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Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time

books on many subjects

Image Source: / Wynand Van Niekerk

One art that every GM should master is the knack of researching just enough information just as quickly as you can digest it. I sometimes call it the art of Lightning Research, and today I’m going to share a couple of tips for doing it successfully.

These tips come in two parts – one for Wikipedia, and the other for more general internet-based research (because Wikipedia doesn’t hold all the answers).


For those who may have heard otherwise, although there can be controversies relating to individual articles, Wikipedia in general is reliable.

The great secret of success in performing lightning research is to skim twice and read once, taking notes as necessary only in the latter phase.

Skim Once

I will very lightly skim through the introductory section of the Wikipedia page that seems relevant, not trying to absorb any real information but seeking to establish a number of things:

  • Is this the right page, with the information that I need?
  • Are there additional pages that I need to open in a new tab in order to understand the topic / get the answers that I need?
  • What is the context for understanding the sectional breakup of the page?
  • What do I need to skim through in the second skim?
The Right Page?

There are four possible answers to this question: ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Maybe’, and ‘In Part’.

  • ‘Yes’ means that this is the right page and should contain the information that I need.
  • ‘No’ means that this is the wrong page. Hopefully it will link to what I need but sometimes I need to add to or change completely my search terms on the Wikipedia site.
  • ‘Maybe’ means that I’m not sure and will have to at least reach the second-skim stage before I can answer this question. The more vague my question, the more likely this answer is to result.
  • ‘In Part’ usually means “I think so, but will need to open further pages for more detail, or to explain the contents, or to supplement what I’m reading”. The more specific my question, the more likely this is to be the result.
Additional pages?

Each time I encounter a link while skimming, I make a snap decision on whether or not the page being linked to is relevant. Will it provide supplementary information of value to me? Will it (hopefully) explain something that is unclear in the article? If the answer to either of these questions is ‘yes’, or even ‘maybe’, then I open the article in a new tab. If not, then I often consider a second question: does it look to be of interest? If so, then I might still open the link in a new tab, but I will take advantage of a trick Google chrome has up it’s sleeve and drag the resulting tab to the left of the page I am currently skimming. That separates out the research task efforts from these ‘of interest’ pages so that I don’t get side-tracked.

Contextual Breakup?

Aside from the fundamental questions posed already, one of the key things that I am looking to get out of this skim is an understanding of the way the subject matter is organized within the rest of the article.

Planning The Second Skim

That’s so that I can try and narrow down which sections of the Wikipedia Page are most likely to contain the information that I need. Sometimes, this is clear, or seems so; at other times, it is not clear at all.

Skim Twice:

The second skim is not of the introductory section, but is directed at the content of the article, and is a more thorough skim than the first. I’m not trying to get a real understanding of the subject, instead I’m trying to zero in on the parts of the article that are relevant to my query.

I’m also trying to get a vague idea as to the content so that the information gleaned in the proper reading of the article makes sense to me. The more distant the subject is from something that I know something about, the more important this is as a priority.

Again, there are some specific questions that I am trying to answer:

  • Does this section contain the information that I need?
  • Do I need to know this in order to understand the information that I need?

If the answer to either of these is ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ or ‘in part’ – using the same possible answers as described earlier – then I skim the section until I reach a part where that is no longer the case.

If the answer is ‘no’ then I either move on to the next possibly-relevant section, or the next tab that I have opened in skim one, or rethink the research approach if I have run out of resources to examine. If I’m sure that Wikipedia will contain the information that I need if I just tickle it right, I will attempt to formulate a new search term to see if I can find the right Wikipedia Page; if not, then I will need to think of other resources that I might know of, or formulate an appropriate Google Search. Either way, the process will move on to the second type of research effort, to be described a little later.

But, for the moment, let’s assume that Wikipedia contains at least some of the information that I need.

Additional Pages

As I skim for the second time, I am once again noting any links that I come across, and evaluating them the same way as I did in the first skim.

Multiple Skims In Succession

It’s also important to note that unless I find the specific information that I need in a format that I am confident of understanding and placing in context, before I move on to the third stage, “Read Once”, I will perform first and second skims on all the web pages open to the right of the initial search page. That’s to ensure that I have the greatest possible chance of understanding the relevance of what I’m reading when doing the actual research. What’s more, if any of the additional pages that have been opened are there to explain something that I need to understand in order to actually comprehend what I’m reading, I will move their tabs to the extreme right in the sequence.

That is so that I can work my way through them, right to left, and get the answers to the foundational questions before tackling the main subject. It also ensures that I don’t miss any of the pages.

Of course, if any of the pages turn out not to be relevant at all, I will simply close that tab.

Ultimately, if Wikipedia is to be my solution source, I will end up with a selected-and-vetted quick course in the specific subject that I need to research. This is often a far more specific question than my initial search term.

Read Once

The actual research consists of reading the selected sections of the selected Wikipedia entries, taking notes as I go. The actual nature of these notes depends on the function that the page in question is serving in relation to the research.

Where the page is a foundation or context item, I will do my best to synopsize the relevant information into a single sentence per page, or – in unusual cases – one per section. I’m not interested in the whole of the content, just in those parts that explain the main answer. This, in essence, assumes that the information being researched will need to be presented to the players in one of my campaigns at some point, and thus needs to function as an introductory sentence to the actual information – so I will attempt to construct the information into an appropriate narrative passage.

When I reach the first (or only) page containing the actual information of relevance, I will pay closer attention. I may quote specific sentences or rephrase them; I may synopsize the relevant parts of an entire section into a single sentence or paragraph. This largely depends on how much detail I need to provide to the players.

Footnotes and References

I pay specific attention to these, as they are often links to additional information of direct relevance. Each time I come to one, I mouse over it until the pop-up appears, enabling me to assess its value to the research; if it explains or might expand on a particularly-relevant part of the research, I will study it and add any notes before moving on. This is achieved by right-clicking on the reference and opening it in a new tab (so that my place in the main document of study is not altered).

Additional Resources

At the bottom of each Wikipedia page there is usually a section listing external resources. I give these specific consideration before declaring the research complete.

Related Subjects

Finally, at the very foot of the page, there are usually a section on related subjects. I will look over each of these and open (again in new tabs) any that seem relevant, and subject them to the same processes, inserting additional research content as necessary. The ultimate goal is a straightforward narrative passage that can be provided to the players when appropriate – one that strips out the irrelevancies and simple contains the information that they need to know.

Sometimes I will need to create two research results: a complete one for GM reference and an edited one giving partial information to the players. I always create the complete one first and then edit out anything that I specifically don’t want the players to know (yet). This editing may require some rephrasing to conceal the fact that something has been removed from the real research.


The process that I employ for research using Google Search is very similar.

Skim Once

Instead of an introductory paragraph, the first skim is of the excerpts that accompany the search results. The key is to seek out potential relevance. I am relatively unconcerned about redundancy at this point; I always bear in mind that Wikipedia is designed to be relatively self-contained, while a Google Search is – by definition – completely un-contained. Once again, all relevant pages are opened in new tabs (I have my options set to do this automatically, though it doesn’t always work, so I will usually go to the trouble of telling the browser specifically to do so with a right-click on the link).

The rest of the Skim Once process is then achieved by scrolling through the pages that have been opened from top to bottom and back again, usually using “page down” and then mouse-dragging the slider up. Again, I’m trying to initially verify that what seemed relevant really is, and then to determine what parts of the web-page are relevant, and trying to group them according to the nature of that relevance.

Treatment of links

I’m far more wary when clicking on links incorporated into what amount to randomly-selected seemingly-relevant web-pages. If it’s a link that’s internal to the site, I will open them if they appear relevant; if it’s an external link, I will defer doing so until the second skim. Hovering my pointer over the link should display the URL of the link. If it doesn’t, I’m doubly suspicious of the link.

I also pay close attention to any warnings that come up; sometimes, Google is overzealous in its protections and I know this because I know the website to which the link is pointing, other times I will not proceed upon receipt of a warning because I don’t know the site. There have been times when I will copy the link and paste it into my research notes and not open it until I have upgraded the browser’s level of paranoia, installed the latest security and anti-virus signatures, etc.

In cases of really deep suspicion, I have even resorted to a separate web search aimed specifically at establishing the trustworthiness of the website and any security risks that it poses. A key consideration is always whether or not I think I can find the information that I need from a more trusted website.

I rarely have virus/security trouble as a result of these precautions. Ultimately, if I have to, I will make it up before I will place my computer at risk.

Second Skim

The second skim is handled in exactly the same way as a Wikipedia second skim, with the additional problem that an external website is probably not broken into sections in the same manner as Wikipedia does it. The main purpose of the second skim is to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Quite often, what I will find is that some of the information on a relevant web-page is redundant, provided by another page that I have already looked at, and some of it will supplement the content in that other page. Only if completely convinced that the page adds nothing new to the research will I close it.

Read Once

This is also handled in the same manner, but I usually find that there is more jumping back and forth within the research notes required as I move from one page to another.

Subsequent Searches

It’s usually the case that one research effort is not enough on its own, and needs to be supplemented with additional research on more specific topics. Each of these is handled in exactly the same way.

Example: The Kasugi Smuggling Operation

At one point in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, we needed to have a PC stumble into his arch-enemies latest criminal enterprise while in London. This was intended to be a red herring with respect to the main plot.

That required my co-GM and I to come up with whatever that red-herring plot was; the arch-enemies are a bunch of modern-day (1930s) pirates & smugglers, primarily operating in the Asian Pacific region, but they have shown on a number of occasions a seriously clever streak, and a growing international presence. They aren’t exactly SPECTRE yet, but they are heading in that direction. Their last intrusion into the campaign also showed that they were diversifying beyond simple piracy, as the PCs landed in a Hong Kong nightclub run by them as a place to conduct negotiations and make money on the side.

The Research Begins

The first question to be answered was what might bring them to London, so far removed from their usual arena of operations.

One of the Kasugi Family’s established M.O.s was to capture vessels and “rebirth” them if they were in reasonable condition, expanding their ‘fleet’. Since a lot of ships are built and maintained through English shipyards, that was our starting point. But we had long ago decided that the Kasugis have their own facilities hidden somewhere in the Pacific, so why come to London?

I suggested the notion of insurance fraud. The Kasugis bring a derelict captured vessel to London, do a superficially-good refurbishment that lacks genuine substance, sell on the black market the materials (engines, pipes, etc) that were supposed to be used in the full refurbishment, pay off the inspectors, insure the ship to the gills, and then fake the sinking. It means rebirthing the ship twice, but that’s nothing too extreme for them.

Then what? The sea lanes around England/Western Europe are some of the busiest in the world; if they simply sailed the “refurbished” vessels home, it wouldn’t be long before someone spotted them. Lloyd’s of London, who (I vaguely recalled) got their start insuring ships and cargoes, would also be sniffing around the scheme very quickly. A quick check of Wikipedia established that Lloyds was definitely still active in maritime insurance, and the North Atlantic is notorious for it’s violent sea weather, especially in winter, so the idea had a ring of plausibility. It was a start, but not yet enough.

My co-GM, Blair, suggested that maybe they were smuggling something into Europe, and that this cargo would also be reported lost when it was actually being smuggled to its destination after the ship was reported lost, maybe in return for some alterations to the superstructure and other identifiable features at some other shipyard.

I took that ball and ran with it. What if what they were smuggling was something whose import into Germany was restricted by the Versailles Treaty because it was a war material? Blair pointed out that the Versailles treaty was more or less ignored by everyone by this point in history, but that other materials were slowly being prohibited, citing the example of Helium supply – that, notoriously, was why the Hindenburg had been supported by that very flammable material.

Another quick Wikipedia search led to a list of trade restrictions with pre-war Germany. Most were relatively inconsequential from our point of view, not worth enough to make the risks worth-while. We needed a material of high value by weight, and to which the Kasugis would have access. Fortunately, we already had found (and saved) a document from the US Department Of The Interior and US Geological Survey which listed the value of ores and refined metals by year, in some cases from 1900 on. as well as significant events in the history of trade of the material. Looking up each of the contenders from the trade restrictions list, we soon narrowed the choices down to one: Tungsten, used as an alloy in aircraft parts (especially engines), to create tungsten-tipped tools for industrial purposes, and in bullets – and China was the world’s leading source, right in the Kasugi’s back yard.

Neither of us could be sure that the aircraft application was relevant in the 1930s, it was more associated with the high temperatures of jet engines, but the munitions angle was definitely viable and plausible. The History provided by that document in the case of Tungsten more or less started with the 1950s, so we again turned to Wikipedia and the page on the subject, supplemented by a broader internet search for information on the ore, known as Wolframite.

We soon discovered that China wasn’t just the world leader, they have something like 80% of the world supply (and an even higher percentage of the known supplies back in the 1930s), and were not happy about the US restricting their trade in the commodity to Germany, which was one of the biggest importers of Wolframite until the ban.

Even while we were conducting this research, a thought occurred to me: why stop at merely altering the superstructure to disguise the “rebirthed” ships? Why not have a German shipyard do the full refurbishment for real, deducting the price for doing so from the value of the smuggled ores?

More research – how much would such a refit cost, how much would the ore be worth, did the numbers stack up as something close enough for plausibility? The short answer was yes.

From there, it was just a matter of compiling reference materials for our own reference (and briefing the players) and tidying up the logistics, then working out how the PC in question could ‘stumble into’ the plot, and how we were going to pass on the results of our research to him.

Encounter Scene 1

We started by contriving for everyone else to have something to do as part of the main plot, leaving only the PC who was free to investigate the Docks at Tilbury, center of a recent gang war which seemed related to the main plot. From the actual adventure, as we wrote it (the numbers refer to maps and photos used as illustrations):

At Tilbury docks, the drizzle has turned to light snow. Loading of the ship closest to the mouth of the dockyard is continuing well into the night (the far end of the docks relative to Captain Ferguson, the close end to picture 018). There is a steady stream of trucks coming and going along the access road (far left) and the sounds of swearing in English, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese echoes, mostly concerning the late delivery of the cargo. Someone, presumably the Captain of the vessel, has sworn numerous times that he intends to make the high tide this evening or he’ll personally spit and roast somebody.
   Ferguson has been able to explore somewhat without drawing attention to himself; the ship closest to his initial hiding place is the Calliope, which has the Italian flag painted on its hull but is flying a different flag, that he does not initially recognize (Pic 021) (Maritime Lore at -5 to identify it as the flag of Sicily), multiple attempts permitted).
   Next most distant is the Olga Dimitrov which has another unfamiliar flag painted on the hull to indicate it’s nation of registry (Pic 022) (Maritime Lore at -3 to identify it as Latvian).
   Currently being loaded and most distant on that side of the port is the Plymouth Rock, proudly sporting the Liberian Flag (Pic 023), which Captain Ferguson immediately recognizes.
   Opposite the Plymouth Rock on the far side of the dockyard is a tramp steamer named the Mersey Wanderer which is adorned with the Union Jack (024 for the sake of completeness). None of these sound particularly Asian in origin, and all are equally unlikely to be Kasugi vessels, with perhaps the exception of the Wanderer, simply because Singapore is under British rule.
   The lighting in the dockyard itself is dim except in the area where people are working, which is illuminated by portable lighting. Each yard services a single berth, and the yards are surrounded by 4m high wire-mesh fences topped with three strings of barbed wire. Finally, at around 11PM, the loading operation is complete (topped by more sulfurous blasphemies over the delays from the Captain in a thick Missoura accent), and the Plymouth Rock sails down the Thames toward open water. The dockyard workers vacate the premises with remarkable speed, more evidence that working this late is something unusual – they were all anxious to be somewhere else. Abruptly, silence descends over the docks, broken by the occasional barking of a stray dog somewhere in the distance. From his vantage point – wherever that now is – Captain Ferguson can spot a brick watchman’s hut which is brightly lit inside, with smoke rising from a small chimney.

Encounter Scene 2

The PC, Captain Ferguson, then observed events related to the main plotline and quite irrelevant to the Kasugi subplot. After these events, a follow-up scene took place:

Captain Ferguson at the docks, where the fog has well and truly rolled in: no further action, no sign of the Kasugi vessel that was expected to be here. He may as well return to the Hotel and get some sleep.

But this gave him three ship names to investigate. The next significant development took place the next day, when the PC in question kept an appointment made for M, the murder victim of the main plot (and head of MI6, of course) at Lloyd’s Of London:

Appointment at Lloyds Of London – Meeting with Chief Fraud Investigator, Chanda Dawson (043). NB: Chanda does not know M is dead. Chanda is Anglo-Indian, in his 40s, immaculately dressed, tall, thin, very precise in his speech and actions, capable of holding himself absolutely still at will. Every movement is deliberate and calculated. Has a large-caliber revolver in a shoulder-holster that the PCs have no trouble noticing.
   “For the last three months, several vessels owned by interests that are reputed to be covers for the criminal organization known as the Kasugi family have been brought to London for refurbishment. Timetables for these repairs have been closely adhered to under penalty of unusually strong contract terms. When repairs are complete, a new vessel arrives within 48 hours and transships its cargo to the refurbished vessel, and the new vessel takes its place in the dry-dock for its own maintenance. The refurbished vessel and its cargo of Rare Ore are then insured with our organization and depart for Sweden. Of the six vessels so dispatched, five have failed to reach their destination and were reported lost at sea. Claims were subsequently lodged, and in the case of the first three vessels, paid. We suspect insurance fraud. The losses of the vessels are bad enough, but on top of that, there were life insurance policies on the crew, payable to the company, and the insurance on the cargo, an ore known as Wolframite.
   “Currently almost complete are repairs to the seventh such vessel. Unless some substantiative evidence can be found in the next 48 hours, we will have no choice but to accept insurance on that vessel as well, the Spirit Of Shandong, and to pay the two outstanding claims. To date, this has cost Lloyds – including the outstanding claims – approximately £595,000, or almost $5 million of your American Dollars. We cannot afford to maintain this ruinous rate of loss, and can only increase premiums so far, because we have to charge the same basic premium on all European Shipping.
   “I don’t know how much you know about Wolframite, and there is not a whole lot that I can tell you – it’s covered under the Official Secrets Act, and even if you are authorized to know, I’m not authorized to know it – but I had arranged a follow-up meeting for M to be briefed on the subject by the Minister Of Trade. I presume that you will be keeping that appointment on his behalf.”
   “Since you aren’t restricted by M’s schedule, I will call the Minister’s Office and see if he can squeeze you in any earlier. In the meantime, here’s a list of the vessels that have been reported lost, for your reference while you investigate.” He hands over a list showing name, hull registry number, various other identifying serial numbers, the date it was insured and the date it was reported lost. While this list is being examined, he steps to the door and has a quiet word with his secretary. After a few minutes, he returns and tells you that he’s been able to squeeze you into the Minister’s schedule at 11:30 this morning. “It seems the Minister is so concerned by what’s going on that he is rearranging his schedule to meet with you as soon as possible.”

