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Pieces Of Creation: Lon Than, Kalika, and the Prison Of Jade

Christmas Tree / Danka K.

Christmas Tree by / Danka K.

Season’s Greetings!

Welcome to Campaign Mastery’s Great Character Giveaway, and Merry Christmas! This article is (hopefully) going to be posted a few seconds into Christmas Day (my time) so it seemed only appropriate that it contain a Christmas Gift.

In fact, it’s the first of such gifts that are going to be coming your way over the next month or so. Mondays, in the meanwhile, will continue with the usual articles. It’s also worth noting that this month’s Blog Carnival, now almost concluded, is on the subject of giving home-brewed holiday gifts in the form of gaming-ready creations to blogdom at large…

The characters that I am giving away are actual characters from the different campaigns that I’ve run over the last year or so. But more than simply being interesting characters who pose deep and meaningful questions for the PCs to ponder, they are also examples of how to integrate plotlines and research and NPCs, and how to think on your feet. In most cases, I won’t be including stats, because they aren’t really necessary – and so were never developed.

The first one that I have to share is a trio: the featured villain from the last Adventurer’s Club pulp adventure (“Prison Of Jade”). his Divine Mistress, and her Sister….
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The First Hint

While on a completely unrelated adventure in Copenhagen, the PCs had a chance encounter with another guest who was staying at their Hotel and his flunkies. They did not get a good look at his face, or payed little attention, but because all four were Asian in a distinctly non-Asian country, in an era before tourism was really affordable, they suspected that the group may have been rivals after the same MacGuffin than they sought, so they investigated briefly and quietly. They learned that the leader was registered under the name Dr Than, and that his party were from many different nations who simply walked out of their previous lives without explanation. There was a police officer from Hong Kong, a fisherman from Australia, and a middle-aged businessman from California.

One of the PCs recognized the name “Lon Than” as belonging to a Chinese scientist/occultist/philosopher of dark reputation.

Notes from behind the curtain:

While (at the time) we weren’t completely sure of the detailed plotline in which Dr Than would feature, and had even less idea of who he was, this was simply a tease that we knew we would pay off down the track.

After establishing that Dr Than had nothing to do with their mission, the players promptly mentally filed him under “red herring” (as intended) and went about their business.

The Buildup

From that point on, we made sure to drop recurring mentions of Asian people disappearing, walking out of their lives, leaving behind family and friends without a word, and at the same time started dropping hints about well-to-do Asians who were acting strangely, “not themselves”. These were never even as central to any given plotline as Dr Than’s first appearance had been; it was simply a familiar piece of the plot “furniture”. A pattern slowly built up over the course of a number of years, a common element: many, if not all, of the people affected had just received a piece of Jade, whether that be a ceremonial bowl, a piece of jewelery, a statue, or even – in one case that the PCs didn’t notice – a jade camera lens-cap.

Notes from behind the curtain:

The PCs didn’t take the time to investigate any of these; if they had done so, they would have learned that those acting strangely but still going about their lives as usual were also withdrawing regular sums of money from their bank accounts (or stealing them from employers or businesses), and that the money was then simply vanishing. This would have been suggesting of Blackmail, another red herring.

Other plot developments also took place aimed at integrating this plot thread, which was slowly taking shape, with the campaign. Since any use you make of this plot will occur in a different setting, those aren’t particularly relevant here – so I won’t go into details.

Encounter with Kali

In the course of another completely unrelated adventure, the PCs received some unrequested assistance from Kali, inhabiting a statue of herself. During that roleplayed encounter, she told the PC having the encounter, “I am not your enemy unless you make me so.”

Notes from behind the curtain:

There was absolutely no hint that this was in any way related to the Jade plotline. It was simply something that happened, and was surrounded by other, unrelated encounters of a Divine nature, so nothing more was thought of it – exactly as intended.

Precipitous Beginning

The encounter that actually pushed all this to the forefront of the player’s attention was a raid on a suspected smuggling ring operating out of a warehouse in New York City’s docks region. Before the raid could actually begin, it was interrupted with a dramatic (and unrelated) action sequence that was the direct lead-in to another adventure about a Nazi Lunar Weapons Platform established using Amazon Technology. This tipped off the smuggler that something was going on; he began burning records and through himself out a 5th-floor window rather than face questioning. Faced with more immediate concerns, the players let the matter drop, sure that the decision was both right, and would come back to bite them before long.

Despite the lack of a living criminal to interrogate, not everything was destroyed before the PCs intervened. They recovered a newspaper article listing the 100 most influential Asians in America, 2/3rds of which had been ticked off; a bunch of mailing tubes, about 20 of which were addressed to the last 20 names ticked on the list; 20 pieces of jade jewelery, some generic and some custom in nature; and the fact that the criminal was a printer of no known criminal record who had sold the family home out from under his wife and children in order to buy the warehouse without comment or explanation to them.

Notes from behind the curtain:

That was as much opportunity as the PCs got to determine what was going on; they regarded it simply as an escalation of the previous pattern, and went about the adventure that we had planned for them at this time, which had far greater urgency in their minds.

The Campaign Backstory

Okay, I was trying to avoid cluttering up this account with a lot of irrelevancies, but have realized that a brief snapshot of the campaign is the shortest distance between two points: where this narrative is at, and where it needs to go. So, in a nutshell:

  • The PCs are members of a private organization, “The Adventurer’s Club”.
  • One of the founding members is ‘Doc’ Storm, an inventor and adventurer – my co-GM’s Homage to Doc Savage.
  • The Club library contains many rare (and often dangerous) manuscripts as well as blueprints for many inventions of Doc’s.
  • A corrupt literary agent working for the library in Europe was skimming from the funds under his authority to buy rare books for himself. To replace and supplement those funds, when they weren’t enough, he started stealing books from the library which he considered over-valued and selling them on the black market. In time, this still wasn’t enough, so he stole some of Doc’s blueprints and filed documents, and placed them on the black market.
  • The Copenhagen mission mentioned earlier was an attempt to retrieve one of the stolen blueprints which had been sold to the Nazis, and which detailed how to construct (following a 2-3 year program) a nuclear weapon, compiled by Heisenberg.
  • The national-security implications of this and the other thefts (which included a heat ray that started a firestorm in Singapore) led the FBI to perform a “hostile takeover” of the club. Doc Storm left immediately for Washington and began to work to undo this development.
  • The PCs went about other adventures, and slowly learned that the FBI agent placed in charge was a fan of the club and an OK guy. They then encountered details of a planned coup against the US government supposedly being led by General Smedley Butler, in the course of which, that ‘OK guy’ was blown up by the revolutionaries because he was getting too close to the truth. The wash-up left the club back under Doc’s control, but also left him badly rusty after 6 months of political games in Washington and no adventuring.

All caught up? Good!

The Confrontation Begins

While the PCs were off dealing with the Amazon problem, Doc decided to investigate the biggest problem that he could find that no-one was working on, made overconfident by his success and so eager to get back into the field that he refused to acknowledge how out-of-practice he was. He traced the shipment of jade jewelery etc that had been found in the warehouse to a freight agent in Chittagong, then part of India (these days, it’s part of Bangladesh, but in the 1930s there was no such country).

When the PCs returned, they were whisked away to a private meeting with his wife, Trish Storm, who told them that she was afraid Doc was going to get in over his head. She charged the PCs with helping him – without damaging his reputation or pride, which meant doing it without him even knowing they were around.

What’s more, because Doc would eventually (or very quickly) find out, the usual club resources would not be available to the PCs on this adventure – they would be on their own. So began “Prison of Jade.”

Before they left New York, they identified an unscrupulous Chinese Mystic – not someone on whom they would usually rely – and received a briefing on the mystic properties of Jade.

Red Jade Lion Image by / Tom Low

Yes, this really is Jade – just to demonstrate the wide range of colors it can come in!
Image by / Tom Low

The Mystic Properties Of Jade

Jade is an ornamental mineral that comes in two primary varieties and many exotic variations. The two varieties are officially known as Nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite can be found in a creamy white form (known in China as “mutton fat” jade) as well as in a variety of green colors, whereas jadeite shows more color variations, including blue, lavender-mauve, black, pink, and emerald-green. Of the two, jadeite is rarer, documented in fewer than 12 places worldwide. Translucent emerald-green jadeite is the most prized variety, both historically and today. As “quetzal” jade, bright green jadeite from Guatemala was treasured by Mesoamerican cultures, and as “kingfisher” jade, vivid green rocks from Burma became the preferred stone of post-1800 Chinese imperial scholars and rulers.

The Jain temple of Kolanpak in the Nalgonda district, Andhra Pradesh, India is home to a 5-foot (1.5 m) high sculpture of Mahavira that is carved entirely out of jade. It is the largest sculpture made from a single jade rock in the world. India is also noted for its craftsman tradition of using large amounts of green serpentine or false jade obtained primarily from Afghanistan in order to fashion jewelery and ornamental items such as sword hilts and dagger handles. However, true jade can be found in various parts of India, of varying quality. In Chinese and Buddhist faiths, the opaque stones (including most varieties of Jade) are symbolic of the body and mind, the translucent stones are symbolic of the soul and spirit.

Jade is attributed with many mystic properties.

It is sometimes known as the “Stone Of Heaven”, a name that derives from China and Burma, and as the Elixir Of Life. It blesses whatever it touches, and is valued in China for its beauty and powers of healing and protection. An endless variety of gems, vessels, incense burners, beads, burial items and statues have been wondrously carved from Jade, as well as musical instruments and pendants inscribed with poetry.

Jade is the ultimate “Dream Stone,” revered as the spiritual gateway through which to access the spiritual world, gain insight into ritualistic knowledge, encourage creativity, and the ability to dream-solve problems. It is cherished as a protective talisman, assuring long life and a peaceful death, and is considered a powerful healing stone. An amulet of good luck and friendship, Jade signifies wisdom gathered in tranquility, dispelling the negative and encouraging one to see oneself as they really are.

Jade is also the stone of calm in the midst of storm. Its action balances nerves and soothes cardiac rhythm. A piece of Jade kept in a pocket or on a pendant to stroke from time to time recharges energy, and traditionally guards against illness. Jade may also be used to temper the shock or fear of the very young or very old being cared for in the hospital or away from home and family.

Jade is also known to be excellent for healing feelings of guilt, and for extreme cases of defeatism. As a travel stone, Green Jade prevents illness while on holiday, is beneficial for those traveling alone, and protects children and pets from straying or being hurt while on a journey. Green Jade also fosters chi, or Life Force energies, and is excellent for hiking, gardening or relaxing out of doors.

In addition to those qualities:

  • Green Jade is a crystal of love. It is supportive of new love, and increases trustworthiness and fidelity. It also inspires love later in life.
  • Black Jade emanates strong, protective energies to ward off negative assault, physical or psychological, including self limitation.
  • Blue Jade calms the mind, encouraging peace and reflection, and is valuable in promoting visions and dreams.
  • Brown Jade is grounding. It connects to the earth and provides comfort and reliability.
  • Lavender Jade alleviates emotional hurt and provides spiritual nourishment. Its energy is of the highest etherized spectrum.
  • Orange Jade brings joy and teaches the interconnectedness of all beings. It is energetic and quietly stimulating.
  • Purple Jade encourages mirth and happiness, and purifies one’s aura. It dispels the negative and increases one’s level of discernment.
  • Red Jade is a stone of life-force energy, dispelling fear that holds one back, and urges one to action.
  • White Jade filters distractions, pulls in relevant, constructive information and aids in decision making.
  • Yellow Jade is cheerful and energetic, a stone of assimilation and discrimination.

Jade has been associated with many deities in many cultures:

  • Bona Dea, the Roman Earth Goddess of Fertility and the Greek Goddess of Women. She protects women through all of their changes, and is a skilled healer, particularly with herbs.
  • Chalchiuhtlicue, the Aztec Water Goddess and Protector of Children. Her name means “Jade Skirt” or “Lady of Precious Green.” She is the mother of lakes, streams, and rivers.
  • Kuan-Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Compassion, and Unconditional Love. She is the most beloved of the Chinese goddesses and is regarded by many as the protector of women and children, and champion of the unfortunate.
  • Maat, the Egyptian Goddess of Justice. She represents the underlying holiness and unity of the Universe.
  • The Moirae, the Three Goddesses of Fate in Ancient Greece. They appear three nights after a child’s birth to determine the course of the child’s life, each having a different part to play in divining his fate.
  • Brigit, the Irish Goddess of Fertility.
  • Coatlicue, the Aztec Goddess of Life, Death, and Rebirth.
  • Dione, the Phoenician Earth Goddess.
  • Hine-Nui-Te-Po, the Polynesian Goddess of the Night.
  • Tara, the Buddhist “Savioress” Goddess.
  • In some obscure Hindi legends, Jade is described as the doorway to Kali.
Notes from behind the curtain:

Ninety-nine percent of this information is absolutely genuine, compiled from three or four websites including Wikipedia. However, it also contains a few items carefully “salted” into the text for adventure purposes – specifically, the last item on the list of Deific associations, and a slight amendment to the “Stone Of Heaven” and “Dream Stone” paragraphs: “It blesses whatever it touches” has a double-meaning in the context of this villain, and acting as a “spiritual gateway” through which the wearer can “access the spiritual world” implies that the spiritual world can also access the wearer through that “gateway”.

In Chittagong

The PCs had various encounters, most aimed at Doc (and which clearly demonstrated both his years of experience, his innate expertise, and how badly unfit for field work he was). Several times they had to act to save his bacon, while walking the tightrope of discovery. Doc traced the shipment through various hands and discovered that the Jade was coming from far upriver, the tiny village of Dambuk in the most north-eastern state in India.

Their contact in New York had also warned that most documented versions of the Hindu faith available to Westerners and those influenced by them had been assembled piecemeal from corrupted forms of the true doctrines, and were not to be relied on. Interpretations and content often varied from village to village and region to region, and no-one knew anymore what was truth, what was half-truth, and what was fiction.

Going Upriver

More encounters followed as Doc made his way upriver, with the PCs in another vessel not far behind. Along the way, they had another encounter with Kali, who invited them to Afternoon Tea through a Herald. When they accepted the invitation, sure that Kali could have forced the issue if she really wanted to, they were escorted into the palace, where they found Kali standing before a golden throne of skulls, bathed in night on one side and bright sunlight on the other. “We meet again, Captain,” she began, addressing Captain Ferguson (one of the PCs). [Pause for reaction]

“Past assistance notwithstanding, you have no reason to entrust yourselves to my goodwill or honesty. Therefore I tell you nothing and give you no instruction, make no demand, but simply suggest that you may be enlightened on your quest if you seek out Mahatma Sharma in the village of Chapar. Have no doubt that if required by Karma to do so, I will act to destroy you and the world that surrounds you, but I should regret the necessity. I am not, by choice, your enemy.”

Social niceties such as refreshments and small talk followed, but Kali refused to speak further regarding these statements. She hinted that events were even more serious than the PCs realized, and got the sense that the need to “act to destroy you and the world that surrounds you” was not some remote event but immediately at hand if the PCs were not successful.

The adventure

Suffice it to say that the PCs succeeded on all counts and the game world didn’t end, thanks (in part) to the instruction they received from Mahatma Sharma. Doc attempted to disguise himself using a piece of Jade and fell under the power of Lon Than, but the PCs realized that this had taken place and were able to free both him and the others under the villain’s control (either through blackmail, coercion, or mystic power), and he took care of the rest. At the end of the Adventure, the villain was seemingly killed, but the body was carried away down a waterfall and never recovered – so Lon Than may be back if we come up with another suitable plot.

Behind The Scenes

Creating the adventure was a slightly complicated in that the simplest way to proceed was as follows:

  • Work out what the Villain had done in order to get the Jade to New York;
  • Work out how Doc would trace the above from the other end;
  • Work out what the Villain and his henchmen would do when they discovered Doc’s efforts;
  • Work out what the PCs could do about these actions;
  • Work out what the Villain and his henchmen would do about the PCs;
  • Insert encounters for the PCs designed to establish plot points, eg Doc being rusty, Doc being taken over;
  • Work out what information the PCs would need to find a solution to the problems posed;
  • Insert encounters for the PCs to put that information into their hands – not necessarily all that obviously.
  • Populate the adventure with interesting, colorful, and believable NPCs and miscellaneous encounters.
  • Check the continuity of events from the Villain’s point of view; check the continuity of events from Doc’s point of view; check the continuity of events from the PCs’ point of view. Make sure that what everyone is doing (or are expected to be doing, in the case of the PCs) at any given point in time makes rational sense in light of what they know, how they are interpreting that information, and their personalities.

Ultimately, this was an adventure about the interplay of those three layers – the villain, the hero past his use-by date, and the PCs trying to keep him just barely safe without revealing their presence. In general, while we had lots of encounters seeded, and certain products of such encounters that we wanted to eventuate, the course of the adventure was chosen by the players in response to the events taking place around them, and the need to maintain secrecy help keep them from departing too far from what we had planned.

And so, with the background and preamble established, to the main points of interest to others: the characters. This information will be conveyed in the sequence that is clearest to the reader, and not in the sequence that things were learned by the PCs.

Dr Lon Than

Dr Lon Than is an expert in Hindu theology and holds several doctorates in Philosophy. Like many others, he foresees the coming Global Conflict and – based on the events of World War I – is utterly horrified by the prospect and willing to do almost anything to stop it. Dr. Than believes that World War One proved that mankind cannot be trusted to guide itself.

His initial attempts were founded on the notion of world domination in order to steer it on a new course either directly or indirectly. In the course of these failures, he acquired a reputation for “Plots and Plans that seem to come out of left-field and be almost trivial until they snowball into something world-shaking.” His failures left him desperate, sensing that he was running out of time.

Through his professional association with the University Of Beijing, he came into possession of a statue of Kalika carved from a piece of Jade and recognized its significance. Kalika, sensing a spirit sympathetic to her role in existence, began to instruct him in what needed to be done to release and unleash her from the fetters that constrain her from acting. As his tutelage progressed, she was able to grant him the powers he needed.

In particular, he acquired knowledge of how to prepare Jade to make the possessor an active convert to Kalika’s cause.

A mystic ceremony is followed by a bath in two different metallic salt solutions. The jade is then subjected to an electrical arc, and finally the mystic ceremony is completed by binding the jade to his will by means of a drop of his blood. The process combines alchemy, sorcery, and science and is effectively unduplicable by anyone else.

Once a prepared piece of jade is worn, even in a brooch or other setting, they are subject to The Prison Of Jade. Lon Than can take control of the person at will, see through their eyes, etc, provided they are wearing the jade. The person being controlled believes that what they are being told to do is entirely their own idea or is that of the God(s) that they worship, and will bring their full faculties to whatever task they are instructed to perform – even at the cost of their own lives. They will continue to work wholeheartedly and with all their faculties even if Lon Than ceases direct supervision of the prisoner’s mind for a time, and will simply go about their normal lives once any instructions have been carried out.

This is not the traditional mind control; those affected devote their full abilities, resources, and faculties, and even their lives, to achieving the goal of “awakening” Kalika in the belief that a period of violence in which 95% of mankind are wiped out is preferable to the threat of mankind wiping itself out completely.

Because of their “special affinity” with Jade, the process is most effective against those of Asian descent, less effective against those of Western Descent, and controlling individuals of exceptional ability takes his full capacities, leaving almost all his network of servants and assistants on “autopilot”, i.e. no longer under his direct and conscious control and supervision.

With his knowledge, he traveled to Dambuk and began to create a network of willing servants to further his cause.

Lon Than’s Network

Dr. Than is now controlling the richest Asian peoples in the world, as well as various well-connected and useful individuals, because these are the people who can most plausibly distribute small gifts of his “special” jade. When he reaches a critical mass of people, he will have effective control over all Asians, at which point he will direct his followers to worship Kalika, initiating an orgy of mass destruction.

He has subjects in New York, London, San Francisco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Peking, Stockholm, Sydney, Melbourne, East Indies, Delhi, Batavia, and many other locations: 3-400 important people and 50 minions scattered around the world. Dr Lon Than has control over some of the men and women of the village of Dambuk, who have kidnapped the children of the village to force the rest of the village to work as slaves on his behalf. Only the elderly and infirm are left to survive as best they can. The story of how Lon Than created his network of servants was told to the PCs by one of those elderly residents, from the standpoint of the theology of the village:

“We have always been gifted with treasure from the mountain. We have traded it when we found it for many things. Food, Iron, Tools. Many have come here in the past in search of the mountain’s gift, but none found it. We became accustomed to a new stranger arriving, all excited and eager, every year or two; all left disappointed. Late the summer before last, another came, and this one was different. His eyes carried the darkness of a very deep cave within, and he spoke with a voice that enthralled those who heard it for as long as he deigned to speak. He hired two of our young men with gifts of the heavenly stone, the first who had brought a gift of the mountain back to its home rather than seeking to plunder, and the three set out to explore the region.

“A week later, they returned, and he announced that his gifts had found favor with the spirits of the mountain, who had seen fit to offer bounty to reward him. He bestowed some of these gifts and when next he set out, it was with the company of a dozen, each of whom now proudly wore a piece of heaven made stone as badge of his service to the mountain spirits.

“Two weeks more, and they returned again, carrying a small basket each of the precious mountain heart. And the man said that the mountain spirit required more men to carry for him, as the dozen had not been enough to gather all the gifts offered, and he feared that the spirits would take offense if their bounty were rejected a second time. And so all the village’s men and some of the younger women went with him the third time.

“Three days later, and those who had left with him returned, and by stealth they crept from house to house gathering all the children in silence, binding and gagging them, and taking them up into the mountain. And then the man returned with his escorts and told us that the children were hostages to the will of the Mountain Spirit and the entire village save those who were too old and weak to work must labor in service to its bidding. There was much weeping but we had been left without choice, and so we accepted.

“As the weeks passed, we noticed that those upon whom he had bestowed the gift of the mountain had a strange look in their eyes, a green glow like that of the mountain heart, that they were as strangers to those who had known them, and obeyed his every command in word, thought, and deed. They were not controlled, they were convinced without and beyond the power of words alone.

“As the winter approached, and the mountain became more difficult to climb, he told us that he was to leave to do the mountain’s bidding, but that we were to provide food for those who labored in the heart of the mountain, and that he would return with the thawing of the snow. He took with him many of the gifts bestowed by the mountain.

“He returned with the change of the seasons in a boat with much food and many strangers, all taken into the mountain’s service while he was away. They came from many distant lands. There was one who was not what he appeared to be, and somehow The Mountain’s Servant saw through his pretense. In the middle of the village, even as the boat was being unloaded, the Servant denounced the impostor, who swore that his secrets would never leave his lips. We expected the servant to force the truth with pain and suffering, but instead he simply bestowed the gift of the mountain in the form of a small pendant, and the impostor told all without pause, the latest recruit to the Mountain’s service. When the boat left, the new recruit went with it, bearing many small packages of mountain’s gift to be sent to the powerful and deserving throughout the world.

“Since his return, the mountains’ servants have grown in number by ones and twos and threes, a few more every week, until now they number in the dozens. Last night, the most recent recruit to the mountains service came to the village, a tall man of power, who have his name only as Fenbao, Storm in the western tongue*. From his appearance, we thought he might have been another seeking to learn the secrets of the Mountain’s Servant under false pretense, but his face and mind were as stone and he would not answer the simplest question, even when no others were in earshot. We could only tell that he was alive and not a statue of cast metal by the occasional twitch in his hand**.

“When the dawn came, he went with the others up to perform the Mountain’s bidding.”

* Doc Storm
** Doc is a world-class surgeon, his hands never twitch, and the PCs knew it. From this information, they deduced that he was still fighting for control.

The Immediate Future

At the time of the PCs reaching Dambuk, Lon Than is about 25 days away from a massive shipment of mind-controlling Jade. This shipment will take something like three months to distribute. At the same time that the shipment is dispatched, his servants in various theological centers in India and elsewhere in Asia will begin a ‘reformation’ movement aimed at converting 75% of Indian Hindus to a pro-Kalika doctrine within a year, using predictions about the future that his existing servants will ensure are accurate, in a vast global conspiracy. The delivery of that final mass-shipment of Jade is aimed at controlling individuals who have been carefully put in place in various countries who will almost simultaneously manufacture provocations throughout the world, instigating global war. The necessary instructions for achieving this are being embedded in the Jade; touching it will be sufficient to achieve the goal with no further intervention from Lon Than.

Notes from behind the curtain:

Lon Than is an interesting character. Clearly very intelligent and capable of subtle and sophisticated planning, he is a scientist driven by a variant theology that is ‘primitive’ in the sense of 20th century society. His overall objective is one that the PCs support and have worked to achieve in the past, by doing what they can to oppose the forces leading to war; there is a sense that it would have taken only a gentle nudge for the PCs to have ended in his shoes (except that none of them are Asian). The major difference between Lon Than and the PCs is that he has given up trying to forestall war and ’embraced the madness’.

The PCs never broached the mailing center, though they deduced its location, and so never learned just how narrowly Total Global War was avoided.

Kali and Kalika

The following is a deliberate distortion of abridged elements of Hindu belief for story/game purposes. No offense is intended to any who follow that, or any other, faith. We have made it deliberately difficult to find where doctrine ends and our ‘reinventions’ begin in order to ensure plausibility of narrative, but assert that everything below is either fiction or severely compromised, and should not be the foundations of anyone’s understanding of Hinduism.

I wish you could see the illustration that I did of Kalika. It’s gorgeous, probably the best digital painting that I’ve ever done – turning the skin of a portrait of Kali green and adding “Jade effects”. But because it was derived directly from another artist’s work, I can’t display it publicly or make it publicly available.

Kali, also known as Kalika, is the Hindu goddess associated with empowerment, or shakti. She is the fierce aspect of the goddess Durga. The name Kali comes from Kala, which means black, time, death, lord of death: Shiva. Since Shiva is called Kala — the eternal time — the name of Kali, his consort, also means “Time” or “Death” (as in “time has come”). Hence, Kali is the Goddess of Time, Change, Power and Destruction.

Although sometimes presented as dark and violent, her earliest incarnation as a figure of annihilation of evil forces still has some influence. Various Shakta Hindu cosmologies, as well as Sh?kta Tantric beliefs, worship her as the ultimate reality or Brahman. Comparatively recent devotional movements largely conceive Kali as a benevolent mother goddess. She is often portrayed standing or dancing on her husband, the god Shiva, who lies prostrate beneath her. Worshiped throughout India but particularly in Kashmir, South India, Maharashtra, Bengal, and Assam.

The figure of Kali conveys death, destruction, and the consuming aspects of reality. As such, she is also a “forbidden thing”, or even death itself. The Karpuradi-stotra clearly indicates that Kali is more than a terrible, vicious, slayer of demons who serves Durga or Shiva. Here, she is identified as the supreme mistress of the universe, associated with the five elements. In union with Lord Shiva, she creates and destroys worlds. Her appearance also takes a different turn, befitting her role as ruler of the world and object of meditation. In contrast to her terrible aspects, she takes on hints of a more benign dimension. She is described as young and beautiful, has a gentle smile, and makes gestures with her two right hands to dispel any fear and offer boons. The more positive features exposed offer the distillation of divine wrath into a goddess of salvation, who rids the sadhaka of fear. Here, Kali appears as a symbol of triumph over death.

In Kali’s most famous legend, Devi Durga and her assistants, the Matrikas, wound the demon Raktabija in various ways and with a variety of weapons in an attempt to destroy him. They soon find that they have worsened the situation for with every drop of blood that is dripped from Raktabija he creates a duplicate of himself. The battlefield becomes increasingly filled with these simalcra. Durga, in need of help, summons Kali to combat the demons; in some versions, Durga actually assumes the form of Goddess Kali. Kali destroys Raktabija by sucking the blood from his body and putting the many Raktabija duplicates in her gaping mouth. Pleased with her victory, Kali then dances on the field of battle, stepping on the corpses of the slain, releasing them to the judgment of heaven.

Some accounts note the similarity between Kali and Raktabija, asserting that Kali is herself a demon who has been seduced to higher cause by her love of Shiva. There are several suggestions that theirs is a forbidden love, but that Durga granted the pair an exception to the Divine Law. However, the forbidden nature of their love persists, her every touch poisoning Shiva and threatening his life; a burden that they bear in the name of Love. Kali is therefore symbolic of all love that is difficult or denied by fate, and is frequently invoked when choosing to defy that fate regardless of the potential cost, ie total destruction.

Kali is also viewed as a protector of humanity from enemies both within and without. Some accounts describe her as without mercy, others contradict this characterization or confine it in some manner. Kali is an ender of suffering, and bringer of mercy, in many accounts, including some in which she can never experience this quality herself. At least one version of Kali’s story states that she could choose to be merciful and hence perfect, but that she continually bestows this mercy on the suffering of others, sacrificing her own progress through existence for their benefit.

Some accounts suggest that Kali is also the bearer of souls to judgment, and of souls who have been judged to their next stage of life. She is thus destruction and creation in one.

Another popular legend states that after her victory over Raktabija, Kali became drunk on the blood, and lost all self-control, dancing on the battlefield in a destructive frenzy that laid waste to the very populace that she had rescued from the Demon. She was about to destroy the universe when, urged by all the gods, Shiva lay down in her way to stop her. In her fury and exultation, she failed to see the body of Shiva lying amongst the corpses on the battlefield and stepped upon his chest. Realizing only then Shiva lies apparently dead beneath her feet, her anger is pacified and she calms her fury, becoming suffused with remorse. Shamed at the prospect of keeping her husband beneath her feet, she stuck her tongue out in shame and submission, releasing her consort, who stood up and took his place beside her. Realizing that his ‘death” was a symbolic depiction of what she was about to do, she ended her dance – until the next time she is overwhelmed with bloodlust and victory on the battlefield, even if that bloodlust and victory is not hers, but only viscerally experienced through the acts of man. This Buddhist belief contends that any form of battle or violence risks awakening the destructive side of Kali’s nature, a fate that can only be avoided by a gesture of peace and surrender to fate.

Kali is usually depicted as having blue skin, as are all the gods, symbolic of the purity of the sky, but a few rare depictions show her with Green Skin, the color of demons.

Kali’s role is not one of destruction per se, but of the destruction of evil. She is the spiritual vessel into which all man’s violent impulses are delivered and is only able to maintain purity of purpose through the self-sacrifice of her twin sister Kalika, who siphons off all the malevolent intents and embodies them on behalf of the pair. This difference in their natures causes the two siblings to be eternally at odds, with Kali usually holding the dominant position. From time to time, however, man’s lust for destruction rises above his better instincts and Kalika becomes dominant.

Kalika’s philosophy is best summed up in two western phrases: “Giving them enough rope” and “He who lives by the sword”. She encourages an orgy of violence from the shadows, and in the name of her sister, which ultimately burns itself out and restores the karmic balance of mankind – and gives her sister a bad reputation at the same time. Kali knows full well that her good works as a protector of mankind from the Demons and Devils that seek to overpower it are only possible because of the role her sibling plays, giving the two a complex relationship. Kali seeks to permit mankind to evolve and progress spiritually at its own pace and in its own direction; Kalika functions as a fail-safe for when mankind chooses the wrong direction.

Kalika is not an evil force per se, though she performs acts that others might declare evil; her philosophy is more about “clearing the path” for new growth and “cleansing the earth”. She embodies the western phrase, “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.”

Notes from behind the curtain:

In roleplaying the pair – we prepared to roleplay Kalika though that prep was never called upon – I found that keeping the different attitudes toward the PCs firmly in mind helped frame modes of expression and tone of voice. For Kali, that was calmness, placidity, and friendship tinged with either regret or hope, depending on what she was saying. In fact, think Tweety without the speech impediment.

For Kalika, it was angry schoolteacher – “You’ll be sorry if you make me do this,” – tinged with Bugs Bunny, and a touch of Daffy Duck’s somewhat excitable nature – “…I’m quite looking forward to it!”


So, there you have it: Dr Lon Than and supporting infrastructure. Did he survive? It’s arguable that the PCs, acting as Agents Of Kali against her sister’s machinations, have proved that hope is not yet dead – from an obsessed Hindu fatalist’s point of view. But that was then, and if Lon Than survived, this will be ‘now’, and many things may have changed…

It would be easy to adapt Lon Than to derive from a Fantasy genre, deriving from any death/vengeance deity. The scope might change – destroying the Kingdom before it destroys all its neighbors or something like that. The main elements are to preserve the ambivalent nature of the characters, who are both villains from one point of view, but with a nobility of purpose. And that’s the real danger of obsession: it doesn’t matter what your ends are, the mechanisms that you are willing to use taint everything that you do. Who needs an anti-paladin when there are Paladins around willing to do the job?

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Transferable Skills From Bottom to Top and back again

Image by / Eva Serna

Image by / Eva Serna

A collision of thoughts: the origins of this article

The other day, I was searching through past articles looking for a particular reference for a cross-link when I found myself re-reading my article contrasting literary processes and writing for games (The Challenge Of Writing Adventures for RPGs), and – as happens to me from time to time – I experienced a collision of unrelated thoughts, putting 2 and 2 together and getting 4.

I immediately paused what I was doing and began making notes for this article. The subject is character skills, and the assumptions that our social conditioning makes of the game systems that we play in respect of them.

Specifically, I started thinking about the concept of Transferable Skills, and whether or not that concept was, could, or should be reflected in the way we – and our game systems – interpret character skills in an RPG.

Transferable Skills

A “transferable skill” is a skill learned doing one profession that has elements of a broader ability and hence can be applied to tasks required of some other profession. They are often vaguely defined, general, and overarching – “Communications Skills”, “Customer Relations”, “Problem-Solving”, and so on. Employers like them because they demonstrate that a potential recruit is bringing abilities to the table that will value-add to the proposed position, should they be offered it. These days, positions and promotions are won and lost based on an individual’s transferable skills.

And yet, the concept is not really reflected in the skills systems of most RPGs, which make assumptions about the nature of the learned abilities of a character, and which are then often interpreted in a completely different fashion – one that does take the concept into account – by GMs in the field.

I have always maintained that understanding the nuts and bolts – the underlying concepts and mechanics – that are embedded in our rules systems makes a GM better able to interpret and utilize that game system, so when I spot one of these underlying concepts or mechanics, I like to share that insight with the readers here at Campaign Mastery.

There is no formal definition of the way most GMs and RPGs interpret skills; instead it’s something absorbed by osmosis at the game table, first as a player, and then as a GM. That won’t fly if we’re going to take a good hard look at the subject, so that’s the place to start.

Coining a concept: “Adaptable Skills”

The way most GMs (in my experience) interpret skills listed on the character sheet is as the focal representation of a more general capability. “Fishing” as a skill is assumed to imply skill at tying fishing lines, knowing the signs of a good place to fish, knowing how to clean a fish, and all sorts of other things. “Fishing” is simply the label assigned to a gestalt of actual skills.

Because this interpretation isn’t actually defined or written down anywhere in most cases, the point where such skill systems frequently run into trouble is when two or more skills overlap. One could argue, for example, that “Fishing” would include at least basic knowledge of how to cook fish, and possibly even how to prepare the most common accompaniments for fish – the basic, traditional recipes. Some GMs will accept this rationale, while others will rule that because there is usually a completely separate skill, “Cooking”, this element of “fishing” in the common-world sense of the term is specifically excluded.

If a character has both “Fishing” and “Cooking”, a new nuance is introduced – how does the GM interpret this? Do they compound? Does simply having one give a bonus to the other? Does one have to make a successful check of the less specific skill before this can occur? Is it always the higher one that the character gets to roll, or is it the one that the DM considers more directly applicable? Is consistency of interpretation uniform, or is there a general rule and some specific or ad-hoc variations?

The other aspect of the question is using a skill for some other task. “I’ve got ‘fishing’, so I know the basics of how to tie knots.” Let’s break this example line of argument down into its’ constituent elements:

  • “Fishing” is made up of many separate minor sub-skills;
  • One of those sub-skills involves the tying of knots in fishing lines to make nets and repair those fishing lines;
  • The same knots can be made in a different material, e.g. rope;
  • Therefore, a “fishing” check enables a character to tie someone up, the check determining how effective the result is at restraining the subject.

“Fishing” and all the other skills on the character sheet are not a transferable skill, but they are an abstracted representation of a whole string of skills that are considered to be transferable, under this interpretation. A skill on the character sheet, in other words, is not transferable, but it is “adaptable” to a different purpose.

The GM who interprets skills in this way is perfectly entitled to increase DCs, or their equivalent in other game systems (skill modifiers or whatever) to reflect the degree of difficulty in adapting one skill to another. Balanced against this is the capacity of a player to argue that they have several “adaptable skills” with the same core ability in common – continuing with the knot-typing example, “profession: porter”, “animal handling”, and “riding” could all be assumed to involve knot-tying in the same way that Fishing does. If each such skill adds +1 to the effective skill of the character at “adapting” the skill they will actually check against, you have the basics of a sophisticated skill handling system, one that balances ubiquity and universality of some transferable skills against the need to actually use a skill in a way the character not covered by the character’s specific vocational training.

Skill Systems from a rules perspective

There are two essential approaches to skills as used by rules systems. These are described in many different ways all ultimately meaning the same thing: you have “narrow”, also described as “focused”, “strict”, and which define skills from a “bottom up” perspective; and “broad”, which may use terms like “generalized”, “relaxed”, “adaptive”, or “interpretation”, and which define skills from a “top-down” perspective.

Quite often, rules systems won’t be explicit about these underlying assumptions, leaving GMs to get themselves into a tangled mess – especially if the GM assumes one interpretation and players another. Things can get even trickier when you adopt a “Say ‘yes’ quickly” approach to skill interpretation, something that Campaign Mastery (and a great many of the GMs who contributed to our recent 750th post) have advocated for quite some time, because that implicitly assumes a “top down” perspective, such as the one described using the “fishing” example – and that doesn’t work properly if the game system isn’t engineered to match.

Skill systems from the bottom up

“Bottom up” skill systems assume that there is a specific skill for every task, and that each skill explicitly defines what it can be used to do, and nothing more.

More sophisticated versions of “Bottom Up” skill systems involve “prerequisites” and may also invoke “tiers” of ability – for example, you may require “mathematics” at a certain level before you can buy “physics” beyond a certain level, and your skill in physics may be capped or restricted to some number relative to your mathematical skill.

Further variants are a little looser, employing pricing levels to achieve similar ends – “+1 physics knowledge” may cost 2 “skill points” or equivalent if you have “mathematics” below a certain standard.

And there are many hybrids. “Specializations” may offer greater specificity in advanced topics, for example.

Such systems generally are characterized by having a great many skills on offer, and are more commonly encountered when looking at Sci-Fi and modern-day genres, where the breadth of knowledge is greater and the existence of specialized expertise is more justifiable. Levels in a given skill are relatively accessible, but diversity of available skills diffuses advancement to reasonable levels; characters may be “experts” in one or two fields, but will have relatively low skill levels outside of those fields. The concept of a “jack of all trades” also has considerably greater currency in such systems, which convey that a character has a moderate level of expertise in all skills but more restricted specialist expertise.

Skills applied in other ways

Skill systems, like all RPG rules, are slightly-vague abstract simulations of a more complex “reality”. They are inherently imperfect, because perfection requires such levels of detail as to be impractical at a gameplay level. Because of these imperfections, Bottom-Up skill systems may break down when characters attempt to do something that isn’t covered by the specific applications provided by the system mechanics.

GMs ultimately have two options: to extend the existing definition of a skill to incorporate the proposed new application, or – if it sufficiently broad that it should have been a skill in the first place, to add a new skill to the system. The best yardstick for determining the optimum answer is the scope of the proposed new application; if it is of a scale commensurate with the other specific skills supplied by the game system, then it should be a new skill; if not, it should be a new approved application of an existing skill. The use of this yardstick maintains the system’s integrity in terms of inflation of available skills, and the overall degree of abstraction within the system remains relatively consistent.

The GM’s problems don’t end there, however; introducing a new skill as part of the existing body of rules is inherently retroactive; it has to be assumed that the skill has always been available for players and NPCs alike to take, but that (for some reason) none of them have ever done so. This can shatter credibility like so much spun glass. Most of the time, this disaster can be avoided by permitting retroactive adjustments to character skills, creating a minor break in continuity of development that can be glossed over. Ideally, characters should not be permitted to completely “unlearn” a skill, but can reduce levels of expertise in another skill in order to develop the “new” skill in their stead.

This leaves the verisimilitude of the past intact except under one specific circumstance: where the existence of the new skill would have materially changed the outcome of a key plot event, saving the villains for example. Completing the remediation process requires the retroactive insertion into campaign history of some reason why this would not have worked, or (alternately) assuming that the event did in fact produce a different outcome that was concealed from the PCs at the time by trickery or deception. Their enemy really did escape, but he tricked them into not realizing it – until now!

Because this will obviously have an impact on the current and future campaign, recasting or even invalidating parts of it, the GM has to decide which choice is the least harmful to the campaign – editing either the past or the future (actually, there’s a third choice, but that’s a subject for an entirely different article).

Skills applied to related tasks and sub-tasks

Rules debates about skills in a bottom-up system tend to be about whether or not a given task is inherently a part of the abstraction described by the skill. Does a skill in “History Of England” include a detailed knowledge of the history of Wales? Or just the history of interaction between the two? (Okay, that’s a fairly simple example; the answer is “no”.)

So let’s ask a curlier one: to what degree does ability to drive a horse-drawn wagon confer the ability to drive a reindeer-drawn sled? The two are more-or-less equal in scope, so arguably “Sled driving” should be a completely separate skill – but the two are similar enough that you could argue that they are both specific applications of the one skill, “driver of animal-powered vehicles” – and the rest is simply a question of making suitable allowances for environmental conditions. So this is right on the cusp of falling either`way.

Because skills are interpreted so precisely and narrowly in the “bottom-up” model, such debates are always about trivial minutia that has suddenly assumed disproportionate importance, and hence always infuriating and annoying to all concerned; and because there are more skills in such systems, this sort of debate occurs more regularly. As a result, there is a constant temptation to impose some inflexible ruling or overarching guideline, or to settle such questions quickly without giving them the thought they deserve.

It was thinking about such broad generalities that led me to come up with Look beyond the box: a looser concept for NPCs.

Skills applied to complex tasks

To some extent, it’s when a character attempts a complex task that this sort of system comes into its own, because the complex task can be broken down into smaller subtask, defined as requiring a separate skill roll (often against a completely different skill). This means that any failure in the complex task can be precisely pinpointed, as can the consequences and the timing of the discovery of the error, which in turn defines what remedial action (if any) is possible – turning the complex task into something that can be roleplayed, and giving the player something to do while their character is tied up performing this task.

TORG took this one step further, building time variability into each part of the complex task – these were broken down (by default) into four stages (A, B, C, and D) and permitting the character to roll for each only when a card was played/turned over with the appropriate letter. If, as your turn, you completed A successfully, for each subsequent round (while others were doing whatever they were doing) you were assumed to be doing B until a card came along with a “B” code to signify potential completion of the “B” step – you then rolled for success or failure.

Transferable Skills in RPGs

Another way of looking at bottom-up systems is as explicitly defining every occupation and task in terms of the explicit transferable skills. Every skill is either one of these “universal building blocks” or represents those elements of the vocation that are not transferable, By defining vocations in this way, a more comprehensive and complete analysis of both tasks to be performed in-game and character abilities to perform specific tasks is assembled.

Summary Pt 1: Transferable Skill Systems

Bottom-up skill systems are those in in which the purposes/actions to which a skill can be applied are defined and restricted, and in which no skill can be assumed in a task that is not explicitly specified, can require the addition of new skills whenever actions are defined that do not already exist within the skills system. Skills function as defined and discrete applications of the skill-system class of capability. Your skill in any given complex activity is the combination of your skills in all the lesser tasks defined by an individual skill.

