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A Vague Beginning


autumn morning road

‘Autumn Morning Road’, photo by Ivanmarn. Click on the image to visit his website (‘Lux Enigmae’).

Having just finished the “New Beginnings” series only a few weeks ago, I had no intention of publishing another article on the subject of campaign design for quite a while. Plans changed…

An Endless Vista

All campaigns start on a blank sheet of paper, which presents an endless vista of possibilities. This is not all that dissimilar to a sculptor working with a block of stone or wood; every choice narrows the possibilities, slowly revealing the shape that was always hidden within the source material, by eliminating everything that was extraneous to that design.

Each block has its unique attributes that make it more suitable for this shape than that, more amenable to one set of artistic expressions than the others that are possible. In campaign design, the limitations – of experience, desire, and style – of the GM and the players serve a similar function, limiting the endless vista and imposing a horizon beyond which the campaign cannot go – at least initially.

A genius sculptor can look at a block of material and see the possibilities within before a single stroke of their hammer. The results of their efforts are polished and nuanced with implied content and context that goes way beyond the superficial perceptions of shape and line. An expert can chip away at the block of stone with some broad preconceived ideas and then refine the revealed shape as best they can, eventually achieving something that looks pretty, and may even have one or two novel perceptions to offer that make it unique. A novice hacks away almost at random until a shape emerges, then does his best to polish away the imperfections – but can never put back any pieces they have torn away and that should not have been.

Campaign design is a similar process. A genius can consider all the possibilities and craft a series of campaigns that are unique and distinctive, with philosophical meat underpinning the superficialities, and nothing that does not contribute to the overall experiencing of that uniqueness. An experienced craftsman can create something that is playable and even somewhat interesting, but which may have a kitchen sink on one side for no apparent reason. And the novice starts with a rough idea and no real underlying logic, and polishes this aspect and that until a contradiction – a flaw – brings the whole lot crashing down.

The early design steps of campaign creation are therefore the most important to defining the shape of the final campaign. They should be the most carefully considered and should always be decided with the final objectives in mind. Fortunately, campaign designers have a huge advantage over our hapless sculptor; we have no trouble at all re-attaching something we’ve discarded, provided that we recognize the need to do so.

Campaign Re-design

It follows that any campaign can benefit from being re-imagined through any creation system or guideline offered to the GM. Every campaign generation technique, from any source, offers the opportunity of asking the GM questions that he has not considered previously, and assessing their relevance and impact. The very least outcome from such processing is a reality check on the campaigns’ foundations, but very few of us – myself included – are geniuses; it is infinitely more likely that at least some of the questions raised by such processes will reach into unexplored territory.

The answers to such unanswered questions provide two benefits of unquestionable value: A better understanding of the campaign and the “world” (history or cosmology or whatever) that serves as its backdrop; and a new source of adventures intended to explore the new territory.

Initial Questions

What objectives should a GM Choose? What path leads to the optimum result, and how can a GM strive to unleash whatever genius he can bring to his creation?

There are three decisions that should come before any others:

  1. A central idea that inspires your creativity
  2. A conceptual focus that can give the campaign a name, and around which all other campaign elements can be framed
  3. Something that will make this campaign different or unique.

With these decisions made, you can write a campaign premise – a single paragraph on each of the three decisions made, and another on how each relates to the other two.

For example:

  • the first idea might be “The spirits of nature have awakened and seek to reclaim their domination over the world”;
  • the second might be “The Source Of All Evil”;
  • and the third might be “Devils and demons abide in a hellish underworld – not because they were corrupted or fell from grace, but because they have been serving as the jailers of spirits of this nature. Because of the psychological effects of acting as a prison guard, their behavior has become violent, destructive, and evil. The only reason the forces of Good oppose them is to prevent them from inflicting this behavior on innocents.”

Right away in this example, a cosmology and a Theology is starting to suggest itself, in which Devils and Demons are not so much “fallen angels” as “angels doing a thankless job”, they are both part of a larger society of heaven, and allied to those more frequently associated with the Divine. The campaign would be easy to develop from this starting point.

Questions Not Considered

It is equally important to note what decisions have not been made at this point.

  1. There has been no consideration of game genre; this plotline would work for a fantasy genre, or an early-20th century horror (such as Call Of Cthulhu), a modern horror, an action-adventure set in modern times, a western (heavy emphasis on the tribal Indian mythos), a superhero campaign, a post-apocalyptic campaign, or possibly even a near-future science-fiction campaign. It wouldn’t work all that well as a high-tech/hard science fiction campaign, as a pulp campaign, or as a super-spy campaign though, and there are other choices that might be problematic, such as a Pirates campaign.
  2. There has been no consideration of game system; it could be anything from Empire Of The Petal Throne to Pathfinder to D&D. As with the first undecided factor, there will be some game systems that are less than felicitous in providing a vehicle for this campaign – Traveller is a little doubtful, and The Lord Of The Rings would be downright dubious.
  3. There has been no consideration of what type of campaign the players want to play in.
  4. There has been no consideration of what style of game the GM will feel most comfortable running.
Genre & Game System

Only once the campaign premise has been defined should answers to the four questions above be considered. Again, I would start by listing all the genres that are suitable, and making a note on how the genre would influence the ideas given. Once I was satisfied with that list, I would then define for each any special requirements of the game mechanics. The game system for the example offered would need to be able to handle beings of divine power, and an abstract combat system would probably suit the campaign better than a very detailed, complex one.

What you are looking for is the genre that offers the greatest scope for adventures set within the campaign, i.e. the genre with the greatest creative potential; and the game system that (a) works best within that genre, and (b) meets the specific criteria. Only then can player desires and GM confidence be taken into account – there will usually be one obvious winning combination.

In effect, the analysis of potential genres and rules systems (questions 4 and 5 respectively) creates a pair of shortlists that preferential differentiation (questions 6 and 7) can then choose between.

Abandoning The Design

And it might be the case that what you’ve come up with is an interesting idea in which none of your players will want to participate, or that you are not able to GM, or confident in GMing, for whatever reason. When that’s the case, it’s usually best to file the concept away for use some other time, and start over with different answers to the three big questions.

Subsequent Design Decisions

Assuming that the campaign design premise is suitable, the design process can move ahead. The next decisions are equally basic:

  1. Who are the PCs going to be (in general)?
  2. What sort of local environment will offer that general type of PC the maximum opportunity to interact with the campaign premise in interesting ways?
  3. How much of what the campaign is all about should the Players be told in advance?
  4. And, in a related question, how much should the PCs know?

For a modern campaign built around our example premise, I would probably go with the personnel of a military base, including a PC chaplain and at least one PC officer. For a post-apocalyptic take on the premise, the crew of a nuclear submarine – again, with chaplain and officers – might be a better choice. Both offer opportunities to compartmentalize and restrict character knowledge, confining the scope of what needs to be prepped before play can begin, without restricting the scope for adventure.

Perhaps equally interesting might be intelligent talking animals – either inspired by Planet Of The Apes or by Komandi, or some combination. A Fantasy Campaign would use experienced adventurers. A Call Of Cthulhu campaign might revolve around an elite team of specialists brought together by a half-mad librarian or detective who has figured out part of the background situation.

In terms of location, I would put the military base (modern campaign) close to some mythic or theological location – Greece, Egypt, Jerusalem, or Stonehenge, for example – to give the maximum potential to interact with religion and theology. The submarine crew (post-apocalyptic) would be a traveling campaign using the Sub as both central base of operations and vehicle to travel from one location to another (read: one adventure to another,) and so on.

These decisions are sometimes sufficient, but usually you will need some kind of campaign background to tell the players what their characters know about the world, and that will require further campaign decisions. How much to tell the players is a more difficult question, and the obvious starting point for the next phase of campaign design. The more you can keep up your sleeve, for discovery in-play, the better, but at the same time, you have to be careful of the expectations that can arise from the choice of game system – players will expect something specific from D&D, and something quite different from Call Of Cthulhu. If you have chosen a game system with such expectations, you should make certain that the players know what’s different from the usual up front premise, even if they don’t know why those elements have changed.

Further Questions

You also have to bear in mind the sensibilities of the players; each time you think you’ve explained enough of the world to them, the following questions should be silently posed:

  1. If I were a player in this campaign and only knew what was in this briefing material, would I be satisfied with the state of my knowledge?
  2. Would I feel short-changed or cheated, when the content that isn’t provided is discovered?
  3. Can I tell what the style and general substance of the campaign is going to be, from this material?
  4. Are there any classes or races or occupations or other character choices which are going to be undermined in this campaign – and how can players be warned against these combinations without tipping the GMs hand?
  5. Are there any classes or races or occupations that are going to be more important than usual in this campaign – and does something need to be done to prevent them dominating it? How can that be done without giving the game away?

Only when the answers are all at least satisfactory can the campaign be considered ready-to-run, i.e. ready to generate adventures and accept PCs.

Deferred Questions, Hidden Answers, and Open, Closed, & Linking Decisions

All decisions in a campaign background can be simplified to a question and an answer. Each of these answers will be one of three possible types: open, closed, or linking.

  • A closed answer does nothing but restrict possibilities.
  • An open answer might close the door on some possibilities but open a window onto another.
  • A linking answer ties two seemingly-unrelated answers together.

The objective is to confine and constrain the campaign as little as possible, gradually working from the general to the specific.

Let’s say – as the basis for discussion – that the world in question is one that has been overrun by immensely-powerful, immensely-dangerous, demon-worshiping Goblins. This decision is clearly an open one, because it immediately implies a string of further questions: Which Demon is worshiped? Or are the Goblins polytheistic? How did this situation come about? What abilities do the Goblins actually have? What impact did this have on Goblin Society? What Impact did it have on Human Society? What Impact did it have on Elves, and Dwarves? What impact on Theology and Clericism? and, last but not least, How will all this affect the PCs? When you have an inspiring foundation, like that one initial statement, it throws shoots off in all sorts of directions.

The first step in answering this myriad of questions is to decide whether or not each question can be Deferred until a later time – i.e. in-play.

If it can’t be deferred, the second step is to decide whether or not the players need the answer right now, (prior to character generation) or if it can be revealed in the course of the campaign. A related sub-step should consider the possibility of a false or misleading answer to the question being served up to the players in the campaign briefing. These add a lot to the nature of the campaign, because they build a plot twist into the very fabric of the game that you are going to run; but this plot twist must not be predictable or it will be just plain boring. At the same time, this again raises the prospect of player expectations and the risk of them feeling deceived; it is a fine line to tread.

The final step is to answer each of the litany of questions using one of the three decision types summarized in bullet form.

Closed Answers In Detail

Closed answers are the ones to use when the answer pulls a campaign in a direction you don’t want it to go. They circumscribe the limits of the game, indicating “this is not what the campaign’s about”. They take a short, immediate, and declarative form.

An example might be in answer to the question, “What impact did it [the changes to Goblins] have on Elves and Dwarves?”; a closed answer would be “the Goblins killed them all in a terrible war 300 years ago”. This means that you will accept no Half-Elves, Elves, or Dwarves as PCs, at least so long as this answer is in effect. If the PCs discover a lost tribe or something, that can change at some future time, but for the moment, this answer is closed, it reduces the number of options available for the campaign, and it is essential information for the players to have so that they don’t waste time generating Elves and Dwarves.

Open Answers In Detail

As a rule of thumb, early decisions will tend to be either closed or open, with very few Linking Answers. Later in the campaign development process, there will be few Open Questions and a preponderance of either Linking or Open Questions.

An Open answer is one that mentions a new subject or noun. They open up new lines of questioning. I’m a strong advocate for an organized, hierarchical, approach to questions; anything else risks leaving things out.

In D&D, for example, a suitable format for such a hierarchical approach might be:

  • Humans

    • Origins
    • Society
    • Geography
    • Politics
    • Theology
    • History
    • Economy
    • Trade
    • Race Relations

    …and so on

  • Elves
    • Same list as humans
  • Dwarves
    • Same list as humans
  • Halflings
    • Same list as humans
  • Orcs
    • Same list as humans
  • Ogres
    • Same list as humans
  • Trolls
    • Same list as humans
  • Dragons
    • Same list as humans

…and so on through the entire list of sentient races and some of the more significant non-sentient species.
 

  • Clerics

    • Origins
    • Power Source
    • History
    • Society & Organization
    • Geography
    • Politics
    • Economic Profile
    • Social Class
    • Class Relations

    …and so on

  • Magic-Users
    • Same list as Clerics
  • Sorcerers
    • Same list as humans

…and so on through the entire list of character classes
 

  • Magic

    • Origins
    • Manifestations
    • Accessibility
    • Limitations
    • Constructs
    • History
    • Game Physics

    …and so on

  • Gods
    • Same list as Magic
  • The Afterlife
    • Same list as Magic
  • Resurrection
    • Same list as Magic
  • Dungeons
    • Same list as Magic
  • Cosmology
    • Same list as Magic

…and so on through the entire list of overarching concepts, including some racial/class special abilities.

There are, quite frankly, so many questions to be answered in this list that most campaign designs don’t even think about most of them. Applying the list to the initial concept – “a world that has been overrun by immensely-powerful, immensely-dangerous, demon-worshiping Goblins” – is the equivalent of asking what impact that concept has upon the specific subject.

The example went on to ask how the concept altered Elves and Dwarves – in the previous section, the GM attempted to close that door in order to confine his campaign to manageable proportions, but its not that easy. Stating that “the Goblins wiped out the Elves and Dwarves in a terrible war 300 years ago” (as I did as an example of a closed question) immediately brings up new questions anyway, such as “Why were the Elves and Dwarves targeted? If they weren’t specifically targeted, why were the Goblins more successful against them than they were against other races? What did the Elves and Dwarves leave behind?” and so on.

Linking Answers In Detail

Closed and Open Answers can be viewed as threads in the tapestry that is the campaign. Sooner or later, those threads will start to connect with other threads to form patterns. For example, the question “What did the Elves and Dwarves leave behind?” (just posed) could be answered: “Ruins – Abandoned mineshafts and fallen towers and collapsed forts, keeps, and castles, all of which have since become lairs for monstrosities and other creatures”.

This immediately connects the new inhabitants with a Dwarfish or Elven Legacy, not to mention the concept of Dungeons in general. It wouldn’t take much further development to connect Elven Forests that have now gone “wild” with the concept of Druids and their source of power.

Linking answers are vitally important because they unify the campaign concept and its implications; they interconnect different elements of the campaign, so that it doesn’t matter from which direction the PCs approach the campaign world, one question about its nature will lead to another, until ultimately the entire concept of the campaign is accessible.

Static vs. Dynamic campaigns

If that was as far as the campaign went, it would be a “static” campaign, one in which the subject is to explore and interact with the existing campaign world. But players have a bad habit of wanting to get involved, of seeking ways to change and manipulate the circumstances they encounter to achieve outcomes more to their own liking. As soon as the GM permits a change in the campaign environment – social, political, theological, economic – to go beyond the arms’ reach of the PCs, his campaign is on the verge of transforming from a static to a dynamic frame of reference.

A dynamic campaign is one in which a change or plot development occurs, instigated by either a PC or NPC, and others react in response to that change, and others react to that initial reaction, and so on. While it is possible for campaigns to be dynamic only in response to PC-initiated actions, these tend to feel limp and lifeless; it is far better for the GM to initiate at least one stimulus via an NPC for each action initiated by the Players.

There is, in fact, an entire spectrum of possible degrees of evolution within a campaign, from ‘static’ at one extreme all the way through to a campaign in which every group within the campaign either reacts to an existing stimulation or initiates a new stimulus in order to achieve some ambition of their own.

Directed vs. Undirected evolution

Most campaigns will fall upon some central point upon the Static-to-dynamic spectrum rather than at an extreme; in other words, there will be some ongoing evolution of the campaign background and premise as play proceeds. The game world that the next group of PCs enter will have been altered somewhat by the prior existence of the last group of PCs.

This evolution can take one of two forms: it will either be anarchic and chaotic, with each group attempting to advance its own agenda and the plotlines manifesting as events swirling around a central focus; or it will have an overall trend that has been dictated in advance by the GM in order to create a vaster, more sweeping plotline. The anarchic approach can be termed “Undirected Evolution” while the more disciplined, pre-planned, approach can be termed “Directed Evolution”.

Get Off The Plot Train

A lot of GMs seem to strike trouble when they attempt Directed Evolution, especially in the form of plot trains; but these are surprisingly easy to avoid with a slight change in the way they prepare their campaigns.

The solution is to decide on the direction of the evolution extremely early in the design process, and then to build the desired “direction of evolution” into the ambitions of a number of different groups – whether they be races or professions. This permits the PCs to meddle as they see fit, derailing or interacting with the plots of each group as they encounter them, while the overall direction remains blissfully untouched. “When it’s time to railroad, everyone invents steam engines” is the general idea.

Let us postulate four groups – call them A, B, C, and D. Each of these groups, by definition of who they are and what they want to achieve, are sufficient to lead the campaign in the direction the GM wants it to go. The PCs can happily derail the plans of group A, stall the plots of group B, and discombobulate group C. The evolution will continue as a result of the machinations of group D. And, by the time the PCs have smashed D:

  • group A will have had time to regather its forces and come up with a new plan to achieve their objectives;
  • group B will be recovering from the setbacks dealt them by the party;
  • groups E and F will have arisen from the ashes of group C; and,
  • group G will have arisen after someone saw an opportunity for personal gain from all the preceding events!

The net result is that there are no plot trains, but the campaign arrives at the destination that the GM desired all along.

The key is ensuring that the ‘right’ goals, structure, and ambitions are built into those groups from the outset – and that’s easier to do when they are being created and defined in the first place, rather than grafting them on at a later date.

Let’s consider the example campaign with the Goblins: the GM’s ambition might be to maintain the status quo despite the best efforts of the PCs, or for things to degenerate into an ever-more-desperate struggle for survival, or for the PCs to be at the forefront of the recovery of society from the low point at which the campaign starts. Or perhaps the whole Goblin/Demon invasion is just a red herring to occupy the players while the real plot is manifesting behind closed doors. It doesn’t matter what the overall plotline is that the GM wants to incorporate; what’s more important is that it be built into the campaign from the ground up, inevitable and implacable, so that the GM can be an absolutely neutral and bipartisan referee when it comes to adjudicating player actions and their consequences.

And not a plot train in sight!

A Life Of Its Own

Leaving as many options open as possible means that a GM has the maximum possible scope for the players to influence the direction of events and of the campaign, shaping it towards what they want to play. As soon as a PC enters the picture, every campaign takes on a life of its own; not only will player contributions and actions shape the campaign, so will GM responses and reactions to those contributions and actions. No background element is set in stone until the players discover it, and sometimes not even then.

Leave your campaign design room to breathe, and it will also have room to grow, throwing off unexpected offshoots, unusual branches, and deep roots; becoming the sort of campaign that everyone remembers for years afterwards. The key is to give your own unique genius an opportunity to speak out, be heard, and be heeded, then filling in the rest of the design with as much professionalism as you can muster; don’t be a novice who hacks out his backgrounds.

It’s always a nightmare when you spend all day working on an article only to realize, too late, that it would be more appropriate for that article to be published a week later (you’ll see why that is, soon enough) – and there isn’t enough time to write a replacement. That’s what I’ve experienced today.

After scrambling through my “unfinished articles” file, and confirming my suspicion that none of them could be finished in time, I resorted to my “complete and unpublished” folder, wherein I retain articles written for other purposes.

I have to admit that I can no longer remember what the circumstances were that led me to write this article in 2011, or for whom it was intended. It’s possible that it was intended to be for Roleplaying Tips, or for another website – but an internet search failed to locate it anywhere. In the absence of any evidence or notes to the contrary, I have to assume that I just had it on tap for a rainy day – like today!

If this assumption is incorrect, if I have in fact assigned the copyright elsewhere, I sincerely apologize; no offense was intended, and I will be happy to add a prominent link to the site/product that contains it, or take the article down if desired.

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Plunging Into Game Physics Pt 2: Strange Mechanics


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“Black Hole” by Laurence Diver.

As you can see from the title, this is part 2 of a series looking at the underlying principles and applications of Game Physics. The first part looked at exactly what the term meant, and found that it needed quite a lot of definition because it could be used to mean any of several different things. It could be a selective rationale for the differences between game “world” and the objective reality of the real world; it could describe the Essential Pseudoscience that rationalizes the fantastic; It could be “Ubermechanics” that add options to characters, and/or remove options, and/or simply add essential flavor. A “Game Physics” is potentially all those things at once, and more.

The Boundaries Of Game Mechanics

The abstract reduction of reality that is the game mechanics can only imperfectly reflect the underlying “game reality” described by the Game Physics. Push the game mechanics too far. and they break down. This is not a breakdown of the game physics, merely of the simplified description embodied by the mechanics, and that means that the game physics can and should be designed for use as a guideline when the game mechanics can’t cope.

The situation is not dissimilar to the relationship between modern physics and what is commonly referred to as “Classical” or “Newtonian” Physics. The latter is a basic description of the properties of movement embodied in Newton’s Three Laws of Motion; but these do not fully describe motion of very small objects like particles or motions at close to the speed of light in a vacuum. For those, Quantum Mechanics and Relativity are required.

The simplest Game Physics possible does little more than identify boundary conditions – “no characters are permitted Strength higher than 25″ for example – beyond which the results from the game mechanics are unreliable. That’s usually not enough, but it sets a minimum standard that should be part of every campaign.

The Creation Of House Rules

So, let’s talk about what else there might be, if you look beyond that absolute minimum, and how exactly you should go about translating an abstract game physics into one or more House Rules.

There are – superficially – lots of ways to do this, but when you look into them closely, they all embody the same basic process; some simply hide that process better than others. In theory, the process is actually very simple: you take an abstract principle, translate that into a Metagame Principle, and then convert that Principle into Game Mechanics, i.e. rules.

Is it that simple in reality? Sometimes, yes, and sometimes no. It depends on many factors, from the change that you want to make through to the game system to which you want to apply it, and how interconnected and wide-ranging the affected mechanics are. Let’s consider each step in the process independently and try to get to some specific advice and techniques.

Concept to Principle

So let’s say that you’ve got this wonderful idea for how the world works. It could be anything – perhaps magical effects are the result of four interacting forces being mixed in various ways, something that parallels the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water – or even the four elements of the ancient Chinese world, earth, air, metal, and wood, just to be different. Or perhaps there’s a metal that experiences increased inertia when moving at relatively slow speed – say the speed of the typical two-handed swing – so that smaller weapons can do more harm. Or perhaps – as was the case in the first part of my series on alternative healing in D&D/Pathfinder (All Wounds Are Not Alike – Part 1), you think that perhaps hit points should be a measurement of the gap between full health and incapacitation instead of health to imminent death.

All of these are Concepts. The first step in translating a concept into game mechanics is to convert it into a set of principles. These principles can be thought of as translating the general notion into a series of specific effects that you want and need the rules that you will create to encapsulate. Another perspective is to consider them a work order for specific House Rules.

So, how do you go from idea to plan of execution (which is still a third way to think of the process)?

In essence, this involves stating and restating the concept and its ramifications until you find at least one that can be related to some measurable or logical value present within the game system, or that can be created from the content already present.

It was no coincidence that I mentioned “All Wounds Are Not Alike Part 1″ a little earlier, because that provides a perfect example of the process. The paragraph (in the section entitled “The Healthy and the Helpless”, near the start) that starts “Another possible answer” states the concept. Ignoring the side-note that follows this paragraph, the next two (starting “We’ve” and “We have”, respectively) analyze the concept and spell out the initial ramifications, enabling the principle to be restated in terms that might be amenable to translation into game mechanics (in the paragraph that starts “Under this paradigm”).

Rather than make people read that article in it’s entirety, here are the paragraphs in question:

Another possible answer which I have seen in house rules from time to time is that hit points are a numeric index of the gap between healthy and helpless. This relates the damage that is inflicted upon a character to the impact that this damage has on his abilities, and his capacity to overcome that impact.

We’ve all experienced injuries in our time – abrasions, falls, nicks. Some have had more serious injuries like broken bones or surgical wounds. And a few unfortunates have even more serious injuries in their pasts. So we can all relate to the principle that being injured slows our movements, impairs our physical capacities for action, and saps our will to act. These are responses to the pain of the injury, which is the body’s reaction to that injury; if we heed these warning signals, we heal, or at least have the chance to do so, and if we don’t then healing is slowed, may not progress properly (bones fusing out of alignment and so on), or may not occur at all (cuts reopening, etc).

We have all also seen people, especially in desperate circumstances, ignore wounds that might have incapacitated them at other times, in order to meet the needs of survival (be those their own or those of someone else).

Under this paradigm, the increase in hit points a character receives as a result of a level increase can be described as an increase in the capacity to remain functional despite injuries that may have been received, and the condition of zero hit points remaining – helplessness – is tantamount to death, should any enemy remain in better condition.

Principle to Rule

The rest of the first half of the article, all the way down to the section entitled “Consequences: translating impairment zones into game mechanics consequences”, consists of proposing and analyzing three different ways by which that restated concept can be translated into actual numbers that can be used to implement new rules. The “Consequences” section, and the “Internal Injuries section that follows it, list the ramifications of the conceptual rules, completing the “work order”. That’s rather too lengthy to quote here – it would take us too far off-track – so suffice it to say that using the index derived from “% of hit points lost”, a modifier is discussed (leaving open the question of exactly what the numeric value of that modifier should be) and a long list of game mechanics values derived that should be subject to that modifier:

  • Attack Rolls – the character’s mobility is impaired, making his reactions slower in battle.
  • Damage Rolls – the character’s physical forcefulness is impaired, so he does less damage in melee.
  • Saving Throws – the character is impaired both physically and mentally, making it harder to shrug off environmental complications and spell effects.
  • Skill Checks – the character cannot move or think as freely as usual, making it harder for him to employ skills successfully.
  • Initiative – the character slows down in battle.
  • Hit Points – the character does additional damage to himself by acting forcefully while wounded (once per turn or once per attack).
  • Armor Class – the character’s mobility is impaired, making him an easier target in battle.
  • Movement Rate – the character’s mobility is impaired, slowing his movement.

…which is then followed by further discussion of the many game mechanics options open to the GM designing the house rules that implement the original concept, and which are really beyond the scope of this section of this article.

Isolation Of Variables

An essential part of the process of going from principles to rules is an isolation of the variables – in the example quoted, that’s the modifier and the things that it applies to – but it’s not a very useful example of that, because the analysis was all theoretical and never actually implemented into game mechanics – and it was a bit complex for consideration as part of this subject.

Instead, let me direct the reader’s attention to a different game mechanic, one that I did actually write up for implementation in my Fumanor Campaigns.

This combined several concepts:

  • Low-level targets in D&D are too hard for low-level characters to hit;
  • Different types of armor are too similar in value in terms of game mechanics,;
  • Well-armored foes are too easy for high-level characters to hit;
  • Different construction materials made no defined difference to the value of armor types;
  • There was insufficient incentive for characters to consider lesser materials;
  • and, finally, there was insufficient variety in armors once magic was taken into consideration.

These concepts were translated into several game principles, which then became five House Rules.

  • Armor Class was separated into three components: Base, Armor, and Refinement.