Encounter Scene 3

The set-up for the subplot was then completed with a subsequent scene:

Captain Ferguson is at The Cabinet Office, 9 Downing Street & Whitehall (045) to meet the Minister for Trade, Philip Cunliffe- Lister, 1st Earl of Swinton, (046).
   “Wolframite (047) is a rich source of Tungsten. Germany’s machining industry uses tungsten carbide almost exclusively, whereas the U.S. is still largely using inferior molybdenum tipped tools, primarily because of the cartel agreement GE holds with Krupp concerning carboloy or cemented tungsten carbide. Additionally, tungsten is useful in armor piercing munitions. Britain and the U.S. agree that Germany’s minimum requirements for Wolfram are 3,500 tons per year.
   “Despite Spain and Portugal being considered major sources of Wolframite, their total production amounts to a relatively small 2800 tons per annum, and much of this is not available to Germany.
   “Portugal’s economic success currently hinges on its rich wolfram ore deposits. They protect this very carefully. To maintain its neutrality, they set up a strict export quota system in 1932. The system allows each nation to export ore from their own mines and a fixed percentage of the output from independent mines. England owns the single largest mine, while Germany owns two mid-size concerns and several smaller mines. The output of Portugal’s second largest mine is owned by France.
   “The Nazis also acquire zinc, lead, mercury, fluorspar, celestite, mica, and amlygonite from Spain. However, wolfram is the most vital, as Spain is the only other European supplier of this ore to Germany.
   “British trade with Spain in recent years has had three main objectives. The first, as with any trading arrangement, was to obtain needed goods that were not readily available elsewhere. Secondly, by purchasing vital materials from Spain, we deny the Germans a source for these materials. Finally, by conducting trade in materials needed by the Spanish economy, we seek to lessen the influence of Germany on Spain. Without Wolframite, German industry is strongly contained and Germany cannot hope to wage war in Europe with any success. British Policy is aimed at controlling their access to Wolframite and restricting them to barely enough for their domestic needs.
   “Efforts to achieve this policy began in March 1930, when Britain signed a six month agreement to provide Spain with certain materials it needed, such as petroleum products and fertilizer, in return for iron ore, other minerals, and citrus fruit. The agreement is careful not to single out Wolframite as a key commodity, merely listing it in third place in the ‘other minerals’ section, but it was actually the one thing that we wanted most of all to control. That agreement has been renewed every six months thereafter.
   “The US has instituted a similar policy of buying up South American production of ore to keep it out of unfriendly hands while obtaining it for themselves.
   “Spain relies on an open market for wolfram, which favors the strong German economy. Last year, England only managed to purchase 32 tons of Wolframite from Spanish suppliers.
   “China also supplies Germany with tungsten and antimony as part of a deal by it to purchase German weapons and machines through the Chinesisch-Deutsche Kooperation.
   “The Kasugis are supposedly bringing in additional ore from China, whose deposits dwarf those of the rest of the world put together. Roughly 80% of the global tungsten deposits are believed to be in Southeastern China.
   “The current prince of Wolframite on the open market is US$4,762, or £578, per ton.”

Encounter Scene 3a

We also supplied some external information in the form of a telegram from Captain Ferguson’s ship, just to dot our I’s and cross our T’s:

A telegram arrives for Captain Ferguson (it finds him wherever he is). Give him the telegram:

(NB: I’m using to nested bullet points to get the formatting right because it’s a quick and easy solution. Formatting was done using tabs in the document presented to the player):


      • +++ ENCLOSED MSG BEGINS +++
        • +++ ENCLOSED MSG BEGINS +++
        • +++MSG RCVD EMBASSY OF CANADA NYC 11 DEC 193x (8 hrs 5 min ago) FWD TO PM CANADA FOR IMMED RELAY +++
          • +++ ENCLOSED MSG BEGINS +++
          • +++ MSG RCVD ADV CLUB NYC 11 DEC 193x (8hrs 15 min ago) FWD TO CAN EMBASSY NYC FOR IMMED RELAY +++
            • +++ ENCLOSED MSG BEGINS +++
            • +++ MESSAGE BEGINS +++
            • +++ MESSAGE ENDS +++
          • +++ ENCLOSED MSG ENDS +++
        • +++ ENCLOSED MSG ENDS +++
      • +++ ENCLOSED MSG ENDS +++
    • +++ ENCLOSED MSG ENDS +++

+++ MSG ENDS +++

Resuming the encounter:

   The numbers quoted by the telegram are very significant to Captain Ferguson – the Hull number quoted is one of those reported missing to Lloyds, the ships registry is not, and the Engine is by Vulkan, a German manufacturer that is now out of business. Why would someone take a perfectly good new engine, installed in Britain, out, and replace it with an old, out-of-date, used, German model? The significance was also not lost on the Antares First Officer, Mr McCallister – his telegram to the Adventurer’s Club would have cost about $35 to send, and the cost of routing it all over the world in pursuit of Captain Ferguson comes to the staggering sum of almost US$270 (1930s currency).

NB: to convert 1930s currency into modern currency, we use the rough reckoner of multiplying by 10. So that is the equivalent of a US$2700 telegram today.

In fact, we spent a lot of time working on this telegram – working out the routing, the local arrival times, when it would be read and acted upon, how long it would take for the next leg in the chain to be identified, and how long it would take to reach that next leg in the chain. Some of the travel was electronic, but most of it was via government channels and back-channels – diplomatic bags and the like. Almost 2 hours were spent compressing the text as much as possible – back then, there was a cost per word and a cost per character on international telegrams, and no-one further along the chain would presume to ‘interpret’ the text in case they were in error. Transport speeds and business hours and the like – more research. Not to mention time zones! Heck, we even had to research telegram rates for the era!

But this was the only information reaching the PC from a completely trusted source, and hence we were hanging the credibility of the entire plotline on its believability.

Encounter Scene 4

All that was then needed was to point the PC at the plotline, and let events unfold of their own accord:

Captain Ferguson is contacted by Chanda Dawson. “I understand that the alleged Kasugi Vessel is not in dry-dock at Tilbury because the dockyard was double-booked. While he would never disclose anything on the job, if you find the Dock-master, Derek Marsh, after hours and apply some social lubricant of the 140-proof variety, you may be able to learn where the vessel is located. His favorite watering hole, I am told, is The Executioner’s Pleasure, located at Hangman’s Wood in Little Thurrock, not far from Gray’s New Cemetery.” That location is a short distance north of Tilbury, where he (of course) is employed.

Encounter Scene 5

This was followed (eventually) by a scene in the Pub, and then by the raid on the Kasugi ship, exposing the plot, recovering the log books and charted course (which proved the insurance fraud and the cargo), and which brought a new PC into the team (an engineer working as a dock-hand) – something we hadn’t expected when we wrote the adventure, but which was easily accommodated.

As an example, this shows how vital it is to be able to find the information you need and assimilate it quickly. To create this subplot, we needed to research Maritime Insurance, Lloyds, Flags of convenience, ship recognition, International Trade, Trade restrictions pre- World War II, Tungsten, Wolframite, International Trade with China, Spain, France, London Shipyards, London Weather (from a specific year in the 1930s), the structure of the British Government, Diplomatic Bags in the 1930s, Telegram prices, Telegram delivery times, Time Zones, and the speeds of various modes of travel in the era.

With that much research to do, you can’t afford NOT to master the art of Lightning Research – and you can’t not master it, if you use it regularly.

It’s not just for Pulp

I use the same research techniques for my superhero campaign, for my Dr Who campaign, and even for my fantasy campaigns. I might need the structure of a typical nobles estate in 12th century Japan (I did. in Fumanor) – with China as an alternative – or how long it takes to erect a defensive earthwork, or the properties of superconductors, or quantum theory, or astronomical phenomena, or the cellular mechanics of trees, or the most popular coffee shops in New Orleans. In fact, I’ve had to research every one of these, and many more, over the last three or four years. In order to synthesize knowledge of a field that doesn’t yet exist, like “Nanotechnology Mutation”, you need to understand something of both Nanotechnology and Mutation, and both are just the tips of very large icebergs.

I’ve stated in the past that a GM needs to at least appear to be an Expert In Everything. The processes and principles of Lightning Research are an essential tool in achieving this outcome (and it helps to have the memory of a pack-rat for odd factoids, too – Did you know that Cleopatra’s favorite fruit was the Fig…?).

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Not Just Another Pointy Stick: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 3b

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For anyone who didn’t know,

and who hasn’t noticed the change to the masthead, Campaign Mastery was honored with the Silver Ennie for Best RPG Blog over the weekend, beaten only by the World Builder blog run by a long-time twitter-friend and supporter, James Introcaso. Congratulations again, James!

You never do something like Campaign Mastery for rewards or recognition.

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Silver is great, it’s a recognition that leaves room for improvement, it encourages without suggesting you have reached your peak.

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And, with that piece of happy news dispensed with, it’s back to the regularly-scheduled article!

Based on magic-1081149, licensed under CC0 via

Based on magic-1081149, licensed under CC0 via

In the first half of this article, I looked at the fundamental concepts at the foundation of wands and staves and the characteristics that define them, and offered several variations on those basics to vastly increase the variety of magic items within this category. But that was just the hors d’oeuvre; having established that, fundamentally (and excluding whatever the magical effect might be), wands and staves are basically just “sticks that point”, it’s time to get into the meat of this article: the great variety of objects that can also be defined as a “stick that points”, and which can therefore be interpreted by the creative GM as a wand or staff…

1. Arrows

Let’s start with a very obvious equivalent to a stick that you point – the arrow. Why not an arrow which releases a fireball when it hits? Or an illusion that appears wherever the arrow lands?

If you want to get technical, you could say that the arrow shaft is the wand, while the arrow head can contain all the standard magical-arrow effects.

Arrows break with distressing regularity when they hit something hard. There are two ways of using them, in a fantasy context: the ‘sniper’ option, where you take the time to aim at a specific target, and the massed-fire into a ‘killing field’ option where your shaft is but one of many, most of which will not find a target. Depending on the terrain (rocky or trees = bad, soil & sand = good) you may find that the latter gives a reduced chance of arrow breakage. The usual ratios that I have seen are 2 in 3 break and 1 in 3 break, respectively. Swamp and Water are good in terms of arrow breakage but bad in terms of arrow recoverability, so this is a third case again. Bolts, which are more often made of metal, are a different story again.

That gives the GM who implements this idea a decision to make. Wands tend to have a better breakage chance than ordinary arrows, i,e, they are frequently more durable. The choice is between preserving this durability in the face of completely different usage, or maintaining the normal arrow breakage rate; depending on the choices with respect to what happens when a wand breaks (Eager, Go-Getter, or Reluctant) this can have a major bearing on the combat effectiveness of a small unit, making such arrow-wands the equivalent of mortar shells (depending also on the spell chosen, of course).

There are more options than the purely destructive to consider. A Healing spell, area effect, on such an arrow would enable healing to be delivered to front-line combatants from the back lines. Cloud-kill attacks assume new potency. Any spell that is normally not castable at range becomes so – at worst, the GM might rule that the recipients have to touch the arrow after it has landed at their feet.

This also makes viable a new metamagic: Delay. For +1 spell level, the caster can delay the activation of a spell beyond the time of its being triggered by 1-3 combat rounds. Viable? It would be so useful that if it were possible, it would almost certainly be an inevitable development – though whether or not that development predates the commencement of the campaign is a whole different decision.

If these possibilities seem too overpowered to you, you might consider the ‘disposable wands’ variation in this context.

If it doesn’t, there are a whole range of traps that can be made simpler or more deadly or just more plausible as a result. You may trip the alarm, but have a small window to cancel the spell effect using an appropriate counterspell – if you already know what the spell is that is going to be activated.

These options vastly enrich the tactical complexity of combat. This can be a good thing (experienced players and GM who can handle the added complexity) or overwhelming (less experienced players and/or GM). So think carefully before adopting this idea.

2. Swords

Of course, a wand doesn’t have to be made of wood. Why not a metal one? A natural for lightning spells – but there is so much more that can be done with this idea. Why not a sword with Acid Splash? Or Daze? Or Disrupt Undead, Touch Of Fatigue, Obscuring Mist, True Strike, Hypnotism, Cause Fear, Chill Touch, Ray Of Enfeeblement, or Reduce Person – and that’s just the 0th- and 1st-level Sorcerer/Wizard spells that seem appropriate!

But the notion of swords as wands raises a question that was looked at briefly in the first half of the article: spells in wands that are usable by character classes other than the casting class. This egalitarianism of access to magic can go some way to mitigating class power imbalances, and that’s a pronounced up-side, but it can also diminish the uniqueness of the Wizard class, which is a significant down-side. If that is a concern, it may be wise to introduce a counter-balancing requirement, an additional “cost” that is required in construction of the magic item in order to make the magic accessible.

The ideal model for such a cost is the metamagic feat, in effect levying a spell-level penalty as an exchange for the accessibility. My personal feeling is that two or three levels would be appropriate, and certainly in line with the other metamagic feats; that means that if normal wands can contain 4th level spells or less, wands for non-mages could only (effectively) contain spells of 2nd or even 1st level. If you want greater flexibility, contemplate the Reducing Metamagics described in my 2009 article, Broadening Magical Horizons: Some Feats from Fumanor and Shards Of Divinity.

Sidebar: Compound Magics

Speaking of “so much more that can be done with Swords as a Wand”: Why not one spell in the hilt and another in the blade that work in concert? What can you do with that idea? A Cloud Kill and a gust of wind to move it away from the caster in a straight line? A shield spell in the hilt and a magic missile in the blade?

Another obvious possibility is that short- and long-swords are Wand equivalents, while larger swords are the equivalent of Staves or Rods. A whole new class of magic items (effectively) results. A sword that contains a set of Metamagically-enhanced Buff spells to boost the martial prowess of the wielder sounds like something that would be both unique and appealing to fighters and other such classes – or a nasty surprise for the PCs when these are in the hands of guards or the Watch!

3. Dowsing Rods

Dowsing Rods are either a Y-shaped stick or two stiff lengths of metal wire bent at 90 degrees that are held in each hand. In the former case, when they detect oil, or minerals, or water, or whatever the user is looking for (and they have to be specific), the toe of the Y dips; in the latter case, the two lengths of wire turn toward each other. In both cases, you have to be right on top of the deposit, i.e. in the same hex.

Dowsing rods are not something I’ve seen in any fantasy game, which is a little strange given that the idea can be verifiably traced to the 16th century and almost certainly pre-dates that historical record by an unknown period of time. This puts it squarely into the heart of the medieval time-frame.

The key with Dowsing (assuming that it works in your campaign) is that it is usable by anyone, though naturally-talented operators may have greater sensitivity to this commodity or that. Reliability remains suspect, of course, relative to a spell, which is generally thought of by a modern audience as being a scientific process for inducing a change in the environment or circumstance, universally-reliably by default, spell resistance notwithstanding.

If you want to undermine that pseudo-scientific faith in the reliability of magic, it’s easy to do. All you have to do is make the mage roll to cast a spell each time, while throwing out “spell resistance” in the form described by the rules, instead making it a modifier to the mage’s roll. Effectively, everyone and everything then has an innate level of spell resistance, but some have more than others. Mechanically, it’s a relatively small change that might well have very little effect on actual reliability, but psychologically, it’s huge. And it means that if you have a policy of “X always fails” in interpreting your die rolls, instead of the resistance being what fails, it’s the spell.

Why not dowsing rods that contain appropriate spells as though they were a wand?

Heck, why not dowsing rods that are a mundane form of Detect Magic? Less reliable, perhaps, than a spell, but a heck of a lot cheaper in terms of spell slots, freeing up one or more slots for something else. This makes very little difference at high levels, when characters have lots of spells they can cast, but it can be a life-saver at low levels and helps avoid the “helpless 1st level mage” problem – at least to some extent – enabling lower level characters to pull their own weight within the party.

Or perhaps Dowsing Rods can detect things for which there are no specific Detect spells? All you need to do to implement this is to write up a spell, “Detect [X] By Dowsing” and then provide a list of what X is permitted to be – the creator of the rods needs to specify what the rod can detect when the ‘magic item’ containing that spell is created.

I have seen some proposals (in very space-operaish science fiction, of the kind of para-psychological sci-fi that John W. Campbell loved) that mandates the dowsing rods be anointed with a sample of what is desired. This imparts a greater pseudo-scientific rigor to the concept – perhaps just enough to suspend disbelief in a cynical modern audience.

But the ultimate trick has to be dowsing rods that are actually two-handed wands – at least until the word gets around. “What’re you gonna do, Shorty – drown us with the water you’ve dowsed?” “Not quite. Lightning Bolt!”

A still better idea, in my opinion, is to restrict the magic that can be imbued in wand form to a type of spell that rarely comes to mind when creating wands: Ranger and Druid spells. In effect, this creates a whole new sub-class of magic item within the broad category of “wands”.

Sidebar: Detect Magic and it’s limits

Speaking of Detect Magic, this seems like an opportune moment to pontificate a little on the subject.

If there is one spell that GMs should routinely overhaul for every campaign, this is it. Why? Because it is, by its very nature, a flavor text delivery vehicle.

The traditional view of Detect Magic is that it makes magic items glow. But there’s a lot of flexibility. What if:

  • Mages felt a tingle instead of seeing a visual effect?
  • There was a bell tingle instead of a visual effect?
  • There was a particular scent instead of a visual effect?

But, even if we stick with the standard visual effect, there are variations to explore.

Can everyone see the effect?

Sometimes, I will have the effects of Detect Magic be a visible glow that everyone can see. In other campaigns, only the mage was able to see the effect. I once toyed with the possibility that only a random person within a given radius would be able to see the effect, different with every casting. Another time I had everything glow, but magic items glowed a different color for the mage. But the visible-to-everyone is the option that I most often go with, because that opens the door to other variations.

How Bright?

Sometimes, the intensity is fixed, at other times it depended on the strength of the magic, and on one occasion, it was a quantum effect based on the number of magic items, not their relative strength. Sometimes, the glow is soft, at other times its more pronounced, and in my first AD&D campaign it was bright enough to read by.

How big an area?

Sometimes, I will have the items affected surrounded by a glowing aura a few millimeters (maybe a tenth of an inch) deep. On other occasions, the glow has been s foot, and on still other occasions a full five feet was suffused with a glow in which the magical items were brighter.

Monochrome? What Color? Multicolored? Patterns!?

I’ve had interpretations of the spell in which the light was monochrome pearly white; and interpretations in which it was bright neon-like color – red, blue, green, yellow, or orange. I’ve also tied the color to the school of magic, and used patterns to distinguish arcane magic from clerical from Druidic and so on – psychedelic for wizard stuff, infused with fairy-dust effects for clerical, paisley in natural tones for Druidic, and so on. In that campaign, these were all human magical styles; Elves and Dwarves also had their own techniques. Elvish magic was like spreading tendrils or growing animated vines (Drow vs Surface Elves) and Dwarfish magic looked like a lava lamp made from real lava. Elementals also had their own magic, and these were all done as ripples in the water of different colors depending on the type of elemental – electric blue for air, red for fire, deep blue for water, and sepia for earth. But each of these different visual effects (and more besides) could be applied as “the” detect magic effect in a single campaign.

Expanding the detection benefits

One thing that I always like to do is have some visual distinctiveness to the displays that – for the player who pays attention – offers some clue as to the nature of the items being detected. Keeping these consistent is often a challenge, but worth the effort when the penny drops, because it means that instead of a roll that can be failed, all the player needs to do is keep their ears open. The benefits of having players listen because they know you might drop in a hint or clue makes the effort worthwhile.