Skill systems from the top down

These are fundamentally different in concept to the bottom-up approach. A skill implies the ability to perform all the subtasks, and is an abstracted entity that comprises all the subtasks. The more skills the set of available skills is broken into, the greater the granularity of the system, ie the level of precision possible. However, that level of precision is defined by the game maker and rarely actually discussed within the game rules.

Transferable skills are considered to be implied and embedded within the system rather than explicitly defined. The “Skill” that is listed is a synthesis, an abstract representation of the capability of completing every task that is explicitly listed and any task that the GM rules is also part of the field regardless of its not being explicitly stated.

This enables the player to argue that their skill in Animal Riding includes the basics of how to care for the animal, and therefore gives them a chance to use that Animal Riding skill to diagnose the problem and find a solution when a mount falls ill.

Right away, we’re in deep water with that example, because there is obvious potential for overlap in transferable skills – let’s make it obvious by talking about “Profession: Animal Veterinarian” – but there are often no guidelines for how to deal with such overlaps, or such guidelines have a sense of being ‘tacked on afterthoughts’.

Skills applied in other ways

A skill can be applied to any task the GM decides that it is relevant to, beyond a small range of specific and mandated examples incorporated into the skill description. This immediately raises the specter of GM inconsistency as a problem that can occur. On top of that, everyone will have a slightly different knowledge and understanding of what is or is not covered by a particular skill, so confusion can result when jumping from one game table to another.

Players will have different levels of expertise in any given field to their characters, and because so much is not explicitly stated, this can impact on what they think their character can do with the skills that they have.

Furthermore, it is reasonable to expect that most players will have at least one sphere of knowledge in which they are more expert than the GM is, and may disagree (with good cause) with the GM’s calls on the scope of a skill.

As often as not, attempting to apply a skill in any non-specified way will trigger a discussion of the scope of the skill – which is deathly dull to everyone else at the game table – at least until everyone comes to terms with the unwritten “rules” in the GM’s head.

Skills applied to related tasks and sub-tasks

This is where the greatest scope for disagreement potentially lies. I know one GM who advocated the line that since skills were not listed amongst the exceptions, stacking limits applied when multiple skills potentially applied to a given task. If he had chosen to permit players to use their highest relevant skill to roll against, he might have gotten away with it; he did not, instead defining a principle he called “allied skills” in which the skill that he nominated was the primary skill against which checks had to be made, and any relevant related skill was worth +1 to the die roll if, and only if, it was at a higher skill than the primary skill to be checked. Even that might not have been too bad – it certainly sounds reasonable on the page and in context – but he then further ruled that every subtype of a skill was an explicitly different skill and that a character’s racial profile automatically appended the skills with an invisible “subtype”; in other words, an Elf who put points into the “architecture” skill was explicitly taking levels in “Elvish Architecture”, which was a different skill to “Human Architecture” and so on. “You have no skill in [X]” became a repeated refrain at his game table – for about three weeks before his players deserted in droves.

Where this GM really went wrong was treating a top-down system as though it were a bottom-up system. He wanted everything to be explicit and racially-profiled – something that is not unreasonable, but that can be managed in a number of ways – when the system is designed to be more abstract and umbrella-like in its definitions.

Skills applied to complex tasks

This tendency to gather things under a single abstract umbrella often also manifests in how the GM chooses to handle complex tasks. Quite often these will also be abstracted and generalized into a single die roll for success or failure, with the GM and players improvising a narrative that describes how that die roll will be interpreted – a success may be achieved after setback after setback is overcome, for example.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but many GMs also use the degree of success or failure as a measurement of other narrative criteria, such as the character’s satisfaction with the result. Others “band” degrees of success – barely succeed and your end result looks like you did the work while wrestling alligators, barefoot; succeed by 5 or more to get a “good quality” result; succeed by 10 or more to get an “excellent quality” result; and so on. Still others use degree of success or failure to measure how long completion of a task to a minimum acceptable standard takes, with that minimum acceptable standard being defined by the skill level of the character at the time – so a “marginal success” by a character with a skill of 10 means something completely different to a “marginal success” by a character with a skill of 2; the character with the skill of 10 sets himself a higher acceptable standard, and is entirely likely to reject as “junk” something that the character of skill 2 would be quite chuffed at accomplishing

Too many interpretations for one die roll! Some GMs see such proposals written up online, or in gaming magazines, and try to implement them all at the same time because they sound cool. The result: it never rains but it pours; the only question is whether it’s milk and honey or acid rain.

Some GMs, realizing the problems that this can cause, chooses from die-roll to die-roll which interpretation is most useful for the current game circumstances. In fact, I sometimes do so, myself – though these tend to be exceptional circumstances. This can be a problem because the players never know what a die roll will actually achieve, beyond the mere fact of success or failure; there is a strong temptation to cheat as a result, or at least, to “massage” the circumstances to be in their favor.

By-and-large, a GM is best served by deliberately choosing one meaning as their normal default for a given campaign and using the alternatives to make each campaign a little more distinguishable from the last. They can then integrate that choice into their rules and rulings, treating the other variables as independent of the die roll, therefore giving them greater narrative control at the game table, which they will exploit for dramatic purposes. So long as this is made clear to the players going in, there should be no problems.

Transferable Skills in RPGs

Transferable skills in a top-down system are the “glue” that connects one skill to another, the overlap in each skill’s scope, never explicitly defined. This actually provides an excellent characterization tool that can be exploited by canny GMs and players if both agree: a player can give his character a matches advantage-disadvantage pair in which they get a -1 or -2 in one transferable skill and a matching increase in another. It is therefore assumed that, since the character’s overall ability in any given skill does not change as a result, the other aspects of an affected skill are benefited or harmed to like extent. This natural “knack” or lack of it thus becomes a defining filter, coloring the skill system for that particular individual in a specifically-defined way.

However, there is a caveat to this approach; the GM must be sure that each element of the pair really does balance the other. Taking a penalty in anything related to Goblins may sound well-and-good, but it’s no real penalty if goblins are rarely-if-ever going to feature in the campaign. Both advantage and disadvantage have to be approximately equal in applicability for this to work, and there also needs to be a hard limit on the number of such pairs that can be accepted. Experience has shown that 1 is too simplistic, 2 is manageable, 3 is about the limit – but this function is also dependent on the number of players; this was in a player-light campaign. If there are more than 3 players at the table, I would set the limit to two.

The great power of this concept this the flexibility that it brings, You could have a character who is hopeless at anything to do with maps – but excellent at dealing with animals, whether that be tracking them, riding them, hunting them, cooking them, or whatever.

This example also brings up the second great pillar of equality of which the GM should be mindful: significance. At first glance, you might feel that these are inadequately balanced, because the advantage will apply far more frequently than the disadvantage; but that’s not necessarily the case, because on a lot of the occasions when it is relevant, the advantage won’t achieve anything particularly significant beyond the characterization, but while the disadvantage won’t apply very often, almost every time that it does will be important.

The last time I used this was to create a shy, introverted, withdrawn character with extremely poor people skills – who became a silver-tongued devil when bargaining, bartering, or trading. “Please, just a little more, guvner. I’m juft a poor widdle orphan boy stwuggling to earn a little money to buy food for my poor sick muvver. Have a heart.” I doubt the player would even remember the encounter now, even if he had not passed away a few years back – but the ‘street urchin’ went home with about twenty times what he should have, given the true quality of what he was peddling. Changing his appearance and patter, he proceeded to tap the same target another four times without being recognized, earning about 4,250 gold for products that (if as advertised) should have been worth about 500 gold – and which were actually worth between 5 and 10 gp!

Game system design implications

Many systems designers don’t think about these two very different approaches, employing both in equal – and confused – measure. Sometimes, it’s the case that one half of a development team has one perspective while other has the opposite – and unless the line editor figures out the point of disagreement in philosophy, half the skills system ends up being incompatible with the other half.

Points-buy systems – small purchases vs expensive ones

One way of figuring out what was going on in the game designer’s head is to look at the number of skill points that it costs to improve a skill, and hence what likely skill progression is likely to be. If skills are expensive, the likelihood is that the intent was a top-down system, while if they are cheap, the likelihood is that the intent was a bottom-up system. Of course, “cheap” and “expensive” are relative values; they need to be placed in context by looking at the rate of progression of penalties or increases in difficulty.

For example, in the Hero System, skills are relatively cheap, and there are a lot of them. The implication is that these should be interpreted as a bottom-up system. Skills in 7th Sea, in comparison, are quite hard to put up, and the implication is that these should be given a top-down interpretation. The same can be said of Star Wars: The Edge Of Empire, to use a more recent example.

D&D, 3.x, and Pathfinder

And what of D&D/Pathfinder? Ah, therein lies the rub. There are enough skills in these games to suggest a bottom-up approach, and they tend to be relatively easy to put up – but so are the difficulty targets, at least at lower levels. The examples of play offered for both hint at a top-down approach. But the DCs that should be applied to tasks are a muddle – rising more quickly with increased difficulty than skill levels at lower character levels but rising more slowly with increased difficulty than skill levels at higher character levels. It thus becomes ridiculously easy to achieve DC25 as a target at even moderate levels. What we have here, then, appears to be [is] a conceptual problem in the design of the game mechanics for 3.x that Pathfinder then inherited. This problem largely went away with D&D 4th edition from what I can tell, and was definitely less of a factor when I playtested 5th ed.

A solution of sorts is possible: most of my campaigns use ([DC-5]x2)+5 to set the DCs for any given task, where the “DC” in square brackets is what the book says it should be. So DC5 remains DC5, DC8 becomes DC14, DC12 becomes DC19, DC18 becomes DC31, and DC25 becomes DC45. The theory is that characters won’t attempt High-DC tasks until they have a reasonable chance of success, and this keeps those high-DC tasks at arms length until the characters are quite high level. Other solutions are possible, though possibly less convenient: “([DC-10]x3)+10, no effect on DCs under 10”, for example: DC5 stays DC5, DC8 stays DC8, DC12 becomes DC16, DC18 becomes DC34, and DC25 becomes DC55. This decreases the effect at mid-ranges (DC 10-20) while increasing it for higher DCs.

Both these are shortcuts for simulating a more precise solution in which DCs are increased at a rate more commensurate with skill level progressions, or a revision of the stacking limits rules to cull some of the ways of evading these that have built up over the years. Be that as it may, what we have in 3.x/Pathfinder is a system designed at least in part as a bottom-up system and used almost-universally as a top-down system. But for all that, it’s a better solution than the total absence of one in 2nd Ed, or AD&D.

It’s sometimes said (inaccurately) that the Chinese ideogram for “trouble” represents ‘two women under the same roof’. Certainly, an accurate alternative would be ‘two game systems at the same game-table.’

Is such a butcher’s hack truly the only solution? After all, the same problems occur with other game systems, too; can we not find a more interpretational solution rather than fiddling too much with game mechanics? Changing the way we translate in-game attempted actions into game mechanics, in other words?

The Bottom-up approach

There’s a simple three-step process that turns D&D/Pathfinder into a true bottom-up system (provided the GM is also willing to add additional skills as necessary, and as described earlier):

  • Define the tasks that in aggregate comprise the overall action being undertaken.
  • Player rolls against each task at the same basic DC. If he succeeds in all tasks, then he has succeeded in the overall action. If he fails in one or more then the overall result is at best a marginal success and at worst a complete failure, trending toward the worst-case result with each additional failure of a subtask. The GM interprets the results accordingly.

What this systemic interpretation achieves is a number of useful things. First, it redefines every attempted action into the application of transferable skills. Second, it checks those individually. Third, it represents overall competence as more valuable than being good in one specialist subject when it comes to real-world applications. Fourth, by increasing the number of times a high-DC must be achieved, it at least partially alleviates the mismatch. The rest can be handled by the GM being more generous in his interpretations at low levels, and much more strict at higher character levels. But, to avoid any suggestion of bias against high-level characters, base that differential tolerance on the DC required – so rolls at DC 5 tasks are treated generously, while rolls at DC 16+ or 20+ or whatever are treated very strictly.

It can even be argued that this is a more realistic interpretation, insofar as complex and detailed tasks are more prone to total failure if each element is not completed successfully, while simpler tasks have more leeway for error. Get the design of a chair a little bit wrong, and you may have to cut off part of one leg of the chair to balance it; get the design for a castle’s supports wrong even a little bit and the whole structure will come down.

One roll to rule them all

It is also possible to Conflate the relevant skills into one roll, if desired. All it takes is a calculator: Multiply the die rolls needed by each other and divide by 20^(n-1) to get the chance of total failure; multiply 20 minus those die rolls by each other and divide by 20^(n-1) to get the chance of complete success; everything else is a smooth continuity in between. For two rolls, 20^(n-1) is 20; for three, it’s 400; for four, it’s 8000; for five, it’s 160,000.

For example, lets say that for a task, the character has 3 rolls to make, requiring 4+, 8+, and 6+, on d20. 4x8x6=192, so the chance of total failure is 192/400 on d20, or 0.48. Effectively, no chance. (If the last roll required had been 16+, we would have gotten 1.28 on d20, i.e. a 1 in 20 chance). The chance of total success is (20-4)x(20-8)x(20-6)/400 =16x12x14/400 =2688/400 =6.72 on d20. So 13 or better to succeed completely, 0 in 20 chance of complete failure, and an overall likelihood of success after overcoming some difficulty or success taking a little longer than desirable, or a partial success.

You could even use the principle that a natural 1 is always a failure and a 20 always a success. In this case, that would make no difference to the chance of success, but would ensure the risk of total failure remains.

A top-down alternative

It’s also possible to adjust our thinking to make D&D/Pathfinder a more truly top-down system. I’ve already telegraphed the way to do so, in fact.

  • The GM selects the one most applicable skill to the task at hand. This is the primary check that they have to make.
  • All DCs over 10 are increased by 5.
  • If the character does not have the required skill at a level greater than or equal to half the DC, the DC is increased by (an additional) 10.
  • For every relevant skill that the character has that is both greater than the DC required AND the primary skill, the character gets +2 to his die roll.
  • For every relevant skill that the character has that is greater than either the DC required OR the primary skill, but not both, the character gets +1 to his die roll.
  • The player makes his primary skill check as indicated. Success indicates total success, a 1 indicates total failure, anything in-between is subject to GM interpretation.

Once again, this achieves a lot of different things. It acknowledges that high skills in a related discipline bring proficiency at a transferable skill to the problem, without bothering to get into the nuts and bolts of what that skill is. The player simply has to recite a list of the skills they think might be relevant while the GM counts (either to himself, aloud, or on his fingers) a “yes”, “no” or “partial” modifier. It’s fast, only taking a few seconds. Only one die roll is involved, but the results solve the problem of high DCs at high levels by imposing the additional requirement of a skill level equal to or greater than half the DC, then increasing that DC if the result isn’t achieved. The principle is one of making the DC higher, then allocating conditional modifiers to erode that penalty if the character meets the requirements; it means that a character should easily succeed at tasks that are within the scope of his character level’s expertise, but will have to have things go their way to have a reasonable chance at succeeding at anything too far beyond reasonable.

An abstracted half-way house

In theory, it’s possible to design a game system that abstracts all tasks into a group of “specific” skills which are then used as building blocks for any particular skill check. Roll under target, Stat +1 for each building block, -2 for each building block missing, one roll. I have never seen such an approach actually used, but it’s possible.

The Zenith-3 rules approach

The Zenith-3 game system offers a very different alternative that’s worth a brief description.

  • Stats give ability checks.
  • Specific ability checks are then combined to give aptitudes, i.e. how good people naturally are and how good they can get.
  • Aptitudes are used to calculate specific base skill scores in Fundamental Skills when those skills are purchased.
  • The price of a skill, and the cost of improving it, depends on the difficulty of the skill and this “natural talent”.
  • Some skills are defined as “Expert” skills, and are based on, and require, specific Fundamental Skills.
  • Skill levels in those Fundamental Skills are used to derive base levels in Expert Skills.
  • If the character doesn’t have the required skill, the aptitudes are used instead.
  • The System biases against unskilled use by imposing penalties for not having the required skill.
  • The System insulates skill levels against changes in stats by simply altering the improvement cost thereafter, not retroactively.
  • Characters can purchase specialized areas of expertise within a given skill.

There’s a lot more; it’s a complex system that specifies well over 100 specific skills and details exactly what they can be used for. It is a deliberately bottom-up system that is equally deliberately designed to have top-down application in-play. But, at more than 20 pages of tiny, tiny, type plus the skill descriptions themselves (which have not been completely finished at this point but still add another 48 pages of type), it’s far too extensive to be published here (or anywhere, under the terms of the license for the Hero System, on which it is based).

Game-play implications of top-down and bottom-up

If the system is clear about its approach, interpret it accordingly, knowing what the system expects. Evaluate the tasks proposed either in terms of the relevant skills or in terms of the subtasks involved, and determine a result accordingly.

When the design is confused – which is more common than my focus on 3.x/Pathfinder may make it seem – make an interpretation and stick with it.

A flexible compromise

There is one final compromise on offer for dealing with confused mechanics, and it may be the best answer of them all. That’s why I’ve saved it for the next-to-last word.

  • If the skill description explicitly defines a function, it is directly applicable and must be tested whenever that function arises as part of a complex task. This defines some activities as requiring multiple skill rolls and having multiple vectors for failure, though they can still be conflated through basic probability math. All you need be able to do is multiply and divide, as described earlier.
  • If no skill explicitly defines a function, use a top-down approach, looking not for transferable skills but for Adaptable skills.


A lot of the trouble that arises from skill systems is unnecessary, caused by GMs not understanding the intent of game designers, or game designers not understanding the implications of what other game designers have put in place. There are solutions to all these problems, of varying complexity and impact on a game. Understanding what the underpinning philosophy of the game system is enables you to make the correct choice of solutions when presented with problems, and avoids many of the problems by framing the interpretation of attempted actions into game mechanics in the correct way.

Where there are so many solutions, there are bound to be more. Sometimes groups will stumble onto something that seems to work without ever understanding why it works. If whatever you are currently doing is working, don’t change it – but use the discussions in this article as a tool to understand it and why it works, enabling you to enhance it further – or simply avoid harming it. If, however, any of the problems described struck home for you, this article should tell you why they are happening – and at least some things you can try in an effort to do something about them.

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A Campaign Mastery 750th-post Celebration

Happy Birthday image by / Karen Barefoot

Happy Birthday
image by / Karen Barefoot


It’s time for a really big party! This is officially the 750th post here at Campaign Mastery! But it’s more than that: It’s also, as close as makes confusion, our 7th birthday – you see, Johnn and I started pre-loading the Blog with content and getting into the necessary habits to keep things rolling from November 29th, but we didn’t go Live until December 28 (in between he invited feedback from a few trusted sources, which is why some early comments are dated within that period). And, if you split that difference, you get December 16 or 17th – which just happens to be yesterday or today! And on top of that, it’s Christmas next week!

There have been all sorts of different plans for how to celebrate – I’ve been thinking about this for the last year!

Blogdex 750?

Plan A was to update the Blogdex. After all, it was first released as part of our 500th-post celebrations. Real world events necessitated that I shelve those plans; I had family functions to attend back in early October, which used up my stockpile of stand-by quick articles and then some – material that I would have needed in order to achieve the ‘free time’ that a Blogdex demands. What’s more, last time it was so big (over 24,000 words) that it broke various aspects of the blog infrastructure, like the RSS feed – so this time I would have to divide it into a series, just to make it fit. I figured that I would need 2.5 months (the original took 3.5) to write it – and I simply wasn’t going to have it.

Hitting The Spot?

Plan B was to share the hit location system that I came up with in my first campaign – capable of accuracy to the centimeter and yet very fast and easy to use. It quickly became apparent that recreating this digitally was going to be another Big Project that would not be ready in time. I’m still sneaking time into that here and there in odd minutes, so it should appear in 2016 sometime.

Project X?

Plan C was to kick off a series that has been in development for more than a year, a secret collaboration between myself and a couple of regular contributors to the Ask The GMs column, but it has turned out to simply be too big to have ready in time. In fact, it might not even be ready until mid-2016, though I’m pushing hard to get it done sooner! In fact, that’s what I expect to be doing over Christmas.

Party To End All Parties

And so to Plan D. A compound of various lesser forms of celebration, like having different activities at the party. We start with the welcoming speech (which you’re almost finished reading). Next, we’ll get the technical bits out of the way – Reasons to be cheerful, part 750! I’ll follow up with a glimpse of some of what I have planned for 2016 in Things To Come (warning: not all of them may eventuate). After that, I have a Q&A extracted from some recent correspondence clarifying a few things in past articles so that they are of maximum help to a beginner. And then, there will be the pièce de résistance – a swarm of helpful hints from my fellow GMs. And I use the term “Swarm” advisedly; I’ve had over 150 contributions from over 150 GMs from around the world, a better response than I ever thought possible. This party is going to be epic!

Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 750

I realize that this title’s reference might be too obscure for a lot of readers. If that’s you, check out this link and then this YouTube video and you will know everything you need to know. Personally, it’s not my favorite ID&TB song – but it’s a great title!

Over the last 7 years, we’ve had more than 590,000 visitors according to Google Analytics – and can expect to hit the 600,000 mark at the start of February (maybe even a little sooner), and the content has been viewed more than 1,000,000 times – we passed that landmark in late June.

Of course, Google aren’t the only way to count these things. We also have an analytics plug-in that’s been keeping track of such details for about five years, and IT has counted more than 812,000 visits since it went active. In all that time – as of this writing, which I’m starting a little in advance – we’ve had 4,769 comments and pingbacks [about half of them replies] that weren’t adjudged to be spam (and more than 1,265,000 that were!)

In that time, I’ve seen a lot of gaming blogs, podcasts, websites, and other resources come and go. In fact, I think we’re currently in the third or fourth generation of site since Campaign Mastery started!

I think it says a lot about what has been achieved here that there are posts from the first month or two that I still refer to regularly. Of those 750 posts, I think there have been only 10-20 that were not evergreen in nature. Even those that were relatively focused on a particular iteration of a game system are transferable to other, popular, game systems and are still current.

Things To Come

I’m proud of the content that Campaign Mastery has built up over the past seven years. But I don’t want to dwell too much on the yesterdays; instead, let me focus for a minute on just some of what is planned to come up over the next year (several of which have been promised through the course of the year just past):

  • updating the Blogdex;
  • my original hit location system;
  • the philosophies of skill interpretation;
  • table construction tricks;
  • reinventing the concept of campaign history;
  • a Christmas giveaway;
  • Google Image Search usage and tricks;
  • dealing with excessive PC wealth in gaming;
  • more ATGMs;
  • more of the Basics For Beginners series;
  • a couple more entries in the “All Wounds Are Not Alike” series;
  • creating a building;
  • the power of GM visualization; and
  • that epic series that I mentioned!

And that’s only about 1/3 of it!!

A quick Q&A

Last week, I received an email from Tracey Snow, a relatively inexperienced GM. Because both it and my reply are rather lengthy, I’ve interspersed them in the format of an interview.

Hi Mike,

Hi Tracey.

As I’ve mentioned in a couple comments on your blog, I’m trying to get back into RPGs and GMing but so far, it’s been a struggle. You and a good few others have raised the bar of player expectations considerably in the years that I have not been active with RPGs and I feel like I’m in over my head. It’s like I’ve just learning to add and subtract and now I’m trying to solve a calculus problem!

That is as much my fault as anything. Reading your blog, I want to incorporate all your years of practice, learning and thinking about creating memorable campaigns into the first one I put together. I’m trying to remember to start small and work my way up but I like having a good understanding of where I’d like the story to go.

I really enjoy all of the detail and in-depth perspectives you put into Campaign Mastery. It’s really is a Master Class on GMing. You consider aspects of the hobby I have not seen anywhere else and you go into depth on your subjects in very amazing ways. I learn so much from any of the articles and they never fail to make me think about how I might incorporate the topic at hand when I get to that point in my GMing.

Unfortunately, from where I sit, reading your blog is almost more of a frustration than a help. So much of what you write, assumes the reader has GM experience and a process that can be improved by your insights. Since I’m still trying to work out a process for creating a world, a campaign, integration of multiple plot lines and fill it all in with sub-plots and side quests and make sure I’m not railroading the players that much of what I read on your site I can’t yet take advantage of.

I’m sorry that you’re finding it a struggle, and that CM has been one of the sources of frustration. You’re right in that Campaign Mastery is pitched more at experienced GMs than at relative Beginners. There are two reasons for that.

The first is that I was a beginner so long ago that I struggle to remember what it was like, and hence I’m never sure how useful my advice would be. That’s the main reason why it’s taken me almost 7 years to get to the “Beginner’s” series that you mention.

The second reason is that if you pitch at the beginner level, once the readers pass that level, there is little of value that they can get from the articles, whereas if you pitch at the expert, or wanna-be-expert, then even if something is beyond a reader now, they can come back to it when they have greater expertise. So there is longevity and greater residual value.

I know there is a great amount of information in your archives for new GMs. I have been stumbling across articles that are slowly helping me fit the puzzle pieces together. I really wish there was a Table of Contents for the site that could guide me through your articles in a logical order. That said, as I persevere through the archive, I’ll come up with a basic for one for you! Also in that vein, I’ve been impatiently waiting for the latest “beginners” series you have started to continue in the hope that it will help me.

A table of contents? What you need is the BLOGDEX – which lists all the articles that had been published to that date by subject and reviews (briefly) the contents of each. You can find it here: A Blogdex Celebration.

I was planning to update it for the 750th article, due in just a week or so, but realized that I was not going to have enough time to do it properly (it’s not the writing so much as the organizing, structuring, and formatting). So that’s on the agenda for maybe the 800th post, due close to the middle of 2016.

As for the “Beginners” series, new parts of that are currently planned to start at the end of January – but that schedule changes on an almost-weekly basis, and if anything, they will be brought forward from that (they subsequently have been, even though all this was written just a week or two back – Mike).

I had a few questions that I thought I would ask in hopes that you might be able to flatten out my learning curve. Here goes:

I’ve had a difficult time finding articles and content that will help me at my level of experience. Are there keywords that you would suggest I use to search for articles on specific topics? I have used the category lists and the general archive list but it’s often difficult to discern what information is covered in an article from its title.

Keywords: most of my articles start with a fundamental principle or subject and begin with a simple treatment of it, growing more advanced as you read, or at least, that is the goal. The idea is that once the reader starts getting out of their depth, they can simply skim through until they either get to the end of the article or a new section starts. It doesn’t always work that way, but that’s the basic structure that I aim for. So a keyword search won’t help except in relation to specific topics.

Have you outlined your process of Campaign building from the first blank piece of paper to your first play session? You have lots of articles detailing specific tasks in the process but is there one that identifies all of the steps you take to cover campaign, adventure, encounter and world building and in what order you do it?

I have – the “New Beginnings” series was a major one in 2015, running for 11 parts, and was both as specific and as comprehensive as I could make it. You can find it here: The New Beginnings series.

You seem consummately organized and, like me, you appear to prefer working through a defined process. I would assume that you have created templates for anything you are preparing (NPCs, locations, plot arcs, etc.). I have seen a few of them but is there an article where you list and give examples of all of the ones you have come up with?

I do have processes that I work through but not fixed templates. The broad process was the subject of “One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post” which you can find here: One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post.

You’ll find that most of the process-related articles will refer back to that as a foundation – and if you look at some of the early articles/series like “Distilled Cultural Essence” you’ll find that they connect forward, as well. That’s because this is the basic process that I use for all writing, from adventures to campaigns to blog posts.

The other article of relevance is “Top-Down Design, Domino Theory, and Iteration: The Magic Bullets of Creation”, which you can find here: The Magic Bullets of Creation. It details the other logical processes that I employ in order to create the headings/structure that populates the “One Word At A Time” process.

Is there an article where you discuss your process for or provide an example of your session prep tasks?

Session prep is very much dependent on two principles: What do I need for a given adventure, and what do I need to spend time on so that it will be ready when I need it for a future adventure. I’ve tackled the subject many times and often touch on it in other articles as well. There is no one article, as my own practices have evolved over time, and as I think about subjects for Campaign Mastery! I suggest the following:

…and the New Beginnings and Basics For Beginners series, in which I look at all of these and sometimes offer simpler (but less effective) alternatives.

Is there an article where you discuss how you run a session and track information while you’re at the table? Do you use a computer at the table or do you make notes and incorporate them into your electronic system later?

I’m terribly disorganized in that respect, I’m afraid. I wouldn’t hold what I do up as an example of “Best Practice” to anyone! I never stop to take notes, and consequently often forget what’s actually happened after a campaign/adventure has departed from “the script” – to which I never adhere, and I’m often the most guilty party at letting plots “evolve” in the course of play. Sometimes that works to my benefit, sometimes it’s a train-wreck. Worse still, I’m usually too physically exhausted after a game session to make any notes while things are fresh in my mind. I’m going to try to line up an article for 2016 on what some of my fellow GMs do to solve these problems and will be as interested as anyone in the results.

What is the differentiating factor between a campaign and an adventure in your mind? Reading “Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow”, you indicated that the campaign was coming to an end but you’re seeding it with plots that will come to fruition in the sequel campaign. That rather sounds like what you do with story arcs in other articles so I was wondering what the difference was.

An adventure is always designed to run to a firm conclusion in which the major plotlines are resolved or transformed by events. A campaign may be closed (designed to run to a firm conclusion) or open, with no firm ending in sight, and involves the resolution of minor plotlines, ongoing subplots, and overarching “super-narratives” or “campaign loops” or “story arcs” or any of half-a-dozen other terms used for the concept. So both bigger and smaller – and a campaign is made up of adventures and subplots bridging between them and providing context for them, so the end of a campaign will also be an adventure. That means that the end of a campaign is the end of everything – unless you KNOW that your players want a sequel, or you want to prepare for the possibility, in which case you deliberately include subplots that are NOT going to come to a conclusion; these then form the basis of the sequel campaign. Essentially, the differences are immediacy and scale.

For the record, I’m still not completely happy with “Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow” – things weren’t explained as coherently or clearly as I would like. The “Back To Basics” articles –

– attempted to simplify and clarify by starting simple and gradually layering in complexities one after another, but it still ended up confusing some people. I took a third swing at it in the “Amazon Nazis” article and the “New Beginnings” series.

Do you have a glossary for terms that you use in your articles? Your recent article where you try to define an adventure talks a lot about that specific term but in various articles, you have used many different terms to discuss varying ‘sizes’ of storyline. I’m trying to get a handle on what each term means to you. I find it a little difficult to tell which ones you use a synonyms for each other and which are unique (I can attach my effort to define them if it will help).

A Glossary? Not really; my terminology evolves as my understanding of best practice evolves. That was what actually led to the article on trying to define an adventure! If you were to send me your attempt at definition, I will turn it into an article on the subject of clarifying the terms, if that would be of benefit to you (and others), and give you co-author credit :) (Tracey has, since this correspondence, provided her notes and such an article is in the works. She declined my offer of a co-author credit, so I’m giving her the kudos she deserves for her efforts here!)

The reason I don’t have one is for the same reason that I have poor game-table record-keeping: I’m too busy doing it to stop and take notes! The only difference is that the “it” in question is writing an article instead of running an adventure!

Do you have any third party resources you would recommend to someone in my position?

There are a number of articles and blogs out there – try the results of this Google Search. The problem is that most of them will be pitched at absolute novices, and will be of no value to you. The “Beginners” series is my attempt to bridge that gap.

Do you have any advice in general that you could offer?

Actually, as it happens, most of the advice being offered in the 750th post will be relevant to your last question! But the bottom line is this: don’t try to follow all the advice that I, or anyone else, offer. Read it, tuck it away in the back of your mind, and just game – the parts that are relevant to your style will work their way forwards without you even realizing it. From time to time, you may be confronted with a problem and go “aha – I vaguely remember reading some advice on that subject once upon a time, now where was it…” An example comes to mind: Lucas, of The City Of Brass, was a recent participant in a podcast on gaming and mentioned a technique for handling masterminds, but couldn’t remember where he had read it – at first. He found it again here after the show: Making a Great Villain Part 1 of 3 – The Mastermind.

Note that Lucas hadn’t memorized the entire article – just the broad principle, which was “The GM should assume that whatever happens, the Mastermind will have anticipated it and will have a plan to turn it to his advantage.” You don’t have to come up with those plans in advance, you simply develop them on the fly in response to PC-instigated events and changes in circumstance.

I’m sure I have more questions but I’ve taken well more time than I intended already. Thank you again for all the work and effort you put into your blog. I have learned so much and I look forward to learning even more!

Postscript: There are two other articles that I should probably have brought to Tracey’s attention, the latter more than the former. These are:

Seeing what advice I had at the very beginning might have been helpful in placing her own efforts into context.

Party To End All Parties, Wildest One In The Book

Another possibly-obscure reference! Skyhooks were one of THE iconic rock bands of the 1970s, and if there’s one song that epitomizes the parties of the era in which I grew up, it would be this one – making it the perfect piece of theme music for this special post! YouTube link to the video is here.

I wanted to do something extra-special for this anniversary post.

So I reached out to just about every GM that I know and asked them one simple question:

If you could give just one piece of advice to another GM, without knowing anything about their campaigns, rule systems, or players, what would it be?

I have been absolutely blown away by the response, and can’t thank those who have contributed enough!

An important note

Some people have suggested that they would want to follow just about everyone on the following list with a twitter account. More power to them, they are all worth following for one or more reasons! But please remember that twitter restricts you to 100 follows a day, and there are a LOT more than 100 twitter users on the list below.

1. Mike Bourke @gamewriterMike(Me) Campaign Mastery’s Owner/Operator
Don’t live or die by anyone’s advice (not even mine). Listen to the core and find your own way of incorporating it into your game. You can always get more specific later, but you need to make your own mistakes to evolve your own ‘voice’.
2. Ian Mackinder – a long-time friend, we’ve been playing in each other’s campaigns for about 34 years. Ian’s last major contribution to Campaign Mastery was the two-part article on Vehicles in RPGs (Part 1,
Part 2
No plan, no matter how brilliant, will survive contact with the player-characters.
3. Ian Gray – another Ian. This one’s been a major part of my games over the last 15 years or so. A frequent contributor to Ask-The-GMs, Ian has also provided a couple of articles to Campaign Mastery. most notably (in tandem with the first Ian) When Good Dice Turn Bad. He’s been GMing on-and-off since 1994.
Flexibility and Pacing are Key.
4. Saxon Brenton is a regular and incisive contributor to Ask-The-GMs in recent years and currently collaborating with Mike and Blair Ramage on something big. One of these days I’ll get an article out of him in his own right! Saxon has GM’d sporadically since 1993. Still, he’s the only one of my players to be mentioned by name on Wikipedia…
Present a story that is interesting and fun for the players to participate in.
5. Nick Deane is a relatively new returnee to GMing after a bad experience the first time out. He’d probably prefer me not to count that attempt, so he’s been a GM for about a year. Nick often contributes to Ask-The-GMs, and he and Ian Grey were instrumental in formulating the concepts at the heart of the mega-answer on Spell Components (Some Arcane Assembly Required).
Don’t try to force your players to stick to the planned story. Know the basics of the topics involved in your planned adventure – if it centers around a court case, know the basics of the court system in your game – and just let events unfold.
6. Blair Ramage is, in some ways, the very definition of old-school, having started playing before original D&D was even released in Australia using a copy a friend brought back with him from a US holiday. He and I co-GM The Adventurer’s Club and are collaborating on a mega-article with Saxon at the moment. He is also a frequent contributor to Ask-The-GMs.
Try not to fall too much in love with your NPCs, try to let the players carry the story. (Yeah, I know that sounds funny coming from me!)
[Explanation: this was one of the perceived mistakes that Blair was making in the Adventurer’s Club campaign before I came on board – the combination of NPCs with more experience than the PCs who were also homages to Blair’s favorite genre characters. His notion was that they would be around to provide a helping hand in whatever field the PCs needed or to bail them out of an especially tight spot if necessary – reasonable, in the context of a game world with an ongoing history, but not good for the health of the campaign. Our biggest step forward was finding a way in which the PCs were going to be superior to these more-experienced characters that let us relocate them farther into the background. Which just goes to show the gulfs that can arise between what is reasonable for a game World and what is reasonable for a Game.].
7. Mike Wells was the first player to sign up to my first campaign. We’ve butted heads across the game table on many occasions through the intervening years; he has been a formative influence on my GMing style that persists to this day, for better or worse.
Work with the environment. You have no idea how many times that’s gotten me out of trouble as both a player and a GM.
8/9/10. Admiral Rob (twitter: @evilkipper, website: is a proud Dad into D&D – “Collects like a butterfly, Paints like a snail!” And a very nice guy. We’ve known each other through twitter for a couple of years now, and he’s always been supportive.
Pick a system and world you love, and your enthusiasm will drive everything else.
Andvarr A (@AndvarrA), “Man of Beard” and Gamer from Scotland, added,
“….and your insanity”.
Admiral Rob replied,
“Insanity comes naturally the first time you hear the phrase ‘let’s split the party’.”
11/12/13. Adam of RPG Kitchen (@RPGKitchen): “Our mission is to help people create, share and play RPGs and use the proceeds to help feed the hungry.” What more can I say?
Above all else make sure people are having fun. Unless you’re playing Cthulhu, in which case they should be scared.
Symatt (see below) added,
“Players deserve everything they get … [when] playing Cthulhu.”
Phil (twitter: @thedicemechanic, website: The Dice Mechanic), from the “Southern Middle. Ish.” of the UK, (describes himself as a “Geek, gamer and argumentative non-specific critic.”) commented
“But if I’m genuinely scared, I won’t stick around.”
14. Danny Rupp of @criticalhits, who provide a Tabletop gaming news feed and more from
Prioritize your RPG planning based on the likelihood content will be encountered/engaged by the players.
15. Home Brewed Games (@Sandboxbrewed) is an RPG game designer whose goal is to help further the hobby I love, by showing the next gen of gamers the power of their imagination.
Stay loose, let the adventure unfold naturally, and have fun.
16. David Andrieux (@DanAndrieux) describes himself as a Physicist, business strategist, and Sci-Fi lover. Technology, storytelling and game design enthusiast. He writes for
Tales of Extraordinary Physics
Never say ‘no’. Let your players try (for better or worse) and build on their ideas.
17-29. Symatt (@symatt) is a Story Teller and “Role Playing Player” from Ipswich, Suffolk, England and an early friend through twitter.
As a GM for the last 20+ years:

  • System is not as important as some place upon it.
  • As long as you (GM) have a passion for what you want to run, [and] that will show in your games.
  • Rules can come to you as a group. Learn together.
  • Have fun, let your players have fun.
  • Things will come to you as you play or run more.
  • Listen to people around you.
  • If you like what you see keep doing it if not drop it and move on.
  • It’s your game as much as your players.
  • Something on twitter now is about “fun”. How do you make sure to have “Fun”. I guess it’s like when people tell you to smile. I sit at a table with the hope that my players enjoy that session. That is a GMs fun I guess. Players on the other hand need a guiding voice . Some know how to play and get what they enjoy from a game. For others it can be a harder experience and so a GM can have a harder time.
  • Learn how the dice work. How combat works in your chosen game and go from there.
  • Be open and creative.
  • Tell a story. Engagement with the players is the key. If you find that part easy then GMing will come easy.
  • Don’t expect to be the best thing since sliced bread straight away. I am still learning and I take pleasure in that.
30. BattleBards (@BattleBards) offer a premier tabletop RPG Audio Library & Tools for RPG Campaigns from Los Angeles. Community-driven and Kickstarter-funded. Their website is
Being a GM is about building a story alongside your players, not in spite of them.
31. 6d6 RPG (twitter: @6d6Fireball, website: is a publisher of roleplaying games, adventures and settings based in Nottingham, UK, (in particular the eponymous game system) with writers and artists from all over the world.
The job of a GM is to keep the game moving forward. Never let the players get stuck in a rut.
32. Elric of Melniboné (@Elric_VIII) writes about Imrryr, the Dreaming City, in both English and Italian.
Let your players be themselves! Rules apply only so long as they don’t get in the way of self-expression and fun.
33. Nvenom8 Designs (@Nvenom8_Designs) is a 3D Designer, Digital Artist, Tabletop Gamer, and “Huge Nerd” in New York, USA. His web store is at Nvenom8_Designs.
The old improv rule of ‘Yes and…’ holds true: whenever possible, don’t say no. Saying yes and adding keeps things moving.
He then added,
Actually, that advice applies equally to players who are roleplaying with one another or with a GM – give the others material [to work with or play off].
34. Dan at RootHome (@RootHomeSetting) is American, the creator of the RootHome Setting “a world of primal myths and legends”, and a player of #pathfinder and #DnD. He’s a reasonably new but good friend on Twitter.
Let the game system serve the story you are telling. Don’t be afraid to play off PCs emotions.
35. Liz Theis (@liztheis) does business development & marketing for Lone Wold Development (twitter: @lonewolfdevel, website: She is also a reader, gamer, history nerd, & MBA student in the “Bay Area” (presumably, of San Francisco, California).
I love this 750 message idea. My piece of advice is quite simple. Don’t forget that playing a roleplaying game is a lot like collaborative story-telling. Find ways to connect your players to the story. Perhaps that’s asking your players for secrets that come out during the campaign, or asking them to come up with backstories that influence the adventures down the line. By tying the players to the world, they’ll feel like it’s *their* story too.
36. Sven Lotz (@sven_lotz) is a Gamer, TRPG Veteran, and Rail Traffic Controller (amongst other things) from Olten, Switzerland, and a new acquaintance through twitter.
Play with the players, not against them.
37. Brendan Davis is from Bedrock Games (twitter: @Bedrockgames, website:, makers of the table-top RPGs Sertorius, Crime Network, Servants of Gaius, Arrows of Indra, Horror Show and Terror Network, from Lynn, Massachusetts.
Relax and don’t force the adventure. The more relaxed you are, the easier it is to be creative on the fly.
38. The Hydra DM (@TheHydraDM) tweets about games of all stripes – with a focus on tabletop RPGs. He blogs at The Hydra DM to “give back to the community that helped him along his way ever since 2010, when he first realized there was an amazing half of gaming (tabletop ones!) that he barely noticed before.”
Know what the characters want & why it’s so hard to get. Former is a plot hook, latter is gameplay. Ask players if in doubt.
39. Brent Phillips (@allgamer1) is “a gamer of all forms, cards, pen and paper and PC from Texas, USA” and another new acquaintance as a result of this celebration party!
Don’t let the written rules keep the players from having ridiculous fun.
40. Skirmisher Publishing LLC (@SkirmisherGames) is a creator of earnest and useful role-playing games, supplements, rules, sourcebooks, miniatures, and wargames based in Canyon Lake, Texas. Their website is at
The rules are a guideline and shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of a good story being told, modify them as necessary.
41. Mattias Johnsson, on behalf of Team Järnringen (twitter: @Team_Jarnringen), makers of the Symbaroum RPG (a successful Swedish RPG):
Identify what makes each of your players happy when playing RPGs (exploration, XP, moral dilemmas, action, whatever) then give them that, in a dosage that keeps them satisfied but longing for more.
42. Feral Games Inc (website, twitter @FeralGamesinc) are an independent games company in the UK making tabletop RPGs #ChroniclesofAerthe with an international team of writers and artists.
Always remember the rules are their to be broken, the players are there to have a good time and anything is possible.
43. Andrew Y (@thatonegm) is operator of a game blog at Gather ‘Round the Table and Editor, GM, game designer, writer, & Associate Professor with @TheRPGAcademy. He’s also American.
Find the goal of each session and make sure everything you do reflects that goal. A goal should be a simple phrase like “Make my players sweat,” “Surprise my players,” “Make my players care,” or even “Make my player laugh” You’ll see that those examples are player-oriented, and I think they should be. No matter what kind of game you’re playing or what kind of story you’re telling, your players are the primary audience. (Even if others are observing or the game is being recorded, your players are still the lens of emotion through which any other audience will view the session.) And if you can’t think of a specific goal for a session, here’s one that should be your default: “Help my players have fun.
44. Grand DM (@grand_dm) is a DM of three decades, tabletop game enthusiast, creativity aficionado, writer, and proprietor of the Gametavern. He blogs at
Listen to the players as the game unfolds. Often they will devise all sorts of wonderful ideas that you should not be afraid to embrace. The ability to shoot from the hip during a game session is the hallmark of a great gamemaster.
45. Frank Winters (@rpgunion15) is a “roleplayer, storyteller, & gamer” from Smithtown, NY, who is currently writing his own rpg and blogs at The Roleplayers Union.
Being a storyteller for over 20 years my one piece of advise for a fellow GM is to make the players the stars of the game. The players write the story, you tell it. Keep rules to a minimum and just remember to have fun.
46. Hungry is a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery through his website, Ravenous Roleplaying.
My #1 piece of advice to any GM is to have fun. Take the phrase “Role Playing Game” and mix it up a bit to form the sentence “You are playing a role in a game.” While the last word of that sentence is “game” it is arguably the most important. Games are intended to be fun. Therefore: have fun!
47. Jon of Run A Game (twitter: @RunAGame, website: is an RPG blogger, nerd, nonprofit fundraiser, & dad from Maryland who mostly uses twitter to talk about running tabletop RPGs.
Hook every single antagonist, goal, and conflict in your game to your players’ characters’ bonds, relationships, ambitions, and histories.
48. Party Roll Mark (@Elmoogle) of the Party Roll Podcast is the resident Party GM of a group in Texas, Michigan.
Remember that you are an arbiter of rules, but also entitled to have fun.
49. Tom Stephens (@dagorym) is a Librarian, Astronomer, Programmer, Husband, Father, and Gamer, “not necessarily in that order”, from Spanish Fork in Utah. He also runs a blog, Arcane Game Lore.
Know the rules for the system. Or maybe better: You are the rules expert. It shouldn’t be on the players to look up rules. Their role is to decide what their character does and says. They should only be there for the story, you worry about the mechanics. This is especially true for new players, whether to the group or to gaming in general. It’s on the the GM to either know the rule, know where (and be able) to quickly look it up, or adjudicate and look it up later. Nothing grinds a game to a halt faster than constant rule checking. If they want to do something that you know would be very unlikely and their character would know that as well, tell them that it most likely won’t work but they don’t need to be the rules experts. If the player wants to learn the mechanics later, that’s great but if all they ever want is to be there for the story aspect and leave the mechanics to you, that’s fine too.
50. Amelia Serif (@maarlzipan) is a freelance writer from Melbourne, Australia, currently with Another Dungeon (twitter: @AnotherDungeon, website:, with a deep interest in Japanese language, culture and a passion for games.
Always strive to develop strong motivations for your NPCs. The believability of any RPG world lives and dies at the hands of your NPCs, so make sure you know why each one of them gets up in the morning.
51. raark (@raark) is a “public Servant, Gamer, nerd, & occasional motorcyclist”, currently residing in Queensland, Australia, but originally from New Zealand.
Know your world. Nothing breaks immersion faster than a DM who doesn’t know they lay of the land of his campaign. Something I’m guilty of all too often. I also like to record my games, playing them back I can review my performance and spot areas where improvement is required.
52. RPGCache (@RPGCache) is a tabletop RPG Gamer into “D&D, AD&D, and OSR” from Portland, Oregon.
Keep things moving. One place that had gotten bogged down in my games was arguing over rules. We all agreed to let me the GM make a quick decision and have that stand to keep the game moving and designated one player to be the rules master to review the rule. That person would the inform the group of the interpretation and the next convenient break in action. Any disagreements and arguments over the rules are to be done at end of game or over email before the next session.
53. Dusque (@Rolecasters) is a Dungeon Master, illustrator, writing squire, & “geek underwear model”.
Tie character backgrounds into your campaign. Also pose ethical choices to the players, it will help their characters grow.
54. Flippy is @FlippydaMan on twitter, and tinyhorsies is his game, a pick and play RPG for adults and children. His avatar never fails to lift my mood.
Always remember that it’s a game and the objective is for everyone to have fun. So, do anything you think you need to to make sure that this is accomplished. This might mean changing, modifying, or ignoring the rules. Or it might mean adapting the game to the style of the players. Some players will want to use the session to express their inner beings while others might want to play it as if it were Dynasty Warriors (going around killing stuff). This may also include talks with players off-games, asking what they liked, etc, which in turn will allow you to know how much to prepare so you don’t feel like you spent too much time in something they are going to ignore. You may also have to talk with the one player that is spoiling the experience for everyone else and maybe kick him out. Of course, there are many more things you can do, from having always Hawaiian pizza to dressing up to playing with candles. Just think [to yourself], ‘how can I make this more fun?’ and opportunities will arise.
55. Helms Wake (@one2ebay) is a new D&D YouTube show starting to grow, and a new twitter contact.
The way I DM (I have been told my games move like reading a book) is a complete story were the NPCs strongly bond with player characters, through hate, love interests, friendship. I feel that a game with NPCs that the players care about strongly adds to game play. The game is completely boring and dry without this, I feel. The way I come up with my stories is strange but works for me: I listen to all kinds of music and picture events and create my story line through the feelings a song gives me. Strange but works well for me :) Me and my buddy are just starting out making videos. We have played d&d along time.”
56. The Worst DM (@TheWorstDM) is a “Purveyor of artisinal tabletop gaming sessions” from the city of California in Maryland, USA. His website is located at
The most detailed and elaborate games you create often won’t survive past the first encounter if the players aren’t on board with it. Games have to be enjoyable and engaging for the entire group, not just you. Be flexible as a GM and everyone will have fun.
57. DMpathy(@DMpathy on twitter) is a blog offering tabletop advice from a game master who cares.
Listen to your players! Find out what they want out of the game and how you can provide that experience for them. You can have the most fun running a game by making it fun for your players. So keep checking in and communicating with them to make sure they’re having a good experience, and respond accordingly.
58. James Introcaso (@JamesIntrocaso) runs the World Builder Blog, the host of the December round of the RPG Blog Carnival, and hails from Arlington, Virginia. (His tip has been edited for a G-rating – so you can probably guess what he actually wrote).
Playing an RPG is a lot like [any other game]. As long as everyone is comfortable, having fun, and being safe then you’re doing it right.
59. RPGentlemen (@RPGentlemen) is a 5e DnD Live Play Podcast by improv comedians, featuring “a trust-fund barbarian, a living trash pile named Window, and poor decision making.”
Regardless of the system, my advice for new GMs: Embrace the madness.
60. Foster Leathercraft (@fosterleather) on twitter, website ) are from New Westminster, British Columbia, and became enthusiastic supporters of this project and great to chat to in the course of it. New friends!
Have fun. If the DM isn’t having a good time, odds are the players aren’t either.
61. miggybaz (@miggybaz) is a lover of tech and gadgets, a follower of the BTCC, and Amiga lover and a Retro gamer whose favorite game is the Warhammer Fantasy RPG. He hopes that makes him a geek!
It’s your job to make sure the players have fun so act the parts, give good descriptions, and let them flesh out their PCs :) It takes a while to be a good GM. I let my players do practically what they want. They eventually follow the plot!
62. David Caffee, aka @Chaos Trip Studio, produces “innovative game designs for Pathfinder and D&D 4th Edition”. He is based in Ohio.
Advice I’d give any GM for any game: know what your players are excited about and where they want to take the game.
63. Chris Constantin (@drevrpg) locates himself in Edmonton, Alberta, and his blog is Dark Revelations – The Role Playing Game. His twitter bio states that “The Hodgepocalypse takes North America and the d20 system and makes it a diverse world filed with magical rites, modern technology and bizarre cultures.”
Give them what they want, but in a way they don’t expect.
64. Daniel K (@Daniel_G_K) is from New Holland in the Antipodes – which to those in the know translates to the Western side of Australia. A lot of his tweets are game-related and is another who was very enthusiastic about this project, becoming a friend in the process.
I guess this doesn’t apply to every DM [but it’s] genuine advice: try to stay more sober than the players.
65. Richard A. Hunt (@AWizardInDallas) is a gamer, writer, artist, father, and programmer, from Plano, Texas.
The rules are a guide, not a straight jacket. Never acquiesce to player demands for a rules as written game. Such a strategy will be your undoing as a GM.
66. Campaign Coins (@CampaignCoins produce beautiful coins and pendants for RPGs from Melbourne Australia. Their website is
(slightly paraphrased) “Games are powered by goals, obstacles, and rewards. We always remember the obstacles but don’t give the others the attention they deserve.”
67. Rhidian from Apprentice Games (twitter: @AppGamesNotts, website:, an online article site based around the hobbies they love so much with a particular focus on Live Action Roleplay, or LARPs, suggests,
If everyone if enjoying themselves you are already doing it right. Your game doesn’t have to be held to an arbitrary ideal of a ‘good game’ nor does every campaign have to be your magnum opus. So relax and have fun with it.
68. Red Eye Ragnarok (@RedEyeRagnarok) is a Programmer, Video Gamer and a Roleplay Gamer from Bavaria in Germany.
If you’re not completely new to running games, I would recommend to focus on player engagement. But how do you achieve this? One simple method: Ask questions. If something isn’t important for an overarching experience, ask a player about it. You don’t have to come up with everything yourself as a GM, since you are playing with other people too and they might have good ideas themselves. Say ‘yes, and’ or ‘yes, but’. Build on the ideas your players give you.
69. Brandon Radke is “Nerd-In-Chief” from Lettuce Inn Games (@lettuceinngames on twitter, website, makers of BLOOD: Path of the Shinobi); describes himself as A well rounded geek for a lop-sided world; and can be found in River Falls, Wisconsin.
The best advice I could give to any GM is to not shackle yourself to the rules. Whatever game you’re playing, this is a game. With your friends. You’re supposed to be having fun, and the fun lives in the moments you have with your friends, no matter what you’re doing. The rules are there just to keep things fair and balanced, but when they become the centerpiece, you’ve lost the thread of why you’re gaming in the first place.
70. Pieter-Jan Maesen (@PieterJanMaesen) is from Antwerp, Belgium, and describes himself as a boyscout, Father, Economist, Informatician, Scout and DM Interested as in politics, art, history, Pen & Paper RPGs, and new media.
Learn to say yes to your players and work with everything they bring to the table.
71. Ubiquitous Rat (@ubiquitousrat) is a longtime associate of Mike’s on Twitter, and describes himself as a slightly overweight, bearded blogger who rather likes lasagna. He’s also a teacher who’s into roleplaying, religious spirituality, UK politics, and rat-keeping. Given the second-last of those, it’s no surprise that he is a UK resident. His blog is
Obstacles, not plot – oppose their goals with obstacles (info gather, resolution, celebration).
72. D’n’DUI (@DnDUI) is a podcast and webcomic where the participants drink themselves “under the tabletop”. Available on, iTunes and Stitcher.
A character embodies a particular part of the player, help them explore that extension of their personality.
73. Berin Kinsman needs no introduction to anyone whose been into RPGs and blogging – he was one of the first, under the name “Uncle Bear”, and showed a lot of us (by example) how to do it. He is the publisher behind, and their twitter account @readwriteroll. NB: Asparagus Jumpsuit have almost finalized plans to switch to a new, more serious, business name. Follow now or the link may be dead when you do!
Read a lot of fiction in a lot of different genres, to better understand the fundamentals of storytelling.
74. David F Chapman (@autocratik of is a “Writer, Ennie-winning TTRPG Designer, Creator of the Vortex System, Gamer, Editor, General Geek, RPG nerd and Autocrat” based in the UK. He is probably best known for his work as game designer on the award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game for Cubicle 7 Entertainment.
Don’t be afraid to go off of the rails. Some of my best gaming experiences have come with just letting the players do the crazy, off-adventure, bizarre plans that had me thinking on my feet.
75. Burning Games (website, @burning_gameson twitter), produce FAITH, a Sci-Fi pen & paper RPG that uses cards instead of dice, and are based in London, England, and the Spanish communities of Santander and Bilbao. You can buy their products from Calos GQ from Burning Games offers:
Prepare yourself to be unprepared. You should create a story that leaves room for things you were not expecting – listen to the players’ ideas and expectations and work with them.
76-78. Todd Secord (@ToddSecord) is an Illustrator, Game Designer, Blogger, and more, and a member of the Nerd Tangent podcast (@NerdTangent). His website is United Nerdery.
I let the players dictate the course of play as much as possible no matter what the game. So my advice whenever starting any new rpg is to keep the first scenario nice and simple. If you’re running a pulp genre – start a jungle quest for a lost artifact. DnD related? A basic dungeon crawl. Super Hero? A head to head against a rival villain in the city streets.
With beginners, slow and steady wins the race.

With experienced players the game system itself and how it plays will likely be the biggest attraction. In this case, allowing for a simple test drive generally gives way to more intricate possibilities.

If we’re talking hardcore veteran players, they’ll likely push the possibilities right away if given an easy starting line.

[Adjust your campaign planning accordingly.]

Keeping those first few sessions to genre tropes makes it easier on players and GMs alike in learning a new game while still keeping it fun.
79. RPG Stream (@RPG Stream) started with HeroQuest, then and followed that with RPGs: RuneQuest, then D&D. He is a self-described fanatic collector of fantasy miniatures.
Study your module. Believe in your adventure. Improvisation comes later.
80. & 81. Ken The DM(website, @Ken_The_DM on twitter) doesn’t give away too much about himself, but he writes a blog about gaming and is clearly passionate about the hobby and looking to make the jump into the industry as a professional (you can download his first attempt at a commercial module from his website). He offers two separate pieces of advice:
Experiment. Play every RPG you can. I love D&D; it’s my jam. But experimenting with other systems made me a better dungeon master. Here are some examples:

  • I stole the interlude system from “Savage Worlds”. Pure gold.
  • Running “Everyone is John” taught me I could improvise a session cold.
  • “Beyond the Wall” taught me how to run a shared sandbox.

Running these games made my D&D game stronger. Regardless of what you love, play everything.

Let go.

Let your players participate in the world’s creation. Often (and I am guilty of this myself), we view ourselves as the sole sovereign of content, and players are mere toys for our amusement. Let it go. Let your players help build the world.

I bribe my players to journal about their character’s experiences. This provides a steady supply of hooks, bonds, and content.

Yes, you give up control and naming rights (the Dwarf, Drilly Drills, offered the innovative name of “Drills Hall” for her homestead), but you get a world that is ultimately richer, more vibrant and creative. Its not about the name, its about the lore you and your friends create.

82. Triple B Titles (@Triple_B_Titles) are a family-operated independent game studio, creators of Ring Runner and Dungeons and Deuces. They are currently working on Popup Dungeon, a roguelike papercraft tactical RPG that lets you create any weapon, ability, and hero! Their website is (hint: mouseover the squares, then scroll down). Theya re also amongst the long-term supporters of Campaign Mastery.
You’re only as valuable as what you bring to the system.
83. Brabblemark Press (@brabblemark) are publishers of the Corporia RPG, whose kickstarter campaign I reviewed in Taking Care Of Business. Brabblemark are based in Chicago, Illinois and have gone from strength to strength since they first offered Corporia to Kickstarter.
Be willing to abandon your scripted plots and story arcs; follow the players down their improvised paths.
84. Dirk the Dice (@theGROGNARDfile) is from the GROGNARD file. Dirk is the host of The GROGNARD RPG Files podcast, and Tweets about Runequest, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, T&T (and other games from ‘back in the day’). He’s from Bolton in the UK.
Always have an interesting encounter ready in your back pocket – just in case.
85. (@RPGamesbe) is an RPG blogger & collector from Belgium, and a Buccaneer Bass crew member. He also has an occasional blog which looks at the Belgian RPG scene (and contains content of interest to those outside that country) – you’ll find it at this link.
Don’t worry about the rules, focus on the story and have fun!
86. Norse Foundry (@norsefoundry) are makers of quality dice (especially metal ones), dwarven coins, and bit more (order from their site ( They love to play the games that can use their products, and have an irrepressible sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, as evidenced by their “about us” page and the advice they’ve offered:
Swing Hard and always carry a big metal D20!
87. John Bennett (@JohnRPGdesign) is a freelance writer for the Pathfinder RPG and is currently the Line Developer for Shadows over Vathak published by Fat Goblin Games, amongst other professional achievements.
To create the world and NPCs WITH your players. Fully involve them in the storytelling process.
88. Sarah Wolf (@sarwolf0) has GM’d exactly once, and was initially worried that with that level of experience she would have nothing worth contributing! She is also a novelist and a CPA from Raleigh, North Carolina. She’s passing on some advice that her more experienced players gave her that she says really helped when she got started:
Two [of my] players know the game rules well, so they told me to focus on story, not mechanics. That helped me prepare.
89. Jeux et Féerie (@EtherneOfZula) is an RPG community/group from Monaco, and some of the tweets are in French (the name “Jeux et Féerie” translates as “Games Extravaganza” according to Google). There are some nice items available at the Jeux et Féerie website, new additions are announced via the twitterfeed. They have supported Campaign Mastery for years.
Get the game and players before [you get] the rules.
90. True Mask Games (@TrueMaskGames) is a “tiny indie game and RPG design studio from Austria” (Graz, to be more precise). “Gamers of the world unite!” They are currently working on a Celtic Mythology RPG (I know at least one person who will be interested in that, if it’s in English – and there is a very good chance that it will be, their tweets are!)
Know your players and put a decent amount of work and passion into the game! Fun for everyone is the most important thing!
91. Geek In The Closet (@GeekNTheCloset) is an aspiring roleplaying game designer, artist, cartographer, writer, heavy metal guitarist, and owner of the Pathfinder RPG fan site, which was still in development when I checked (but looks extremely pretty and will be a quality presence on the web when complete!)
Unlike board games which are typically enjoyable by strategically manipulating other players using a strictly enforced set of rules and predefined playing field, roleplaying games are unbounded by such conventions, and the rules serve only as a framework for setting the stage for fantastic scenarios that are limited only by the groups collective imagination and interests. As a GM, your role is to call upon them to create challenge, discard them when inconvenient, or even covertly bend them in the interest of entertaining your audience.
92. Lucas (@EmbersDS) of Embers Design Studios, home of the City Of Brass, needs no real introduction here because I’ve gushed about his products twice now: The Book of Terniel, in Things That Are Easy, Things That Are Hard, and (more recently), Yrisa’s Nightmare in Yrisa’s Nightmare and other goodies. He’s been a friend and supporter ever since we first connected over the Terniel fundraising campaign.
Remember it’s just a game. Have fun, don’t let the rules get in the way.
93. & 94. The Carpe GM (@TheCarpeDM) is another Chicago resident, and felt that he couldn’t do better than to quote @TheAngryGM:
“The point of your first game is to get the most basic skills down: Narrate and Adjudicate.”
He added,
“…and know who to steal from”.
95. Erik Luken (@icehawke) owns Arkayn Game Designs, calls Elgin, Illinois home, and describes himself as a gamer, game author, geek, online DJ, and programmer. he also has an occasional blog about programming, gaming, and writing called under the name Shadow Network.
Listen to your players and let their paranoid conjectures write the story.
96. Basement Heroes (@BasementHeroes) is a #DungeonsandDragons adventure podcast. “Follow our misadventures as we bungle our way through #DnD 5th edition” under DM @hansenjames. You can subscribe to the Podcast through iTunes at podcast/basement-heroes. They haven’t said where they are actually located, but the GM is in South Salt Lake, Utah, so it’s a good bet that the other participants are also Salt Lake City residents.
Do what you do and enjoy best, and your players will feel that passion and enjoy it too.
97. Randall Newnham (@coffeeswiller) is a “geek, gamer, father, [and] game blogger”. he is also Playtest Director for Escapade Games and hails from Eugene, Oregon. He is currently working on the playtesting for a new game, Storm Hollow, which seems to combine elements of an RPG with a boardgame, and is described by Escapade Games as “an upcoming storytelling adventure game for 2-7 players where players can go on fantastic adventures in about an hour”. There’s an interview with one of the designers at this podcast site and you can pre-order copies here – not cheap, but high-quality boardgames these days never are. You can also drool over some visual spoilers released about 5 months ago at this link if you’re interested.
Say “yes!” as often as possible. This gives the players agency in their story.
98. R. A. Whipple (@RA_Whipple) is a retired PR counselor turned aspiring author who enjoys smooth jazz; classic films; and old school, evocative, social, tabletop Role-Playing in Warsaw, Poland, and another long-time friend through Twitter.
Know and incorporate the player (not just his/her character) into the system/game. Engage & engross the player. That’s what I call ‘GM = System’.
99. Rich Green (Twitter: @richgreen01, website: parsantium) is an D&D gamer & game designer and a bookseller who has the happy fortune to barrack for Palace (presumably Crystal Palace FC, since Rich is a Londoner). Author of the “Parsantium: City at the Crossroads” city sourcebook and the brand-new “Icons of Parsantium” – see Rich’s website for more information.
I recommend reading widely – adventures, games supplements, novels, history & other non-fiction, comics, magazines, whatever – and always have a notebook (or phone/tablet note-taking app) handy so you can jot down cool ideas for your game that come to you when you’re reading.
100. Peter Samet (@petersamet) is a “full-time film editor, part-time science fiction writer, [and] occasional existential crisis sufferer [who] spends way too much time trying to answer impossible questions”. I wanted to run a quote from Peter as a contribution to this post but he’s not on Twitter very much these days (by his own admission) and permission didn’t reach me in time. So I’ll have to settle for linking to his original tweet, instead.

2:50 AM – 28 Jul 2015
101. Mik Calow (@Vobeskhan) has been a Gamer for 30+ years, is a D&D player & DM, and a fan of sci-fi and fantasy. He also blogs and writes in between being a parent and grandparent in Leicester, England. He’s been a buddy of Mike’s on Twitter for a year or two.
Don’t be afraid to say No to your players, if it doesn’t fit your campaign don’t allow it.
102, 103, & 104. @Symatt (again):
Oh no, more thoughts.

What is meant by a “new GM?” A GM that has never played a game before and so doesn’t actually have a clue at all, or A GM that has been playing for years and so has witnessed many GMs good and bad? If you have decided to step into the role of GM through want or need (i.e. no-one else wants to do it) you will have a basic understanding of what you are going to do.

A GM reads most of the book. Well, at least the “how to run a game” and the “dice rolling” parts. Saying NO and YES to players is part of the gig, it’s like saying ‘don’t be afraid to say “Role for Initiative”‘, it’s part and parcel [of what you do]. As a GM, you have got the game you want to run. You are excited by the game you want to run. That’s enough to start anyone on the path to “GM Enlightenment”.

So I guess what I am saying is: No One is right. Just do it your way. Learn as you go. You will know what feels right for you and so what is right for your players and the Game.

and, (Paraphrased and edited, any mistakes mine):
Personal experience has shown that a player who becomes a [reluctant] GM lacks the motivation to learn how to do it well and so is terrible at it. It’s just not what they want to be, and it affects how they GM.
and also, (Paraphrased and edited from a couple of conversations, any mistakes or misinterpretations mine):
Trying to give advice to anyone is generally a difficult task. GMs should learn from playing and observing others play, but I have found that some players who become GMs can’t see past what they wanted when they were a player to the bigger picture. Different people want something different from every game, and its the GM’s job to satisfy all of them. If a GM does say no to something, or make it difficult-to-impossible, they generally have a very good reason – try to work out what that is before assuming it’s directed at you personally, and definitely before blindly saying ‘yes’ to the same question when you’re a GM.
105. Paul (@spookshow71) is a lover of books, comics, movies and geeky stuff; a tabletop Gamer; an Engraver, Ex-Goth, and “Level 4 Dad” from the East Midlands, England.
Watching, listening, and reacting to your players during the game is as equally important as how much preparation you do. Their engagement – their enjoyment – is the best gauge of your game’s success. Work with that, and you won’t go far wrong.
106. Oz Garcia (@gash26) is “an ill fitting mansuit with spiffy magic fingers” into coffee, d&d, and dccrpg [Dungeon Crawl Classics] who channels Teddy Roosevelt from Austin, Texas (see his profile pic!).
Put all the extra books, supplements, and splat books, aside and play the bare bones game once in a while. In the end all those books are are marketing ploy and the real purpose of the hobby is to HAVE FUN!
107. Total Party Thrill Podcastis a podcast for GMs and players where the hosts discuss their campaigns, and more, in order to inspire yours. You can subscribe via iTunes. They also have a twitter account, @TPTCast.
Prepare the least amount you need to run a session. Trust in your ability to improv.
108. @Mundangerous from is one of the hosts of the Total Party Thrill podcast and an occasional RPG blogger in his own right.
There are hundreds of RPGs out there, so play the ones that facilitate the stories you tell. Don’t feel like you need to fit a square peg into a round hole.
109. Emily Rochelle (@TheCraftyDM) is part of the ‘She’s a Super Geek’ live-play RPG Podcast, in which (in most episodes) the contributors play a different RPG live “on the air” and record what happens – sort of a virtual playtest for the rest of us. Her credentials don’t stop there, check out her twitter account for more.
Remember that everything is made up and the points don’t matter as long as everyone’s having fun.
110. Chris Jensen Romer (@CRJ23) is into History, Science, Games, and Ghosts. He also has a blog about RPGs at “And sometimes he’s so nameless” but that hasn’t been updated in a while, perhaps because CJ has been overseas.
Always give the players what they want – but not what they were expecting.
111. Dreaming Glo (@Scarletrogue12) is a relatively new friend on twitter (about 6 months, now, I think) who describes herself as a “Wife, Mom, RPG Player, Gamer, Browncoat, Whovian, Poet, Witch, Dreamer.” Her Twitter avatar is a pair of ruby slippers (I couldn’t tell at twitter’s icon size, it looked like a cork being released from a bottle to me!).
Know your NPCs inside and out. They can make or break your game; they matter, and are a great tool. Good NPCs make the game great – Too many DMs focus so heavily on the rules they forget how important the NPCs are.
112. Chief Shark Boner – a.k.a. Devon J Kelley (@Shark_Bone of the Shark Bone Podcast) – is a new acquaintance (the shark bone podcast Sandbox #21 is the one in which Lucas [tip 92] remembered my article [see my “interview” with Tracey Snow, above] and was kind enough to link to my article – which is how I became aware of the story). Devon is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Know your story. It’s easier to improvise when you know where you’re going.
113. Adventurer’s Quarter (twitter: @AdventQuarter, facebook page / website: denvergamestore) is a game store promoting RPGs in the Denver area – specifically, in historic Olde Town Arvada, Colorado.
You author the book that is your setting and style, but your players tell the story and get to fill the pages.
114. Diana Stein ( is a very gifted artist and a fantasy DM from “outside Detroit”. She tweets as @d_h_stein.
To new GMs: running a game is like riding a roller coaster with multiple end points you can’t see. At the end, it’ll be ‘let’s go again!’

To old GMs: listen to your players again. They want to bring fun to the table too!

115. Sarah Otto (@ruminateyou) is a Secondary Art Pre-Teacher, Game Master, Minecraft Lover, CMU Student, and Anime Club member. She doesn’t tweet often, and I was pleasantly surprised when she responded to my invitation.
Stop planning and start playing. GMs go above and beyond to plan a spectacular game when, usually, the players won’t tell the difference. Some of the best stories happen when you reach the end of your plans and improvise. Imagination is best left to is own devices.

Now, I’m not saying to ignore the usefulness of prebuilt tools. But before you make new monsters, learn to use the ones in the books creatively. Give them different names and different features on the fly – just use their stats (this is known as “re-skinning” – Mike). When you learn to let loose and shape the world at will, the players will too.

116. Chaserone (@wardostarks) is a self-confessed nerd who works in IT and occasionally writes. Based in Montana, he and I go back to shortly after I joined Twitter. Strangely enough, I think we’ve talked more about general stuff than gaming over the years.
Rules can be guidelines.
117. Nercore T-Vegas (@NerdcoreTVegas) is a “Writer and event organizer active in the building of literary and gaming communities in NW Pennsylvania”. He has a blog at Nerdcore T-Vegas but hasn’t posted to it for getting toward a couple of years – but he tweets more regularly.
Rules are meant to enable the story, not disable it. There is leeway for actions that enhance the gaming experience.
118. James Arthur Eck (@JamesArthurEck) is an electrical engineer, fantasy novelist, and online game designer. Author of “A Different Reign on the Horizon” and maker of the Mind Weave RPG.
Take player ideas seriously and let them work or have a chance of working if at all plausible.
119. Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips needs no introduction to long-time readers of Campaign Mastery, but for anyone who doesn’t know, he co-founded Campaign Mastery and was a weekly contributor for the first three-and-a-half years here – so at least 1/4 of this history belongs to him – but it should be more than that because without him (amongst others), there would have been no Campaign Mastery. The Roleplaying Tips newsletter (aside from a couple of individual articles here and there) was the first place that my gaming content was published regularly, and continues to offer tips every week (with the occasional break). Subscribe via the link to have the newsletter delivered to your inbox. Johnn lives in Beaumont, Alberta, and also has a twitter account @roleplaying tips through which he regularly tweets gaming goodness (including links to my articles, Thanks Johnn!).
Have more fun at every game. Do this by improving your game master skills so you gain confidence. Shore up your weaknesses, but do not focus too much on those as that’s not where you derive your fun from. Instead, figure out what you like most about GMing and focus on taking those skills to 11.
120. Matt from runs an epic site with updates around-the-clock and a monthly newsletter amongst a whole heap more content. He’s also on Twitter at @dicegeeks where he’s just about as active.
Allow your players to tell the story with you. Some GM’s, when they start out (me included), have grand stories with plot points down to the smallest detail. If you have a story like that, write a novel or a screenplay. Do not try to GM an RPG campaign around it. Give the players some direction, but always let their choices take the story to places you never dreamed of. You won’t regret it, and your players will love you for it.
121. Christian Lindke (@ChristianLindke) is an MBA, SF and Fantasy Fan, Film lover, Pen’n’Paper RPG Gamer, PhD Student, and Non-Profit Program Director in Los Angeles. He also finds time to Tweet, occasionally blog to “Advanced Dungeons And Parenting“, and post to facebook. Sleep must be an optional extra.
on’t be afraid to say yes to your players’ “crazy” ideas. The best game-related stories come from collaboration.
122. D. Hunter Phillips (@Digitalculture0) is a Sci-fi & Fantasy Author, roleplayer, gamer, and board game reviewer from Washington DC.
Incorporate backstory elements from the players’ characters.
123. MITC Productions are “the producers of the Monkey in the Cage and Useless Drivel Podcasts and purveyors of gaming, geek culture, and everything in between.” Hailing from Southern California (which is a very big place, I’ve been there), their twitterfeed @MonkeyInTheCage is mostly used to announce new podcasts and otherwise keep people up to date with what’s happening.
Take it one step at a time and definitely don’t over-think it!
124-130. Rory Klein (@RoryGKlein) is a “Husband, Father, IT Solution Provider, D&D Veteran, Old School RPG Gamer, Board Gamer, PC Gamer, Blogger and lover of Coffee”. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa and doesn’t tweet very often – but replies a lot. He was very helpful and encouraging when I was diagnosed with Diabetes earlier this year and is easy to “talk” to via twitter. He also has lots of good advice:
You need to sell the campaign to your players. If you not excited about the adventure you going to be running, your players certainly won’t be.
You need to engage with your players; find out what they like, what they want to achieve and find a way to incorporate it into your campaign. An excited DM and invested players will make for a great campaign.
Don’t worry about the rules, don’t worry about the “bling” these are all secondary – get your players as EXCITED as you are about the adventure you going to be running.
Once the campaign is running it is a group effort to maintain the story, help it grow – don’t let that responsibility fall onto just one player and or the DM.
Listen to your players and likewise players need to help the DM achieve the goals of the campaign.
Between sessions use email to engage your players, encourage your players to message you with input. Ask how you can make things more fun, ask for feedback, never be afraid of criticism, how else will you be able to improve your skills as a game master.
Most importantly have fun don’t turn the campaign into a chore and remember it is a group effort and the campaign will only be as memorable as the people taking part in it. So put away those phones and electronic devices focus on the story at hand and let your imagination run free…
131. enduringsecond (@enduringsecond) is a new contact made through the process of organizing this party special. I can never look at his or her twitterfeed without finding something new of interest (most recently, “what it felt like to test the first Submarine nuclear reactor”). Interested in RPGs, virtual worlds, serious games, space travel and science fiction. Lest that put you off, he/she also re-tweeted about Tunnels And Trolls not long ago!
Be fair and consistent, nothing worse for a player than a GM who seems arbitrary or unfair.
132. Asako Soh (@Asako_Soh) (aka Johann Gottlieb Fichte on Twitter) is another long-time twitter contact who has often been supportive. He describes himself as a Roleplayer and academic interested in “philosophy, neuroscience, books, whisky, and comedy” – and an “Occasional pipe smoker”. He’s an Active twitter user. I remember him once telling me that both “Johann” and “Asako” are names of his characters – even the gender assignment in this introduction is speculation on my part: “Johann” is a male name, “Asako” is a female – so who knows? It doesn’t bother me, and neither should it bother anyone else – just enjoy the frequent interesting tweets and interact.
Ask the players what they would like to experience and provide it.
133. Robert Oglodzinski (@writinggames) – I could try to guess how to pronounce Robert’s surname but I’d probably get it wrong and wouldn’t want to insult him by trying. He is a game writer / designer from Warsaw, Poland who is currently working on “CD Projekt Red” for Cyberpunk 2077 and also curates links about retro video games through (I tried to get a link but could only link to a particular issue, so check his twitterfeed if interested and ignore any link your browser adds automatically to the last sentence). He also tweets a LOT about RPGs and is a new contact for me – but one that I expect to check regularly.
Fun & freedom of choice before rules.
134. Gamemaster Raphi (@GMRaphi) describes himself as a “Neutral Good role playing game geek, experienced Game Master, [and] part-time mmo addict” from Olten, Switzerland. Do yourself a favor and check out his Deviantart page if you like eye candy for your games/imagination. He tweets and re-tweets a lot when he gets excited about something – currently The Force Awakens.
Try to play RPGs with your friends. Usually that’s easier than making friends with people who happen to like the same games as you do.
135. David Jacobs (@il_beavo) is another new contact resulting from the organizing of this collection of advice, but he became an enthusiastic supporter right away. Located in the Blue Mountains, Australia, which is the mountain range west of Sydney. He describes himself as a “gamer, carer, and cat-parent; former political hack, and occasional short-form writer (but not actually a beaver. Sorry.)” – you probably need to know that his profile pic is of a Beaver in order to get the joke. David tweets & re-tweets on a variety of topics – everything from Australian politics to history to humor (of the very Aussie sort evidenced by his profile).
Keep the pace up! Boredom is death. Chandler’s Law: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand”.
136. Eric M. Paquette (@ericmpaq) is a long-standing twitter-friend. He’s from Ottawa, Ontario, a player (both PC and GM roles), and interested in all games. He also serves as CanGames’s Web Content Director, and as RPG & Children’s Games coordinator. A lot of his tweets are about Sci-Fi/Fantasy media, RPGs, and social issues/awareness subjects.
This is a cooperative game with the whole group. This game belongs to the whole group. Ask questions, listen, and be a fan of the protagonists. Remember, characters in great stories fall and then rise.
137. Tobias Wichtrey (@twoddr) of is a software developer, D&D dungeon master, mathematician, musician, and more, who tries to be a game designer. Tobias is from Augsburg, Germany. For various reasons, he rarely updates his blog any more and, in fact, has only recently returned to Twitter after a lapse of almost a year.
Learn to incorporate your player’s ideas into the game even if they contradict what you originally had planned.
138. ^(;;;)^ (@obskures) tweets “geek stuff in Denglish (German-English)” about “Books, comics, games, movies, music & skeptical humanism”. He also warns, in his profile, that “Your mileage may vary!” – but I’ve never regretted following him a couple of years back. As you could guess from his language comments, his website is also in German, probably because that’s where he lives!
Be prepared for improvisation and don’t let the rules get in your way. A ruling is more fun than a 2h discussion. Your mileage may vary. If you enjoy the rules debate process, hold it separately after the game so that those who don’t can leave or watch TV.
139. Joe Kushner (@JoeGKushner) was last mentioned in these pages in describing the context and origins of the article Always Something There To Surprise You – Plots as Antagonists, but I’ve known him on Twitter for a lot longer than that. He’s a “long-time role playing gamer, miniature painter and currently supply chain analyst” in Chicago, Illinois. His website is Appendix N, “Inspired by the original Appendix N from the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. Musings on how to use things ranging from reading a variety of materials, games, movies, and miniatures for your role playing games.” But he hasn’t posted very much there lately, due to a combination of circumstances – ones that I doubt will last forever.
Never stop reading. Outside of standard inspiration from genre-appropriate material, everything can be filed for later.
140. Seasonal Feelings (@MattyD47) is another new acquaintance from something approaching my own neck of the woods – at least from an American point of view – since he calls Hobart, Tasmania (Australia) home. His twitter profile states that he is a “Player of guitar. Modifier of Nerf guns. Batman enthusiast. Quite tall. Comms for @procreateapp (an art-creation app), cast member of @TheGamesMaestro (a musical web series inspired by Dungeons and Dragons). Afraid of ceiling fans.” (There’s that dry Australian sense of humor again!)
Roll with it – whatever the players do, however the dice fall, go with it. Work it into your story. Flexibility and improvisation are invaluable.
141. TPK Games (@TPKGames) is a third-party publisher for the Pathfinder RPG based in Waterloo, Iowa. You can find out more about their products from their facebook page. They certainly have a number of them that interest me! Their advice is short and to-the-point:
Story > Rules.
142. Lindan (@Cthuloid) is a “Progressive technocrat” who “codes .NET for a living” when not “Despairing over world stupidity [or] wasting time with RPGs, Football, World of Tanks and League Of Legends.” From Wiesbaden, Germany, his tweets are a mixture of English and German and on a variety of subjects, including many on RPGs. Another new contact coming out of this party!
Make it clear from the start that making the game great is a SHARED responsibility between you AND your players.
143. Michael from (@TheRpgAcademy), on the other hand, is an old buddy on Twitter, from Cincinnati, Ohio. He was last mentioned here as the instigator of An AcadeCon For Your Consideration, where I described him as “a supporter of Campaign Mastery and an occasional conversationalist on the subject of gaming for several years”. He co-hosts the “Table Topics” podcast and is a DM and player on “The Campaigns Podcasts”, both on The Rpg Academy website.
Don’t talk so much. As a GM your job is to be the Ring Master at a circus. You show up to set the stage and then fade into the background until you need to change the scenery. Some of the best RP moments come in the silence that happens when the GM isn’t afraid to sit quietly for a bit.
144. Lena R. Punkt (@Catrinity) comes from Hamburg, Germany, and tweets in German (but occasional re-tweets are in English) – and, as you’ll see from her advice, her English is pretty good – better than Google’s German-English translations! :) Lena’s website, Xeledons Spiegel (translation: Xeledon’s Mirror) is also in German. Her currently preferred game is DSA (a German RPG, translation: The Dark Eye (refer this wikipedia page if, like me, you have never heard of it before. This article on, which describes the basic rules, might also be of interest). Lena’s recent tweets have been about music. She has a boring office job during the week but gets to play RPGs with her friends every weekend.
Find out what things your players enjoy or don’t enjoy. The best adventure won’t be fun if your players don’t like the genre or setting or kind of gameplay.
145. Civilian Zero (@DownToDM) has just moved to Orlando, Florida, and has no group to DM any more. Nevertheless, RPGs are the subject of most of his tweets. He also has a website, Hastur Hates Us All, that’s worth visiting for blog posts and graphic resources (read: pretty pictures) suitable for Cyberpunk and Fantasy gaming (and readily adaptable for superheroes).
It’s just as important to learn to improvise as it is to learn to prepare well. No plan survives contact with the players.
146. Kennon Bauman (Twitter: @TheUniverseGM, website: is a professional analyst and lapsed historian, a father, a gamer, and your go-to guy for secret history, UFOs, and conspiracy theories, from Baltimore, Maryland.
Treat every session of a game like it’s the only session you will ever run. Make a clear beginning/middle/end, and pack all the fun you can into every moment.
147. Doc Wilson (@DocDraconis) is a “Singer, Gaming Humorist/Cartoonist, Gamer, Game Designer/Publisher, Writer, Movie Lover” from Canada and a new acquaintance. His blog/game company is Shared Weave Games.
While GMs are these in equal parts:

  1. Writer,
  2. Improv Actor,
  3. Lawyer,
  4. Mediator,
  5. Salesman,
  6. Referee,
  7. Mentor,
  8. Mad Scientist, and
  9. Ambassador,

they must always remember that he or she is this one thing above all else:

  1. A friend.
148. Rob Bodine (@GSLLC) is from the Gamer’s Syndicate LLC (site can be slow to load) in Manassus, Virginia, who are the hosts of synDCon, the Washington DC metropolitan area’s newest table-top gaming convention. They also put out a, “#GSLLC’s #Gaming and #Geekery” – again, can only link to specific editions, check their twitterfeed – which has gaming links in the Headlines, Arts & Entertainment, Videos, and Sports sections, just for starters. Always worth checking out, the Gamer’s Syndicate is (are?) another long-time twitter acquaintance.
The most important advice to DMs (and players, for that matter) is to understand that different people play the game for different reasons, and not one of those reasons is objectively wrong. I wrote an article for a while back that was lost when the site crashed, but it wasn’t anything ground-breaking. It talked about the various types of players, which others have discussed before. My list included, among others, storytellers, combat tacticians, actors, and gaming significant others (“GSOs”), who are non-gamers playing simply for the sake of their significant others. Every single one of those people has as much a right to the game as others, and it’s important that each one have fun. What’s difficult about DMing is making sure those players are happy around the table despite the presence of other player types. So, my advice to the DM is to start from the following perspective: Acknowledge the existence of all of these different player types, and do your best to accommodate all of them. Keep in mind that *most* players are willing to bend a little, and their usually forgiving, so as hard of a job as DMing is at times, everyone’s on your side and are there to help.
149. Billiam Babble (@billiambabble) offers hand-drawn modular dungeon sections and other such goodies through He has a general gaming blog at Adventures and Shopping.
I think my advice would be (which stems from anxiety and regret of so many missed opportunities) is never be frightened to make both the rules and a scenario, the world, your own. Also if the players have gone too far off the main path, tell them, even if it is out-of-character.
150. Twice Jaked Potato (@Jakeplusplus) hasn’t done much tweeting for a while, but has done lots of replying. I first encountered Jake in #RPGChat (which I wrote about as part of my article on the GM’s Help Network. He re-blogs strange stuff at Crease++on tumblr, worth checking out.
Go with the flow. Guide your world, but don’t forget to let it guide you, too.
151. Randelf Snowwalker (@deadorcs): “Writer, gamer, blogger, thinker, husband, father”, from Topeka, Kansas. Lots of RPG-related tweets, which may slow down until January because he doesn’t think he’ll get to see The Force Awakens until then. He has a website that hasn’t been updated in a couple of years at The Dead Orcs Society but which has archives which may be worth your time.
No matter what RPG you’re playing, it’s about the PCs being characters in a story. Always hunt down the story to tell.
152. Brian Fitzpatrick (@gameknightrvws) – Fitz has been a long-time supporter and fan of Campaign Mastery from his home base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, through his old website, Game Knight Reviews (presently being archived through Gamerati) and his own game-product publishing company,Moebius Adventures, whose products I’ve reviewed a couple of times (Places to go and people to meet and A Serpentine Slithering To Adventure). Note that the links in those articles may have expired – check the new site at if the links are dead, or you want to check out the more recent products that he has on offer.
Set things in motion and be willing to let your players lead the way to unexpected destinations.
153. Joshua (@einsteinsarcade) is another long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery (lots of my friends have shown up for this party)! He’s from Austin, Texas and “Enjoys Games (Analog & Digital), Horror/SciFi/Fantasy Media, Faires/Conventions/Festivals, and Things Occulted”.
Never forget, as a GM, you’re there to facilitate storytelling.
154 & 155. Lesser Gnome (@LesserGnome) is an Old-School Role-Playing Game Publisher offering Old-school sensibilities with modern presentation, from Arizona, USA. Past products include the Ennie-nominated “Whisper & Venom” and they have just released a limited Collector’s Box Set of their latest offering, “Death & Taxes” – go to their website for more information.
Love your ideas but accept that some won’t work in-game.
Difficult people cannot be fixed and ruin games.
156. A night on the game (twitter: @gamingtales) is described in their twitter profile as “a transcribed recording of the ups & downs of a group of players trying to roleplay over the internet, recast into literary style. And other RPG, TRPG & gaming-related bits”, but most of the tweets in recent times have been more general interest RPG and video-game material. There is also a gaming tales blog but it doesn’t seem to be updated very often.
Make sure the players are going to have fun. Obvious but crucial.
157. Bill Bodden (@BillBodden) is a “freelance writer, gamer, geek, and mostly nice guy. Mostly.” His occasional blog is at, and reveals his usual haunts as being the “upper Midwest” of the USA. His CV is impressive to say the least, having contributed articles to half-a-dozen magazines, had his fiction published in one gaming magazine and two anthologies, and written gaming-related material for Fantasy Flight Games, Black Library (a division of Games Workshop), Green Ronin Publishing, Margaret Weis Productions, and Modiphius Entertainment.
Be flexible; there’s only so much prep you can do. Sometimes you have to fly by the seat of your pants!
158. Ollie Gross (@derO23) is “married, father of twins, cat wrangler, gamer, TV junkie, movie buff, comic book nerd, metalhead, [and] indentured in the digital saltmines”. Games, TV, and movies are also the subjects that he mainly tweets about. His website is “Exquisite Waste Of Time” but it hasn’t been updated in a couple of months. Which doesn’t mean you won’t find anything of interest/value there!
Never work against your players. RPGs are always a collaborative effort & shared responsibility for everyone to have fun.
159. Sir Gareth the GM (@SGKeep) is primarily a tabletop gamer, but also “a dabbler in many things geeky” who loves to GM and who is working on a tabletop #rpg called Pythos in his free time. His website is Sir Gareth’s Keep and holds a couple of posts I’ve definitely bookmarked for eventual reading.
Be flexible. Like any work of art, tailor the game for your audience (your players). Don’t be afraid to tweak the script!”
160. Rob Wilkison (@Misfit_KotLD) is a “history and RPG geek, old and grumpy, [and a] Bastard GM”. He also admits to being a Metalhead and feminist. Tweets or Re-tweets something every couple of days on average from Jacksonville, Georgia, USA, and joins in other conversations with similar frequency. His blog is Random Thoughts – Musings of a lazy scholar and GM but hasn’t been updated in over 6 months. That said, there’s a 19-month gap between that item and the previous one, so Rob clearly only hits “publish” when he has something to say, and a quick glance was enough to tell me that I wanted to read it all from start to finish.
Fun comes first and foremost, even for the GM.
161. Steve Wollett (@SteveWollett) is a self-confessed Geek, Gamer, Writer, and Movie Buff from Nottingham, Maryland, whose interests include Cosplay, Comics, Collectibles, SciFi, and Horror. He tweets and re-tweets a lot, little of it RPG related, but most of it’s interesting to me anyway. Your mileage may vary.
Your job as a GM is to create the story, so long as you push the story forward and everyone enjoys it, you have done good.
162. The Vulture GM (@The_Vulture_GM) describes himself as a “Gamer & GM for DnD 5E and Pathfinder, DCC RPG fanboy, Thinker of things, Producer of minimal content, Half-lefty, [and] Mediocre min-maxer since ’83”. Lots of his tweets are game related, and he tweets good advice like this, and what he has offered the 750th Party:
Forever learn. Learn from others experiences, your own mistakes, other game systems, other genres.
163. G*M*S Magazine (@gmsmagazine) is a “website all about Boardgames, Role Playing Games, Card games and some things geeky” who are reaching out for Patreon support from their fans. Based in Brighton, (England presumably), their website (also known as G*M*S Magazine) has a wide variety of content – a few articles, a few podcasts, a few videos, and a lot of reviews of Books, RPG materials, board games, card games, and more.
Go with the flow of the players and have fun. Remember it’s not about you, it’s about the players and having fun, so let them do and play as they wish and reign in some common sense, but not your sense. Then come into the game and join the flow, but your players should come first.
164. Shane Hotakainen (@veganshane) is a vegan nerd into punk rock and gaming in various forms, from St Paul, Minneapolis (and I hope I spelt that right!). He’s also a “Star Wars dork” and “Whovian Browncoat”. Most of his tweets are not currently game-related.
Be flexible and don’t fall in love with your story, because it is not your story. It belongs to you the players. No plot survives first contact with the PC’s so enjoy where the game takes you.
165. Robert W. Thomson (@RobertWThomson) is a long-time friend of Campaign Mastery, and used to head Four Winds Fantasy Gaming. He was generous enough to write the forward to Assassin’s Amulet for Michael Tumey, Johnn Four, and Myself. Way back in April 2011, I reviewed “Players Options: Flaws” (On The Nature Of Flaws). Sadly, Four Winds closed its doors, and Robert took on a more everyday occupation doing other things that he loves. Currently located in Butte, Montana, he has only recently started using his twitter account again on a regular basis, but seems determined to make up for lost time! Not a lot of his tweets are gaming-related, but there’s the occasional gem, such as his “OH @ The Gaming Table” tweets, eg “I have as much gold as I have XP!” which often produce a belly-laugh. Hopefully he sticks around for a long time to come!
Let the players tell much of the story. Have an idea, but be willing to add or adjust based on player desires or actions. If the characters must be led in a specific direction, do your best to make it feel like it was their choice to do so.
166. Paul from Dingles Games was one of the first supporters of Campaign Mastery, asking us to review his online Monster Generator for 3.x, something that I did way back in March of 2009. What impressed me most was the way he responded to reports of flaws and shortcomings in his product, taking immediate remedial action. I am pleased to state that in the years since, that review has sent more than 3,500 potential users his way (I don’t know if we still are, but at one point we were his number one source of hits), and his generous acknowledgement of the review has sent traffic back Campaign Mastery’s way as well. The generators at Dingle’s Games have only diversified and improved over the subsequent years, as have the number of glowing reviews he has received. He had a twitter account, which is how he learned of the 750th party and made his contribution, but it appears to have closed since. UPDATE: It hasn’t closed, Paul has simply changed the account – it’s now @NPCaDay. Paul is located in Nottingham, England.
DMing is not you vs the party, but the party participating in, and helping write a story in which you have created the framework. Most important is everyone having fun. It’s better to let some things go rather than creating an argument.
167. Sean Holland from Sea Of Stars has been blogging for almost as long as Campaign Mastery has, and is even more prolific, posting daily or close to it. You could spend years working through the archives. There are currently 738 posts categorized as “World Building”, for example. I have huge respect for that; no-one who hasn’t tried doing anything like it can appreciate what it takes to post something every day for six-and-a-half years! So I was really chuffed when he offered a contribution to the party:
Talk to your players. Learn what they want from the game, what problems they are having and what excites them. Communication is the key to a successful game.
168. Matthew Bowers (@chaoticDM) is a “Level 27 solo Dungeon Master and microblogger” who has been “DMing by the seat of my pants since 2009”. He tweets regularly and converses readily. He has a blog at but understandably hasn’t updated it since January 2013 – probably when twitter took over his life! Matthew is from Arlington, Texas. He and I have been bumping into each other on Twitter for years.
‘Yes, and…’ is the best way to make your players feel like they are directly contributing to the game narrative.
169. Grumbling Dwarf (@GrumblingDwarf) represents the Wisconsin Tabletop Gaming Community, based in Madison, Wisconsin – RPGs, Board Games & Miniatures Gaming. The account is managed by @SeanPKelley. The first non-RPG tweet I found in the timeline was a R.I.P. for Christopher Lee (can’t fault them for that, I posted one myself, but that was quite a while back). Often, there’s only one tweet a month for this account, so it’s not very active – but worth paying attention to when they do.
Embrace any feat and just put yourself out there and be open to feedback. It is not to criticize, but to make you better.
170. Sean Longinus (@CroweLonginus) is a contributing RPG writer, aspiring fiction & poetry author, and a HUGE NERD (his capitalization). Tweets are irregular and infrequent but worth attention, just like those of Grumbling Dwarf.
Trying to force your players along the path you want is like bathing a cat: no-one’s going to have any fun.
171. Scott Hardy (@Gamesdisk) joins many more conversations than he starts – a man of relatively few words. His advice follows the same pattern:
Have fun when you GM.
172. Katrina Ostrander (@lindevi) is a new acquaintance, like many of those who responded to my request for contributions. She is the Fiction editor at Fantasy Flight Games and former producer for #Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (playing that on Saturday!) & Age of Rebellion RPGs. A Blogger, gamer, GM, and writer from Roseville, Minnesota. Her blog is at but hasn’t been updated in a while – as usual, though, the archives may yield treasures.
Get to know your players and discuss expectations beforehand, especially regarding tone, humor, and lethality.
173. Chris Kentlea of Ennead Games was kind enough to contribute to the party! Ennead Games’ site is chockablock full of content and it doesn’t look like thinning out any time soon. (I stopped scrolling down when I got to page 17…) They also have to have a several hundred products for sale through DriveThruRPG. (suspicion confirmed – the tally stands at 336 items!) That makes them a Big Name Publisher in my book, so I’m grateful to Chris for participating! Ennead Games also have a twitter account: @EnneadGames.
Don’t be afraid to say yes when a player asks ‘Can I do (x)? As long as it makes for a good story, then go with it. Conversely, don’t be afraid to say no if it makes the story or game worse.
174. Roberto Micheri (@Sunglar)… Roberto is a great guy, and one of the first RPG contacts I made on Twitter. He describes himself as an “educator, lover of life and literature. Big Babylon 5 fan! My favorite pastime is pen & paper role playing games.” He’s active in the Puerto Rico Role Players (which is where he lives) and frequently promotes Campaign Mastery to them through their facebook page (I gave them and him a shout-out in the “Facebook” section of The GM’s Help Network).
Be consistent and relax, it’s only a game. Consistency is key, more than being witty or creative every time, make sure you play every time. If you set a schedule, keep it. There will be great sessions, there will be less stellar ones. Don’t get discouraged, play on. Nothing kills a campaign like not playing!

If you’re consistent you’ll get to practice all the tricks, try all the things you’ve always wanted to do. If the old advice is a writer writes, a Game Master runs games…

But relax, it doesn’t need to be perfect, you’ll make mistakes, that’s OK. No one is perfect, your players will understand. Don’t beat yourself up if things didn’t go as planned – soldier on, game on, and have fun, always!

175. Eric Weberg (@eweberg) is a husband, father, tabletop gamer, developer, DBA, project manager, admin, and IT-jack-of-all-trades in Jackson, Wisconsin. Another of those “doesn’t tweet often but pay attention when he does” accounts.
Go fast and go big. People don’t play Tabletop RPGs to count coppers. Hit ’em hard with crazy stuff.
176. Rambling Roleplayer (@RPGRambler) writes of himself, “I play games and talk about them sometimes. I’m also a husband, dad, boardgamer, wargamer, amateur carpenter, and all around geek.” He generally blogs regularly, though he’s had time off recently – in fact, his blog (The Rambling Roleplayer) should have new content up by the time this is published. He offered a very thoughtful reply to my question:
Familiarize yourself with the system, but don’t feel like you have to commit all of the rules to memory. A general understanding of the broad concepts and an idea of where in the books to look for specific rules will serve you just fine. Also, start the game with all of the dials at their default setting. Sometimes the temptation is very strong to jump in to a complex story with high-powered characters right out of the gate, but this is probably a mistake. Instead, your first game should be played with first level or “beginning” characters, or perhaps even pre-generated characters.

If there are lots of “optional” or “advanced” rules for your game system, consider implementing only a few or none of these rules for your first few games and then introducing such rules gradually. Also, run a published scenario rather than a homebrew adventure for your first game if possible, preferably one designed for new players and game masters. Trust me, focusing on building a good foundation at first and then adding complexity will pay dividends later, leading to a much richer and more enjoyable game experience for everyone.

177. Travis The RPG Guy (@therealrpgguy) runs a gaming YouTube channel, and is another new contact.
Do not “tell” your players what happen. Show your players through descriptive words – how things smell, taste, look, sound and feel.
178. Misadventuring 101 (@rpginitiative) broadcast their weekly Pathfinder game in Maryland as a podcast. Listen in at the initiative podcast.
Expect the unexpected and be willing to go (within reason) where your players want to take the story with their decisions.
179. Larry Hollis (@Xer0Rules) is another of those twitter users that I’ve “known” off-and-on for years. Yet another Maryland resident, a fair amount of his tweets are usually about RPGs or related material. He converses more often than he tweets. Larry’s also been known to have a strong opinion or two.
“Yes, and/but” is the best thing a GM can have in their toolbox. Using them with care will always add to your game.
180. Mark Caldwell ( is a web site developer by day and a Writer, RPG Gamer and CG Artist by night. Impworks is his website, and Liverpool, England, is where he usually hangs out.
It’s a good idea to vary the difficulty of encounters. If the difficulty of tasks constantly increases at the same rate as any improvement in PC abilities it’s hard for players to judge how much better they have become.

So it’s a good idea to have PCs sometimes face a challenge [that] they [have] faced before to show them just how far they’ve improved. This might be having them fight opponents very similar to a memorable encounter from an early adventure, have a rogue pick a lock like the ones they faced in their first dungeon, or have them repeat a hack from early in their career. Recurring opponents can be particularly useful for this if they improve only a little between encounters.

181. Darred Surin (@verycuteGM) is “a young woman exploring gaming whether it be in the form of video, board, or role-playing. I am out on a mission to try it all plus with more cats.” She has a YouTube Tube channel and a website that at first glance is fading into disuse and mostly about her cats – dig deeper and you can find RPG stuff, often biographical in nature.
Try to limit your use of ‘no’ during gameplay. Let the player us their imagination, let them attempt crazy antics! It’s fun when they succeed or drastically fail. The worst thing you can do is stifle their imagination.
182. Leonardo Gedraite (@LeoGed) is from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Most of his tweets are in Portuguese, and so are many of his re-tweets, which seem to outnumber the former by a huge margin, as he himself admits in his profile. Translated, that reads: “A Herpetologist looking for Tadpoles, Good Books and Questions. Random tweets on: Science, Comics, RPG and Fantastic Literature (And many re-tweets)”. His twitter account is protected – you can ask to follow him but he gets to choose whether or not to let you do so. I translate his feed into English to read it; most of his tweets/re-tweets seem to be humor or about Brazilian issues, with the occasional nugget of gaming gold. His advice is simple but profound:
Have Fun!
183. The Gamefather Moe T (@WindsorGaming) is the/a “Gaming ambassador for the Windsor [Ontario, Canada] area. Event organizer, reviewer and player.” He has a website, the Windsor Gaming Resource that probably isn’t all that relevant unless you are likely to be in the area, though some of the reviews might be of interest. A new acquaintance through this project, I liked his answer so much that I have deliberately made it the last word.
Never forget it’s a game. You are a group of friends gathered together to play a game and have fun, nothing more.

I agree with all the advice offered above (even the ones that are contradictory; that just means my agreement is qualified in some way).

Onwards and Upwards

And so this 750th post celebration comes to an end. I hope everyone had a good time, and takes away some good memories. And now, it’s time for me to start thinking about the next article, because that’s the reality of blogging. (Oh, #$@@! I just realized what this means: I now have less than 250 posts to try and think of a way to top this as an event…)

Comments (6)

Oddities Of Values: Recalculating the price of valuables

US currency

Image by / Tracy Olson

This article is the result of some recent work that was done for the next adventure, “Boom Town”, in the Pulp Campaign that I co-referee, “The Adventurer’s Club”. Players in that campaign don’t have to worry, I’m not going to give away anything that will damage the game!

How big is a LOT of money – say, $100 million? In Pulp Campaign currency? I recently had to work out the answer to a very similar problem, and got some very surprising answers along the way – answers that challenge everything I’ve ever read in terms of treasure for RPGs.

Currency Conversion: The effect of inflation

Pulp campaigns are generally set in the 1920s or 1930s, and ours is no exception. We’ve specified that the date is 1930-something but have played (and will continue to play) very fast and loose with what that “something” is – we have no problem with making events from 1938 and 1932 happen more or less concurrently, so long as it makes internally-consistent sense to the plotline.

The first problem that has to be faced is currency conversion due to inflation. Fortunately, the sourcebook on which the campaign is based includes a table showing the value of $1 (2005) equivalent for every year from 1920 to 1939. This table isn’t in the Currency chapter, it’s buried in a sidebar on page 261 – but it’s there.

So, problem solved, right?

Not really. This is a world in which the social repercussions of the Great Depression were not as severe as they were in our history. The easiest way to achieve that consequence is to have the Depression itself be less severe, and shorter. So we’ve decided to use the pre-depression value from 1920 of $10 – meaning that 1$ “then” will buy you what would cost $10 in the modern (2005) era, or its cultural equivalent (if there is any).

To further complicate matters, our experience is mostly in Australian dollars – but what should we use as our conversion factor? The modern-day exchange rate (about 0.72¢ US)? The 2005 value (between 0.73¢ and 0.78¢ US, depending on the month of the year)? The 1920 rate (0.72¢ US again)? Or the 1935 rate, which is used as a standard in the game system for such things, and quoted as being 1 Aust Pound = $8.24 US)?

Here’s how we’ve cut that particular Gordian Knot: if we’re converting our experience of everyday prices, we use US 0.75¢ for every Australian dollar. So, a new car costing about A$25,000 in 2005 would cost about 2005-USD 18,750 – which we already know is the same thing as 1930s-USD 1,875. If we then need to convert into 1930s-Australian-Pounds, we divide by the $8.24 quoted in the Pulp book to get £227.5 – and then round off to an even £280.

But most of the commodities and objects we care about will be quoted in US dollars, so that’s the backbone of the conversion. So how much additional inflation has there been in the US since 2005? The answer, according to, the answer is $1.22. So that lets us convert modern-day (2015) prices to Pulp prices (starting to see how complicated all this can be?)

The NTD unit and the “M” prefix

From the very first time we ran the pulp campaign, we’ve struggled with terminology. You can see how clumsy it is to include the year in order to distinguish between 2005-US-Dollars and Pulp-Era-US-Dollars. Even “1930’s USD” is too complicated, and when spoken aloud, an easy source of confusion. We’ve tried half-a-dozen different solutions but none have been completely satisfactory. It was while thinking about this article (I always think about my articles before I write them!) that I finally found a good answer. From now on, “$” will refer to 2005 US dollars, a “new” currency, NTD will refer to nineteen-thirties US dollars, and an “M” prefix will describe Modern-dollars.

What we have established so far, then, is:

M$1.22 = $1 = NTD 0.10, and A$1 = $0.75, and NTA£1 = NTD 8.24.

So intuitive is this new pair of definitions – NTD and M – that I don’t even have to define “NTA£”, the meaning is self-evident.

Size In NTD Currency

So, getting back to the question that was at hand – how big is $100 million USD in NTD?

$100m = NTD 10m.

In hundred-dollar bills, the largest note in US currency, that’s 100,000 banknotes.

So how much does a million dollars weigh?

Believe or not, you can get this information on the web! US currency hasn’t noticeably changed in weight since then, and all the denominations weigh about the same – it’s quite different in Australia, where the notes are all different sizes.

A million dollars in US $1 bills is equal to 1 metric tonne but weighs about 1.1 tons by U.S. measure, or 2200 lb. Each time the denomination of the bills is increased, the weight of a million dollars decreases. When weighed in $100 bills, a million weighs approximately 22 lb.

Is that all?

It is, and it’s enough – because that means that 1 million notes weighs the same whether we’re talking $1 bills or $100-bills. So our NTD 10m is 220lb in weight. Unless you’re phenomenally strong, that’s about as much as you would ever want to try carrying.

How much space does it occupy?

Of course, the same is true of how much space a million dollars takes up. U.S. currency is 0.0043 inch thick. A stack of a million one-dollar bills would measure 358.33 feet tall, but if you use $20 bills, the stack is only 3.58 feet tall. $100 bills = 8.592 inches.

And our NTD 10m would therefore be 85.92 inches tall in NTD 100 banknotes if in a single stack, or 8.592 inches in ten stacks.

Next, we need to look at the other dimensions of a US banknote. Google reports that this is Width 2.61 inches x length 6.14 inches.

I drew some rough sketches, and found that the closest arrangement to a square that I could reasonably make with those approximate proportions was 13″ x 12.3″, consisting of 5 columns of bills side-by-side above a second row of 5 columns of bills:

It's not perfectly square, but it's close enough.

It’s not perfectly square, but it’s close enough.

The more rows you add, the more perfect you can make the square – but the more unreasonable the size. But ten stacks, 13.05″ x 12.28″, and we already know that each stack would be 8.592″ inches tall.

I have a suitcase that is just a little larger than that, in all three dimensions. With a little padding, our NTD 10m would fit in it quite nicely. I wouldn’t want to carry it, it weighs about twice what I can comfortably manage – but I’m not particularly strong.


Might some other commodity be more convenient? Well, when you want to talk about something universally valued, the next commodity that comes to mind is gold.

Quite some time ago, we found a US Government PDF which lists the values over the last century or so of all the metals mined on earth. We’ve referred to it any number of times since. It only goes up to 1998, but it goes back to the 1800s, depending on the commodity in question. All the values have been calculated in 1992 USD.

One dollar in 1992 is worth $1.39 in 2005, according to the same calculator linked to above. But the prices are (generally) per pound, or per troy ounce – so there are other conversions involved.

Gold is a problem however, because during the Great Depression, private ownership of the metal (other than in jewelery quantities) was made illegal – so we don’t have any values in our reference document prior to 1968.

Google to the rescue again! Entering “Price of gold 1920” gives the following: “The official U.S. Government gold price has changed only four times from 1792 to the present. Starting at $19.75 per troy ounce, raised to $20.67 in 1834, and $35 in 1934. In 1972, the price was raised to $38 and then to $42.22 in 1973.” So the value we want is NTD 20.67 per troy ounce, and there are 14.5833 troy ounces in a pound (or 32.1507 in a kg, which is more convenient because that’s what the game system uses. But never mind that).

So NTD 10m = 10,000,000/20.67 troy ounces = 483,792.9 troy oz, or 33,174.4 lb (15,069kg), or 16.6 TONS. Oh, my aching back! Gold is heavy.

In fact, we were so discouraged by this result that we didn’t even bother checking platinum; and, as for silver, it had no chance.


The other obvious choice is diamonds, preferably uncut, and hence untraceable. All sorts of things affect diamond values, so it was very hard to track down any conversion information, but eventually we found a quote that stated that gemstone quality diamonds were worth roughly $7000/carat in 2014. That sounds promising!

Applying our conversion factors (and assuming that there’s no real difference between 2015 and 2014 values), that gets us 7000/1.22/10= NTD 573.77 per carat. Which means that NTD 10m would be 17,429 carats.

That was enough for me to decide that getting that many uncut diamonds would be almost impossible in the time frame required; there simply wouldn’t be that big a demand. 1000, I might have believed, maybe even two. Seventeen-plus? No.

My co-GM wasn’t completely convinced.

How much does a carat weigh?

This was something I didn’t know off the top of my head. The answer turned out to 1 gram = 5 carats, or 1 lb = 2267.96 carats. Call it 2268.

So our 17,429 carats would have totaled 7.7 lb. That’s nice and portable!

How large is a 1-carat diamond?

This answer absolutely astonished us. A one-carat CUT diamond has a spherical diameter of about 6.5mm or 0.2559 inches. It’s about the same size as large buckshot or pellets. So, let’s imagine a rectangular container, about 3″ square. How tall would it have to be to contain our 17,429 carats?

3″ x 3″ works out to 137 cubes each of 0.2559″, side by side. In actual fact, you could only get 11 x 11, or 121, in an even layer. So if all our diamonds were cubical, that would be 17,429/121 = 144 layers, at 0.2559″ per layer, or 36.8″. That’s right – three feet tall.

But we’re talking about spheres, and spheres can pack more compactly than cubes. Each set of four spheres creates a hollow space that can partially contain the next row. 11×11 could contain a new layer of 10×10. As a rough estimate, you can get about 26% more in any given volume when packing spheres vs cubes. So, in reality, our column would only be 74% of 36.8″, or 27.2″ tall.

2 1/4 feet is better than three feet – but still an impractical total.

In the end, I satisfied my co-GM with a point about the circumstances that were to be in effect at the time that ruled diamonds out of the question, and the discussion moved on to the next point in our planning.

But after he left, I got to thinking….

Wait a minute – diamond scarcity is linear?

If $7000/carat is even close to a reasonable estimation, every treasure table I’ve ever seen in FRP is wildly off the mark. Why? Because the implication is that diamonds are found in inverse proportion to their size. For every two one-carat gems, you would find one two-carrot gems. For every 4 one-carat gems, you would find 2 two-carat gems and 1 four-carat gem. The size and frequency of occurrence, multiplied, give the same constant value. Assuming all else to be equal, of course.

Yet, everything I knew about gemstones in an AD&D/Pathfinder world – or a Runequest world, or whatever – had value going up with increasing size by more than just the multiple of size. Bigger gems are rarer.

If finding gemstones twice the size were twice as rare an event as the linear expression suggests, it’s easy to calculate that the value would be proportional to the square of the size – still assuming all else to be equal. If it were three times, you can soon show that the relationship is roughly value = size to the power of 2.5. In fact, log(N)/log(2) works out to be the exponent of size, for those mathematically inclined, where N is the number of n carat stones that has to be found before you find one of 2n size.

This is way too complicated for ordinary game use – and too inflexible – but it highlights the general principle, which is that larger = rarer = more valuable than size alone would indicate.

The largest rough gem-quality diamond ever found was 3106.75 carats (it was cut into 105 smaller stones, including the Greater and Lesser Star Of Africa). If the relationship was linear, that would mean that total diamond production up to that point was 3,107 one-carat diamonds.

In fact, the human race currently mines about 133 million carats of diamonds a year. That makes diamonds of the record size at least 42,086 times more rare – that’s how rare they would be if we found one per year. But we’ve been mining diamonds for a lot longer than one year – at least a decade at the current rate or close to it, I suspect, and then lesser quantities for centuries earlier. We could conservatively increase that rarity factor by anywhere from 10 to 200. I suspect 50 to be close to the right number – so 2,104,300 times as rare and valuable as expected. If we keep up current production for that long, I would expect an equal stone to be found sometime in the next 150 years – but not for at least 50.

Collectible Coin Values

You can never tell where the next useful factoid in a game or game design is going to come from. In this case, the information comes from a perhaps unlikely combination of sources: a couple of websites on the valuation of collectible toys, and the TV show, Pawn Stars (more the latter than the former).

The basic appraisal method for rare and vintage coins, as explained on the show, is as follows: there is a base value, which is the inherent value of the object. In the case of a precious metal coin or bar, this is the value of the gold, silver, or platinum it contains (and definitely NOT the face value). There is then a simple multiplier applied to this value, which represents a number of other factors: the desirability of a particular item (which is related to the rarity, but also takes into account aesthetics), the condition of the item, the overall scarcity of items of this particular type and subtype, and the specific scarcity by condition.

You simply look up the type of coin, and in some cases, the location of minting, and find a table which cross-references the date of minting and the condition to get the multiplier.

This process takes all the complication out of the problem. You don’t need to know fancy maths, you just need a value that seems reasonable. In most cases, precious metals never lose their intrinsic value (which can be looked up online for minute-by-minute accuracy – for example, right now, gold is fetching A$46.478 per g, while the current US price is $1078.24 per ounce. (Which makes gold worth about 122% more at the Western Australian Mint (theirs was the price I quoted) more than it is in the US. Of course, by the time you bought and shipped it here, anything could have happened – and gold is too heavy to airfreight! The electronic transfer of ownership, on the other hand, is quick and simple, and banks and governments do that sort of thing all the time.)

Other collectibles

Other types of collectible, from stamps to rifles to toys, operate on the same basic system. There is a base value, which is the depreciated purchase price, and a multiplier that combines the same specifics. However, there are two big differences: the first is that these are manufactured commodities, and the rate of manufacture is something that can be adjusted according to demand; and the second is that there is no absolute inherent value, which means that for a while, the value of such things drops toward zero. The collectability is being outweighed and overpowered by the depreciation, i.e. by the assumed wear and tear. The result is that what should be a relatively smooth progression is full of lumps and bumps.

Art Appraisal

Both of these are fundamentally different to the values attached to works of art. While the size of a painting or sculpture plays a role in assessing it’s value, it’s by no means the bottom line. Of greater importance is the ‘name’ of the artist, and the quality of the work. Put those three items together and you get the base value of the work.

To those considerations you need to factor in the number of works by the artist – and, in this case, more generally means more valuable, especially if the artist was making his living from his art, because that signifies a commercial appeal and the frequency of forgery, which often goes hand-in-glove with his popularity. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875), who few will have heard of, holds the distinction of being the single most-commonly-forged artist; in 1940, Newsweek reported that out of 2,500 paintings produced by Corot, 7,800 were in the United States. Corot sometimes authorized poor artists who imitated him to put his name on their paintings so that they would be easier to sell. In an ARTnews survey of art forgery, experts were asked, Who are the ten most faked artists in history? The almost unanimous vote went to Corot. Of the rest, the most recognizable names are Salvador Dali, Vincent Van Gogh, and – possibly – August Rodin. At least, I’m not an expert, but those are the names that I recognized!

Such imitations form a third category of artwork, usually considered distinct from actual forgery. Many famous painters had workshops where they taught students their art, and some went so far as to permit the students to paint over sketches that they themselves had in fact done. So the lines between artist and forgery are a lot more blurred than most people realize.

Great store is set by the provenance of art – who sold it, who bought it, and are there any suspicious gaps in the ownership records.

On top of all of that, there comes the question of damage to the work. This is generally not like the depreciation or deterioration or even condition used by other collectibles markets; instead, it tends to be an accelerated linear scale based on the amount and severity of the damage. Slight damage to a small area has a small negative effect on the value; greater damage to a small area has a disproportionate negative effect, and so does slight damage to a larger area. Substantial damage to a significant portion can render a valuable work worthless – or not; you also have to take into account the location of the damage. In general, damage to the face of a subject costs more than damage to their clothing, which costs more than damage to the floor or background, or lesser figures.

Art Restoration “repatriates” damaged art to something as close as possible to the original, and techniques have come a very long way. But it’s always a risk; there have been occasional failures, in which a painting worth X, which would have been worth ten or twenty times as much if successfully restored, has been completely destroyed by the process.

Nevertheless, that’s how the current value of a piece of art is established. But, there is another complicating factor: most (collectible) artwork is sold at auction. And every sale at a higher price increases the value of all other works by that artist, while every sale at a lower price – or failure to sell at the ‘reserve,’ or minimum asking price, reduces the value of all other works by that artist. It’s not unknown for owners of extensive collections by a given artist to bid the price up on other paintings by the same artist, regardless of whether or not they like it or actually desire to buy it, simply to protect the value of what they already own.

And one more complication: buyers have been known to buy based not on what art is worth, but on what it will be worth. Few artworks by famous artists deteriorate in value, assuming that they are properly maintained; growth in value may slow or stagnate, especially if the style goes out of favor, but it will rarely go down, damage notwithstanding. On top of that, every year a few paintings are damaged or destroyed, either by accidents, failed restorations, vandalism and/or crime, or carelessness, with the first cause ranking way above all the others. That inherently makes the remainder more rare. The longer a painting has been in existence, the greater the opportunity for these forces to come into play, so age has a definite but vague relationship to value.

The bottom line is this: Art is worth what someone will pay for it.

Real Estate

The final commodity of value that I’m going to discuss is land. When you see a house for sale, how has that value been set – and what’s it really worth?

Property valuation is not an exact science, but some years ago I had the opportunity to chat for a while with a broker and was astonished by how far removed from a science it actually was.

The oft-touted first consideration is Location, or more specifically, the general locality and its’ economic prospects. Next, there’s proximity to a past sale value, which establishes a baseline. Ideally, like will be compared to like, in terms of building size (usually measured by the number of bedrooms and the overall size of the home). Relative location compared to the past sale is also important; closer to the economic heart of a location, even by a few feet (or meters) can have a small but appreciable impact on the value estimate. Another all-important factor is the relative “worth” of homes – what’s been happening in the housing market lately, and what has inflation been like?

Next, the agent will typically consider any changes to the neighborhood since the reference sale took place. Does the home now being sold have greater access to amenities than was the case when the reference home was sold, for example. Have bus routes changed? Is there a new railway station? Has a shopping mall opened just down the street, or a new entertainment venue?

All of that will get taken into account, more-or-less intuitively, to provide a “base value” of what the agent thinks this particular home is actually worth. On top of that, agents will sometimes add on any taxes that will have to paid, stamp duty, etc, and their own fees or commissions; or these may simply come out of what the owner actually receives of the value when the sale takes place. The latter is more common, I think.

It’s actually quite routine for two separate values to be placed on a prospective sale – one represents the reserve, or the minimum price that the seller will accept; the other represents what the agent thinks the property will actually fetch in an auction. Which is, of course, the next variable. Again, experience permits a Realtor to make an educated guess as to how these will play out, based on recent auctions in the area.

I have to admit that I was rather surprised that, as far as the broker I spoke to was aware (and he had been in the real estate game for 30-odd years), there had never been any attempt to statistically model the different influences on price to produce a more definitive set of estimates. There aren’t even any guidelines to follow – no hard-and-fast, universally-accepted ones, at least, beyond the self-fulfilling maxim that property values always go up in the long run.

What’s more, the broker didn’t think that such a study was possible; there were too many variables to be taken into consideration, and the values in any give case too “noisy”. Nor would he be all that interested in the results of such a study, for the same reasons.

Most of what a real estate agent does, in terms of property valuation, is use instinct and experience and an awareness of local issues and improvements to guesstimate a base value and a level of interest – which, in turn, will manifest in more spirited bidding in an auction, and a greater likelihood of a higher price. Beyond that, there is their ability to talk up the property; the more positive things that the agent can use as selling points, the more the property is (nominally) worth.

The bottom line: Like art, Real Estate is worth what someone will pay for it, and Real Estate valuation is a performing art – with no disrespect meant to any real estate agents who may happen to read this!

The treasure comparisons

Look at the treasure tables from any game system – at least from every game system that I’ve ever seen – and you will find patterns that look nothing like what I’ve discussed here. They don’t even come close to being a representation of reality, let alone a reasonable one.

Coins are worth their face value, nothing more nor less. Gems are worth an amount rolled on one or more dice – either a linear scale or a bell curve. Ditto jewelery and art and other collectibles like rare books.

The question is, can we do better? I think so.

Adapting the collectibles system for Objects & Commodities of Value

I think there’s an easy way to adapt the “real life” system for valuing commodities into a simple system for GMs to take control over treasure, with pronounced advantages for the game.

The random component

Let’s start with a simple principle: a random roll that yields a value, in which extreme results are possible, but unlikely. There are three ways that I know to achieve this:

  • Cascading Die Rolls: roll d whatever, and if you roll the maximum, add the maximum result to a subtotal and roll again. There are variants, which make cascades less likely, for example roll a d6. If you roll a 6, add five to the subtotal and roll 2d6 the next time. If you roll 11 or 12, add ten to your tally and roll 3d6 – and so on. This stacks bell curve upon bell-curve to produce an open-ended roll – but one in which the most likely result is fairly low: average on the first d6 comes from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, and is therefore 3 and 1/3. In one-in-six cases, you then get to roll 2d6, with possible outcomes of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 10, 10, or an average of 6.1666 – but because these only happen in 1 in six cases, the contribution to the overall average is 1/6th of that, or about 1.028. In two out of 36 cases (i.e. one in 18), you then get to roll 3d6, with possible outcomes of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 15, 15, 15, or an average of 10.125 – which only adds one sixth of one 18th to the overall average, or 0.09375. The probability of increases become increasingly remote as you go up the scale, and hence the impact on the overall average, which currently stands at about 4.455. Note the pattern of increasing maximum results (multiples of five) – these are increasing with each additional dice, and will continue to do so until they get to five in length – and then it’s back to one again. Or you can simply cap the results, say at the 3d6 level, resulting in a minuscule increase in the average. With that, our maximum result is 5+10+18=33.
  • Multiplied Die Rolls: roll d whatever, and then multiply the result by d something-else. Let’s say d10 x d6. That gives a mean result of 19.25 but a maximum result of 60. Every dice multiplier that you add increases the maximum faster than it does the mean. But I don’t like this method, because the means are so high, and it takes a LOT of die rolls to get them down – and you have to divide the end result by a constant to keep the results somewhere in line. d10 x d10 x d10 x d6 / 60 gives a maximum result of 100, but an average of 9.36 – but the calculation is pretty hard work.
  • Divided Die Rolls: paradoxically, it’s a lot easier to work with Divided Die rolls. This can either be AdB/CdD in structure, or dA x dB / dC. An example of the first might be 5d6/d6 – which gives a maximum result of 30, but an average of 6.85; and there’s just one in 46,656 chance of getting that maximum. The alternative is even easier: d6 x d10 / 2d6, for example, which has a maximum of 30, the same as before, but a mean of only 2.87. The calculation is relatively easy because it doesn’t need to be exact; the multiplication is easy, and if we say “round down” then all we care about is how many whole results from the dividing die roll will fit within the result. For example, d6 x d10 / d6: rolls of 4, 8, and 3 respectively, so 4×8=32, and 32/3 rounds down to 10.

On the basis of simplicity and speed, I recommend the simpler form of the divided die roll. There may be occasional minor anomalies, such as the chance of getting a 12 being higher than those of an 11, or the fact that it’s impossible to get a 19, 23, 26, 28, or 29, but those are worth living with. If they really bother you, subtract 6 and add a d6 to all results of 6 or more.

The two basic value patterns

The two basic value patterns

The rational component

Next, we need something to interpret those die rolls against. And the simplest thing in the world is for the GM to do a quick and simple graph. There are two basic forms, as shown:

Use the top one for precious metals, gems, jewelery, art, and real estate; use the bottom one for anything else. If in doubt, decide for yourself whether or not this is an item that is ever likely to decrease in value. If not, use the top one; if it is, use the bottom.

The top graph shows a gentle curve that steepens before leveling out. The bottom shows a curve that drops, levels out, drops again, steeply increases, flattens, levels, and then rises sharply. The main difference is that the second one declines below “base value” before rising, and it’s a lot lumpier and misshapen than the first. NB: don’t use these graphs, draw your own – these are just examples!

Combining Roll and Graph

The far left is the minimum random result, the far right is the maximum. Simply estimate by eye where on the graph your result falls and look at the vertical value relative to the base line.

To do that, you’ll need to assign a vertical scale. This can be whatever you want – just do a rough one by hand if you like. There are two options: the first assumes that this is a logarithmic graph (usually base 2 or base 10), and the second is a standard linear graph. I recommend the former for the former type of curve and the latter for the latter.

Base 2? Base 10? Why? Base 2 because that means that you are reading off how many times the base value has doubled – a relatively simple calculation to perform; Base 10 because it’s a standard that every scientific calculator can handle (such a calculator can also handle base 2 if you know the maths of logarithms, but that’s too esoteric to go into here).

Either way, it means we get to set a maximum value for whatever the PCs find, relative to the base value that we assign for the commodity.

The same two pattern curves With simple divisions

The same two pattern curves With simple divisions

On this version, I’ve simply divided the top one in half (by eye) and then halved each of those halves to get four divisions. Each will represent two doublings of the base value. That means that the maximum value is 2^8, which you can count off on your fingers anytime you need to (if you don’t know it by heart): 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256. So the peak is 256xbase.

I’ve done the same thing in the green (profitable) part of the bottom graph, and divided the bottom part the same way. The divisions aren’t exact, exactly as you would expect. The in-profit part divisions represent a multiplier of 1+ 2 per division mark, while the lower divisions are 75%, 50% and 25% of base, respectively.

To use these, I simply roll a result for whatever it is that the PCs have found using the divided die roll, find where on my graph for that commodity that puts me, read off the adjustment, and apply it to my base value.

Using d6 x d10 / 2d6: I roll a 9 out of 30, so I come across about 1/3 of the way and then back a tenth (by eye) and find myself almost exactly at the mid-point between base price and the first mark, representing one doubling – so the value of the item found is 2xBase Price.

Same roll on the bottom graph: this time I get a four, so I go across about one-third of the way, then back about half-way (which gets me to five) and then about 1/5th more, and find myself about midway between the 75% and 50% mark – so what has been found is worth 60-65% of base value; there are lots of them and they aren’t very desirable at the moment.

Top one again, and this time I roll a zero – so this example is worth base value.

Bottom one, and this time I roll a 15, half-way across the graph – finding an example that is past the bottom point of the graph but only just beginning to climb in value; it’s between 25% and 50% of base value at the moment, perhaps a shade close to 50% – call it 40%.

If you want a higher chance of getting a more rightward result, use a smaller divisor on the divided die roll. One d6 instead of 2d6, for example.

The collateral benefits

The curves that you draw for your graphs tell the story of the commodity in question, but you are in command of interpreting it. If the curve rises steeply, it means the value is climbing quickly – why might that be the case? If the curve is flatter after a steep curve, it means the value isn’t climbing as fast as it was – why might that be the case?

Attaching a reason to any given change in a valuation curve not only gives you more information about whatever it is that has been found, it gives you an avenue for converting bookkeeping into roleplay. A player correctly interpreting the description of an object into a probable value also gives you a chance to embellish your campaign history, and in the process, embed clues to current events for the players to pick up on. if there’s a particular historical episode that you want to reference as adventure backstory, simply salt an encounter with a relevant period item instead of a randomly-chosen one; telling that item’s story and description gives you a window into the past, which you can use to deliver that backstory.

Suddenly, everything not only is connected to everything else, it feels connected to everything else. What was perceptibly random has been given meaning, and a narrative value beyond mere worth.

Level of differentiation

How many graphs you use is up to you. You could use just one for all precious metals, for example, or one each for gold, silver, and platinum, or one each for coins from the Kingdom of Gunwalla, or one for each type of coin from that Kingdom. You can be as explicit and specific as you want. Since it takes seconds to draw a rough box, seconds to roughly divide it horizontally into quarters, and seconds to draw a curve, there is no reason not to have a hundred of them, produced ad-hoc as needed.

If you want a little consistency, use one master graph to cover a group of relevant commodities and subsequent detailed graphs to make finer adjustments.

Using biases

Finally, you can bias the results. Replacing the d6 on top with d4+2, for example, obviously biases the results to the higher end of the scale somewhat; but it’s simpler just to add something to the pre-divisor roll. This can be used to cover makers with known reputations for good quality of workmanship, or fame, or whatever.

By the same token, adding anything, even something as small as +1, to the divisor makes a massive difference to the end results that are possible, biasing results to the lower end of the scale. A craftsman with a reputation for shoddy workmanship, for example, or an artist regaled widely as a “hack”.

