his decisions to anyone. However, if he is not at least consistent in his approach, he may face a player rebellion.

We use the term to refer to a single narrative plotline. When our PCs went to China to rescue some archaeologists, there were actually four separate adventures along the way in addition to the main plot. The adventure synopsized in the first part of this series, “Heir To The Throne” (Who murdered M and who would be his successor) has led to an entirely new adventure, “Infernal Gambit”, in which the PCs pursue the Demon responsible into Hell itself.

You may use a different definition. This gives you great control over how frequently the caps refresh.

Other Healing/Damage Variants For PFRPG/3.x:

Of course, this is not the only variant damage system that has been presented here at Campaign Mastery. GMs might also be interested in these entries (excepted from the Blogdex):

  • Too Much Life for The Living: March 2011 Blog Carnival – My second contribution to the March 2011 Blog Carnival asks if Healing is too easy in D&D, which leads to proposing an alternative combat system for 3.x / hPathfinder Based on concepts within the TORG game system. It was quite well received at the time. There are additional suggestions and clarifications in the comments. If you want to make your combats more life-and-death dramatic, this might be worth your time.
  • All Wounds Are Not Alike – Part 1: Alternative Damage rules for 3.x – What are “Hit Points”? I have encountered many different definitions, and each – carried to its logical conclusion – is best exemplified by a different set of house/variant rules for Damage and Healing. Each part of the “All Wounds Are Not Alike” series examines one in detail, from game theory through to implementation and consequences for game play. I didn’t actually gather them as a series because I wanted them to stand alone – you don’t need this article to understand/use the next in the series. This first one defines Hit Points as “a numeric index of the gap between healthy and helpless”. The results are great for bringing a High-Fantasy game back to earth, grounding it in realism. Don’t skip the comments for some perspective on the possible pitfalls.
  • All Wounds Are Not Alike Part 2: Bone-breaking damage for 3.x – The second definition that I consider for the concept of “Hit Points” is “An index of soft-tissue damage” which requires a rules extension to deal with broken bones. The results are interesting, to say the least, and offer lots of potential for new magic items, for differentiating between Paladin laying-on of hands and clerical magic, and for reinventing selected monsters with a slightly tweaked flavor. This option strikes a balance between high- and low-fantasy.
  • All wounds are not alike, part 3a: The Healing Imperative (Now Updated!) – An unmistakably high-fantasy approach, and the first variant offered that I actually use in one of my campaigns. Instead of making the differential between different wound types a function of the character’s total hit point capacity, it distinguishes types of injury by the amount of damage inflicted in a single blow, with thresholds based on the efficacy of Healing Spells. More variants and some really interesting discussion in the comments, which were unusually voluminous for this post – but read them in conjunction with the second half of the article, which was simply too big to finish in time.
  • All wounds are not alike, part 3b: The Healing Imperative (cont) – I finish the unfinished variation – with five sub-variants for users to contemplate. There’s some clarification in the comments.

Genre and Style

The healing rules presented in this article rules work for Pulp because they better facilitate the simulation of a reality that matches the Genre and Style of a Pulp serial, which is essentially part of the action-adventure family. They distance the campaign from “Grim & Gritty” and move it closer to the “non-stop frying-pan-to-fire action” flavor that we are trying to encourage. If that’s the direction you want your campaign to head in, I would urge you to consider adapting them to whatever game system you are using.

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Things That Are Easy, Things That Are Hard

map excerpt

Part of the map of the village of Etrien. Cartography by Stephen Garrett Rusk.

There are lots of things that are hard to do, or at least to do well. This article is about two of them, and a Kickstarter project that looks like a serious attempt to do both to a very high standard.

Challenge The First

The first is low-level adventures.

Many GMs find these difficult to create because the number of options available to characters are restricted, constrained to something closer to what is possible for a realistic individual to achieve.

This restriction makes such adventures very sensitive to the difficulty levels of tasks and opposition, a further constraint on the options available to the GM.

Beginners frequently exceed these limits, especially in cases where some theoretical means of balancing encounters is employed that may be relatively insensitive. In D&D terms, increasing the number of HD of a species by one can have a substantial effect on low-level encounters.