Sometimes I’ve had words appear briefly in the shadows, or a visual representation of the command word, or some other iconographic representation of the actual spell. At other times the information I’m dropping clues about is something that an appropriate skill check won’t tell the player, like the spell level.

In the Shards Of Divinity campaign, there were clues in the descriptions of “Detect Magic” effects relating to who manufactured the item – Dwarves did things one way, Elves another, and so on.

Wand of Detect Magic

Like the Wand Of Healing, wands of Detect Magic, in combination with some of the ideas offered above, free up characters to be something more than mages if your players are limited in number – providing that non-mages can use them, of course. A rogue and a fighter and a couple of wands and you have a small, but effective, party.

Detect Magic as a class ability conferred by Spell

Finally, an option that I’ve never used but have had tucked away in my back pocket for a long time, a blend of psychometry and D&D magic. In order to qualify to be a mage, you must have the Talent, and the way they test for the Talent is to place an array of mundane objects in front of the prospective mage with one magic item included, which the character has to identify by picking up or touching each item. If they have the Talent, when they touch a magic item, they will feel a thrill in their arm, a thick, soft, shock. That is the Detect Magic ability, i.e. The Talent, and if you have it, the Magic will not be denied – but if you don’t, you can never cast a spell. The “Spell”, Detect Magic, doesn’t actually exist, but possessing it confers Detect Magic as a class ability.

Every character class covets members who have The Talent; they are automatically presumed to be The Elite, they have something that others don’t. But at the same time, many people who don’t have it resent those who do. Those with the Talent may pursue any career, become any character class they want, but the three areas that they tend to drift into are the spellcasting classes.

That’s about as far as I’ve ever taken thinking about the concept. There’s obviously a lot more development work to be done – at the moment, it’s the start of a campaign concept, but it’s not there yet. And that means that anyone who reads this can develop it, and everyone who does so will do something different with it. And that’s exciting!

4. Tridents

Another, slightly larger, “stick that points” is a trident. Whether one tine (prong) or all function as wands, or the whole serves as a staff, is up to the GM. But this raises still more ideas for the GM to consider. Perhaps its the shaft that serves as a Staff. Or maybe you can combine the ideas: Shaft as a staff and one or more prongs that function as wands!

Variants: ‘One Point’ or ‘Many Points’

This plays squarely into some of the variations discussed earlier (two-handed wand usage, discussed in “We Just Don’t Get Along”). If the tines require the same activation phrase and the same spell to be contained, this idea is far less flexible than if you can have one tine for a Druidic spell and one for a Clerical Spell and one for a Wizard spell all going off at the same time – or with only one activatable at a time.

In fact, I originally thought of this as a way to “one-up” a two-handed wand-wielder!

5. Lances

If swords and pole arms are at least worthy of being considered then why not something that only works if it’s pointed at an enemy? Why not a lance? If there was ever a weapon that might also serve as a staff or a rod… and the notion of a Lance with Telekinesis works well as a means of simulating effects from several fantasy novels, such as the Mallorean.

Redefinition as Mundane Weapons

But there’s a problem: the mundane properties of the lance hardly make it all that desirable as a weapon. 1d6/1d8 damage, doubled if mounted? Given the compromises that are necessary to use it – compromises that are inadequately described by the rules – this hardly seems an appropriate amount, even with a x3 critical potentially laden on top. Fully-armored novices were killed on any number of occasions by lances and so were experienced Knights. As for the comment that lances “could” be used one-handed while mounted, where do I start? It would be more accurate to say that Lances “could” be used two-handed but not one-handed when not mounted.

In fact, Lances are so clumsy a weapon when one isn’t riding a mount that I would impose huge disadvantages on such use. The most ridiculous thing I ever saw in the SSI computer games based on AD&D was the sight of a Dread Knight on foot swinging a lance around like it was a longsword while running around the battlefield.

Lances work in the real world by adding the weight (and strength) of the mount to the weight (and strength) to that of the rider and seeking to forcibly dismount an opponent by applying all that force to the target’s shield. It’s normal for them to be used one-handed. Against unshielded enemies, impaling is a distinct probability, and the risk of the sheer force driving the point of the lance through visors or even armor plate to crush bones and destroy internal organs is extremely grave.

To remedy the problems with the representation of lances in RPGs is not simple. The simplest solution is for the weapon, when used dismounted, to add a bonus to the AC of the target (+4 seems about right); for the weapon to be so clumsy that you can only attack with it when dismounted on every third combat round; and for the base damage to be reduced a die size under those circumstances to d4/d6. When mounted, of course, all those penalties go away; the weight of the mount (and its armor) should be converted to additional STR according to the requirements for lifting that much weight, or a fixed fraction of that when charging, and that in turn to yield a bonus STR modifier that can be broken up by the wielder, split between a better chance to hit and better damage total, and for every 4 points of bonus modifier so allocated, the critical threat range increases by one.

Unfortunately, the monster manual doesn’t list the weights of a horse, but it is well known that these were smaller and lighter than modern animals. In cases like this, I turn to a reference that I have used before, “And a 10′ pole”. The “Renaissance Equipment” section lists a ‘Greater Warhorse’ as having a weight of 1100lb, a ‘Lesser Warhorse’ as having a weight of 950lb, a heavy horse as 1300lb, a medium horse as 900lb, and a light horse as 800lb. The same weights are shown in the Middle Ages section and the Iron Age / Roman Empire section. The Bronze Age section lists only Light and Medium horses, but their weights are unchanged. Personally, I suspect that these are being a little generous, an opinion that seems backed up by the “Size Of Warhorses” section of the Wikipedia article on Horses In The Middle Ages, but that doesn’t give weights for horses, only estimated sizes in Hands.

For those who want to go the extra step in accuracy of weights, I suggest you consult the web-page provided by the Department Of Agriculture of Victoria, Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation – note that you will have to convert the weights shown from kilograms to lb by multiplying them by 2.20462. Or you can simply increase it by 10% and then double the result and you should be close enough.

Based on these two sources, and using the lower boundary of “heavy load” for Warhorses and the upper boundary of “heavy load” for other horses, I propose the following weights:

  • Heavy Warhorse:
    • Bronze Age: n/a
    • Iron Age / Roman: n/a
    • Middle Ages: 850lb (STR 28)
    • Renaissance: 1100lb (STR 31)
  • Light Warhorse:
    • Bronze Age: n/a
    • Iron Age / Roman: n/a
    • Middle Ages: 760lb (STR 28)
    • Renaissance: 950lb (STR 30)
  • Heavy Horse:
    • Bronze Age: n/a
    • Iron Age / Roman: 720lb (STR 25)
    • Middle Ages: 870lb (STR 26)
    • Renaissance: 1180lb (STR 28)
  • Medium Horse:
    • Bronze Age: 600lb (STR 23)
    • Iron Age / Roman: 630lb (STR 24)
    • Middle Ages: 800lb (STR 25)
    • Renaissance: 870lb (STR 26)
  • Light Horse:
    • Bronze Age: 440lb (STR 21)
    • Iron Age / Roman: 510lb (STR 22)
    • Middle Ages: 640lb (STR 24)
    • Renaissance: 760lb (STR 25)

Of course, if you wanted to have a cart pulled by a team of horses as your “mount”, the GM would need to work out an ‘effective’ STR score for himself. It certainly wouldn’t be the sum of the dead loads. In fact, given that such transport (loaded) tends to increase in weight until the team for which it is designed is no faster than an unburdened horse, plus a little extra weight for good measure, you could argue for using exactly the same values as given above.

These weights give modifiers for distribution of between +5 and +10, but don’t make allowance for any armor on the horse, or for the weight of the rider and his armor, etc. So you could conceivably end up with a range of possible modifiers of +6 to +11 or maybe even +12. Those are not enough to be game-unbalancing, but they are enough that an armored character on horseback with a lance would be a significantly-greater threat than the current rules provide – bearing in mind that these bonuses are only while charging and such animals won’t turn on a dime! The balance feels about right, to me – your opinion may vary; at least this gives you a starting point for some informed decisions.

As magic items

And so to the possibilities of Magical Lances as Rods. On the basis of the metamagic penalty discussed earlier, let’s assume that the most potent spell that could be loaded into such an item is 6th or 7th level: what possibilities suggest themselves? Let’s look at the 6th-level possibilities: True Seeing is a clear contender. Greater Heroism is appropriate. Bigby’s Forceful Hand could make life interesting – for the enemy. Circle Of Death would be very potent, as would Undeath to Death under the right circumstances. Eyebight would be an effective choice. And Disintegrate is just vicious.

Any of these would make a potent magic weapon, easily on par with Rods and Staves.

6. Other Pole-arms

Having mentioned the possibility already, it’s only reasonable to state this possibility explicitly. I’ve seen spears which enhanced the wielder in fiction and legend a number of times, especially when it comes to Norse/Viking related material, for example.

One of the things that irks me on an ongoing basis is that there is not enough justification in the 3.x / Pathfinder rules for pole-arms, never mind for the vast number of variations. These all arose for a reason. I’m not suggesting for one second that anything as complex as Rolemaster be contemplated, but doing a little research on each and finding out what the intended purpose of the design refinement was, then giving the weapon +1 to hit and/or +1 critical threat when used in this way doesn’t seem out of place. Some designs might also yield a -1 to hit and/or to damage when not used for this purpose, depending on how clumsy they were. For example, a pike might (and I haven’t looked it up) be specific against chainmail, or might negate shield bonuses when used by chainmail-wearing foes.

7. Other Items

Finally, I want to look beyond the whole “stick that points” and suggest a range of items that might function as wands (in particular) to interesting, entertaining, and/or functional effect – when married to the right spell, of course.

7a. Compacts & Broaches

There are some magic items that already fall into this category – though I haven’t checked to see whether or not they survived into 3.x / Pathfinder. Things like Necklace of Missiles. I see absolutely no reason why a compact or broach couldn’t function as a wand. A compact, you wave around, and would be suitable for Divination magics; a broach would ‘point’ in the direction the character was facing, or might contain a magic that enhances the wearer in some respect.

7b. Gloves

Gloves are another obvious item, especially for spells that require a touch attack.

7c. Boots

You immediately think of mobility when Boots get mentioned. But why not something like Knock (requires a Kick) or Silence or Spider climb?

7d. Boot Buckles

Boot Buckles of protection? Or Eagle’s Splendour?

7e. Saddles

Saddles could enhance the rider – or the mount. Or both, or either, depending on how many charges were to be consumed. Protections, or Water Breathing, come to mind immediately, beyond the obvious mobility items. Bull’s Strength, Cat’s Grace, or Levitate are other good suggestions.

7f. Horseshoes

Horseshoes of Spider Climb? Or Mirror Image? There are other possibilities, but those two are enough to suggest that this has merit as a possibility. But beyond that, why not simulate “luck” with protection spells?

7g. Pots & Cups

Mage Hand comes to mind – for self-cleaning and stowing. Ghost Sound could create ambiance. Perhaps an Unseen Servant could use these to fetch fresh water from the nearest source on command, or carry small objects, or just get you a refill at the bar without interrupting your character’s poker game. Couple that with a Locate Object spell to get someone who can always find where you’ve left your keys – or your coin pouch.

7h. Spoons

Spoons that stir themselves (Mage Hand). Or that disguise you as someone who normally carries/uses a spoon, like a cook (Disguise Self).

7i. Brooms

The obvious choices here are Fly (a cut-down Witches Broom) and Mage Hand or Unseen Servant to simulate The Sorceror’s Apprentice!

7j. Spell Bottles

A particularly nasty idea – Spell Bottles with “Shatter” activated by a command word, possibly containing oil or acid.

Expanding Wands even further

I thought I would round this article out by further expanding the concept of just what sort of magics a wand could contain – especially when combined with some of the variations listed above.

Variant: Wands Of Metamagic

No trainee wizard should go adventuring with a Wand that grants him a metamagic. Assume that a Metamagic is a spell equal to the spell level modifier that it imposes on a caster and hey presto – these can easily be incorporated into a spell that does nothing but confer that metamagic on spells cast with the appropriate trigger. Better yet, because these metamagics are coming from the wand and not the caster, he suffers no spell-level penalty. Because this effect could be quite powerful with a lot of Charges, combining this with the disposable wands discussed last time would seem to be a prudent move – and restricts the benefits enough that actually obtaining the Feat would remain a good choice for a character.

This has less and less value as a character rises in levels, so this is a great tool for bolstering a low-level party.

Variant: Wands Of Feats

That naturally lends itself to the idea of a wand that can confer any specific feat on the recipient for a period of time. Need to turn your castle’s entire staff into archers? This can make it happen – for a while. A wand that gives someone the Perform Skill (Song) so that wherever the character goes, there will be someone to sing for them? Why not? It typically takes four character levels to obtain a feat on a permanent basis (some get them faster); four character levels are enough to grant a spellcasting class two new levels of spell; so receiving a Temporary Feat would be a reasonable second-level “spell”. The great advantage is that these are things that a Wizard can’t actually cast as a spell, so they are a genuine increase in the variety of magic items.

Variant: Wands Of Skill

A wand that confers temporary skill levels is another obvious choice. Four ranks seems a reasonable choice – for a temporary benefit. Two ranks might be a better choice in terms of game balance. If you were an adventurer, wouldn’t you want a wand that conferred +2 or +4 to the Cooking skill of a chef just long enough for them to prepare your meal? And that, of course, merely scratches the surface of the possibilities.

I suggest the GM think twice before allowing Knowledge skills to be distributed via wand, however.

Variant: Wands Of (Class) Ability

The most exotic possibility along this line of thinking is to temporarily confer a class skill upon someone of another class entirely. This is such a potent possibility that I suggest it be reserved for a Staff or Rod. I’ve already suggested that the class level at which a particular ability can be received be equated to the number of spell levels a spellcaster would gain in a like number of levels in order to determine a spell level equivalence, and we’ve already discussed the possibility of a penalty to permit non-spellcasters to use a magic item; combine those two ideas and you have a wand/staff that can temporarily give everyone the stealth abilities of a Rogue, or the Turn Undead of a cleric, or the martial prowess of a Fighter, or… well, you get the idea.

This makes plots possible that would otherwise be impossible. You don’t get much more powerful than that (in a good way) from a GM’s point of view.

My recharger doesn’t fit

The final thing to discuss is recharging of wands and staves. Is this just a matter of having someone who can cast the appropriate spell cast it into the item? Or perhaps it has to be someone with the “Craft” feat? Or perhaps the caster levels have to equal or exceed those of whoever recharged the magic item last time?

I particularly like the last one, because it means that no matter how useful a rare wand or staff might be, it will eventually reach the point of being impractical/impossible to recharge.

This consideration offers a way of counterbalancing the impact of releasing such variety of magic items into your campaign. That makes it worthy of serious consideration. Perhaps wands etc that simply do damage suffer from this restriction, while those that enhance roleplay and just add flavor to the campaign do not. THAT is worth VERY careful thought.

And is also the perfect note on which to conclude this discussion!

Part four of this series is tentatively scheduled for the end of the month, when the subject will be permanent enchantments, and (amongst other things) just how permanent they should really be…

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Decisions Of Plot: Encounter Planning and Prep

Image by Svilen Milev

Image: / Svilen Milev

A lot of coming up with subjects for Campaign Mastery is nothing more than paying attention to what you do and see at the gaming table. Things that you might do automatically without even thinking about it can make great topics, you just have to notice them – even while you are distracted by the tasks of GMing. Not always the easiest of tasks.

I was looking at the breakdown of an upcoming encounter in the Zenith-3 campaign – it was actually the cliffhanger finish to last Saturday’s game (as I write this) – and noticed that my usual practice is to discriminate in game prep allocation within an encounter. Some things I will plan in detail, some things I will plan in broad, and some things I will barely plan at all, leaving them to my improvisational skills with minimal direction planned in advance.

I’m only vaguely aware of the reasons why I structure my game prep this way; it’s something that’s evolved over many years of experience, an instinctive pattern more than a deliberate plan. It’s my hope that in describing what I’m doing (in abstract/general terms so that I don’t give anything away) I will be able to analyze for you all (and myself) why I’m doing it that way.

The combination will hopefully enable readers to access all that experience and bring the same sophistication of planning to their own games. But it’s equally possible that I will discover, along the way, that there is no good reason for doing things this way, and that a blend of laziness and compromises of timing have led me into bad habits – so this might turn into a cautionary tale or two, as well. Or even some exotic blend! We’ll see how we go.

Another thing that’s a bit up in the air is whether or not I can get this all finished in time. I hope to make it one article, but if I have to, I’ll split it in two. Part of the problem is that it will be very easy for the article’s important points to get lost in the detail. To combat that, I’m going to use indenting, but that formatting takes longer to achieve and get right.


To start with, I should describe the basic taxonomy I employ for a scripted encounter. I’ve done this before, though I’ve usually simplified it to address whichever aspect of the process was the focus relevant to the article.

The whole is subdivided into three unequal sections, which are usually unlabeled but which for the purposes of this article I will describe as “Introduction”, “Encounter”, and “Outcome”. These main sections are then subdivided into sub-sections, which are also normally unlabeled, existing merely as separate paragraphs on the page or even simply as bullet-point notes.

Once again, to facilitate discussion and analysis, I have assigned them labels as well:

  • Introduction
    • Preliminaries & Advance Knowledge
    • Locale Flavor
    • Environmental Specifics I
    • First Impressions
    • Enemy Appearance
    • Environmental Specifics II
    • Tactical Situation
  • Encounter
    • Initial Enemy Action / Reaction
    • Micro-environments
    • Encounter Outline, Complications & Prepared Dialogue
  • Outcome
    • Encounter Notes
    • Desired Outcome
    • Critical Beats

A large part of this article is describing four things about each of these: what they are, the format, the amount of prep that I do and what that prep consists of, and why I prep to that level of detail. Along the way, I may toss in the occasional side-note as usual, for example discussing why the items appear in the sequence that they do, just in case that’s not obvious.

So let’s get started…



The introduction section is all about what happens, in game-play terms, before the encounter actually starts. There’s a lot of flavor text, and how the PCs come to be in the encounter in the first place.

Preliminaries: Advance Knowledge

The first section always describes what (if anything) the PCs know before the encounter begins. If this is the return of an NPC they have encountered before, I will synopsize the NPC’s status and the relationship as it stood at the end of the last time that the character was encountered. If the relationship is complicated by temporal discontinuity, I will cover these from both the PCs and the NPC’s point of view, the former to relay to the players, and the latter for my reference in roleplaying the encounter.

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Content is in three forms: straightforward paragraphs to read to the players whenever they seem relevant; notes to myself; and optional information. I usually inset the latter two items, or precede them with a marker, or color-code them in some way – the whole point is to be able to distinguish these different types of content immediately. Optional information always starts with the trigger condition under which it is delivered. abbreviated as tersely as possible. I usually also put GM-only info in square brackets [like this] and optional information in carats (which you would probably describe as less-than and greater-than signs) <like this>.