The tools are all in your hands, and very easy to use; what you do with them is up to you.

Okay, so this is Campaign Mastery’s 749th post – and you know what that means? It means it’s time to break out the party hats…!

Comments (1)

Ask The GMs: The GMs Help Network

GMs sometimes ask more than one question. Where these directly relate to each other, or the context is important to the answers, they are generally lumped together. When they aren’t, which is far less frequent an event, they get split up and answered separately. Which brings me to today’s topic: Writing characters out when players leave the game.

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from Nic, who wrote (regretfully, more than 5 years ago):

Hi guys,

I have three questions which I hope you can answer (though not all at once, as they’re unrelated to each other):

1) What kind of “trapdoors” do you use to ensure characters can be written out of a campaign? Sometimes a player can’t continue to play for whatever reason, and I’m sick of the clichéd, “He got killed,” “He just left,” solutions. It’d be nice to have a story fueled reason, and one that does not preclude a character from making a return at a later point.

2) Do you utilize handouts for campaigns/adventures? More specifically, I’m about to begin a campaign in my own world setting, and I’m wondering should I provide a handout with some background reading? If yes, what should I include and how detailed should I get?

3) I often have the need to bounce my campaign ideas off others, to point out massive plot holes and the like, or just for some extra inspiration and ideas. My problem is that anyone who I could plausibly do this with is someone who I already game with. Can you recommend any decent online forums or the like where GMs congregate to help each other out? If there isn’t one in existence, are you guys in a position to begin one?

Many thanks for your time. I love your website and hope you can answer my questions and gain some interesting topics to post about. Keep up the good work!



PS, Thanks for all your help with my campaign so far!

As I explained in the last ATGMs, I don’t know whether Johnn offered Nic some guidance at the time, but I dashed off a quick note in reply that – in hindsight – was barely adequate. Because these questions are completely unrelated, as Nic himself suggests, I have been answering them properly in separate ATGMs posts – here’s a link to Answer #1 and here’s Answer #2. A while back, in preparation for these articles, I discussed the questions with a number of my other GMs, and between us, came up with answers of… let’s just say, “varying” depth. Their thoughts have been folded into the response presented below.


There was a time when this question would have been so much easier to answer. But that was a long time ago – a couple of years at Internet Speed… what follows is a potted and possibly myopic review of RPG-related inter-GM connectivity. Bear with me, it will all make sense in the end.


In the really bad old days, GMs were expected to make – and learn from – their own mistakes. It wasn’t that asking another GM for help with a problem was socially-unacceptable or anything, it simply didn’t seem to occur to people. I was lucky in that I had a fellow-GM first as a player-peer and then, as a mentor. Most people didn’t.

That didn’t mean that we didn’t learn from each other – we did. We stole ideas and techniques from each other all the time, absorbing them by osmosis, and bull-session, and from Dragon magazine’s columns, and by playing in each other’s games. But we didn’t solicit advice from each other.

I can still remember the first time I admitted to another GM that I was having trouble coming up with a plot solution to the corner the players had painted themselves into, and asked for suggestions – though I no longer remember anything else about the event! He looked at me a little strangely, and then offered a couple of ideas – none of which I used, but which did spark my own creativity and give it a bit of direction.

After that, it somehow seemed to become more acceptable amongst our circle of players/GMs to reach out for assistance when we needed it. It still didn’t happen often, but every now and then, someone would ask for input.


Bulletin Boards

For the truly geeky, the 80s also brought the home computer, and with it, access to Bulletin Boards. As home computing grew, as shown in the graph on the right (sourced from this Ars Technica article, where it is available in much more detail), these became more popular – at least until the coming of the web, but I’ll get to that in due course.

The basic principle of a Bulletin Board is this: someone starts a discussion on a particular topic, and anyone who visits the board can read what’s been said. Anyone who signs up (and sometimes anonymous visitors) can post a reply, which forms a permanent part of the conversation.

Some bulletin boards were very general, and may have had a category of threaded conversations about RPGs (well, about AD&D, I expect, given the era); others were more specific. You could visit this board to talk about technology, another for politics, and so on – and, given the synonymy of audience, game-related bulletin boards were fairly common.


For even longer than there have been home computers, there were newsgroups, and they function in a very similar way to a bulletin board – they just did it through email software. Post a question to a newsgroup, and you could get back hundreds of replies – or none.

Bulletin Boards through the web: Forums

The Web changed everything, or so it seemed. Certainly, as computers became more graphical (spurred on in part by the growth of the web’s graphical capabilities), bulletin boards (which are inherently text based) were forced to evolve. Nevertheless, they remained popular through the initial website boom.

They worked in essentially the same way that they always had. You went to a website, clicked on the entry in a master list of subjects or categories, and began reading curated discussion threads.

Chat Rooms

The next big development was the chat room. These made it easy to drop into a themed room on RPGs – avoiding those rooms in which people were actually playing by chat! – and chatter to other GMs from anywhere in the world about the hobby, about life in general, or about some problem that you might be having. The actual help that you got was sometimes a question of pot luck, but you soon learned which times of day were most likely to be productive (unsurprisingly, these synchronized with US and English/Western European work/study practices – usually between 8 and 9 PM (their time), respectively.

The big problem with Chat rooms was that, for the first time, conversations were ephemeral – they didn’t last. That slowly began to change as storage media became cheaper and of greater capacity, however. But eventually the chat rooms either became forms of social media or vanished.

Yahoo! Groups

At about the same time as Yahoo were setting up their chat system, they also created their own version of Newsgroups, which they called (strangely enough) Yahoo Groups. It’s a sign of how contemporary these events are becoming that Yahoo Groups are still around, though they are relatively unloved these days, slowly being strangled by dedicated Facebook pages.

Google Groups

It was only a few months later, as I recall it, that I started hearing about Google Groups. These took about another year to actually manifest (again, from memory), and – again – they are still with us, though slowly becoming depreciated in the face of social media. They even survived the transition into Google+ more-or-less unscathed.

As evidence of how interconnected all these ideas were, Google Groups also provides access via the web interface with Newsgroups (remember them?)

The biggest difference between Yahoo and Google Groups, and what had gone before, was that you didn’t need to run special software or do anything fancy in order to create one; these suppliers provided everything you needed. All you had to bring to the table was an idea, and an email address – and they would even supply the latter if you needed one!

Some people suggest that it’s easier to join such a group than to leave one. I’ve never had any problems, but YMMV.

Rise Of The Blog

If the web was the killer that (almost) killed bulletin boards, WordPress almost killed everything else when it made the blog easy and accessible (well, relatively so). Forums like Barrock’s Tower (on which I was increasingly active until it died) shut down. Google and Yahoo groups began to evaporate – the group never goes away, it just doesn’t get much use any more. Dedicated websites were either shut down or migrated onto the WordPress platform – or one of its less ubiquitous rivals. (This is a pet peeve of mine – the Wayback Machine preserves the web pages to tell you how great a resource used to be without conserving that resource if it was designed to be downloadable. When people talk about how big the internet is, they don’t realize that we’ve literally thrown away most of what there was before the year 2000. Don’t get me started…)

In fact, Campaign Mastery exists because Johnn Four and I had an email discussion about archiving past articles on his website and whether or not to migrate Roleplaying Tips onto the WordPress platform – something that Johnn eventually was able to do, using expertise gained while getting Campaign Mastery up and running…

These days, there are hundreds of RPG Blogs. But 90% of the blogs that were alive and kicking when Campaign Mastery was just starting are now dead. And so are 90% of the blogs that started at about the same time we did, the “Campaign Mastery” generation. And 90% of the ones that replaced those. Longevity alone has made CM one of the great RPG blogs (of course, I like to think that content is the reason we have survived, but it’s honestly equally attributable to the old publishing virtues of regularity and reliability – in other words, hard work over a long period of time).

Publisher-hosted Forums

At much the same time as Campaign Mastery was having it’s second birthday, game publishers began getting very serious about their in-house blogs and public forums. Sure, these are going to be system-specific, but there will be a certain amount of portability, even if the system in question is not the one that you are playing.

There was a time – only a few short months ago – when that alone would have been sufficient answer to Nic’s question. But then came the news that WOTC was shutting down its forum, a decision that was to take effect on October 29th, but was delayed a few days (without explanation). Any content not migrated elsewhere on that date was simply deleted, lost forever. The Killer: social media, in particular Facebook and Twitter. What I can’t answer is whether or not the lost pages can be found via the Wayback machine – can anyone shed light on that?

So far, to the best of my knowledge, they are the only game company to have taken this step, and the social media fallout was (ironically) quite critical, which may delay or even defer any such decision by anyone else.

That said, many of these publisher-hosted forums are extremely picky when it comes to following their rules. I got kicked off the Hero Games forum, for example, because in my first post I announced that I had written an article offering some house rules for the system. In fact, I was kicked off so hard that I couldn’t even read the announcement that I had been evicted. Less than community-spirited of the moderators, but that’s their prerogative; I simply didn’t go back. But follow their rules and you should be fine.

Social Media

These days, the killer is social media. And that’s a problem, because the other interfaces (even chat, though it didn’t start that way) all curate their content and enable users to search it. Facebook will let me know how many people have liked an article but won’t let me see anything that they’ve said about it. Twitter was more content-creator-friendly – until an update a week or so back meant that the counter stopped working, and with it, the click-able link that automatically searched for tweets linking to the article by link. You can still attempt a manual search using keywords from the title – but wont find everything, no matter how recent it is.

That’s the other problem with social media in this context, a I mentioned above. On twitter, once a tweet is more than 24 hours or so old, the odds of your ever being able to find it again start going down – fast. Heck, even getting too many comments too quickly “loses” some of them – sometimes just for a few hours, sometimes for a day or two, and sometimes forever.

Facebook is better in that regard, but has a policy in place of not showing you everything unless you are specifically named as a recipient.

Social Media is designed for immediacy, and disposable consumption. For Nic’s purposes, it’s fine – but it is not a replacement for a forum, not without software enhancement, anyway.


Facebook is the Godzilla of social Media. Twitter may have overtaken it in popularity amongst some specific demographics, but the 2015 numbers speak for themselves: 156.5 million facebook users, 60.3 million instagram users, 52.9 million twitter users, 44.5 million pinterest users, and 19.1 tumblr users, according to this breakdown. (Interestingly, those numbers bear no relation to the number of visitors Campaign Mastery gets from the different social media: StumbleUpon (which didn’t even rate a mention in the article) 43,645 visitors; Twitter, 5,470; Reddit 3,354; Facebook 3,103; pinterest 862; tumblr 8; and instagram 0!

Be that as it may, EnWorld’s discussion thread concerning the delay of closure of the WOTC forums also has a number of posts discussing alternatives. Here’s what one user had to say about the RPG community on Facebook: “Facebook D&D talk is quite active. Its biggest problem is that it’s hard to find information, because there’s no organization whatsoever, so the same things get asked, then answered, a lot.” Morrus, the admin, replied, “Facebook recently announced that public posts (like those on pages and public groups) will be archivable and searchable. That will be the thing, I think, that bridges the difference between a forum and a social network.” (You can read more of the discussion at this link (takes you to the last page of the discussions).

However, you probably have to be a member of a particular group/page before you can search it. So it’s not “outsider-friendly”; it’s more like a closed-door chatroom. Having said that, overall, I would have to describe Facebook as the heir to the BBS way of doing things, minus the navigation tools that made bulletin-boards and forums easy to navigate.

If there’s a group that fits your needs and interests, join it. You’ll generally find it fairly active, or obviously inactive; there’s not a lot of in-between room. For example, I know that there’s an active Puerto Rico Role Players group on Facebook (shout-out to Roberto Micheri [facebook, twitter]) who’s been active in promoting Campaign Mastery there :) )

If you don’t find one, you may need a broader exposure.


Twitter has advantages for this purpose well beyond what Facebook can offer because Twitter has hashtags. A hashtag, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a keyword preceded by a “#” mark – there can’t be any punctuation or spaces, otherwise, it can be anything. Depending on the search options you choose (and you can change your choice after a search) you can look for individual posts or “tweets” containing the hashtag, or people whose name contains the phrase, or groups. You can filter the results to only include people “near” you (geographically) or in other ways.

What’s more, I can state from personal experience that the RPG community on Twitter is as exuberant and engaged as you can ask for, and extremely tolerant of total strangers saying “Hi, I run an RPG, can you…” Twitter is more of a conversation, in other words.

The only thing you have to watch out for is that there is often no distinction made between computer-based RPG games and -gamers and the tabletop variety. Helping with that is that most people take advantage of the ability to pen a brief profile (strictly limited in length) which is usually enough for you to make that distinction for yourself – and, if not, you can go to that person’s twitter page, look at what they have been saying (and how recently they have said anything, for that matter) and whether or not they reply to others. So twitter gives you all the tools you need to make up your own mind whether they are a relevant fit.


Twitter has one other Grand Attraction when it comes to RPGs – a regular “virtual gathering” where players and GMs talk to each other about gaming, using the hashtag “#RPGChat” (I don’t get to attend anywhere near as many of these as I would like). To quote The Illuminerdy, who facilitate #RPGChat, it is “the ultimate role-playing game brain-trust. Use the hashtag any time to summon a geeky think tank willing to discuss your pressing gaming quandaries or join us during the “official” chat Thursdays at 9pm (Eastern US Time) for a more structured RPG-related discussion.”

#RPGChat is the brainchild of @d20blonde, known in real life as Liz Bauman who is definitely one of the first twitter accounts you should follow if you’re into RPGs! (And if you want to help her keep making it better, you can support her efforts through Patreon for $5 a month. But it’s free to all to participate, so join in and try it a time or two first).

While it’s possible to join in using the normal twitter interface, there is a specific *free* piece of kit that helps immensely – Tweetchat.

Here’s what Tweetchat does for you: You type in the hashtag that you want to monitor, in this case RPGChat (I don’t actually think it’s case sensitive, and I don’t think you need to include the hash-mark, it does that for you automatically). It then extracts and displays ONLY those tweets that have the hashtag, and automatically inserts the hashtag to everything you type while logged on through Tweetchat.

But for Nic’s purposes, he would probably be better off befriending a dozen or so other GMs on twitter and having more in-depth conversations with them. It’s easy to use twitter as pseudo- chat software, I do it all the time!

A myriad of partial solutions

Most of these options have never completely gone away. Newsgroups are still around for example, but because most ISPs no longer carry them, you have to search for a host, and know how to configure your settings to connect to that host. Also, because most e-mail is now handled on-line through a web interface and not off-line, you may want a piece of specialist software for the purpose.

Similarly, as EnWorld shows, there are still a few RPG-oriented forums out there.

While none of these – for one reason or another – may completely be the answer to your needs, between them, you can connect to a very large community indeed. Between them, there is no reason to ever feel that you are alone as a GM!


I’m going to close this article with a list of specific resources. This list is not complete – I haven’t linked to any of the game publishers’ forums, for example, because these should be easy for anyone to find. These are more about the exotic solutions – though I’m starting with a very mundane one…

Person to person:
  • Go hang out at your local game store, talk to the other customers and to the staff, make friends, then call on them when you need help.
  • Talk to your players, they have a vested interest in the game, and it’s better to have good ideas than to keep secrets.
  • You can get a list of newsgroups dedicated to RPGs from this page at – but it was last updated in 2009. Most newsgroup software will let you search for groups (and will require you to download a full list of the many thousands of newsgroups hosted into the software before you can access one) so I am quite sure there are more.
  • This Wikipedia page lists different newsgroup software that’s currently available; read up on them through Wikipedia’s links until you find one that you like, and go from there.
RPG Forums:

In no particular order:

…and don’t forget about the publisher forums for specific help. If D&D’s your passion, EnWorld is the place to go.

Chat Rooms:

In no particular order:

  • Roleplay Chat
  • Roleplay Social also have a chat room facility.
  • Rolepages
  • Stack Exchange, which also has the benefit of curating (storing) transcripts of each day’s chat. I don’t know how long they keep them for, or whether or not they are searchable for keywords.
Yahoo Groups:
  • Yahoo Groups offers a browsable list by category, or you can search for a keyword. A search for “RPG” produced a list of 19,010 groups (not all of which will still be active, but Yahoo tells you when someone last posted in the group, and you can sort by that or by other criteria like number of members. “Roleplaying Games” gave 1,310 additional results, and “D&D” produced a further 1,918 groups – though there may well be considerable overlap amongst all these. If you have any trouble, do a Google search for “How to use Yahoo Groups” as Yahoo’s help system is an equal blend of frustration and assistance, and always has been.
Google Groups:
  • Once again, the Google Groups options are browse or search, though they aren’t quite as obvious as Yahoo manages to make it. There are 1137 groups with RPG in the title (Yahoo requires descriptions of the groups which are also searched when you enter a keyword). I personally have the impression that Google Groups is a neglected stepchild within the Google structure – and certainly the relative number of groups to Yahoo indicates that this is one battle that the search giant isn’t winning. Nevertheless, the reduction in numbers might mean that there’s less rubbish to wade through before you find what you’re looking for.

I could list a hundred or two Blogs here. I’m not going to do so.

Charles Akins at Dyver’s Campaign puts out an approximately-annual list of active RPG Blogs called The Great Blog Roll Call. I’ve linked to the most recent (2014) version of the list. Here’s an FAQ about it, which includes a statement that he’s aiming for the 2015 version to come out in January.

I couldn’t hope to match his efforts for comprehensiveness – so, so far as I’m concerned, if you’re looking for something specific, load up a copy of the Blog Roll Call and search within the page for any entries containing your keyword.

I note that there’s none that use the terms “beginner” or “novice” or even “newbie”, though. So I’ll list a few specific ones to redress that (in no particular order):

  • Philippe-Antoine Menard, better-known as The Chatty GM, has a series at Critical Hits specifically targeting beginner GMs.
  • Justin Alexander has a group of articles aimed at beginner GMs called “Gamemastery 101” at The Alexandrian, and adds to it. I was going to link to several of the articles, but they are all indexed on this page.
  • Leaving Mundania has a single great post of Advice for first-time GMs that was too good not to link to (even though it’s targeted at LARP GMs, much of the advice is transferable).

Most blogs don’t have anything like Ask-the-GMs, but are happy to answer questions, especially if you pose them on a relevant blog (heck, Ask-the-GMs has been closed for a couple of years now, after it became clear that it was getting too long a list to manage – but I still answer privately if I can). If the post has closed comments, look for a “contact” link. However, it takes time to operate and maintain a blog, so replies may be shorter than you would like.

That said, there are one or two that do nothing but answer questions (which eases my conscience over keeping ATGMs closed for so long, no end). I don’t have any links to specific ones, but I have come across them in Google Search results in the past – though not today, or I’d have mentioned them!

Finally, I can’t go past my old collaborator, Johnn Four and Roleplaying Tips. He’s a very busy guy, so it might take him a few days to reply (though he tries to be faster), but if he can’t answer you to his own satisfaction (or at least point you to a couple of relevant articles in RPT), he’ll pose your question in a future issue – provided that it’s not so esoteric that no-one else would be interested, of course! – on the general principle that if one person wants to know about something of general interest, others will also find the information to be of value. Strictly speaking, RPT is a newsletter, but it’s archived as a website, so it’s close enough for my purposes!

Have I missed something?/Disclaimer

I freely admit that this is not my area of expertise. The resources above were compiled with a series of Google Searches and selecting the results that seemed most relevant, guided by my awareness of the history of personal computer use. That means that I am quite certain that there’s more out there that I haven’t found. Feel free to drop a comment, especially if you know of a blog that focuses on beginners!

Nor do I have personal experience with many of these services and software. If you have a cautionary tale, or want to be the first to champion something that works well, please leave a comment. The goal here is to help others who know less than you do!

About the contributors:

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


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


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


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


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.


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). Amongst the other games he now runs, Mike and Blair currently play in his Star Wars Edge Of The Empire Campaign.

In the next ATGMs: When characters put down roots – handling strongholds and bases

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The very-expected Unexpected Blog Carnival Roundup

rpg blog carnival logo

So the month of November is over, and the Blog Carnival has migrated to James Introcaso’s World Builder Blog. His subject is “Homebrew Holiday Gifts” and there have already been a couple of awesome posts, go check them out!

Last Time

A little short of a year ago, the last time Campaign Mastery hosted, the subject was Twists and in the round-up, I wrote:

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

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

This Time: The Lesson

This time around, the subject was “The Unexpected”, and entries were noticeably down on the usual. As is my way, I devoted some measure of gray matter to the question of why that unexpected result (oh, the irony) might have eventuated, and I’m reporting the results of my musings here as the introduction to the roundup, and because there’s a lesson or two for future hosts.

First, despite my listing a whole heap of articles possible under the heading, none of them seemed to resonate with most of the potential participants. I had forgotten the wise words quoted above, and saw only the excellence of the final result. So that was the first handicap that the carnival topic had to overcome.

Second, I entitled the announcement of the carnival “A Stack Of Surprises” because that was the name of the article that accompanied that announcement. And that seemed to cause confusion – some contributions even thought that was the theme for the month – an uncertainty that failed to crystallize thinking by other bloggers.

Third, that confusion meant that rather than mining a broader category that happened to overlap with the previous one, some people’s thinking will have been narrowed to be even more confined than “With A Twist” – and that in turn meant that their best ideas on the subject had already been written.

In summary: too difficult, too soon, too similar, too confusing, and – consequently – too narrow.

Ultimately, I think my biggest mistake was in trying to make the blog carnival conform to what I already intended to publish – which was the origin of all the other problems encountered. Railroading doesn’t work in games, and it seems that it doesn’t work in blog publishing, either!

Under the circumstances, I should be thankful that anyone found something to say… but despite the difficulty, there were more than just my contributions – all credit to my fellow bloggers!

And so, to the contributions…

Narrative Surprise

  • 6d6rpg: The Cult of the Traitor: Jaye Foster posits the notion that betrayal and treason might be part of a deeper conspiracy, caused by external manipulation. The consequence is that no-one can be guaranteed incorruptibly loyal. No-one. And that can be quite a nasty surprise to the players if it is unexpected!
  • World Builder Blog: Turn the Expected Un: Back in “with a twist”, James Introcaso wrote about building up a big-picture plot twist within a campaign (Twisty Turny), and for this blog James offers up a sequel of sorts to that article (and links to a whole heap of other posts at his blog that can be used to surprise players) containing a series of tips and tricks to yank the rug out from any player who thinks he knows what the GM has in mind.
  • Tales Of A GM: RPG Blog Carnival: Narrative Surprise: This is also a sequel to the article offered for “with a twist”, Reading Around the RPG Blog Carnival: Plot Twist Cards, in which Phil Nicholls reviewed Paizo’s Plot Twist cards, and how he intended to use them. In this carnival’s article, he contrasts what was (at the time) just theory with the actual results and impact that his game has experienced. If the GM doesn’t know what’s going to happen, how can the players possibly expect it?

Surprise Mechanics

  • Campaign Mastery: A Stack Of Surprises not only announced the Blog Carnival, it addressed a very technical and tricky question – should surprise bonuses stack? I started by looking at what happens in the real world and made some very interesting discoveries…


  • Campaign Mastery: The Unexpected Neighbor: Portals to Celestial Morphology 1/4: My major contribution to the blog carnival was taking a deep look at Portals, Gates, Rifts, and Teleports and how they could have radical effects on campaigns. In addition to each part offering 5 ideas for using these planar transportation links, each part opened with a mind-bending implication and a set of variables that GMs and players often take for granted. The theme for part one was ‘Unexpected Neighbors’ and consisted of:

    • Using portals to effectively reshape the cosmological topology;
    • Detailed discussion of the parameters that define Portals etc;
    • Ideas #1-4: Temporally-unstable Portals
      • Idea #1: Connecting to the Future
      • Idea #2: Connecting to the Past
      • Idea #3: Anarchic Time Connections (Closed Window)
      • Idea #4: Anarchic Time Connections (Wide-open)
    • Idea #5: The Neighbor Of My Neighbor (is closer than you think)
  • Campaign Mastery: Destination Incognita: Portals to Celestial Morphology Pt 2/4: The theme for part two was “unexpected destinations” and offered:
    • The capacity of portals to undermine any form of defense;
    • Idea #6: The World Is My Nexus (with alternative interpretations)
      • The “Stargate” Fantasy Campaign Premise
      • The Four Worlds Campaign Premise
    • Idea #7: Destinationally-unstable Portals
    • Idea #8: For Every Portal, There Is An Equal And Opposite Portal Opened
    • Idea #9: For Every Portal, There Is Another That Connects Two Random Planes At Random Points
    • Idea #10: The Wound In Reality
      • Bonus: An example of how I research game ideas
  • Campaign Mastery: The Shape Of Strange: Portals to Celestial Morphology Pt 3 of 4: Part three started to get into some of the stranger possibilities:
    • Using portals to effectively reshape the topology of the game world by connecting high with low;
    • Idea #11: Portals to the Afterlife
    • Idea #12: Transfigurations by Portals
    • Idea #13: Socio-Ethical Morphology (i.e. Alternate History) through Portal Networks
    • Idea #14: Portals can only connect to Variant planar topologies (i.e. Alternate Cosmologies)
    • Idea #15: Variable-Difficulty Portals
  • Campaign Mastery: Feel The Burn: Portals to Celestial Morphology Pt 4 of 4: The final part of the series dealt with Energy and Portals.
    • Explosive release of the energy holding a portal together;
    • Portals as Magical-energy vampires;
    • Idea #16: Gaining Energy In Transit
      • Balanced Energy Flows
      • Unbalanced Energy Flows
      • Light
      • Sound
      • Heat
      • Kinetic Energy
      • Potential Energy (Gravity?)
      • Disintegration
      • Electrical
      • Chemical
        • Combustion
        • Pressures
        • Polymerization
        • Enzymes
        • Potions
        • Potion Miscibility/The Human Body
      • Cold
      • Magical ‘Energy’
      • Spiritual ‘Energy’
      • Negative Energy
        • Bonus: House Rules for making Negative Energy losses harder to overcome
      • Life (Positive) Energy
    • Idea #17: Losing Energy In Transit
    • Idea #18: It’s Electrifying: Portals are a Planar battery
    • Ideas #19 & 20: Bad Is Good
      • Idea #19: Global
      • Idea #20: Local

Void Jump Shock

  • Arcane Game Lore: Void Travel Sickness – November RPG Blog Carnival: Tom Stephens didn’t originally intend this article to be part of the Blog Carnival even though he was inspired by my series on Portals (above), but from the start I felt that there was enough flexibility in the Carnival Theme for it to qualify. Although I think he was initially taken aback by that, once he got on board, Tom grabbed the ball and ran with it, even editing his original article to better fit.
  • Campaign Mastery: Blog Carnival: The Unexpected Reality: While I was approving the resulting pingback, I was musing about the relationship between the carnival theme and his article, and wrote this article about using the rules as a plot delivery system and using the plot as a rules delivery system, which absolutely justifies his article as part of the carnival.
  • Arcane Game Lore: Your Final Destination – Exiting a Void Jump – November Blog Carnival – part 2: The combination of his first article being included in the Carnival (which kept the subject at the front of his mind) and the second part of my portals series led Tom to follow up his first article on Void Jump Sickness/Shock with this article discussing the limits of unpredictability and Navigation in his Interstellar Jumps.
  • Arcane Game Lore: Designing Out Loud – Void Jumping: Finally, Tom rounds out his discussion of Void Travel with some more specifics and limitations on the process that ties the whole together. This article sneaks into the carnival at the last minute, because he was delayed in publishing it through end-of-semester projects. Day jobs get in the way for everyone from time-to-time, so I didn’t hold that against him :)

Wrapping Up

And so, the November Blog Carnival comes to a formal close. Some great articles, covering a wealth of genres from fantasy to sci-fi to superheroes, with a few side excursions possible along the way into places like the Cthulhu Mythos, and some definite lessons in not getting too creative – and not getting too locked-in – in your hosting duties along the way. Campaign Mastery is next scheduled to host the same time next year, so I’ll see you all then if not before!

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Sequential Bus Theory and why it matters to GMs

I’m writing this article on the day that the idea occurred to me, but I’ve held it back until an opportune gap appeared in the publishing schedule.

Bus image by Michael Zacharzewski via

Image provided by / Michael Zacharzewski

I was waiting for the bus today (well, on the day that I wrote this), and that got me to thinking. More on that a little later.

If you live anywhere near the end of a long bus route, you will probably be familiar with the fact that they are almost never on time. If you ever have occasion to venture into the heart of a city with multiple public bus routes, you will also have seen the phenomenon of one bus following a number along the exact same numbered route. Both of these are aspects of Sequential Bus Theory.

Somewhere about 10-15 years ago, there was an interesting article in Discover magazine, which at the time I bought religiously every month – at least until rising prices and cost of living put it out of my reach and the habit was broken, but that’s another story. This article reported on the analysis of a math or physics professor (I forget which) who was waiting for the bus, and filled the time by analyzing the maths of what happens when you have two buses traveling along the same route.

I found the fact that there was math to explain the observed phenomenon mildly interesting, but what struck me more than anything else was the editorial surprise that seemed to be evinced by the professor’s findings. After all, it seemed to me, simple logic and some rather obvious assumptions made the results inevitable.

The Logic Of Bus Schedules

If you were a bus scheduler, how would you determine when the bus was supposed to arrive? You would assume an average speed of travel that would be a function of the speed limit and the number of times the bus had to stop and start. You would factor in the average waiting time at each red light along the way, and you would allow a bit of a fudge factor for variables. In order to allow for the number of times the bus had to slow, stop, and start again at bus stops, you would determine the average passenger numbers and average length of trip. You would then apply a statistical analysis that would tell you that some points along the way – where the bus route intersected shopping centers and railway stations, for example – would be cluster points where a great many of the passengers who had accumulated en route got off, and more passengers than usual got on, only to disperse, a few at a time, at subsequent stops.

Taking all this into account, you would prognosticate how long it should take the bus to reach each stop along the way, and publish your schedule accordingly.

And it would never be right.

The reality of Bus Schedules

Statistically, for any given bus route, there would be a specific average number of passengers getting on and off, which has to equal the same thing if the whole route is considered (because at the final stop, everyone has to get off the bus). Now, consider the effect of just a single passenger more or less using that bus at a handful of stops. Each such additional passenger takes time to get on, and time to get off, and increases the likelihood that a bus will have to stop at all at any given bus stop. The inevitable result is that each extra passenger delays the bus just a little bit, and that accumulates over the entire trip.

It doesn’t have to be an extra passenger. It might be getting a run of red lights – it happens – or having to wait for an extra vehicle to make a turn at a busy intersection, or any of a dozen other things.

Time, once it has gone, is inordinately hard to make up. At first, the “fudge factor” would mask the deficit in arrival time; but over the years, bus schedulers, mindful of an ever-less-tolerant customer base, would eat away at that fudge factor and demand greater accuracy in the timetables. Every effort to impose such greater accuracy would cut the fudge factor, and – in theory – make the timetable more precise – without achieving much success in practice.

The Exponential Timetable Catastrophe

But that’s not all. Passengers are not this static thing that simply exist at bus stops until the bus arrives; they are a dynamic phenomenon, always arriving from somewhere. If there is an average number per stop, that is simply the product of the average rate at which they reach the bus stop multiplied by the interval since the last bus. So, if a bus is delayed by anything, there will be more time for passengers to reach a bus stop, ensuring that the bus will be further delayed, which in turn enables still more passengers to get to the stop and be waiting for the bus.

And there are so many factors that could cause that initial delay that the result seems inevitable – the bus will always be late by the time it gets close to the end of its scheduled route.

Flawed Compensation and Good Luck

If you were a clever scheduler, you might assume that there will be some sort of delay somewhere in the journey, and have it set off a little earlier than the strict law of averages dictates. Even without this, inevitably, some buses will encounter a good trip instead of a bad one – a few passengers running late who miss the bus, a run of green lights, traffic that conveniently gets out of the way. Each such event would make the bus run that little bit ahead of schedule, allowing fewer passengers to arrive at the stop in time to catch it, requiring fewer stops, and once again we have an exponential effect in the other direction.

Again, the result seems inevitable; taking into account our earlier finding, the bus will always be either early or late at any given stop, and only the amount will vary.

Sequential Buses

Let’s expand our simple universe to describe two buses running along the same route. The first bus to arrive at a stop picks up the passengers who are waiting, obviously. So, if the first bus is late, what happens to the second bus?

Well, the bus that was late picks up passengers who (theoretically, according to the timetable) should have had to wait for the next one to arrive. That makes it progressively later and later. Meanwhile, the second bus, who departed some time interval after the first, finds fewer passengers to pick up, simple because those passengers are now riding on the first bus – so it gets progressively more and more ahead of time.

Inevitably, either the second bus stops for an extra period of time somewhere to get back on schedule (irritating the passengers on board, who just want to get to their destination ASAP), or it catches up to the first bus. The next time that first bus stops and the second bus has no-one wanting to alight at the stop, it will overtake the first bus, becoming the first bus in line. But that simply means that at the next stop, where more people than usual are waiting for the bus because it is late, the new first bus will stop for them to get on board – and (unless someone wants to alight), the second bus will cruise back past it. The buses will begin playing hopscotch, passing each other time and time again, until they reach their destinations.

What if the first bus in line is the one that gets all the good luck? Well, that means that it will be early, and continue to get earlier, and so close in on the bus that left before it, while the second bus will find more passengers waiting than average, will be delayed, and will grow progressively and exponentially later, falling back toward the bus scheduled to depart after it. Same result, in other words.

The Law of Averages

It’s usually fairly unusual for everything to go one way or the other, and that’s the saving grace for our bus scheduler, who would otherwise be at his wits’ end about now. It’s like tossing a coin a great many times in succession – every outcome has an equal probability of occurring, whether it be HHHHH or TTTTT or HTHHT – but there are so many more outcomes of “mixed” heads and tails in any order that the extreme outcomes (all heads or all tails) are unlikely. The longer the run of coin tosses, the more unlikely it becomes.

In terms of our buses, the longer the route, the more chance there is for something to either speed or delay the bus, but the less likely it is to be consistently one thing or the other. There is a certain level of resilience to the timetable as a result, that wants to push the bus closer to being ‘on time’. However, past a certain threshold, this effect will be overcome by the exponential nature of either delay or advance, and the longer the route, the greater the chance that at some point, that will occur.

The Length Of Route Criticality

So the shorter the bus route, the more accurate the timetable will be. Obvious, right? But shorter bus routes are inefficient, because there is a turnaround time and a period of inactivity at the end of each run, while the driver waits for the next scheduled departure time. Cost-effectiveness promotes longer bus routes, minimizing this dead-time in proportion to the period of time in which the bus is performing its function of conveying passengers.

Governments in democracies hate wasting money; it makes them too easy a target for the opposition. It tends to lose you government. That’s one reason why promising to make the buses run on time is always a popular election platform; not only does it target ‘government waste’ and imply reduced demand for taxation (leaving more money in the governments’ pocket for other services, or more in the pockets of taxpayers, or some combination of both), but it implies a promise of making life more convenient. It’s all gravy, in other words, so long as you actually deliver.

The length of route is critical to efficiency of operation and accuracy of timetables, but in opposite directions. That means that somewhere in the middle, there is going to be an optimum point of balance between both – and that shifting the priority this way or that just a little bit makes it easy to appear to achieve such a promise.

It seems obvious to me – others might disagree – that the optimum balance is that balance of frequency of service and route length (usually another compromise) at which the degree of inaccuracy becomes sufficient to achieve “hopscotching” given an above-average level of delay or worse, i.e. when there is a 50-50 likelihood of achieving catastrophic inaccuracy on any given trip sufficient to overcome that “stable threshold”. And that means that for any given specific bus, there’s roughly a 50% chance that it will be early, and a 50% chance that it will be late, and that at regular intervals, enough metaphoric coin tosses will have been made for one bus to get too many heads or tails in a row and you will get hopscotching.

You always tend to see hopscotching more often in the city centers simply because they are, by definition, a hub for public transport – there are more chances that you will happen to see the phenomenon there, simply because more bus routes come together there.

What has this got to do with Gaming?

Excellent question. Gaming is full of discrete events that accumulate towards specific targets. The expected length of combat (based on how many hits you think the PCs will achieve what damage they will do relative to a HP target) or the accumulation of XP, for example.

If you think of each XP handout as the delay caused by passengers getting on or off a bus, the inaccuracy of the timetable at the end of each route is analogous to the achievement of any specific total – like the XP needed to gain a level. What’s more, gaining enough XP to gain a level earlier than expected can force the GM to increase the level of threat required to challenge the party, which only increases subsequent XP awards – so this, too, is an exponential relationship.

Unfortunately, there is no analogous threshold caused by the law of averages, because the inputs – the parameters that define the amount of XP earned – are not random, and hence not governed by the law of averages. Instead, they are functions of character levels, and part of the problem.

That’s why many campaigns seem to spin out of control, especially at higher levels (analogous to longer bus routes).

Matters aren’t helped by the opposite phenomenon; if characters are advancing too slowly, GMs have a need to compensate in order to maintain player satisfaction. It’s almost impossible to get the scale of such compensation right; instead, they keep compensating until they achieve an inadvertent exponential boom.

Some GMs then try to compensate in the other direction by throwing wildly dangerous encounters at the characters – and that’s how Monty Haul syndrome starts. Over-the-top encounters and wildly improbably rewards which fuel the need for even more over-the-top encounters, earning still vaster rewards. Every Monty Hail campaign could, if analyzed sufficiently closely, be traced back to a single instance of throwing too harsh an encounter at the characters (and compensating with extra rewards) or giving too large an award away in a single encounter that put someone over the top.

Solving the problem

So, we need some law-of-averages method of solving the problem. It was while waiting for the bus today that I thought of one (told you I’d get back to that). It means turning some of my accepted practices and advice on its head, and reinventing the way I handle one specific aspect of my campaigns in future.

The mechanism that I’ve come up with is the wandering monster.

Not just any wandering monster, mind; and that’s where the break with past practice (and recommendations) comes into play.

You see, I used to roll completely randomly for wandering monsters; at best, these were based on an ecological pattern, as described in the Creating ecology-based random encounters series, and Random Encounter Tables – my old-school way. Within the assigned parameters of what could be there, it was whatever the dice came up with, and it could be anything from too easy to too hard to just right in terms of encounter difficulty.

Well, that’s just not going to cut it anymore. That way lies inherent Monty Haul or sudden death, either directly or as a result of compensating for a weak encounter that wasn’t worth the playing time.

Instead, what’s needed is a probability table that determines the difficulty of the encounter relative not to how powerful the characters are at the time, but how powerful they should be.

Let’s say that things are measured in relative EL based on character levels. What’s needed is a random roll that defines and constrains the level of drift away from that average, giving an actual encounter EL, and to set up encounter tables with entries that correspond to the range of ELs that might transpire – a small subset of the whole, a part of the ecology. Everything else becomes something that you describe in narrative (no xp) as inconsequential or something that dismisses the PCs as inconsequential (no xp) because they aren’t a big enough threat. “The spiders flee as you approach.” “The Dragon passing overhead fixes you with a baleful glare before effortlessly ascending to 10,000 feet and proceeding on its’ way”.

Ideally, this should run along the lines of 1:2:4:2:1 or 1:2:4:8:4:2:1, i.e. the greatest probability should center on the average, and the maximum deviation from that should be whatever is considered tolerable. Personally, I think that ±3 is too great a spread, so I would recommend the first of those. The total result is 10, so 2d6 would work well:

2 3-4 5-10 10-11 12
Target EL -2 Target EL -1 Target EL Target EL +1 Target EL +2

Or, you could decide that you want to bias the results even more strongly toward the average by using 3d6 (and the familiar bell-curve):

3 4-6 7-14 15-17 18
Target EL -2 Target EL -1 Target EL Target EL +1 Target EL +2


3 4-7 8-13 14-17 18
Target EL -2 Target EL -1 Target EL Target EL +1 Target EL +2

which gives a more diffuse result about the center while still keeping the extremes quite unlikely and giving greater weight to the average.

Of course, none of this will work if it’s in addition to the rewards-for-achievement built into the adventure; that’s just a free pass at achieving Monty-Haulism. No, the assumption has to be made and built into the adventure that there will be N random encounters worth an average of X experience points, and that expectation has to be incorporated into the estimates of what EL the characters should represent, and should therefore encounter.

The greater the proportion of XP that is awarded in this fashion, the stronger the “Law Of Averages” effect – and the more latitude you have to make the major villain a little nastier if it looks like it will be too easy to be satisfying.

This works as a leavening agent because if the PCs are short of where they should be, they will earn more XP from the random encounter; and if they are ahead, they will earn less.

Why have a random adjustment at all?

Another excellent question, the “virtual reader” inside my head and to whom I write is firing on all cylinders today! If there is no variation, players will quickly work out that every encounter is pitched to some set target; they will rule out being surprised by a foe who is stronger than they expect, and will become more aggressive accordingly. A range of 5 ELs can make a major difference.

Further encouraging diversity of result

I would even go further and say that a subsequent encounter (determined on a d3 roll) should receive the opposite modifier to the one determined randomly, just to ensure that the sustained random rolls can’t bias to one extreme consistently over several rolls. This preserves the random variation while playing toward the average overall result.

This system may not completely eliminate the problem of exponential growth or shortfalls in XP totals, but it will impose a buffer similar to that experienced by the “bus” example.

Other applications

As implied when I first began discussing the relevance of sequential bus theory to RPGs, these are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Here are three other examples to consider:


Where is it written that loot should always be commensurate with the threat? So long as it averages out correctly, why shouldn’t some encounters yield more than expected and some less? Why not use a second roll on the same table (any of the three offered above) to determine the treasure yield? In fact, why not deliberately under-pay on the random encounters so that you have margin to be more generous on the important ones?

Magic Items

As I was thinking of the above, another thought came to me – a whole new approach to determining what magic items would be handed out in treasures.

Instead of specifying that a given encounter yields X items, why not set magic as a set percentage of the overall reward and hold off handing anything over until the accumulated amount in a player’s pool equals the value of the item you want to give them? That means that there will be less random junk handed out – with its potentially game-unbalancing escalation in PC capabilities – and more deliberate placement. You can even ask the player to define what magical goodie they would like next – and how long it takes for it to show up depends on its value. You could even state that treasure above a certain value per item gets added to the booty of the final encounter, even if it was earned in an earlier encounter.

Once again, that means that the booty handed out conforms not to the success achieved by the characters, but on the success they should have achieved – derailing the Monty Haul train for good.

Getting back to Combat

You could think of the damage inflicted by a blow as the number of passengers boarding a bus, the expected number of blows of average result needed to defeat a foe as the number of stops, and the total damage that has to be inflicted as the travel time. This actually runs in reverse to the bus analogy (more gets you there sooner, not slower), but that’s OK – the principles stand.

There are all sorts of biases to combat outcomes that are built into the D&D/Pathfinder game systems, and they can interact in a number of ways. Players recognize this and try to maximize the compounding and cascading effects in an intelligent manner in character creation and evolution through experience levels. Min-Maxers take this intelligent manner to an extreme that is only barely within the spirit of the rules. The GM, on the other hand, has very limited capability in terms of response; there aren’t many mechanisms that alter the number of hit points that a creature has, and most methods of altering the rate at which damage is inflicted will simply fall into the hands of the PCs after a successful combat. Instead, they often fall back on trying to match the PCs at their own game, enhancing attacking capabilities through the combination of feats, stats, and equipment/abilities – but many of those, too, will end up in PC hands at the end of the day.

Consequence & Solutions

The result is that characters are often far more effective at dishing out damage per hit die of character than their enemies are at doing so per EL. While solving the experience and treasure traps will mitigate this somewhat, the potential still exists for confluences of combat-effectiveness-enhancements.