    • The Base was analyzed as having a fixed value of “10” in the existing mechanics.
    • The Refinement consisted of the shield modifier, any magical deflection bonuses, the Dex Modifier, and any circumstantial modifiers the GM chose to implement based on battlefield conditions and circumstances, such as “attacking from behind”.
    • The Armor value was defined as the Armour Class given by the official rules minus these two constituents. That meant that it comprised the base AC value of the armor type, and any other form of deflection bonus or AC enhancement not fitting the listed definitions.
  • Change #1: “Base” was reduced to 5, making it easier for poorly-armored targets to be hit by low-level characters.
  • Change #2: “Armor” was doubled in value. This made well-protected targets harder to hit, even for high-level characters, and increased the differentiation between different armor types.
  • Change #3: The base construction material for metal-based armors was defined as Steel. A set of modifiers to Armor value was defined for alternative materials, including a number of new “exotic materials” in addition to the ones already listed within the game system – some of which could only be used for specific armor types, such as “Dragonscale Leather,” which all had additional effects or benefits to the wearer – better saves vs. specific attacks, increased movement rates, or whatever. These were to be applied before the doubling described in Change #2.
  • Change #4: Some existing magic items had their effects amended to include an adjustment the “base” value up or down, some of the Exotic Materials carried the “benefit” of a modifier to Base Value. This was important because Base Value applies even when the character is caught Flat-footed, i.e. by surprise.
  • Change #5: The same list of materials modifiers also applied to Shields – but because a shield was only going to be useful some of the time, and because Shield Modifier was not part of the score that was doubled, this had less effect on the ultimate total AC. The combination of changes #3, 4, and 5 meant that the material an armor was constructed from had a significant effect on the ultimate Armour Class, while partially increasing the variety of magic items on offer, and the uniqueness of any given item.
  • Change #6: Each suit of armor was assigned an “Enhancement Capacity” of 25, each shield was assigned an Enhancement Capacity of 20. Some exotic materials added +1 or +2 to this, some subtracted 2. The deflection bonus of the armor or shield (if any) was subtracted from this total, as was the “Armor” AC rating. Some armor types further modified this adjustment. The remainder of this calculation defined the capacity for “enchantments” (called “Special Abilities” in the DMG, a term that seemed too prosaic to me at the time, however accurate it may have been).
  • Change #7: An “enchantment” listed on the “Special Abilities Table” reduced the capacity by the “+ bonus” shown, plus 1. If no such value was shown, it was assumed to have the first value listed above it on the table – so the first “enhancement”, Glamored used up 1 point of “enchantment capacity”, while Greater Sonic Resistance, the last individual entry on the armor table, consumed 6 points of capacity.
  • Change #8: The difficulty (DC) of adding an ability with an appropriate “enchant” skill was the % of already-used enchantment capacity in the armor multiplied by 50, plus the enchantment capacity to be consumed by the new ability. Fail, and the enchantment failed; Fail catastrophically, and either the capacity was consumed to no benefit, the capacity was “occupied” by a Curse that was as close as possible to the opposite effect of that desired, or perhaps the enchantment succeeded – at the price of permanently deactivating an ability already contained. On a critical success (a natural 20), and the capacity cost of the new ability was reduced by 1. Fifty was chosen because it made the calculation simpler.
  • Change #9: Taking additional time or using additional casters as assistants offered bonuses to success, as did various other factors such as having an appropriate workshop, manuals, etc.
  • Change #10: Similar changes were made to allow for limits to weaponry enchantment.
  • The net effect of changes 6-9 is that the lower the AC value of the armor, the more easily it could be enchanted, and the greater its capacity for “Special Abilities”. It also means that there is a lot more variety in magical armors and shields possible. (A further refinement allows the consumption of 1 enhancement point in each to “link” a specific shield or weapon to a suit of armor; this would subtract from the enhancement cost of any special power that was only in effect when the two were borne by the same wielder).
  • Change #11: For creatures with natural armor of any sort, the process is simple: subtract 10 from the AC in the sourcebook, double the result, and add 5.

This set of ten House Rules implements all six of the Concepts (i.e. things about the game system that I wanted to change) in a way that has minimal effect at character generation and none at all on the mechanics of game-play – you simply have a different AC to the one listed in the official rules. It might be higher, it might be lower. In effect, basic ACs (without magic being involved) now ranged from 5 to 26 (plus DEX modifier), and magic could boost those numbers by up to a further 10.

To be honest, the above synopsis of the changes was my second attempt – the first version had a far more complex and overcomplicated shield handling mechanism that simply didn’t work well in actual usage. Some of the above should be familiar to my players, some of it has not previously made its debut – I finished rewriting the rules for use in this article). Oh, yes – it’s also worth pointing out that a pre-existing house rule stated that armor and shield deflection bonuses stacked, because I couldn’t find where in the official rules it discussed the point.

Mathematical Processes

Almost any house rule aimed at the game mechanics involves mathematical processes of some sort. The above example shows these quite clearly. I can’t stress enough that any such process that has to take place during play be as simple as absolutely possible. Even taking the time to find a table can be enough to make combat unworkable in some systems. Even beyond that, the more complicated the math, the easier it is to get confused and make a mistake.

If you have to involve a mathematical process, don’t make anyone do it at the game table if you can help it; put it into a table if necessary (but this is very much a second choice to not needing one at all).

Algebraic Summaries

Where possible, expressing your changes as algebra can simplify a complicated process – if you are comfortable with this mathematical tool. I try never to implement algebra without converting the results into a table so that the results can simply be looked up, most of the time. This is a practice that I have learned the hard way. Your Mileage – and experiences – may vary.

Rule interlocking

I started making a change to the rules for calculating a character’s AC in the example above, and by the time I was finished I had House Rules for magic item construction and skill use. The significance of being caught Flat-Footed had changed considerably, as had the threat level posed by well-armored opponents – something that would have to be taken into account when determining XP rewards. This is an excellent example of Rule interlocking.

Changing one rule is like trying to eat one peanut: very difficult and ultimately not very satisfying. It’s far more typical for House Rules to breed like rabbits.

Consider, for example, a set of modifiers for Perception checks (or “Spot” checks, or the equivalent in any other system – this is pretty much a universal) for range and conditions. How long will it be before someone points out that anything that hinders perception should also affect combat – and vice-versa? And that ranged weaponry will need to be affected differently to melee? And how about tracking? And then, someone will point out that some modifiers will advantage both parties when attacking – but should that be by the same amount, regardless of their individual Perception/Spot scores. What else might be impacted by bonuses or penalties to a character’s ability to see things – an argument could be made that Riding should be affected (greater or lesser likelihood of recognizing treacherous terrain and obstacles). And how about Navigation – if it’s harder or easier to recognize landmarks (as opposed to the similar landmark that isn’t quite right) or even see those landmarks in the first case, should not that be reflected in modifiers to various Navigation skills? And hey, has anyone noticed how the land looks different from the air to when you’re at ground level – shouldn’t there be a navigation penalty for flying unless it’s a natural ability?

And this is just a simple change, a set of reasonable modifiers to act as guidelines for how substantial an effect the GM should apply – the GM would (if he was doing his job) have applied modifiers to the DC or the skill roll (depending on how the game system worked) anyway, this is simply quantifying some common values of adjustment for quick access!

Whenever you create any sort of House Rule, there are three vectors for Rule Interlocking, and the wise GM will actively look for instances of them all that affect the game mechanics beyond the initial rules change.

  • Direct Consequences
  • Alternative Applicability
  • Analogous Changes

Direct Consequences
Every rules change has consequences – otherwise, there would be no point in changing those rules. In addition to any desirable consequences that have been used to justify the House Rule, there are frequently going to be undesirable consequences. If these are too egregious, you may have no choice but to scrap the House Rule and start again; but if the preponderance of positives outweigh the negatives, it may be possible to mitigate or even eliminate those negatives with a second, more specifically-targeted, House Rule. These are sometimes described as a “Rules Patch”. Changes to combat systems are frequently and especially rife with this problem.

What’s more, it can be hard to see the thorn-bush for all the pretty flowers in the field. Quite often, the need for a “Rules Patch” won’t be obvious to the GM until after the House Rule is in service – so they should all be playtested in advance. I’ve also seen this described as “The GM being blinded by his own creativity”, and it happens to pretty much everybody. The more experience you have, the less you are prone to this – and the bigger the invisible barn-doors you walk into when you do overlook something.

Here’s a real-world game example: I changed the rules for the Zenith-3 campaign to a more D&D 3.x-like initiative system in order to speed up combat and distribute the spotlight more evenly, and it immediately achieved those benefits. The response, when the change was trialled, was overwhelmingly positive. But deeper inspection showed that the movement rules had to be modified because time wasn’t being handled the same way any more, and so did the rules for the Flight power, and the rules for maneuverability of flying characters and vehicles, and that then necessitated tweaks to various combat modifiers and combat maneuvers, changes to the tactical combat options available to characters, and alterations to Hit Point recovery (because time was being handled differently) and that affected how Regeneration worked, and the cost-effectiveness of various attack powers, which in turn altered the cost-effectiveness of various stats, which necessitated changes to the damage-capacity of various materials and inanimate objects…

I told part of this story in a two-part article, “Superhero Combat On Steroids” – Part 1: Taking the Initiative with the Hero System and more of it in Part 2: Moving with a purpose (the part that had taken place prior to the publication date). The rest was subsequently discovered the hard way, necessitating a mad scramble in the middle of play to slap a “Rules Patch” in place so that play could continue.

There’s an analogy to real-world science that’s worth pointing out because it ties this back into the primary subject of this series, Game Physics. When a new phenomenon is observed, science needs to expand to incorporate an explanation. Sometimes, whole theories need to be thrown into the scrap-heap as a result, no matter how accepted and cherished they may be; sometimes, it’s possible to simply “tweak” the existing theory and move on from there.

But changing one scientific theory is just as bad as introducing a single House Rule; every application of that theory then needs to be re-examined, and perhaps the process being described needs complete revision. For example, changing one of the laws of thermodynamics would have profound impacts on our understanding of everything from cosmology to cellular biology to chemistry. So great would be the change that the pressure to resist the change would be enormous, hence the general principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”.

A large part of modern science is the active search for new phenomena that can validate one amongst a set of competing theories by virtue of the predictions made by those theories. Another is the identification of phenomena that were not predicted and are not explained by current theoretical models, forcing a subsequent enlargement of science itself. A contemporary example of the first was the search for the Higgs Boson; a contemporary example of the second was the discovery of “Hot Jupiters” and other unusual exoplanets, which necessitated a revision of the theories of solar system formation, and which continue to throw up unexpected challenges to existing theories – see this Wikipedia Page for a starting point if you’re interested in looking into the subject further.

Introducing a new concept to an existing game physics is akin to discovering a new phenomenon in traditional science. And, since the game mechanics are (fundamentally) defined as an attempt to model the most important behaviors of that game physics, all sorts of changes can (and frequently do) result from such new concepts.

Such phenomena fall into three broad categories:

  • something that was thought impossible, is observed.
  • something that was thought to happen, doesn’t.
  • something that was there all along is noticed for the first time.

The first is analogous to a House Rule that adds new options to the palette available to characters for exploitation; the second restricts an existing choice (usually to certain conditions or circumstances, though it’s often simpler to describe the exceptions); and the third simply replaces one explanation with another – indicating that the game logic used by the GM to guide his decision-making will follow a different course and take into account different factors, sometimes resulting in new outcomes that can be exploited, and sometimes preventing outcomes from occurring that were expected, once this new logic is applied to a given situation within the game.

Ultimately, this is viewing the game from an in-game perspective and applies the new Concept to see what should, theoretically, be affected if that Concept were real.

Alternative Applicability
Identifying a basic Game Physics Concept and developing that into game mechanics is all well and good – but quite often that Concept will also apply, directly or indirectly, to other in-game activities and the way the game mechanics have to simulate them – for example, in the perception changes example, the application of the modifiers to combat situations.

These are best assessed by examining other as many alternative activities that characters might attempt as the GM can think of, especially routine or common ones, and considering whether the Concept would also impact them. Such activities would include using a skill, making something, hitting something, interacting with an NPC, and so on.

This can be considered to be viewing the game from a metagame perspective and applying the new Concept to see what mechanistic consequences should or can result, while retaining a practical sense of priorities.

Analogous Changes
Game systems are frequently designed so that one game-mechanics process is replicated over and over. One of the most popular reforms to D&D with the 3.0 edition was the consistency in handling of attacks and skill checks in that rolling high became better in both; in prior official versions of the game, the two were inverted with respect to each other, making the rules more complicated and harder to learn. the consequence was that lower values of Armour Class used to be better than higher ones, resulting in the notorious “THAC0″ standard (To Hit Armor Class Zero).

Changes to the resolution system of one type of process invariably demand that all analogous processes be at least considered to determine whether or not an analogous change is warranted.

For example, if you decided that you wanted skill checks in your Pathfinder Campaign to be resolved by rolling 4d6 and discarding the lowest result, making successes at tasks of reasonable difficulty for a given skill level more probable but making success at tasks rated beyond those difficulty levels more unusual, you should at least check that every other roll a character might be required to make is not better handled in the same manner, for the same reasons. Either way, the GM should be prepared to defend his decision. Those “other rolls” include saving throws and attack rolls. Furthermore, each “skill” should be checked for the desirability of applying this change; some “skills” represent innate abilities (for example “Spot”) that the GM might decide should stay on a d20 basis.

This is viewing the game from a game-mechanics perspective – which, paradoxically, tends to put the rationale and underlying theory under the microscope, and hence make the “why” more accessible.

Quantum Entanglement Of Game Systems

I’ve tipped my hand in this respect in the preceding sections, but never mind. Quite often, as GMs, we are confronted with game systems in which most of the mechanics work just fine, but there is one part of the system that just doesn’t work as well as we would like it to in some respect. The most frequent response is to graft in some rules from another game system that does handle that aspect of the mechanics in a more satisfactory manner.

This process of selective infusions of other game systems has been going on for as long as I’ve been a gamer. One of the earliest examples that I remember encountering was an AD&D campaign in which the magic system was replaced with the one from TSR’s Empire Of The Petal Throne, but I have no doubt that the practice predated that exposure to it, and it continues to this day – I use a board game (Blue Max) for superhero dogfights.

The theory is that, instead of writing your own House Rules, you adopt a subset of the rules provided by an author who has far greater expertise and experience at game design than you. There are four principle reasons why one game systems mechanics might be preferred over the rules that are standard for your game system: Better Mechanics, Faster Mechanics, Better Simulation, or a Better Realization of the game physics and campaign concepts.

Justification #1: Better Mechanics

There has never been a game system or game supplement published that at least one GM didn’t think was partially “broken” for whatever reason. I find the spells in the Book Of Exalted Deeds and Book Of Vile Darkness to be seriously overpowered for their spell levels, for example. When the problem area is an expansion of some sort, the simple answer is to exclude them from your campaign. But sometimes, the part of the mechanics that simply doesn’t work (in the GM’s opinion) is part of the “Core Rules”, and not so easily dismissed – it represents a necessary part of the game system.

If something is needed to describe the mechanics by which game task X is performed, and what is official doesn’t work (in the GM’s opinion) – for example, the Grappling subsystem of 3.x is frequently criticized – the simplest answer is often to grab a set of rules that do satisfy in that department and infuse your chosen game system with an adaption of those mechanics.

Justification #2: Faster Mechanics

Some rules subsystems take more time to determine an outcome than the GM considers warranted or acceptable. The simplest answer often appears to be the incorporation of an alternative subsystem from a different game system. This is exactly what I did with the variant Hero System used for my superhero game: combats were taking far too long, the cause was identified as the time system in place (which works fine at lower character levels, but falls apart when characters get to act too often).

Justification #3: Better Simulation

Sometimes, a campaign is expected to emphasize a particular activity, and the GM wants a more sophisticated handling of that subsystem than is incorporated within the official mechanics. For example, if you have a Pathfinder campaign that is going to center on the concepts of death and undeath, you might want something more substantial than the basic “turning undead” system incorporated. You could try writing something yourself (probably based on the concept of “Turn Resistance” and based on “Spell Resistance”), or you might pull out a game that has the undead as a central element and infuse your rules with selected graftings.

Or perhaps Dueling with epees is going to be a common activity, and you want something that goes into more detail than the basic “roll to hit” of you game system.

Either way, the premise is the same: “this activity is going to be important and more frequent within my campaign than in most, so I want more detailed resolution mechanics or a better simulation (i,e. less abstract) of what happens in the real world, than is currently provided.”

Justification #4: A More Perfect World

The final justification is that an alternative set of game mechanics will more accurately describe part of the game world that you envisage. This is the reason that the GM in question offered back in ’81 when he infused AD&D with EOPT – his concept of the world was that all magic was really Psionics mislabeled, that it was far more realistic in terms of the physics of what could be achieved, and that Empire Of The Petal Throne ticked both of those boxes for him. In later years, he would continue with this concept, but the source system would vary from time to time.

Or perhaps you want to run a Pulp campaign set in the Babylon-5 universe – and want to add the ship-building and FTL rules from the Babylon-5 RPG to Pulp Hero in order to achieve this.

The possibilities, and diversity of combinations – even just taking them two at a time – are practically infinite, and increase exponentially with every new game system published.

Problems & Conundrums

All of these reasons are valid justifications for fusing one game system with another, and they all represent positives – if you get all your decisions right. Get them wrong, and you’re in deep trouble, of course. Choosing the wrong base system. Choosing the wrong source system to infuse into that base system. Not marrying the two together seamlessly. Choosing the wrong subsystems to integrate, or missing a game subsystem that you need to incorporate from source into base. There’s plenty of scope for total disaster.

But even if you get everything right, there are dangerous pitfalls and vexing conundrums to be faced.

Clash Of The Game Physics

There are always combinations that sound great on paper, but just don’t work very well in practice. In terms of the subject under discussion, that usually comes down to a clash within the game physics. Rules System A is strongly cohesive and has a consistent “flavor” at the game table; the infusions from Rules System B, unless you can somehow incorporate a matching “flavor” – or even something that’s complimentary – can simply feel tacked on. Or Game System A assumes that something is important, while Game System B assumes that it is not; so that some of the mechanics of play feel like wasted effort.

Even worse can occur because there are fundamental differences in the game physics that each system assumes to be in place. An example might be incorporating AD&D magic items into a Star Trek campaign as a way of simulating the benefits of advanced technology. While superficially, this might seem like a reasonable approach, the fact is that those magic items will interface with a whole bunch of rules subsystems that assume magic doesn’t work; and, furthermore, the inconsistencies and limitations of the magic items that are tolerable, even positives, when dealing with a neo-medieval society’s craftsmanship and limited understanding of the working principles behind their creation, these simple become intolerable silliness in a Science Fiction environment. There’s no scope for these flaws in a Star Trek game when the results are supposed to reflect a matured understanding of science and engineering.

Updates to Game Systems

But, let’s say that you have chosen rather more astutely and wrought a combination that works just fine. And six months into the campaign, one of the two game systems publishes an updated edition. Do you update the rules that you are using?

There’s a precarious balance between the base game system and your infused rules; such an updating can upset that balance, even though – on paper, and in a “pure” form of the game, the new rules are faster and “better” than the ones you have been using.

Failing to upgrade risks distancing yourself from players of that game system, making your campaign less acceptable. What’s more, if the rules upgrade is a definite improvement, fixing all sorts of problems from the older rules, players may come to see the rules you have infused as clunky and frustrating, or coarse, inelegant, and unrefined, or simply thin and weak. Even without adopting the upgrade, the new edition can destabilize the harmony you have established.

A Tool For The Expert

A Game Physics is a tool in the GM’s armory that can elevate a campaign to unparalleled heights in expert hands – but it can also be savage if misused. It’s not at all like real-world physics; it’s an abstract statement of principles and theory that can be contradictory and willful. Applied properly, it enables comprehensive customization of a game’s supporting mechanics to render an environment uniquely suited to the campaign being created; applied improperly or haphazardly, and it can be a campaign’s undoing.

Like some powerful genie in a magic lamp, it is so powerful a tool that every GM must at least acquire a working understanding of its essentials and the techniques of applying them, or be permanently less effective at the game table as they otherwise could be; but like the Monkey’s Paw, beware of its hidden sting, for it can hamstring the campaign in ways you have not yet begun to dream. Playing with the game physics entails thought experiments and creativity in it’s most pure of forms; incredibly satisfying and bags of fun, and occasionally just exasperating enough to keep things challenging. But it’s also playing with fire.

Sadly, there is only one real way to master the intricacies that it represents other than through hard and often unforgiving experience. The key to success is building up from the simplest manifestation – justifying a house rule that makes sense in light of the campaign and the game world within it, using that rule to validate such a house rule, exploring the ramifications and learning what works and what doesn’t – something that (to some extent) will be different in every individual campaign.

I still can’t tell whether this will be a three- or four-part series – I’m aiming for three if possible but there’s a lot of ground still to be covered, and I’m adding more even as I write this, which argues that four is more likely! We’ll just have to see what happens, together! Next up: Game Physics and Plot!

Comments (1)

Ask The GMs: On Big Dungeons


How do you make Big Dungeons interesting? It’s not a simple proposition; very dependent on your source material, you may have to dig far deeper into what you have been presented with in order to achieve success.

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from Tom, who wrote:

I DM a Pathfinder game, where the module is coming to a point, where my players have to enter a HUGE dungeon. Neither them nor I like big dungeons (as it boils down to “we go right!”, “Now we try the left door.”). Now I wonder, how I can make a big dungeon interesting.

I tinkered with the idea of just using the most important encounters (which are necessary for further events), and just describe how the dungeon smells, and looks like – than throwing those encounters at them, without bogging the game down with one of my players having to draw a map.

I love short, little (10 or less rooms) dungeons, but those monsters are a pain to DM. All I want to ask is, how you would solve such a problem. Thanx for your help, and greetings from Germany.

This is one of a number of ATGMs where both Johnn and I sent replies by email to Tom, recognizing that a certain level of urgency existed in the question. This would later become our standard procedure when we began to fall seriously behind in publishing responses. In addition to my answer of the time, I have recently discussed the question with a number of my other GMs and had several further thoughts of my own.

So here’s how today’s answers are going to break down: First, Johnn’s original answer; Second, My original answer, which also contains a reply to Johnn’s comments; third, the subsequent comments of my fellow GMs and my own further thoughts.

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Johnn’s Contribution from 2010

The fact that I had this answer on file to include just goes to show how far behind we got with ATGMs – and how popular a feature it was. Continuing to work through the backlog, and looking forward to being able to reopen the feature – even though there are now other sites that specialize in providing this sort of service as their primary focus.

Hi Tom,

I’m wondering why you don’t just make the dungeon short? Why are you stuck with the huge format?

I also do not like spending more than one or two sessions at a time doing pure dungeon crawl. My favorite format is mission-based. The purpose is not to crawl the whole dungeon, but to get in, get the mission done, and get out in as short a time as possible. Get the X, do the Y or learn the Z are my favorite types of missions.

Perhaps that format works for you? If so, it helps to have more than one entrance and exit, and to build the dungeon more like an ecosystem.

ATGMs-Mike

Mike’s Answer from 2010:

This is my original response, emailed to Tom:

Hi, Tom.

Aside from the obvious – replacing the dungeon with something smaller, or putting up with the huge dungeon that no-one’s enjoying, and aside from Johnn’s suggestions, there are a few solutions that come to mind.

  1. Redefine “HUGE” to mean something other than physical size. Instead of stone walls, for example, maybe some/most of the walls are insubstantial clouds – and the ‘locals’ know it, and pass freely through them. This means that everything that’s in the “huge” dungeon takes place in 4-5 encounters in 4-5 locations.
  2. Change the sense of direction. Instead of being a plan view, make the map that comes with the module a side-view. With featherfalls and various magic devices for flying, and the fact that every “door” is a pitfall or an elevator entrance, you can toss all the boring bits aside and completely change the nature of the dungeon into something both non-traditional and more interesting.
  3. Find some means of short-cutting the dungeon – a malfunctioning teleport device/effect that lobs the party from one key encounter to another, higgledy-piggeldy, and completely out of rational sequence.
  4. (possibly in combination with 2) Arrange for the PCs to get a map of the place that will lead them “straight” to where they need to go. This preserves the size but again avoids all the nonsense.

But, for me, the best answer is:

  1. Be smart about the dungeon. Explore the ecology (even if you have to create that ecology in the first place). Explore the society, so that encounters that are expected to be about combat are about roleplaying, and success can win the PCs an armed escort to the edge of one group’s territory, bypassing all the dangers and the exploration trivia. Think of a number of hostile societies, all of which have cabin fever. If necessary, up the intelligence of some of the creatures.

ATGMs-Mike

Mike’s New Thoughts (with comments from the floor):

I discussed the question with four other GMs (Saxon Brenton, Blair Ramage, Ian Gray, and Nick Deane) the other day because I couldn’t help – having reviewed the question and answers – feeling that something was missing or awry, without being able to put my finger on the problem. Eventually, the penny dropped…

Critique of the solutions offered

“Although bypassing small encounters and details may be obvious to the GM, it may not be all that obvious to the players, who may not appreciate the problem and the attempts to solve it.

Worse still, it may be obvious that the GM is cutting corners, and there may be encounters that the GM skips because he under-appreciates their significance at the time. Reinserting and (if necessary) relocating them within the dungeon may sometimes get you out of trouble when you’ve gotten yourself tangled up in this way, but it’s at best a hail-mary pass, and not something that you should be at all comfortable relying on.

The problem is far more difficult than the answers offered admit, and the solutions are inadequate. But [we] can’t see what else you could do.”

That’s the gist of the conversation I referred to, earlier, having read to them a synopsis of the question and answers. It wasn’t encouraging, effectively putting the problem back to square one.

The Penny Drops

Despite the confirmation that none of them could think of anything clever to solve the problem off the top of their heads that we had not already covered, I decided that I had to retreat back to the original question and attempt to think about it completely afresh. And that’s when the key word in the question that both Johnn and I had overlooked the first time around – and that the other GMs consulted had also overlooked – leapt out and bit me. That word: Module.

Everything we were offering was from the standpoint that Tom, our GM in trouble, was the author of the adventure in question. That’s what my subconscious was screaming at me to notice. I guess everyone can fail their “Spot The Blindingly Obvious” sometimes. I’ll never know whether Johnn’s Answer set the direction for my own thinking, or whether that thinking subsequently colored the way that I presented the problem and solutions to my fellow GMs, but we all missed it – right up to the eleventh hour.

I mention this because it highlights an extremely important, if only tangentially relevant, lesson: If something seems wrong with a solution or idea, there’s usually a good reason for it. Don’t stop looking until you find that reason!

The actual question needs an answer. So, instead of expanding on my original answer, as I normally would, that’s what I’ve provided. And guess what? It turns out to be relevant advice for the general situation, as well.

Why Is It So Big?

The starting point has to be the question, “Why is the dungeon so darned big in the first place?”

You need to find two, or even perhaps three, answers to this question. First, the in-game justification for the size; this is something that you will need to work with or even modify if you substantially change the size. Second, the author’s reasons for the size. And Third, what has been done with it? Has the dungeon simply expanded to adequately fill the needs of resolving all the plot threads that the author has brought together? Is there a logical reason why it should be this size?

Johnn is a big fan of the 5-room dungeon format, but if what we’re talking about is “The Lost City Of Zarg” five rooms just aren’t going to cut it. Similarly, in “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks”, the AD&D Module by TSR, the PCs were exploring a crashed spaceship – one that was either set up to terraform a lifeless world or act as an Ark or a Zoo-ship, that wasn’t made quite clear. But the point is that reducing this to a handful of encounters would have trivialized the whole module and not have made any internal sense; you could reduce the module by perhaps 50%, but not much further without compromising believability, i.e. that the vessel was fit for whatever it’s actual in-game purpose was meant to be. For a third example, the epic flavor of Tomb Of Horrors, another famous AD&D Module, would have been completely lost and the menace posed by its creator would totally evaporate, if it were downsized in any way.

On the other hand, I have seen innumerable modules where there is little or no connecting logic to the encounters, and absolutely no good reason for the adventure scenes to be any particular size. In many cases, one central chamber (or perhaps 2 or 3) are all that matters and the rest exist to do nothing more than make reaching those locations appropriately difficult.

The more modern development of Megadungeons is of concern to me in this respect – having a module which contains every monster and magic item in the book comes dangerously close to justifying its existence for no other reason. I must admit to never having looked closely at “The World’s Largest Dungeon” to assess its internal rationale, and most modern megadungeons do not posses this shortcoming – they at least make internal sense. But it’s a concern.

Only once you have clearly identified all these answers in reference to the large dungeon that is in place within the module can you identify whether or not cutting it in size is even possible.

What’s Essential?

Once you know why the dungeon is the size that it is, you are in a position to start considering a further question: what is actually essential to achieving that purpose? Is it expected that the PCs will explore every room, or does the module provide multiple alternative paths, only one of which needs to be chosen? What’s essential, and what is needed for verisimilitude, and what makes sense?