Optional information is information that the PCs might find out or know if they make the right skill check, or ask the write question, or perform the right action. Sometimes things are a binary choice – If the trigger condition is met, read paragraph A, if not read paragraph B.

This can be further complicated if there is more than one paragraph within the one logical case. I use indenting and tabs to keep things together, something I learned as a computer programmer.

A typical format might look like this:

Encounter Name/Title
      (empty line)
Text to read to players
      (empty line)
***[GM’s note]
      (empty line)
—<If trigger condition,
   <Paragraph A1
      (empty line)
   <Paragraph A2 (and so on)
      (empty line)
—<If Not,
   <Paragraph B1
      (empty line)
   <Paragraph B2 (and so on, last one ends with >)
      (empty line)

I sometimes highlight key words in bold, and sometimes put one or more of the sections in italics – whatever is necessary to call attention to the fact that the content is different and highlight things that I need to be aware of or emphasize, once the actual encounter begins. I don’t want to have to take the time to analyze what I’ve written, I want it to be as clear as possible at a glance what I am supposed to do with the information.

Finally, no matter how complex the formatting ends up needing to be, I work very hard to establish and maintain conventions through the course of a single adventure, again in the interests of making the right content easy to find when I need it.

Prep Amount

I prep this in as much detail as I can.

Prep Description

Prep consists, first, of determining whether or not an immediate response is necessary by the PCs or if they have time to investigate the situation first, and second of detailing what the PCs are to know about the encounter (and what they might be able to find out) before it actually begins.

Anything to be read to the PCs is written in full narrative form so that all I have to do is choose when to read it aloud and then just read. If there are any tricky names, I will usually write them phonetically in some format that I will understand, for example “Ngombo” might be written “Neg-Ommm-bow”, usually in brackets after the actual name.


Two reasons: first, this helps me write the rest of the encounter, and second, because it’s usually important to nail these details down fairly precisely; there isn’t a lot of room for improv, and the delivery needs the polish that comes from pre-writing the narrative.

On the sequencing Of Content

As much as possible, I want the presentation in-play to be as straightforward and linear as possible; I don’t want to be hunting for the right paragraph to read. That’s why the content is in the sequence that I have described it in, and I will vary that sequence as necessary to achieve that goal.

Locale Flavor

I will prep a brief paragraph of flavor text to describe the locale as it usually is. This is a technique that I have lifted from novels that I have read. I want it to establish the general setting and provide at least one point of uniqueness or distinctiveness. If this is not the first encounter to take place here, I will further abbreviate the overall description and add a little more specifics to the description, making sure that the broad description references the prior encounter.

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Format is a prose paragraph. For example, if an encounter were to take place in an Alpine Town, I might write something along the lines of “Nestled in a small valley between two stern peaks is the small community of Alpine Springs, population 102. One store, one post-office (with postmaster doubling as sheriff because not much happens around here), the village used to contain an active logging industry but the sawmill closed down and much of the town’s economy went with it. These days, the community is a winter resort town boasting a dozen bed-and-breakfasts (the largest of which is located in the old sawmill), a single gas station, and a general store. Snow covers the ground to varying depths for all but 40 days of the year (and this isn’t one of them), crunching sharply underfoot, and everything slopes this way or that quite steeply because of the jagged peak upon which the town has been built. Every building is half-raised on stilts and half-dug into the slope to keep the floors level, and every building has a roaring fire in the fireplace most of the year round.”

Prep Amount

This will be written in full prose, as succinctly as I can make it. I’ll leave details out that don’t contribute to giving an overall sense of what the location is like – whether it’s an alpine village, an alien control room, or a trench on the ocean floor. I generally don’t have to revise and polish much, but if I have the time, this paragraph is one of the first ones to receive extra attention.

Prep Description

Sometimes I need to do research. I might need a map or two (or more) to define exactly where the action is taking place – usually screen-grabbed from Google Maps and cropped as necessary. I also find that to be visible from across the table on a laptop, or printed clearly, a second copy of the map set to “multiply”, and often even a third, is necessary.

I might also need to look up the place on Wikipedia, or try to find a site dedicated to the location. If there isn’t one, I may need to search for somewhere similar that I can use as a template. Or, if I can see the place clearly in my head, I’ll just make something up.


This paragraph is all about putting the location of the encounter into the player’s minds and making it feel real. That calls for as much polish as I can provide. Because it provides context for everything that follows, it’s the first thing after ‘what the players already know (or can find out)’.

Environmental Specifics I

What, if anything, needs to be known about the environment where the encounter is to take place. I’m not talking about generalities here, such as I might use in the general description, and I’m not talking about the tactical situation. Often this will be an introductory description of a specific location within the broader setting established already.

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I use the same format as described previously. That means that if there are no GM’s notes and no conditional information, one text paragraph simply follows another.

Prep Amount

I spend a reasonable amount of time prepping this, and then redact out (read: cut-and-paste) anything that belongs in subsequent sections, i.e. Tactical notes and impressions on commencement of the encounter. Even so, the total time spent on the rest of the encounter is roughly equal to the amount of time spent already, excluding any canned dialogue or descriptive narrative that I need to insert. Ultimately, that means that not much time gets spent on this – just enough to get the basic situation clear in my head, and assemble some quick notes.

Prep Description

Before you can describe something, you need to have some idea of what it is that you are describing. Sometimes, the concept of the specific location comes first, sometimes the tactical situation comes first (often when I am basing the situation on a map expropriated from some other source)


Quite often, you will have a choice of locations for the encounter from a number of possibilities encompassed by the general description. Look over that description of an Alpine Town – there are residences, a gas station, a general store, a converted sawmill, a number of other bed-and-breakfasts that used to be residences, and a post office. There would probably be a town square, possibly a park. There would be streets. There might be an electrical substation. Outside the town itself, there would be densely wooded areas, areas that were logged some years ago and now boast immature trees, and clearings, plus the occasional logging road. There might be a creek or stream, a lake, or even some hot springs. That’s a very wide choice of locations for the actual encounter.

The purpose of this step is to visualize each, make a choice between them, and put down notes on what you visualized while it’s fresh in memory. Most of this information is then transferred elsewhere, leaving only a general statement and any preliminary impression of the chosen location.

First Impressions

Quite often there is a distinct difference to the description of a location that is supplied prior to actually eyeballing it yourself and the impression that you have after that experience. If nothing else, anything that the encounter has changed about the description will need to be described. If I chose the General Store from amongst the options in the Alpine Town setting, for example, you might get in the preceding section a general description (single-story, freezers in the back, narrow, long rows of shelves, semi-detached residence in back, a small parking lot, and a sign by the road), woodpile next to the dwelling). That sounds fine, as far as it goes. But, when you actually turn up in response to the call for help:

A pick-up and a sedan have collided in the parking lot; the sedan is on it’s side and leaking fuel from a split in the petrol tank; the pick-up rolled and collided with the sign at the side of the road, which has collapsed into the park lot and is shorting out on the snow, sending showers of sparks in every direction; the front of the store has wide panes of double-glass, one of which has been shot out from the inside by a shotgun; the armed driver of the pickup is between the shelves and out of view from the street; the owner of the general store and his wife are behind the counter with their hands up, while one of their customers is just visible in a pool of blood on the far side of the store. The woodpile behind the store appears to be on fire (judging from the smoke) and is threatening the gas bottles that supply the refrigerator units. Blocking the road at an angle is a police car with two police officers huddled and shivering behind it, staring intently at the front door of the General Store with their weapons drawn.

That preliminary description, containing just what the players could find out before they actually arrived on-scene, seems rather incomplete in comparison, don’t you think? Certainly any plans the players might have made before actually scoping out the situation would need to be revised – quickly.

You might also note that there’s a lot that isn’t said – who was driving the sedan, and their condition, and where the gunman actually is, and how serious a threat the burning woodpile poses, and what set it alight in the first place, and what condition the gunshot victim is in – these are all things that the PCs will have to actively ascertain for themselves.

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Format is a narrative paragraph, as shown in the example above. Quite often, I will append a bullet list of things that the PCs can determine by investigating the scene further; that’s where the answers to those ‘unanswered questions’ will be found.

Prep Amount

It took me about 30 seconds to visualize the scene, and a couple of minutes to write up that description. That’s a typical amount of prep; sometimes I will need less, sometimes more.

Prep Description

I may need a photographic foundation for my visualization of the scene. I may need to build around a map of the scene that I have expropriated from a commercial module or downloaded over the internet. These take time to find and evaluate. I may have doubts about some things (do commercial refrigerators actually use bottled gas? I don’t think so) – more research. Then write.


My experience is that if the players know everything about the circumstances before they arrive, or think they do, they will spend a tedious amount of time planning. If they don’t, they will spend about one-third as much time in an equally-tedious discussion of what they might find and might do before concluding that they don’t know enough and will have to play it by ear.

But, on top of that, there is a vitality that encounters posses when the players have to make it up as they go along rather than executing planned and scripted responses.

Enemy Appearance

Sooner or later, the PCs will come face-to-face with their enemy. This section describes what they see. Sometimes, I can save large chunks of description and lots of prep time with a photographic or digital art image. As a general rule of thumb, you are often better served with evocative generalities than detailed descriptions, if an image isn’t available – and that also saves on prep time. But you always want something distinctive about every encounter.

Even if this is to consist of little more than a page number in the Monster Manual, for a D&D encounter, I will insert some specific detail about each of the creatures encountered – very briefly.

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Unless the PCs can see their enemy in the ‘first impressions’ section, this will be a conditional narrative, only to be read when contact is actually made with the enemy. If the PCs can see their enemy, it will be an ordinary narrative paragraph attached to the first impressions. The time spent visualizing the scene previously makes this choice quick and easy.

Prep Amount

Before you can describe something, you need to be able to see it yourself – either mentally or with a picture. Sometimes that takes no time at all, and sometimes it can take hours of research.

One note that’s worth making: if you are describing members of a group, don’t make the one characteristic different in all of them. Take a group of goblins: give one watery eyes, another a long nose, a third might have big ears, a fourth has a vibrant green scar on his forehead, and a fifth sports a nose-ring. By varying what you are varying, you not only give each member of the group a label by which identification can be shortcut, you make those variations more distinctive.

I’ve seen any number of descriptions in which each member of the group is more vividly described and, by the time you get to the end of the descriptive passage, they have all started to blur together. Pick one item and make it the most noteworthy thing about the individual.

Prep Description

Research and visualization. There are times where I have had great success by doing a Google image search for an emotional or abstract quality and basing a description around an interpretation of a resulting image; I don’t do it this way all the time, but when I’m bereft of a starting point, this can get me started.


You’ll want to expend most of your narrative muscle on what the enemies are doing and any emotions that you want them to project. That mandates a minimum level of descriptive narrative outside of those essentials, but at the same time you don’t want blank cyphers, you want the enemies to be discrete individuals. Here’s a great writing exercise that I’ve found can really sharpen your skills: you have twelve words to describe three amorphous blobs, making each distinctive (ignore words like ‘and’ and ‘by’. Hint: don’t waste words by identifying which is which, let the order (as viewed by the PCs) do the work for you, and separate each by putting them on a different line.

Here’s an example:

   Translucent smoky swirls floating mid-air,
   Brain surrounded by gelatinous flesh,
   Silvery liquid pool.

Twelve words, plus ‘by’, nothing wasted.

Environmental Specifics II

This section doesn’t always appear; it’s where I note any game mechanics, especially regarding the environment. “PCs are at -4 to hit because of smoke”. “Lava does 6d12 if someone falls into it, 4d6 if you touch it.”

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These are notes for the GM and are formatted accordingly.

Prep Amount

Sometimes you can write these without cracking a book, sometimes you’ll need to look something up in the rules, and sometimes you will need to work a bit harder at listing all the environmental effects. I try to do as much as I can in prep so that I can save improvising for the things that I haven’t thought of. At the same time, these notes tend to be fairly minimal. The two examples offered above are typical.


Covering the key features of the environment in terms of game mechanics speeds things up by saving you from having to look things up. It’s often worth taking the time to note page numbers in the rulebooks. At the same time, it’s hard to anticipate everything, and if you try you end up wasting a lot of prep that never gets used. I prioritize the things that I know I’m going to need.

Tactical Situation

This details things about the situation that the PCs don’t initially know, and that will make a difference as the encounter proceeds. Things like where the bad guy is, what he’s doing, what’s his state of mind, and what his goals/objectives are. Sometimes this includes a narrative passage to be read to the PCs, and sometimes it’s all for my reference as I roleplay. If I have a pre-planned combat strategy for him, this is where that goes, as well. It’s entirely possible that there will be absolutely no content under this ‘heading’.

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Notes for the GM.

Prep Amount


Prep Description

Visualization and preparations for roleplay. A lot depends on what the PCs are most likely to do.


A lot of this material actually goes later in the encounter write-up, but it’s easier to do all my thinking on the subject at once and then cut-and-paste than it is to do that thinking piecemeal.


And so we come to the encounter itself, and what I need to know (and deliver) to have it unfold in an interesting way. Of course, this is very dynamic content, subject to change depending on what the players choose to do.

Initial Enemy Action / Reaction

When the enemy is initially encountered by the PCs, or vice-versa, what will he do? What does he know about who they are, specifically or in general terms?

One option that many GMs (including myself) fail to prep adequately for is an attempt to parley by the PCs. I’m starting to specifically plan for that these days, having been caught short once too often.

In between is a demand for the enemy to surrender, and this again is something that GMs often don’t prepare enough for.

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This is all information for GM reference with the possible exception of the initial reaction. As such, it becomes important to be able to distinguish between the three (or more) different sets of content that falls into this category. I (will) place the trigger in capitals at the start of a line giving a brief indication of the response of the NPC. As standard, I expect that there will be four such lines:

  • [INITIAL:]
  • [PARLEY:]

[INITIAL] describes the enemy’s response to catching sight of the PCs or otherwise learning of their presence. This might be an action, it might be a verbal demand, it might be an emotional response, or there might be no visible reaction if the enemy was expecting the PCs to show up at some point.

[SURRENDER DEMAND] states how the enemy will respond to a demand for his/her surrender. The same four broad categories of response are possible, with ‘verbal demand’ amended to ‘reply’.

[PEACE TERMS] is what the enemy will demand in order to leave in peace, if anything.

[PARLEY] is how the enemy will react to any more general attempt to negotiate by the players, or by an NPC who is on the player’s side in the mind of the enemy.

Prep Amount

To complete this section, I need to get into the head of the enemy. If my character write-up has been adequate prior to this point, that can be a very quick process, and I can toss off my answers almost as quickly as I can type; if not, it’s better to discover the shortcomings now, when I can do something about them.

Prep Description

Understanding an NPC occurs in two stages: analyzing the character and compressing that analysis into a form that can be rapidly digested. I’ve given more specific advice in this area in two articles: 3 Feet In Someone Else’s Shoes: Getting in character quickly, and Getting Into Character pt 1: NPCs (there is a sequel article about understanding PCs here.


I don’t need to make notes on this very often, but when I do, this is where I usually put them. A micro-environment is a part of the combat area that has such a different environment that I need to make separate notes about it.

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There are several types of information that might need to be presented under this heading, from flavor text to GM’s notes. But, fundamentally, both are optional information that is only to be read when a PC or NPC triggers the option by entering the micro-environment. And that’s the key: starting the first paragraph of this section with “<WHEN (micro-environment) IS ENTERED:”, subsequent paragraphs with “<“, and ending the final paragraph of the section with “>”, as well as applying any other formatting that is standard for optional information – color coding, italics, whatever.\

Within that “wrapper”, I can place prose paragraphs or my GM’s Notes indicator, as necessary.

Prep Amount

When a Micro-environment is present, it’s usually pretty significant. It could be anything from a floating bubble of Elemental Plane to a pocket dimension to a walk-in freezer like the ones used for preserving meat carcasses for butchery to a river or whatever. That means that prep could be quick or could take a little time.

One thing that usually makes this section faster is having done at least part of the work in advance – and that is in fact the case when you break the work up in this way (Scroll up looking for the word “lava”).

Prep Description

That means that prep is largely a matter of finding notes that have already been made, though some visualization of the micro-environment may also be needed to write a descriptive passage, and that may involve some additional research in rulebooks or elsewhere. Where that is the case, it is also normal for me to have noted the relevant page numbers or saved an illustration with those earlier references, making this prep relatively straightforward. There are exceptions where entering the micro-environment triggers an entirely new part of the plot, usually written up as a completely separate encounter with nothing more than a placeholder here.


There are two ways to interpret this heading, and I use them both as necessary. The first is complications to the plot that may result from the PCs doing something unexpected in the encounter, and the second is complications to the encounter to advance the plot.

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The first takes the form of GM Notes, and the second usually takes the form of optional content containing a narrative section or link to subsequent content in the adventure outside of the encounter. Note that in the latter case, I will rarely run the two sections of plot simultaneously, but have been known to do so on occasion.

Prep Amount/Description

Obviously, if this leads to an entirely section of plot, there is no prep to be done in terms of this encounter. The alternative involves spending a couple of minutes thinking about what could possibly go catastrophically wrong and how to deal with it if it does.


You will never think of everything that can possibly go wrong, and too much of the resulting prep would be wasted time, so I tend to only deal with the most obvious possible catastrophes and the most simple solutions. This doesn’t bind me to those solutions; they are there to give me a head start and keep me from freezing up at the game table.

Encounter Outline & Prepared Dialogue

In theory, this is where this section belongs. In practice, most of the time I put the encounter outline at the very top and any prepared dialogue here – but the encounter outline always starts off in this position. I’ll get to why, and when I move it, in a moment – it’s a clever little trick, learned the hard way.

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I always number encounters and sections within my adventures. Sometimes there will be Acts and Scenes, sometimes there will just be scenes. Either way, I write all my dialogue here, identifying each passage with a sub-number, and then move it to where it’s supposed to go within an optional text frame with trigger, i.e. “<When (x happens), (enemy name) says, (dialogue in inverted commas)>”

Let me explain that numbering scheme a little more clearly, it will only take a second. Let’s say that I have an encounter in scene 4 of Act 3 of an adventure.

The Scene would be entitled “3.4 Scene 4: (Encounter Title)”. The first passage of canned dialogue would be numbered 3.4.1, the second 3.4.2, and the 11th (if I got that far, not very likely) would be 3.4.11.

Prep Amount

Once again, this involves getting into the head of the enemy. I have a bad habit of under-prepping or (occasionally) over-prepping in this area; I rarely seem to hit the sweet spot of “just enough”.

Prep Description & Why

The encounter outline is a one-sentence summary of the encounter and its plot function. It’s always the first thing that I write after the heading/title of the encounter. But thereafter, I put some white space in between those two, which is where I write all the preceding content, until I reach this point. That means that when writing the rest of the encounter details, the encounter outline is always at hand, usually visible a couple of lines below where I happen to be typing at the time, where I can refer to it constantly.

The other half of the prep is the canned dialogue, and until you reach this point, you don’t know exactly what canned dialogue you are going to need, and what you can improvise. Doing it at this point is the most recent change to my normal practices, and it’s my hope that this will solve the under/over-prep problem mentioned earlier.