For this reason, many game systems are optimized around relatively low power levels and may break down at higher character levels; an increasing trend in this direction has been evident in all recent versions of D&D.

While the reasons for the phenomenon may not be obvious to GMs, it does manifest in a perception of how much ‘fun’ certain levels of character power are to game or to GM; higher level campaigns can offer too much variety of character response to events, increasing the workload of the GM. Individual perceptions vary, with some GMs suggesting that D&D stops being fun when the characters hit 14th level, others saying 12, and some suggesting 10 or even 8. I have even met one GM who never permits characters to rise above 5th level.

These constraints often result in smaller campaign scope that is more localized in geographic terms, which further eases game prep requirements, but once again exposes GMs to the problem of a campaign with insufficient scope to contain the full scope of their creativity. Some ideas simply will not fit within the constraints very effectively.

Finally, this situation leaves a campaign vulnerable should characters progress in power level at a greater rate than that anticipated by the GM.

Many thousands of words – some of them here at Campaign Mastery – have been directed toward solving or easing these specific difficulties. Few actually consider why the problem arises in the first place.

The Converse Is Also True

Equally, some GMs and campaigns have trouble fitting low-level adventures into their campaigns, because those visions are full of complex cosmological explorations, epic confrontations between cosmic powers, and the like. As I suggested above, low level campaigns can have trouble containing bigger ideas.

The search for simple solutions

In part, these problems arise because players look for simple solutions to large problems. They want to deal with issues directly and move on; single adventures that last a year or more can grow wearing. An effective resolution can be found by breaking larger problems down into more solvable small problems, but these can become tedious if there is insufficient variety in the smaller goals.

The PCs as levers

The most effective solution that I have found is to think of the PCs not as agents of direct change but as levers, capable of setting in motion larger forces. Archimedes reportedly wrote, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” This is great adventure and campaign-building advice when applied to low-level characters.

The worst possible solution is to enhance the PCs capacities until they can employ a direct solution to whatever challenge you have put before them. It is too easy to overstep the mark, doling out XP and magic like candy, and then discovering that to challenge the PCs ridiculously-difficult challenges need to be posed. This is the road to Monty Haulism.

The biggest hurdle to be overcome when employing the “lever” solution is to make the players aware of what specifically can be done about a situation and what impact it will have. What forces are available for them to harness, and how can they go about putting them in place. Quite often this takes so much education in the campaign world that by the time they are ready to implement it, they have achieved such growth in individual capabilities that the restrictions no longer apply.

Or the campaign folds through boredom before they get there.

Another effective perspective

Another way to think about low level campaigns is as acorns, small problems that will sprout and grow into huge oaks if not dealt with promptly, decisively, and correctly. “Plant” more of these in the campaign than the players can possibly deal with before such growth is achieved, then tend them lovingly; let unsolved problems influence other events, circumstances, and NPCs within the game as they grow, and be alert for the ramifications and consequences of the solutions employed creating a fertile environment for new acorns to be planted.

The PCs will deal with some of these problems while they are small, and commensurate with the PCs power levels; they can then turn their attention to some medium-level problems and stop them while they are manageable, leaving only one or two full-grown headaches to deal with when their capabilities grow sufficiently. The resolution of each small problem forms the background and climate in which the remaining problems will grow, and shapes the tools that the PCs can direct towards solving them.

And don’t neglect interactions between problems; some of these will help the PCs by slowing or strangling the growth of problems into something unmanageable, while others may accelerate growth, spinning off temporary new problems. An alliance between two enemies is a good example; the players might not be able to deal with both enemies, but they may be able to break up the alliance. Divide and conquer is a perfectly valid technique!

I never pose a problem for the game world without considering “how will this grow? How might it snowball?”

An alternative

The other technique I frequently employ is to have problems seem too small to be significant, then distract the players with larger and more immediate issues while that small problem becomes a much larger one lurking in the shadows.