What is needed to finish the job is some mechanism for ensuring that the averages are respected, despite enhancements. This removes much of the cause of what is often described as “game imbalance” by trending the effect of results toward the average.

Now, it’s not fair for a good character design to be penalized to the extent of the player getting no reward for his efforts in design, so what is also needed is a mechanism by which they can be rewarded for combat effectiveness without cutting short the battle. I’ve run encounters in which one character of exceptional prowess took down the encounter before any of the other characters could act, or needed to act; the optimization of design was such that they weren’t even on the same planet in terms of effectiveness. I’ve also seen the same thing done with mages – a fireball spell wiping out the enemy before anyone else even got to act.

One Answer and its flaws

I’ve also known at least one GM who solved the latter problem by deciding that additional dice of arcane attacks did not stack, but simply added +1 to the degree of difficulty of the saving throw, and thereafter added +1 to the damage inflicted by a single dice. So a 12d6 fireball did 1d6 points of damage, plus -11 to the save; if the character failed the save, the amount by which he failed, up to that full 11, was then added to the damage. So the most a 12-dice fireball could do to a single character was 17 points. This tracked reasonably well with what a fighter of equivalent level could achieve with a typical weapon and appropriate enhancements from magic and feats, so on the whole it worked reasonably well; and that, I think, masks the fundamental flaw with the approach, which is that it penalized characters for intelligent design.

A better solution

I have an alternative: above the average expected damage per blow, damage accumulates in a pool. It is then translated according to the size of the HD of the target into a number of “full dice equivalence”, which is then applied as a negative to the damage-above-average that they can apply. That means that additional combat capability ultimately translates not into a quicker kill, but into greater control on the battlefield. Or perhaps it could be applied, at least in part, into ensuring that the target’s defenses were weakened for the attacker’s next round of attacks, letting them “get on a roll”.

A caveat

Changing something as central as the combat resolution system is not something that can, or should, be done lightly. I’m certainly not going to be rushing out to implement this change in any of my campaigns; it requires a lot of thought and more than a little simulation and number-crunching before I’d do that. Nor am I, therefore, advocating it to anyone else out there – simply putting it forward as food for thought.

The accumulation of small bites

In conclusion, then, anything that accumulates towards a threshold or target of any sort in a game can be viewed with fresh eyes through the lessons of Sequential Bus Theory. Phenomena that can be easily identified but not easily analyzed become more clearly understood, and therefore more controllable by the GM. That takes some of the anarchy out of a game, leaving the GM with more room to reward appropriately when merited, and giving players more control over the future fortunes and development of their characters.

Greater control over those aspects of the game that have an inherent trend to go out of control is always a good thing, so that’s food for thought indeed.

And that’s what I thought about while waiting for my bus to arrive. It was late…

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Feel The Burn: Portals to Celestial Morphology Pt 4 of 4

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Welcome to the final part of Campaign Mastery’s major contribution to the November 2015 Blog Carnival. The theme this time around is the Unexpected, and this series is all about taking something that is usually assumed to be basic and reliable – portals and gates – and throwing some unexpected surprises into the mix…

To recap: Most GMs (and certainly, most players) assume that a portal is nothing more than an express train running from point A to point B in the celestial firmament, a shortcut across planar boundaries that connects two points in localized space that might otherwise be barely in the same cosmos. So convenient do portals make transit from one plane to another that the portal connection is seriously the defining attribute of the the two planes, assuming it is at least semi-permanent. They inherently rearrange the cosmology of existence to suit whoever’s doing the casting – and can do so in different ways at something close to a moment’s notice, if you know how to make them!

That notion got me thinking about all the nasty surprises that GMs can pull using portals. This series of four articles is the result.

It’s not unreasonable to think that it takes a lot of power to create a portal, energy that is locked up inside the connection. Breaking the portal could then release that energy – explosively.

Consider the possibilities. Tiny micro-portals as a means of arcane-based combustion in a simple reciprocating engine? Bigger portals as anti-ship weapons? Still larger portals as a means of threatening an entire city with mutually assured destruction – your wasteland, their prime real estate, both will go up in one release of acrid smoke. And the only thing that can be done about it is to trigger the mayhem – or live with the knife at your throat, knowing that an invading army is just twenty paces away!

Under such circumstances, you can’t not belly up to the negotiating table and bargain as thought your life depended on it. But that puts whichever party is the least stable in the driver’s seat! Which will cave first: your principles, or your certainty of continued existence?

But the fun doesn’t stop there! All that energy has to come from somewhere; whoever created it may have planted the initial “seed” but something has maintained the portal since then. Let’s assume it to be ambient magical energy. Now contemplate what happens when a party, well-equipped with magical items, chooses to go through the portal, perhaps in an attempt to get their homes out from under this sword of Damocles. Isn’t it reasonable that a Portal would simply seize upon the most accessible power supply? Instead of weak, diffuse, ambient magical energy, there’s all this concentrated power in the form of magic items that have just entered it’s maw….

There are two or three choices that the GM has available. First, he can permanently strip magic items passing through a portal of all magic. That’s a great way of ‘resetting the clock’ after giving out too much of the good stuff, a mistake that we all make from time to time. Or maybe there’s a priority order in which only the most powerful three items get permanently drained. And the third option is to have anything that isn’t permanently drained temporarily stripped of its power, to gradually restore over a period of hours, days, weeks, or months.

Personally, I think that stripping everything is going too far, and so is a regeneration period in months. But anything less is fair game – and means that PCs will arrive with lower-than-usual cover fire into a situation that is (usually) more dangerous than those they ordinarily face. The first time they encounter this (especially if they don’t have any forewarning) it will be a very unpleasant shock; every subsequent occasion will be cause for angst and “there has to be another way, any other choice would be preferable”.

Not only does this notion help protect the campaign against excessively powerful goodies and other potential campaign-wrecking mistakes, not only does it up the stakes of high-level adventuring (while providing a mechanism which eventually confers an advantage to the PCs, making it likely that they will overcome the obstacles in the long run), but it prevents abuse of Gates and Teleports themselves. A win all round – though the players may not see it that way…

And, now that you’ve absorbed that little blow to the gut, let’s make some more PC jaws drop…


There are a couple of key parameters that readers should bear in mind through the fun and games that follow. I’ve listed six, but there may be others that haven’t come to mind.

Portals and gates can be Mono-directional, Bi-directional, or Unidirectional.

  • Mono-directional: Objects can only pass from one specific end of the portal or gate to the other end, and not vice-versa.
  • Bi-directional: Objects can pass from either end to the other, but travel can only be in one direction at a time. Attempts to travel in the other direction when something is already in transit can be blocked or can result in a collision of some kind.
  • Unidirectional: Objects can pass from either end to the other at the same time.

What’s the behavior of the portal over time?

  • Temporary: Portal lasts for a finite amount of time, and then it’s gone, or changes.
  • Enduring: Portal appears permanent and stable – and then isn’t.
  • Recurring, Reliable: Portal appears on a predictable basis. More complex versions may follow a pattern.
  • Recurring, Anarchic: The portal is in existence at unpredictable times for unpredictable durations. It may be consistent in other parameters, or unpredictable, or cyclic.
  • Permanent: Portals connect A to B permanently until disrupted or destroyed. Other parameters may change randomly or according to some pattern.

While the values for this parameter described below suggest consistency, that’s not necessarily the case.

  • Small: One person at a time can pass through the portal. Others may have to wait to enter until that traveler arrives, or they may be able to follow like links of sausages. That first variation also introduces the variable of travel time.
  • Medium: A small group of up to four or five can pass through the portal together. Anyone more has to wait. Travel time is significant.
  • Large: A wagon or large group can pass through the portal together in squads or units, up to fifty or so people at a time. More have to wait.
  • Immense: An army, or a fully-crewed ship, can pass through the portal at the same time. Travel time can be tactically significant.

This parameter can be independently assessed for each end of the portal.

  • Stable: The location of the portal entrance/exit is fixed in geographic location relative to something.
  • Proximate: The location is defined within a locus of probability surrounding some surface feature; the exact location at any given time within that locus may differ either predictably or randomly.
  • Defined: The portal is in one of a set number of locations, usually but not necessarily in close proximity, and is prone to change from one to another periodically or randomly, or perhaps after each use.
  • Wandering: The portal moves, either randomly or in a predictable manner, and is not bound to any particular geographic locus. Unless it recurs with great rapidity or doesn’t move very far at a time, this can confuse people as to whether or not it is the same portal each time.

Why should everything always leave a portal in the same condition as it left? Effects can be physical, or mental, or spiritual; and temporary or permanent. There may or may not be ways of shielding against, or mitigating, the effects. There may be patterns to the disruptive effects. A fixed degree of disruption vs. a percentage disruption can also be very significant.

  • Safe: Portal travel inflicts little or no damage.
  • Demanding: Portal travel inflicts minor damage that can be managed but may require planned recovery protocols. Mitigating capabilities begin to become significant.
  • Difficult: Portal travel causes temporary near-incapacitation, or more significant long-term damage. Mitigating capabilities are very significant.
  • Dangerous: The effects of Portal travel are temporarily incapacitating or debilitating for a significant period. Portals are only safe to use when the destination is protected by friendly forces.

There should be some way of disrupting or destroying a portal, though it may be dangerous. What happens then? Will a/the portal reform of it’s own accord, or must a new one be intentionally created? And will it connect with the old destination, or go somewhere new, or something in between?

  • Precise: The same origin point leads to the same destination point.
  • Self-Locking: The same origin point leads somewhere close to the old destination point and will eventually lock back onto the old departure point.
  • Resistant: The old destination point resists the formation of a new portal connection. This resistance may be overcome in some manner.
  • Vague: A new portal from the same origin may be directable to some point near where the old one was, but the exact same destination is unreachable.
  • Unpredictable: A new portal from the same origin will connect with another point completely at random, uncontrollably, within the destination plane of existence, perhaps restricted to a significant region.

I’ll be repeating the essential contents of this panel at the head of each of the articles. For full discussion of these parameters and their possible effects, refer to

part 1

of the series. Keep these parameters and variables in mind because I’m liable to switch gears between them without notice!

Ruined Arches 2 by Harris Frame by C.

Image based on ‘Ruined Arches 2’
by Harris
Click on the image to view a large version (749 x 1024)
Click here to see Ruth’s original (708 x 1024)
Frame Image by C.

Idea #16 – Gaining Energy In Transit

You can think of the concept of energy differentials as forcing the Portal/Gate system to comply with the laws of Thermodynamics, or the conservation laws in general. Or you can get less technical about it all, and simply have fun with the idea while implying that you are tipping your hat in that direction. Either way, this idea, and the converse that follows, serves to enhance and increase the verisimilitude of the campaign, which naturally takes a small hit every time you bring in something “fantastic”. It implies that there are rules and game physics in place – and so long as those remain consistently applied but unexplored, that’s a real asset for a campaign.

Inconsistent application undoes all that goodness, and should be avoided on general principle, but the real prize – and danger – is that the players will want to understand those game physics and utilize them to their benefit.

The net result of this is a subgenre of Fantasy that I’ve rarely seen, and which I call “Hard” Fantasy, in the same way that there is a subgenre of Science Fiction called “Hard” Sci-Fi. If that’s where you want your campaign to go, and are comfortable doing so, that’s fine – but if neither of those things are true, a little more anarchy in the system might be a preferable choice.

That’s what’s achieved by a limited, willful, inconsistency that is randomly driven, as opposed to the more scientific hard “natural” laws that consistency mandates. This takes you back into the realm of implying that there are natural laws at work, but that there are unknown and unidentified factors that prevent formulating any rational description of those laws – in other words, we’re back to tipping the hat in the direction of verisimilitude, but not actually walking down that path.

I suspect that most GMs will be more comfortable adopting this approach, though there will be exceptions (NEVER try to GM a bunch of Engineering and Science professors unless you’re adequately prepared for the experience! And Lawyers, don’t forget to be wart of them, too…)

Ahem. Getting back on point, so you’ve decided that it might be fun to think about the possibility of Gaining Energy In Transit. Right away, there are two possibilities: Balanced and Unbalanced energy gains. After that, we get to think about the different types of energy to be gained (warning: some of these ideas take ‘game physics’ and smash it in the face with a two-by-four)!


‘Balance’ implies that sometimes you get a snake and sometimes a ladder. This can be on a transit-by-transit basis (no consistency whatsoever), a Portal-by-Portal basis (this portal consistently causes travelers to gain energy, that one to consistently lose energy), a Tit-for-Tat basis (this time, you gain energy, next time you lose it), Directional (you always gain energy going this way, but lose energy going the other), or something more sophisticated relating to relative destination and the game cosmology.

Whichever option you choose, the bottom line is this: gains and losses always balance out (after taking into account any energy utilized by the Portal/Gate/Teleport/Rift itself.

Combining with all these options are the other possibilities already suggested – consistency vs randomness (one applies more naturally to some of these than others, and vice-versa), the concept of thresholds before any effect is felt, which may or may not be in play, and the concept of restricted maximum effects (useful in terms of keeping the game playable but not necessary). Nor do you have to be consistent across all forms of interdimensional transit – this is a great opportunity to infuse some distinction between Portals, Gates, Teleports, and Rifts.


The converse is unbalanced. From a physics point of view, this means that the transit itself doesn’t take place within a closed system – the external “reality” can have an impact on travelers, and vice-versa. A portal draining energy from the Positive Energy Plane either sucks Positive Energy from travelers (an energy loss, dealt with in the next major section) or suffuses the “transit environment” with Positive Energy that travelers are exposed to as a result. Inefficiencies and leakages and the imperfection of human creations all lend themselves to the latter notion.

With any of these possibilities, one thought that the GM will have to confront is what effect passage of air/water from one side of the Portal to the other will have when the energy gain (or loss) is taken into account. That’s why the concept of “thresholds” appeals to my evil-GM side – it eliminates one source of warning for PCs of what is about to happen to them!

There are many variations on the “unbalanced” option, because “unbalanced” does not imply “inconsistent”. If every gate or portal results in an energy gain or loss, that’s not balanced – but it is consistent. Rolling randomly for the amount and direction of energy flow is inconsistent (sometimes a loss, sometimes a gain), and may be unbalanced if there is a bias one way or the other. Perhaps the potential for gain or loss increases with length of passage, or frequency of passage within a time interval? There are lots of ways to play with the ‘reality’ that you are offering.

Not the least of which is the type of energy that we’re dealing with…


Probably the safest and tamest option is Light. Anytime someone exits a gate, or maybe on entry, or both, there’s a blinding flash of light visible for miles around. And maybe for the next hour or whatever, the travelers glow like candles. Kind of makes stealth and surprise difficult to achieve – but that can be a good thing for the GM.

I’m not going to get into the different spectra of light, I’m assuming that what is meant here is “visible” light.


Almost as obvious and relatively safe is sound – ignoring burst eardrums and deafness. Again, it’s an attention-getter. Instead of a glow, temporary deafness might result.


Probably the most obvious one is that things go up in temperature. This can be a very dangerous choice; humans have a very limited tolerance for increased internal temperatures, as is shown by the effects of rising fevers. There’s no agreement as to the upper limit for ‘normal’ internal temperatures, with sources ranging between values of 37.5 and 38.3 °C (99.5 and 100.9 °F).

38 °C (100.4 °F)

This is classed as hyperthermia if not caused by a fever. Effects: Feeling hot, sweating, feeling thirsty, feeling very uncomfortable, slightly hungry. Chills are not normally experienced unless this is caused by fever.

One of the first effects to be noticed is the body attempting to regulate it’s internal temperature with sweating. Humidity is a huge factor, because in high humidity, the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature is compromised. If you have high temperatures and humidity, a person will be sweating but the sweat won’t be drying on the skin, and that’s the mechanism by which sweat provides cooling.

39 °C (102.2 °F)

Severe sweating, flushed and red appearance. Fast heart rate and breathlessness. There may be exhaustion accompanying this. Children and people with epilepsy are thought very likely to experience convulsions.

An increase in body temperature increases heart rate; the vessels near the skin dilate (get bigger) to release heat. This reduces blood pressure, so the heart must beat faster to compensate, and ensure blood still goes to the vital organs. So your heart would start to race. This demands more oxygen, so breaths tend to grow shorter and shallower until we start to pant. Heat rash and muscle cramps are early signs of being overwhelmed by heat.

Heat exhaustion is a relatively common reaction to severe environmental heat and seems likely to occur with increased internal temperature and exertion – the degree/duration of exertion declining with greater temperature. It causes symptoms such as dizziness, headache and fainting. It can usually be treated with rest, a cool environment and hydration (including refueling of electrolytes, which are necessary for muscle and other body functions).

40 °C (104.0 °F)

Fainting, dehydration, weakness, vomiting, headache and dizziness may occur as well as profuse sweating. Starts to be life-threatening.

Studies have shown that up to this point, there is no effect on the ability to reason or on memory, at least in low levels, but that there was a 10-11% slowing in the rate at which these tasks can be performed. There was also a significant decrease in alertness and an increase in irritability. Elevating core body temperature has been shown to reduce force generation during “prolonged maximal voluntary contractions” – so strength and load-bearing capacity are reduced, as is the ability to sprint or run long distances. People more frequently suffer disturbed sleep and awaken at night more often when overheated even slightly, and in fact a slight cooling of the skin has been found to be the single most effective treatment for insomnia by some researchers.

When a person is exposed to heat for a sustained period, the first thing that shuts down is the ability to sweat. Once a person stops perspiring, a person can move from heat exhaustion to heat stroke very quickly. Heat stroke is more severe and requires medical attention; it is often accompanied by dry skin, confusion and sometimes unconsciousness.

41 °C (105.8 °F)

When people experience body temperatures this high, it is considered to constitute a Medical emergency. Symptoms include Fainting, vomiting, severe headache, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, delirium and drowsiness. There may also be palpitations and breathlessness.

42 °C (107.6 °F)

Subject may turn pale or remain flushed and red. They may become comatose, be in severe delirium, vomiting, and convulsions can occur. Blood pressure may be high or low and heart rate will be very fast.

43 °C (109.4 °F)

The result is normally death, or serious brain damage, continuous convulsions and shock. Cardio-respiratory collapse will likely occur. Extreme heat is only blamed for an average of 688 deaths each year in the U.S., according to the CDC, but when affected by sustained heat, the health ramifications can be serious, including major organ damage. Kidney failure, liver failure, etc, are also common.

44 °C (111.2 °F) or more

Almost certainly death will occur; however, people have been known to survive up to 46.5 °C (115.7 °F) – with massive levels of medical support and potentially permanent aftereffects.

Human Exothermia

The basic reason for all this is that the human organism is a complex interweaving of biological and biochemical processes, and these are highly temperature-sensitive in some degree. We derive our energy from food, and this process releases waste heat – which is why our body temperatures are normally quite a bit hotter than the outside environment. While some of these biological processes fail above a certain body temperature, many of them cannot take place below certain temperatures – so there is actually a relatively narrow range of body temperatures that we consider normal. In other words, the human body is exothermic (generates heat) and has evolved to the best compromise for maximum overall efficiency.

There are, in fact, several variations in body temperature; anything and everything from smoking, drinking alcohol, sleeping, or even mild exercise can have an effect.

All this means that you can forget about swords becoming red hot or melting – the PCs would be long dead before they could experience it.

Or would they?

Thermal responsiveness

There are all sorts of ways in which flesh is different to metal. If you need any convincing, go ahead, poke yourself with a finger – then do the same thing to the back of a spoon. So why should the amount of heat energy gained be the same for both?

Let’s assume that a temperature gain in the body just short of inducing delirium also brings about metal reaching it’s melting point. I’ll use centigrade as it’s what I’m used to: that’s an increase in living biological tissues of 4°C, and an increase of about 1330°C – let’s call it 1332°C for convenience. That means that for every 1°C of body temperature increase, metal increases in temperature by 333°. That would produce life-threatening burns at about the same time as you started sweating if you were wearing metal armor – assuming a simple linear correlation. So that’s out. Instead, I suggest “mapping” the melting/ignition point of various substances onto the human temperature increase and forgetting any scientific rigidity.

Kinetic Energy

Why not add Kinetic Energy, i.e. Energy of movement? This implies that there would be an acceleration effect, and that passage would feel like a roller-coaster, getting worse as the amount of increase rose.

A linear scale is fairly dull and tame, or probably instantly lethal. “Roll a d12 and multiply by 10 for the number of feet/round that you are moving when you exit” – or hexes per round, or whatever. 120′ per round, a round is 6 seconds, that’s 20’/second, or about 13.6 miles per hour. Tame. Multiply by 20 instead, and you can get up to 27.2 mph increase. Wow – painful, capable of causing injury, but unlikely to be lethal unless you ram straight into something, and even then you might make it if it wasn’t sharp. But the average is only about half that – 14.733 mph. To make things interesting, we need to increase the multiplier again, but not by so much as another doubling – we don’t want death or injury to be the ‘average’ result, but we do want it to be a threat. Even a x30 factor seems a little high. So let’s call it x25. That gives an average of about +18.4 mph, and a maximum result of about 34 mph. Any increase beyond this point only makes the effect more lethal. But I don’t like this; it doesn’t let the PCs do anything about it.

“Roll d12 and that’s how many times your speed doubles” is more appropriate for an acceleration effect, far more devastating at the extremes, and yet tamer at low levels. Let’s assume that you enter the gate at a slow walk (5’/round, the slowest the D&D system lets you move without actually standing still): Roll a 0, that’s x1, so you emerge at 0.568182 mph, the same as you went in. Roll a 1, you get x2, for about 1.13mph. A two, and you get 2.27mph; a 3, 4.54mph; a 4 gives 9.09mph; a 5 yields 18.17mph, about the same as our average on the linear scale; a 6 gives 36.3mph, a shade worse than our worst-case result; a 7 produces a very dangerous 72.7 mph; and it only gets worse from there. 8=145mph; 9=291mph; 10=582mph; 11=1164mph; and a worst-possible result is an eye-stretching 2329mph. The speed of sound at ground level is approx 761mph, for comparison purposes. So that’s maybe a little too dangerous for us; why not permit entry at 1′ per round, and divide all those speeds by 5? A 12 result wouldn’t be enough to break the sound barrier – but a speed of 465.6mph will break many other things, starting with bones and working up.

Assessing the effects is relatively simple if you know basic physics: momentum is mass times acceleration, or mass times velocity times time. We don’t know what the momentum or acceleration actually is, and we don’t need to; the time is going to be the same, either way, so all we need is the relative masses of what we are talking about, and the effect on speed will be proportionate. So lets compare a typical car and the human body: Google reports that “the average new car weighed 3,221 pounds in 1987 but 4,009 pounds in 2010”. Call it 4000 pounds. The average human weight, world-wide is 136lb. So our person moving at speed X has the same effect on things that it hits as a car moving at about 136/4000=3.4% of speed X – and suffers the same effects as being hit by a car traveling at 3.4% of speed X.

Our worst-case speeds were 1164mph and 465.6mph, respectively – 3.4% of which is 39.576mph and 7.9mph. I don’t know what that sheds more light and perspective on: the dangers posed by auto impacts, the resilience of the human body, or the dangers posed by a human moving faster than the speed of sound! Call it a tie….

Of course, you could always enter a portal at a dead run. Boots of speed, anyone?

This information (provided by Katzenmami69 to Yahoo Answers) should also be taken into consideration:

“Big aeroplanes have emergency slides to evacuate passengers in emergency cases. These are always very hard-calculated to get the passengers out at maximum speed without actually killing them. At rescue trainings they always get a fair few broken bones and other minor injuries, and those trainings are mostly with trained aircraft staff…
A typical speed to rush down such a rescue slide is 7 meters per second, that is only about 25 km/h!

“We survive car crashes at much higher speeds only because we don’t crash into the obstacle with the same speed as our car. Every crash at higher speed than about 50 km/h is lethal to any human.”

Potential Energy: Gravity?

Potential Energy is energy of position relative to a zero point. Hold a ball up in the air, and you give it potential energy; when you let it go, that energy is transformed into kinetic energy (speed) by the force of gravity. Even lifting your foot to take a step gives it Potential Energy.

So what happens if you suddenly have ten times as much Potential Energy as you did? Well, effectively, you (and your foot) is effectively ten times as high as it was. Instead of being maybe 6 inches off the ground, your foot is suddenly 5′ off the ground, and hits the ground as hard as it would from that height.

So what just happened?

Potential Energy is Mass times Acceleration due to Gravity times Height. Obviously, your foot is no higher off the ground. So the increase in Potential Energy can either manifest as increased mass (your foot weighs ten times what it did, just long enough for it to fall), or increased force of gravity – for the fraction of a second it takes to land.

Quite obviously, neither makes much sense in terms of conventional physics. Set that aside for a moment; I’m interested in what happens to the rest of you, the part that (hopefully) isn’t falling.

An instantaneous increase of weight of both yourself and everything you’re carrying is simple to work out and appreciate; an instantaneous increase in the force of gravity you are experiencing can also be useful in terms of the effects of G-forces. Working it both ways: Your 200 pound backpack suddenly weighs two THOUSAND pounds (1 ton). Or maybe you’re one of those STR 25 freaks with a backpack weighing 800 pounds (a heavy load for STR 25 in Pathfinder) – which suddenly weighs 8,000 pounds (4 tons. or two cars). I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but even if you weren’t, you’re falling – hard.

So x10 potential energy is a very big deal. Fortunately, you would probably wouldn’t see it coming. x10 potential energy is effectively the same as your body experiencing a G-force of 10Gs – and we know what that means. Sitting (or, presumably, standing), the human body can take about 5.5Gs for 3-4 seconds. So you would almost certainly black out instantly. To quote GoFlightMedicine:

“At larger +G forces… a larger discrepancy of blood pressures between cranium and the lower body occurs. At some point, intracranial perfusion cannot be maintained and significant cerebral hypoxia (no blood = no oxygen) follows. The end result is unconsciousness.”

Or, if severe enough, death, I would expect.

Throw in burst lung sacs, ruptured capillaries, internal bleeding.., excessive G-forces are no joking matter.

Things are better if you’re on your back – 14Gs for up to 3 minutes is tolerable (and that’s why astronauts lie down for liftoff), and on your stomach, you can cope with 11Gs for up to 3 minutes.

The time factor is crucially important. Crashes in motorsport can result in impacts of over 100Gs – but because the time is measures in milliseconds (or less), these are often so survivable that the driver walks away unharmed. Tragically, that’s not always the case, and even a relatively low-speed impact can be fatal if things go wrong.

There’s a lot more of interest regarding this subject on this Wikipedia page, but it’s beyond the scope of this article to dig any further. Suffice it to say that a tenfold increase in Potential Energy will probably be lethal, a five-fold increase crippling, and even a doubling would cause injury.

The most useful and practical interpretation for game purposes is to ignore the increased-G interpretation and simply go with the “everything weighs X times what it did” – and it’s all still moving at the same speed that it was. So if your walking forwards, you get a massive shove in the back as your pack tries to punch a hole straight through you…


Heat and Kinetic Energy are both aspects of things in motion, and potential energy increases result in motion. What if the directions of motion are random (like heat) but on individual cells or particles (like heat)? Wouldn’t you call that a disintegration effect? Telling your players to “Save vs Disintegration” at the DC of the gate’s construction would surely get their attention in a hurry.

I wouldn’t actually do it that way if I were to invoke this rather more extreme effect. It seems to me that the better-constructed the gate, the less dangerous it would be – so I would use X-minus-DC-of-construction instead. Depending on what you set X to, that can be quite a rare event – but a worrying one, nevertheless.

I generally don’t like instant-kill effects, even with a saving throw. So I wouldn’t do this. Someone else might, though.


As soon as you mention the differences between steel armor and human flesh, electrical properties come to mind. How lethal you wanted this to be is up to you, but it’s rather more nuanced than the all-or-nothing of Disintegration. The basic form would remain the same: Nd6 electrical, save for half effect UNLESS you’re wearing metal armor”.

10d6 would be lethal to most low-level characters, but from about 4th level on, potentially survivable – by some characters, some of the time. It only gets better from there; above 11th level, most characters would survive.

If N were 4xd6, that’s a more variable and dangerous event. You might get lucky and roll a 1 or 2, giving 4d6 and 8d6, respectively. Or you could roll a 6 and offer up 24d6.

I would work backwards – determine at what level you want the average character to survive about half the time, how many HP you expect them to have, and then how many d6 rolling an average of 3.5 equals that number. That gives you N. You can even grade it a little more generously by making it survivable at that level on an average result of 4 or 5 on the d6, reducing the number of dice and the threat.

One thing I like about this option is that the characters who are least able to cope with the damage are the ones least likely to be wearing metal armor – rogues and mages.

Of course, another option is to trigger an Epileptic Fit. Epilepsy is, essentially, electrical signals in the brain being misdirected and triggering more misdirected signals in a chain reaction. As this Wikipedia Page makes clear, this would not be considered Epilepsy per se, but the effects would be the same. It’s even possible that real Epilepsy could be triggered by the experience, as pathways in the brain change with experience, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity which is one of the more fascinating discoveries of recent years.


When you dig into it, most electrical effects are chemical in origin, involving the motion (there’s that word again!) of electrons. Aligned electron spins make a material magnetic, shifting of electrons from one material to another build up a charge differential, which can be released as static electricity, and so on.

So that implies that the energy might be in the direct form of chemical energy. Chemical energy is defined by Wikipedia as “the potential of a chemical substance to undergo a transformation through a chemical reaction [or] to transform other chemical substances.”

Chemicals which make chemical reactions occur at different rates, or even make them possible in the first place, are called catalysts, so in effect, what this is proposing is that “gate energy” acts as a catalyst.

But a catalyst for what reaction? Messing with the biology of the organism is difficult and complicated – so I’ll come back to that option in a moment.


Instead, let’s look at a couple of other possible catalytic reactions. One of the most obvious would be to trigger a combustion reaction in selected substances that don’t normally burn (or don’t normally burn without exposure to great heat). In Iron and steels, this process is also called Rusting (and it usually happens very slowly). Aside from potentially explaining one of the more fun creatures in the AD&D lexicon, the Rust Monster, this offers an evil something else you can do to metal-wearing PCs!

(Some people might think that metal won’t burn. Stuff and nonsense – get some steel wool and tease the fibers apart and you can set it ablaze with a match or by brushing it against a 9-volt battery. See this youTube video.) The more compact the steel, the harder it is to set it alight because the metal tends to conduct the heat away, that’s all.)


Pressure inside a vessel is the result of a substance being confined within a smaller space than it would “like” to occupy. If the pressure is too great for the object doing the confining, the object breaks or explodes, liberating the contents in a pressure explosion. One way of causing pressure to increase is to heat the container and substance inside (here’s a link to part of a Mythbusters segment showing what happens when a hot water system fails – note that they had to disable a number of safety features designed to prevent this from happening!)

But heat isn’t the only way. Some chemical reactions release gasses or create substances that naturally want to occupy more space than the original source did. The result is the same: pressure.


Next option: turning oil (in lamps and lanterns) into a plastic sludge. Doesn’t need much more explanation, does it? For more information (if necessary, just to confirm the validity of the theory), click this link.


Okay, so we’re edging closer to biological reactions. In biology, the equivalent of a catalyst is an Enzyme. But the effects are still too complex for our purposes.


So let’s get exotic and turn attention to Potions. There are two possibilities to consider under this subheading: that the potions are unaffected (because there’s no biological process to change until the potion is consumed), or that there is a change in the nature of the potion, possibly at random or semi-random.

The first one seems trivial – but it isn’t. I’ll come back to it.

Changing one potion into another seems workable, but there’s a problem – most potions are designed to have a positive benefit, and random changes say that half the time, the consequences should be undesirable. There are two ways of correcting for this – stating that half the time, the potion has the opposite effect, or stating that in most of those half-cases, it simply becomes a poisonous substance. I would actually throw in a small percentage chance of no change, another small percentage chance of diminished or increased effectiveness (halved or doubled), and chance equal to the “no change” of something exotic happening, like the potion becoming a non-cubical Gelatinous Cube (maybe it would become cube-shaped if released from confinement in the vial), or Black Pudding (just to go completely old-school on you).

Potion Miscibility

Finally, we’re in a position to simulate chemical energy being introduced into the body of a traveler in a practical way. The method is to employ another old-school plot device: the potion miscibility table. I’m not sure that this was ever canonical, despite its appearance in 1st edition D&D – but here’s an official WOTC link….


“Cold” isn’t normally something we think of as an Energy. It’s normally considered to be the absence of heat. But this is fantasy, where strange things can apply, and “Cone Of Cold” (in D&D / Pathfinder) and various cold-based effects (Hero System & general superhero games) are a lot easier to cope with conceptually if you think of cold as being a force that is inimical to heat, just as heat is inimical to cold.

Amusingly, the same things that make armor-wearers more vulnerable to electricity and heat – the conductivity of metal – also leaves armored characters vulnerable to intense cold.

Even more amusingly, unlike external cold, we’re talking about an infusion of energy – so wearing furs and the like won’t protect you, and neither will rings and other magic defenses.

Magical ‘Energy’

So, what happens when you soak up magical energy? When your magic items soak up magical energy? When one or both exceeds it’s capacity? When you cast a spell, or are the subject of a spell, while in this condition?

One of the most obvious possibilities is simply that whatever the effect is, it exceeds your control. A shield spell raises your AC so much that air can’t get in. A fireball spell triples in effect and goes off at your fingertips. There is an obvious correlation that should apply between an effect being as strong as you can cast not because of the strength, but because of control, and that implies that any loss of control should have negative consequences at least most of the time. It’s possible that what might happen is simple leakage so that what was supposed to affect one target instead targets multiples (making no distinction between friend and foe), but that’s about as beneficial as it’s likely to get.

ANY effect can be harmful if taken too far, and if the GM is creative enough.

Spiritual ‘Energy’

This is an obvious corollary to the Arcane Energy option. But (aside from the possibility of replicating the Arcane effects for Clerical spells), I have to admit that I’m coming up dry when it comes to effects. Maybe everything I’ve already put into this article has my brain temporarily fried, but nothing’s happening – so I’ll leave it at that, and move on.

Negative Energy

This is a fairly self-evident option, if a nasty one. It could manifest as a loss of hit points, but that seems fairly tame. You could rule that it does so many d6 of negative hit points, and that if this total exceeds HD+HP Bonus, the character loses a level before the remaining negative HP are applied. Or you could make it CON loss, or you could rule that one in three, four, or five level losses are actually CON losses.

This actually brings up a pet bugbear of mine: Negative Energy losses are too easy to overcome in D&D. One spell and they’re done? Pshaw. This stuff should be scary.

So here are some House Rules to nasty it up. A Lot.

A) DC to overcome Negative Energy effects and permit them to be recovered at the normal rate:

  1. Multiply the number of levels “lost” to negative energy by the Maximum HD size Less the character’s Con bonus.
  2. Add any HP lost in the attack or effect, including any done as ordinary damage.
  3. Add five for every point of stat loss.
  4. Add ten for each other effect, if any.
  5. Halve the total, rounding down.

B) The amount of recovery that is possible after such treatment is the amount by which the spellcaster’s total exceeds this DC. This can be applied to a lost stat (uses 5) or to recovery of a level (uses HD size+CON bonus).

C) A character who successfully “heals” any part of negative energy damage suffered by another cannot make another attempt to do more for as many days as the DC that they had to overcome have passed.

D) A character who attempts to “heal” such negative energy damage and fails cannot make another attempt until they gain a character level in the class whose ability was being used, and no character of lesser character level may make such an attempt.

E) Until the character suffering the effects of Negative Energy recovers ALL lost levels, the number of lost levels multiplied by the spell level of any healing spell or Cure spell used on the character is deducted from the benefits received from such a healing spell, eg, Cure Moderate Wounds (Level 2 for a Cleric) on a character who has lost 4 levels to negative energy, reduces the normal benefit of such spells by 2×4=8 points.

F) A character suffering from the effects of Negative Energy are considered to have an effective maximum hit points equal to their total after the negative energy effects are applied.

G) This also applies to any calculation of consequences for excessive Positive Energy, i.e. Positive Energy doesn’t overcome the effects of Negative Energy, the latter just makes you go boom that much faster.

H) Negative Energy can be left to heal naturally. This occurs at the rate of 1 HP per week, 1 Level per month, OR 1 point of stat loss per year. Characters cannot heal more than HP Dice Size plus CON Bonus in hit point losses in this way without then healing a negative level or stat loss. Recovery is slow and difficult.

I) Negative Energy Levels count for 1/2 a level each for other level-related calculations EXCEPT XP required to advance. So if you lose 4 character levels to Negative Energy, your chance to hit, Feats, etc, are calculated as though you were TWO levels below your actual level and not FOUR.

J) Characters suffering ANY form of negative energy levels cannot advance in level until they have earned XP sufficient to bridge this gap, PLUS what they need to advance. So if were 10th level and you lose (effectively) 2 levels due to negative energy effects, you are effectively 8th level, but before you can gain 11th level (and effectively be 9th level), you have to earn (Pathfinder Medium Advancement) 24,000 + 30,000 + 50,000 = 104,000 XP more than you needed to get to 10th level (105,000). Character development is GLACIAL compared to unaffected characters.

K) Rather than reducing skills or losing skills, negative energy level losses are multiplied by the character’s normal Skill Points per level and the result distributed by the player as negative modifiers to skill checks. The character can choose to apply these at the normal rate for the improvement of a skill and it’s a temporary loss, or can double the number of skill points of “loss” that is represented for a permanent, never-to-be-lifted negative modifier, that’s up to the player.

Negative energy effects aren’t necessarily crippling to a character, but recovery from them is NOT as simple as casting Restoration.


Life is good, life is sweet, life restores hit points, life makes you explode… literally, if you absorb too much of it. Life is Positive Energy, and there’s only so much of it that you can take.

Note that it’s entirely possible that you get Negative Energy passing one way through a portal and Positive Energy on the return trip…

Idea #17 – Losing Energy In Transit

I don’t have to go too deeply into detail on this one; rereading the relevant “gain” entries should make things fairly clear. Suffice it to say that the only thing worse than gaining energy might be losing it!

Idea #18 – It’s Electrifying: Portals Are A Planar Battery

Only for the engineers out there. If two sides of a portal are at different energy potentials (regardless of the type of energy), that differential can be used to do work – making the portal a source of energy that can be exploited.

I had this be the “solution” that one space-time came up with to imminent heat-death in the Zenith-3 campaign. They quite literally began pumping in energy from a space-time that wasn’t facing heat-death for quite a long time (and in which the PCs happened to be living), or rather their greatest scientist did, and was hailed a hero for his efforts. In effect, this began to reverse the flow of entropy in his space-time while accelerating it in the victimized space-time; in due course, an equilibrium would have been reached in which the work required to pump more energy in would match that which was achieved by the process – at which point, he would have switched to some other victim space-time. In effect, he had expanded the “closed system” of his space-time to suddenly encompass both the space-times that he had connected and energy differential took care of the rest. His process had been operating for a millennium before the consequences were even noticed in the PC’s local space-time, and at first they were mistaken by scientists for a new class of Supernova, the “infrared supernova” – ever since, those scientists have been trying to incorporate the mistake into their cosmology. The PCs discovered the truth and shut down the entropy siphons – and a millennium from now, that will be noticed by earth-bound scientists as well.

But there are lots of lesser applications, suitable for widespread neo-industrial application. Let’s say that we’re talking about Light – that means that you can light a city with a million mini-portals, each of which radiates light constantly. Heat? Cooking, Home warmth, and industry – independent of fuel. And so on; you can see the potentials.

The problem is that these will almost certainly all have been discovered by accident, and not be well-understood – if they are understood at all. The energy is coming from somewhere, not necessarily in the same form, and that somewhere might be overjoyed (if you are bleeding off an excess that could destroy them), outraged (if you are stealing their necessary supplies) or alarmed (if you are undermining a central pillar holding the cosmology together) – depending on who they are and how well they understand what’s going on. If they are only a little better-informed, these might all be strictly theoretical consequences, and there would be a diversity of views – and a diversity of opinions concerning what to do about it.

Oh, and if you think my plotline is unlikely, take a read of

– both of which were published years after I ran my adventure!

Ideas #19 & 20 – Bad Is Good

In the last part of this series, I offered up Idea #13, Socio-Ethical Morphology through Portal Networks. I’m closing this series by taking the term “energy” as a metaphor for the momentum of events, and giving them a massive twist.

There are two alternatives: Global and Local.

Idea 19: Global

“Global” means that everything that the PCs were/are supposed to do in their normal universe, they have to do the exact opposite of in the newly-accessed universe. If they have to defend the kingdom against a Troll Army in one, they have to join the Troll Army in destroying the Kingdom in the other. Alignments and personalities remain unchanged – but the entire set of priorities is twisted and inverted.

Once you’ve figured out what the circumstances might be to bring about a consistent world in which things are so radically different (and yet the same), this sort of world becomes a cinch to create; every time you end in a contradiction, simply invert something until the contradiction goes away.

This technique can also be invaluable in terms of shedding light on obscure aspects of your original campaign world that you are having trouble figuring out!

Idea 20: Local

My final suggestion is that nothing is different – except the role that the PCs have carved out for themselves in the plotline. The NPC good guys are still good guys, the NPC bad guys are still bad guys, the basic situation is the same – but in one, the PCs are on one side and in the other, they are opposed to it.

For an added twist, keep the PCs alignment and personalities unchanged, and twist the circumstances in which everyone finds themselves. The more black-and-white everyone’s behavior, the harder this is; but if you have shades of gray in your character’s morality, and are willing to completely rewrite the history that brought everyone to this point, the results can be a haunting exploration of the road not taken – in advance. Which can be a great tool for the PCs to decide a number of things, like how far to go, that they may be equivocating about. And, in general, it’s the last thing that the players expect.


Of course, if you implement all of these possibilities, no-one would ever dare go near a portal. Heaven only knows when or where it might lead! Applied in small measure – or perhaps, configurable through flaws in the creation process, or deliberate intent – you can have player’s heads spinning in no time. It might be, though, that without careful planning and expenditure of effort and arcane resources of the most expensive kind, any portal is inherently unstable – and each time someone passes through it, you roll a d20 for which of the effects described in this series will be experienced. It might be a LONG walk home for someone!

So this officially brings Campaign Mastery’s hosting of this particular episode of the Blog Carnival to an end. Just in case there’s a tardy response or two, I won’t do the usual roundup for a week or so, but the carnival now officially moves to jamesintrocaso’s World Builder Blog. The subject: Homebrew Holiday Gifts. Best of luck with it, James!

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Blog Carnival: The Unexpected Reality

rpg blog carnival logo

I was musing about Tom’s entry into the Blog Carnival (Void Travel Sickness) while approving his notification/pingback, and the thought came to me: if the players were the test crew on board the first starship to be built, they might have no idea that “jump shock” would be part of their situation.

That was how a broader principle, one that I hadn’t paid much attention to in the past, was brought to my conscious attention: “Anything not disclosed in the game rules and background that the PCs are going to have to cope with is, by definition, unexpected.”

So let’s rectify that omission.

Rules as Plot Delivery System

This notion isn’t one that comes naturally to me, in either concept or execution. It’s a whole different concept in Metagaming – using the rules, and specifically, willful omissions from the House Rules that are provided to the players, as an important element in propelling the plots forward.

It’s very hard to surprise players if the house rules that you provide go into lavish detail on one of the central phenomena of your game. At the same time, you need to have those rules in place, ready to use. A good example comes from the Shards Of Divinity campaign: there were lots of rules about illusions and how the perception of them bent reality. I think something like 1/3 of the initial set of House Rules related to the subject (unlike my usual practices, I shared the House Rules for that campaign as they were being developed, rather than in a single block of finished rules).