More to the point, what is not essential, what is not needed for verisimilitude (or is even counterproductive), and what doesn’t make sense?

Logical Sub-units

Even if you come to the conclusion that every room is needed to contain all the plotlines that are entwined within the module’s premise, that doesn’t mean that you have to follow the route mapped out for you by the designers. If you can break the module into individual plotlines or other logical sub-units then you have many more options. However, the best adventures will rely on the interaction between such plotlines to pose complications and conundrums that the PCs have to solve, and will not be easily separated. It’s entirely possible that doing so would substantially weaken the entertainment value of the whole.

Can you slice out subplots?

Assuming however that you can isolate plot elements into discrete packets, as I said a moment ago, you have options. One of the most obvious options is to slice out some of those subplots – provided that the set-up for them is not already a matter of record within the game, of course!

And that brings up a serious complicating factor in Tom’s problem – it may already be far too late. The time to perform such surgery on a module is before play starts, not once the first part of the story has already been played! Once a mystery or plotline is established, there is a logical necessity to resolve it, or the results will be unsatisfactory all round.

Revisiting Johnn’s Answer

Another option that becomes available once the dungeon is broken into logical sub-units is to isolate regions into multiple sequential missions – effectively, what was one dungeon becomes several. If you can view and organize the dungeon in this fashion, this is often the best solution.

The Logical Through-plot

The third option is to identify the logical through-plot. Again, this is a way of connecting separate plotlines that just happen to be in close physical proximity to each other.

The basic structure is as follows:

  • Problems A, B, and C are identified by the PCs.
  • Problem A leads them to the Dungeon, where complication D prevents immediate solution of the problem. But along the way, a clue is found to Problem B.
  • Problem B then becomes the plot focus, and resolving it overcomes complication D.
  • The party then resume working on problem A, and continue until complication E again brings progress to a halt. However, solving problem C will provide the tools to overcome this complication.
  • Problem C thus becomes the focal point of the plot. In due course, it is solved, overcoming complication E.
  • The party then return once more to problem A and solve it. However, they have been delayed so long that problem F has now arisen.
  • The party begin working on problem F…

Of course, the actual structure in any specific case may vary from this example, but you get the idea. In effect, the parts of the dungeon that deal with problems A, B, and C are separate from each other but they just happen to be geographically co-located. It is this co-location that creates complications D and E.

What you have here are a series of smaller adventures that are woven together into a larger narrative which frames these smaller adventures and gives them context, importance, and urgency.

Revisiting my original answer

A plot connection doesn’t have to be the only way these logical sub-units can combine. Metaphysics or Ecology are just two of the alternatives. One of my favorite D&D 3.0 adventures was “Deep Horizon” by Skip Williams; it followed the same basic structure described above, in which one problem led to another, which led to another, the solution of which led to a solution to the previous problem, which in turn led to a resolution of the original problem. While the action all took place within the one subterranean complex, each section took place in a physically isolated section of that complex; this wasn’t really one big dungeon, it was three connected ones – the first inhabited by Dwarves, the second by Desmodu, and the third by Salamanders.

If one relationship between these segments – the simple plot connection – doesn’t explain the interconnection, look at politics and ecology and metaphysics and any other way that they might be related.

The other side of the coin: Creating your own adventures

The same process that’s been followed above also applies to any adventure that you may be creating. If ever you create a space that’s more than, say, 10 rooms in size, apply the same criteria – why does whoever made the place need a space that large and complex? Why do you as GM need it to be that large? Can you subdivide it into smaller sequences that connect, physically or logically? Can you describe the contents as a sequential series of missions that simply occur within the same confines, or as a nested series of missions like the pattern I described earlier?

For the Pulp campaign I co-GM, a lot of effort has recently gone into designing the villain’s lair. I can’t go into too many details – we haven’t even started running the adventure yet – but we adopted a process-oriented design: Villain undertakes activity X (being deliberately vague); these are the manufacturing steps required in doing so; this is how much space they required; this is how many personnel are required; these are their physical requirements – accommodation, food, water, etc.

We then used these to define the layout of the lair in terms of the most efficient way to conduct this process while retaining a relatively natural look to the environment. Some rooms are natural caverns, some are natural caverns that have been shaped or expanded, some have been excavated by man. In some cases, we compromised the efficiency of his operation slightly to suggest that he has worked within the parameters of making the best use of the space as it “is” rather than how he might prefer it to be – but never so much that an alternative layout would be a better choice.

This has resulted in 15-chamber space (and I think we might add two to that) – but because each space has a logical purpose, has been adapted to serve a function in the villains plan, we’re entirely comfortable with that. In most cases, ten to fifteen minutes of play will be enough to “clear” that chamber; in the more extreme cases, perhaps 30 to 45 minutes of play will be needed.

But – and this is the critical point – because the PCs will be entering the “dungeon” with what we hope will be a clear mission, they will not need to, or want to, explore the whole complex; they will be looking for the fastest route to accomplishing that mission. They might only explore 4 or 5 of the chambers along the way – but those chambers will have rational content and clearly fit within a sensible and logical process.

Or, if the PCs make the wrong choices, they might end up needing to explore just about the entire complex before they find what they need to in order to complete their mission. We’re ready for that possibility, too – simply because there is no space that’s not being used for something, and that usage is sensible and logical – from the villain’s point of view, his agenda, and how he is going about accomplishing it.

The Wrap-up

Bigger is only bad if there is no binding logic that binds the spaces together. It’s when you start attaching kitchen sinks to electric motors just because you have one handy that things go off the rails.

Take a look at the layout of your house or unit. Each room has a logical relationship to those adjacent to it according to intended function and access to resources. You don’t attach the pantry to a bedroom, you attach it to the kitchen. Kitchen, bathroom, and laundry might share common walls to make plumbing easier. You don’t attach a walk-in closet to the living room – if you do, it’s a sure bet that it won’t get used as a walk-in closet!

I don’t use the master bedroom of my two-bedroom unit as a bedroom – it’s too inconveniently located for that. I use it as a combined library and games room, because it’s large enough to hold a table big enough for gaming, and is conveniently located between the living room and the kitchen area. Instead, the second bedroom is where I’ve put my bed. The function of each space is defined by my lifestyle and social pattern. If that lifestyle were different, so would the use to which those spaces would be put.

And, if a location needs to be bigger by definition – such as a lost underground city – the same essential logic applies. Look at how the people who constructed it lived, and each chamber will have a purpose. If the city was subsequently occupied by people with different social patterns, they will adapt the spaces to the most efficient way of enabling those social patterns and lifestyle, just like re-purposing a walk-in closet off the living room.

About the contributors:

I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights:

ATGMs-Mike

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

Blair-atgms

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

ATGMs-Saxon

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

ATGMs-Nick

Nick:
Nick also lives in Sydney. He started roleplaying (D&D) in the mid-1980s in high school with a couple of friends. That group broke up a year later, but he was hooked. In late ’88 he found a few shops that specialized in RPGs, and a notice board advertising groups of gamers led him to his first long-term group. They started with AD&D, transferred that campaign to 2nd Ed when it came out, tinkered with various Palladium roleplaying games (Heroes Unlimited met Nick’s long-term fascination with Marvel’s X-Men, sparking his initial interest in superhero roleplaying), and eventually the Star Wars RPG by West End Games and Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set. This also led to his first experiences with GMing – the less said about that first AD&D 2nd Ed campaign, the better (“so much railroading I should have sold tickets”).

His second time around, things went better, and his Marvel campaign turned out “halfway decent”. That group broke up in 1995 when a number of members moved interstate. Three years later, Nick heard about what is now his regular group while at a science-fiction bookstore. He showed up at one of their regular gaming Saturdays, asked around and found himself signed up for an AD&D campaign due to start the next week.

A couple of weeks later, He met Mike, and hasn’t looked back since. From ’98 he’s been a regular player in most of Mike’s campaigns. There’s also been some Traveller and the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, amongst others. Lately he’s been dipping a tentative toe back into the GMing pool, and so far things have been going well.

ATGMs-IanG

Ian:
Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for more than 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he GMs but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales Of The Floating Vagabond, Legend Of The Five Rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, Gurps, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many, many more.

Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting (based on his prior experiences).

rpt_logo_whitebg

Johnn:
Johnn is an RPG author and publisher. His Roleplaying Tips e-zine has amassed over 5000 DM tips and tricks since 1999. He also authored the Dragon Magazine column “DM’s Toolbox” for two years, and has written (at least) three DM advice books and numerous articles for various books, publications, and websites.

Johnn co-founded Campaign Mastery with Mike back in the day, and while he has moved on to other projects, many of the articles at Campaign Mastery were authored or co-authored by him. He asks every DM to have more fun at every game, and that’s what this blog is all about.

Next in this series: Writing characters out when players leave the game

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Plunging Into Game Physics Pt 1 – What Is a ‘Game Physics’?


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This captivating image is “High Voltage” by bluesideup (Joerg Loehnig)

“Game Physics” is a term that not enough GMs take the time to think about in depth.

Physics is about isolating a single variable and measurable quantity, then altering that variable while observing the measurable quantity to shed light on the relationship between the two – then trying to explain the results in such a way that future observations can be predicted. Unifying many such relationships brings together a more complete picture of the universe around us.

Games, on the other hand, are about a holistic abstraction of reality that places a far simpler relationship between cause and effect. Even the most accurate game rules are superficial and selective in incorporated “physics”; it’s only a question of how simplified and abstracted the relationships between object and event properties are.

The term “Game Physics” is therefore inherently contradictory at a fundamental level. This article looks at how this contradiction can be resolved in various ways to see what we, as GMs and game designers, can learn from the results – and what we can then do with them.

The Genre Factor

Before we get into all that, however, there’s a related topic that needs immediate examination: the role of Genre.

The term “Game Physics” was first coined, insofar as tabletop RPGs are concerned, in relation to original D&D. This game system did not have a robust game physics in back of it, and most of what game physics it did have was unstated in the rules; it was only when the “further reading/inspiration” list was examined did some of the source concepts reveal themselves, especially the relationship between some of the stories of Jack Vance and the way the magic system worked. GMs and grognards have been debating the merits of the “Vancian” magic system ever since.

It’s easy to cast too wide a shadow and state that all games should have an underlying game physics. As a general principle, the more fantastic and exotic the possible phenomena within the game, the more appropriate it is that the game have a defined “Game Physics”. That means that Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Superhero campaigns are at the very top of the list. Horror and Pulp Campaigns are usually only a little behind those prime candidates, as are Super-agent Campaigns (which are really just Modern-era Pulp when you get down to the fundamentals). Cyberpunk campaigns are supposed to be fairly gritty and realistic, and so are most Western Campaigns, so they are at the very bottom of the list.

Which is not to say that they can’t benefit from a Game Physics, just that there are usually better things to spend creative time on in such campaigns.

But there’s one type of campaign that hasn’t been mentioned, and which – perhaps surprisingly – should be right up there at the top. Cartoon Campaigns – whether something a little generic like Wabbit Wampage or Toon, or an Anime or other TV tie-in like The Legend Of Zelda RPG, comprise environments in which the fantastic is routine and the laws of “normal” physics are routinely violated. These need a clearly-defined Game Physics to specify when traditional physics can be violated and how such violations manifest – otherwise, quite literally, anything can happen and anarchy reigns.

Game Physics as Selective Rationale

Most games – and certainly most players and GMs – presume that the physics of the game world are embedded within the Game Mechanics, even when those mechanics are at variance with the physics of the world we see around us. However, the relationship is also presumed to be simplified for game-play and convenience purposes, so the game mechanics is only an imperfect reflection of the Physics within the Game Environment.

I was going to use the term “Game World” but suddenly realized that many games also have “Planes of Existence” or “Alternate Realities” or a “Universe” or “Multiverse” – all of which extend the arena of play well beyond any single “world”. However, the term looks and sounds clumsy, so most of the time from here onwards, the term “Game World” can be assumed to include the broader scope. Just being a little pedantic for a moment :)

The corollary of this relationship between Game Mechanics, Game Physics, and Real-world Physics means that Game Physics defines and contains essential principles, cause-and-effect relationships, and concepts that are not captured by the imperfect reflection.

These principles, relationships, and concepts define and justify overriding of Game Mechanics. In other words, since Game Physics is a selective rationale for what occurs within the game environment, I don’t care what the Game Mechanics says – if the unique circumstances of a situation suggest that the outcome of the mechanics is nonsense, I will override them.

A great example from my Fumanor campaign: A character about to be swallowed by a Purple Worm cast “Blade Barrier” down the monster’s throat. How much damage should be inflicted? The book permits multiple 5′ spaces of the Blade Barrier to inflict damage simultaneously, but only specifies the damage that results to a target in one such space. Ruling that the result was “one hit” by the Blade Barrier seemed ridiculous; so I ruled that every 5′ length of the beastie copped Blade Barrier damage, killing it instantly.

I could also have ruled that the creature had a “bend” in it, and only a fraction of the blade barrier was therefore contained inside it, justifying any value in between.

You can’t assume that the Game Mechanics are a perfect description of everything within the game; almost all rules systems are explicitly NOT complete. The onus is on the GM to decide what the right answers are whenever you encounter a situation the mechanics don’t address, or address imperfectly. Doing so consistently defines the Game Physics – without necessarily being explicit in articulating the “why”. The Game Physics provides the rationale that lies behind the Mechanics.

Game Physics as Essential Pseudoscience

Many games feature characters with abilities far beyond those which “normal people” posses. This is as true of some interpretations of D&D/Pathfinder as it would be of “Avengers The RPG”. Game Physics aims to provide Pseudoscience explanations for those abilities.

Again, consistency is the key to satisfactory usage of Game Physics in this way – and the inclusion of the word “Physics” in that term inherently implies that the metaphysics will be applied consistently.

Before it became the modern disciplines, science was covered by the general term ‘Natural Philosophy‘. This proceeded from a theoretical or philosophical foundation to rationalize the relationships between observed phenomena, and thereby to explain why causes yielded the effects that were observed.

The primary difference between Natural Philosophy and Modern Science is essentially a philosophic one: Modern Science employs the Scientific Method which states that the value of a theory is it’s capacity to generate testable predictions that are subsequently validated and independently replicable. “Science” is the process of enlarging understanding of the universe by steady improvement of provable theory, and Physics is the Science of measurement of the properties of the universe and its content. A key aspect of science is the presumption that any such understanding is inherently temporary and incomplete, to be superseded whenever it is found wanting in its’ ability to predict outcomes. In particular, scientific theories have to define “falsifiable” tests, ie testable predictions of what would result if the theory were incorrect or incomplete in some respect. If these predictions are subsequently observed, the theory is partially or completely invalidated.

Game “Physics” is therefore more akin to Natural Philosophy than it is to Science; by definition it incorporates outcomes beyond those available to “true” physics and those outcomes are the equivalent of modern science being invalidated by the application of the abilities in question. Rather than attempting to rigidly analyze and define a true “scientific” understanding of the phenomena, a task for which few GMs are well-equipped, a rationale to lend plausibility to the abilities is defined and taken as a “best understanding” of the scientific principles. Game Physics for almost every campaign is therefore built upon a theoretical and philosophic foundation and not on hard measurements, and must be characterized as a “Pseudoscience” or “Metaphysics” that is a valid and objective “reality” within the game environment. It is the essential or core Metaphysics of the campaign.

Game Physics as Metagame Ubermechanics

The clearer the understanding that the GM has of the underlying Game Physics of the world they are refereeing, the more that Game Physics transforms from mere justification to Metagame Ubermechanics, ie a set of principles that override the detailed interpretation embodied in the Game Mechanics. The ultimate outcome of this trend is the transition from a Gamist perspective to a Simulationist perspective – by way of a Narrativist perspective. (If you don’t recognize those terms, and their implications, read my 2011 article on House Rules – The Quality of Rules – and especially the discussion in the comments.)

A Game Physics can be considered an Applied Metaphysics, as shown in the preceding section. GMs can leave the physics unstated, and handle the contradictions that may arise between that Metaphysics and the Game Mechanics on an ad-hoc process; or they can define a “working definition” for the Game Physics and then use the game physics to define House Rules that actually update the Game Mechanics to embody and reflect the “working definition”.

Or they can simply embed some House Rules into their campaign for whatever reason, changing the Game Mechanics and the underlying Game Physics without really analyzing or understanding the consequences; this risks consistency at every turn, however, weakening the game.

For this reason, I prefer to make some attempt at defining a game physics that yields whatever conceptual or mechanics changes I want within a campaign and then embed that Game Physics into the Rules as Metagame Ubermechanics.

Ubermechanics to add options

There are three real applications of such Ubermechanics. The first is to add new options to the palette of choices available to players. Explicitly defining some alternative explanation of “Infravision,” for example, even if only in the case of one particular race, means that the difference should manifest in different applications of the ability; in effect, you are stating the operating principles of the ability and opening the door for it to yield different outcomes than those described in the official rules and game mechanics. The Ubermechanic overrides what the rules say.

Ubermechanics to constrain

The obvious alternative is to incorporate Ubermechanics to take one or more options off the table. By explicitly stating this restriction in the House Rules, you are saying to the players “You can’t do this and I can’t do it either – that’s not the way the world works”. Quite often, a single Ubermechanic does both at the same time – eliminating some usages and replacing them with others.

Ubermechanics to add Flavor

There have also been instances where the actual game mechanics are unchanged, but the explanation of the ability being described is different, to create a flavor that is more compatible with some aspect of the game world or history, or simply to impart a little uniqueness to something that’s becoming too standardized and familiar, opening up new story possibilities. I did this for Fumanor when I redefined the Elves as having a “life sense” instead of standard Infravision; there was no change in the resulting game mechanics, but it opened up new ways to use the enhanced sense in addition to the standard ones, while also imposing new limitations. I then made interpreting this sense a learned skill in the same way that Spot and Listen were applications of the senses of Sight and Hearing. This created a conduit for me to feed information to the players that they would otherwise not be entitled to receive – and made most Undead invisible to the sense, just as a wall would be. This change better reflected the nature, origins, and purpose of the Elves within the game world, more tightly integrating the game mechanics with the in-game environment.

This is just the first installment of a three- or four-part series. Part Two will explore the processes and considerations of creating House Rules from a Game Physics and look into “rules infusions” from other game systems (or even from other editions of the same system). Part Three will look at Game Physics as a plot generator. If there is time, it will also go into the campaign-level implications of a Game Physics and how a Game Physics can break down – and what to do when that happens; if not, one or both of those subjects will be the subjects of a fourth part in the series. There isn’t planned to be enough material for four parts, but the third part plus those extra topics would be a rather large article, possibly too much so. So we’ll see what happens…

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Compound Interruptions: Manipulating Pauses


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Photo by Andrew Hill (cropped, edited by author)

Sorry for the delay in posting this – my ISP is conducting maintenance of some sort, and my connection kept dropping out, making it hard to upload and format the article in the usual manner.

Combinations

So far, I’ve been looking at the different elements of pauses-in-play in as much isolation as possible, going beyond that only when it alters the primary effects that an element has on the game. But it’s in the multitude of combinations possible that the real subtlety and power of manipulating these game elements can be found.

In the third part of this series, I examined 9 types of pause. Compounding two types of pause gives 36 combinations, assuming that the sequence in which they occur makes no difference (72 otherwise); compounding three gives 84 sequence-irrelevant combinations, or 168 sequence-relevant combinations. On top of that, there are the end points of the interruption, characterized into 4 types of pre-interruption content and the same types of post-pause content, for a total of 16 combinations. Putting those together gives:

  • Mono-ply Pause: 144 combinations;
  • Two-ply pause: 576 sequence-irrelevant combinations or 1152 sequence-relevant combinations;
  • Three-Ply pause: 2688 sequence-irrelevant combinations or 5376 sequence-relevant combinations.

If I were to analyze all of these (3408 or 6672 combinations, depending on the relevance of sequencing in the compound interruption types), taking a minute to do each, that’s more than 50 hours work, possible much, much more. If I were to use 1 line to summarize the results of each, the resulting article would be boring – and could be as much as 148 pages long.

Not going to happen. The only approach that makes rational sense is to look at general principles, and let each GM analyze the particular situations that confront them as they come up.

Before I Go Any Further

It’s worth taking a moment to explain a couple of assumptions.

  1. Any analysis of the number of combinations described will show that I have assumed that two breaks of the same type are effectively just a longer version of the one break. There may be an exception if sequence matters – a 1-2-1 combination might mean that the type-1 breaks have different effects – but I’ve chosen to ignore that because it’s irrelevant, given the decision not to analyze different combinations. It would just add to the already excessive total.
  2. I am assuming, however, that the sequence of types in compound breaks does matter, until it is proven otherwise. It might even be that this is dependent on the types of break – that sometimes it’s true and sometimes not.
  3. I haven’t bothered looking at 4-ply combinations because it didn’t seem rational for these to actually occur. My thought was that two break types might easily occur back-to-back, or have a meal break or other third type of interruption in between – so up to three is practical, but more is almost certainly only theoretically possible, and should probably be avoided anyway.

General Principles Of Combinations

I have identified ten general principles. Some of these are derivative of general rules for writing, which were identified as key considerations in my earlier series on Emotional Pacing in RPGs (Part 1, Part 2), but they are sufficiently important to the subject at hand that I’ve included them anyway.

1. Pre-break Content Effects apply over the entire duration of the break

It doesn’t matter what the type of break is, the foundation consideration is always the trend in intensity, excitement, anticipation, and tone established by the pre-break content, which extends for the entire duration of the break, whether that break is simple or compound in nature.

2. Pre-break Content Effects may be modified by Break effects

However, this “trend continues” principle does not mean that the effects of pre-break content override the effects of a break. Break effects compound with the initial impetus. For example, a break that promises the satisfying of anticipation reduces the trend for that anticipation to become frustration; however, if that break is followed by a low-intensity interaction that is not obviously leading to that satisfaction, the “frustration clock” can resume where it left off and even proceed at an accelerated pace. In effect, post-break content of the latter two types (low-intensity interaction and introspection/analysis) can be perceived as an extension of the break, compounding with the effects.

There is a lot of artistry involved in a good script or other delivery mechanism for a plot. The more improv is involved, the greater the flexibility you have, but the less time to refine the sequence of events into a satisfactory flowing of the story – and it’s worth remembering that player contributions are always ad-hoc and improvised.

3. Some Break Effects Compound

If you have two different break types that increase anticipation, the two compound. To a large extent, however, the effects will overlap, so you won’t get “full value” from the second. In general, if two breaks have the same effect, they can be considered one break for the purposes of determining how long that effect has within the game to manifest, and the compound effect will be more extreme than either in isolation.

4. Effects are experienced in succession

Taking a five-minute break and then setting up a combat battlefield may produce a net increase in anticipation, but that only occurs once the process of actually laying out the battlemap begins. If the pre-break content generates anticipation – for example, if conflict appears to be inevitable – then the two effects compound, with the battlemap setup adding to the anticipation and delaying the onset of frustration because it is obviously moving the game towards resolution of the pre-break situation, ie satisfying the anticipation that had built up.

5. Some Break Effects Cancel

If however, the two breaks have antagonistic effects, one that inflates expectation and one that deflates it for example, the two will cancel out overall.

5a. Beware oversimplifying

Just because the net effect appears to cancel overall, events are experienced sequentially – one set of effects will take place, and then the canceling effect will take place. This can generate peaks and valleys in the dynamics of the session even while no play is occurring. Having a peak occur outside play always detracts from the satisfaction levels deriving from the play that does occur.

5b. Sequence Does Matter!

The inevitable conclusion is therefore that the sequence of elements in a compound break does matter – and that it is better for the game’s building of tension/anticipation if any elements that deflate it precede elements that inflate it. Coming later in the sequence gives an element increased emphasis in a compound interruption, and (past a point of immediate reaction) minimizes the effect of the preceding break elements.

In point (4) I used the example of a 5-minute break compounding with a battlemap setup. That example actually reflects the above conclusion to at least some extent. But consider the effects if the battlemap is setup and THEN a five-minute break called: You have an immediate increase in anticipation from both the pre-break content and the preparations to satisfy that anticipation – and then nothing. The frustration begins to build as soon as the pre-break anticipation is unsatisfied, but is masked by the battlemap assembly – but once that assembly is complete, the subsequent break means that anticipation is no longer building, and there is no longer anything to dissipate the rising frustration. The players will be in need of catharsis in the course of the combat when play resumes – so the battle has to be more satisfying than is the case with the break elements the other way around. In effect, the benefits of the battlemap setup have been reduced in comparison to the effects of the five-minute break in play.

6. Peaking Too Soon produces anticlimax

There is a maximum level of anticipation that can be achieved. If that peak is achieved before the actual resolution of the events creating the anticipation, then that resolution will feel anticlimactic even if it is nothing of the sort. The game will be less satisfying to all involved as a result. This is the underlying truth behind the comparison of “5-minute break plus battlemap setup” vs “Battlemap setup plus 5-minute break” – the combat has to “work harder” to overcome this sense of anticlimax.

7. Peak Intensities are unstable

Nor can peak intensities be maintained for very long. If you don’t dissipate the tension by resolving the situation quickly enough, something else – side chatter or table jokes – will do it for you. The results, once again, are an anticlimax when you do get to the point of resolving the situation.

This is the real problem with game mechanics that have slow combat resolution – they delay satisfaction past the point at which intensity can be sustained. A fight that was interesting or exciting to start with bogs down and both interest and excitement wane.

8. Tension and Release

Reaching a peak and then resolving it permits the next peak to be achieved more quickly, so the same level of buildup actually achieves a higher level of anticipation than was possible for the initial peak. This effect only persists for a limited period of time, however; a 30-minute meal break is fine, a 60-minute meal break is dangerously close to the limit. Certainly, the floor is reset to zero after the end of play, necessitating doing it all over again.

My experience is that the more fiction a player reads, the greater their tolerance for retaining this heightened responsiveness, because they are more used to putting a book down and then picking it up again at a later time. TV and movies have more tools at their disposal for the generation of heightened anticipation but less ability to sustain heightened responsiveness. However, having the right lead-in can make a big difference, because the second show can build on the responsiveness and excitement generated by the show that precedes it. It is for this reason that watching multiple episodes of a show in succession can produce a completely different impression of the show than viewing the episodes “in isolation” – you get “tuned into” the show’s world and don’t have to recapture that immersion at the start of the next episode. Some shows capitalize on this better than others; “it’s better on DVD than I thought it was when it was on TV” sums up the effects.

The same thing happens with RPGs. Most of my games are run on a once-a-month schedule, and this is a definite handicap to immersion and sustained excitement. Playing more frequently definitely makes a difference in this respect, and playing on multiple days in succession has an even bigger impact.

The problem with this tension-and-release pattern is that every peak offers a fresh chance to get the timing wrong, producing anticlimax. If there’s one thing that should be clear from the variety of break that I listed in the third part of this article, it’s that there are a lot more breaks in play in a typical RPG than may have been suspected, and that also increases the potential danger of anticlimax. This is why mastering breaks is so important!

9. Underlying Intensity

Every game also has an underlying intensity that derives from the overall situation in-game and the metagame situation out-of-game. At the beginning of a campaign, this derives more from the latter source than the former, and is based on the number of unknowns and general mystery about the new campaign; at the end of a campaign, it derives more from the in-game situation. As a campaign heads toward its conclusion, this underlying intensity increases the “floor” or “zero point” from which in-game manipulation of intensity proceeds.

If the balance between these two is mismanaged, ie the GM plays things low-key for too long, or goes high-key too soon, the results are a lull in the underlying intensity that leaves campaigns vulnerable to all sorts of other problems that can lead to a premature ending of the campaign. In fact, every campaign that I’ve ever experienced that ended prematurely suffered from this problem.

It’s something that even experienced GMs experience. It frequently manifests in the GM being insufficiently inspired to put as much effort into his games as he used to, or in an increased tendency for players to not turn up. My Shards Of Divinity campaign is the most recent one to suffer this fate.

10. Cumulative Sequential Effects

Determining the net total of the effects, in sequence, gives you a modified interpretation of the pre-break Content effect which can then be used to determine the optimum post-break content.