Challenge The Second

The second difficult thing is providing multiple routes to – if not success for the players, then at least, to a satisfying conclusion to an adventure. Too many problems get posed in campaigns or adventures that only have a single solution. Ideally, you want a way in which conflict can solve the problem, and a way in which diplomacy can solve the problem, and a way in which stealth and subterfuge can solve the problem, and so on.

More often, though, there is nothing that the GM needs to specifically do to enable multiple solutions to a given problem. Instead, there are things that the GM should NOT do that stifle alternatives. The biggest of these is becoming so attached to the first solution that comes to mind, or that the GM has deliberately built into the adventure, that he actively blocks alternatives.

My technique is always to ensure that there is at least one solution to the problem, on the assumption that where there is one, there will be many alternatives and variations. I document that solution in case the PCs need a hint, but do not actively promote it unless they are completely baffled.

I then let the players find their own solutions. If there is a flaw in their logic, I make sure to bring that to their attention if they are reasonably able to spot it or if their solution locks them into their intended approach – not to rule their solution out, but to pose the flaw as a sub-problem that needs solution along the way. Sometimes, they will decide that this hurdle cannot be cleared, or (more often) that it can’t be done with sufficient certainty, in a short enough time, and will start looking for a different answer; that’s up to them. It’s absolutely critical to be encouraging and supportive, especially if they don’t see an immediate solution. Let the adventure proceed organically in response to PC choices, making darned sure that they know it if an action will rule out other possible solutions before they commit themselves.

There have been times when I have wanted to pose a seemingly-insoluble problem, and this is something that is much harder to do. The best approach is to prevent the PCs accessing a key piece of information until the GM wants them to have it. This is sometimes necessary to prevent problems being anticlimactic. But that alone doesn’t always work; players can always make educated or lucky guesses and assumptions, and sometimes we GMs are more transparent than we want to be. It is always preferable to have an NPC or circumstance actively feed the PCs misinformation that contradicts that key piece of information. It’s not enough not to tell the players something important; you need to find a way for them to get false information so that they don’t perceive the gap in their information and speculate about it. The revelation of the falsehood then becomes the critical first step along the path to resolution of the seemingly-impossible problem.

Without Cheating

But this is all a cheat, a way to permit multiple solutions to problems without actively constructing them with those solutions built-in. That last is much more difficult to achieve, and I salute anyone who successfully does so.

The Book of Terniel

The Book of Terniel, from The City Of Brass, aka Embers Design Studios, is an attempt to do all both of these things, and to do them well, and they might just pull it off – and on a shoestring budget.

This adventure for first-level Pathfinder characters was launched with an initial funding target of just US$500, a target that was achieved on just the third day of their campaign, As I write this, there are still 21 days to go, and they have just cleared the first of their stretch goals, while the adventure itself is close to, or has just, completed its second playtest.

This, to me, is a sure bet. The product exists, it’s just a question of what goodies come with it.

This project has three major sources of appeal to me, and I think it will hold the same appeal to a lot of my readers, too:

character excerpt

A reduced-size image for The Book of Terniel. Art by Monica Marie Doss.

Appeal The First: Resources

You can never tell when a published resource will plug into some gap in your own adventures, and this is offering resources by the bucket-load. There’s the village of Etrien, a region map of Etrien, Old Abandoned Mines, a habitat for Giants called Morrow Home, the ruined city of Solastrace, a new sentient species, the Moguren (living, sentient mushrooms), and a race write up for the sahuagin which will hopefully add some much-needed color to a species that I’ve never really been able to get my head around. Throw in some lovely illustrations and you have something that is absolutely chock-a-block with goodies and inspiration for your game.

Look through the stretch goals, and guess what you’ll find: More and More resources!

Appeal The Second: Techniques

Not only is the adventure being written for low-level characters, it has been, or will have been, playtested at least twice. And the adventure promises to permit PCs to choose between stealth, diplomacy, or conflict, or some blend of these three choices, to bring the story to a conclusion. Since this is something that is very hard to do, let alone do well, potential observations of technique that can be applied to other adventures has a definite appeal level.