As a result, the abilities of the Fey when the PCs reached the Land of Two Courts came as no surprise, and had unexpectedly little impact. I now find myself wondering if I missed a bet in my handling of that plot development (which was intended to be a major campaign milestone); would I have been better off had I not shared those rules, and left the powers of the Fey to be a surprise?

I’m still of two minds on the notion, because of the dangers of willful omissions from the Rules.

Box of chocolates image by Marta Rostek via

A wasabi-flavored chocolate would come as a surprise.
And yes, there really is such a thing.
Image provided by Rostek.

The danger of willful Omission

There are three significant downsides to not being inclusive, when it comes to the rules, that come to mind. These are the prices that may have to be paid in return for the surprise factor, and hence the heart of the question of whether or not that surprise is worth the effort.

Danger One: Verisimilitude

House Rules and related content should always describe the game world and “operating environment” as the PCs understand it to be. What relationship that understanding may have with the reality is at the crux of this question.

My reasoning (under the heading of “Verisimilitude”) in including those illusion rules, had the question arisen, would have run something like this:

  1. If the application of Illusions actually ‘bending reality’ are as ubiquitous as I intended them to be, any educated mage would be thoroughly familiar with them. Since that knowledge might well impact on a player’s decision to run a mage, there is a metagame argument against keeping them a secret, but let’s set that aside. This argument states that all Mages (and any other class who has a valid educational argument for understanding the general principles of magic) would posses some level of understanding of the theory. (No one ever got as far as understanding the ‘why’, but let’s set that aside, too).
  2. Illusions have been used on the battlefield to fight Wars and Skirmishes in the past. They are too effective, and too well-known, for that not to have been the case. It follows that anyone with military training would at least know of the general principles and how they have been applied in the past – in gritty detail. Furthermore, anyone with knowledge of History would also be aware of the generalities.
  3. Magic is as well-known in the game environment as basic physics in the USA of the 1940s. Almost everyone knows of it, and some of the more colorful past experiments and theories are well understood or misunderstood. Everything would fall at the same speed if not for the air; ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’; the basic relationship between speed and distance traveled, and the broad concept of acceleration as ‘what makes you go faster’; and so on. So everyone should be aware – at the very least – of the general principle that ‘Illusions bend reality until you see through them’.
  4. Understanding the basic principles of Magic would be an absolute requirement for effective administration at a political level. So anyone with any political knowledge should also have at least basic knowledge of the general principle of Illusions.

With every step of this reasoning, the circle of those who should have at least some awareness of the principles has grown, to the point that it encompasses just about everyone except a rural hick. Certainly, every PC should know enough, even as a first-level character, that they should be so informed. What’s more, only one character was being deliberately started as a 1st-level PC; the others were all to be 5th level, for reasons that have nothing to do with the current subject of conversation. They would all be that much better-informed as to the reality in which they were living. So the secret is out of the bag already; what more harm can be done by spelling out the actual mechanics that were going to be used to translate theory into in-game practice?

Under the above circumstances, keeping this element of the game-world premises a secret would only have harmed the verisimilitude of the entire campaign. Maybe it would have been enough to keep the actual mechanics a secret until the PCs had direct experience of them, but even there, anecdotal information would outline those mechanics in summary. The work-level involved in redacting this information is going up, but the payoff is getting smaller – and the risks are not being in any way mitigated. So, in hindsight, I would have done exactly the same thing – at least in this circumstance.

Danger Two: Player-GM relations

Another problem to contend with is the perception that could arise that the GM is keeping secret from the players things that the players are entitled to know. Players are generally tolerant of the occasional breakdown in verisimilitude and the occasional oversight on the part of the GM, but this is a horse of a completely different color – this is a willful and deliberate act on the part of the GM.

It would be like promising a light romantic comedy and delivering a tale of love in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Half the audience may love the surprise twist; the rest will feel like they’ve been deceived, even cheated. Or an action-adventure in which there are no stunts.

If your justifications for secrecy are ironclad, you might be forgiven. Through gritted teeth, in some cases. But is it really worth the risk of putting your players off-side?

Danger Three: Player-Campaign relations

And, even if the players forgive you because they can see that you had what you thought were good reasons, how would this perception impact on the way the players feel about the campaign? There is a very real threat that the deception would fatally poison it. Because if the GM can withhold one crucial set of facts, you have to ask the question, What else is he hiding?

Overcoming the Dangers

All of these problems are avoided if the omission can be made central to the premise of the campaign and explicitly described as such. Which brings me back to Tom’s article.

If you describe the campaign as “The world’s first starship, equipped with a brand-new propulsion system called Void Jump, is ready for launch, and you are the expert crew who have been assigned to find out exactly what it can do,” then the absence of rules concerning Jump Travel is an inherent selling point. You can even go so far as to tell the players that you have worked out the rules concerned but they will have to learn them, in character, the hard way.

All of the negatives go away, and in fact become positive selling points for the campaign.

It should come as no surprise

The key difference between the two proposals is that the surprise in the latter case comes as no surprise at all – the GM has deliberately highlighted it. Because the players are expecting it, and there is an obvious and ironclad justification for not having the rules spelt out for them, they know what to expect. Furthermore, because the players will be expecting an adventure of some kind to result, they will even be expecting things to go badly wrong.

There might be some residual time dilation that leaks into the trip, so that while they think that they have undertaken only a 10-second “jump” to give a basic full-power test to the engines, they’ve actually been running for a decade or more – and the PCs suddenly find themselves a long way from home, and with an obvious hole in the basic theory of operation of their transportation and its underlying physics, and faced with problems of navigation that are (10 years divided by 10 seconds) 31,557,600 times worse than they expected. Throw Jump Shock and aliens into the equation, and the need to figure out exactly where they are and how they got there, and there will be plenty for the PCs to do.

(You would have to ask why this effect hadn’t shown up on unmanned tests of the drive. Two answers come to mind: they did, and the crew were warned in advance that none of the unmanned test vehicles showed up where they were supposed to; or there’s some sort of quantum “step” that they have tripped over because these engines are so much bigger than the small prototypes, which in turn was necessary for moving a ship large enough to have a crew on-board. Or, a third answer: they did, and the authorities deliberately withheld the information for their own reasons – and those reasons had better be good ones! But if an action can be plausibly attributed to an NPC, the GM can frequently get away with things that wouldn’t otherwise be tolerated. If choosing the third course, I would have a message ‘delivered’ to the PCs in some fashion explaining the in-character justification, to be found as soon as they emerged).

In fact, there would be similar questions for the GM to have answered about Jump Shock itself – are mechanical and electronic systems subject to it? If yes, the phenomenon should have been discovered by those unmanned test flights – perhaps through animal “passengers”. If no in both cases, then it comes as a surprise to the PCs – but there is something that can be done about it, long-term. It might be that the pre-electronic sci-fi writers had it right after all, and the best solution is to have the ship ‘programmed’ to function via machined and pre-designed Cams and gears…

The Natural Method: Organic Rules Growth

It was when laying out this article that I realized a second broader principle: This sort of thing goes on all the time, quite naturally.

Rules structures evolve organically over time in most campaigns. Some new situation comes up and the GM evolves rules to cope with it, or some deficiency in the existing rules comes to light. Any set of rules are always going to be insufficient to cover every possible situation than might arise. Or it might be that the GM creates an adventure and then discovers that the rules he’s been using don’t have the scope to cope with its needs.

And so the rules evolve to meet the changing game needs. It doesn’t matter that the GM may be as taken by surprise as the players; it doesn’t matter how necessary or justified the rules change might be. What matters is that the willingness and ability to evolve the rules when necessary is one of the mandatory traits of even a half-reasonable GM, and that – by definition – these rules come out of nowhere because of a plot development – something a PC or NPC is doing, will do, or wants to do. (One of the marks of a great GM is being able to do this without delaying or stopping play. I admit to not quite hitting that standard most of the time – I take a minute or two to think things through. And, if I have to, I will suspend play and get everybody at the table involved in drafting a rules solution – but that hasn’t happened in a looong time.)

Plot as a Rules Delivery System?

Finally, there is one other aspect of the whole question that’s worth mentioning. One of the big points that I emphasized in my mega-series on New Beginnings is that you need to allow space for players to familiarize themselves with any house rules that you have introduced. I even suggested throwing in an encounter or a plotline specifically for the purpose of letting them do so without anything earth-shattering, like the main campaign plot, hanging in the balance.

In essence, this is like interrupting an online adventure with a tutorial on some new capabilities that you have just acquired.

Let’s go back into the tabletop RPG arena. There are some new rules that will be in effect henceforth, for whatever reason. You’ve designed a “tutorial” encounter or adventure to show them off, test them, and permit final tweaking before they become as canonical as any of the other game rules for the campaign. There are two possible approaches: you can publish the rules in advance, possibly confusing players and yourself, pre-empting the tutorial adventure, and taking a lot of time explaining, clarifying, and answering questions in advance – or you can reveal the rules one at a time as the tutorial unfolds and only after they have been tested and approved, and are declared canonical, do you make them available to the players – saving you a lot of time and effort that can better be devoted to getting the test/tutorial right. Sounds like a bit of a no-brainer, doesn’t it?

Players may even turn up to the game table not knowing of the metagame agenda for the day. So long as they get an adventure out of it, they have no real cause for complaint under these circumstances.

You can even encourage tolerance by asking each player to offer an opinion on the proposed rules changes after the test/tutorial. That makes them ongoing participants in deciding the future of the campaign. And that’s never a bad thing.

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The Shape Of Strange: Portals to Celestial Morphology Pt 3 of 4

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Welcome to the third part of Campaign Mastery’s major contribution to the November 2015 Blog Carnival. The theme this time around is the Unexpected, and this series is all about taking something that is usually assumed to be basic and reliable – portals and gates – and throwing some unexpected surprises into the mix…

To recap: Most GMs (and certainly, most players) assume that a portal is nothing more than an express train from point A in the celestial firmament to point B, a shortcut across planar boundaries that connects two points in localized space that are quite removed otherwise. Planar travel using portals is so inconvenient in comparison to the alternative that the portal connection can probably be considered the fundamental point of configuration of the relationship between the two planes, assuming it is at least semi-permanent. Establishing any sort of lasting connection to another plane is tantamount to rearranging the cosmology of existence to bring a formerly-remote destination right next door to Alice – and her looking glass!

That notion got me thinking about all the nasty surprises that GMs can pull using portals. This series of four articles is the result.

Are portal exits downhill from portal entrances? You don’t know? Well, let’s explore the idea that they might be, and consider the following situation. The PCs live in a land of plenty – good land, well-irrigated, with water drawn from a mighty river. Their enemies, on the other hand, inhabit something close to an arid wasteland – though it can be made to bloom with the application of a little water. Such a shame they don’t have any. What they DO have is the potential for a well-trained commando unit to sneak a single spell-caster behind enemy lines by way of a portal – and from that position, for them to create another, permanent portal that lies across that mighty river, and connects at the other end to the dam they have just finished building in a dry creek bed. Suddenly, the PCs are in the middle of a drought, while their enemies have water a-plenty!

As that example shows, Portals can be used to completely rearrange the geology and agriculture of the game world to suit whoever’s in control of the portal. Want to claim-jump a rival’s mine? Open a portal to the far side of the mineral deposit, use a shape stone spell through the portal to make a small hollow space for your first wave of miners to exploit, and get digging! Food and air and additional workers can be supplied by the same portal used to establish your mine in the first place, and the ore can be delivered right to where it will do you the most good by the same technique – moving it a dozen paces or less in the process. Heck, you might even be able to lay ore-cart rails straight through the portal!

Assimilated that wave of awe yet? Then let’s dive into some more of the deeper pools of speculation…


There are a couple of key parameters that readers should bear in mind through the fun and games that follow. I’ve listed six, but there may be others that haven’t come to mind.

Portals and gates can be Mono-directional, Bi-directional, or Unidirectional.

  • Mono-directional: Objects can only pass from one specific end of the portal or gate to the other end, and not vice-versa.
  • Bi-directional: Objects can pass from either end to the other, but travel can only be in one direction at a time. Attempts to travel in the other direction when something is already in transit can be blocked or can result in a collision of some kind.
  • Unidirectional: Objects can pass from either end to the other at the same time.

What’s the behavior of the portal over time?

  • Temporary: Portal lasts for a finite amount of time, and then it’s gone, or changes.
  • Enduring: Portal appears permanent and stable – and then isn’t.
  • Recurring, Reliable: Portal appears on a predictable basis. More complex versions may follow a pattern.
  • Recurring, Anarchic: The portal is in existence at unpredictable times for unpredictable durations. It may be consistent in other parameters, or unpredictable, or cyclic.
  • Permanent: Portals connect A to B permanently until disrupted or destroyed. Other parameters may change randomly or according to some pattern.

While the values for this parameter described below suggest consistency, that’s not necessarily the case.

  • Small: One person at a time can pass through the portal. Others may have to wait to enter until that traveler arrives, or they may be able to follow like links of sausages. That first variation also introduces the variable of travel time.
  • Medium: A small group of up to four or five can pass through the portal together. Anyone more has to wait. Travel time is significant.
  • Large: A wagon or large group can pass through the portal together in squads or units, up to fifty or so people at a time. More have to wait.
  • Immense: An army, or a fully-crewed ship, can pass through the portal at the same time. Travel time can be tactically significant.

This parameter can be independently assessed for each end of the portal.

  • Stable: The location of the portal entrance/exit is fixed in geographic location relative to something.
  • Proximate: The location is defined within a locus of probability surrounding some surface feature; the exact location at any given time within that locus may differ either predictably or randomly.
  • Defined: The portal is in one of a set number of locations, usually but not necessarily in close proximity, and is prone to change from one to another periodically or randomly, or perhaps after each use.
  • Wandering: The portal moves, either randomly or in a predictable manner, and is not bound to any particular geographic locus. Unless it recurs with great rapidity or doesn’t move very far at a time, this can confuse people as to whether or not it is the same portal each time.

Why should everything always leave a portal in the same condition as it left? Effects can be physical, or mental, or spiritual; and temporary or permanent. There may or may not be ways of shielding against, or mitigating, the effects. There may be patterns to the disruptive effects. A fixed degree of disruption vs. a percentage disruption can also be very significant.

  • Safe: Portal travel inflicts little or no damage.
  • Demanding: Portal travel inflicts minor damage that can be managed but may require planned recovery protocols. Mitigating capabilities begin to become significant.
  • Difficult: Portal travel causes temporary near-incapacitation, or more significant long-term damage. Mitigating capabilities are very significant.
  • Dangerous: The effects of Portal travel are temporarily incapacitating or debilitating for a significant period. Portals are only safe to use when the destination is protected by friendly forces.

There should be some way of disrupting or destroying a portal, though it may be dangerous. What happens then? Will a/the portal reform of it’s own accord, or must a new one be intentionally created? And will it connect with the old destination, or go somewhere new, or something in between?

  • Precise: The same origin point leads to the same destination point.
  • Self-Locking: The same origin point leads somewhere close to the old destination point and will eventually lock back onto the old departure point.
  • Resistant: The old destination point resists the formation of a new portal connection. This resistance may be overcome in some manner.
  • Vague: A new portal from the same origin may be directable to some point near where the old one was, but the exact same destination is unreachable.
  • Unpredictable: A new portal from the same origin will connect with another point completely at random, uncontrollably, within the destination plane of existence, perhaps restricted to a significant region.

I’ll be repeating the essential contents of this panel at the head of each of the articles. For full discussion of these parameters and their possible effects, refer to part 1 of the series. Keep these parameters and variables in mind because I’m liable to switch gears between them without notice!

'Archway' by Dutlefsen, modified

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Idea #11 – Portals To The Afterlife

I have to admit that this idea has been percolating away in the back of my mind for quite a long time now. It first came to me not long after I wrote A Quality Of Spirit – Big Questions in RPGs way back in December of 2008.

Think about this for a moment: there is a way to have direct access to the afterlife. You can visit deceased relatives, beg forgiveness from those you have wronged, gloat over those who can no longer stop you.

Or can they? What if the portals are a two-way street? A bi-directional or uni-directional portal to the afterlife means that death is just a temporary change of address. Even if you no longer have a physical body, what can you do? Are you a ghost? Can you possess someone, borrowing – temporarily or long-term – their physical body?

Can you commit an act of evil? Once you’ve been taken to the afterlife, is there any mechanism of divine re-judgment that can condemn you? And what if you simply went back through the portal before you were missed? Just how closely does whoever’s in charge of Heaven or Elysium or Valhalla or whatever it’s called keep track of the inhabitants? Or is having been accepted into heaven a free ride thereafter? If a murder has been committed, can the authorities question the victim? Is their testimony admissible? If a criminal received absolution for a crime, earning himself a ticket into heaven, can the authorities bring him back from the afterlife to serve out his sentence or even stand trial?

Can the dead continue to make investments? Can they continue to own property? Even if they need to use a living proxy? If you’re dissatisfied by the terms of a will, can you go and complain to the author? Are oaths of loyalty binding beyond death? Oaths of confidentiality? Or is a lawyer, or doctor, free to spill their guts to anyone who asks? And what punishment can be inflicted after death if they do?

Imagine you’re the ruler of a nation. Anytime things get sticky, you pop over into the afterlife to consult a brains trust of your predecessors and the best military minds they have been able to recruit for the purpose. Or if the throne falls to an unworthy son or daughter, can the dead king come back to lead an insurrection?

Can you think of a single aspect of human existence that would not potentially be transformed almost beyond recognition – depending on how you answered these questions?

I can’t.

Idea #12 – Portal Transfiguration

There’s a general assumption that you exit a portal the same as you entered it. I’ve always felt that GMs looking for ideas should root out assumptions and challenge them.

So, what sort of transformations might be possible? It’s Alice-In-Wonderland time…

Size changes are the most obvious. But there are some points to contemplate. The first is that this might be an accidental side-effect, and that will have zero impact unless it’s unexpected. The second is that what can be done accidentally, can also be done deliberately. So your army – or just an elite cadre – enter the portal and emerge the size of giants, with strength and fortitude to match. Or, perhaps, they emerge the size of mice, or ants – ideally-sized for sneaking under locked doors and gathering intelligence.

Or perhaps the changes are less extreme – and not universal in dimensionality. You stay as wide as you were, but come out about 2 feet shorter than you went in – with the build of a rather puny Dwarf, in other words.

But the potential changes aren’t limited to mere size transformations. Complete transfiguration is possible. You go in as Human and come out as… a troglodyte. An Orc. A Gorilla. A half-dragon. A werewolf – but you don’t know that until the next full moon. The possibilities are endless.

They all have a credibility problem, however, that will devastate your campaign unless you’re playing a game with young children (who might well be thrilled!) – you have to have an answer to the question, “why?”

There are simplistic answers that aren’t very satisfying; such as the gods deciding that the population of a certain species are too low, and arbitrarily deciding to bolster them with whoever wandered by. It’s that “arbitrary” that will annoy the players who will quite rightly feel victimized. So you need a better answer.

Try as I might, there are only two alternatives that seem to ring true and that might be satisfying to the players (assuming that the transformation isn’t perfect). The first is that the gods have taken a personal interest in one or more of the PCs and decided that the transfiguration will teach a valuable lesson. For this to work, the whole chain of logic will need to be ironclad and impeccable – including the presumption that there is no other way, or no easier way, for this lesson to be learned.

A far easier answer is the final alternative: that there is something the creator(s) of the Portal need or want the PCs to do, and that is only possible if their form has been changed, at least temporarily. It’s a lot easier to construct a plausible reason for the new form to be necessary to the mission, whatever it is; and this transforms the whole situation as much as it does the PCs.

Far more interesting possibilities exist if ALL portals suddenly (or have always) had such effects, especially if transit through a bi-directional or uni-directional gate in the other direction undoes the change. Immediately, devils and demons giving themselves a “human makeover” come to mind. Or even if it’s just one class of specially-created Portal. This is also the sort of thing that Drow often come up with in my campaigns – they always come up with sneaky plots to advance their causes, and creating infiltrators as spies or a fifth column is always useful when everyone is your enemy. Your players will definitely not see this one coming – and that’s what it’s all about!

That solves the immediate problem – but it leaves open the wider problem of who made it possible for such a gate to be constructed, how it works, and what their agenda is. But this question, too, is left on far firmer ground; it merely becomes necessary to ask who had the requisite capabilities and who benefited the most from trouble between Race X and the Drow (or whoever it was). Work out the solution to that and you have everything you need to blindside your players with epic plot developments.

Orchestrating such a change in nature, even locally, is a big deal. It would not be easy, and would risk drawing the attention of all sorts of powerful beings. It certainly would not have happened overnight. But it’s the sort of thing that a Demon Prince, or Ruling Devil, might get up to if they wanted to distract the gods from some ploy – or to get their attention. That suggests (to me, at least) that maybe there’s a whole bunch of bad guys who have gathered under one umbrella to do something big – and one member of that alliance is taking out insurance against getting duped, or perhaps knows that the others intend to use him as a sacrificial lamb, and is making covert moves to block the success of the alliance. Perhaps, if the origins of Devils/Demons are anything like Judeo-Christianity, one has reached the point of possible redemption – that would be a big deal, and a big pay-off in campaign terms.

This one possible answer makes it clear that Portals can just as transformative of the politics of your cosmology as they can be in effectively reshaping the cosmos. Never was the ancient Chinese curse more appropriate – these PCs have definitely been cursed to live in Interesting Times!

Idea #13 – Socio-Ethical Morphology through Portal Networks

So far as I’m aware, Star Trek was the original source of the notion of encountering an alternate world in which everything was the same – but some things were (consistently) different, in the episode ‘Mirror Mirror’ of the original series. The ‘Mirror Mirror’ universe never showed up in the Star Trek The Next Generation (I always thought it would be fun to encounter a Mirror-version of Q, and the Borg, but what do I know?), but excursions into the alternate timeline in which everyone who was evil was good and vice-versa became an annual occurrence in Deep Space Nine.

But the ultimate expression of the concept was the foundation for the first two or three seasons of the TV series ‘Sliders’, available the first two seasons; (the link is to the “Dual Dimension Edition” which is what I have, and which is available at some bargain prices).

Or perhaps you would prefer to model your version of the alternate-worlds on Robert Heinlein’s Number Of The Beast. I know that a lot of people dislike this novel intensely, but I think that’s doing it a disservice. For the most part, I find it entirely enjoyable up until the fourth part, the pan-dimensional conference, in which the problem that has been the motivating force behind the entire story is dismissed in about a page by a deus-ex-machina. Had I been the author, I would have ended the novel just as the conference was being proposed – and then written another of equal length, about what happens next. The conference would have determined that the scope of the problem was far larger than originally thought, and perhaps come up with a means of detecting “the beasts” – and then we’re treated to the most epic space-and-time-opera ever, move and countermove, universe after universe, exploring the moral dilemmas of how far humanity is right to go in defense of its own existence, and how far it can go without becoming no better than what they fight – a problem of morality that comes to a head when the home of the original sentient Beasts is first discovered. Half the council of allies want to obliterate it, wiping out the threat once and for all; a minority want to rehabilitate the Beast by establishing peaceful relations before war becomes inevitable; and a small group are so outraged by the decision that they act to sabotage the council’s genocide, setting the whole train of events in motion and making the original novel inevitable. Okay, maybe what I would have added is twice the length of the original, and we’re talking about a trilogy!

Be all that as it may, the fact is that there are lots of alternate world concepts out there for you to remodel and apply to your own campaign, either as a one-off or as a persistent complicating factor! This week, the PCs go to the Diskworld, next week they are off to a steampunk Ringworld, the week after…. well, the sky is no longer the limit, is it?

Why not explicitly design your campaign world for lower level characters – and, when the PCs grow in power enough to start dominating it, shuffle them sideways into a world that’s a bit more challenging, with no way back?

Idea #14 – Portals Can Only Connect To Variant Planar Topologies

Why stop there? This series starts with the premise that Gates and Portals effectively reshape the Cosmology by bringing two remote parts of it into (effectively) close proximity – but what if all Portals led to cosmologies that had only one thing in common – they were all Different to the one that the PCs live in?

Literally anything you can think of becomes doable. The PCs find themselves in a world in which a coalition of Water and Air elementals led by General Ulysses S. Grant is fighting a terrible civil war with Fire Elementals over the enslavement of Earth Elementals? Or maybe they are trying to win their independence from the Fire Elementals and are being led by General George Washington?

This week, the sky really is an arch held up by the mountaintops. Next week, an inside-out world. The week after, white blood cells fight a desperate war against a viral invader – in a computer circuit.

Or perhaps it’s only miscast Portals and Gates that lead to somewhere strange – and you can never be sure until the first time someone goes through it and comes back to tell the tale. This week, Star Wars; next week, Star Trek; the following week, Babylon-5; and everyone carries medieval weaponry on these jaunts because anything more complicated won’t work when carried from one existence to the next.

Idea #15 – Variable-Difficulty Portals

For the final idea that I am presenting in this article challenges another assumption: why should all destinations be equally accessible by Portal or Gate? Why shouldn’t there be lines of least resistance, and to reach a more remote destination, the additional resistance must be forcibly overcome? Why shouldn’t travel to a more remote destination be akin to climbing a hill – with several hundred pounds of gear on your back?

At the beginning of this series, I pointed out that by reducing the distance between planes to a mere step, Portals and Gates effectively reshape the cosmos. The problem, from the GM’s point of view, is that this reshaping is to some degree out of control; EVERY Portal or Gate has exactly the same consequence. This new proposal restores some of that lost control, because the GM can determine those lines of least resistance.

How? Well, here’s one way of doing so.

board 1

Start with a scrabble board or something similar (a chess board doesn’t have enough squares, before anyone asks). Near the center of the board, choose a square and place a chit or scrabble tile on it to represent the Prime Material Plane. I’ve drawn a “P” scrabble tile for illustrative purposes.

The standard D&D cosmology involves several layers that have to be considered. There are the three transative layers – the Astral, Ethereal, and Shadow plane – the elemental layers (which some consider to include the positive and negative energy planes), and the Outer Planes. Of these, interweaving the transitive layers is the most complicated task, so that’s where a lot of attention will be paid during this process.

board 2

Place a counter of some sort – I’ve depicted a tiddlywinks counter – in one of the squares immediately adjacent to the Prime Material Plane – top, either side, or bottom, it doesn’t matter which. Following the diagonal of squares, place more so that they form a straight line. From one of the squares that now contains a counter, count across or down four squares and place another diagonal row parallel to the first. Repeat until you’ve dealt with the whole board.

These represent the Astral Plane, the most readily-available connection to anywhere. But I’m not quite finished defining it yet.

board 3

From the Prime Material Plane, count one square across and one square along the line of the diagonal as shown. Place another Astral Plane counter in the square (I’ve faded the counters already placed so that the new one stands out).

board 4

Complete the diagonal running at right angles to the first one with more Astral Plane markers as shown. From one of these new placements, count 4 squares along the line of the original diagonal and add another cross-line of Astral Plane Markers. Again, repeat until you have dealt with the entire board.

board 5

In the squares running parallel to the original diagonal lines and midway between them, place a different sort of marker to represent the Ethereal Plane. This causes them to form “strings” of three markers in a row, which I have referred to as “Ethereal Nodes”. Why?

One of the most important things that the GM has to do when Planar Travel is involved is to make each plane unique and distinctive. I’ve always felt that in its original concept, the Ethereal Plane is too like the Astral Plane. Over the years, I’ve used many different variations on the Ethereal Plane purely to distinguish it in some fashion from the Astral Plane.

In this case, the concept is that the Astral Plane connects everywhere (but will be hard to enter, harder to exit, and still harder to transit through) while there is a substructure to the Ethereal Plane that makes local transit (through a specific Ethereal Node) rather easier, while transit from one Ethereal Node to another is even harder than using the Astral Plane. In effect, the Ethereal Plane is subdivided into a series of foamy “bubbles” which are relatively easy to get into but will only connect with specific and limited planes (we’ll get to decide which ones later in the process). So in-and-out of one Node is easy; passing from one node to another is very difficult.

board 6

So far, we’ve filled about half the board without putting in anything of much substance. It’s time to change that, with the laying of tiles for the Elemental Planes. I’ve put them in the order of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, but you can use any order you like. Note however that it does make a big difference which plane is adjacent to which in the finished Cosmology.

The tiles are placed diagonal to the Prime Material Plane and immediately next to it.

board 7

Next, it’s time to start placing the Positive and Negative Energy Planes. These represent a new level of topological complexity (so as to make it hard for players to min-max the system). Place two Positive (“+” marked) tokens and two Negative (“-” marked) tokens. Again, it matters to the final cosmology where these are placed with respect to the elemental planes – I’ve chose to bracket the Earth plane with Positives and the Water plane with the negatives, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

board 8

Now pay attention because it’s about to get complicated. Along each of the horizontal and vertical axes, count out two spaces (including any already occupied by Astral or Ethereal Tokens) and place an elemental plane token of the opposite polarity. From a plus, lay a minus, and from a minus, a plus.

The reasons for this are several; I won’t go into all of them here, but I’ll mention a couple. First, I wanted to impart a little fuzziness to the boundaries between Inner and Outer planes; second, Second, I wanted to actually provide some sort of functional difference between Inner and Outer planes rather than simply as terms of convenience; and third, I wanted to raise the complexity of the topology another notch. You see, so far as I (and this system) are concerned, Each “+” tile is adjacent to its neighboring “+” tiles, as though the space in between them barely existed; they are contiguous at a level above or below the plane of this structure.

The other effect that should be noted is the degree of interconnection already taking place; Look, for example, at the Fire Plane. It’s equally well connected to both Astral and Ethereal Planes, connects to both Positive and Negative Energy Planes, and connects to the prime Material Plane. In fact, the only distinction between the elemental planes and the Prime Material Plane is that the latter connects equally with all of the former, while none of the former EVER connect directly with each other.

By the way, if you’re the type who likes to include the Intermediate Elemental Planes (Earth + Fire = Lava, etc), and want to know where they are, they can be considered to be in a pocket within either the Astral or Ethereal planes between the Elemental Planes, while any that don’t share that sort of connection form a pocket within the Shadow Plane (which we’ll get to a little later).

For now, we’re still emplacing the positive and negative energy planes.

board 9

From the planar markers just laid (i.e. the outermost points (so far) of the Positive and Negative energy planes, count out one diagonal, turn 90 degrees, and count out two more. Where this “connects” two planes of the same polarity, place another token of the Opposite charge – so from the two positives, you get a negative; and from the two negatives, you get a positive.

Where the two charges are mixed, leave the space empty, for now.

board 10

I’ve shadowed the squares that aren’t affected in this step to make the diagram a little clearer. Last time we counted radially outwards, we advanced two squares (or crossed on Transative Line, if you prefer; this time, we advance four (or cross two transative lines). It sounds complicated, but it’s not that bad, I hope – because there’s worse to come, I’m afraid.

board 11

Having proceeded outward two steps along the vertical and horizontal axes, we next proceed diagonally out three squares – crossing three transative lines. These are the most remote peripheries of these two Inner Planes; like the points on a morningstar, the project out from the inner planes, thrusting far out into – well, into the undecided, so far.

board 12

Now things get really complicated, because it’s time to locate the Plane Of Shadows. From each of the existing Squares representing the Positive and Negative Energy Planes, in all four viable directions, count straight out two squares and one diagonal step that does not turn through more than 45 degrees. Each square that is “reached” in this fashion has a 25% chance PER CONNECTION of being a part of the Plane Of Shadows. As it happens, in this example, none of them add up to 75% – it’s 25%, 50%, 100%, or no chance at all. The affected squares have been color coded in Grey, with the darkness representing the likelihood that the square is a part of the Shadow Plane.

To make things clearer, I’ve prepared two closeups (with irrelevant detail ignored).

board 12a

The first closeup shows how four different “points” of the energy planes come together to give one particular square a 100% chance of being part of the Plane Of Shadows. The Second close-up, below, shows the counting pattern for a single square of (in this case) the Negative Energy Plane – there are five viable steps (shown in green) which confer 25% to each of the squares the path points to, and three that are not viable (in red) because the moves end in a square that already contains a tile or marker – in this case, a positive plane “protrusion” and two of the Elemental Planes.

Look back at the image prior to the closeups, and now that you know what to look for, you should be able to see that every viable path is shown in green so that you can see how the different potential for squares of Shadow Plane is calculated. Just take is steadily and systematically, and you should have no problems. I recommend using something small as a counter, it makes the job a lot easier.

The next step is get out a trusty d8 and start rolling. 1-2 = “yes” for a 25% chance; 5-8 = “yes” for a 50% chance; and obviously there is no need to roll for a 100% chance!

I haven’t done anything about the Mirror Planes or anything else like that; if you want to, simply use a consistent variation on the same approach to determine which squares contain elements of those Planes. All it takes is a different pattern. But bear in mind that you need space for the real meat of the whole process. Most of this has been… not fluff, but not all that significant, either.

board 13

Any empty square can contain a Plane. You daisy-chain them to form associative chains. These chains can branch wherever seems appropriate. Any square that does not end up with Planar Content is part of The Void.

I’ve done about half the board in this example. We have one chain that runs 1-2-3-4-5-6 and a branch that runs 4-7-8; we have another chain that runs 9-10-11-12-15-16-17-18-19, with a branch running 12-13-14 and another running 12-20-21-22-23-24. Again, I’ve faded everything except these tiles to make them stand out a little more clearly.

The results is a complex cosmology and yet one that can reflect the traditional one – or one that’s radically different. Once you’ve finished placing planes, make a map/diagram of the results; the big advantage of using counters, as I’ve suggested, is that it makes it easy to “tweak” the resulting structure to suit your needs. If you have to, you can even scrap it all and start over.

All that’s left is to establish some ground rules. The easiest way of modeling the increased “resistance” that has to be overcome is by using a Spellcraft roll or something similar, basing the DC on the path to be followed, plus a base of 10:

  • DC +10 to enter the Astral Plane, +1 per square within the Astral Plane, +10 to exit into another plane.
  • DC +3 to enter the Ethereal Plane, +1 per square within an Ether Node, +5 to exit the Ethereal Plane, +8 to travel to an “adjacent” Ethereal Node.
  • DC +3 to enter an adjacent plane (unless otherwise specified) corner-to-corner.
  • DC +7 to enter The Shadow Plane, Positive Energy Plane, or Negative Energy Plane (+4 if transiting from one of these to another); +1 per square traveled within (bearing in mind that intervening gaps count as 0 spaces), and DC+5 to exit.

So, let’s say that you want to open a gate to Dimension 7.

  • Option One: Astral Plane from Prime Material (located between Earth and Air Planes) DC +10; 5 squares within the Astral Plane DC+5; Exit the Astral Plane directly to the destination, another +10. Total DC 10+25=35.
  • Option Two: Prime Material to Elemental Earth to 1-2-3-4-7: Six steps corner to corner, total DC 10+18=28.
  • Option Three: Prime Material to Ethereal (DC +3), 3 steps from one Ether Node to another (DC +24), Exit Ethereal Plane directly into Plane Seven (DC +5), total DC 10+32=42.
  • Option Four: Prime Material to Fire, Air or Water (+3 corner-to-corner), to Negative Energy Plane (+7), One step to the Negative Energy Plane protrusion lying between Dimensions 2 and 10 (+1), Exit Negative Plane and Enter Shadow Plane (+4), Exit Shadow Plane direct to Plane 7 (+5); total DC 10+20=30.

(There are others, but those four routes are enough to be getting on with). So, why choose one route over another? Well, obviously, the chance of success has a big impact. In-dimension hazards during transit is another consideration. But finally, let’s consider a failed roll: Determine the amount of failure and count backwards along the chosen route to find out where you actually end up. The Astral Plane may be difficult, but it’s also relatively safe; The Ethereal Plane is only a little less safe, and is rather more difficult, this really is too far a Jaunt to suit that route; that leaves Options two and four. The longer the route, the greater the difficulty difference between the two; it’s already marginally easier going corner-to-corner (option 2). But – depending on the nature of planes 1, 2, 3, and 4, one or both of these hazards can be extremely dangerous.

So the choice is a trade-off between speed, safety, and difficulty. Some routes will be easier and faster – but hazardous to the traveler’s health; others may be safer, but slower, and/or easier.

What’s more, you are completely at liberty to impose additional penalties for specific corner-to-corner steps, or challenges that have to be overcome, or both. You can make Plane 7 as easy or as difficult to reach as you desire. These problems can be simple roadblocks, or can contain plot content. The more you invest in the transit (as a GM), the more you – and your players – will get out of it in terms of adventure, plot, and narrative.

So may of the ideas I’ve presented in this series deal in control over a situation being lost; it’s nice to be able to contrast that with one that gives the GM greater control over Planar Travel.

To Be Continued…

Entering the home stretch, with 15 unexpected nasty tricks described – and five more still to come!

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Lessons from the Literary Process

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

I’ve commented a number of times on the insights that can be achieved by looking at behind-the-scenes specials and DVD commentaries. There’s a documentary series that has just started a week or two ago on TVS, a public-service broadcaster here in Australia, called “The Art Of Story and the Narrative Game” and the interest in the program is pretty self-explanatory. (For those that may be interested, the series has a Facebook page.)

In the course of the very first episode of the 13-part series, there was an interview with a writer, Christine Balint, author of The Salt Letters and Ophelia’s Fan, about the writing process. I found the interview especially stimulating in terms of the differences and similarities between her approach to the craft relative to that of writing for an RPG, and what lessons could be applied from the first to the second (It probably helped that her process sounded very similar to my own).

What follows in this article, then, is a series of selected quotations from the interview (and one or two from the segment on workshopping that followed it), and my responses regarding the applicability and nature of the relevance – and note that I am deliberately cherry-picking the ones that have something interesting to say in that respect.

Public Perception Of The Literary Process

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Q: “Do you think that the general public feel that just putting words on paper, in itself somehow, with enough time, will form a story?”
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A: “I certainly think that there is a bit of romanticization [of the process] … that everyone has a book in them and if you just sit down and do it, then that will be… [inaudible]”.

A lot of people do romanticize the process, I have to agree – but very few gamers are amongst them. In fact, exactly the opposite problem seems more prevalent – people thinking that it’s a lot harder than it really is, because they are sensitive to the difficulties involved in writing fiction, and of GMing well, and aren’t sure where the lines can and should be drawn between written word, game prep, GM Improv, and literary equivalence. As I explained in The Challenge Of Writing Adventures for RPGs, there a vast differences between the two, and of the two, I think that literary writing is easier.

At least one GM posed the comment in response to me that they had never found it particularly difficult, and to be honest, neither have I, and there are two reasons for that. First of all, there is some good news to go with all the bad, and that is that RPG writing is not prey to many of the more difficult requirements of literary fiction, and even the standards by which success (and even completion) are different; and secondly, it’s because my natural abilities and mindset mitigate, alleviate, or simply “fit” into the RPG requirements.

The Difficulties of Writing

All types of writing are not alike; poetry uses a different set of mental “muscles” to dramatic fiction, which is different from romantic fiction, which is different from stage and screen scripts, and so on. However, there are overlaps in skill, in requirements, and in the processes that can be applied. Any writer can do any of these things to at least some degree – but some will do them far more effortlessly and commendably than others. Nor does that imply that the writers who struggle are either better or worse at writing.

There is an intersection point between every possible story, every creator, and every medium/format, where the author is the most comfortable, productive, and satisfying. With some stories, the natural format and milieu in which it operates most comfortably is well outside the creative “pocket” of the writer who conceived of it. Some stories, in whole or in part, actually need to be handed over to a completely separate creator in order to bring the project to fruition.

So some writers have to sweat bullets to achieve something in a particular corner of literary creativity, while others throw words at the metaphoric typewriter as fast as their fingers can move. Sometimes, when you’re “in the zone”, the words just flow out naturally, and sometimes they have to be squeezed out as though from an almost-empty tube of toothpaste, one at a time. In the same way, writing adventures for RPGs may – in general – come easier to some writers than to others; but that’s no guarantee that everything will always run that smoothly, or be of superior quality – it won’t.

Valuing the struggle

In many ways, it can be argued that the work that we struggle over is ultimately our best, because the struggle has forced us to pay closer attention to it. Or, if we declare ourselves satisfied prematurely, the signs of the struggle may still show. So literary writers write, and rewrite, and revise, and rewrite, and edit, and rewrite, and polish, and rewrite, and rewrite again, until they have slain the dragon of difficulty and achieved satisfaction.

And that, right there, is the biggest single difference between literary creativity in general and writing for an RPG: you don’t have time to polish and restructure and rewrite to any huge extent. Comes game time, the adventure has to be ready to go, no matter what the quality of the product is at that point in time.

To get around this, we use all sorts of shortcuts that would be unforgivable in a piece of literary fiction. The process of writing has to change just to accommodate the “medium” in which we are creating. More on that as we proceed.

The Expectations of Words

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Q: “But there is an assumption… that just by the [process of] writing [the words] that, somehow, the structure of it will take place, and the characters will emerge.”

A: “Yes, certainly, and I think partly it’s because also the words on are very measurable, and its quite nice… [to] get to the end of the day and [be able to] say I wrote 2000 words today, now my manuscript is 80,000 words… whereas if you just sat down and… worked out the plot… and I had spent a couple of years in between abandoning one draft and starting the new one, and during that time I just wrote notes about characters and plot.”

Q: “So you’re doing a lot of what we would call research, [agreement] but it’s not library-driven research…”
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A: “No, and that is not so measurable, you don’t get to the end of the day and feel a sense of satisfaction because know you nutted out the intrinsic motivation of one of your characters.”

In an RPG, the story is far more of an emergent property of the interaction of setting, system, genre, character and stimulus. Unlike traditional writing, our stories don’t naturally come to an end, and don’t have to get straight to the point, and in many other ways, we can (and do) break the rules of good writing all the time. Our writing is usually better when we don’t know the end-point of the plot, and the outcome, because we shouldn’t know those things; that part of our writing is part of the game that results at the game-table.

GMs don’t insert plot developments because they will lead to a particular outcome, but because it will pose an interesting challenge to be overcome. Any plot-related objective on the part of the GM has to be achieved by the very existence of the plot development, regardless of its outcome.

For example, in the Zenith-3 campaign, the leading TV Evangelist has just delivered a sermon critical of the PCs, who he (and the church he represents) consider to be devils and demons, telling his followers to consider “what good is it to save your life if the saving puts your soul in peril of damnation? Resist rescue, no matter how dire the circumstance, at the hands of these spawns of the pit”. Now, I don’t know what the outcome of that particular confrontation will be – though I have suspicions about how it will play out – my plot objectives were achieved by the very fact of this challenge to the moral and civil authority of the heroes. They have been accustomed to expectations of enlightened self-interest in the face of a threat; from now on, some of the people they encounter will be uncooperative, and that lack of cooperation will make the challenges they face more difficult to overcome.

It’s as though the GM and players are exploring the story of the literary process itself, and the story of the characters is a secondary byproduct of that exploration.

GMs don’t write for the characters, we write for the players. We don’t challenge the characters, we challenge the players who operate those characters. The moment we challenge the characters and not the players, the problem can and will be resolved using game mechanics in a, well, mechanical fashion. That may satisfy the combat monsters, who simply want to put the prowess of their character-creation skills on display – but it doesn’t satisfy anyone else. Always remember who you are writing for, or you risk missing the target!

Outcomes, Literary structure, characterization, tight plot development – that’s at least half of the literary process that simply doesn’t apply to the RPG adventure. Our writing is more analogous to writing for an Improv Theater Production than it is a TV Drama, in many respects, never mind a novel. And that removes a huge burden from the task of writing for RPGs, and might be the only thing that makes them possible. And the players are akin to audience participation as much as they are active collaborators.