Why? Because, (1) it’s a lot easier to write all your dialogue at one time, and all in the one place (so that you can refer to previous dialogue to maintain a consistent style and characterization), and (2), as I said, it’s not until you get all the rest of the prep done that you know what canned prep you’re going to need. So I write it here, and then cut-and-paste to move it to where in the encounter seems most appropriate, moving the encounter outline while I’m at it.

I also intend to make lists of canned dialogue needed as I work on the preceding parts of the encounter, using the numbering scheme described above, to create a checklist of required dialogue.

The result, of course, is that this section usually ends up devoid of content. The only exception is when I have a substantial conversation between two NPCs; I may leave it here simply so that I can isolate it from any potential confusion, like leaving out the last line of the conversation because I thought it went with something else.

(As an aside, that’s also why I make sure to mark the end of each section with the appropriate “end-section” marker, something I’ve quietly stressed throughout this article).


Finally, it’s time to document how I want and expect the encounter to end, and where the plot goes from here.

Succeed-or-the-plot-stops encounters

I absolutely detest succeed-or-the-plot-stops encounters. I always prefer to do one of two things: either have the plot set up so that it makes no difference in the long term whether the PCs succeed or fail in the encounter, the plot can move forward anyway; or set it up so that the plot branches depending on the outcome before coming back together again at some later point. I talked some more about avoiding Succeed-or-the-plot-ends encounters in The Beginnings Of Plot, not long ago.

The only way that the plot should stop is if all the PCs get themselves killed, and I often have a contingency plan in my back pocket for dealing with that, too.

That’s not to say that encounters don’t matter; even if the outcome is irrelevant in plot terms, there can be complications and additional difficulties to be overcome as a result. There should always be consequences, most of them unpleasant.

Encounter Notes

There are three possible sections in the Outcome part of the Encounter Plan, of which this is the first. While this section encompasses any notes that don’t go anywhere else, by far the most frequent content relates to consequences going forward. After the end of play for the day, I will go back over my adventure plan and use Bold to highlight those notes that actually come to pass . When I first unlimber the adventure for the next game session, I will skim through the plan up to the current point of play, reminding myself of those boldfaced notes. And, of course, if something is no longer relevant, it gets un-boldfaced.

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These are GM’s notes, and are presented in that format.

Prep Amount

Existing campaign and adventure notes should make prep minimal. That can stop being the case when the players – or you – have gone off-script and need to work out how to get things back on some sort of track. That can involve completely rewriting the adventure (though I can usually avoid that), retconning events (something I deliberately avoid as much as possible), or simply mapping out a new path from where you are now to some point later in the adventure.

One of the most extreme revisions I’ve ever had to make involved taking everything that the PCs were supposed to learn from one batch of NPCs and putting the words in the mouths of entirely different characters, in an entirely new sequence of appearance, having employed entirely different means of learning the essential information. On top of that, the encounter that had steered the plot in this direction set up an additional obstacle that had to be overcome, and the PCs needed intelligence as to how to achieve that along the way. I don’t think the players ever realized – and I’ve been vague enough about the details that they probably can’t even identify which campaign it was in (never mind which adventure)!

Prep Description

Prep involves a very simply activity: read over the entire encounter and ask yourself “what do I need to remember after this encounter?”

I also put the XP value of the encounter in this section for ready reference, if the game system demands xp for encounters. Note that I have fully transitioned these days to the Objective-Oriented Experience Points system that I described more than 5 years ago.

Desired Outcome

Of course, if all goes anywhere close to according to plan, the ideal outcome deserves a bit more expansion, possibly some prepared narrative and/or dialogue. The less you have to improv this, the less likely your plot is to skew wildly in some unexpected direction.

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This is adventure content, either narrative text to be read to the players, canned dialogue to be read to the players, or – just possibly – optional inserts or inclusions to either or both of these two categories.

Prep Amount

This is pretty much the last major content of the encounter. It’s one area of the prep on which I spend as much time as needed, and if extra time is available, it’s one of the priority areas for a little extra polish.

Critical Beats

The final section in the encounter writeup is reserved for reminders of any campaign-level elements that are involved in the encounter, and whether I want to play up their significance or down-play them.

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These are GM’s notes, and may be added to in the course of play. I treat these like the Encounter Notes described above. At the end of the adventure, these should be the only things left in bold.

Prep Amount

Prep doesn’t take long.

Prep Description

I read over the campaign notes looking for anything that applies to this encounter. Then I read over the encounter looking for anything that will have ramifications beyond this adventure.


These come last because I want them to be easy to find.


Whew! Made it to the end! But I do have some final advice: I work hard to try and keep the entire encounter visible on a single page or screen. If that means trimming and pruning narrative sections, so be it. I find that infinitely preferable to trying to look at two pages at once, or continually using page up and page down and losing my place!

Although I’ve listed a lot of different sections of content, most encounters end up consisting of half-a-dozen of them, or less. Keeping them all visible at once should be routinely achievable.

Planning encounters is mostly making a few decisions and producing flavor text, just like any other part of an adventure. Use organization to make sure you don’t miss anything important and dressing them up should be a breeze.

Hey, what do you know – it looks like I do have reasons for my natural breakdown of encounter prep after all, even if it does sometimes seem counter-intuitive when the product is viewed on the page. Good to know!

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Just Another Pointy Stick I: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 3a


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This is the third part of an intermittent series that will examine alternatives and possible implications to the standard spell storage solutions built into D&D, Pathfinder, and, in fact, most fantasy games. Unfortunately, it has grown so large that I have no choice but to split it in two. The second half will be published next week, it’s already half-written.

When it comes to fiction, and especially children’s fiction, wands and chairs seem to outnumber every other type of magic item available save perhaps for spinning wheels, which seem all-too-easily cursed. Follow that with bright, shiny, magical, swords. Perhaps it is this exposure to pointy sticks that do something wonderful that leads many GMs to overpopulate their campaigns with wands. Staves, on the other hand, were one of the simplest and most common weapons going around if you weren’t a trained soldier – simply because you could use one to hopefully stay out of reach of those trained soldiers’ swords. Yet they are rare and precious as magic items, and even more rarely encountered as weapons. Clearly, something (possibly several somethings) is a little out of kilter here.

Wands and Staves

Wands and Staves have a lot in common, and yet are (in some ways) very different. One is a power-pack that can be recharged time and time again, the other is a permanent or semi-permanent item – that sometimes has limited charges. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that one is a power-pack and the other is very confused! One of the goals of this article is to cut through that confusion and make sense of the whole situation.

Actually, there is a little edition-confusion in the above statements (but not much) – until Pathfinder came along, most staves were permanent magics with only a few having charges. The earth moved in Johnn’s article of Oct, 2011 – or, more accurately, that’s when the shockwaves arrived (see Why I Fell In Love with Staves Again After 10 Years (PFRPG)) – when all staves were switched to a slot-and-recharge model and some powers began to expend multiples of those slots.

So the trend has been for these items to become more alike than they were, though with enough distinctive touches to make each different from the other. And both have migrated towards the essential power-pack model, if they weren’t there already.


A wand is a stick about yea-long – generally about a forearm’s length. Sometimes you release the magic by pointing, sometimes by waving it around, sometimes by uttering a command word or phrase, and sometimes by some combination. Modern-day magic wands, as used in Magic Shows, have grown longer over the last century or so, become almost ubiquitously black with white ends, all to make them visible to audience members sitting in the back rows, but the more traditional form is of a reasonable straight piece of turned wood. The Harry Potter books and movies made wands exciting again to younger players (especially their traditional use outside D&D/Pathfinder), not as a bespoke magical item, but as a spell focus. Wands are normally limited to 4th level spells or less (though I have seen rare exceptions).

Sidebar: Wands as Spell Foci in Shards Of Divinity

One of the ways in which I simulated the rising difficulty of casting spells in Shards Of Divinity (described in my forthcoming article “What Is Magic?”) was by adding an optional additional spell focus to all spells. This halved or three-quartered the loss of reliability of magic that was not so bolstered, which started at 18/- reliability in the campaign backstory and progressed through to 14/- reliability at the start of play, declining further to 50-50 odds in the course of the campaign.

To halve the reliability loss, you used a stick or chalk to trace a circle in the ground around the caster and drew a pattern of lines within the circle, a pattern that was different for every type of spell (and had to be discovered by trial and error and memorized by rote); so long as you stood within that circle, your chances of casting that particular spell were improved: from 18/- to 19/-, from 14/- to 17/-, from 10/- to 15/-. Projecting forward in time, when the base reliability dropped to 2/-, a circle would give you an 11/- shot. These circles took one round per spell level to draw – so for a zero-level spell, a simple circle was all that was required. The PC mage was the first mage to discover the cause of this benefit, and in the process gained a clue as to why magic was becoming unreliable, but that’s not all that important here.

He found that he could substitute the mental image of a circle with it’s appropriate pattern, adding a round to his spellcasting times, but achieving the same reliability boost. What’s more, because mages aren’t normally known for their manual dexterity (or their delicate writing, which more often than not resembles a doctor’s handwritten prescription), but are known for their intellect, this enabled him to halve the unreliability a second time.

What he never found out (but would have done, had the campaign continued long enough) was that other mages were finding other solutions. One of them was the substitution of more valuable material components, another was the addition of an additional spell component (verbal, somatic, material) where the spell as written didn’t require one, and a third was the use of a wand to ‘draw’ the arcane symbol or something resembling it in the air (effectively adding a second somatic component); this was faster and sloppier than drawing on the ground, and so, like these other techniques, not as effective – they three-quartered the unreliability – but they also dropped the casting time back to standard. What’s more, eventually it would have been discovered that these were stackable benefits.

Another thing that was known was that creatures who were part-magical, or who relied on non-clerical magic to survive (often a feature of Dragons) were dying out. Eventually, it would have been learned that they could survive within such magical circles, or using methods analogous to those described in order to make their spell-like abilities more reliable (and hence, their survival more tenable). In particular, Dragons would need to start consuming things costing first tens of GPs and then hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of GP each day. Finally, a meaningful purpose for Dragons to collect Hoards! But that’s wandering slightly off-point.

Another thing that would eventually be discovered was that the material of which the wand was made would have a profound effect – at first, a simply wand would do the job, a wand costing ten times as much would do it twice, and so on. Eventually, the cheapest wands would stop working altogether, shifting the baseline cost of the wands. At the same time, the other solutions would also need to be doubled-down, and then tripled.

What I was really doing, in other words, wasn’t so much making magic unreliable, as increasing the cost of a reasonable standard of reliability. Just thought he – and the rest of my readers – might be interested. There will be more such revelations/inspirations in that forthcoming article that I mentioned).

Wand Basic Variants: Expended Charges

A wand should rarely if ever be recovered from the field (i.e. found in loot) fully charged. If nothing else, the caster should have expended one charge verifying that the darn thing works as advertised, and – because shonky operators and con-men are a reality wherever an opportunity presents itself – most purchasers will make a down payment in order to see the wand demonstrated at the time of purchase. I always used the simple rule of multiplying the value shown in the DMG by the percentage of remaining charges to establish the base second-hand value of a wand.

Furthermore, some percentage of the charges would have been expended in the field. Depending on the circumstances and the campaign, I might roll 2d20 for the charges expended, or 3d10, or 4d10, or 3d12, or even a percentile roll. It would be very easy to simplify this into a consistent pattern if you want a bit more reliability.

In the past, depending on how generous I was feeling when setting the ground rules for a campaign (because wands of fireball and lightning bolt and so on can be terribly game-unbalancing), I might set a minimum number of charges remaining – usually (but not always) 10. These days I would put a bit more thought into such decisions.

Wand Basic Variants: Expended Charges 2

For example, I might rank the usefulness of the wand on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most useful, and then roll [usefulness]d10 for the number of expended charges. Or [usefulness x X]+dY for that value – with X being a value chosen from 5-9. This means that each time such a treasure appeared as loot, a qualitative assessment would be made as to how heavily it would have been consumed – remembering that acquiring one with a lot of charges often makes a mage trigger-happy. “You see a kobold –” “Wand of fireballs, blammo!”

Wand Basic Variants: The Last Charge

Another variation that I have contemplated, but never personally used, is that some extra activation is required to expend the last charge in a wand. This is because of the characteristic of Magic Item Persistence, discussed below – essentially, once the last charge is consumed, a wand becomes just another piece of wood, or crumbles to ash, or something of the sort.

Wand Basic Variants: We just don’t get along

Another such unimplemented idea was the notion that two wands in close proximity might interfere with each other’s magic or short-circuit each other. This notion arose when a player of my acquaintance created a list of the ten most useful mage spells and had his mage begin wearing a bandolier stocked with two wands of each spell on his list. The final straw was his creation of a custom feat, “Two-wand casting” (based on two-weapon fighting) to enable him to use a wand in each hand at the same time. He did specify in the feat that unless they were the same kind of wand that they needed to have different triggering mechanisms – i.e. they couldn’t both be command-word activation unless both used the same command word, but even so…

The same player also came up with the Semi-Automatic Wand, which is a long stick with a bunch of wands attached to it, usually an inch apart, all activated with the same command word.

While I like my players to be creative, this was going a little too far, in my opinion – this variant was the inevitable result.

Wand Basic Variants: Permanent Wands?

I have also pondered the creation of Permanent Wands, i.e. Wands of infinite charges. These would cost 100 or 1000 times as much as a standard fully-charged wand of the specified type. Ultimately, I decided not to implement the idea; there was too much gameplay deriving from a wand getting low on charges – except in a limited fashion.

Ultimately, for SOME wands (where the casting of the spell was a ubiquitous practice, such as wands of Detect Magic), I permitted Permanent Wands (while making them exceptionally rare items to discover in loot), simply because it eliminated unproductive record-keeping and time-wasting in play, and specified that if you attempted to do this with any other type of spell, the wand blew up, expending all the spells cast into it already.

Sidebar: Wands Of Healing

There have been times when I have permitted wands of Cure Light Wounds in my campaigns, especially when none of the players wanted to play a cleric, or insisted on being more than a holy drip-bottle (refer to the All Wounds Are Not Alike series for other solutions to this problem). Here’s my rule of thumb on such matters: if there are only 2 or 3 players, permit it; if there are 4, consider it; if there are 5 or more, consider one of the other solutions to the problem.

Wand Basic Variants: The Wand Charging Line

Another of my sometime-players and acquaintances posited the notion of a wand charging line – instead of one mage doing the charging of a wand, you get 50 of them (most magic schools can boast this number of apprentices and staff, in his estimation) in a row. Each imbues one charge into the wand under construction and then hands it over to the next in line, enabling the school to crank them out like sausages.

Wand Basic Variants: Charge Accumulation

He also proposed the notion that you be able to charge up one wand with the unused charges of another wand of the same type – so that if you had five wands with ten charges, you could dump all of those charges into one of the wands to have a fully-charged item.

Wand Basic Variants: Disposable Wands

The same player also proposed the notion of Wands made of cheap materials in the cheapest and shoddiest way that you could get away with that could only hold five or ten charges and then got thrown away, costing 1/6th of the standard cost. Because they were cheap and nasty, there was a risk that they would break with unexpended charges remaining, hence the slight discounting of the value.

On this occasion I was especially sharp, and realized that the combination of this, plus the Wand Charging Line idea and the Charge Accumulation idea meant that you would be able to create 4 disposable wands for 2/3rds of the price of a regular wand, create a regular wand with only 1/5th the usual charges (costing 1/5th the regular price) and then dump the charges from the disposable wands into the unfinished full wand – effectively discounting the construction costs of a standard wand to 13/15ths of the standard price. That might not seem like much, but for a wand costing 2500gp? That would be roughly an extra 333gp profit, and would also cut overheads because your production line needed only to be 10 mages long. So, while I like the disposable wand idea, do NOT permit it in combination with either of these notions.


Staves are rod-shaped, made of wood, or sometimes metal, bone, or other exotic materials, usually 4-7 feet tall and 2-3 inches thick – though for metal ones, an inch is perhaps a more appropriate diameter. They are often surmounted by a gem, crystal, skull, or other such device and may be shod by metal at it’s foot; some are shod at both ends. Unlike wands, Staves are not limited in spell level, but they can contain only 10 charges, and may posses exotic abilities that are powered by the spells embedded within, which in turn may consume those charges – sometimes one, sometimes two, and sometimes three, depending on the staff and the ability. Probably the most famous staves are those of Gandalf and Saruman in The Fellowship Of The Ring, first of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

Redefinition As Mundane Weapons

Both D&D 3.x and Pathfinder state that a Staff is like a walking stick, quarterstaff or cudgel, and can be broken with a DC of 24. That means that they do 1d4/1d4 damage (s) and 1d6/1d6 (m), and have a x2 critical range. As far as weapons go, that’s pretty poor when compared with enchanted swords and the like, and the Break DC makes them entirely too fragile (given their expense). A Break DC of 24 is reasonable for an unenchanted weapon, though. Monks, of course, can elevate the combat performance of Staves through class abilities.

For that reason, I will propose, in this section, a set house rule to improve enchanted staves as an enchanted weapon. You are under no obligation to adopt them; they are offered here only for consideration.

  1. All enchanted staves with at least one charge remaining receive +1 to hit with each blow, as though they were a +1 weapon.
  2. Staves add the number of remaining charges they contain to the Break DC – so a fully-charged staff would have a Break DC of 34.
  3. Characters can develop a stave-based combat style that enhance a staffs combat characteristics. For each additional proficiency feat of the appropriate type devoted to the purpose (beyond the base required for proficiency), the character can do one of the following, three times:
    • add +1 to the chance to hit with one strike*;
    • add +1 to the damage done with one strike*;
    • add +1 to the critical threat range (maximum of once per feat allocated) with one strike*;
    • add +1 to the Break DC of the weapon.

    * Note that normal characters get two attacks per round with the weapon, while Monks get three.

  4. If the stave to which the character has attuned his combat style is lost or destroyed, he must attune his style to a replacement; no two ever have quite the same balance, etc. This requires one week of daily use (practice bouts of at least an hour count) for each feat allocated to the Staff Fighting style. Feats that have not been ‘attuned’ do not contribute any combat benefit.

The purpose of these changes is to make the staff a more attractive combat option.

Staff Basic Variants: Permanence

Unlike wands, staves may not be destroyed by the consumption of the last charge within the magic item; they persist and can still be recharged. Some GMs may prefer an alternative to this behavior (I do, because it adds to the diversity of magic items). For those who like this notion, I offer the following variant: some Staves persist, and these are in a separate category of magic item to normal staves, Lordly Rods, Staves, and Scepters. The GM defines whether or not any given staff in a member of this category. These are rare and usually restricted to members of the Nobility (hence the name).

If however, the staff is nothing more than a repository for spell charges, it costs 1/10th the price and becomes (permanently) just a mundane weapon upon the consumption of its last charge. Any benefits conferred using the Mundane Weapon (Staff) combat style remain, but the staff can never be recharged and must be replaced if the character wants to use it as a spell storage device.

Staff Basic Variants: Themed Spells

One option that I have seen restricts the spell contents of a staff by Caster Level and not Spell Level. This variation also mandated that the spells contained need not be the same, but should fit a narrowly-defined theme. I’ve often found this a useful technique to employ for granting PCs temporary access to an environment in which they could not normally adventure, eg underwater, inner planes, etc, or for providing other plot necessities.