But, on top of that, you have the promise of a display of techniques of characterization that might alone be worth the price of purchase: “Effort has been made at every stage to bring the characters and locations to life – from the hobgoblin warlord that makes pottery, to the slug farms deep in the Fetid Bog, to the friendly druid who is almost never at home as she’s out blessing farm fields.” And, of course, these characters are all still more resources for you to use!

reduced-size image of the mines

A reduced-size image for The Book of Terniel. Art by Stephen Garrett Rusk.

Appeal The Third: Creative Commons Philosophy

Finally, as an ardent supporter of both the OGL and Creative Commons, there is a certain level of desire to support the philosophic principle of offering all this material in a way that makes the content accessible to the public.

Quite frankly, I would like to see this project succeed on a huge scale not only because the stretch goals are themselves appealing, but because I think this is the sort of thing we, as consumers of gaming product, should be encouraging. And, as the Australian saying goes, “Money talks, Bull**** walks”.

Bonus Appeal: Nice Guy!

Another point worth considering is that Lucas, one half of the driving force behind Embers and The City Of Brass, is a nice guy who thinks of his customers first, gaming itself a close second, and personal profits a distant third or fourth. I can’t speak to the other half of the equation, who Lucas describes on the Embers/City Of Brass website as having “something like a tinfoil hat that he wears”, but these are the sort of people we want to encourage to participate in the gaming industry for many years to come.

reduced-size image of the ruined city

A reduced-size image for The Book of Terniel. Art by Monica Marie Doss.

Some final pros and cons

There are a limited number of discounted packages for early supporters (9 left as I write this). There are opportunities for participation in the development of still more extras ($25 level), or of advertising your own business or product ($50 level). But the basic level that gets you the adventure and everything I’ve listed above is a mere US$10.

If there’s one thing that I’d like to see done differently, it would be for the $5000 stretch goal to be broken into two or three smaller stretch goals – there’s too big a jump from the $3000 stretch goal, which itself could be broken into a couple of smaller stretch goals. That’s the harshest criticism and “con” that I can find; once past the $1500 mark, which they are currently working towards, there’s a long stretch without a lot of short-term encouragement for supporters.

Of course, I’d really love to see the project hit the $10K stretch goal – two additional cities!! But kicktraq is forecasting an eventual funding level of about $3600 give or take about $1200 – so unless it gets a lot more support, at best, they will fall just short of getting half-way to a success story on that scale.

Let’s see what we can do about getting them over that $10K line! Back This Project for the goodies and the principles, if for nothing else!

To back the project or find out more, click on any of the images in this article!

And, speaking of things that are hard: I’ve recently enabled a plug-in option that promises to make Campaign Mastery more mobile-friendly – and had reports back that it does what’s promised, without having compromised any of the features and utility that I rely on!

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‘I Can Do That’ – Everyman Skills For Pulp


This is part 3 of a series presenting the various House Rules that have been introduced into the Pulp Campaign that I co-GM.

Today I’m presenting everyman skill rules that were developed for the campaign, and long overdue, too.

Although designed for a Pulp Campaign built with the Hero System, the principles apply to almost any RPG.


Credit where it’s due

As always, Blair Ramage deserves half the credit, and half the blame, for these rules. This article is partially based on discussions between us, but was written by Mike alone. The sections dealing with applying the principles to other RPGs was also Mike’s solo work.

What are everyman skills?

Everyman Skills are a very useful idea introduced a long time ago within the Hero System. These are skills that characters get for free because they are considered to be received simply by living in the society of the campaign setting. For reasons Blair and I don’t understand, and that are not explained in the sourcebook, Everyman Skills were dropped from the Pulp Hero rules. We decided to put them back.

By definition, these are skills that the character gets for free, and that means that for the most part, they should not confer the same level of ability as the character would receive if they had expended character creation points on the skill.

Hero System skills in a nutshell

One character point gets a character 8/- (eight or less) in a skill. That means that a character who rolls eight or less on 3d6 succeeds in a task.

A higher price (usually 3 points, sometimes 2 and sometimes 4) gets a character 9+(STAT/5) in a skill, where the stat is defined for each skill as part of that skill’s description. Fractions are rounded in the character’s favor. A character with a DEX of 14, for example, gets 11.8 or less, which is rounded to 12/-.