Determining the post-break content and subtracting the influence of breaks in reverse sequence permits the determination of the type of break that best marries this content to that which is going to occur pre-break, i.e. what you should have in-between.

Comparing the contents of one scene with the next that is to occur permits the selection of the optimum placement points of different kinds of breaks.

Some Combinations are Valid…

Some combinations of breaks and endpoints just work. A dramatic situation leading toward a combat encounter, setting up the battlefield, then running the combat immediately, works. Giving out experience at the start of a game session works far better than doing so at the end, or in the middle (unless it is carefully timed) – if that’s practical. Only at the end of an adventure is this general principle not true. Meal Breaks are best preceded by low-intensity situations or revelations; session ends are best preceded by cliffhangers.

…And Some Are Not

Some combinations, on the other hand, just don’t work very well. High-intensity interactions shouldn’t follow post-combat game mechanics; you are better off going straight from the combat into the interaction, and combining the game mechanics with your next five-minute or meal break, or even the end of play for the day. Longer breaks like meals can permit players to come to grips with revelations and plot twists, at the expense of a discontinuity with how their characters should be feeling; roleplaying at least a short period of reaction and confusion before the meal is a far better solution, most of the time.

There are, thankfully, very few combinations that should be willfully excluded; there are rather more that can be useful tools in the right circumstance or crippling mistakes if applied when they shouldn’t be.

Desirability

It can be argued, in fact, that there are no genuinely invalid combinations; instead, there are combinations that have a more desirable effect and combinations that have a less desirable effect, and that this desirability is a function of what the GM is trying to achieve at any given point. The right choices add to the excitement and interest of the campaign, the wrong choices detract from it.

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Photo by Crewe1 (Kevin Dowey) (frame added by author)

Analyzing A Combination

It might seem, with so many possible elements, that it would be quite difficult to analyze a combination, but it’s not all that difficult. Most GMs do it instinctively all the time – and sometimes, as you would expect, they get it right, and sometimes they get it wrong. The purpose of this series has been to put a little more intellect and less instinct into the process.

When it comes down to it, there are only three steps to a practical analysis:

  • The Pre-break Element;
  • The Post-break Element;
  • The Break Type(s).
1. Pre-break Element

There are two facts that you need to extract from the Pre-break element: The classification type and the resulting intensity “trend”.

2. Post-break Element

Using the details provided in Part 2 of this series, you can use the information from step one to understand how well the intended post-break content will connect with the pre-break element, and whether or not this is a suitable time for a break at all. You can also consider scene insertions prior to the “official” post-break content or to the break itself to shape a better connection across the impending gap.

3. Break Type(s) – in sequence, with weighting

The relationship established in step 2 is not the final word, it’s a preliminary analysis. The break types examined in part 3 of the series, together with the general principles discussed earlier in this article, give you the tools you need to modify that relationship to accommodate the impact of the actual break anticipated.

Full Forwards Analysis

This starts with the pre-break content and then applies the influence of the break types successively until you reach the post-break content. Remember that the sequence in which different breaks occur weights their relative impact. If that says all will be well, there’s no need to invest any further thought on the matter.

Correction Options

If, however, there is some indication of a problem, you now have the opportunity of manipulating the course of play to achieve a better fit. You have a number of options for doing so:

  1. Insert a pre-break bridging scene that overcomes the incompatibility with the post-break content;
  2. Insert a post-break bridging scene that overcomes the incompatibility with the intended post-break content;
  3. Reorganize the sequence of break elements to better fit the combination of pre-break and post-break content;
  4. Insert one or more other relevant break elements to better fit the combination of pre-break and post-break content;
  5. Analyze the effects of delaying the break until after the currently anticipated post-break content;
  6. Determine that despite the discontinuity of intensity, having the break now anyway is the lesser of two evils.
Advanced Technique: Thinking Ahead

The earlier you carry out your analysis, the more options you have. If you know that a break is required at some point prior to content scene 4, you can determine where best to place that break. Options include:

  • Before Content Scene 1;
  • Between Content Scenes 1 and 2;
  • Between Content Scenes 2 and 3;
  • Between Content Scenes 3 and 4.
  • Further adding to the available options, there may well be another break type or two at one of these positions, introducing sequencing options.
  • And there may be another break needed at some point post- content-scene 4 that can be brought forward.
  • And if none of these suit the circumstances, perhaps there is a way to actually delay the pause until after content-scene 4.
  • Finally, each of these options are spots to which all the Correction Options can be applied – so each of the above is really five or six options.
Retrograde Analysis

Sometimes, it’s more useful to have a checklist of things that have to happen before a given content-scene, and then determine where best to have those things happen, working backwards during the session/adventure planning in order to deliver the players to that content-scene in the optimum state of mind. This effectively treats breaks as just a different type of content.

Your options approach infinity by the time all of these possibilities are considered.

Really Advanced Technique: Flashbacks

At one point I had a very complicated adventure planned to occur. Essentially, it consisted of a contemporary mystery leading to the PCs being trapped and under siege. Overlapping this was explaining the context of the situation which ultimately related an untold chapter of game history featuring one of the characters, which not only explained the current circumstances but which created, retroactively, the mystery that had led the PCs into the contemporary situation, bootstrapping itself into existence.

The basic adventure could be laid out very simply: Mystery, Siege, Situation Explanation, History/Revelation, Solution, and Escape. But there were several problems with this, not least of which was that it requires a long period of exposition during which most of the players were sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Instead, I chose to break the History/Revelation into a series of flashbacks which could be told out of sequence, triggered successively by elements of the Siege and Situation Explanation. The History/Revelation sequences – the back story of the adventure, in other words – effectively became breaks in the main action. The use of triggers enabled each “chapter” of the flashback story to be relevant to the current situation, and enabled me to present it to the entire group as a “collective vision of the past”; even though they weren’t directly involved, this held their attention and built anticipation toward both the revelation and the next slice of contemporary action. This solved all the problems of the plot and produced a very memorable adventure – one who’s solution hinged on paradox, the multidimensional nature of the multiversal game setting, and the topology of a Klein Bottle as applied to arcane tools, and which re-created the original mystery!

In effect, a major component of the adventure – the narrative section – was broken into a series of bridging scenes that were interspersed with the main content, enabling control over the pacing of the whole adventure. What would have been a very “flat” period was turned into an advantage by “telling” two different stories simultaneously. It took a LOT of design effort to pull off, but the results were well worth it; I would consider adopting this approach in the future if faced with a similar pacing problem, though it’s not a solution that I would pull out of my back pocket at regular intervals.

One final break type/manipulation solution

Do you hand-wave travel from point A to point B? (I wrote an article on the subject a little while back – The Gradated Diminishing Of Reality – Travel in FRPG). Anything that you choose to hand-wave in this fashion constitutes a break of (near-) zero duration in game play, enabling you to skip over a “dull bit” and go from interesting event to interesting event. Which becomes significant only when you realize that because it takes virtually no time, it can overlap any other sort of break required.

PCs set out for a destination – set up battlemap while simultaneously narrating the hand-waved journey in which nothing of significance occurs, but letting the players roleplay social interaction between the PCs – PCs arrive at destination, have an strong-interaction encounter leading to imminent combat – five-minute break – combat (using the battlemap already set up). From the point at which the setup of the battlemap commenced until the point it was eventually used, anticipation was growing.

The same essential technique can be used with ANY hand-waved content in ANY game. A character goes into a library to research answers to a problem the PCs have to solve? Rather than roleplaying a tedious search for information, deal with something else and cover the research with a series of handwaved bridging scenes:

PC A (commencing research) – PC B scene/subplot – PC A (a promising lead evaporates) – PC C scene/subplot – PC A (a new lead materializes) – PC D scene/subplot – PC A (the new lead fizzles out but breathes new life into the first promising lead) – PC E scene/subplot – PC A (gets answers but the GM doesn’t relate them) – All PCs gather and PC A, voiced by the GM, delivers the Answers, with the actual research having been handwaved or handled by a single die roll.

So long as the total screen time for each PC in the above sequence is roughly the same, everyone will be happy – and anticipation of the results will have been building from the moment the research was commenced, lending considerable gravitas to the outcome which can only be paid off with a significant revelation – but which makes such a revelation even more memorable and dramatic. In effect, every scene between the commencement of the research and the GM delivering the results is a Bridging Scene. Because the momentum would be lost, I would not incorporate any other breaks into the above sequence; if any other sort of break was going to be required, I would place it before the first scene. I certainly wouldn’t want a break at the end; I want the players to be “in character” when assimilating and acting upon the research results. However, immediately after a decision is made, a break would begin building anticipation anew.

In The Real World

Not every break can be anticipated. Sometimes, things just happen. The analytic tools provided enable you to get play back on track when the expected takes place, through one final principle: Interruption inherently builds anticipation of resumption.

That means that simply resuming where you left off after an unexpected interruption is sometimes not good enough; you may need to increase the intensity post-break, or even drop in a bridging scene, just to get back to where you were.

The Power of the Pause

The examples shows how powerful the Pause can be as a tool for manipulation of the intensity and tone of a game. Consider that the solo scenes can give each PC a different tone, so that each player will have a slightly different mood alloyed with anticipation at the end – that’s the sort of foundation that makes for good in-character interaction between characters and adds massively to the sense of the PCs being “real people” to the players.

Pauses and breaks in play are game content just as surely as rolling to hit a target or having a conversation with an NPC. Learn to manipulate them to your game’s advantage – or at least to minimize any disadvantage. It will only be a session or two of play before you see the benefits.

And the biggest secret of all: unless they are paying very close attention to what you are doing “behind the curtain”, the players will never be aware of your manipulations; they will only notice the resulting benefits.

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Overprotective Tendencies: Handling Player Risk Aversion


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It happens in virtually every campaign. The longer the game runs, the more overprotective of their characters the players become. They become more and more attached to the characters and more adverse to exposing them to serious risk.

The GM, on the other hand, wants to continually raise the stakes and up the ante, in order to keep the thrill of virtual danger alive. The resulting increase in threat levels only serves to increase the tendancy toward caution by the players, who know that one wrong move will kill off one of the characters to whom they have become attached.

I’ve seen proposals from time to time to solve this problem, none entirely satisfactory. The best solution to date has been a gradual shift in attitude on the part of the GM from one of “the PCs may not survive this” to “the PCs may not be able to solve this”. Character survival is an inherant assumption.

But there are a couple of alternatives that I would like to present for consideration in today’s article.

Proposal One: Use-by dates

Characters have a fixed use-by date measured in a maximum number of game sessions before the character has to be retired, one way or the other, even if it is by GM fiat. Missed game sessions still count against this total, so skipping play does not extend the life of your character. As the date of doom approaches, the player will either start to look at ways for the character to either retire gracefully, or to experience a heroic ending. The latter is incompatable with the ultra-cautious approach that naturally tends to arise, leading players to attempt ever-more-spectacular accomplishments before they finally bite off more than they can chew.

As solutions go, this works, but it is not without its drawbacks. First, there is an ultraconservative no-risk alternative built into the proposal. Second, if everyone generates their characters at the same time, they will all expire at the same time, placing group continuity at risk; it would be much better if the infusion of new blood was more gradual. If you run the sort of campaigns that have a high mortality rate a low levels, this will be achieved naturally, so this solution remains viable, but it won’t work for everyone.

There are many variants that use a trigger other than the number of game sessions – it could be character levels (if the system has them), or an xp total (much the same thing, but applies more universally), or a calandar based approach (2 years from the start of play). Ultimately, they all add up to the same thing.

Proposal Two: Sword Of Damocles dates

A variation on this approach is one that preestablishes a use-by date as such, but instead nominates a date at which point a Sword Of Damocles will be (metaphorically) positioned over the character’s head. Prior to this date, the GM will not try any harder to kill the character than he tries to kill anyone else; past this date, the GM will actively seek to forcibly retire the character at any point where doing so enhances the overall plot.

Again, if necessary and useful to the plot, this can be by GM Fiat rather than with the usual escape clauses that might be provided like saving throws, etc. The Adventures the GM designs should offer chances for the character to go down in a heroic sacrifice to save others and provide the PC with a fitting ending.

The biggest problem with this solution is that it deliberately introduces an adversarial element to the game between the Player and the GM. The GM is trying his darnedest to kill off the PC and the player presumably doesn’t want this to happen, and so will fight tooth and nail to avoid it.

On the other hand, it does give the GM the option of leaving the sword suspended until an appropriate ending does manifest itself as an option. So it’s not without its merits, either.

Proposal Three: Mandated Exit Strategies

This only really works in campaigns that require or expect a lot of character development by the player. The idea is that each character has to specify a condition that, if met, will lead to that character retiring as soon as possible. For example, my Co-GM in the Adventurer’s Club Campaign has a character in another friends’ 7th Sea campaign who would almost certainly retire if the character discovered who had sold her into slavery and was able to obtain a reasonable revenge for that act, by the player’s own admission
– or who would die heroically in final battle with that adversary, with the player content if that brought down the villain. What’s more, if that villain presented themselves, there would be no room for a softly-and-with-caution approach – it would be maximum firepower and hell for leather, regardless of the cost, also by the player’s own admission.

Requiring something similar from each player as part of the creation process provides the GM with the ammunition he needs to liven things up as soon as the players begin taking things too cautiously.

The major downsides are that this can disrupt a campaign plan, can be less than satisfying if mishandled by either party, and relies completely on the player’s creativity and the fairness of the circumstances they nominate. It avoids the problems of the first two solutions, but introduces new ones in their place.

Another reason this works is that if the character is still generating general entertainment by not playing it too safe, the GM is unlikely to play that trump card. So there is an incentive for the player to continue to embrace a life of risk on the part of his character. Unfortunately, this reveals a second layer of risk: the player may easily go too far, taking silly risks. These can be just as out-of-character and disruptive to the campaign as the habit of playing too cautiously.

This works really well in conjunction with one of the other solutions listed.

Proposal Four: The Dorian Gray Solution

This uses one of the first two approaches, possibly in conjunction with proposal three above and/or five, below – but permits the player to spend some of his xp to delay the inevitable. The more in excess of the point at which the initial trigger should be applied, the higher the price.

This is especially powerful if you use a system like the one implemented for my D&D campaigns, which presumes that the higher the character’s level relative to the party average, the harder it is to learn anything new from any given encounter, and hence the smaller the individual xp awarded to that character. With this combination, no matter how hard the character runs away from it, sooner or later they become unable to advance further (the danegelt matches the character’s xp “income”), and at some point soon afterwards (when the payment rate further increases), they are unable to put off the inevitable.

This grants the character a grace period in which to “put their affairs in order”, and lets the player prolong the character – for a while – if they really can’t bear to see them go. It gives the player time to get used to the idea that their character has reached the end of it’s tether.

Proposal Five: The Mockery Solution

Picture it: The PCs come across a problem, with a valuable reward up for grabs if they succeed in solving it. They take their time, planning meticulously and, when every contingincy is covered, they put their plan into operation. But the expected opposition fails to materialize; only broken and battered bodies and the scars of battle. Finally, they reach their target, where the reward is seemingly theirs for the taking – only to find it already gone. Despondant and dejected, they return to their base of operations, a tavern, to find the drunken crowd roaring with laughter and toasting the bravery of the heroes who braved the dangers and won through to claim the legendary reward. Everywhere they turn, people are telling and retelling the tale, frequently embellishing it, a constant rebuke against overplanning. And if one of them should reveal that they also went after the reward, only to arrive too late, an element of ridicule will enter the story, compounding the humiliation.

After the second or third such incident, even the thickest player should have the potential pitfalls of overplanning drummed into their heads – for all time. But anytime one seems to forget, all it will take (even in a completely different campaign) to remind them is for someone to start talking about a suspiciously familiar-sounding story…

The elephant in the room so far as this solution is concerned is that it – humiliates – players.

No-one likes being embarressed. People play for fun, and being embarressed and humiliated is no fun at all. I’ve seen players get up from the game table and walk out, for good, over less.

And that makes this the last resort of last resorts. I would prefer to point offending players at this article and tell them to “read proposal five” rather than have to actually put it into practice. But, be warned: once you pull out the “read this” card, you are committed to following through on the threat if it is still necessary.

In an effort to avoid having to do this, it is far better to agree to a metagaming solution in which you overtly warn the players that they are beginning to overplan – “get on with it” – than it is to have to actually carry out your threat. And if they don’t listen to that warning, you have bigger problems – because some players may turn sulky, and petulant, and hostile if you actually carry out your threat, but you will lose all authority if you don’t. Either way, you lose, and you campaign loses.

Perhaps a “Yellow Card (warning) / Red Card (send-off)” system could be implemented as a last-but-one resort – the Yellow Card tells an individual player that they are overplanning and overthinking the problem, being too safe, too cautious, raising too many “what if’s” – and the red card demands that the other players vote publicly on whether or not to keep planning and playing it safe despite the GM’s warnings while the player who recieves the card (because he’s been the most obstructionist or cautious, in the GM’s eyes) doesn’t get a say in that vote. In other words, this demands that the other players decide whether or not to tell the player that the GM judges as most seriously offending to “shut up and get on with it”. It’s still harsh, even too harsh, but it’s better than having to implement the real final resort – if it works.

Proposal Six: The At-The-Speed-Of-Plot Approach

Personally, I employ a completely different approach – though I would like (and intend) to incorporate proposal three with this solution. Why deliberately kill off a character, or force them to retire, until you have started to run out of stories and plot ideas for that character? Or perhaps that should read, “stories or plot ideas that both player and GM find entertaining”. Either way, the question stands.

When the character approaches the limits, when ideas begin to grow thin or dated and repetitive, when the player is forced to contemplate the character’s life becoming a hollow caricature of what they have been until now, that is the time when retirement – one way or the other – should beckon, and may even seem like the most satisfying solution to the player.

In the meantime, the very nature of the plots, if planned correctly, can keep a player from becoming overcautious; the margin of error progressively becoming so knife-edge, the planning time available so scant, that characters are increasingly forced to take risks in order to achieve victory. And, so long as the plots are good, the character enjoyable, and there are stories that remain untold or incomplete, the GM has a vested interest in keeping the character alive (no matter how drastic the odds against them may appear to be).

If the GM simply keeps in mind the villain’s goals and the tactics they are employing to achieve them, and recognizes that the longer the players take to cautiously plan their approach, the longer the villain has to make his own preparations (and the closer to success he becomes), excessive caution becomes the players’ enemy just as much as it is that of the GM. A perpetually-shifting compromise equilibrium will be reached – caution, but not too much caution, becomes the objective, and that becomes the players’ technique, keeping the campaign exciting.

Where other ideas have been antagonistic, this is collaborative. Player and GM work together to give the PC a rousing send-off (one way or another) letting them depart with dignity and honor.

Other solutions?

I’m sure there are other solutions. These are just the ones that have occurred to me. Equally, I’m sure that some groups never have to worry about this problem. When Stephen Tunnicliffe was alive, it was never a problem to me – he was always ready to dive in, boots and all, when one of his buttons was pushed, or the right bait dangled; incorporate such a trigger that you can pull whenever the players are growing too cautious, and let nature take its course.

Far more than solutions, what’s important is to put the problem in front of the GM so that they can watch for it and decide on one if and when a decision is required. I’ve done that – the rest is up to you.

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Status Interruptus: Types Of Pause


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African Fish Eagle in flight, Photo by “doc_” (Sias van Schalkwyk). Click on the image to visit his website.

In part one of this series, I demonstrated that a pause or interruption in play can be enormously beneficial, if used correctly. Last week’s article examined before-pause and after-pause content and found that these had to match in order to extract that benefit, and that the type and length of pause was a critical variable that needed to be taken into account…

What Is A Pause In Play?

It sounds like a simple question, doesn’t it? But the more I thought about the subject of pauses and interruptions to play, the more my definition began to broaden.

Most people would probably go along with my initial thoughts – that a pause was an interruption during which no play or other game-related activity of any sort took place. But then I thought about game administration – the awarding of experience points, etc – and realized that these constituted interruptions in play and that the same principles and guidelines could be applied to the before- and after- content that they represented. That then led me to consider pauses while battlemaps etc were set up – same story – and then post-combat game mechanics that were not conducted in-character, which so far as in-character play went, were just as valid cases of an interruption. And then I thought about scenes where the party are split up, with one group in combat while another roleplayed, possibly in an entirely different location, and the realization that even some roleplaying sequences could constitute an interruption in the main focus of play at the time (which could either be the roleplaying sequence or the combat sequence).

By the time I was finished, I had no less than nine different types of pause, and I’m not even sure anymore that I’ve caught them all!

These have been organized very loosely in sequence of greater significance in terms of the scale of the interruption. So I’m starting with things that, until now, might not have been considered an interruption at all, and working my way up to the more obvious items. The reason for this sequence should be fairly obvious if you’ve read the earlier parts of the series, but I’ll reiterate briefly anyway:

Scenes have a certain ‘momentum of emotional intensity’ that continues to affect players (and audiences) subconsciously during a break. However, there is a ‘drag’ akin to gravity that this momentum must continually battle or the buildup of intensity becomes frustration and irritation. If the intensity pre-break is high, this ‘drag’ is also high; if the intensity is low, the ‘drag’ will be low – but so will the plot’s ability to sustain interest over a longer break. The optimum level of intensity post-break is determined by the combination of increase from momentum, the degree of ‘drag’, and the duration these have in which to take effect. Furthermore, the type of content both before and after the break is also a factor. Some types work well together, other types do not.

Understanding the various factors and elements enables a GM to choose the correct intensity and content post-break according to the pre-break content and intensity and duration of pause, or to insert or modify the pre-break content to match correctly with the duration of the pause in play and the nature and intensity of the post-break material dictated as happening next by the plotline, real world, or game mechanics – in other words, to manipulate the pacing of the game content before and after the break to sustain or enhance interest after the break. The cumulative impact of doing it right can be tremendous!

(1) Bridging Scenes

Roleplayed sequences separate to the main action can either drag the intensity level of the main action down (by slowing resolution) or build it up. The key factor that determines which outcome will apply is relevance to the main action.

Hollywood (especially TV productions) have gotten quite good at this. How many times have you seen a dialogue occurring between two characters as a voiceover during a combat or action sequence? How many times have you seen shows cut away from a combat or action sequence briefly for a conversation or other scene only to then return to the combat-in-progress?

  • This technique works if the conversation (a) explains some aspect of the combat that is unclear to one or more participants, usually but not always the protagonist; or (b) increases the danger level presented by the antagonist; or (c) raises the stakes of the outcome of the action sequence. It also works if (d) the voiceover is a flashback in which a plan of action is decided and the action sequence is about the implementation of that plan. In all four of these cases, the interruption enhances the combat sequence.
  • Next most effective is (e) an unrelated sequence of equal intensity that is relevant to the protagonist participating in the action sequence, especially if it threatens to inflict further drama on the life of the protagonist. Two people plotting against the protagonist while the latter is busy dealing with what the audience recognizes as a lesser threat or problem, for example. Because this sustains the emotional intensity of the action sequence, transition back and forth succeeds – at least for a while.
  • Less effective still is (f) an unrelated sequence of equal intensity that is not directly relevant to the protagonist participating in the action sequence (but that is, presumably, relevant to another PC). This is the first subtype of a Bridging Scene interruption that crosses the line from enhancement of the action sequence to potentially damaging it.
  • Worst of all is an unrelated sequence of significantly different intensity. This either makes the action sequence seem mindless and tacked-on (if of higher intensity) or slow and dull (if of lower intensity). Neither is particularly desirable.

The above list is based on my first-draft notes for this article. What I subsequently realized is that it holds true for non-combat in-character scenes as well, ie roleplaying. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a high-intensity interaction or a low-intensity one. This discovery came about when I realized that the same principles also applied to a bridging scene between two completely unrelated scenes linked by any sort of plot continuity. It might be making a plan and executing that plan. It might be having an argument between a PC and an NPC and then having that PC experience a revelatory/introspection scene as he tries to understand what led to the argument in the first place.

It even applies when you have two groups of PCs, each dealing with their own in-game plotline, both of which might derive from a common source earlier in the game/production, or which might be entirely unrelated. This simply means that from the point of view of one group in one plotline, the other is an interruption, while from the point of view of the second group, the first group’s activities interrupt them.

Which brings me to the following point: All of the cases (a) through (f) listed above can also work in an RPG. If you’re in a combat, simply assign an appropriate initiative number to the “other scene” to indicate when you are going to break to it, and break the other scene up into as many parts as you think there will be combat rounds, less one or two. Intersperse one with the other, and there you go.

(2) Housekeeping/Announcements

“Housekeeping” refers to incidentals such as the handing out of experience points, leveling up (if there is such a thing in the game system in question), and so on. “Announcements” are fairly self-evident – at best they deal with how real-world circumstances will impact on the game, for example “Our next session will be on Saturday”.

These interrupt game play without contributing anything but time. At the same time, because they are a necessary part of play, however, they don’t arouse the frustration problems discussed in respect to the previous type of interruption – they simply permit intensity and anticipation to either build or drain. That makes this an ideal way to end a period of play (which is a useful coincidence), either building anticipation for the next chapter/adventure or permitting the the tension from the previous one to drain away, depending on the nature of the last scene played.

However, there are times when this effect is the last thing that you want, as I’ll discuss under (3) and (4) below.

(3) Pre-Combat Setup

This is usually dead time, but that can be unnoticed as the combination of anticipation of the impending battle is heightened during the set-up of the battlemap or whatever you may be using. Only when the players are not looking forward to the battle does this fail to be the case – and that usually means that the anticipation is of a dull or boring time, which can happen if combat always takes too long, or looks like it might in this particular case, or if the opposition looks trivial, or if there has simply been too much combat lately.

There’s not much that an interruption can do to fix game mechanics problems, I’m afraid. Nor can I do much within this subject to deal with a failure to sell the opposition as a credible but beatable threat. This is a situation in which a drop-in interruption in the form of a bridging scene can help, because you can use it to ramp up the level of perceived threat. Alternatively, you can sometimes use some method of delivering the bridging scene that takes one of the heavy-hitters from the PCs out of the combat – and that makes the opposition automatically more dangerous.

If this particular combat looks like it will take much longer than usual, and be uninteresting for that reason, that’s a failure of combat environment design – there is something missing from the circumstances surrounding the combat that is missing, something that promises to bring the combat to a resolution in a reasonable time-frame. It could be that you need to consult Johnn Four’s series on Hazards Of Combat, or perhaps you simply need to re-frame the combat as a delaying tactic of some sort i.e. it will persist only long enough for something else to happen or be complete. Putting a “countdown clock” of some sort into the circumstance can work wonders, especially if the opposition know the timetable (even vaguely) while the PCs don’t.

As for the “too much combat” problem, that’s a flaw in plot design that pacing can’t solve on its own; you need some other sort of content in the adventure to lengthen the interval between combats, even if you have to add a subplot on the fly. Failing that, contemplate running it as one big combat that contains roleplayed segments or elements – or (my favorite solution to this problem) a more cinematic approach (Hmmm – I’ll have to do a post on HOW to run a Cinematic Combat sometime. One moment while I add a reminder to my post schedule… Done – a three part series to follow this one! So, where was I? Oh, yes).

One way or another, that deals with the pacing/interest problems that can arise during pre-combat setup. So now, let’s talk about the times when they are not an issue.

If some anticipation is good, a lot of anticipation is sometimes better. One problem that I haven’t mentioned yet is the problem of anticipation building up interest to the point where the combat itself falls short of the resulting expectations – an anticlimax. Most GMs deal with this with panic and unwarranted powering-up of the opposition just to create opposition of sufficient potency to match the expectations. This, of course, is one of the worst things you can do; long-term, it will result in players being convinced that the GM is out to get them, a paranoia that encourages cheating and uncooperative attitudes.