Remaining Charges

Once again, finding a staff as part of loot should not gift a PC with a fully-charged item, though charges are few enough in such items that characters would be more conservative in their consumption. For that reason, I usually roll d6+6 for the number of charges (with a maximum of 10). I also know of some DMs who are a little more generous and permit a maximum of 12 charges in a Staff, in which case I might make the roll d8+7.

Key Characteristics

There are a number of differences between Staffs and Wands, but there are even more similarities, especially once the most common variations are taken into account, as this section will show. That’s the reason they have been bound together into this one general category for the purposes of discussion; just about anything that can be discussed for one can also be made to apply to the other, with only a few exceptions. The characteristics that define this broad category are:

  • Persistence (sometimes)
  • Spell Capacity
  • Instant
  • Command Words and/or Gestures
  • Reluctant, Go-getter, or Eager
  • Form

Each of these merits discussion:

Persistence until drained (sometimes)

The default is for wands to become dead and useless once their charges are expended, and for staves to retain a functional capacity for stored magic under the same conditions – but wands include the capacity for infinite charges (and an obvious sub-variant in which the capacity is limited but can be recharged even after the final charge is consumed), while staves include the option to give the ‘long-life’ variant special treatment while the regular items are treated like high-level wands. As a result, both items fall on a continuous range of possibilities in this respect.

Spell Capacity

Both are limited to a set capacity, which can be recharged. In the case of wands, 50 charges is the norm, while 10 (or sometimes 12) charges is most common for Staves.

Variants: Subdividing a finite capacity

Some GMs feel that wands are over-powered. After all, 50 fireballs can decimate a small army, and it takes a lot less time to activate one than it does to cross the space between safety and melee. Sure, you could use a massed archery attack – but you need to be fairly precise with your aim (range penalties apply) whereas the mage only needs to hit somewhere in the general vicinity – which means that they only have to traverse a short distance at most before the archers are in range. One or two fireballs later, and the threat has passed. And that ignores the potential for mobile armored wagons to protect the mage until he’s close enough to point the wand, or some other protection from missiles.

One GM I know devised a simple solution: instead of one spell to a charge, he defined wands as containing one spell level per charge, and +1 charges required for attack spells. So the capacity of a wand of fireballs would be 50/(3+1)= 50/4 = 12.5 fireballs. He was generous enough to round up, so that the wand had a rechargeable capacity of 12 spells, but on the 13th use, would disintegrate after the expenditure of the final charge (using it’s very substance to make up the shortfall).

It didn’t take him long to realize that this meant that the restriction on spell levels that could be contained within a wand was no longer necessary; normally, a wand can only contain spells of 4th level or less; that means that one could contain 10 uses of a 4th level attack spell, no more. And that, in turn, meant that using a staff for spell levels 5+ would simply be a more efficient storage medium, which in itself was enough of an incentive to maintain the existing patterns of usage.

He then took this logic a step further, dividing staves into classes ranked 1 to 5. Add 4 to the class and multiply by 10 to get the equivalent in “wand charges” for each class, and mandate that staves cannot hold more than 10 charges. This means that each stave class corresponds to a single level of spell which it can store most efficiently, starting at 5th (class 1) and proceeding through to 9th (class 5). A stave could, then, hold a 3rd level spell – but the maximum number of charges was fixed at 10, which meant that a wand would be a more efficient storage mechanism (and a lot cheaper). This enabled him to control very precisely the level of magic that he was releasing into his campaign.

When he told me of these variants, I immediately pointed out that if he relabeled his system to use “effective spell level” instead of “spell level” that it would enable him to create wands with built-in metamagics on the spells. For example, an Empowered Fireball has an effective spell level of 3+2=5; so a wand could hold 50/(5+1)=8.33 spells, round up as usual. This greatly increased the variety of wands that were available in his next campaign!


As a general rule of thumb, both commence activation of an effect contained within, instantly the activation procedure is complete. In most cases, this is so rapid a process that it doesn’t trigger an attack of opportunity. That qualifies as being instant, or near enough to it, in my book.

Command Words or Gestures

The most common activation processes are command words or gestures. More exotic procedures are sometimes required but these tend to be custom magic items and not representative.

Reluctant, Go-getter, or Eager

The terms “reluctant” and “eager” were introduced in part two of the series; this time around, I’m adding an additional option to the mix, the “Go-getter.” This parameter describes what happens when the magic item is broken or destroyed. “Reluctant” means that the magic is simply dissipated, and nothing happens. “Eager” means that the entire set of remaining spell charges are activated simultaneously, with the object (and its wielder) at “ground zero”. A “Go-Getter” is a compromise in which just one charge is released to affect/afflict the wielder, and is the option I most often use.

Form: The Ultimate Definition – pointy sticks

When you boil it down, both wands and staves have a single fundamentally simple form in common: they are sticks that you can point toward things. Everything else is a matter of detail.

Now, there are an awful lot of other things that meet that basic description, or something very similar to it. And all of them are potential substitutes for the standard wand or stave.

Since these variations (rather than the spell-oriented ones already described) are ostensibly what this series is all about – offering GMs some unusual substitutes that they may not have previously considered – lets look at some. In fact, I have 7 broad ideas to throw your way – and then still more ideas for wands for you to consider.

This article will continue next week, when I look at variations on the concept of “a stick that points”…

UPDATE: That article has now been published and can be read here.

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Cities Of Legend: Blueprints For Adventure

Destinations Paris by Jorge Avina

Image credit: / Jorge Avina

The Backstory:

When my pulp co-GM and I started talking about this article, it had a very different shape.

The original intention was to list the cities that we considered iconic settings for pulp adventure, and explain in each case why it had been selected to receive that accolade.

As the article progressed, however, it became clear that the reasons why a city could be considered an iconic setting were not only universal amongst the cities we had selected, but also that they applied universally to any city, regardless of setting or genre.

What we had, in fact, arrived at was a blueprint for conferring iconic status on a settlement. And that is what we are going to share with you today.

A-list, B-list, C-List, and beyond

The ‘blueprint’ consists of a number of criteria, and to be iconic, a location has to tick each and every box without reservation. Of these, the hardest is the last one we are going to discuss (variety of adventure possibilities) – or, at least, there seem to be a great many cities in the world that meet every other requirement quite handily.

This permits an ordered system of rating locations as viable adventure settings: the A-list ticks all the boxes, the B-list misses the last item on the list, the C-list misses both that and one other, and so on.

As a general rule of thumb, we’ve found that you can use A-list settlements repeatedly, and even base whole campaigns from them; the monotone nature of what can be done with B-list locations restricts them to single adventures except when deliberately repeating a theme; C-list and D-list locations tend to be fairly generic except in unusual situations revolving around symbolism or associated landmarks, and can only be used for a single adventure before being sucked dry unless that symbolism is a theme of the campaign; and E-list locations are someplace that only gets mentioned in passing, or used as a generic location.

The Iconic Criteria

We’ll have some specific advice on using iconic locations a little later in the article, but first, let’s look at the criteria we have developed. Make no mistake, there are some very beautiful locations that don’t make the A-list grade, places that might be wonderful and exciting places to call home; we aren’t judging cities as anything more than a place to set adventures.


Specifically, a unique visual style. Central Park is known the world over. The Eiffel Tower is an unmistakable symbol of Paris. One glimpse of Big Ben and you know where you are. But none of those are color – those are all landmarks, which is a completely distinct criterion. If you throw up a photograph, the players might not know where it is that they are looking at, but they will be able to see instantly that it’s not quite the same as a photograph of a different iconic city. Sometimes, the skyline is enough; sometimes it’s cobbled streets, or an antique architectural style, or the narrowness and twisting nature of the alleyways, and sometimes it’s a combination. Some cities have this in spades, others have barely enough of it to separate them from any other city.

As a general rule of thumb, advancing modernity equates to homogeneity over a great many cities. The older the city, the more easily color will be found.

The color needs to have one essential quality – it needs to be quickly and easily communicated. That’s because you want your descriptive narrative to focus on other aspects of the urban landscape. An image is definitely worth a thousand words.


Having talked about landmarks already, there’s not a lot left to say on the subject, except to say that a particular city may be known far-and-wide for being ubiquitously associated with a particular industry, and that can also qualify as a landmark! Oxford with it’s university, Amsterdam with the diamond trade, Clyde for it’s ship-building.


No city is complete without the people, but you want them to have a point of uniqueness that you can touch on briefly but memorably, even if that means exaggerating that part of the city’s character. You need the people to be animated, or to have some instantly-recognizable visual feature. Italians talk with their hands, the French wear berets, Brits carry black umbrellas, and the unceasing level of activity in New York City is immediately obvious to anyone who’s been there – it’s not called “The City That Never Sleeps” for nothing!

This can be playing into a cliché, but the extent to which it applies to any named individual is up to the GM; we’re talking about the population in general and the cliché is necessarily part of the zeitgeist that characterizes the city in the minds of the players.


An iconic city needs to have a symbolic value or meaning, even if it’s not one that you can immediately put your finger on. No city in the world symbolizes politics like Washington DC, no city encapsulates capitalism like New York, Los Angeles is a suburban wrapper around Hollywood and the entertainment industry, Rome is the beating heart of the Christian Faith, and you can’t talk about Cairo without referencing ancient Egypt. While you don’t need to reference this symbolism explicitly in your city narrative, you need to harness it in the way you actually use the location within the adventure.

A city’s history is key to the symbolism of the city. Chicago with it’s mobs, Bastille Day in Paris, Boston and the tea party, are all excellent examples.


An iconic city needs to have its own ambiance, and that is both the most subtle quality and the hardest to convey; hence, that quality has to be the GMs primary objective, reflected in both his narrative and in the action that occurs within the city. Ambiance, to some extent, is a product of all the preceding characteristics, but more of it is generated by the tone and style of delivery and encounters.

Ambiance is also about the lifestyle of the city, for example all the ethnic enclaves in New York, each of which puts its own twist on the city overall.

Ambiance is often the result of some significant area within the city that projects it’s style over the greater whole, for example Paris with its artists and New Orleans with it’s Jazz and Voodoo.

Quite often, a trivial encounter or observed scene is the best delivery method of ambience, leaving the GM free to focus on specific information.

Bonus (dubious) Criteria: Cuisine

At one point, we included this as one of criteria, but while it’s a fact that many of the iconic locations on our list have a distinctive cuisine, there are others that don’t have such cache in the minds of the modern audience. To many people, Chinese is Chinese, and the distinction between Peking cuisine and that of Shanghai is not obvious. Similarly, any distinctiveness that distinguishes Calcutta from Delhi is lost to the public – I’m sure that there are such characteristic differences, but they aren’t necessarily immediately obvious.

What can be said is that if there is something unique about the cuisine or the way it is consumed – London Pubs, French Bistros, German Beer-halls – that’s part of the unique flavor of the city and helps to establish its iconic status.


The geography of a city should create an overall impression that is distinctive. All Paris seems to have the same building codes, with the Eiffel Tower and a couple of other monuments rising above them, creating an overall impression of a flat city. New York, of course, is the home of the biggest skyscrapers, one nestled right next to another with scarcely any room in between. San Francisco has its bay, and Venice? Say no more.


Climate can be either a function of the geography, an element of the ambiance, or a combination of both. San Francisco’s fogs are legendary, Seattle’s reputation for rainfall, Calcutta’s Monsoons, and Earthquakes in San Francisco and Tokyo.


Specific information is easily come by. All iconic cities will have Wikipedia pages, virtually all will have tourist information pages, they will almost certainly have appeared in fiction that can be mined for flavor-drenched narrative. The trick is always distilling this information down into what needs to be delivered, and translating it into a form that conveys and/or mirrors the ambience.

Variety in Adventures

More potential listees fall off the A-list because of this requirement than any other. You need to be able to run not just multiple adventures but multiple kinds of adventure in the city, and have these feel natural, as though they ‘fit’ the location.

That last is an important point. You can run multiple adventures, with quite different styles and tones, in any city; but few will naturally resonate with the ambience, and take advantage of the symbolism and landmarks, and feel like it belongs in that location.

The power of the home town

Of course, one location that will always be an iconic city is the place you come from. Not your home town, necessarily, but the city or town in which you live. Not only does proximity lend it cache and relevance, local knowledge elevates in importance whatever local landmarks that exist. Sydney would not be considered an iconic location in the pulp era – so many of the landmarks post-date the time period – but it’s an iconic location (one that we haven’t yet used) in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, simply because my Co-GM and I, and all our players, live here. We know where the interesting parts of the city are, can run multiple adventures built around those elements, can bring out their individual flavor – Circular Quay and its Ferries, The Rocks, Bondi Beach, the North Shore, Luna Park, the old City Center, Central Station, Mascot Airport, Flemington Markets, Villawood… the list goes on and on – and means little or nothing to anyone who hasn’t lived here.

Using Iconic Cities

An iconic city conjures a distinctive image or flavor in the minds of everyone who hears the name. You don’t need to state where the city is, most people will be able to add the country in which it is located of their own knowledge. Nevertheless, it’s important to highlight the uniqueness of the city in a flavor text introduction, to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and ‘tastes’ the flavor.

Once you have started down that road, you can’t stop, or you will be wasting that distinctive character. Every scene should reference some uniqueness, so that the totality of the adventure that takes place in the iconic setting captures the distinctiveness of the setting. A murder in Paris? The Eiffel Tower should be visible through the window – mentioned in passing, perhaps, but there. A chase in L.A.? It has to be down Sunset Boulevard and especially the Hollywood Strip. If you set an adventure in Chicago, you want the players thinking about the Mobs and Gang wars – even if your actual adventure uses these thoughts as nothing more than added color.

More importantly, the location should be important to the plot or scene. There should be a reason why this city is where the action is occurring. Don’t waste the iconic status; draw it out, infuse it into the plot, and take full advantage of it (even if it’s only misdirection).

The (incomplete) list of iconic Pulp Cities

This list makes no real effort to be complete – though it probably comes close. Every one of these should conjure an impression with nothing more than the name (they did for us – failure to do so makes it a B-lister at best). They are offered here as examples. Don’t just skim the list; pause after each entry and try to picture the city, or something about the city, in your mind. Some entries will be obvious; others may surprise. But each had left an indelible impression upon us that was relevant to the time period and the genre. If we needed an atlas to confirm where it was, it fell short of the mark in our minds. This is the 1920s and 1930s A-list.

We started in North America, then moved on to Central and South America, Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, and finally Australasia and the Pacific. One or two entries may be considered cheats, but we decided to let them slide; but we were ruthless when it came to places which may NOW be considered iconic, but which were not as exceptional in the popular zeitgeist back then.

We also, quite deliberately, have not numbered the list entries or even counted how many of them there are. We felt that to do so would give the impression that one was being valued over another.

Have we missed any? Almost certainly – Tokyo was added as the article was going to publication. I’m sure it’s not the only omission. But I think we’ve got most of them:

  • New York City
  • Chicago
  • Philadelphia
  • Los Angeles
  • San Francisco
  • New Orleans
  • Washington DC
  • Boston
  • Detroit
  • Dallas
  • Pittsburgh
  • Honolulu
  • Quebec
  • Beunos Aires
  • Rio
  • Port-A-Prince
  • Havana
  • Capetown
  • Mombasa (Mike thinks this is B-list, Blair cites it as the jumping-off point for many of the great expeditions)
  • Casablanca
  • Cairo
  • Giza
  • Baghdad
  • Jerusalem
  • Istanbul
  • Mecca
  • London
  • Oxford
  • Clyde – center of the British ship-building industry
  • Dublin – the quintessentially Irish city
  • Glasgow – the Scottish equivalent
  • Paris
  • Madrid
  • Barcelona
  • Berlin
  • Copenhagen
  • Vienna
  • Rome
  • Milan
  • Athens
  • Warsaw
  • Prague
  • Moscow
  • St Petersburg (Leningrad) – included for the Palaces and Basilica
  • Peking
  • Shanghai
  • Bangkok
  • Hong Kong
  • Saigon
  • Singapore
  • Tokyo
  • Calcutta
  • Delhi
  • Tahiti
  • Auckland

Iconic Settings

There are, of course, also a number of Iconic Settings that aren’t actually cities, but that meet all our requirements. The Nile, ‘Darkest Africa’, Brazilian Rainforest, Tibet, Sicily, the Arctic and Antarctic Wastes, the Yukon, Siberia, etc.

Disagreements & The Modern Audience

Blair and I weren’t in total agreement when we formulated the list. I’ve hinted at that in the entry for Mombasa. We discussed Panama and Suez repeatedly. Houston came up more than once, as did some of the Mississippi cities. Anchorage was mentioned, and so was Bern. That’s all fine; there may be cities on the list that you don’t feel qualify, and maybe cities that you think should have been obvious inclusions have been left off. It’s not necessary for everyone’s list to match. Marseilles was on the list until the last second – but, while it may have possessed iconic status back then, it no longer quite captures the same resonance in the modern mind.

Inevitably, it is necessary to compromise the list for modern sensibilities. These are the cities whose impression has stood the test of time.

At the same time, there are cities which have become famous for subsequent events. There has been a lot of history since the 1930s! But no matter how iconic an impression a city might have in modern times, that cache had to exist back then as well. A great example is Vegas – you don’t even need to give the city its full name for it to be recognizable – but it was only in 1931 that gambling was legalized and residency for divorce purposes was reduced to six weeks. The big, lavish, grand hotels that characterize the modern Vegas didn’t arrive until a post-WWII boom – between 1940 and 1950, the population went from under 9,000 to more than 24,000, and growth slowed only slightly over the subsequent two decades. Gambling might be legal in pulp-era Vegas, but the city that has the cache then that Vegas has now is Atlantic City – and that doesn’t have enough resonance with a modern audience. So both were left off the list.

Iconic Cities in other genres

Let’s talk D&D for a minute. Most campaigns will have cities. Are these vanilla – all the same – or worse yet, flavorless, in your campaign?

In Mike’s Fumanor campaign, for example, the central city so far as the campaign was concerned wasn’t the political capital, it was a city that after the apocalypse stood as the gateway from the semi-civilized Kingdom to the no-longer-tamed wilderness. Back then, it was a walled town, a fortress, and it retained the name “Fort Sharpfang” from that time.

The other part of the name derives from the mountain on which the fort was built – a raised plateau with a jagged spire of jutting rock behind the plateau, when viewed from the only approach. When contact with Elves and Dwarves was re-established, the paths to both ran straight through Fort Sharpfang.

As civilization re-emerged, there was not enough room within the walls, so a city slowly built up at the foot of the plateau. During the Great Orcwar, this was the front line.

When peace was declared and the Orcs and Drow became citizens of the Kingdom, the populace became too large and diverse to be ruled as one Kingdom; it was divided into three in the One Faith / Shards Of Empire simultaneous sequel campaigns, and Fort Sharpfang became the capital of the Outer Kingdom, the crossroads and center for trade, as what was once but a small collection of Baronies in the Old Kingdom struggled to grow into an Empire – and found itself faced with Empire-level threats.