That’s the ultimate reason that Johnn advised GM’s to strong>’Say Yes back in 2009. Imagine for a moment that you were a fan approaching the head writer of a TV show to say, “I love your show, why don’t you…” only to be told by that writer “you have no taste and are completely wrong”. That’s what a “no” response is. Say “Yes, but” or “Yes, and” instead. And mean it.

The Structure Of Process

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Q: “….is that a societal issue, that we… don’t value thinking enough… [as] a work process”.

A: “That’s true. It’s not a measurable sign of productivity, I think, and therefore it’s [dismissed].”

Q: “And does that form a lot of guilt for writers, in their pajamas and messy hair?”

A: “I think absolutely it can. I mean, it makes a big difference to me, I often feel like I’ve done nothing for large amounts of time, unless I’ve got the word-count happening. [But] it’s nice to have your list; at the moment I’m at a point where I’ve got my draft, and I’ve gone back through and I’ve worked out [the] scenes that I need in order to make sure these charactersquote end 45 undergo the appropriate development, and so I’ve listed those scenes now, which is good because when you have a break [and resume writing] you go, ‘okay, what do I have to do?’ and [there] it is, tick it off.”

The Literary Process

You can think of writing as a task that can be divided into acts, each of which achieves a specific purpose in terms of the whole narrative, each of which can be further subdivided, again and again, until the outline becomes an outline in nested bullet-point form. If a scene isn’t working in one place, if the mood doesn’t transition properly, or a character’s reaction doesn’t ring true or isn’t justified by prior experiences that the reader knows about, or whatever, you either insert an appropriate scene, or move the scene to elsewhere in the sequence of presentation to the reader, or whatever. You tinker with the story structure and the flow of the story until all these problems are gone.

And if it really is inappropriate for the character to react in the way that the plot now demands of them, you have to go back and change the character, and rewrite every scene in which they have appeared, and identify and rewrite every scene in which they should now logically appear but that they were not involved in before. But that’s all in service of the basic plot outline and reaching the resolution of that plot.

The RPG Difference

In an RPG, we don’t know what the resolution is going to be, and we have only a limited facility to change the characters once they have been established (and have no control at all over the most important of them). Instead of definitive answers, we construct trends and situations that are likely to lead the plot in a basic direction that will lead to a satisfactory resolution, and rely on our improv skills to introduce new stimuli and trends to correct any drift away from a satisfactory resolution. If the major villain gets defeated too soon, he suddenly becomes an underling to a bigger threat, and possibly even was merely masquerading as the major villain who is still out there, and can’t be judged by the same standards. Or, if the premature defeat of the underling was sufficient cause for player satisfaction, we take stock of the moving pieces in the game world and ask who would react to that defeat in a manner that will be stimulating to a new adventure.

Each adventure is both an organic product of the history within the campaign, and something to be pruned and shaped like a bonsai tree. We arrange our NPC chessmen and plot their moves in advance, with contingencies against the unexpected, then sit back, press the ‘start’ button, and see what unfolds.

Plots in an RPG

There have been times when my high-level campaign plotting consists of “I need someone to cause this effect, I’ll create an NPC to do that job. I need to establish who this NPC is prior to that encounter, so I’ll drop another encounter with him or her into the master plotline some distance earlier. That encounter needs to be resolved, but inconclusively, so I’ll set it up accordingly. But if that NPC is still around when this other NPC starts performing the metagame function that he is there to achieve, the new character will get in the way. Can I adjust the plot so that the new character becomes an enabling factor in that subsequent plotline? Can I cope with the complication? Or should I insert another encounter to resolve his presence in the campaign, once and for all, after he’s fulfilled his purpose?”

In other words, I work backwards from a desired plot development to put the pieces in place, then forwards to remove anything that will get in the way.

Campaign Structure

Once I have these basic building blocks, I can move them around to achieve the overall flow within the campaign that seems most desirable – sharing the spotlight evenly, keeping things fresh and exciting, balancing everyday life and cosmos-threatening calamities, and so on. With the basic structure defined, I can write each individual adventure according to the specifications determined. You can even seem to remove a piece from the playing board only to bring it back in a surprise twist that – in hindsight – seems inevitable.

The big difference therefore is that we define our characters in different ways – the literary approach uses words, while the campaign approach uses game mechanics and character sheets. And sometimes, we can define them in words and make up the contents of the character sheet as and when we need them, synthesizing a hybrid approach that has the benefits of both and the drawbacks of neither.

Evolution In Action

Plans like these are not static – that’s a mistake that a lot of GMs make, especially when just starting out. That leads them to plot trains and trying to ensure specific outcomes. Instead, by knowing what the metagame purpose of each NPC is, if the outcomes make it impossible for them to fulfill the required purpose, I write them out and write in a new character who will – or who will change the NPC in such a way that the problem is overcome.

Each adventure thus forms the foundation of a later adventure until a climax is achieved – and that’s called a campaign.

The Confident Writer

The final quotation that I want to take from the program is during a completely different segment, where various authors are discussing writer’s workshops. One contributor, Antoinette, is discussing the impact that premature revelation can have on the writer.

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“I [once] made the mistake of talking about my novel, and sharing it, too early – a novel that I had started. And with the feedback that came, it put me off the novel altogether, and I had to put that aside. So when I started the last one, even though I trusted my writing group implicitly, I did not workshop it for the first sixquote end 45 months, because I felt that I needed to be secure in my story and secure in my voice beforehand… I didn’t want people asking me hundreds of questions that I couldn’t answer, because that would sap my confidence.”

One of the differences between writing fiction and writing for television – or for an RPG – is that fiction doesn’t have to be aired publicly until the writer is confident in the basics of the work that they have done. In TV, the cameras roll whether the script is being frantically rewritten to plug holes at the same time, or not; and GMs have an equally-inflexible deadline. Ready or not, the game starts when the players sit down at the table.

That makes confidence in their abilities one of a GM’s most-prized posessions. (It also means that there is little that is more satisfying than when you aren’t quite ready, and you forewarn the players of that and then absolutely nail it).

So let’s talk for a bit about confidence.

A lesson in confidence

You could be William Shakespeare reincarnated, but if you don’t have the confidence to ever show your work to a publisher, nothing is ever likely to come of it. Confidence in what you are doing is critical to a writer. But confidence in what they are doing is everything to a GM, even more than it is to a writer.

Why? Because we ARE going to get those hundred questions and have to supply answers – without the luxury of any six months. We’re usually lucky if we finished writing before the night prior to play!

There are four ways to achieve the necessary level of confidence.


First, you can draw on experience. That is the source of confidence – every success adds to it, every time a player tells you they had fun – or even just that they want to join your game.

But, if you don’t have experience yet, what do you do? Well, you start by choosing a sympathetic audience. I know some players who will go easy on a new GM, help out with alternatives when they seem to get stuck, point out both perceived mistakes and suggested solutions, and so on. I also know some players who smell blood in the water and react like sharks, players who no novice GM should take on without knowing exactly what they are letting themselves in for.

I did that when I was relatively inexperienced – the group was twice the size I was used to, the players had years of experience as both players and GMs, and I had been involved in the hobby for less than a year. I knew that I was going to lose control of the campaign within minutes of game start. So I told them to do their worst, that I couldn’t see and patch the cracks until I knew where they were – and by inviting them to totally trash the campaign, I insulated myself against any loss of confidence. The players that I would usually be up against were far less experienced than this group.

Within 10 minutes, I had lost total control of the campaign, and within 30, they were running wild all over the landscape, using vials of green slime fired by catapults to wipe entire armies off the face of the game world. At first level. Three hours later, I surrendered to the inevitable and ended play. Then we turned to discussing the campaign and the mistakes I had made. I got a number of harsh criticisms, but there were also positives – one commented, “interesting premise”. Another said that they’d had fun. And a third complimented me on not collapsing in a total heap as soon as things went pear-shaped (I’d had a squad of archers called up hastily from the rear lines of the army to try and break the vials while they were still in flight). Of course, the reason I had been able to keep swinging was the emotional insulation I had given myself with reasonable expectations; the compliments were a total and unexpected bonus.

When you dig into it, the major reason most players don’t get behind the GM’s chair is a lack of confidence. The requirements are daunting, and so is the scale of the task, and the level of responsibility – your friends are trusting you to entertain them, and you don’t want to let them down.

There’s nothing wrong with going into a situation expecting to fail – so long as you also expect to learn from it.

A Fun Resolution is a Good Resolution

Second, let go of the expectations that won’t be met. The players will do something you weren’t expecting – don’t expect to be able to predict their every move, never mind be prepared to deal with it. The players will ask you a question you can’t answer authoritatively – don’t expect to be able to. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “That’s a very good question and I’m not sure what the answer should be – let’s call a five minute break in play and talk about it.”

That turns the game session into a bullring session, removing the fraying mantle of authority and permitting discussion on a level playing field. Or you could say, “I’m not sure. You’ve got 60 seconds to convince me.” And the player either does, or doesn’t – and if they don’t, it’s a good sign that the proposition was flawed to start with, even if you can’t identify the flaw.

You could also ask a non-participant to backstop your first session or two, leaving all the decisions and game-play to you, but interrupting when you make a decision that is either flawed or could have repercussions beyond what you appear to be seeing at the time. The big danger is then growing accustomed to that crutch – so have a defined cut-off date after which you are on your own.

It’s astonishing how quickly you can build confidence. Even from failure.

Draw on your expertise as a Player

This is especially true for veteran players. Being a veteran player means that you have years of seeing other players come up with wild and crazy schemes, and of seeing how other GMs handled them – and of what worked and what didn’t. Trust in that expertise. Put yourself (metaphorically) on the other side of the gaming table – what would you expect a past GM who you respected to do if someone offered up that proposal or asked that question? Not what would you, as a player, like them to do – what do you think they would do, and how?

Have Faith in your premise and characters and let the chips fall where they may

Every beginning GM makes mistakes. If you don’t know the answer to a question, make something up. And if you then get told, “that doesn’t make sense”, ask “why not?”

The reply you get will usually identify a premise upon which that response is based. From that point, you have two choices: #1: “You’re right, my mistake, so they wouldn’t do that, instead…” – something that you’re able to do because you’ve spent the time while listening coming up with a plan B, just in case; and #2: “You would be right if [state premise], but, what if…”

Early in what is now the Zenith-3 campaign, I had a mental blank and forgot when the Communist Revolution in China took place. So, in answer to a question to which I didn’t know the answer, I mentioned the Emperor Of China. “What happened to Chairman Mao? What happened to the Communists?” was the reply. “Mao was overthrown by the very supervillain you’re now confronting,” I answered, “who was in turn overthrown by the legendary hero Ullar” (whose presence in the backstory I had already made clear. “He wants his throne back,” I added. Mistake to countering the premise of the question with a moment of invention. When pressed for the details, I simply answered, “I’m still working on the research, I’ll get back to you” (this was in the pre-internet age). Everyone accepted it, and play moved on.

Mistakes don’t have to be fatal. And you use the same skills to get away with a mistake as you do to cope with unreasonable requests by players and unexpected questions: creativity, and thinking as quickly as you can, while stalling for enough time to complete that thought process.

And never be afraid to admit, “I didn’t think of that, give me a couple of minutes to work out what happens” when confronted with the unexpected. Tossing a minor XP reward in response sweetens the deal and gives the player his deserved moment of glory – while enhancing your reputation as a fair and honest GM.

And if none of that works…

Fake it.

That’s right, pretend to be confident even if you aren’t.

There are some strange neural responses to expressions of emotion that we don’t really feel – the brain assumes that the expressions are in response to real emotions, even if it can’t work out why, and alters your real mood accordingly.

Smile at people, they usually smile back – most of them can’t help it. And both of you find yourselves in a better mood a few minutes later – without really knowing why.

The same thing happens with doom and gloom, thought to a lesser degree – focus on that emotion, express that emotion, and you make others feel down, and that lowers your own mood even without you understanding the mechanism.

And the same thing happens with confidence, at least to some extent.

There are also some articles here at Campaign Mastery that can help.

So remember: whatever problems you encounter behind the GM screen are nothing that other GMs haven’t been confronting for years. They solved it, or found a way around it – you can too.

The process of writing for an RPG makes success inherently easier to achieve; you have no reason not to be confident in that.

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Yrisa’s Nightmare and other goodies

A reduced-size image for Yrisa's Nightmare. Art by Monica Marie Doss.

A reduced-size image for Yrisa’s Nightmare. Art by Monica Marie Doss.

There are some projects that excite because of their content. There are others that entice because of the track record of the creators. And some projects simply ooze style and content. Today, I’m going to write about a project that ticks all three boxes.

It’s another product from Embers Design Studios, and its called Yrisa’s Nightmare. Long-time readers may remember me gushing about the value embedded in their previous project, The Book of Terniel, in Things That Are Easy, Things That Are Hard, which was inspired by the difficulty in what they were trying to achieve. They are being no less ambitious this time around.

GMs can never have enough resources to draw on. One of the big ticks for me in the previous project was the sheer quantity of content that could be expropriated and dropped in anywhere that the GM saw fit, and this is also true this time around. Rather than focusing on one big manifesto piece, this time I thought I would focus more on that content.

We start with the heart of the offering:

An adventure to interest

I have to admit that as soon as I grasped that Yroden was a town and not a person, the pitch for the adventure enticed. “Highhouse Yroden has been cursed. Apparitions stalk her streets, gnolls lurk in the nearby wilds, and a dragon has taken interest in the town. Yet the curse runs deeper still. Nightmares plague the townsfolk’s dreams and madness grips their waking minds. If something doesn’t happen soon, Yroden will be no more.”

That raised the question in my mind of how (and if) GMs promote their adventure plans to the people who matter most, the players. Do you:

  • …tease with content, even if its from a subjective perspective that may not necessarily be factually true in actual play?
  • …tease with the adventure’s title?
  • …end one adventure with an omniscient-perspective prologue to the next, shorn of the context that explains it, and chosen to promise action, drama, mystery, or some other attractive quality or qualities?
  • …end an adventure with a revelation or imminent confrontation that will propel the plot in the next adventure?
  • …use a recap of trends and developments in the wider plot arcs with the promise that things are about to come to a head?
  • …or, is the next adventure nothing more than a chapter in the ongoing campaign, deemed to sell itself by virtue of that association?

I’ve used all these techniques in the past – rarely all in the same adventure at the same time, mind you! The last one is probably the choice I’ve employed least-frequently, but there have been times when any sort of hint would let the cat out of the bag. The most common pattern is to work hard on the adventure title, at the very minimum, as you can tell from the two-part article I wrote on the subject (Part 1, Part 2), and then to use one of the other techniques as an occasional supplementary piece of internal promotion.

A lot depends on the structure of the adventures themselves. Right now, in the Zenith-3 campaign (as an example), the structure is to start with some slice-of-life content that evolves the campaign background and circumstances of the team, and have the primary action within the adventure emerge from within those routine activities, either as an unexpected disruption of the routine, or as an unexpected consequence of them. In the most recently-completed adventure, a visit to a coffee shop for one PC, another volunteering at a soup kitchen for the homeless, and a third attending an art class, all fed directly into the main adventure, while the other PCs experienced encounters that were incidental to that plot but that built toward future plots. Over the next year or two, those ‘slices of life’ will gradually become less common, and there will be more cases of ‘you are at X, doing Y, when…’ and propelling the team directly into adventures, and a few occasions when we join them at the tail-end of a situation that ultimately contributes nothing to the campaign but simply shows the team doing what the team are there to do, i.e. catch bad guys and stop their schemes.

Quite often in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, we will use the ‘You are at X, doing Y, when…’ approach to propel the team directly into the plot. (For the next couple of adventures, we have a deliberately slow-burn introduction, because it suits our plot needs to build the suspense gradually – something we have also done a time or two in the past when it seemed warranted). We will only occasionally tease the content of the next adventure, though we will often reveal the title of the adventure to come – once again, putting quite a lot of effort into getting that right. (For the record, the team are in the closing stages of “Prison Of Jade”, which will be followed by “Boom Town” and then “Lord Of The Flies”. These last two were originally conceived as occurring in a quite different sequence – but I can’t go into that without spilling beans).

The goal is to build up the anticipation of the next adventure as a bridging mechanism between it and the one just completed. In other words, the intent is to manipulate the emotional intensity involved. TV shows have been doing this for decades, for one simple reason: it works.

That’s one of the greatest challenges of writing back cover copy for an adventure – how much do you reveal? How much remains hidden? In some ways, the needs of marketing, promotion, and – in the case of a kickstarter campaign – fundraising, are all at odds with the ideal choice in terms of actual usage. Which brings me back to Yrisa’s Nightmare, and the summary blurb used to describe it.

In terms of enticing people to get ahold of the adventure, it works admirably (especially with a few other snippets of information thrown in); but in terms of keeping the nature and subject of the adventure secret from a potential player, it seems rather explicit. Unless that’s a deliberate deception, which is not best marketing practice. Frankly, this is a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation.

There’s only one solution that satisfies everyone, and that’s if the situation being described is one that’s going to be presented to the players as`soon as they arrive. And personally, it’s my impression that this is the case this time around.

So, to specifics: This is an adventure for 4-5 characters of 2nd level. It promises action, roleplaying and mystery. And implies a strong Gothic Noir undertone that should appeal to a modern audience.

It took me three levels of zoom to be able to show how good the map for Yrisa's Nightmare will look at full resolution. Cartography by Stephen Garrett Rusk.

It took me three levels of zoom to be able to show how the map for Yrisa’s Nightmare will look at full resolution. Cartography by Stephen Garrett Rusk.

A map to entice

As with the The Book of Terniel, the map is a definite selling point. Maps are a constant headache to those creating adventures; once again, the problem is the same: how much do you reveal, and how much do you keep hidden? For Assassin’s Amulet, I produced excerpts of each room and blacked out the surrounding spaces so that you could cut out each room and place it on a darkened player-version of the map, purely in an attempt to solve this problem.

Other problems are as much stylistic issues as they are questions of practicality. Maps have changed a lot in nature and character in the course of the last few centuries, and user expectations have changed along with them; the modern priority is accuracy, whereas older maps where as much pieces of art as they were depictions of where things were located, relative to each other. There have been maps in the past which made not attempt to indicate where things were located in any geographic sense; instead, they depicted the relative size of each settlement that one would come to along a given route. Others incorporated theological perspectives or metaphysics. The reason, of course, is the difficulty of measurement.

The evolution of maps and cartography is a fascinating subject!

Map style, like any other illustration, can convey facets of the subject that would take hundreds or thousands of words to convey in a less-effective manner. In particular, a well-rendered game map tells you something about the fictional cartographer who made it, and by extension, the world in which they supposedly live. (Sometime when you have a spare couple of hours to kill, work your way through this Google image search or this one, and you’ll see exactly what I mean).

Computer games have been employing the same technique for ages. I particularly remember the maps from 1996’s Heroes Of Might And Magic II, in which the different realms had very different styles – from the more traditional adventurer to the far more gothic Necromancer’s Castle, and so on.

The map for Yrisa’s Nightmare is in a similar sort of old-world style to that which Tolkien employed, and which is a lot harder to do well than many people realize. The result is a sense of intimacy between the mapmaker and the geography that he is depicting, a feeling that he has drawn what he knows – and not drawn what he doesn’t, leaving the areas beyond as fuzzy and unknown. There is a lot of symbolism and metaphor in this style of map – one tree rarely signifies one tree, but simply says “there are trees here”. The exact borders between a wooded area and the surroundings are not defined, as they would be in a (more accurate) modern map.

In other words, what’s shown on the map is what was supposedly important to the map-maker, and the map serves as a window into his world. This artistry doesn’t happen by accident – and is something that I wish more module makers – and GMs – thought about. But, in the meantime, you at least have this one to contemplate.

A reduced-size image for Yrisa's Nightmare. Art by Gennifer Bone.

A reduced-size image for Yrisa’s Nightmare. Art by Gennifer Bone.

A creature to haunt

One of the centerpieces of the adventure is a new monster, the Blackclaw Gnoll, which is “an an unholy merging of demon, dragon, and gnoll”.

GMs have been merging two creatures to create a third for decades. It started with Tolkien’s Uruk-Hai, a ‘blending of orc and man’, I think, long before there were any such things as RPGs! But the infusion of a third species seems profoundly unnatural – which, I think, is exactly the flavor that the creators of the adventure were aiming for.

I’ve seen, from time to time, similar blendings from amateur GMs on the net, and they usually evince a cringe-reaction from me. Too often, they seem to be abominations in which different elements are thrown together haphazardly to form an incoherent melange that exists for no particular reason, or on the most spurious justification. “I want it to be inhumanly strong, so I’ll mix in some dragon…”

For some reason, I don’t get the same sense from this particular creation, and I think that it results from the clear purpose of their creator. I hope that I’m right about this, that some thought has gone into the inherent qualities of each of the contributing species and how the blend will be shaped by them. What qualities would be reinforced? What incompatibilities would have to be solved, and how was it done? Why Gnoll and not Troll, or Bugbear, or whatever?

In short, I’m hoping for coherence in design, and have the sense that it might just be there.

That’s because, if I’m right and this creature is instrumental in bringing about the woes described in the adventure blurb, it means that the credibility and believability of the entire adventure is riding on the credibility and believability of the creature – and Lucas and the others at Embers Design Studios are smart enough to have realized that, and put the hard yards in on the design.

Terniel Offer

Art to immerse

I’ve talked about the value of illustration to generate a sense of immersion before, but never discussed the difference between “found illustrations” and bespoke artwork of the kind that featured in The Book of Terniel, and is a prominent element in Yrisa’s Nightmare. I note that supporters of the new campaign also have the opportunity to pick up Terniel at a discount, with a bonus supplement in which the art from the previous adventure is highlighted and the artists interviewed. Much of the art team is the same this time around – and that adds to the certainty that there will be content to relish.

It’s all well and good to do as I do. and go searching for an image that can be used to illustrate something in a game (with or without a little digital manipulation). I’ve found some wonderful photographic reference using that technique, enriching my games immensely.

But it means that you are adapting to the source in question as much as you are adapting the source to your adventure needs. You have to take what you can get, and do the best you can with the best that you can find.

Bespoke artwork has no such limitations. It depicts something from the source that simply can’t exist anywhere else. Skills as an artist, of any sort, are such a huge expansion of capability for a GM. Sure, you can get along without it – Blair, my co-GM in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, openly admits that he can’t draw. Ian Gray, who GMs Star Wars for myself and Blair, commented recently that while his character in the Zenith-3 campaign is learning to paint (at his suggestion), he doesn’t want to do so – which is fine, nothing wrong with that. Time is a precious commodity and priorities have to be set. But artistic ability, if you have it, when bent to the production of campaign illustration, adds massively to what you can bring to the gaming table.

Firebird I (unfinished and only about 30% of the size the final illustration will be), © 2015 by the Author.

Firebird I (unfinished, and only about 30% of the size of the final illustration will be), © 2015 Mike Bourke.

Two examples will prove my point. First, Firebird I (though the name is not finalized yet, and neither is the image). I know that in the adventure now in-progress (“Matters Of Faith”), I am going to need to describe, in detail, the newly-completed space station that is the headquarters of Zenith-3’s parent team. Every level has a function, and the size is indicative of the volume required to perform that function. I could describe all this in words, but simply doing so would drown the players in narrative – and not especially interesting narrative, at that. By the time I finished describing the last deck, it’s a sure bet that the details of the first will have been lost. And the second, and the third – and so on, for almost all of them.

One of the final steps required to complete the illustration (besides the unfinished shield generator on the rendered side) is to label each of the decks and salient features on the outlined side. Once that is done, I can deliver the narrative as it becomes relevant to the story, i.e. as the PCs move from place to place, using the illustration to tie them all together. In addition, I don’t have to provide boring details like relative deck sizes – that’s all obvious from the diagram, or will be when I add a scale, further accelerating the delivery of narrative – all of which enables me to focus on the events that are to transpire within, which is the interesting bit! Now, I could have gone searching for an image of a space station, and maybe found one from Star Wars or Babylon 5 or whatever by a much better artist than I am – but (a) the technology embedded into the station is unique, (b) as I said, every deck has a clear purpose, and (c) the design actually reflects the design necessary to achieve the functions and design ethos that would have been involved in its creation. Any other design would compromise one or all of these, and so the result might be prettier (though I’m darned proud of how it’s turning out) but it would not have been as effective or useful.

My second example derives from the Fumanor campaign. When we sat down to play, I got out my a3 sketch pad, and while play proceeded and I GM’d, I drew up an arid and rocky landscape, with unique terrain features. Several of the players were as fascinated by the image taking shape beneath my pencil as by the adventure in which they were taking part, and wondering whether or not I was really GMing on autopilot, and what that boded for the future of the campaign (others, more used to my ways, were sure that I had a reason for what I was doing – I always did, in the end). After playing for two-and-a-half hours or so, the action reached the point where I was able to say, “and when your vision clears, you see this”, holding up the A3 pad. I had used the act of rendering the illustration on a blank page right in front of the players as a way to build up the suspense and intrigue leading to the big revelation. The act of creation itself made the result more effective than any canned image – or even a custom image prepared in advance – could have been (I’ve used those, too, so I have a reasonable basis for comparison).

So my artistic skills, rusty as they may be, provide several extra strings to my GMing ‘bow’.

Make no mistake, however – any illustration that serves a purpose within the game is better than none. You can describe a Tangerine Gosset (to invent something off the top of my head) until the cows come home; no matter how clear an image you build up in the player’s minds, it can’t provide the visceral experience of seeing one.

Which is where the art in Yrisa’s Nightmare, and in The Book Of Terniel before it, come back into the discussion.

Another key factor in determining the usefulness of art as illustration is in the quality of the work. If something looks like a two-year-old drew it – with all due respect to the artistic abilities of two-year-olds – it is not going to be as useful or effective as it would if drawn, painted, or otherwise depicted by a skilled artist who knows what they are doing. And the art for Yrisa’s Nightmare is superb, as I hope the examples used in this article can confirm.

An App to game with

Yrisa’s Nightmare is going to be available in three formats: Print, PDF (optimized for tablets and mobile phones), and The City Of Brass.

City Of Brass is “a fully-featured [web-based] app specifically designed to manage the mechanics of pen-and-paper games allowing you to focus on what matters:” Playing the game. Actually, it’s a suite of four interconnected Apps, in my opinion. These four modules are the World Builder, the Entity Builder, the Story Builder, and the Campaign Manager – and all customizable to work with any RPG, according to the blurb at the above link.

Funding of The City Of Brass is on a subscription basis, but they offer a 30-day free trial. $3 a month gets you access beyond that 30-day window, or $24 a year (saving 33% off the monthly fee) – I assume the prices are in USD. But, if you buy Yrisa’s Nightmare, there is a special deal on offer: $20 for a year, or $90 for a year’s subscription for your entire group (up to 5 people), so that your players can use the character builder, have access to the game world, etc. Think about that for a moment: 5 people’s annual access would normally cost $180 (at the standard monthly rate), so $90 is as little as half the usual price.

Now, I don’t know if the primary purpose of Yrisa’s Nightmare is to market City Of Brass, or if they are simply looking to capitalize on the publicity raised by the Kickstarter Campaign. Look at it this way: either the option is yet another bonus add-on to the module that you can and should consider, or the module is a bonus and and enticement to sign up. Either way, it’s clever marketing and you get a bonus!

Is City Of Brass better than the other campaign management apps out there? I don’t know. Not only have I not played around with City Of Brass, I haven’t used any of the competing products to have a standard of comparison. All I can say is that it sounds good, if you can afford it.

I personally have a great deal of uncertainty about such Apps. First of all, I can’t afford the learning curve to get the best out of them; second, I can’t afford the data entry time to convert my existing campaigns; third, I don’t know how compatible any given app would be with my methods and work practices; and fourth, I distrust the idea of becoming dependent on a piece of technology that might vanish at some future point in time.

  • Learning Curve: Every new piece of technology has a learning curve associated with it. With some software, it’s short; with some, it’s an investment of hundreds of hours over a period of years. Campaign Mastery, like all WordPress-platform blogs, runs on CSS; I have never found the time to learn CSS, even though I use and rely on it every week. I’ve picked up a few bits and pieces, I managed to set up the class attributes for the tables used in the Tavern Generator to get them more-or-less the way I wanted (though I did a lot with line breaks, non-breaking spaces, and brute force, too), and can work out some things from general programming experience. There are lots of free courses and even more paid ones that promise to teach you CSS; I simply haven’t had the time to even seriously contemplate one. I tweak the CSS for Campaign Mastery with trepidation, semi-educated trial-and-error, luck, and careful backups. Mostly, I find a workaround that’s near enough and let it be. I’ve never been able to get bullet lists to perform exactly the way I want them to, for example.
  • Data Entry Time: Back in the days before there were Apps, I got myself a copy of Redblade 3.5 to make it easier to create and update NPCs in the Fumanor campaign. After a year of learning the software on-and-off as time permitted, I was able to use it for the purpose, making a lot of manual adjustments to the finished characters. I then calculated how long it would take to input all the feats, classes, and other reference material that would be needed to make it fully operational for the intended purpose. The total: 28,000 hours of data entry. At maybe 3 hours a week (tops!!) that comes to just under 180 years. Not going to happen. The rules for the Zenith-3 campaign, to take another example, total more than 435,000 words on over 720 pages – NONE of it campaign-specific material. It represents years of work over multiple decades. It won’t go into anything overnight – but these are the rules that I use most often.
  • This appears to be a less-serious objection. The question is, taking the learning curve into account, what is more productive – adopting my work practices, which have been tweaked and optimized to give me the most bang-per-work-second that I can obtain; or employing what may be more efficient practices (I don’t have a monopoly on good ideas) or may be less efficient practices, that are technologically supported, in hopes that the sum total is more effective than the current techniques. All things being equal, I suspect that the tech support would make the difference, and that I would be better off adapting to the new ways than being the best horse-and-buggy-maker-going; but all things are not equal, and the learning curve would more than consume the gains. Certainly, over the length of the subscription, it wouldn’t make enough of a positive difference to leave me better off. There is, however, one killer argument in this category: a lot of my gaming takes place in a location in which I don’t have internet access. No web = no web apps = no game.
  • I truly wish the City Of Brass longevity. Lucas is a nice guy, and I’ve been nothing but impressed with the work he and the others at Embers Design Studios have done. But I’ve been burned before. Heck, right now, Google Docs won’t let me access some of the online material I had set up; if I were relying on them, as we did when planning Assassin’s Amulet, we would be well-and-truly stuffed at this point. So I make it a rule of thumb not to be dependent on any given piece of software if I can help it.

Of course, none of my objections need apply to anyone else – and certainly, if I were setting up a new campaign, I would be a lot more receptive to a change in fundamental infrastructure and technique. If you have even the slightest suspicion that it might be worthwhile, sign up for the free trial period!

The great thing is that if you view this as just an extra add-on that you choose not to adopt, it not only doesn’t cost you anything, it has absolutely zero impact on your receiving value for money from the rest of the offering.

The Campaign

Which brings me to the Kickstarter campaign itself. Let’s break it down.

The basic packages get you access to the module in one or more of the formats. Additional options permit a number of extras to be added to the package – I’ll go into that in a moment – and there are a limited number of early-bird options that get you a discount (which are going fast!). There are also options to sign up as a play-tester – one way to be sure that your players haven’t read the module before you!


These include extra copies, the Book of Terniel, the World Builder package that enables you to collaborate on the adventure, City Of Brass subscriptions at the discounted rates, City Of Brass d6’s and bumper stickers, and the play-tester option.

Bonus Rewards

For every four achievements they reach – that’s backers for the Kickstarter campaign, new City Of Brass subscriptions, getting funded by 200% or more (see “stretch goals” and “the target” below), Facebook likes, social media shares regarding the campaign, or followers for the Twitter account – there will be something extra added to the package. At least four of these goals were reached with The Book Of Terniel so it’s entirely possible – but if you want to reach the second or third tier, you – and several other people – will have to hustle.

The reachable goal unlocks monsters, backgrounds, and traits – extra content, in other words. The goal that will only be reached if the campaign is wildly successful adds a player’s guide, which will enhance the adventure and may contain extra art. The third goal, only reachable if the campaign is a monster success, will unlock a mystery bonus.

The thing to remember about these rewards is that if everyone tries, they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like them, post about the campaign, and/or tweet about the campaign, and you encourage new twitter followers and facebook likes. These help persuade others to back the project, increasing both the degree of funding and the number of backers, and potentially the number of City Of Brass subscribers. So some social media activism contributes to 6 or 7 of the achievement bonuses – a solid reward for effort.

Stretch Goals

On top of that, there are 5 stretch goals. At funded-plus-50%, there’s an expansion that adds to the adventure environment and inserts a new scene into the adventure. At funded-plus-100%, not only do you unlock one of the achievements, but there’s a post-adventure extra that deals with the fallout from the adventure, helping to integrate the adventure into a campaign. At 250% funded, there’s another adventure extra, and at 300% you get details of the lurking villain responsible, his goals and followers, and his realm. Still more campaign-level goodness, in other words. Finally, at 400% funded, not only do you tick off a second (and quite possibly a third and fourth) bonus award, you get a side-adventure that can either be integrated into the Yrisa’s Nightmare or run as a standalone adventure.

The Pledges

Pledge levels that actually get you a copy in the event that the funding goal is reached start at $5 (plus add-ons) and range all the way up to $100 (which includes the $90 whole-group subscription to The City Of Brass).

My only criticism of the pledge levels is…

Flaws and Problems

The print copies only ship to the US. As someone who resides outside of this area, this irks me somewhat; but, given that this is their first venture into physically-printed products, I can understand the desire to limit the unknowns. Still, I would like to have seen this included in the stretch goals at the very least, so that if the project is a success, there is incentive for a second wave of backers from outside the US. And possibly even an intermediate step that adds Canada to the list of destinations.

The safest way of adding these destinations is by making international delivery an add-on; this is the routine practice with most Kickstarter projects with a physical print product. I’ve seen requests for an additional $5, $10, and $20 per copy; the latter is probably excessive, but the middle value is fairly reasonable.

The alternative is to duplicate all the pledge levels involving a physical copy, incorporating the extra cost of international shipping. It wouldn’t cost much more for Canada (which is why most campaigns who offer a print copy make it deliverable to either the US or Canada for the one price. Anything more distant is a different story.

But the bigger hole is that there is no group-backer option that doesn’t include a print copy. There are lots of roleplayers in other countries, and I think this is a mistake.

The biggest complaint that I have about the content is Y so many Y’s? We have Yrisa, and Yroden, and the unfamiliarity of both as names makes it easy to confuse the two. I mean, even the product description – it’s called Yrisa’s Nightmare, but the intro text never mentions Yrisa. Lucas replied, when I mentioned this criticism, that it was done to make everything sound a bit more Norse/viking/northerner, and I can understand that – but they remain a bit of a tongue-twister. I would certainly prefer to see the township renamed “Iroden” for ease of pronunciation (it’s the worse of the two in that respect) and clear distinctiveness between Yrisa and the township. He’s giving that as much attention as he can spare, at the moment.

Finally, there is the potential for some confusion about the add-ons vs the pledge levels. Several of the pledges include one or more of the add-ons but the price charged is NOT the same as the two listed separately. For example, the $20 pledge gets you a year’s subscription to City Of Brass AND the same things as the $5 pledge. That adds up to $25 because the discounted rate for CoB subscription is also $20. There’s a similar problem with the group-subscription-for-a-year. Either the CoB subscriptions is more heavily discounted than mentioned, or someones’ made a mistake with the math, or an attempt to be brief has conflated the price of extra subscriptions with the discounted price of subscriptions. Or maybe it’s supposed to be a limited early-bird offer. This needs clarification ASAP – the more people that have pledged, the harder it will be to straighten it out.

The Target

The Book Of Terniel asked for $500 and got $2000 plus. This campaign asks for $2000 and will get… what?

Well, let’s break that down. For electronic forms, there are 25 copies at $7 (now all gone) and unlimited copies at $10 for the PDF. There are then a number of options that give you Yrisa’s Nightmare in two different formats, for $17 and $18, respectively. Finally, existing City Of Brass subscribers can get the CoB version AND the PDF for just $5.

I don’t know how many subscribers CoB has that might take up that offer, so let’s assume for the moment that none do. The other non-print options (excluding the early-bird offer) cost $10, $8.50, and $9.50 per copy. There’s also a $25 version that gets you three versions (two PDFs and a CoB), or $8.33 a copy. Those four average out at a whisker over $9 each. So, deducting the early-bird copies at $7 that are sold out from the target, we get a further $1825 that needs to be raised from copies of Yrisa’s Nightmare. That works out to 201 copies.

The base price of a print copy is $25. So every print copy counts as about 2.8 electronic copies. So 72 print copies will also get the campaign over the line. Or, to put it another way, every 5 existing CoB subscribers who accept the $5 offer, one print copy needs to be sold.

PDF products routinely meet goals of $2K, and print products $5000. On the face of it, the goals are quite reasonable. Heck, I’ve seen $20 PDF products reach $5K targets and $40 print products reach $20-$25K. And they weren’t selling City Of Brass subscriptions as extras. So there’s no reason this campaign can’t get to well over the $5000 mark.

The big unknowns are in the effect of restricted distribution of the print copies, the lack of emphasis that non-US customers can still get the electronic versions, and the absence of the CoB discount packages for out-of-USA sales. But it’s a good bet that whatever the campaign gets, it could reach targets 5-10% higher by correcting these problems.

Here’s another way to look at it: For every print copy that might have been sold outside the US, they need to get 2.8 PDF sales outside the US to get to the same money. I’d hate for that to be the margin between success and failure, or the funding of a stretch goal. I already know one GM who prefers print products over electronic ones and who would have considered backing the project – if not for the distribution issue making the product unavailable to him.

The Comparison

Ultimately, the inevitable question is, how does Yrisa’s Nightmare compare with The Book Of Terniel?

You don’t have to look very hard to see similarities in style – in fact, I haven’t shown any character images from Nightmare because they were so similar in style to the one that I displayed when reviewing Terniel. The majority of the creative team behind one is essentially the same as for the other. That means that I would expect it to very much have a similar look-and-feel to the previous project, and everything that I am seeing on the kickstarter page accords with that assessment.

As with Terniel, this is a quality product that you can either use as a standalone or as a collection of a great many excellent resources to mine for your own needs.

How could the product (as opposed to the campaign) be improved? Ummm…. Ahhh…. more pages, maybe. And a version of the map without labels. And fixing the Y’s. That’s about it, I’m coming up empty for further suggestions (at least until I’ve read it!)

The Conclusion

For a change, I’m getting this in very early in the fundraising campaign, thanks to Lucas giving me an in-advance heads-up. As I write this, there are 27 days to go and pledges so far are already at the 36% mark. There is no telling what the future will hold, but if it takes 6 days instead of 3 to get the next 36%, I estimate that it will be fully-funded by about the half-way point. Of course, it would be completely egotistic to expect this review to accelerate that process; sometimes, these do, sometimes they don’t.

I think Yrisa’s Nightmare is worth backing. I know it’s worth your time in checking it out. To do so, click on any of the images from the product (that’s all of them above this line except the space station!) or on This Link. I doubt that you’ll regret it.

And, While I Have Your Attention

I get many more invitations to review/promote projects than I can possibly accommodate (strictly speaking, I shouldn’t have reviewed Yrisa’s Nightmare either – but it was too gorgeous to resist, and Lucas is an active supporter of Campaign Mastery to boot. Not that I would let that influence my judgments of the product or campaign – I value the trust that readers place in my writings, and letting bias creep in is the fastest way I can think of to lose that trust).

On that basis, I wanted to briefly mention a couple of other kickstarter campaigns – one in its’ final days (and is fully funded), Congrats! – and one that has yet to launch, but which has a ‘remind me’ service to notify you when it does – and a forthcoming novel. Call it a promo-roundup of things that I thought my readers might be interested in!

Awaken – A Dark Fantasy Tabletop RPG

From The Games Collective, via Studio 2 Publishing, comes “Awaken”. $19,984 raised against a $15,000 target, and four days to go. I love a fully-funded fundraising campaign, it takes so many unknowns out of the equation! So there will be a product, barring some sort of disaster.

The Jarillo Domain map from Awaken

The Jarillo Domain map from Awaken

The Games Collective are a small team from Croatia (go, guys! always happy to see another corner of the world getting into RPGs!), “stationed on Mediterranean coast”. Here’s what Zoltan had to say about Awaken when he contacted Campaign Mastery: “Fans of dark fantasy games, creativity and story driven experiences, will feel at home in Awaken, a pen and paper RPG heavily influenced by Slavic and Mediterranean folklore. The Kickstarter campaign features the core game at $45, and will be shipped worldwide. The logistics and publishing of Awaken are supported by Studio 2 Publishing, the sales, warehousing, and publishing partner of many game companies, including Pinnacle Entertainment, Exile Game Studio, Crafty Games, Engine Publishing, Hunters Books, Paradigm Concepts, and many more.”

Lots of nice eye candy in this one, too. Definitely worth a look, but time is short, so don’t dilly-dally; click on This Link or on the graphic above. And again, congratulations to all involved on a successful fundraising campaign!

Neodygame Scenography

Neodygame haven’t yet launched their Kickstarter campaign, but that means that there’s an opportunity to get in not only on the ground floor but though the basement!

An example of Neodygame 's Magnetic Scenography

An example of Neodygame ‘s Magnetic Scenography

Neodygame have a new idea: 3D magnetic scenery that locks into place sufficiently firmly that walls won’t get knocked over. They are going to launch a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter in December to bring the project into reality. The project is based on 6 key characteristics: Their “Easy-link” system (which allows every tile of the RPG scenery to connect and stick to the others automatically), high definition textures (which the image samples make very obvious), double faced, resistant (durable and waterproof) and ready to play. I don’t think I’ll get the chance to review the campaign when it actually launches – I’m already planning what to write in February! – so I wanted to give it a shout-out here and now.

The product looks great, but price is (right now) a big unknown. If you use Minis in your fantasy games, this is definitely something to keep an eye on.

If you visit their website, you’ll find a promotional video and lots more information and images. You can also sign up for a reminder when their Kickstarter campaign actually starts. Just click on This Link or on the graphic above.

Pathfinder: Bloodbound

I was recently offered the opportunity to interview the author of this new book, an opportunity that I had to decline for logistics reasons. But that doesn’t mean I can’t tell you about the book!

Pathfinder Bloodbound cover

Pathfinder: Bloodbound
by F.Wesley Schneider,
Published on December 1, 2015

F.Wesley Schneider is one of the co-creators of Pathfinder and a veteran game designer. He has published countless gaming products for both Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, and is a former assistant editor of Dragon magazine. Schneider will also be one of the Bosses of Honor at Gaymer X in mid-December. “Pathfinder: Bloodbound” (a Tor Paperback, on sale December 1) is his first novel.

“The gothic city of Ustalav is home to two societies, one belonging to humans and the other to vampires. Larsa, a dhampir – half-vampire, half-human – is charged with keeping the peace. When vampiric invaders breach the long-standing but shaky truce, a conspiracy ensnares Larsa and her companions – a priestess of the death goddess, a foppish vampire, and a Pathfinder – in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. This unlikely alliance proves that in the darkest of times, relationships can be forged even across different worlds.”

There’s a bit of Gothic flavor (continuing the general theme of this article!) and a definite sense of Eberron about the premise as described – but it also sounds like a lot of fun.

You can pre-order the book at Amazon (and get an early-bird discount) for only USD$11.24, or just read some more about the story – just click on This Link or on the cover.

Whew! Three products, all impressive/interesting in their own ways – four, if you count the featured product from Embers Design Studios. Hopefully at least one of them will be of interest. They’ve certainly stimulated my thoughts in different ways over the last few days! Now it’s back to working on that space station…

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