Here’s a better solution: tailor the complexity of the set-up (measured by how long it will take you) to the degree of anticipation you want to create, which in turn should match the degree of difficulty that the opposition are expected to provide. You can make this happen in several ways – one is to have the PCs attention focus on the opposition and only notice the “dressings” of the environment when resting or moving or encountering them. In effect, leave the combat space undecorated, or mostly so, and add more to it as the combat unfolds. The first time you do this, the players will probably be unhappy – the second time around, it will seem natural, especially if you add appropriate description that covers why the PCs are only noticing things now. Another trick that I’ve used before is to get each player to make a Perception check on behalf of their characters; every success adds another layer of detail. Because the players can see you adding detail to the battlemap in response to each of their checks in turn, it distracts from the length of time the setup is taking.

But I have one final trick that I need to mention – when a combat is expected to be big, or “epic”. I do my setup before the players arrive, or before play begins at the very least, or even as a side-activity while refereeing. The players can either see this environment lurking, waiting to “strike”, or can see it building up as they play. Either way, it means anticipation of the combat will start from the beginning of the day’s play or earlier and will have reached fever pitch by the time you actually place figures on the battlemap.

You can even – from time to time – change the design as you go, seemingly in response to in-game events that actually have nothing to do with it, just to mess with your player’s heads!

Of course, I also need to point out that there’s virtually no setup if you aren’t using battlemaps and miniatures. This eliminates the dead time of set-up but also eliminates the benefits of the anticipation… so, something of a Catch-22. But it’s something that can be taken advantage of, especially if you want to accelerate the pace of the combat itself using Cinematic Techniques.

(4) Post-Combat Cleanup

There are three types of post-combat cleanup activities, and time for only two of them in most campaigns. You can put things away, ready for the next combat, you can deal with xp and healing and other game mechanics, or you can roleplay the post-combat wind-down.

If you deal with either of the first two, or both (which is what most people do), by the time you get to the third, the players have already wound down. The intensity of play is therefore at a much lower level; the combat itself has acted cathartically, releasing the tension and excitement that had built up, and the real-world and game-mechanics activities function as though they were a pause in play, amplifying that effect. Attempting the third is frequently hollow, with the players engagement levels out of step with what their characters should be experiencing.

There are times when that’s exactly what you want; it permits the players to tackle the next sequence of play with relatively clear heads.

A lot of the time, however, that’s not the state that their characters should be in. The adrenalin should still be pumping, and celebrations of victory should be taking place even as the characters decide on their next step. This state of play is better served by delaying those post-cleanup activities until after the third option has taken place, carrying directly on to the initial decision-making for the next part of the adventure. That gets anticipation building again, making it a far better time to deal with any post-combat cleanup that does not take place in-game. If you go directly post-combat into roleplaying, some of the game-mechanics activities that come under the heading of clean-up get roleplayed, but happen anyway.

For me, a big part of the decision rests with another element of the post-combat clean-up: if the players are going to loot the bodies or catalog treasures, they will be going into downtime anyway; I engage in a brief roleplay post-combat, and then go into a full post-combat break. If, however, the campaign is the type where that sort of activity is unusual, the ideal choice is to actually combine the remainder of post-combat cleanup with the next combat’s set-up, or with the next pause of some other type that is going to occur, and deal with all the intervening roleplay immediately.

You can even use character interactions to tailor and tweak these decisions for individual players by means of their characters – if there’s a player who tends to “crash” post-combat faster than his character should, an NPC buddy who is hyper-“up” after the combat can maintain a more even keel. If a player tends to remain juiced on adrenalin longer than is appropriate for his character, an NPC who always does a critical and emotionless combat post-mortem and critique can bring the player back down to earth a little. After all, nowhere in the GM’s manual does it say that they shouldn’t help the players roleplay more effectively!

In a nutshell, then: if your adventure is better served by a break immediately after a combat, do your post-combat cleanup, possibly after a brief period of roleplay, but before critical decisions are made. If your adventure is better served by keeping the adrenalin flowing and the excitement building, commit to a more extensive “in-character” period post-combat and fold the non-essential game mechanics into the next break to come along – even if that places it back-to-back with setting up for the next combat.

(5) Deliberate “Commercial” or Tease

To a certain extent, we have all become accustomed to advertising breaks in the middle of something we’re watching. In general, those have no place within an RPG, but there is an exception: the “next time on” tease, or “next week we’re playing…” commercial. “Station management” commercials of this sort can serve to build excitement (at the expense of tipping your hand to surprises you have planned) or divert building excitement if your next session is to start at a lower key than the players current mood. This works especially well when the day’s play ends in a battle.

These are a lot harder to achieve than in other media because the GM can’t predict what the PCs will say or do; that means he needs to focus on NPCs and NPC-driven events, or be a little more vague. “Next time: the aftermath of the betrayal” (where the “betrayal” in question has been the focus of today’s play) works perfectly well. And telling the players what the next session is going to focus on as a “teaser” gets them thinking along the indicated lines, rather than going off in some wild direction as a result of between-game reviews and conversations. You can also play the “misleading teaser” card, and it is acceptable to do so with greater frequency than would be tolerated in a TV show, simply because the players know that you are trying to build excitement while preserving the plot twists and surprises that you have in store.

The only real problem with a tease is when it falls flat because the players are totally uninterested in what you’re forecasting. This can happen if they are tired of dealing with the same villain all the time, for example. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does happen there is generally very little overt warning; you need to watch for subtle signals from the players – body language, tone of voice, side comments and commentary – that may occur at any time, even some game sessions in advance, i.e. the last time you had something similar happen. A tease can be a very effective tool, but it can cut both ways.

In terms of being a type of break, a Tease is a very interesting proposition. It’s in-character play but without any scope for player interaction. It acts as both a break in terms of accentuating whatever the precursor intensity trend was, but compounds that with the emotional and intensity characteristics of the teaser content, enabling you to drive expectations higher or lower. It’s a type of break that has game content.

This type of break is most closely related to the Bridging Scene, but that had (in most cases) PC interaction with some character – either another PC or an NPC, and this does not. That makes it something of a unique animal.

One caveat: once you make a teaser part of your adventure structure, you can never go back, or at least not until the campaign enters a new phase with very different goals and circumstances. It only takes one use for them to become an established element of the game, expected to occur every time, and missed if they are absent. The only time it’s acceptable to do without one is when the day’s play ends on a dramatic revelation of some sort or some other form of cliffhanger, e.g. a sniper attacks and a PC goes down, wounded, or a bomb goes off – the value of the cliffhanger is the mystery of what will happen next, the suspense of what the outcome will be, and that can be totally eradicated by even a well-chosen teaser. Again, players have been psychologically conditioned by television to find this acceptable.

It follows that most of the time, you will need some sort of teaser if they have become an established part of the structure of play. Your job is to choose the most interesting and dramatic event or events that don’t give the plot away, and this can be quite difficult to do, especially if the next adventure isn’t written yet! So think carefully before you use one – but don’t ignore the potential benefits that can result from doing so.

(6) Step Away From The Table

According to Microsoft, the average human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish (see The Conversation, 28 May 2015; for a counterpoint, follow that with this article from the New York Times).

I would wager that tabletop gamers score even higher on average than other gamers, who were already noted in the research as having resilient attention spans, but even so, it’s food for thought.

When I was working for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Occupational Health & Safety standards were a ten-minute break every hour because that would enable workers to miss one break if necessary without exceeding the maximum threshold of continuous concentration on a task (2 hours). Beyond that limit, error rates increased dramatically as attention to detail and task focus slipped. It was also a known and recorded fact that errors increased even in that second hour, unless at least a five-minute break was taken; it was just that the increase did not exceed the acceptable standards that the ABS had set.

On that basis, I began introducing 5- and 10- minute breaks into my campaigns every 60-to-90 minutes, and found that (a) concentration and focus levels went up; (b) side-chatter at the table went down; and (c) I was better able to focus on what was going on, performing at a higher level as a GM. Although you may not be aware of it, and may even be having a great deal of fun, GMing is an inherently stressful task. Taking a short break lets you de-stress momentarily and do a much better job. Such breaks are now an accepted and standard part of my game formats as a result.

These are breaks in play, quite obviously and by any rational definition, and they impact on the game in the same way as any other break in play. Which means the timing is critical, and the timing is defined by the relationship between the content on either side of the break. You can, through your choice of timing, build anticipation, create frustration, over-excite players or calm them down. They aren’t just a tool to directly help your gameplay abilities, they can make a material difference in the entertainment value of the game itself by manipulating excitement levels and anticipation.

What’s more, because they are relatively short, it’s comparatively easy to analyze the effects that a break has had; for that reason, this is the standard against which all other types of break are “measured”. Meal breaks (the next category to be examined in this article) were analyzed by comparing the effects of such breaks with the effects of these standard 5-to-10 minute intervals, and so on.

Tests have found that there is a maximum tolerance for advertising in TV shows of about 4 minutes, beyond which frustration over the absence of program becomes too great, as does the likelihood of something else on another channel capturing the viewer’s attention while channel-hopping. The frequency of such breaks is also an important factor; the optimum is 2-3 breaks per 30 minutes, or a maximum of 5 breaks per hour. These numbers aren’t hard-and-fast, there is some room for variations, but those are the basis on which most commercial TV operates.

Gaming is a lot more intense and immersive an activity than simply watching a TV show by virtue of the participatory element of a game. It seems to follow that the decompression times, which dictate the tolerable length of breaks, are longer, but the tolerance for frequency of breaks is lower, and my experience in applying such breaks to the gaming session bears this theory out in practice.

That, in turn, helps a GM understand the relationship between frequency and length of breaks and the game content that surrounds them. If the content is low intensity, breaks can be shorter and a little more frequent; if the content is high-intensity, breaks need to be longer and less frequent. However, there is a fine line in the former case; if the content is already low-intensity, and you lower that intensity still further with excessive breaks, it can easily feel like the game has stalled and progress is not being made. This effect is more strongly connected with frequency of breaks, so it’s my general practice to leave that value at the same 60-90 minute standard, and only manipulate the length of the breaks.

(7) Meal Break

At certain times of the day, meal breaks are expected, especially if an activity is expected to persist for some time after a mealtime. Meal breaks are more than several shorter breaks back-to-back; they permit players to digest game events, discuss circumstances and options, and formulate responses. Players are frequently sharper and more focused after such a break.

Within a fairly narrow range, the timing of these breaks is dictated by the clock, making them much harder to manipulate than smaller breaks. The effort required to do so effectively is, accordingly, considerably greater; but so are the benefits to the game of doing so successfully. In a nutshell, if the players are going to be more clearly focused and decisive, having a better understanding of the situation than they did prior to the break, if you can arrange the timing so that this is the circumstance the characters should also be experiencing, gameplay will be far better and more enjoyable.

As a result, there are two types of pre-break content that are especially useful when considering an imminent meal-break. The first is any complex situation or set of boundaries to player activities due to circumstances, where the characters should be more effective at responding than the players might be; the second is immediately following a major revelation of some kind that the characters should be able to take in their stride more effectively than the players will. Detailed planning, or in-depth understanding – those are the outcomes from a meal break to aim for.

The worst kind of pre-break activity are the ones that are generally considered to be the best types before other forms of break – moments of high drama (or melodrama) and combat sequences. That’s because the break is so long that no matter how dramatic and exciting these might be, the excitement and drama has had time to wear off during the course of the meal. Resuming where you left off, character emotions will be so far removed from what the players are feeling that there will be serious discontinuities in emotional reaction.

Deep, meaningful, low-intensity interactions, and introspection/analysis content work well before a meal break, even though they work poorly before any other kind of break; high-intensity interactions and action sequences work poorly before a meal, even though they are the best types of content prior to a shorter break or a longer one! That’s because meal-breaks kill surprise and excitement and adrenalin and anticipation. They really are the complete opposite of most types of game pause!

(8) End Of Play (prior to concluding chapter)

So you’ve reached the end of play for the day, but the particular adventure that you are running has not yet come to an end. Thinking like a TV producer, what you want when faced with this type of break is to end on a hook that will get “the viewers” to tune in again next week. That implies that the most dramatic and over-the-top situations should occur at such times – something memorable and exciting, in other words. The alternative is to treat these like a meal break, ending on a moment of revelation. Cliffhangers or surprises are the ticket.

That actually gives a wide scope in latitude. ANY type of pre-break content can be acceptable; the more important consideration is how that content will play at the start of the next game session, when intensity levels as experienced by the players will be relatively low.

But there’s a cheat that can be used to good effect: the synopsis. You can use the synopsis to rebuild the drama and intensity that had existed at the end of the previous session of play, at least to some extent; or you can even skip the synopsis and simply replay the moment of revelation or dramatic pronouncement from last time. It’s always better to start a session with a combat than to end one with a combat, for example, because simply recapturing the final moments of confrontation that were about to create the combat situation very quickly ramps the excitement up.

The key factor, as identified in previous articles is this: the ending has to point to the beginning that is to come. The pre-break content has to involve a situation that requires resolution at the start of the next session. If the pre-break content meets this simple criterion, anything else can be managed by manipulating the presentation at the start of the next game session.

Here’s a solid tip: In a pinch, any 5-minute break can be turned into an end-of-session break with generally satisfactory results. But that only utilizes part of the range of options available, so that should be a last resort.

(9) End Of Adventure

Things are somewhat different at the end of an adventure. Much depends on whether or not the PCs succeeded in achieving their objectives, and on what relationship (if any) there is between the concluding adventure and the next one. Some GMs think of adventures as volumes in a book, more-or-less independent of each other; others favor a stronger continuity and see adventures as one or more chapters in a book, each shaping the content of the next while propelling the protagonists into a new phase of a larger plotline. Some of my campaigns take one position, others the alternative, because campaign structures are chosen to suit the genre and style of play.

Even within that context, there can be variations. Adventures in the Adventurer’s Club campaign are fairly strongly episodic and isolated from each other, though subplots in one adventure may point to a later one to come; but on the China Expedition (“Things Of Stone And Wood”), we had multiple connecting plots within the context of the one overseas jaunt. First, as a prologue, there was the briefing, against a background of internal politics and dissension within the Adventurer’s Club; that then led to adventure number one in the sequence, in which a PC was kidnapped by his arch-enemy and had to be rescued; which led to adventure number two, a confrontation with river bandits and a supernatural kraken as the PCs made their way up the Yangtze River; which led to adventure number three, supernatural creatures attacking a village decimated by illegal medical testing involving another PCs arch-nemesis; which led to adventure number four, an epic trip into the Himalayas; which led to adventure number five, the confrontation with a resurrected Chinese Sorcerer and Mandarin with power over the elements; which then led to adventure number six on the way home, a Chinese Vampire with the PCs caught in a confined space (their ship); then to adventure seven, a confrontation with bureaucracy and another arch-enemy trying to steal the PCs cargo; which led to adventure eight, a fight between two Yakuza factions, one backed by a demon, and the other with the PCs as reluctant allies, in a bid to stop a Japanese invasion of China; and ending with an epilogue as the PCs returned home from their mission. Few of these missions had anything to do with each other; but they were all connected by the geographic consideration of traveling from A (New York) to B (a Himalayan Mountaintop within remote China) and then back again via C (Japan).

The less successful an adventure, in terms of the satisfactory resolution of outstanding issues of importance to the players/PCs, the more important it is that the end of the adventure propel those PCs forward into the next plotline. This can be most easily done with a “Teaser” as discussed above. It can even be worthwhile having an adventure end midway through the game session and the next start a few minutes later, blurring the lines.

The more satisfying an adventure is, within the above terms, the more the satisfaction that results will generate a momentum of its own to carry you forward into the next. As a general rule of thumb, I will simply announce the title of the next adventure (carefully chosen not to give away any secrets) and leave that to convert the satisfaction of success into anticipation of the adventure to come.

Unlike a meal break, the end of an adventure IS like a lot of smaller breaks back-to-back, but it can also be used in the same way that a meal break can if you have strong continuity or a strong connecting thread.

Impure Interruptions

Several of these breaks refer to combining one form of break with another. While that’s a subject for the final part of this series, I wanted to talk for a minute about a related topic, “Impure” interruptions. Someone needs to use the rest room urgently (it might even be you) even though there is no break scheduled, for example. Or someone’s phone rings. Such interruptions are a part of life; they will inevitably occur on occasion.

The best thing to do in such cases is to take advantage of the interruption by merging it with some other kind of break, then (if necessary) amend the post-break content by inserting a bridging scene before resuming where you were interrupted. This bridging scene need not be one with any PC involvement; it can be perfectly acceptable to resume with a prelude to the next adventure, or even the one after that. You can, in this way, target the players rather than their characters, getting the former into the correct state of mind to resume handling of their characters in the interrupted scene.

It may be necessary, bearing in mind the frequency-of-breaks issue, that this means foregoing the next five-to-ten minute scheduled break, essentially bringing it forward without warning or planning. Use the break to plan how you are going to handle the reentry into play.

You’ve already seen how different pre-break content and post-break content can alter the effect of a break and permit manipulation of the intensity of the game; this article has shown how the nature of the break itself can have just as big an impact. The final part of this article will look at Combinations, and how to choose the combination that meets your game needs at any given time, in other words, the practical application of these principles.

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New Beginnings: Phase X: Beginning


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The final stages of creation bring a new campaign to a glorious full bloom

It’s not easy making a completely fresh start. This series has examined the process of creating a new campaign in detail, and at last, the new campaign is ready for the curtain to lift and the show to begin – right?

Right?

This isn’t the first time it has seemed that way since this series began – there have been at least two other occasions when you reach what seems the end of the development path only to start over, adding layers of depth, complexity, and meaning.

So, what’s left to do?

Four little things. Or five, depending on how you count them. Or maybe that should be six.

  1. Revise. Again.
  2. Campaign Prep.
  3. First Adventure.
  4. Adventure Prep.
  5. Begin Again. You heard me.
  6. Enjoy yourself.

No Plan Survives Contact with Reality: Revise. Again. (Just a little).

No matter how clear you thought your vision was, no matter how clearly you think you have explained it, as soon as players begin interacting with your campaign – which they do, as soon as they start generating characters to inhabit your creations – those ideas and concepts begin evolving, filtered and compounded with the interpretations of other people.

If your concepts are exciting enough, the evolution may begin in the form of conversations as players share their thoughts before play starts, questioning and speculating and investing in your creation. Even without that, though, rest assured that your creation is indeed evolving behind the scenes.

It’s happening in your head too, whether you realize it or not. There will be some parts of what you’ve created that will stay in your mind, and other parts that will get lost in there, because that’s the way our memories work – and we then invent or romanticize whatever is needed to fill the gaps even if there is already something in the campaign plan doing that, which has been forgotten. Inevitably, some of these new ideas will feel more attractive or interesting than those already built into the campaign – and about half the time when that happens, they actually are. The rest of the time, the impression is a false one that derives from having lived with the original idea for so long.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

Inevitably, then, some of these new ideas will sneak into the campaign, where they will fit like a square peg forced into a round hole that’s just a little bit wrong in size. The idea itself may be brilliant but it won’t tie into everything the way that whatever has been replaced did, unless you’re exceptionally lucky. Nor do you have time to go back and fully integrate a new idea into the campaign – the countdown clock has started.

As a result, no matter how good the new idea is, incorporating it inevitably dilutes and even corrupts the campaign at least a little. Set your new ideas aside for a new campaign (more on that subject later) – but do it in a separate file so that if or when cracks appear in your plans, you can look for solutions in these derivative ideas.

And then, of course, there’s failure of communications to take into account. For me, this usually comes down to things that seemed so obvious that I didn’t think to put them in writing, like how one idea relates to another; six months or three years or whatever later, the “obvious” has completely vanished. For others, it might be a failure to explain their idea sufficiently for the players to grasp it – something I’ve also experienced from both sides of the gaming table.

Square peg in a lathe: fixing the problems

Make sure that your players know that you want them to ask you about anything that’s unclear. You will hopefully be able to respond, “That will get dealt with in-game” because it was supposed to be a mystery, but sometimes they will reveal unintended failures to communicate. Patch, Clarify, and Notify. Often, another player will respond, “I got what you meant right away” but you can’t rely on that.

It’s also important to remember to make allowance for spending part of your time on such clarification and discussion with the players when you schedule your first session, i.e. set the deadline for have your first adventure prepped. There will be distractions, and it’s also often useful to take a short break to reinvigorate yourself – you have been doing a lot of work creating the campaign, after all.

BUT (and it’s a big but, that’s why it’s in capitals) sometimes there’s been a gaping hole occupying our mental blind spot(s), which usually gets discovered when someone asks a reasonable question or offers some reasonable conjecture based on what they know and you can’t answer them – not even from your secret GM files. Quite obviously, the worst possible time for this to happen is when you’ve already commenced an adventure based on whatever surrounds that blind spot, and the best possible time is whenever you have the most time available to fix the problem before anyone notices.

“Fixing the problem” means inserting an idea that makes sense in relation to everything else. And making a note of the blind spot so that you never get caught by that one again!

Ah, if only it were that simple. Once the problem is fixed, you have a decision between two choices to make: you can either issue an update to the players, with a mea culpa that proves you’re only human after all – and that the campaign was flawed slightly before they saw word one – or you find a reason for the new idea not to be mentioned in the briefing notes, only in your secret GM files – and schedule a revelation of the truth, probably for very early in the campaign if not in the first adventure. But that then requires a reason or cause for the revelation – one that doesn’t expose other secrets, and which doesn’t obviously fail to expose other secrets, and which will still seem reasonable to have excluded those other secrets when they are revealed. Oh, what a tangled web…

Unless I can get a really good adventure or encounter out of the revelation, one that makes sense in terms of the broader campaign structure, AND satisfies all of the above criteria, it’s usually a lot less wearing to admit the flaw and move on. But either way, you have work to revisit and revise.

IKEA, not LEGO: Campaign Prep

A standard part of the process of creating an adventure is the just-in-time principle – commencing the prep work not for the adventure to come, but for the adventure in which the results will be required. That comes with a price-tag: it front-loads the campaign with additional prep. Of course, that’s probably the best time for it – you’re still relatively fresh, should definitely be excited and enthusiastic, and there will never be a point at which the campaign as a whole is fresher in your mind than when you have just finished creating it. (In fact, part of the design process involves inserting low-prep adventures into key moments so that you have time to actually finish the necessary game prep – and making allowances for those tasks that will inevitably take longer than you have budgeted for).

This prep can be broken down into two or three layers (layer three will sometimes be unoccupied):

  • Prep needed for adventure #1 that will be reused in later adventures;
  • Prep needed purely for adventure #1 that you do not expect to reuse in the immediate future;
  • Prep needed for adventures #2 and beyond that you have to start working on now for it to be complete when the time comes.

I distinguish the first of these as being “Campaign Prep” as opposed to “Adventure Prep” (which I will deal with separately a little later). Because it is intended for use in multiple adventures, it repays additional time, effort, and attention to detail – even if you have to cut corners a little on categories 2 and 3.

I use a number of criteria to assess where to short-change myself in terms of game prep:

  • If a corner has to be cut, the item that should be short-changed in terms of substantiative preparation is the one that is going to be needed last, because that offers the maximum opportunity to make up the shortfall at a later date.
  • However, the relative impact of the cuts on the quality of the result, and therefore the amount of time that can be acceptably saved, should also be taken into consideration;
  • And so should the relative importance of the prep to the adventure in question and to the overall campaign.

This makes a simple question rather more complicated. Every situation and every campaign and every GM will be different. That’s why prep management is such a popular and recurring subject for sites like Campaign Mastery!

Rather than trying to resolve the problem here and now, I’ll instead point readers to earlier articles that deal with the subject: It’s Not Like Shooting Sushi In A Barrel: A Personalized Productivity Focus For Game Prep and Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity, and finally, the comments section of Adventure Structure: My Standard Formatting.

I consider the difference between these categories so important that I deal with campaign prep and adventure prep completely separately when getting ready to first run a new campaign – so much so that I will even delay or reschedule the start date in order to get campaign prep done, but will (usually) find a way to make do without if the adventure prep isn’t finished. After all, when you get right down to it, a lot of adventure prep is garnish and enhancement – important but not critical.

All of which means that different quality standards should apply to the two. Campaign Prep should be done as well as you know how to do it; adventure prep can be a little sloppier, a little more imperfect – a little more short-cutted. Doing the two separately means that campaign prep is worked on until it is complete – and adventure prep is done as best it can be in whatever time remains. As a rule of thumb, I try to allow twice as much prep time for “campaign” items as I think I will need to produce something of workable minimum standard.

The difference between the two really is akin to the difference between Ikea and Lego. Ikea create furniture that is perfectly engineered to be simple to construct, things that are expected to last; Lego is capable of far more spontaneous expression, and just as carefully engineered to be a building block, incomplete in itself, and eminently replaceable with another Lego brick.

The Difficult First Adventure: Creating Work Habits

Theoretically, you can do campaign prep before actually writing the first adventure, and should not do adventure prep until you have at least outlined that adventure and assessed your needs. In practice, the first adventure (like all first impressions) is so important, and ties in with so much campaign prep, that the two generally need to be worked on concurrently.

Why should the first adventure be so much harder than any other? Because of the sheer amount of material that needs to be established. Nothing is “real” until it appears in-game and everything in the first adventure is appearing in-game for the very first time. I therefore make special efforts with the first adventure, way beyond what I would normally exert on any other adventure (except perhaps the grand finale to the entire campaign). Think of a good first adventure as an investment that returns compound interest with every subsequent day’s play.

But even more important than actually completing the creation of the first adventure as a quality product is the establishment of a routine, a pattern, a work habit that will persist throughout the campaign (at least, it is to be hoped). I’ve talked in other articles about the ratio of prep time to play time, and how quickly time can add up if you can just do a little each day, and how each doubling of time spent in prep yields considerably less than a doubling of quality – once you get past a minimum threshold, of course. It’s the point where those returns begin to diminish that I normally define as “the minimum playable standard” (in reality, you can often create something quite playable with far less time invested – but that’s the point of optimum return on prep time invested).

You will never get a better opportunity to actually establish a work habit than before the pressure of actual play begins. I actually double my estimates of how much time I expect to need to reach that minimum standard when I’m talking about the first adventure, and that’s after separating campaign prep from adventure prep.

For example: The first adventure is estimated to be three game sessions of 4 hrs length, in total, for a total playing time of twelve hours. I estimate that the “minimum playable standard” for this particular campaign is approximately 1 hour of prep for every 2 hours of play – a fairly typical ratio – so the demand is for 6 hours of adventure prep. That could be done in a single Sunday – if nothing interrupts you too much – but over six days, an hour a day does the job. Over twelve days, thirty minutes a day is enough. Over 24 days, just 15 minutes a day gets the job done. But this is for the first adventure; so double that schedule: an hour a day for 12 days, or every 2nd day for 24 days, or half an hour every day for those 24 days, or 2 hrs a week for 6 weeks, or whatever fits into your life and is sustainable.

Here’s another way to look at it: If you expect to produce a new adventure every 3 weeks – which is what’s needed if your adventures are all three playing-days in length and you play once a week – then you should give yourself at least 6 weeks to work on the first one, not counting campaign prep or player character creation.

Those last two activities are something that you should be able to perform simultaneously – and that’s also convenient, because it means that you can estimate the minimum time your campaign prep should take, double it (as explained previously), and work backwards from the planned date of the first adventure to specify a “window” for campaign prep – which just happens to be how long you can give the players to read the briefing materials you’ve compiled during campaign creation, generate PCs, ask questions, etc.

LEGO, not IKEA: Adventure Prep, times two or three

Previous articles – heck, whole series – here at Campaign Mastery have focused on the writing of adventures, and how long you should spend doing it. There is a fine line between too little and too much, and it’s very easy to stray to one side or the other. But writing adventures is not the totality of adventure prep; and the remainder is often overlooked or underestimated. Generating NPCs, creating maps, creating treasure lists, finding or creating props and illustrations, and so on and so forth.

My thinking on the question of how much adventure prep should be devoted to writing changes with the wind and season; it’s a question that I’ve visited and revisited several times, usually as an incidental aspect of those discussions on adventure writing. Here’s my current thinking:

First Draft: Preliminary thoughts and existing content
  1. Outline: describes the overall adventure in a few short sentences, a single paragraph at most. Plot without script or structure, the bare minimum that you would need to be able to wing it and still produce something that more or less fits within the campaign plan. Your campaign plan – as generated during the course of this series – contains this, and more. So I start by extracting the details from the campaign plan and filling in any gaps in what’s there, to the point where if I had to describe the adventure, I could answer the fundamental questions of Who, Why, Where, and any Campaign-level goals that I want the plot to achieve.
  2. Entry point: How I think the PCs will get involved with the plotline.
  3. Resolution: How I think the adventure will end if everything goes right for the PCs, the maximum that I want them to be able to achieve, and at least one way that they might get to that point.