The walls themselves are iconic: thirty meters thick, formed of great blocks of stone weighing hundreds of tons each, with towers forming 30-meter high crenelations, and ensorcelled with a lost magic by someone unknown at a time unknown to be as strong as rock walls five times as thick, black and glass-like in appearance and translucent in the dawn sunlight. No-one remembers who built them or how.

The city’s function as a crossroads makes it a melting pot with people from all walks of life, and the Arcane Academy (founded by a former PC from the first campaign) is the leading institute for the study and practice of magic throughout the Three Kingdoms. The city bustles with trade, and you never know who will be encountered walking down the narrow cobbled streets next.

Fort Sharpfang meets all the criteria for an iconic city (unlike the actual capital, which is even better defended but remote and quite dreary).

Use the criteria we have set forth to make the cities of your game world iconic within the minds of the inhabitants of that world – and then use the techniques described to convey that status to the players. You make them both larger-than-life and bring them to life at the same time.

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The Final Advantage

Image by geralt, licenced through Creative Commons CC0 via

Image by geralt, licenced through Creative Commons CC0 via

While playing Edge Of The Empire last week, a topic of conversation briefly arose: should advantage mechanics grow more extreme in effect in the big finish to an adventure or campaign?

Musing on Advantage Mechanics

Advantage mechanics of various forms have become a popular game mechanic in recent years. You have something of the general variety in TORG, in 7th Sea, in Edge Of Empire, in D&D 5e. The general principle is that a bias to the likelihood of success or failure, or other benefit for one faction and not the other, is introduced for dramatic effect. Sometimes it favors one side or the other based on circumstances and the tactical situation, and sometimes it is an ever-present existential balancing act in which the act of consuming the advantage on offer conveys a potential advantage to the opposition, and sometimes it represents wild luck or destiny taking a hand on a broader scale than any single die roll.

I have even seen the concept used as a narrative mechanism, where the conditions for the PCs to achieve victory were to accumulate a certain number of untapped advantages and then convert them all at once, while their NPC enemies could achieve victory at any point by achieving any of a variety of conditions. PC strategy, then, had to be to so obstruct the NPC march toward victory that the only way they could win the battle and get closer to a victory condition was to tap a potential advantage. In doing so, they advanced towards their own victory but also brought the PCs closer to success – eventually causing the whole conflict to reach a perfectly-poised knife edge at which things could go either way, in narrative terms; which is when the PCs gain the final untapped advantage that they need in order to sweep to a come-from-behind all-or-nothing victory.

Now, when adventures and campaigns are reaching their climax, we want everything to come down to a larger than life dramatic decision point in which all the chips are down and its win or lose for the whole ball game. Easy victories or inevitable failures are dull and boring; we want the whole adventure to be a struggle, each side gaining advantages and losing them as the stakes grow larger and the choices more decisive. Every game should come down to the last pitch, the last shot, the last chance; every race to the last corner, the last lunge at the line.

The entire first year of my superhero campaign was the PCs slowly whittling away at the advantages of an overwhelming enemy, earning first his attention, and then his respect, and then, ultimately, a final victory – with just enough ambiguity about the outcome to keep life interesting in the future. Move and counter-move, one step back for every two steps forward and every step a struggle against the odds, until they were able to redefine victory for both sides into something that everyone could live with.

The same pattern can be observed in the Lord Of The Rings; every grand victory consists of the cumulative effects of many smaller battles along the way until a decisive turning point is achieved.

Reflecting On End-games

No matter how big an advantage one side holds over the other, when it comes to a big finish, we want the stakes to be raised, a sense of winner-takes-all, and a sense of decisiveness. We want it in the final scenes of an adventure, we want it in our end-of-level monsters, and we want it in our cliffhanger endings. And, when we get to the final chapter of a string of such stories, we want the bar to be lifted even higher, we expect final confrontations and do-or-die situations, and climactic highs and lows.

One of the handicaps that the Star Wars prequels were always going to be lumbered with was the mere fact that they were prequels, and so we already knew that whatever happened was not going to be do-or-die; Revenge Of The Sith could never fully deliver that all-or-nothing climax because we already knew that neither side achieved total victory. (Lucas could have stunned everyone by appearing to deliver exactly that, and then attaching a 30-minute ‘prequel’ to a re-released episode IV that ‘undid’ the seeming victory, and a LOT of the criticism of the prequels would have melted away – and a lot of buzz would have been generated about the discontinuity, to boot. That was a definite opportunity missed).

The same forces apply in RPGs. We want the final adventure to be turned up to 11 – if not higher. So, the question is, should the scale of these artificial advantages become greater, or become smaller, or remain consistent, when the drama is to be heightened? Does doing so help to achieve this heightened level of dramatic tension and release?

The Inflate Advantages Case

If you want drama, and the potential for sudden and crashing reversals of fortune, increasing the effectiveness of advantage mechanics will certainly deliver. There would no longer be a small tactical advantage; any advantage that you can wring out of the circumstances would become hugely significant – for as long as it lasted.

It suddenly becomes an effective tactic to avoid a decisive conflict and focus on maneuvering, trying to line up as many advantages as you can to create an overwhelming, decisive situation. You would only pull the trigger on a final confrontation when you knew your advantage could not possibly be made any greater. Because any single advantage could be wrested away by a clever stratagem, you would find yourself better off pursuing a host of small advantages. It also puts wiles, intelligence, cunning, and wisdom on equal footing with physical strength, if not advantaging those qualities.

And all of that sounds very much like the pattern that we have described as being what you want in a big finish. It makes the desired situation all but an inevitability – and that’s a pretty strong argument in favor of the ‘yes’ case.

The Steady-as-she-goes Case

Players don’t like instability in the rules to which they are subject; they like to know where they stand. They especially don’t like the GM changing the rules to benefit NPCs relative to them. If the NPCs can orchestrate a string of small advantages as per the “Inflate Advantages” case, they can do the same without changing the rules, and the effect will be the same.

In other words, it’s up to the GM and his plotting machinations to deliver the appropriate tone and intensity to a big finish, and he shouldn’t use game mechanics manipulations to make his work easier. That’s cheating.

The Minimize Advantages Case

What inflating advantage benefits does, from this point-of-view, is to increase the level of uncertainty. That’s not inflating the drama, that’s maximizing the chaos – and when you maximize the chaos, it’s easy to make a misjudgment and hand someone so much advantage that a lucky roll can upset the applecart.

If anything, runs this line of argument, you should minimize chance and maximize strategy, tactics, and story. Prepare an exciting “script” and leave as little as possible to chance, with contingency plans on standby in case chance rears up and bites anyway.

The Hybrid Solution

There is a fourth option, which is important since each of the three lines of argument presented have their own merits – and their own shortcomings. That fourth option is to play to the strengths of each option at different points during the big finish. Let the NPC enemies implement multiple strategies at once (via flunkies), multiple ways in which to gain a major advantage, let the PCs discover some of them and decide which ones are the most important to block, let the other tactics of the NPCs succeed and be enough in aggregate to bring them just short of an overwhelming advantage – and then let the PCs pin back the NPCs a little bit at a time until they get to the big finish just short of having the overall edge, with one final chance to tilt the balance in their favor.

In essence, this means subordinating the net effect of advantages to the dictates of story, of creating an exciting finish.

The Other Variable

Before this discussion can be brought to a conclusion, there is one more variable that needs to be considered: It’s entirely up to the GM whether or not he invokes the benefits of an advantage. The dramatic objectives can be met, or very nearly met, simply by choosing whether or not to do so.

A pattern of conserving advantages until the NPC enemy is in a position to invoke several of them in a row, swinging the contest in his favor almost to the point that victory is within his grasp followed by a period in which the PCs have the opportunity to whittle away at those advantages and ultimately swing the overall balance in their favor, has exactly the desired outcome.

The smaller the benefit from any single advantage, the more finely this bias can be controlled, and the finer the control, the closer to the ‘edge’ the GM can dance. Ultimately, then, I have to declare a preference for either the Minimize Advantages option or the Steady-as-she-goes alternative.

To decide between the two, I next consider the disadvantages of each: the minimize advantages option risks upsetting players with changing rules and reads an awful lot like a plot train; there are no such problems with playing the rules as written and pulling strings by means of the timing variable.

The Verdict

This, then, is one case where the downsides of any house rules intended to maximize the drama of a big finish would seem to me to be counterproductive, and I would recommend the rules as everyone knows them. Smart play (by the GM, not necessarily by the NPC, who might just get lucky) will still yield all the benefits desired, with far more credibility, than manipulating the rules to artificially create risk and danger in the pursuit of cheap thrills.

Don’t cheapen the drama of your game. It will only undermine your credibility in the long run, for no good reason.

A relatively short post, this time around – I just ran out of things to say on the subject! Don’t get used to it…It’s also not the article that I was intending to publish today, that will be coming along in a couple of weeks.

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Working The Other Side Of The Screen

Nebula Mountains Mirror Curtains composite

Nebula image by / Terry Standefer
Mountains 4 by / Anay Paco Sancho
Mirror reflecting curtains by / Gábor Bejó
Compositing, composition by Mike
Click on the thumbnail to see the full-sized image

Not too long back, an exchange on Twitter led me to the question – does continuing to play RPGs on a regular basis make you a better GM?

I’m certainly in a position to judge, since I continue to run multiple campaigns and have, for most of the last year, been a player in a small Star Wars: Edge Of The Empire campaign, while in the past just prior to that, I spent many years purely as a GM.

Before that, I was a regular player in a Lord Of The Rings RPG campaign, and a 7th Sea campaign, while still running multiple campaigns – and before that was another stint as a pure GM – and before that, I played in a Champions campaign, and before that an Eberron campaign – still while running multiple campaigns. So I have regularly flirted with life on the other side of the screen.

In fact, it’s probably fair to ask if my stints as a non-player are the exceptions, rather than the rule, or is my default pattern of behavior not to play?

Illumination from The Edge Of Empire

I think the circumstances under which the Edge Of The Empire campaign came about might just be pertinent to that question, at least. One of my campaigns wrapped up when both players and myself started to find regular excuses not to make it. At that point, it was down to only two regular players, and the dynamic simply wasn’t there any more. It needed more variety of PC input to keep all of us interested.

At the same time, I didn’t feel up to designing and prepping a new campaign – it takes a lot of work to do it right, and at the time I was putting a lot of effort into Campaign Mastery and into the campaigns that were still active, and knew that I would need to continue to do so for some time to come.

Somewhat half-heartedly I suggested a Star Trek campaign, not really expecting that to get off the ground (it didn’t) but one of the players from the former campaign then suggested that he thought he could run a Star Wars campaign, at least for a while – until my batteries were recharged, as it were. (Currently, I can feel the creative itch starting to grow, once again. It’s not acute yet, but in a few months it might be – at which point I will start thinking about a new campaign, and when that’s ready, offer the GM the chance to take a break from Star Wars. The plan would be for a relatively short, sharp campaign (not my usual epic), and then back to Star Wars for a while. But that’s a plan for much later in 2016).

Almost every GM starts as a player. I certainly did. And that, to me, suggests that the normal state of affairs for a GM is to do both concurrently – in different campaigns, of course, and assuming that time (and the number of willing GMs) permits.

But that brings me back to the original question: does playing in another RPG on a regular basis make me a better GM? And how typical is my experience in this regard?

Re-framing the question

Since I can’t answer the second half of that double-barreled question, how can I make sure that the attempt to answer the first is relevant to most readers? And how does examining the subject translate into Campaign Mastery’s goals – to offer relevant and practical advice to make GMs better at their craft and their games more fun?

The obvious answer is to reformulate the question, discarding the relative value judgment involved, and simply consider the advantages and disadvantages that come from doing both concurrently. That way, it doesn’t matter how valid my experience is, because others can determine for themselves how relevant each advantage and disadvantage is – and then tot up a balance sheet at the end to determine whether or not THEY would be better served going one way or the other, at least experimentally.

The consequences of concurrent activity

I’ve totted up ten advantages to being a player in one campaign and the GM of another concurrently. Some of these are only minor effects in my case – your situation might vary – and others qualify as very strong incentives. I’m going to briefly examine each, and give them a rating out of 5 for how relevant they are to me – and I’ll leave a space for you to write down your own scores on a sheet of scrap paper for how relevant they are to me.

The advantages that I’ve identified are:

  1. Avoiding/Recovering from Burnout
  2. Less Stress
  3. Letting your hair down
  4. Learning from other GMing successes and mistakes
  5. More time available for Game Prep & Other Activities
  6. Trying new and diverse settings and systems
  7. Keeping in touch with player priorities
  8. Awareness of the player mindset
  9. Humility
  10. Less Flexibility

I’ve also come up with a list of nine disadvantages – which makes it easy to see how close the final analysis might be. Assuming that the average rating of both advantages and disadvantages is more or less the same, it would only take a slight drift one way or the other to completely change the overall result.

The disadvantages that I have identified are:

  1. Less time behind the screen
  2. Less variety in GMing diverse settings and systems
  3. Frustration
  4. Rivalry
  5. Losing Players
  6. Barnacles and Rust
  7. Less creative stimulation
  8. Less flexibility
  9. Commitment
10d5-9d5 probability thumbnail

Click on the thumbnail to see a larger image

To get some idea of just how finely balanced things were, I scurried off to AnyDice (my usual tool for this sort of thing) and whacked up a probability curve for 10d5 minus 9d5.

As you can see, there is a slight bias towards there being more advantages than disadvantages, but one question going from a ‘1’ to a ‘5’ or vice-versa is enough to take a strong result one way and put the choice on a knife-edge.

That tells me that there is unlikely to be a hard-and-fast result; as a GM’s circumstances change, so the answer to the reframed question – “Do the benefits of concurrently playing in one campaign while GMing another outweigh the costs” – will respond, potentially quite sharply.

The advantages of concurrent activity

So let’s look at those advantages in greater detail. Some of them will be reasonably self-evident, others definitely require explanation.

1. Avoiding/Recovering from Burnout

Burnout is rarely uniform; its dependent on the game system, and the characters, and how easily you can come with new, fresh, and interesting ideas. When that starts getting difficult, when execution of those ideas that you do have, and the prep required to implement them, starts to feel like a chore instead of an exhilaration, you are in the early stages of burnout. That means that you can suffer from “D&D Burnout” or “Fantasy Burnout” while your Sci-fi campaign keeps bouncing merrily along.

You can flirt with burnout repeatedly, growing frustrated temporarily while things aren’t running smoothly behind the screen and re-energized if and when ideas start to flow again, but when it becomes chronic, the mindset enters a downward spiral. Another solution that sometimes works is to introduce a new character that intrigues you and brightens up the prospects of working on the campaign – and sometimes that leads to the player of the new character being blamed if it doesn’t work.

Sometimes you can counter that spiral with a different campaign in a radically different genre and style; sometimes, you leave it too late. The biggest mistake that people make is to replace game sessions that are triggering burnout with ones that are going well – that risks spreading the problem from one campaign to another.

One of the most obvious ways of avoiding or recovering from Burnout is to play for a while instead of GMing. Even a slight easing of the workload (I went from 4 campaigns to 3) can be enough to keep you fresh in those campaigns that are not yet affected.

My Rating: 3/5 Your Rating: ______

2. Less Stress

There’s a lot less responsibility when you’re a player, and that means less stress. Even if a campaign is going well, you can feel the pressure to ‘perform’, week after week. How intensely you feel that pressure depends on a whole host of factors, including how difficult you find it to live up to the standards you have set, how much stress you are feeling in other aspects of your life, and how much fun you find the whole of the GMing process to be – from generating NPCs to plotlines to maps to props to actual play.

If you’re finding that stress is becoming a problem, there are two solutions: you can GM more, or you can GM less. GMing more works if you find that GMing is an outlet for your stress; some people find that it is. GMing less works the rest of the time. As usual when dealing with complex phenomena, sometimes there are no simple answers – you may find prep stressful at times but play is fine, or even vice-versa (a form of performance anxiety). If that’s your situation, consider hooking up with a co-GM or collaborator who is strong in the areas of activity that you find most stressful.

Personally, I don’t find GMing all that stressful except when several deadlines leap on me at once without warning – because I am perfectly willing to blow off a deadline if I have to. That willingness to miss a deadline when necessary relieves so much stress that it rarely inhibits me to the point where I actually miss a deadline – strange but true.

My Rating: 1/5 Your Rating: ______

3. Letting your hair down

You have a lot more freedom to just go wild as a player – though you should bear your fellow players in mind and not do too much that impacts on them!

I learned a long time ago that I could alter my mood by changing the style of music that was being played, or watching a different type/genre of TV show / movie. Satisfying your need for a “romp” to blow off some steam – even if you have to engineer it the hard way – has the same effect.

Personally, I don’t recommend this approach to an RPG unless both the other players AND the GM are on-board with the idea. Better to go watch something that scratches your itch before the game.

But still, we’re all occasionally in a silly mood, or a dark mood, or whatever. When you make the game a victim of such a mood, apologize to the others involved – and mean it – then get on with things as best you can.

I’ve even seen RPGs interrupted for a brief card- or board-game of appropriate tone just so that someone could get ‘an odd mood’ out of their system. Which can be worth considering if you find yourself stuck in an inappropriate emotional groove – ‘desperate times’ and ‘desperate measures’ comes to mind. If it’s a choice between a 20-30 minute interruption and the whole game session taking a left turn into the twilight zone, most GMs will be surprisingly tolerant. But you will owe everyone else at the table, big-time.

My Rating: 3/5 Your Rating: ______

4. Learning from other GMing successes and mistakes

Just because you aren’t the one behind the screen doesn’t mean that you can’t and don’t learn. Most GMs, when they play, do at least some second-guessing of the GM who is running the game they are playing in – “how would I handle this?” “Why did he do it that way?” “That hasn’t really worked – how could I have done it better in a similar situation?” It was thoughts like that (especially the latter two) that led me to abandon playing in the Adventurer’s Club campaign for a role as co-GM, when it became clear that I had the answers that the then-solo Blair lacked as GM. The result: the campaign that he thought might run for a year or two is now more than a decade old – and still going strong.

More importantly, because another GM will have different ideas to yours, and will get the PCs into different situations than you would, you are exposed to questions and problems that you might not ordinarily have to confront – and that makes for a solid learning experience.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

5. More time available for Game Prep & Other Activities

When I have a game, the entire day before is usually given over to game prep – at a bare minimum. Sometimes, months of work have been invested in a few minutes here and a few minutes there getting prep done. I’m well-known for being a very organized GM, able to determine what prep I will need long periods in advance, but I frequently wish that I was still more organized – and had an extra day in the week.

There is virtually no prep required when you’re a player. Reducing my workload from 4 active campaigns to 3 – with one of them only occurring when the game is ready-to-run – almost doubles my prep-time for the games that I am still running. It means that I have time to stop and watch the occasional TV show, or sleep in once in a while – and STILL get more done than I would otherwise.