Where the skill costs 3 or more character points, and where the full skill level is higher than 11/-, characters can spend one point less than the full price to get an 11/- intermediate skill.

Characters can improve their skill rolls by +1 for additional skill point expenditure, usually 2 points, sometimes 1.

The Everyman Pulp Skills

Now that we’ve established some context, the following are the list of Skills that we have introduced into the Pulp Campaign:

  1. Area Knowledge: Home Country 14/-
  2. Area Knowledge: New York City 8/-
  3. Cultural Familiarity: Home Country 14/-
  4. Cultural Familiarity: Past Major Employers 11/-
  5. Cultural Familiarity: Adventurer’s Club 8/-
  6. Acting 6/-
  7. Climbing 6/-
  8. Concealment 6/-
  9. Conversation 6/-
  10. Deduction 6/-
  11. Persuasion 6/-
  12. Native Language
  13. English (if not native language)
  14. Professional Skill: Past Occupation 6/-

Definitions & Additional Rules

Some of these skills had additional rules attached, and I assume that anyone not familiar with the Hero System will need some explanation of what the skills do:

  1. Area Knowledge – Home Country: Answers questions such as, Where are the major cities? What’s the capital? What are the major geographic features? Which countries does your home country border?
  2. Area Knowledge: New York City: Requires 3 weeks or more non-continuous time spent in New York City, which is the location in which the Adventurer’s Club is based. Answers questions such as where the major landmarks are, where are the central railway stations, and so on.
  3. Cultural Familiarity: Home Country: What’s the lifestyle that you’re used to? What’s the national drink, the national cuisine, how much do things cost, what’s the currency, who’s in charge, what are the popular sports, who are the national heroes, etc.
  4. Cultural Familiarity: Past Major Employers: This covers what the employer does, and their normal procedures for doing it, where the major branches are, who your immediate superiors and subordinates were, and so on.
  5. Cultural Familiarity: Adventurer’s Club: Requires 3 weeks or more non-continuous time spent at the Adventurer’s Club at least part of the day. Who works there, what do they do, who’s in charge, what facilities does the club have, how do you arrange to use them, and so on.
  6. Acting: bare minimum ability to attempt to pretend to be someone else.
  7. Climbing: lets you climb a ladder under favorable conditions without a skill check. Gives you a chance to do something else. Don’t bother trying to climb cliffs or anything else even reasonably difficult.
  8. Concealment: bare minimum ability to hide something in the palm of your hand, crouch down behind a curtain or piece of furniture, or put an object somewhere that is not immediately obvious to a casual glance.
  9. Conversation: bare minimum ability to steer a conversation in the direction you want it to go, usually very clumsily and obviously.
  10. Deduction: bare minimum to put two and two together and get four, metaphorically speaking. Doesn’t extend so far as permitting the character to deduce anything strictly hypothetical or that starts, “just suppose” – you are too busy doing the supposing to figure out what it might mean.
  11. Persuasion: bare minimum to talk someone into doing something they are at least somewhat inclined to do anyway. Don’t try and sooth ruffled feathers or troubled waters, you aren’t persuasive enough for that.
  12. Native Language: You get to speak this “as a native”.
  13. English (if not native language): You get to speak this with a thick accent and without ideograms. For anything better, you’ll need to actually pay for the language.
  14. Professional Skill: Past Occupation: Gives you everything you needed to know in order to do that job – to a bare minimum standard of ineptness. Anything more and you should pay points for this.
Skills In General

Skills can generally be said to fall into one of two categories: Knowing things, or doing things. Knowing things usually implies any foundation knowledge to at least the same extent as the knowledge skill – i.e. engineering includes knowledge of maths and basic material properties.

Applying the concept to other systems

When I was creating the House Rules for my Shards Of Divinity campaign, I very deliberately wanted to incorporate the concept of Everyman Skills. The approach was a little different to that above in that what I was giving players was a subset of a skill that was relevant to their character’s personal experience. I’m not going to go into too much detail, I’ll save that for another article some other time (it’s way too big), but will offer an example.