That’s the bare minimum that I need in order to run the adventure, and if I have to, it’s enough simply to have all that in my head before play starts. It takes between ten and thirty minutes to achieve, depending on the complexity of the adventure.

Second Draft: Structural Completion
  1. Central Adventure Structure: Bearing in mind any preset format considerations (which were discussed in the previous part of this series), I break the adventure down into acts – as many as I think necessary. Each act gets accompanied by an outline of what’s supposed to happen, in general terms. As a rule of thumb, each sentence in the overall plot summary becomes an Act, but there will almost certainly be additional ones required to get characters from A to B within the plot.
  2. Subplots: Are there any subplots that need “screen time”? List them as additional scenes in the Acts where I think they will best fit into the action.
  3. Screen Time: Does every PC (and “on-screen” ally) have something to do in each Act? If not, create and add encounters or subplots.

This fills in the bare bones of the adventure outline. It can take anywhere from a handful of minutes to a couple of hours.

Third Draft: Essentials Identification
  1. Scene Breakdown: I then break each Act down into the scenes that I expect to have to take place, based on the second draft. Each scene is described by a single sentence.
  2. Flags: I make a note of how the PCs might change the course of the Adventure (Flags), and insert additional scenes and variant scenes into the scene breakdown to reflect this. Some of these simply deal with consequences and ramifications, some deal with getting the plot back on track, and some are simply placeholders. My philosophy is fairly straightforward: so long as I know the NPCs and their goals, plan, and capabilities, I can perpetually adapt an adventure to reflect changing circumstances on the fly, so it doesn’t matter too much what the PCs do or how they get from plot point A to plot point C – even skipping over plot point B entirely, if they are clever enough. So most of my flags and breakdowns are done from the antagonists’ perspective, and detail how they will try to get their plans back on track, what vulnerabilities they become aware of, and how they will attempt to exploit any situations that might arise fortuitously (or how they will minimize the damage and respond if they encounter an unexpected setback).
  3. Breakdowns: in any plot, there are things that have to happen between beginning and end. This is often about ensuring that the PCs have the resources and information they need to understand what is happening to whatever extent I deem it reasonable that they would, and to be able to do something about it. “Breakdowns” are things that can derail the campaign if they don’t happen – once an antagonist has done whatever he needs to do to advance the campaign-level plot, I generally don’t care what happens to him, for example – he has served his purpose. In some cases, I may need to ensure that the antagonist escapes, or at the very least, survives as an antagonist – or that I have a plan to wheel in a replacement to finish the job if he doesn’t. Breakdowns are potential major plot problems and a basic solution.
  4. Plot Sequence: I take that list of scenes and subplots and flags and breakdowns and put them into a logical sequence within each act. This usually simply means dropping the insertions into place.
  5. Location summary: I list the key locations in which activity is expected to take place. As a general rule of thumb, it’s one location per scene, but sometimes there are more. Some of these will already be specified. Each should get a thumbnail description – usually no more than two or three words.
  6. Individuals summary: I list the key NPCs who are going to appear within the adventure in the order of the first scene in which they appear. Each should get a thumbnail description – sometimes this is a personality attribute, sometimes its physical, and sometimes it’s what I need the NPC to be able to do.
  7. Things summary: I make a list of any objects that play a central role in a scene. This might be a bomb, a briefcase, a statue, a jewel, a weapon, a safe.., anything that I think the players might want me to describe. I include any “special effects” that I think necessary. Each gets a thumbnail description of three words or so. These should also be in the order that they appear in the draft adventure.
  8. Important speeches: I make a list of any important passages of speech that need to be prepared in advance. This will often include villain gloating, but may be an NPC briefing on just about anything. I will summarize both what the gist of the statement will be and how it will be delivered.

This stage fleshes out the structure of the adventure and identifies the adventure prep required, as you’ll see in a moment. This set of steps can take an hour or two, or more if there’s an unusually large number or it’s an unusually large/complicated adventure.

Actual Adventure Prep (Take 1)
  1. Everything on the lists of locations, individuals, things, and speeches, needs one or more of five things. The 15th step in adventure prep is to decide which of these each requires. The five are: (a) A description; (b) An image; (c) A prop; (d)A battlemap representation; or, (e) A text.
  2. Once I know what’s required, I prioritize in order of importance. For details of how I plan the fulfillment of my prep list, refer to an article I mentioned earlier: Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity.
  3. Images: visuals are great because even if you don’t find exactly what you want, you can use what you do find to inspire a description that does fit your needs. Use the thumbnail descriptions to tell you what to search for and how to select the best choices from the options available, then hit Google Image Search or equivalent. A great example: We needed a 1930s Romanian Lawyer for the Pulp Campaign. We searched for Romanian Lawyer. One of the images that came up was Larry Hagman in the role of J.R. Ewing from the original series of Dallas, complete with cowboy hat. I combined that visual with the personality of the Russian Cosmonaut from Armageddon and a few other sources to create a lawyer who was an Americanophile and wannabe-Cowboy in the Wild West. The players may not remember his name, but they’ll still remember everything else about him!
  4. Props: unless it’s paper-based, ie the text on a scroll or a fake newspaper or something along those lines, these will usually take too long to create, so I’ll use a description and/or a visual instead.
  5. A Battlemap representation: Most things smaller than human size can be indicated with a small dice or something along those lines. I often get creative but spend minimal time on these – refer to my article 52+ Miniature Miracles: Taking Battlemaps the extra mile for lots of ideas on achieving high bang-for-buck from this type of game prep.
  6. That leaves only descriptions and fixed blocks of text. Since these two rarely coincide, I do them both at the same time – at least to a minimum standard (bullet-point synopsis, in the former case, without the bullet points to make modification & compilation easier. But I generally don’t start on these until after I’ve handled everything else. Descriptions should be a three-to-five line paragraph maximum. Fixed blocks of text can be whatever length is necessary – but work HARD at compressing them, using the techniques offered in my series on The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative.
  7. I will use no more than half of the prep time remaining after reaching step 15 (above) for this, with the expectation of coming back to it later, after a reassessment of the time available. This is important in assessing the prioritization.

It can take anywhere from seconds to minutes to do each item of this game prep. It’s easy to consume multiple hours of prep-time on it, in aggregate.

Fourth Draft: Other Narrative & Content
  1. I’ll then turn my attention to the adventure itself, once again. Into each scene I will insert any required narrative & other content. This includes numbering and referencing the results of the game prep listed above, which I will use as inspiration. In particular, I will avoid wasting time describing something if I have a visual to offer. This also includes notes to convey information or instructions privately to players. I will make at least one compression/cleanup pass – which will mean nothing to anyone who hasn’t read my series on Stylish Narrative, referenced above.
  2. I’ll then create any NPCs needed, to whatever level of detail is required.

Campaign Mastery has run lots of articles on how to do this, and they are all worth reading, in my opinion. I use all the techniques described on a regular basis. Here’s an incomplete list, in no particular order:

  1. I make sure that at the start of every scene I note who’s supposed to be where, what they are doing, and what (if anything) is supposed to be happening simultaneously with that scene.
The balance of time

That deals with the essentials up to at least a minimum acceptable standard. All that remains is to allocate your remaining time wisely and use it to enhance, polish, and decorate:

  1. Finally, I’ll do a reassessment of the time remaining, adding to the prep time list additional refinement of the most important narrative passages and replacement of any earlier prep results that weren’t completely satisfactory, then apply the prep time that remains at this point to prioritize what’s left to do.

The End is the beginning: Start again.

The time to start gathering ideas and notes for your next campaign is as soon as you have finished creating this one. As I said earlier, don’t try and shoehorn your ideas into holes in your existing design until you confirm that there really is a hole there – something that with this development structure, shouldn’t happen; most of the time, you will find that there is already a solution in place that had slipped your mind, and that there isn’t actually a hole to fill.

But you can never have too many good ideas, and you can be pretty much guaranteed to forget any that you don’t write down somewhere. So start a new ideas file or two.

Why two? One for ideas that you think are or might be compatible with the new campaign – you can never tell when you’ll need a drop-in adventure, character, encounter, situation, location, or Macguffin! And one, obviously, for ideas that you are reasonably sure won’t fit the new campaign, and are saving for consideration when the time comes to create the next.

Because here’s the thing about this entire process: the more you can do in advance, the less work you will have to do when the time comes. It’s easier to create a great campaign if you have 100 good ideas to pick from for content; and that in turn is a lot easier if you’ve compiled 500 ideas against future need.

That’s why, whenever an idea was rejected in creating the plot skeleton for the new campaign, it was put back into the ideas file – so that it would be there for possible future use.

The Secrets To Success

There are several secrets to success built into this entire approach, in addition to those described above, and they are worth spelling out, now that we’re at the end of the process:

  • Organization. The objective of designing a great new campaign is approached in a very organized way that is also very flexible in creative terms.
  • Structure. There’s a rational structure to both the process and the products that result, and both are designed with actual usage in mind at all times – so all you have to do is tick each box as you come to it, and leave the totality big picture to form of its own accord.
  • Deconstruction of tasks into achievable smaller goals. This is a big element of the process. In particular, it focuses on preparing what you’re going to need before you need it, and – if a major task can’t be completed in one step – doing (and using) those elements that you can complete before revisiting the rest.
  • Top-Down overall design. This is something that I learned about when studying Computer Programming. It essentially means getting a fundamental outline, identifying each required detailed element within that outline, and filling in those details one at a time with something that fulfills the needs of that fundamental outline.
  • Stepwise Refinement. Get the basics in place for everything, then refine and polish each element. The basics give strength, making the overall result robust enough to survive actual play; the refinement and polishing makes everything pretty.
  • Top-Down integration of bottom-up components. Instead of simply throwing a lot of ideas at the wall and trying to make sense of the results, this gathers up detailed content and fits it into the structure only if it fits the picture – as though you had a box with five different jigsaw puzzles in place but only wanted to solve one of them, this approach incorporates a process to select the appropriate jigsaw pieces and set aside the rest.
  • Iteration. Simple processes, repeatedly applied, yield dramatic results that are completely out of reach to those who simply start at one end and keep writing and planning until they get to the other. This keeps individual tasks easily achievable without sacrificing the end result.
  • Time Management. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of very careful time management built into the process. That’s because at every point in the process, the focus is on what matters most to the end result, without getting distracted by side-issues. One of the big secrets of iteration is that, in the long run, it actually takes less time to complete the process than doing it by direct methods. Sometimes, a LOT less.
  • Error Correction. Not only is the process itself “error unfriendly”, by virtue of the top-down approach, it actively seeks out and corrects errors, misjudgments, and flawed assumptions as it goes – before these become critical. It’s not impossible to stuff things up using this process, but it’s a whole lot less likely to happen – and it’s far more likely that any errors will get trapped and resolved before they matter.
  • Practicality. There’s an underlying practicality to the process, because it focuses on achieving “deliverables” and “milestones”, on ensuring that the necessary resources for each stage in the process are on hand when they are needed. Small tasks are easily completed if you have the tools, skills, and resources necessary; a lot of small tasks makes a major project something that’s practical to achieve.

These are all proven design principles and techniques. Applied correctly, they can construct software, or a bridge, or a car – or a great campaign. But, even more than that, this is a machine for making such campaigns, one after another after another. And that’s one of the big secrets to success as a GM. Wheels within wheels within wheels – all assembled one wheel at a time.

Enjoy The Fruits Of Your Labors

If you’ve followed this process from beginning to end in creating your campaign, you have worked hard to create a campaign that you can enjoy running, and that your players can enjoy playing. You’re as entitled to vicarious enjoyment of their successes as anyone; you’re also entitled to enjoy putting challenges in their path. Have FUN with what you have created; one of the primary objectives in this whole process has had the hidden subtext of giving you the liberty to relax and enjoy your game. There is always a thrill and a feeling of success when a plan comes together, and this process is all about taking a bunch of wildly unrelated ideas and forging them into something that’s fantastically entertaining. No-one has done more to earn the right to enjoy the campaign than you have. Don’t waste that opportunity; use it to inspire and motivate you.

Which brings me to the end of this epic series of articles. I forecast at the beginning that it was going to be a wild, wild ride, and it’s been all that and more! So I thought it worth taking a moment in this postscript to point out that the entire series was constructed using the same principles that is espouses, and stands as a practical demonstration of that process. I started with a simple breakdown – a list of the major topics to be covered. Each of these became a separate post in the series, and was then broken down into smaller units, which became the major headings as shown in the initial contents list. In some cases, it was obvious that these major headings needed to be further subdivided, and some of those subdivisions were obvious – but most were not.

When the time came to write each part, I was guided by what had already been done – the available resources – and the initial outline, essentially a bullet-point list of the topics to be covered under that umbrella. I was also able to look ahead to future parts of the series, thanks to that initial structure, anticipate the resources that would be needed, and ensure that the creation of those resources was built into the process. Additional sections could be added, sections subdivided into subheadings and even sub-subheadings as the path to explanation became clear. Knowing how it all fitted into the bigger picture also gave me the luxury of being able to pause and examine interesting side-paths along the way.

I had no way of knowing exactly what the end result, this final part, would look like, back when I started; but I had faith in the processes that were going to get me here, having ensured a coherent steady development along the way. But I had fun getting here, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the twists and turns along the way. Just what you want in a finished campaign – for each part, each adventure, to have a purpose within the whole, while possessing the flexibility to let players do as they wish within any given part – and the room to step outside that structure when an interesting option presents itself. Use it with my blessings!

Give a fish, and you feed someone for a day. Teach them to fish, and they will never go hungry. At least, that’s the theory…

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No Article Today


Just a quick heads-up:

Due to a lengthy doctor’s appointment, I am left without enough time to get today’s article finished. I’ll try to get it finished tomorrow, but have another appointment then, so that might not happen, either.

Apologies are tendered, and I’ll try not to let it happen again – though I’m a little surprised (given my current health problems – see the preface to Stealth Narrative – Imputed info in your game and the footnote to The End Of The Adventure) that I’ve been able to prevent it happening sooner!

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New Beginnings: Phase 9: Completion


new beginnings 10

The campaign is on the verge of blooming as growth sprouts in every direction.

It’s not easy making a completely fresh start. This series examines the process of creating a new campaign in detail, a process that is approaching its conclusion.

Campaign Structure

There isn’t much of a structural nature left undone, or so it must seem – and, truthfully, the bulk of the work is done. But there is a small remainder that demands a little intensive thought.

How is everything going to tie together? You have intrusive game mechanics, practical necessities, the need to interrupt play for what might be a day, a week, a fortnight, a month – or some unpredictable combination and/or multiple of those. There is the necessary interface between experience point awards, other rewards, character progression, and plot to take into account – there’s very little worse than an adventure that over- or under-estimates the capabilities of the PCs at that point in time, but that has to happen for the overall plotline of the campaign to make sense.

These are all global decisions, individually small in nature, but combining to wrap the adventure up in an overall look-and-feel envelope that will encapsulate each adventure. Everything from the degree of continuity from session-to-session through to the style in which play will be synopsized (or even if it will be synopsized) fall into this category.

It’s easy to make these decisions. It’s not easy to ensure that they harmonize with each other, and still harder to ensure that they compliment the adventure content. In fact, it’s all most people can do to try and minimize the level of interference that they impose on the campaign content.

What might surprise those who haven’t thought about it before is that this approach is actually just one step removed from successfully completing that much harder task.

  • Make a list of the decisions that need to be made.
  • Order them in sequence of the amount of in-game content.
  • Make your decisions in that sequence.
  • The criteria are to choose the alternative that:
    • reflects the theme,
    • or, if not, compliments the theme,
    • or, if not, reflects the way the players are expected to react to the theme,
    • or, if not, balances the theme,
    • or, if not, that interfere the least with the theme’s expression.

This could be as simple as ensuring that every negative or downside is paired with a positive or upside, regardless of the relative strength of the elements of an individual pair, or as complicated as ensuring that at certain points in the campaign the balance shifts this way or that. It can be as plot-oriented as ensuring that each synopsis contains dark hints at the relevance to the larger picture, or as metagame-based as giving the players the option of “buying” a treasure/reward preference or substitute with XP that would otherwise go to enhancing their character’s capabilities. There are a multitude of options, but the process listed above will enable you to navigate your way through not to the compromise that interferes the least, but to the compromise that enhances the most.

There is one term in the list above that needs a little further discussion. That word is “balance” and it occurs in the second last basis of judgment. “Balance” doesn’t mean contradicting the theme or playing up the opposite; it means (in this context) grounding the game element so that the players aren’t necessarily feeling the same things as their characters, putting some distance between passionate positions and an impartial position that enables the players to enjoy the theme vicariously.

Adventure Format

One of those global elements needs to be singled out for special attention. Over time, your campaign will develop an individual adventure format whether you create one deliberately or not – but there can be a lot of pain, frustration, and lost opportunity in the meantime. A far better alternative is to create something that is close to what will arise anyway and just tweak and refine it, thereafter.

Each of the campaigns that I run has a different mixture of plot and in-character life. In some cases, only a few minutes (per multi-game-session adventure) for each character brings their lives up to date, with the occasional exception where the personal life of a PC provides the lead-in for a particular adventure. In others, I might spend an hour or more on “social in-character activities” for every hour spent actually advancing the plot agenda. Most fall somewhere between these extremes.

In some cases, these occur in deliberately-inserted “quiet moments” inside the plot, in other cases they precede the adventure. In one of my Fumanor campaigns, I target the mid-adventure session breaks with cliff-hanger endings, while bookending each adventure with “social life” – and again target these with a “personal life” cliffhanger. However, that campaign also had “soft boundaries” – which means that i was content for one adventure to end, and another to begin, mid-game session. (“Hard boundaries”, in contrast, mandate that each adventure ending also ends the day’s game session, demanding “padding” mid-adventure to get the timing more or less right – another of those “global choices” that I mentioned earlier.)

I have run campaigns in which experience was handed out after each conflict, campaigns in which experience was handed out after each game session, campaigns in which experience was handed out after each adventure, and at least one campaign where experience was handed out by note (modern equivalent: email) in between game sessions. Where does this metagame element fit into your adventure format?

I have run campaigns that preceded each social interaction session with a political subplot, and others which preceded it with a James-Bond style Teaser action sequence that did not involve the PCs – these targeted the players, but mandated that I provide a channel by which that information ultimately found its way to the PCs. I used a variety of such channels – everything from security footage to speculation to a mystic’s visions (eventually the players figured out that someone was pulling their strings by “showing” them the things the someone wanted them to see, leading them into the final phase of the campaign). This is a perfect example of how the adventure format and these global decisions can operate to enhance a campaign and even form a central element of the plot.

House Rules

In earlier parts of this series, we have made (and extended, and trimmed) a list of House Rules that would be required for the campaign; but with the exception of a few that were retained from earlier campaigns, these haven’t actually been written yet. One of these days I’ll do a more substantial article on the subject of creating House Rules*, but for now I’ll simply hit the high points:

  • Model your house rules on an existing example from within the game system as a first preference, and on an existing sample from a different game system that you know well as a second preference. Something completely original should be a distant third choice, made only when the first two don’t yield a model for you to follow.
  • Each and every House Rule needs to be justified, and that justification needs to be clear on what the rule is intended to achieve.
  • Every House Rule should have notes on a simpler, more abstract alternative in case it doesn’t work as envisaged. (NB: This is a case of “do as I say and not as I do” – failure in this area is one of weaknesses as a GM.
  • Rigorously apply the principles enunciated in one of my earlier articles, The Application Of Time and Motion to RPG Game Mechanics. In particular, if it is going to slow play, the justification for the rule had better be pretty darned good – and possibly even compensated by a simplification to another rules element that is at least as ubiquitous as the rule that slows play.
  • Test the rule to make sure it achieves the objective you’ve set for it.
  • Write a summary that explains the principles behind the rule as though you were explaining them to someone in an email. Maximum of three sentences permitted. This then becomes the introductory/explanatory text to the House Rule.
  • Look for hidden assumptions that might come back to bite you. Look HARD.
  • Go through your campaign plan. Make sure that there is at least one adventure relatively early in that plan in which you expect this House Rule to be showcased. Add to the prep requirements list for the adventure that follows, it a review of the House Rule.
  • Push the House rule to see what happens. So many rules are fine at low stat or character levels but fall apart under heightened stress.
  • Find an online list of feats, abilities, powers, whatever, for your game system. Search it for key terms from your House Rule, looking for unexpected confluences and interactions. Modify the House Rule accordingly.
  • This is an optional step, but one that I strongly recommend: give the House Rule to someone who knows the game system (who might not be a player in your game) and get them to review it for clarity and unexpected applications/flaws. Offer to return the favor if they ever want to call in the debt – and mean it. And accept their comments without a chip on your shoulder!

* One of the major reasons I haven’t done so is the degree of systems dependence that such an article would have and the difficulty of abstracting general solutions as a result. My fear is that it would either be so generic as to be useless or so system-specific that it would be useless to anyone else. As a result, it’s been on my back-burner for years, waiting for an approach to be uncovered that holds some hope of avoiding both these problems.

PCs

Your notes should contain everything that a player needs to generate a PC, including making intelligent choices for their prospective character. And they should be organized in logical fashion so that you (and they) can find whatever they are looking for. Creating an index is painstaking and tedious but often worth it.

Right now, neither of these is completely true. Before your campaign is ready to play, you need to change that.

Structural Organization

The organizational structure that I have been using as my guide throughout has been one that’s applicable to D&D (any flavor) simply because it covers all the bases; other game systems may not require everything on the list.

When a player indicates a desire to join the campaign, especially if the campaign is not already ongoing, here’s what they should receive:

  • A summary of the races available for PCs, as they are to be depicted within the campaign. This contains only what “everyone knows” and as such will be incomplete, abbreviated, and possibly even inaccurate.
  • An introduction to the game world and its history, society, geography, etc.
  • A summary – one paragraph at most – of each of the nations from which PCs may derive.
  • A summary of the archetypes or character classes available for PCs, as they are to be depicted within the campaign. This contains only what “everyone knows” and as such will be incomplete, abbreviated, and possibly even inaccurate.
  • The House Rules.

Once the prospective player has shortlisted one, two, or at most, three combinations of race, homeland, and archetype, they should receive the “full” (detailed) files on the chosen races, homelands, and archetypes that contains everything they need to know. In some campaigns and circumstances, they may instead receive an intermediate file that doesn’t reveal a race’s secrets, only getting “the whole story” once they have committed to a particular combination.

Even then, these files should not contain information that the race or archetype doesn’t know, though it may indicate areas of mystery that remain unresolved.

Internal Organization

I can’t speak for everyone, but I find it a lot easier to organize the contents of each document when everything is still in note form, simply because I can see more of the content at the same time. I use a lot of cut and paste to rearrange these notes into a coherent form.

Another trick is to use standardized headings for each file on a particular subject. This helps ensure that nothing has been left out, and generally imposes a level of rationality to the contents’ structure.

Expounding on the notes

Fortunately, even though this is a lot of work, much of it is complete already; you simply need to turn your notes into prose (one file for each nation, race, and archetype) and then edit and prune to get the versions for more general dissemination. Only a few of them should take a full hour to complete, and a reasonable average to aim at is 20 minutes or less.

Now, I know from experience that it takes a lot longer than that to properly create a balanced character class with descriptions of the class abilities. It follows that any such will be outside the boundaries of these estimates, which assume that you are simply modifying an existing class.

Cross-linking to House Rules

As I go, I am careful to cross-link to any House Rules of relevance. If there’s a house rule about extremely high Dexterity, for example, or if the GM has chosen to subdivide the stat into Nimbleness and Manual Dexterity (as I did for my first AD&D campaign), and a race gets a bonus to one or the other but not both, link to the relevant rule rather than repeating it redundantly.

Read-through, spell-check, edit, revise, polish

This should be fairly obvious! This is your final chance to make sure that your prose makes sense – take advantage of it!

Briefings & Backgrounds

Once characters have been generated, the clock to campaign start is definitely ticking. Without play, interest can only be sustained for a limited period of time. It is therefore important to make sure that you have all your ducks in a row before pulling that trigger.

I frequently buy additional time by getting players to generate a character background (which I then vet for compatibility within the game world). As much as possible, I like to make this an interactive process between the player and myself, enabling me to build connections to key plots into the characters, with the player’s approval, in advance. At the same time, I modify the campaign plan to integrate the actual characters – and the personal goals set for them by their creators – into what I have planned.

This frequently involves the preparation of additional briefing material for the player to read and integrate into their background. While it isn’t necessary to complete this material in advance, I do as much as I can find time for, because it eases time pressures later, freeing me up to focus on the individual adventures.

Exit Strategies

A player can choose to leave a campaign at any time. A character can die in any battle. The only certainty is that someone will want to do so at some point. Plan for it in advance!

Such planning consists of two parts: one, if the character doesn’t die, explaining where the character goes when he leaves, and why. Depending on the circumstances, this can be quite tricky – if an Elven character pulls out of the campaign in the middle of a life-or-death quest to save the Elvish Nation, for example. It might be that you need to keep the character around as an NPC until a certain point is reached – but this only defers the problem. Solve it now, and it’s out of the way.

The other aspect involved is to examine future plots for impact as a result of the character being missing. These may need modification.

This is one of the penalties involved in customizing the campaign to integrate the PCs. It’s a price well worth paying, but a little prep – like having a series of exit strategies for each PC that you can pull out of your back pocket whenever you need them – a lot of the angst which normally result can be expiated in advance.

These exit strategies all need to be generated in the context of what’s supposed to be going on in the campaign at the time. That’s why you may need several different ones for each character. Strategy #1 might apply until the fourth adventure, Strategy #2 might apply from adventure number 5 through 12, and so on.

Note that this isn’t the same as a temporary absence, no matter how prolonged it might be. However, it is the same as a player deciding that he isn’t enjoying his current character and wants to trade it in for a new PC.

Initial Adventure

There are also a couple of final decisions to be made in conjunction with the initial adventure. One of the necessities, for example, is to get all the PCs into the same physical location and give them a reason to bond into a group. Only when the characters have been generated do I know where they will be coming from, and therefore where the most sensible place for them to come together is going to be.

I then need to get the group from that point of assembly to wherever the first adventure is supposed to take place. Along the way, I like to incorporate mini-encounters that will introduce each PC to the group in a more substantial manner than a verbal “I’m Alderac, a Wizard from the Western Divide” does.

Infrastructure

Finally, I make sure that any necessary infrastructure is in place. This could be anything from photos that give a sense of the world, its architecture, etc, to forms, paperwork, props, and tools. I include the selection of an appropriate miniatures figure for in-game use in this category, but it can also involve making sure that you have enough chairs for everyone who is going to be involved!

There often isn’t much in this category, but that just makes it a quick and easy box to tick – just what you want, approaching the end of a major task!

Oh, and one more thing: I make sure that I have contact information for everyone, and that everyone knows when and where play is expected to commence! This is taken for granted too frequently.

It’s been a long road, but the conclusion is in sight. We’ve taken a bunch of isolated ideas and legacies and forged them into a plan for a campaign, we’ve created everything that we need for PCs, and we’ve signed up a number of prospective players, who are busy reading briefing and background material and creating PCs. It’s time to put that plan into operation…

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Anatomy Of An Interruption – Endpoints


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Having established in part one of this series that a pause or interruption to play or to the primary plot being deployed within the game can be more than a necessary inconvenience, it can be a tool whose manipulation by a savvy GM or TV producer can enhance the game or production, it’s time to take a closer look at the anatomy of an interruption.

End, Middle, and Beginning

While studying various television shows as research for this article – all right, paying attention to the breaks and surrounding content while watching – I determined that all the different types of activity pre-interruption could be abstracted into four simple categories, and that the same four categories also described (in the abstract) all the types of activity that followed an interruption.

Having identified those four types of pre- and post- break material, I began to notice that even in the course of presenting content, television programs often interrupt their own content in various ways, to heighten drama, provide narrative counterpoints, infuse irony, or enhance the entertainment value of the primary plot sequence. These were identifiable by the fact that after the interruption, the scene that had been taking place prior to the interruption would continue, though often at a different intensity or with added relevance or emotional context by virtue of the interruption.

By now, I was certain that the observations that I was making were relevant to RPGs, and would form the basis of an interesting article (or series, as it worked out) here at Campaign Mastery. When I began to actually contemplate the application, however, I discovered still more forms that a pause or interruption in play could take, and that some of these were actually almost inevitably built into the mechanics of many of the most popular games simply because that was the most practical time for them to occur.

By the time I was finished, I had 9 types of pause, break, or interruption. Each has it’s own utility from a plot/metagame perspective beyond any intrinsic purpose that it might hold, and each can be manipulated to the benefit of the game, particularly by combining two or more together. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself; Part three four of this series will deal with practical application, though I’m sure a few bits and pieces will manifest as we proceed.

Today’s article defines these elements of a break – the end of the content prior to the break, the beginning of the content that follows the break, and the different types of interruption that can go in-between: End, Middle, and Beginning.

Refining The Concept 1: Pre-pause peaks

Before any sort of pause, the content needs to reach a peak in intensity relative to the starting point of the scene that is being interrupted. Such peaks can be a call to action, a call to interaction, or a call to reflection.

(a) Peaks That Prompt Action

Decisions made that are about to be implemented, confrontations that are about to resolve into combat, or the identification of a need to perform some other sort of action, all are peaks that prompt action. Someone is about to do something.

But before they can begin doing so, there is an interruption or break, which serves to heighten the anticipation of the event that is about to take place.

Such breaks posses two essential attributes that need to be noted:

  • Anticipation can become frustration if the significance of the action does not exceed the negative value of the pause duration.
  • Re-entry into the scene post-break is more readily achieved because of the simple 1:1 relationship between the need to act in a certain way and actually acting in that manner.
  • Emotional intensity is easily lost following a pause if the rejoin takes place at the moment of result rather than the moment of action.

Let me explain each of these a little more substantially:

Frustration

There are two forces that act during a pause or interruption: an upward trend in intensity caused by anticipation, and a tendency for that anticipation to turn into frustration. The greater the initial impetus caused by the pre-break situation, the longer it takes for the second effect to overcome the first. If you were to plot the emotional demand for resolution, ie the intensity, over time, the intensity is analogous to the altitude of a projectile, the first force to the vertical component of the initial kinetic energy of the projectile and the second to the force of gravity acting on the object.

Successful re-entry into the scene is the equivalent of the projectile reaching it’s target at the initial intensity or higher; once it’s downward velocity exceeds the initial input, frustration dominates, and the interruption will have a negative effect on game-play entertainment value.

The more initial impetus there is, the longer the break can be before negative effects overcome the positive ones. Note that once the “projectile” has been launched, you have little-or-no control over it; the point at which intensity maximizes is more or less fixed.

The more-or-less in that last statement exists because there are some forms of break activity that can act as equipping the “projectile” with a rocket engine: adding relevance in some manner, or players spontaneously speculating on the significance or outcome, for example – in other words, if the break is of a nature that it adds relevance, importance, or drama to the scene that has been interrupted.

Crucially, if the initial impetus is strong enough, one mechanism by which players can relieve early frustration is by venting it through such speculation; this, of course, can only occur if they interact socially during the break. If the group breaks up and goes in different directions, or if the nature of the interruption does not permit such interaction, this effect can’t be used. If the action is of a minor nature, the outcome will not be significant enough or interesting enough to prompt such speculation.

Consequently, the ability to manipulate the entertainment value of such scenes depends on achieving the correct combination of pre-break action and break-type.

Decision-to-action

Character A decides to do something – at which point, instead of resolving the action, there is an interruption of some sort. When the scene resumes, it is natural to restart it with the character putting that decision into action.

So strong is this relationship that any other sort of reentry into the scene is problematic, and likely to have a negative impact on the entertainment value of play overall. Even if there is to be an immediate transition to some other form of post-break content, it will “play” more smoothly if you permit the character to at least start doing whatever they had decided to do.

Decision-to-outcome

It is often considered expedient, especially if available time is running short, to return to the initial scene at the moment that the action produces results, rather than playing through the process of achieving those results. While better than transitioning to some other form of content during the scene continuation by virtue of the decision-action connection described above, the gameplay is never as satisfying to anyone because the action itself is not present to be viscerally satisfying.

This is always a compromise, valuing expediency above satisfaction; being aware of this can enable a more reasoned decision by the GM as to the utility of this compromise.

However, where an action will require considerable game time, a further compromise is possible: the GM can return to the action after the action has commenced but prior to an outcome being achieved. He can then acknowledge the time and events that have occurred “off-camera”, abbreviating the total process but still establishing and utilizing the decision-action connection. Like all successful compromises, the utility of this approach falls somewhere in-between the two alternatives. So this is a better choice than cutting directly to the outcome, while still reducing the time requirement to less than would have been required to play through the entire action.

The more high-paced the scene in question, the more acceptable this dramatic shortcut becomes, making this a useful technique in its own right – one that requires a pause or interruption to the scene in order for it to be useful!

(b) Peaks That Prompt Strong Interaction

Interaction is conversation between a PC and another character, either a second PC or an NPC. Strong interactions are heated, or otherwise possessed of emotional intensity. A character might propose marriage, for example – provided that this doesn’t come completely out of the blue, so that it has some emotional foundation, this would qualify as a strong interaction.

Strong interactions are wonderful in that they can successfully lead to any sort of post-break content within the scene. Take an accusation of betrayal, for example: post-break, this can lead directly to action (a physical response to the accusation), to a continuation of the strong interaction (melodrama), to a weak interaction (non-aggressive emotional response), or to Introspection/Analysis. No other type of pre-break content is as universal. That’s why a break is naturally-tolerated after a melodramatic pronouncement, regardless of the content of the overall production/adventure.

The only time post-break scenes fall flat following such strong interaction is when the subsequent scene does not contain acknowledgement of the strong interaction of some sort. Pretending it didn’t happen might be an occasional human reaction to such a scene, and can be quite satisfactory – but not if there’s a break in between!

But this type of lead-in to a break is even more flexible than it already seems; it’s perfectly justifiable for the content to be of a completely different nature provided that it is going to prompt a strong interaction after the break. Discovering evidence of an infidelity, for example, can precede a break – provided that the next time the action returns to the character making the discovery, they engage in a strong interaction of some sort, i.e. display some sort of intense emotional response to the discovery. This can be anything from having it out with the character in question to discussing the matter with a third party to plotting some sort of revenge, or even a strong denial of the evidence.

(c) Peaks That Prompt Weak Interaction

In contrast, these make the very worst sort of content for preceding a break. They have virtually no intensity, by definition, and next to no momentum to sustain interest through the break. The consequent tendency is to “overact” outrageously when returning to the scene, trying to make it seem more significant and intense than it should be, in order to get some emotional investment in proceedings on the part of someone.

It’s so strongly tempting to say never to use one of these – but that’s too simple an answer. Under the right circumstances, a weak-interaction scene going into a pause can work extremely effectively – can even be absolutely brilliant.

The secret is to engage the players (or the audience/readers) in a way that you aren’t engaging the characters.

EG: The primary character (PC) in a scene is a two-ton gargoyle who is trying to behave in a “civilized” fashion while remaining incognito. The secondary character (PC or more probably NPC) is a normal person who has become upset over something in a previous scene. PC: “I’m told that a hot cup of tea can be very soothing. Would you like me to make you one?” Reply: “That would be wonderful, but we’re out of milk.” PC: “I’ll just go down to the corner store and get some, be right back…”

Okay, this example scene played better in my head when I first thought of it. That’s not the point; it still works as an example. The incongruity of a two-ton gargoyle trying to be inconspicuous signals clearly that a comedic passage of play is to follow; such a passage would also qualify as a low=intensity scene, but because it is engaging the players on an entirely different, meta-game, level, this will work. Despite being low-intensity from the character’s point of view, it nevertheless makes a promise of strong interaction between the GM and the players after the break – and so, it works as any other high-intensity scene would.

(d) Peaks That Prompt Introspection/Analysis

The final category of content to be considered is revelatory in nature. I discussed these in some detail in part one, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say that the revelation needs to be of a nature that it creates buzz, and the more unexpected it is, the more buzz it will create amongst the players as well as amongst the characters.

This sort of scene works as lead-in to a break when the competence and ability to cope with surprise of the characters is greater than that of the players, because it lets the players vent some of their surprise, or come to terms with the revelation, before play resumes. This enables them to decide just how surprised their characters should be, rather than forcing the characters to mirror the reaction of the players.

The scene itself can be of any type; the fact of its ending in a revelation is sufficient to override that nature, though it may remain a secondary characteristic of the content, favoring the use of one type of post-break content over another. A disguise or truth can be exposed in combat; a discovery can be made as a result of actions undertaken; a secret can be blurted out in a heated exchange, or revealed in a whisper; or can be uncovered through the application of painstaking detective work.

It’s also important to realize that once you challenge the players to reevaluate a situation, you cannot stop them doing so at a player level and that the results will filter through into their character’s handling of the situation, whatever it may be. The introspection/analysis will start immediately – internally, if not aloud.

Finally, a truism that must be factored in: whenever you have a break that follows a revelation, it is dramatically almost mandatory that the scene that follows relates to that revelation. Exceptions can be crafted by skilled writers, but these are so rarely successful that they would hardly bear mentioning, if it weren’t for the one thing that these exceptions have in common: a break in between. In this case, one form of discontinuity (the break) can neutralize another (the content) provided that the break is substantial enough in nature to signal the beginning of a new chapter of the plot. This works because we expect a discontinuity in between chapters of a story. A very useful technique….

Refining The Concept 2: Post-pause activity

As you can see by the preceding, the attributes of all three elements of the interruption must operate in harmony in order to achieve an optimum outcome from the break. As a general rule, you have full control over two of the three, with the exigencies of current play, plot, or the reasons why a break is mandated, dictating the third. However, also as intimated, it is sometimes possible to gain some measure of control over the third element; the technique for doing so depends on the element to be controlled.

Where the initial action is defined by what the players are doing, or what their PCs are doing in-game, which is the most frequent circumstance, you can gain control over this by deliberately inserting a scene of optimum type to precede the break and tie in with the content to follow. This is the optimum solution when a break of some sort is necessary, but you have control over the timing, and avoids the problems of breaking at the wrong time.

Where the break is being forced on you, it usually means that don’t have that option – whatever was happening has to be suspended for some real-world reason, which will also dictate the length and nature of the break. However, rather than simply restarting where you left off, you can deliberately re-start with a compatible scene that (at least partially) regenerates the tension, intensity, and mood that existed before the break, enabling a smooth resumption of play. Furthermore, you can compound one type of break with another, further manipulating the tone of the game in a positive way in terms of its entertainment value.

The final circumstance is where the tonal character of the scene that will occur post-break is known and can’t be changed. This generally occurs because the pre-break scene has already been played and the anticipation/frustration combination is already at work; you can’t insert a new back-from-the-break-scene because you need to pay off that anticipation before the game’s entertainment value falls off a cliff. This might seem as though it locks you into one course of action, but in reality it simply demands that you be a little more creative in applying the principles that this series outlines. You could, for example, compound the existing and mandated break with one that gives a “lift” to the action/intensity by increasing the significance or danger level of the scene that’s already underway. This then allows a third type of break to be inserted before the intensity curve levels off and begins to plummet into frustration which completes the connection between pre-break and post-break intensity and content.

That means that it’s essential to understand the different types of content from both ends of the break, as well as the characteristics of the interval in between. Having looked at the pre-break content, and the post-break content that most successfully connects with it, we now have to look at the other end of the plot element: the post-break content.

(e) Post-Pause Action

While it’s theoretically possible for any type of pre-break content to lead to a post-break action sequence, there is a definite hierarchy of content in terms of the general success of the overall game.

  • A pre-break peak that prompts post-pause action is a natural match, so long as you haven’t waited too long. If you have, it’s often better to “cushion the fall” with a lower-intensity post-break sequence before transitioning to the action sequence, and this is so much more effective if the lower-intensity sequence adds value to the action sequence.
  • A pre-break peak that prompts a post-break high-intensity interaction can work, but can feel awkward and forced if player emotions have had time to cool during the break – so this combination suffers from exactly the same problems, in a way, as the call-to-action frustration issue. The same solution also applies; so your choices are to transition via the break from a high-intensity interaction either to action or to a low-intensity interaction that enhances an action sequence that follows it. This is one circumstance in which you can also achieve success by targeting the players in a different way to their characters; that’s because the problem isn’t that the PCs have cooled off, it’s that the players have, and hence will no longer bring the same intensity of motivation to their play. Doing something to fire up the players again therefore solves the problem.
  • A pre-break revelation that prompts a post-break action sequence is almost as natural as going from a moment of high melodrama into an action sequence, but the nature of the revelation must support a transition to action. Quite often, a revelation doesn’t create a clear course of action in response; it is more about providing context to events that have already occurred, and inducing a threat within current or future events that cannot be combated until those events transpire. It is often more effective to segue post-break into a period of weak interaction or even further reflection/contemplation/introspection/analysis; but that can leave the game dragging and limp after a while, so it is best to only permit so much of that before inserting a sequence of mindless and unimportant action, which has the sole purpose of lifting the energy levels and pace of the game. Both roads ultimately lead to an action sequence, in other words, but some (perhaps most) revelatory content mandates getting there the long way around.
  • Worst of all is transitioning from a low-energy or weak interaction – a quiet chat between allies, or neighbors, for example – straight into an action sequence. No matter how relevant the action sequence is to the overall plot, it always feels tacked on. The solution to this problem is to redefine the scope of “action sequence” to include low-intensity actions. If your low-intensity interaction leads to a character intending to go shopping, play the shopping expedition. Then transition from the low-intensity action to a call to medium-intensity action – while the character is shopping, someone attempts to rob the store. It is then easy to transition from the medium-intensity action to full-on action – the robbery has been thwarted, the store is surrounded by Police, and the news helicopter overhead is making live reports – which lead the antagonists of the real action sequence to the PC. Alternatively, you can simply have a medium-intensity melodramatic statement – a low-key threat when the PC is discovered in a tense situation, leaving the door open for a quick-witted quip on the part of the PC and then into the action sequence! (James Bond movies have been using this trick of a rapid-escalation for decades (especially leading into the pre-title action sequence), as have the writers of Spider-man). Either way, the technique is to elevate the intensity to a medium-level in one step and thence to further elevate it into the action sequence, rather than trying to complete the jump in one step.
(f) Post-Pause Strong Interaction

I described strong interactions as the most universal of the content types when used as the closing moment of a pre-break sequence. It is almost as universal in the post-break position.

  • Going from an action sequence to a Strong Interaction works – unless there’s a break in between. Even if the game system calls for a post-action-sequence break, you are better off deferring it until after the ensuing strong interaction. I’ll talk some more on this subject in a little while, because the nature of the break shines light on how to handle this. For now, suffice it to say that the post-action break should be deferred until after the strong interaction, even if that interaction is likely to lead to a further action sequence.
  • Going from one strong interaction sequence to another can be really problematic, because there’s no contrast. Only if the tone of the two interactions is completely opposite would I contemplate it – one couple declaring their love for each other while another scream verbal abuse into the wind in a heated argument, for example, has enough contrast to make it work. Indeed, you could argue that the contrast heightens the significance of both sequences.

    Under any other circumstance I would deliberately separate the two with a low-intensity interaction or an introspective moment. Since these don’t work very well pre-break except under very restricted circumstances, the better choice most of the time is to position the low-intensity interaction post-break. However, that means that the atmosphere generated by the high-intensity interaction will persist through the course of the break, which is only acceptable if the tone was positive in some way. The lesser of two evils is often to insert low-intensity interactions on both sides of the break, even though that can be problematic in itself; tying one of the two into one of the high-intensity interactions can lift it just enough to make the transition palatable. A brief interlude in which a third character asks one of the participants in the first high-intensity exchange, “Are you OK? I can’t believe the nerve of that [fill-in-the-appropriate-term]…”, for example.

  • Going from a low-intensity interaction to a stronger interaction can happen naturally if it builds on an existing trend or undercurrent in the low-intensity interaction, and involves the same characters. Under any other circumstance, the best approach is to insert a scene or pre-scene sequence after the break which lifts the intensity to a medium level; the simplest such is to recap – in the most biased and prejudicial way possible – the reasons that the high-intensity interaction is about to take place. The bias to employ is the one that best leads to the high-intensity interaction, so it has to match in tonal value.
  • Finally, going from a period of introspection or analysis that has led to a revelation, to a high-intensity interaction, works perfectly IF the subject of the interaction is the revelation and vice-versa. Yes, this is highly melodramatic – but so long as you accept that, there’s no problem (I have a lengthy example to offer, but don’t think it’s warranted). Instead, let me turn my attention to the alternative situation – where the subject of the interaction bears no relation to the revelation. There is only one way that I know of to make this succeed, in terms of the broader narrative and overall entertainment value, and that is to employ a break that possesses attributes associated with the “end of a chapter”, as described earlier. It follows that if the break is not of that nature, you need to compound it with a break that is.
(g) Post-Pause Weak Interaction

It’s always a problem transitioning to a weak interaction after a break. There are occasions when this transition is natural, however, and not to be obstructed.

Going from any sort of high-intensity situation to a low-intensity situation only works under very limited circumstances: either the low-intensity situation must relate in subject to the preceding high-intensity situation, in which case it is effectively a winding-down of the characters involved; or the weak interaction must connect in subject to a future high-intensity situation and precede the break.

An example of the first: after the big fight, letting the victorious participants interact with each other is very natural and normal. Give the PCs time to celebrate before moving on and they will enjoy the game far more than they would otherwise – while never realizing that it is this release that boosts the entertainment value so highly. Note that it can be argued that this scene is even more effective if the break is delayed until after it takes place – even if that means inserting another low-intensity scene post-break!

An example of the second: after the big fight, the GM cuts to a scene that the PCs cannot possibly observe, showing a villain (unnamed) watching the PCs deal with the high-intensity situation, and talking ominously to himself in a manner that signifies an eventual threat to the PCs. This sort of scene is natural in comics, and occasionally shows up in movies and television as a teaser for future developments – Thanos’ appearances in various Marvel movies being a great example. This works in an RPG because it speaks directly to the players, while passing completely unnoticed by their characters; in media parlance, it breaks the fourth wall to promise “even more interesting events” in the future lives of the PCs.

The value of this type of scene can be maximized if it falls somewhere close to, but prior to, a chapter-ending break. A perfect example is showing that Darth Vader survived the final attack on the Death Star in the original Star Wars movie; this is THE scene that promises a sequel, because it shows that the threat has only been abated, not ended.

Despite the problems that go along with the proposition, going from one low-intensity scene pre-break to another, post-break, is often the most natural transition. As noted previously, the major difficulties are with the turgid, even soporific, pacing that results. If you can spice things up before and/or after such scenes with a more dynamic sequence, this can be anywhere from tolerable to brilliant. I’ve already discussed using this form of transition as a bridge between other content types, so there isn’t a lot more to add here.

(h) Post-Pause Introspection/Analysis

This works so poorly that I can’t think of a single instance of it being successfully employed. When the premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was shown on Australian Free-to-air (commercial) TV, they cut to an ad break just before Cisko found himself speaking to the “wormhole aliens”. While this emphasized the discontinuity with normality that he experienced at their hands, it also meant that it had all the impact of a wet noodle – especially when they did the same trick of timing again, and again, and again.

There is only one solution that works, and that is by harnessing the power of melodrama (ie a moment of high-intensity interaction) – a dramatic revelation can be followed by a break and lead into a post-interval period of analysis or introspection. The usual rules of a revelation apply – it is pretty much mandatory that the subsequent scene be all about the revelation.

In our previous episode…

There is one special case that deserves closer attention: the presentation of a synopsis at the start or re-start of play. Technically, this qualifies as a post-break introspection/analysis scene. However, it works for one particular reason: the synopsis aims to recapture the situation prior to the break after summarizing the path that led to that situation; and the post-synopsis scene should pick up after the events described. This need not be immediately afterwards, in game time; minutes, hours, even days, can have passed in between, provided that the situation at the end of the previous play session did not demand instant action, and did not mandate decisions on the part of the players. The synopsis becomes something of a break-content hybrid, a bridge between game sessions. Note that the revelation rule still applies: if the previous session ended with a revelation, the first scene after the break should be about the revelation, even if it’s a low-intensity conversation between the characters about the revelation, or an introspective moment as a lone PC tries to gather further information relating to the revelation, or whatever.

When the PCs come up with a plan, there is sometimes no need to play through all the steps of preparation; instead, contemplating a hard-cut to the PCs beginning to put their plan into operation. That’s how Return Of The Jedi begins – with a plan to rescue Han from Jabba the Hut, a plan that begins with two Droids carrying a message from Luke to Jabba – and smuggling a weapon into his throne room in the process.

I’m completely out of time and haven’t even started on analyzing the nine types of break yet! Oh well, that will have to wait…

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New Beginnings: Phase 8: Enfleshing


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Just as spring brings new sprouts and buds, so the Enfleshing process sprouts the final structural elements of a new Campaign.

It’s not easy making a completely fresh start. This series examines the systematic process of creating a new campaign in detail, from start to finish. The contents (updated with each post) can be found in “part zero” of the series.

Bone, Cartilage, and Flesh: A metaphor

Everything that’s been done so far has been in the nature of generating ideas and content in note form and linking these together to create a structure. Nothing has been included without a good reason for it’s being there, and in many cases, content “boxes” have been created but not filled because those contents were not deemed critical to the campaign.

Before actual campaign construction (as opposed to design) can begin, those empty boxes need to be filled. In metaphoric terms, “flesh” has to be put on that “skeleton”. But even before we can do that, there are a few more boxes to add in order to be sure we’ve got everything covered. These aren’t skeleton, essential to the structure of the campaign, but they are essential to connecting everything together and defining the final shape of the flesh to be added.

The goal is be able to simply unfold the content in its final form and wrap it around all the underlying structure like a blanket; there should be no deep thinking involved, no need to pause or delay at all, it should simply flow. To reach that point, these remaining boxes need to be put in place, and where necessary, linked to ideas. If the flesh is muscle, and the work that remains to be described in today’s article is something in between muscle and skeleton, the closest analogy would be cartilage.

There are five different categories under this one general heading: Archetypes, Races, Adversaries, Key NPCs, and Locations. In most of these subjects, a lot of work has already been done – the task for today is turning the decisions that were made into adventures, encounters, and situations that reveal the substance of the game world. It is always better if the fundamental content makes itself apparent by being significant to a situation rather than seeming tacked on afterwards.

A Tale for each Archetype

When it comes to archetypes, we’ve gone to some trouble to identify one or more aspects of the base concepts that are unique and distinctive to this game world, and – where necessary – we’ve revised them in whole or in part to ensure that they are compatible with the concepts on which the world has been based. We’ve also tried to link them in some way to the campaign themes and various other fundamental principles of the planned campaign.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if all that went to waste?

The PC Assumption

A lot of the work has been done on the basic assumption that each archetype might be chosen as the basis of a PC. Where this proves to be a correct assumption, an adventure built around that archetype becomes a starring role for the PC – either in the role of the character around whom the adventure is based, or can present a situation in which a professional colleague of the PC is central, giving the PC a different chance to shine. The latter presents greater control over the situation for the GM because it doesn’t require the PC to behave in a predictable manner – that can be left to an NPC under the GM’s control. However, it can also be assumed that such an adventure is less necessary when a player is putting the archetype on display on a routine basis.

Where no player chooses to build a PC on that archetype, the only way they – and the aspects of the game world that they embody – will get featured is where an plot is built around an NPC to deliberately display the archetype.

Archetype Tales

The notion, then, is to craft an adventure for each archetype that highlights one or more of the unique aspects or interpretations of the archetype or that has the archetype as central to that adventure. These should be standalone in nature so that if they aren’t out-of-the-ballpark ten-out-of-ten adventure ideas, and a PC is putting the archetype on display anyway, they can be dropped. They are important to the campaign but not an essential part of the structure.

However, it is even more useful when an existing adventure – one that is therefore central to the broader campaign plot – can be used as a vehicle for this information, because it integrates it even more closely, binding the archetype concepts to the campaign.

Archetype Tales 1: The Procedure

The first step, to be performed for each of the archetypes, is to review each of the adventures you already have outlined in the campaign structure, assessing each for its suitability for highlighting the archetype then under examination.

If there is no such adventure, the need is to specify a standalone adventure, and the most important decision to be made is where in the Campaign Plan the adventure can best be located. By definition, the metagame purpose of this adventure is to reveal additional elements of the game world to the players; so the decision is best made on the basis of the central importance of the information to be revealed. That often hinges on the way the information relates to other facts – if the adventure in question can be used to reveal something that will be a key factor in future player decisions, it should be presented early in the campaign; if it’s simply shining a light on some aspects of the world that might otherwise go unnoticed, you have more latitude.

This is where the work in Phase 7 (‘Skeleton’), connecting the archetypes to the Nexii, becomes invaluable, because this specifies exactly how that particular archetype can link to different parts of the campaign plan – early, middle, or late. Once you have decided where the most effective location within the campaign plan is going to be, it’s a simple matter to insert an adventure “slot”.

Once the relevant adventure has been positioned within the plan, the next step is to make note of exactly what the adventure is going to be about. For this, you may need to consult your ideas file; and, if nothing suitable is found there, go looking for ideas on the net or in relevant sourcebooks. I’ve made my opinions on list products clear in the past (Listing to one side: The problems of List Products), but this is one occasion when the right list can save your bacon – and that’s why Campaign Mastery presents such lists from time to time (most recently in the occasional “Casual Opportunities series.

What you want is a situation in which the distinctiveness of the archetype makes a difference in the situation, either creating it, complicating it, or holding the solution to it. That’s actually a rather broad remit, leaving plenty of scope for the choice of adventure to reflect themes.

A clarification: It isn’t necessary to have an adventure for every unique or modified aspect of an archetype. The presumption is that the other basic concepts will be displayed along with the aspect that has been selected for prominence; and that you will have made that selection after contemplating the significance of the different concepts embodied within the archetype. In other words, you’ve picked a difference that matters – because that’s the easiest thing to build an adventure around – and the rest can be assumed to come along for the ride. They will be noted if they are important enough, and can be ignored if not. It isn’t going to be necessary to explain everything; a lot of it can simply be taken as exemplified within this one example of the archetype.

This in turn means that other aspects of the archetype can be highlighted if and when it is used as the foundation for a relevant NPC. You are going to have a fair number of those, after all, and some of them will probably be representatives of this archetype!

Once the basic premise of the adventure has been filled in, it’s time to give it the same treatment that all the other adventure ideas received in the “Organization” stages of Phase 4, ‘Development’ – listing the unanswered questions of Where, Who, Antagonist, etc, and cross-referencing with other campaign elements as appropriate. And then you can move on to the next Archetype – subject to the Caveat below, of course.

Archetype Tales 2: Revising the Archetypes

There’s one major reason why all this is vital and must be done at this stage of campaign creation: it provides a final “reality check” on the ideas. Something can sound great in theory but be so hard to work with, or be so alien to the way your creative mind works, that it becomes untenable. This is your final chance to catch and reform such campaign-harming “bright ideas” – all those things that sounded good at the time…

If you can’t build an adventure featuring an archetype that displays how that archetype fits into the game world or is unique or simply distinctive, it’s a sure bet that the archetype won’t work as a PC, either. Now is the time to revise it if necessary.

A Tale for each key Race

Having gone into the process in detail for Archetypes, there isn’t all that much more that needs to be said regarding the second of the subjects – races. Each of the major races needs an adventure in which they, and especially anything distinctive or unusual that you’ve added or changed, can feature. If you can make this an adventure that’s already in the campaign plan, so much the better; if not, you need to add one.