A Dwarf might not have the slightest clue about the architecture of other races, or even the general principles of architecture, but he would still know the basics of Dwarfish construction. I’m not an architect and haven’t studied the subject, but I still know the basics of typical Australian construction: a load-bearing frame, usually of wood or steel, anchored by a foundation, usually of concrete, medium-angle roofs (say, 30° to 45°). Until the 70s, roofs were usually made of galvanized iron, these days terracotta tile roofs are more common. Windows tend to be large and plentiful to encourage air circulation because of the heat of the Australian Summer. Most are built about a foot off the ground to permit circulation beneath the home for additional cooling, more in the tropical regions. Walls used to be predominantly fibro or brick; sheds and outbuildings often had galvanized iron walls, but these can get very hot. These days, brick is the material of choice, but concrete is becoming more popular.

I didn’t need to be educated to know these things, I just had to grow up here. Simple observation did the rest. At first, I didn’t know the reasons for these building choices; slowly (by looking at the construction of homes elsewhere) I began to grasp the relationship between climatic conditions and practical design.

I doubt there are any U.S. Citizens who don’t know that Washington D.C. is their nation’s capital, even if some of them unfortunately have trouble finding it on a map. They are also likely to recognize the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, Hollywood Sign, and Capital Building without drama. They know where to buy coffee, newspapers, fresh bread, etc, in their local regions, and will have some idea (for the most part) how much they cost. In fact, politicians not knowing the price of milk and eggs has become synonymous with being out-of-touch with the ordinary person – the implicit assumption being that everyone should know these things.

I know basic things about Australian Society and the Australian Economy and how to find a Doctor and so on, just from having lived here all my life. I might not know where every train station is on the suburban network, but I know where the major ones are and which rail lines they connect to. I know we drive on the left-hand side of the road, and that we have a dollar of 100 cents, and so on.

Quantifying is defining levels of ignorance

By specifying that characters have a certain level of skill in these sub-fields, even if they haven’t bought the full skill (and the understanding, experience, and expertise that comes with it), I not only defined what characters knew, I explicitly defined what they did not know without having studied the subject.

The Concordance Principle

All that is need to make this approach really useful is a concordance principle. How similar is Dwarven Architecture from that of Gnomes, or of Halflings, of Humans, of Elves? Defining the degree of difference between these in terms of a skill modifier and cross-listing against the basic DC of the task or question gives a modifier to the DC describing how relevant the character’s basic knowledge is to the question at hand. Some basic principles will remain essentially the same, so this modifier would be +0 DC for very simple questions, but the more advanced the question, the less relevant that basic expertise will be.

Being a dwarf won’t help very much when it comes to understanding Elven Lintels. Knowing what the most common Gnomish recipes are won’t help much when attempting to identify Elvish Honey-cakes, let alone whether or not the milk had turned before they were cooked, or Human Oxtail Soup. If you see “Bear Claws” on a menu, are they a pastry item or is the name meant literally? If you’ve never heard of “Meso” before, how do you know it’s even edible?

In this year’s Masterchef, one of the cooks made the mistake of using tomato flowers as a garnish on his dish because they looked pretty, not realizing that tomatoes are part of the Deadly Nightshade family and the flowers are quite poisonous. Plants don’t grow fruit for our benefit, they do so to distribute their seeds and make more of themselves. Using that fruit on a mass scale for our own nutritional and culinary benefit is down to our own ingenuity. (Actually, many cases involve the fruit being deliberately enticing for consumption, so that animals will eat the fruit (swallowing the seeds in the process and excreting them some distance from the original source). Other species use the edible component as a nutritional head-start for the developing young – the egg approach.

Everyman Wrap-up

Everyman skills give characters the game mechanics to describe and quantify the things that any reasonable GM would consider that a character already had. Some might stem from innate instinct or ability, some from divine gift, some from the culture, and some from practical experience. Defining everyman skills and determining why that skill is an everyman skill for the race, class, and society to which the character belongs defines and quantifies the building blocks of both the character and those world elements that have created them. Your campaign background and game world stop being just words on a page and start making a quantifiable difference to the characters, and hence to the players.

Everyman skills bring the game environment to life. Everybody wins from doing that successfully.

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