However, speaking from experience, every PC emphasizes different aspects of the Race from which they derive; it is by no means certain that having a player choose a race will highlight what you consider to be the important differences. Sometimes the player simply can’t get his head around the ideas that you’ve incorporated – it happens. Unlike the archetype, then, you can’t rely a race being represented by a PC to communicate the uniqueness of that race – and that leaves it up to you.

A Tale for each Significant Adversary

Having grown used to the basic process while dealing with the easy subjects, it’s time to get into something a bit more complicated: the Adversaries that you intend to feature within the campaign.

The first question that needs answering is a criterion for judging whether or not an adversary is “significant”. Each GM needs to find his own answer to this, taking into account the intended length and scale of the campaign. In some cases, it might be that every adversary who features in an adventure is considered significant, in others, the accolade may be reserved for those adversaries who have a role to play in multiple adventures. In still others, foes might be divided into two categories – “mundane” and “supernatural”, or “common” and “political” – with only one of these being deemed “Significant”.

Personally, I usually lean toward the “multi-adventure” profile, plus any who have a significant part to play in altering the direction of the campaign (even if they only make a single appearance). But I have used all of the working definitions offered as examples, and more besides.

For each Significant Adversary, there are nine, or perhaps, ten “boxes” that need to be ticked, ie to have content allocated.

Adversary Tales 1: Introductions, Please

Before a significant adversary makes his first appearance, it’s usually necessary to lay some groundwork. This can be an adventure in itself, or an encounter, or simply a background element to another encounter.

What do I mean by “groundwork”? Here are three examples:

  1. The Beholder: If I’m going to use a Beholder as an Antagonist in a D&D or Pathfinder adventure, I will want an encounter or scene that establishes that Beholders exist and that they are very bad news. I don’t need a living Beholder for this; a dead one, or a rumor of one, or a tapestry that features the defeat of one, or any of several alternatives will do. Basically, I want an excuse to tell the players anything that their characters know about Beholders (in case they don’t know it already), and just as importantly, to make sure to define what it is that their characters don’t know. I will also make sure to have at least one “fact” that is different from published canon, purely to warn the players that the details of the monster may have been changed, as a specific warning that encounters from other games (or having memorized the rulebooks) will be (at best) an unreliable guide to the strategy that they should adopt when encountering one. And since I don’t believe in idle threats, I will actually change something significant about them – like giving them a phasing ability that lets them pass through walls and material obstacles, and ignore (at least partially) any damage that occurs in a round after they have acted.
  2. The Last Dragon: If the adversary is intended to be the last Dragon to have survived into “modern” times, I will want to highlight the fact that the Dragons are all dead, and how they are believed to have died. Again, I’m looking for an excuse to give background information and misinformation to the Players before it becomes important. Including that information in the adventure in which the adversary is revealed is far too clumsy if presented after the revelation, and far too obvious if it precedes the revelation – and (at the moment of revelation), the players have more urgent things on their minds! The only solutions are to present the information when it no longer matters (which is rather pointless) or before it becomes important.
  3. The Crime Czar: Finally, let’s say that the antagonist is going to be a crime boss of some sort. Before the first Lieutenant shows his nose, the players should become aware that there is a significant level of crime and that the authorities are not getting very far in curbing it. This then gives the Lieutenant some context when he makes his initial appearance, and that in turn gives context and significance to the Adversary when he finally makes a direct appearance.

In a nutshell, then, this “box” is about how a significant adversary will be “introduced” into the PCs lives – and the player’s consciousness.

Adversary Tales 2: The Initial Confrontation

There are writers and directors who suggest that the initial confrontation between a hero (PCs) and villain (antagonist) is the most important scene they will share. The villain either makes an impression, or everything subsequent falls flat. In the case of a minor villain – i.e. one without Significance – that doesn’t matter too much; but for a Significant Adversary it’s close enough to be a serious consideration.

I’m a firm believer that while spontaneity is good, a little bit of prep goes a long way. At the very least, a note or two is warranted on how to ensure that the antagonist’s first entrance (or his unmasking, if he’s been hanging around in disguise for a while prior) is suitably dramatic and impressive.

Adversary Tales 3: Adversarial Destinies

Karma. A campaign may not have it as an overt theme, but it’s something that every GM should strive to bring about – at least in terms of the important Adversaries getting just what they deserve in the end. So what fate is befitting? What is appropriate? What will be viscerally satisfying to the players? They may or may not get to deliver the coup-de-grace; that depends on how successful they are. But the adversary should fail, and fall, eventually – their karmic destiny should be inevitable (if impossible to predict) even before the final confrontation begins. Again, this is not likely to happen by accident – so do at least some preliminary planning in advance.

Adversary Tales 4: Reaction to Setbacks

How the adversary reacts to setbacks is going to form a significant element of their in-game persona, all going well from the player’s point-of-view. It has to be consistent with the rest of the adversary’s personality, but in most cases it will involve a significant divergence from the way that personality has been expressed previously in the encounter.

Some will be hotly furious, lashing out with unthinking violence. Others may be coldly furious, making the architects of their reverses targets for some utterly ruthless action – while some will take it out on their underlings. Others may decide to try to bargain. A few may have trouble even recognizing that they’ve been thwarted, or may obsess over finding a way to achieve that goal at any cost. Some will simply rant and rave, while others may plunge into deep depression – for a while. A few might retreat into isolation to brood until coming up with a new and better plan – or simply an appropriate vengeance.

Make the decision, and ensure that this choice is consistent with the behavior of that adversary in subsequent encounters. It might be that the PCs don’t get to witness the reaction; but it should shape how the antagonist behaves, and at some future point, word may leak out and reach the PCs ears.

Adversary Tales 5: Reaction to Failure

The reaction to setbacks has only superficial resemblance to how the antagonist will react when their plans actually fail. The reactions will either be more extreme or less, but this will be no less critical – if only because it will usually get displayed in front of an appreciative PC audience! A great deal depends on the flexibility and confidence of the antagonist, as compared to the scale of the failure, and who he holds responsible. The best time to think about this is before you need to know it, so that when and if the time comes, you don’t have to think about it – just roleplay what you have already specified.

Adversary Tales 6: Master Plans

Every adversary needs a master plan of some sort. Even your combat monster has some sort of master plan – it’s just vague and built around the size of his biceps. The master plan bridges from what the adversary can do right now to what the adversary wants to achieve, at least in their own mind; it’s what they are doing now, and what they intend to do next. No master plan takes specific account of PC actions, at best there is an allowance for “obstructions” and a plan to deal with them if and when that becomes necessary.

Before I conclude this subsection, I should point readers to a quartet of my articles from a couple of years ago that are still popular:

Adversary Tales 7: Flaws

Every villain needs a flaw or two. A blind spot, or an obsession, or whatever. These can be justified in his mind as part of his personal style, but this is often lying to himself to justify something he would ditch in a heartbeat if he were as coldly ruthless at self-analysis as he is at everything else.

Take Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the James Bond franchise as an example. He has three notable flaws: His love of Turkish Angora cats; his fondness for grandiose plans; and his boastfulness when in a position of self-perceived dominance. Of these, the last and first are the most serious; the last because the self-perception is often flawed, and the first because no matter how much he changes his appearance and identity, the cats and the manner in which he handles them are an easy means of identification. No doubt he has resolved a dozen times not to boast too soon, not to count his eggs before they hatch; but he just can’t help himself, a weakness that he would never tolerate in a subordinate. And as for the cats….

Adversary Tales 8: Flaw Impacts

It’s one thing to have a flaw. To be truly useful to the GM, he should work out several ways in which that flaw might impact on the adversary’s activities. Flashes of hot anger? A subordinate might get scared and be willing to make a deal. Tends to get obsessed with removing obstacles? Hires an assassin to stalk the PCs. Punishes perceived personal slights or disrespect? Hatches a scheme to humiliate someone even at the risk of damaging his operation.

Why do this in advance?

If things always went to plan – your plan, not the adversary’s – it wouldn’t be necessary, you could interpret the flaws and their impact on in-game events in advance. Enter the PCs, who rarely follow the GM’s plan of action, and that will constantly force you to improvise the reactions and subsequent actions of the adversary in response. That, in turn, is a lot easier if you have at least some basics worked out in advance – and that’s what this box is all about.

Adversary Tales 9: The Ultimate Objective

It’s great having the villain’s immediate plans worked out, up to the point where you expect the PCs to stop those plans dead – but you should always have the ultimate objective spelt out. This gives you the adversary’s motivation, and offers a guideline to the changes he will make in his plans as opportunities open and close.

Until recently, I would not have included this; I would have felt it was enough to have The Master Plan, in fact I did. But, when my co-GM and I were working on the next Pulp Adventure, “Prison Of Jade”, something just wasn’t right. We knew what the villain was doing, we knew what he would achieve if not stopped, but in the “Why” column – the Ultimate Objective – we had a political goal in the “world domination” category, and it simply didn’t fit his modus operandi and the history and reputation that we had created for him; it was far too prosaic. Between us, we came up with two or three alternatives, and then blended two of those together (with a little research) to identify an alternative that ticked all the right boxes – and ultimately made the villain a far more interesting character. I can’t go into details now; that will have to wait until after the adventure gets played – but he became the villain he was reputed to be, and someone worthy of the insidious Master Plan we had already devised.

As soon as I realized that the problem with the villain as he was lay in a failure to identify an appropriate ultimate objective (as opposed to a merely realistic one), I realized that this box needed to be included in this checklist.

Adversary Tales 10: A Preliminary Encounter?

That’s quite a lot of information, and it’s all the things that the GM really needs to have sorted before play. But is there so much information that it’s worth contemplating a preliminary encounter with the antagonist that at least hints at some of this material, or establishes it? Again, this is a decision for each GM to make for themselves – but if one is needed, this is the time to insert it. So, for each antagonist, ask yourself the question – and follow it up with a second, before committing yourself: Would a preliminary encounter steal any element of surprise that you are counting on? If the answer to this second question is “no,” it doesn’t matter what your answer is to the first – a “yes,” to the first question simply indicates that the GM is going to have to work that much harder in constructing the currently-planned first encounter with the villain.

Again, the example that presents itself is Blofeld. It’s one thing for the PCs to get told about his cat fetish – it’s quite another for them to have already encountered a villain who exhibits that trait, without appreciating the significance at the time. But it means that the second time a villain with that habit is encountered, even if he doesn’t look anything like he did the first time around, the players should recognize the trademark!

A Tale for each key NPC

Every campaign contains a few NPCs of special significance. Allies at key moments, or guides and mentors, or simply people who seek to use the PCs to their own advantage (or who do so), for example. Authority figures who will work against the PCs best interests in pursuing circumstances that benefit themselves or their cause. Even something as simple as a recurring barman and his lovely daughter can qualify!

As with Adversaries, the first step is to decide just what you mean by the term “Key NPC” in the context of this particular campaign. Once you know that, work through your list of adventures (which may already have expanded as a result of the work on Archetypes, Races, and Adversaries that has been done already) and generate a list of NPCs that meet this criteria.

Once again, I have nine key things to be noted about each of these NPCs. This is not a full character-generation process; it’s simply getting preliminary designs down on paper. However, by defining these NPCs as “Key characters” within the campaign, you are also indicating that they are too important for blind character generation to be anything but a starting point; the NPC, as generated later, has to fit the definitions and characteristics that are defined within this section, and not the other way around.

NPC Tales 1: Plot Relevance

Why does this NPC matter? What is their relevance to the plot, their purpose? You’ve determined that they are going to be a Key character in the campaign – why? Everything else in the NPC’s design needs to be subordinated to this purpose as a primary requirement.

NPC Tales 2: Position & Place

What is their in-game position? Where? What is their social rank? Which social circles do they move in, and in which circles are they comfortable? And where, physically, is that job performed?

NPC Tales 3: Personality

What sort of personality should the NPC have in order to fulfill that purpose? You don’t need a full profile, but some highlights and keywords are important. Usefully, this also lets you make them individuals rather than cardboard cut-outs based on plot function; not all your advisors or mentors to the PCs should be wise and generally helpful! Some should be reluctant, or scheming, or…

Important Opinions

An related question that should be asked – what are the opinions that the character holds – especially any that are relevant to their plot purpose, general occupation, or are controversial either in real-world terms or in game-world terms. Again, just because an NPC is there to help the PCs doesn’t mean they have to be an altar boy!

NPC Tales 4: Agenda

What agenda, if any, are they pursuing? Everyone should have an agenda, though you might need to stretch the definition a little bit. Ideally, this will be a motivation that can cut both ways relative to the PCs. For example, a character’s agenda might be to live up to an idealized vision of the political state that he serves; that would make him reluctant to compromise his principles in the slightest, and hostile to those who try to point out flaws in his world-view. It might make him tend to react harshly to those who don’t share and support his idealized vision. While this character would probably be a useful ally and asset to the PCs, he could become an enemy and outspoken critic very easily – because he is pursuing his own agenda and isn’t merely a tool to facilitate what the PCs want to do.

NPC Tales 5: Introduction

What, if anything, should the PCs know about the character before they first meet him? What could they find out, if they bothered to do so? Does the character have a public reputation that they don’t deserve – or one that they do deserve? And is that reputation good or bad from the PCs point of view?

NPC Tales 6: The First Meeting

When and where will the PCs first meet the NPC? Is it more useful to have a separate encounter just to introduce the two to each other? Note that this doesn’t have to be a face-to-face encounter – the PCs could simply see the character doing his job, while the public reacts. This, and similar ideas, are great ways to get the “Introduction” material into the player’s hands before the NPC becomes plot-significant; but it always risks the players jumping the gun, which is why it’s important to have everything you need to run the character in place before such an in-game appearance.

NPC Tales 7: Reasons to care

A lesson from television production, this: the protagonists, and the audience, need a reason to care about what happens to the NPC. This doesn’t apply to every character, but it certainly applies to the important ones! The RPG analogues are the PCs, who need an in-game reason to care, and the players who need a metagame reason.

Note that caring doesn’t mean that the relationships have to be positive – villains that are hated satisfy the criterion just as handily! But you need some sort of emotional reaction, even if you have to entice it or induce it.

It can be something simple – I once used an unsavory NPC who kept a live feed of baby birds in their nest playing on his TV every time he was in his office, giving him the opportunity to take glee in “all the wrong things” – the way the worms wriggled as the birds were fed them, still living; the way the mothers pushed them out of the nest when the time was right; the way they constantly fought with each other for food and attention, which reminded him of his childhood… He had something to mention every time he appeared in-game, and the longer it persisted, the creepier it got, especially the way his eyes would light up when speaking of them. He was also an officious oaf who was there to help the PCs when they really needed it – but who made them jump through hoops before considering one of their requests. There were times when he was their greatest ally, a hidden ace-in-the-hole, and times when he was the biggest road-block they had to overcome, because he had leverage over just about everyone in the form of favors owed to him. But they definitely cared about him – the players and their characters hated having to go to him, because he made them uncomfortable, but both knew they needed him. There were definitely times when the PCs wanted to throttle him, and times when he was their closest ally! In his final scene, he revealed an absolute loyalty to the political administration who employed him, and that he sublimated and transferred his darker instincts into the birds’ nest images – and getting himself killed for his loyalty, putting the PCs into the awkward position of hunting down his killer while not being sure they weren’t glad he was dead! If they were uncaring, the adventure would have fallen flat, and been mechanical follow-the-numbers; instead, there was the sort of passionate ambivalence that only “real people” – or “realistic people” can engender.

Remember: not all allies need to be on the PCs side, not all friends are allies, and not all enemies have to be hated; but there needs to be a reason to care about them, or they won’t be valued.

NPC Tales 8: Intended Evolution

Over the course of his appearances within the game, how is the character intended to change? People don’t stay static, they evolve over time. A character can be viewed as having a central personality core, a layer of substance around it, and a layer of superficiality and circumstances around that; each of these changes at different rates. The outer layer is most quickly transformed, the layer of substance evolves only slowly, and generally in response to dramatic life events, and the innermost layer is most consistent – but it can be eroded and transformed by the accumulation of lesser changes, or altered dramatically by the most extreme of situations.

One of the key NPCs in the Zenith-3 campaign is a Kzin, one of their first superheros. The PCs saved his race from a civil war that would have ruined them for someone else’s benefit, and he feels a debt of honor that needs to be repaid; at the same time, he was raised to despise Humans for the humiliations that the race has inflicted on his people in the past. Over time, the debt will slowly be repaid; at the same time, he is getting to know the PCs “from the inside”, resolving the internal conflict into which his circumstances have placed him. Will he become an enemy? Will he overcome the childhood conditioning that drives him? Will he become his own worst enemy – as often happens when people are placed in such personal conflicts over a long period of time? The players – and the PCs – don’t know. Right now, he is a reluctant but absolutely loyal and reliable ally, and all they know for certain is that something in that statement will change eventually – and probably without notice!

NPC Tales 9: Deserved Destiny

When you add up the totality of who the NPC is, and what role he is intended to play within the campaign, what fate does the character deserve – and is there a way that you can see that he gets it by the end of the campaign?

Take the bird-lover described earlier: what be deserved was to have his virtues extolled and to become remembered as a loyal servant of the state. Before that could happen, the players had to work through their own ambivalence in order to avenge him; once they had done so, they were able to reform his public image in a fitting tribute and public memorial. “He gave his life in the service of the State, the State needs to repay that with appropriate commemoration at a State Funeral.”

A Tale for each key Location

Locations seem to get short shrift in many RPGs. They are viewed as nothing more than a disposable backdrop to the tactical problem of the hour, the NPC of the minute, the drama of the day. This neglects a useful source of color and vitality.

Of course, not every location deserves anything more. An inn can exist purely as a place for the players to sleep; a village purely as a place for such an inn to be located. Sometimes, a mountain is just an obstacle that needs to be crossed.

But there are some locations which serve as settings for considerable play or significant confrontations that will shape the campaign, and these key locations need greater substance and importance. If the players are likely to be in a position to explore, or to interact at length with the locals, or if an adventure is intended to take place there, the location needs to be brought to life.

There are 15 facts that should be noted about each such location. Most of them require nothing more than single-line answers, though a few may be a little more substantial. The order is important, to some extent, as you will see as we proceed:

Location Tales 1: History

We start with the History of the place – in one sentence if possible, one brief paragraph at most. This is not intended to be a complete record, instead it should be the sort of thumbnail history that you might read in a guidebook or travel brochure, or that someone might offer in passing in a hotel or inn.

Note that it’s impossible to generate these location histories without at least some notion of the broader history of the game world, which is why this has had to wait until now.

Four examples:

  • “Built twenty-five years ago to study deep space, when the economy crashed in 2025 the space station was bought by Richard Branson and now serves as an exotic resort for his Virgin Galactic tours.”
  • “Was once a thriving, growing metropolis, but never really recovered after being razed during the Goblin invasion 40 years ago.”
  • “Began as a customs and immigration office to prevent the destitute survivors of the Civil War in nearby Unredonia from streaming across the border. Unable to go back and not allowed to go forward, they stayed at the border crossing and slowly a shanty town built up. As Unredonia recovered and trade resumed, it became the important and cosmopolitan trading center that it is today.”
  • “Decrying the decay in morality of modern society during the reign of Black Elfzer, the population instituted a puritanical regime of local laws that forcibly returned to the morality and social customs of 100 years earlier. By repressing every modern convenience, service, and utility, they have remained a frozen snapshot of village life from a past age, now 250 years out of time; a “purity” maintained by virtue of the most draconian laws in the Nation. For 150 years, they have had no tolerance for outsiders and permitted strangers no ‘liberties’.”
Location Tales 2: Geography

What’s the dominant geographic feature of the location? List no more than three, with minimal description (one line each).

Location Tales 3: Language

What’s the dominant language of the location, and what are the odds that anyone speaks any other language?

Location Tales 4: Society

In a line or two, if you haven’t incorporated it into the history, describe the society.

Location Tales 5: Most Noteworthy Features

Every location is distinctive in some fashion. These are often part History or part Geography. In my home town, it was the place where the highway crossed the railroad tracks by making a pair of 90-degree turns that led onto the main shopping street; in my Mother’s adopted home, many of the streets are paved all the way to the curb (instead of having dirt-and-gravel shoulders to the curb); in another town I know, the streets are phenomenally wide because they park in the middle of the road at 90 degrees to the flow of traffic in each direction, with shade provided by large trees along that median area. Sydney has its Opera House, Harbor, and Harbor Bridge. There’s no need to be any more substantial than these examples.

In particular, are there any Wonders (natural or artificial) nearby?

Location Tales 6: Other Claims To Fame

Every location also has a claim to fame of some sort. These can be festivals or street fairs or annual shows or parades or some commonality that many of the local areas share – “the town of apples”, “home of the world’s biggest pumpkin”, and so on. My hometown has just become the home of the largest solar panel farm in all of Australia – 102 Megawatts from 1.3 million solar panels.

Few embrace these claims as thoroughly as Salem, Massachusetts, scene of the infamous Witch Trials; there is a museum; street signs have a witch motif, and so do many of the local businesses. For a gamer, this is an incredibly useful model to emulate, because the thematic connection reinforces the uniqueness of the location every time it gets mentioned – and this approach lets it be mentioned a lot.

Location Tales 7: Strangers

How do the locals treat Strangers? Although this subject can usually do with some amplification, because it’s directly relevant to how the PCs will be received, it’s often difficult to state more than a line or two while being meaningful.

Location Tales 8: Folklore

There’s sure to be some local folklore or superstition. Sometimes this has a sound basis in fact, at other times, not. In my home town, it was that the worst flooding would always occur during drought years, and that the petrol prices were inflated to subsidize cheaper prices in the city.

Location Tales 9: Getting There

How do you get to the location – and what are the most significant obstacles along the way?

Location Tales 10: Staying There

When you get there, where can you stay? There seems to be a default assumption in D&D games that every town has an inn – but it isn’t necessarily so. Maybe you have to negotiate with a local for barn space, and the bar is just for drinking – with insufficient demand for the maintenance of accommodation services.

Location Tales 11: Shopping There

What’s the shopping like? Are there any surprises? In Nyngan, for example, fruit and vegetables cost rather more than most would expect; it’s a farming district that is mostly wheat and sheep and some cattle. Just about everything else has to be trucked in, and as a result, costs a great deal more than would normally be expected. There is a greater reliance on frozen and canned foods and less on fresh, for the same reason, or at least that was the case when I lived there!

Location Tales 12: Visuals

You’ve got three choices within this category: one is to decide that there is no value in searching for a visual to display; another is to actually perform an image search and to list the chosen images (which should be downloaded and saved, because they might not be there when you need them!); and the third is simply to list the keywords that you think will lead you to an image when the time is right, because the image you want might not be on the net yet!

My preference is to list the keywords and do a fast image search – but not to spend a lot of effort at this point in time.

I think it’s worth a quick search, because an image can inspire descriptions and ideas when the time comes to expand on this bare-bones outline; but don’t panic if I don’t find a good one.

Location Tales 13: Uniqueness

In a nutshell, what is it that is going to make this location unique in terms of the plot? This isn’t “why the location is in the plot”, it’s how the various aspects of uniqueness are going to be expressed to make the location distinctive within the plot. This is how you ensure that the location doesn’t feel tacked on – by integrating the location with the plot.

Location Tales 14: An opportunity for exploration?

Is it worth scheduling a prior visit to the location for the PCs – one with the leisure for exploring the region? In some cases, the answer will be yes, in others the answer may be no. But now is the time to insert a minor adventure with no metagame purpose but to take the PCs somewhere that will become more important later, if you decide that’s warranted.

I especially like to do so if the location is going to be radically changed when the PCs arrive there for the “real” adventure, because it gives you the opportunity to have them invest, emotionally, in the place and the people. Make it matter before they get there “for real”, and they will care when the time comes.

Location Tales 15: Name

Finally, the name. This is left to last because you may want the name to reflect one of the uniquenesses that you’ve assigned; you certainly don’t want it to conflict with the tone that you have established through the history and the claims to fame. If the place is to be rustic, it needs a rustic name.

So important is the right name that I’ve done a whole series on the subject. I particularly want to draw the reader’s attention to Grokking The Message: Naming Places & Campaigns, for reasons of obvious relevance.

Connect Ideas to empty content boxes

At this point, you’re done adding adventures to the plotline – but in almost every case, there will be details that have been left blank in those adventures. The preceding content generation exercises in this article will have filled some of these details in, but not all. So the next step is to open up your ideas file and fill in all the blanks. You want to know the basic structure of each adventure, where it is to happen, what is to happen, who is to be involved, and how it all connects to the big picture before the time comes to actually construct any of the adventures.

This is a road map of where you expect the campaign to go; it isn’t intended to bind anyone to anything. That’s why the substantial elements are to be delivered on a just-in-time basis, and why part of each adventure is what you have to start developing, when, in order for it to be ready when its’ going to be needed.

Final Decisions

But there are still some empty boxes, deferred until this moment that need to be filled first.

What to Keep/Dump Revisit

Back in the information dump phase, there were a number of 50/50 decisions that were put off. It’s time to revisit all of those undecided questions and make a decision, one way or another, on what legacy carry-forwards you are going to include in the campaign. All the choices that these were waiting on have now been made – the last ones in the course of this article.

Many of these questions, which were filed in the “too hard” basket at the time, should now have self-evident solutions. I usually discover that the more of them that I can now answer, the easier the others are – so I start with a very quick run-through making those self-evident choices and then returning for the final, more difficult issues.

For example, let’s say that you have a decision deferred regarding an interpretation of the Elvish relationship with nature. In the past, you had given Elves an ability to communicate with trees as though they had a sort of gestalt intelligence, once “awakened” by the Elves. Because of this environment, the animal inhabitants of an Elvish Forest also became somewhat more aware and sentient than their external counterparts, leading to a template that was applied to “Elf-touched Creatures”. The combination, and the willingness of the trees to shape themselves in ways that accommodated Elvish desires, produced a unique look-and-feel to the Elvish homeland. All these subsequent decisions should have been held in abeyance, pending the decision mentioned at the start of the Paragraph. At this point in time, you know a lot more about Elves and how they will interact with the proposed campaign, so you should be able to decide whether or not they are already distinctive without the need for this interpretation, or whether the ideas that you’ve already integrated into the campaign would be enhanced by this collection of Elven “facts” – so the decisions will flow like dominoes from that initial starting point.

Or perhaps it was a decision about whether or not to retain the Hit Location house rule that you had used quite satisfactorily in the previous campaign. By now, you have a much clearer idea of whether or not this level of specificity enhances or detracts from the overall look-and-feel of the proposed new campaign, of what other house rules are going to be required, and of whether or not that leaves enough capacity for detail for this to be retained – it might be that the decision has been made that a more abstract handling of game mechanics will better suit the new campaign, or there might be a different interpretation of Hit Points that is incompatible with a hit location mechanic. The decisions that have been made leave it far easier to complete the decisions that are still outstanding.

These decisions, will, of course, further expand on the various notes files you have.

Anything I’ve overlooked!

Compliments from others notwithstanding, I can’t think of everything! For example, if I have decided as part of the preceding revisit that some locations are blessed while others are cursed, with corresponding modifiers to various activities, you should go through all the key locations and decide the blessed/cursed status of each; you should go through the various key NPCs and antagonists and determine whether they derive from a blessed or cursed location, and what impact that’s had on them; and whether they currently live in a blessed/cursed region, and what effect that has.

Dot the I’s and cross the T’s. The goal is to make every campaign different, and that means that general advice can only go so far.

The Initial Sandbox

The final step within this phase of campaign creation is to assess the initial “sandbox” – do you have everything you need to develop it properly? Is there anything that you’ve overlooked? How are you actually going to begin the campaign? And Where?

And so, at last, you are ready to actually create the campaign. What you have so far is like a child’s coloring book, in which you have chosen what colors are to go into each space – but which you haven’t yet filled in. The hard work is over, now it’s time for the hard work to begin… and that statement will make a lot more sense, and be a lot more fun, than it seems at the moment after you’ve read the next part in this series. The end is beginning to show up on the horizon…

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