My Rating: 5/5 Your Rating: ______

6. Trying new and diverse settings and systems

I would never have become a Pulp Co-GM if I hadn’t been a player first. I certainly would never have tried Edge Of Empire. My only experience of Call Of Cthulhu and Traveler have been as a player. Ditto GURPS and Rifts and Tunnels & Trolls and Star Trek the RPG, and the list only grows from there. Some of those games/genres would have appealed to me, others I would never have tried if someone else hadn’t put their hand up and said “I have an idea for…”

That means that a lot of the diversity in my gaming experience comes from being a player – in fact, it’s probably 3:1 or maybe even 5:1. Yet, that diversity continues to enhance my abilities and repertoire as both a rules-maker and a GM virtually every time I sit behind the screen – sometimes barely at all, sometimes a lot.

Being a sometimes-player means playing in game systems you would never GM – or never expect to GM, at the very least, simply because the person who is GMing the game has chosen a game system that you don’t know.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

7. Keeping in touch with player priorities

You can be spoiled by the omniscient perspective that comes with the GM Screen, wrapped up in your own cleverness. That can lead to train-wreck game sessions like the one I describe in this article.

Players won’t love everything you do just because you think they will or should. From time to time, every GM needs to be reminded that the players in any RPG have completely different goals to his in every game session. Playing on a regular basis keeps a GM in touch with reality.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

8. Awareness of the player mindset

It’s a strange thing to be aware of, but I use a completely different part of my mind when I’m playing as compared to GMing.

When I’m in front of the screen, I don’t know everything that’s going on, I don’t know what the big picture is, and I don’t know what the GM finds so obvious (or obviously wrong) about what my character is trying to do. When I’m behind the screen, I know everything that’s going on, I know which way the plot is headed, and where the PCs can shape events and outcomes, and it’s always obvious what is the best thing for the PCs given the current situation. For that reason, playing is also a lot less tiring than GMing.

My gray matter isn’t busy figuring out what is going on and how I should react, it’s working on how I engage each of the PCs, and how to make sure that one doesn’t steal the spotlight, and on being fair, and so on. When you’re a player, “fair” is something you usually only worry about as it pertains to you.

Playing regularly keeps you aware of the player mindset, and makes you better-equipped to deliver to that mind-set when you are behind the GM screen.

My Rating: 5/5 Your Rating: ______

9. Humility

Another occupational hazard is thinking that you are the smartest person in the room, able to craft stories that entertain and occasionally enlighten with greater skill than anyone else. To some extent, this is a consequence of the omniscience I have referenced already. Ironically, being a player can worsen this problem purely because of the absence of that omniscient perspective, but this still belongs on this side of the ledger because to get a balanced perspective, all you need do is observe how the other players are reacting to what you think is a comparatively poor performance.

There are three possibilities: Greater engagement, the same level of engagement, or less engagement.

If the players are clearly more into the game and more enthusiastic in their interactions with the GM, it becomes immediately clear that the GM isn’t doing half as bad a job as you thought – and that your own performances behind the screen are not the ground-breaking worlds-best standard that you thought they were. The story is much the same if engagement levels are the same as you observe in your games. Only of the other players are less involved does you self-congratulatory note have any possible merit.

This is the other side of the player mindset, and of being aware of it. Because of his unique perspective, no GM is ever fully equipped to analyze his own performance behind the screen; in fact, the comparative reactions of players (preferably the same players) is the only objective measure available. By being observant while playing, GMs can often get a much-needed reality check and dose of humility.

Of course, because no two games are alike – the PCs are different, for one thing – you also have to be a little careful that you aren’t comparing apples with oranges. Genre and characters and plotlines can all contaminate the clarity of this measure. For that reason, you need multiple examples from different games and genres before you can draw any definitive conclusions. The more you play, the more you can learn from playing to improve your own performance as a GM.

My Rating: 2/5 Your Rating: ______

10. Less Flexibility

Finally, we have the question of commitment and its consequences. Being a GM is a lot of work, for all that it can be both fun and rewarding. Players have a responsibility to respect the effort and make a commitment to participate if at all possible (without making it a do-or-die thing), and that applies to the GM when he’s a player in someone else’s game. If anything, he has less excuse for failures in this respect than anyone else, because he knows what it’s like to feel unappreciated (it happens to all of us, and is usually completely unintended by the players responsible – but emotional responses are rarely logical).

When you are the GM, you have the authority to cancel a game session if – for whatever reason – not enough players can get there, or if you aren’t going to be ready, or if you’re not well enough to run the game. That inevitably means that you have more flexibility in your schedule when you are a GM than when you are a player.

I know what you’re thinking: that doesn’t sound like much of an advantage, does it? But here’s the fact: humans like structure and schedule in their lives. It’s much easier to organize your life around some fixed routine than it is to do it around a lack of routine. Being a player on a regular basis can actually result in you becoming a better, more efficient, GM. And it’s whether or not these consequences are beneficial to you as a GM that we are concerned with.

My Rating: 1/5 Your Rating: ______

The disadvantages of concurrent activity

Of course. some of the disadvantages are no less cryptic:

1. Less time behind the screen

Would you learn more from observing another GM or from actually GMing yourself? While there are some perspectives that you can only get from the other side of the GM Screen, I nevertheless have to think that the intensity of actually doing it for the entire game session has to teach you more about being a GM than the equivalent amount of play. This is especially true with less GMing experience.

That said, you learn many shortcuts over the years; I can prep a game session in minutes now that would have taken me days when I was first starting out (if I could have done it at all). If your prep consumes so much of your available time that you are only ready to play once a fortnight, or once a month, or even less, and your choice is to play or do nothing/do game prep, you are probably better off playing – even if that’s X hours of prep that still have to be done.

Another factor to consider is rust. To some extent, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve GM’d in the past; what matters is how much current experience you have. Having all that out-of-date experience is still beneficial, but you will need to shake off any rust before you can fully utilize it. If your screen-experience is dated, your skills will (effectively) have regressed, in terms of assessing this disadvantage.

So long as you continue to GM some of the time, this isn’t a major disadvantage to an experienced GM. So I have only rated this a 1 – for me, in my current circumstances.

My Rating: 1/5 Your Rating: ______

2. Less variety in GMing diverse settings and systems

What if, instead of playing, you were to start a new campaign in a completely different genre to the one you usually referee? The more campaigns you have on the go, the greater the variety and depth of experience that you will accumulate. Even if the game system and genre are the same, GMing a whole bunch of different characters exposes you to different situations to the ones you are used to – which can be more difficult, but also more rewarding in terms of growth of skill.

When you first start out, it’s all you can do to stay on top of one campaign. With greater experience comes greater capacity. So this is a factor that becomes more significant with increasing GM expertise.

My Rating: 5/5 Your Rating: ______

3. Frustration

One of the problems that arises when a GM plays in someone else’s game is that they are perpetually second-guessing the GM. There were some positive aspects to doing this that were identified in the advantages section, but there are some definite downsides, especially when you think that your solution to a problem (which is nothing like the one the actual GM came up with) was the better answer. Never mind that you have no idea of the bigger picture that the GM has in his head, or the problems that he is dealing with, or that you can’t see the forest for the trees, or might just possibly be biased – any of which can render your solution invalid.

I once read a letter somewhere (it might have been in The Dragon but I’m not sure of that) from a frustrated player who wanted to start his own campaign because his GM had turned down his entirely “reasonable” request to give his paladin-assassin a +5 Holy Avenger of Vorpal Dancing. And the first thing he was going to do was give one to every PC who wanted one.

All players grow frustrated from time to time. GMs who play are even more susceptible. And the temptation to do in your game what another GM has prohibited you from doing in his, just to show him “how it could be done” – an extremely negative way of scratching that itch – means that your own GMing can actually be impaired by being a player – if you let it.

I’m not immune; I’ve been frustrated a number of times when a perfectly reasonable interpretation of a failed roll (or a spectacularly successful die roll) was rejected by the GM. But (so far, at least) I’ve recognized the reasons that might have led to his making a different decision to the one I was advocating, and so there has been no spillover into my campaigns as a result.

My Rating: 1/5 Your Rating: ______

4. Rivalry

A respectful rivalry can be a good thing. Striving to be a better GM than someone whose abilities you acknowledge can be a definite positive. But it’s always easy for a rivalry to get out of hand and become something poisonous. Worse still, immature players can sometimes try to play one rival off against the other; I was in my second year as a GM when I turned a player request down (I think it was for an unearned magic item, but no longer recall the specifics) only to be told, “[GM X] would let me have it”. Taking a deep breath, I explained that what another GM would or would not do was irrelevant, that the situations and campaigns and campaigns were in no way comparable.

Fortunately, with increasing maturity, this last becomes less of a problem, and as a reputation for fairness grows, the rivalry problem also tends to recede in general.

My Rating: 1/5 Your Rating: ______

5. Losing Players

If one of your players isn’t interested in playing in the new game, they will find other activities to fill their time. Sometimes, that means that you simply lose that player to a different GM, and sometimes this starts a decline in their interest in the hobby, full stop. Players who used to be stalwarts back when I started, playing in every game that they could find (and then some) have now been completely out of the hobby for 25 years or more. And it all started when one of the campaigns of which they were a part, folded.

Of the players who were part of my first campaign – which boasted 6 regulars at the time – only one still games regularly. And of the 6 core players who were part of the early days of my superhero campaign, half no longer game (though one continued to do so until his death in June 2012.

There was a time when the RPG Club around which my gaming life was built boasted a regular weekly attendance of 30 members and another 40 or so, any 10 of whom were in attendance on any given week. Only 7 or 8 of them still game together. Three have passed away, I have no idea what has happened to most of the rest; some of them moved away but may still game, and there are others who I know have hung up their dice. Well, you can’t stop the passage of time, and real life is always going to have its distractions to seduce players away from the game, but there is absolutely no good reason to give it opportunities.

My Rating: 3/5 Your Rating: ______

6. Barnacles and Rust

The more game systems that you GM at the same time, the more diverse your experience. I have found from personal experience that when you limit yourself to just one or two game systems, you grow extremely adept at nuancing that game system – but very quickly grow barnacles and rust in those genres and game systems that you aren’t using regularly. It’s now over a year since I GM’d a fantasy game – I have a superhero campaign, a pulp campaign, and a sci-fi campaign.

Variety of games as a GM keeps you sharper in all the games that you GM. You learn how to change mental gears more quickly, and how to look at gaming situations from different perspectives. It’s as big a paradigm shift as adapting a D&D module to a superhero campaign (something I’ve done in the past). And that’s an edge that you can lose if you give up GMing a campaign to become a player.

Simply because I’m thinking along those lines more of the time, I find it easier to conceive of sci-fi oriented campaigns right now. And that’s an phenomenon that will only accelerate over time – a feedback loop.

Fortunately, I have Campaign Mastery to write for, and that – plus a fantasy element to the superhero campaign – has been enough to keep my fantasy chops from becoming completely encrusted; but even so, I’m noticing that it’s growing a little harder to get into the right head-space to write a fantasy-oriented article (once I break through the barnacles and rust, I’m fine). But it’s something that I’m aware of, and actively combating.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

7. Less creative stimulation

You don’t have to be as creative to be a player as you do to be a GM. The downside of having fewer campaigns to prep for is that you have less variety of prep, and that (in turn) translates to less creative stimulation. As I identified above, my “fantasy” muscles are growing noticeably flabbier at the moment.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

8. Less flexibility

I talked earlier about the upsides of having less flexibility and more rigidity in your life as a result of the shift from pure GMing to a combination of GMing and playing in the advantages section – but those don’t negate the downsides.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating:______

9. Commitment

Of course, the reason you have less flexibility is because you have made a commitment to be a regular, recurring, reliable participant in the game. If you find that you are over-committed, you can’t scale back your involvement without breaking that commitment. To me, this is a strong enough consideration that it warrants separate consideration to that provided by the previous disadvantage.

If you’re the type of person who never over-commits themselves, congratulations on being able to give this a very low score. If you’re more like me, you have my sympathies.

My Rating: 4/5 Your Rating: ______

Analyzing the meaning

If you add up all the values I placed on the positives, you get a score of 32 – for me, in my current circumstances. Totaling the value of the disadvantages, I get a score of 27 – again, for me, in my current circumstances. That’s a balance of +5 in favor of the advantages, and means that right now, for me, the benefits of playing in someone else’s campaign at the same time as running my own outweigh the downsides. Your mileage might vary.

And what of the future? As I continue to recover from my brush with burnout, and as the need to scratch my growing “fantasy itch” grows more intense, I can see the positives declining by 6, while the negatives rise by 2 (having gone through the criteria item by item and assessed where things are likely to go). So the trend is for the balance to shift towards -3.

Inevitably, then, when the Edge Of Empire campaign runs its course, or the Dr Who campaign, I will look to fire up a new fantasy campaign, with myself in the GM’s chair. In fact, I’m starting to come up with ideas already… like using a “Quantum Leap” plot device to link totally unrelated fantasy adventures together… or maybe a very old-school simple campaign using the pathfinder system…

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Pt 8: Depth In Plotting

dice by Armin Mechanist and frame by Billy Alexander

Frame: / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike

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I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question, three articles at a time – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the second of articles in the current trilogy and the planned half-way point of the series overall.

In the previous article, I looked at adventures and found (unsurprisingly) that they don’t exist in isolation; the campaign is ever-present, providing context to an adventure whether we plan for the campaign to be episodic or not. There are all sorts of metaphors that one could use to describe this – the campaign ‘providing the color palette in which adventures are painted’, for example – but the bottom line is that the campaign shapes and contributes content to any adventure, no matter how isolated, and most of the growth in expertise in adventure design lies in recognizing and working with that fact instead of fighting it or ignoring it.

This part of the series will look at the backbone of adventures, the plot, but instead of trying to look inward toward the content of individual adventures, it will deliberately look outward at that context, viewing adventures as the building blocks of something larger. And you know what? I predict that we will end up finding that you can’t do that without considering the internal structure of adventures.

The Common Development Path

As usual, I’ll start by looking at how most GMs progress from beginners through to experienced GMs. This ‘common development path’ might not be ubiquitous, but it’s certainly routine enough to be the lowest common denominator.

The Simple Adventure

In general, when GMs start off, they aren’t thinking about a campaign. Their attention is strictly focused on the adventure in front of them, and quite often that’s enough of a challenge. I’ve had several campaigns come about because I had an idea for an adventure – and the players enjoyed it enough that they wanted to continue on, wanted to know “what happens next?”

The Accidental Campaign

So there is a natural progression from no real campaign to a campaign emerging more or less by accident. And make no mistake, these can be quite successful for quite a long time; you can operate this way for years.

Static & Dynamic Backgrounds

Along the way, perhaps suggested by techniques that the GM has read about on sites like Campaign Mastery, perhaps inspired by progressive television shows (though the technique has become far more common in recent years/decades than it once was), the GM will transition from a static background to a dynamic one.

A static background is one that doesn’t change when the PCs aren’t around. It might not even change when they are around, but they are certainly going to be front-and-center whenever anything happens.

A dynamic background changes all the time, whether slowly or dramatically. In part, this is because NPCs begin to be assigned their own plans and agendas, that develop and mature over time; in part it’s repercussions from PC-involved events; in part, it’s the GM’s desire to ensure that the next adventure to take place in a given location puts the PCs in an interesting situation; and, in part, it’s because it brings a greater sense of the campaign world being “real” to the players.

Most will have had this experience: you go shopping in a given location for a while, but then – for whatever reason – you stop going there. Some time later – weeks, months or years – you return to that location and find that, while some of the shops are familiar, some are gone and new ones have opened. There are two forces at work: evolution and resistance to change. Some places are institutions and are highly resistant to change; others are semi-permanent fixtures and are resistant to change; and some are transient and prone to change at irregular intervals. But you don’t really notice the effects if you see them happening one at a time; only when there is some interval does the accumulation of change rise up and smack you between the eyes.

It was mid-2011 that I moved into my current accommodations (I can hardly believe that it’s been five years already!) and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes to the local shopping center. While some things haven’t changed, other stores have come and gone and so have the stores that took their place. I can count 40 or 50 such changes over that period of time – enough that if I hadn’t been here, the main shopping area of my suburb would be almost completely unrecognizable by now. I can think of only a handful of locations that haven’t changed, one way or another.

That’s what an evolving campaign background is like. The changes can be so gradual that you don’t notice them happening, but eventually something draws your attention to how much things have changed since the PCs first encountered it, and the difference suddenly seems enormous.

The Clumsy Campaign

Over time, the GM becomes aware of the issues and problems that come with having a totally-free environment, such internal contradictions, plot holes, forgotten characters and plot threads, or painting yourself into a plot corner. Or they are made aware that an undirected approach puts a heavier burden on their creativity and demands more game-prep, week-on-week. Or he simply gets a hankering to run a bigger, more complicated plotline.

The problem that most GMs experience is that they have run anything with this many moving parts before, so they try to look at the campaign as though it were just one big adventure, and that’s an invitation for disaster. There are so many different ways that it can go wrong but ultimately, it’s simply because the resulting game sessions are too much of one thing. There’s too much that’s all talk before there’s some action; there’s too much action before there’s some significance to it; there’s too much doom and gloom before there’s any relief. The gap between information being provided to the players and that information becoming relevant is too great. In a nutshell, if there’s anything that can go wrong with the pacing, it does.

Because most GMs try to get new campaigns off to a vibrant, intriguing start, these flaws are often not initially evident, and that only magnifies the appearance that the campaign is a catastrophic failure. To rescue things, most GMs abandon their plans and simply take the state of play at that point as a foundation, going back to the “accidental campaign” model.

What happens next depends on the analytic capabilities of the GM, or to someone pointing them at a resource that explains to them where they went wrong, or playing that role themselves. Many of them will simply give up and decide to stick with simplicity and emergent plotting.

Others will discover what went wrong, or have it pointed out to them, or simply come up with a solution on their own. Which brings me to:

The Emergent Campaign

The simplest solution that GMs stumble across or come up with on their own is to set things up waiting to be triggered by the arrival of the PCs, and let the campaign emerge of it’s own accord from this rich field of potential.

And for a while – again, potentially, years – this can be the standard approach adopted by the GM. In fact, some GMs settle into this technique quite comfortably and never leave it.

The Catastrophic Collapse

Eventually, though, one of their campaigns will experience a catastrophic collapse. None of the potential plotlines lives up to its promise, none of the ideas work out, the campaign goes over-the-top in any of half-a-dozen ways because of the lack of planning, or the campaign simply lacks impetus and just meanders from situation to situation. It’s like a half-hour TV show that’s been padded out to an hour – not enough density of engaging ideas to sustain interest.

The Locomotive Campaign

When that happens, the GM will inevitably reach the decision that a bit more planning is needed, the next time around. In fact, they usually go too far, forgetting what they have already learned about plot trains, and creating what can only be considered a plot train on a campaign scale. It happens to almost every GM at some point; it’s certainly happened to me, I was just lucky enough that it occurred within an established campaign that was strong enough to survive the experience.

A Happy Medium

There is a happy medium, an equilibrium between too much plot direction and too little. Although the plotting in the Zenith-3 campaign that I revealed way back in Back To Basics: Campaign Structures may seem like a locomotive campaign, in fact it’s not.

That’s probably the most misunderstood article that I’ve ever posted. The idea was to describe, in increasing order of complexity, a number of different ways to structure a campaign in terms of the adventure content, so that GMs could compare the techniques and choose the one that was most comfortable for them, given their current level of experience, and what the next most complex structural technique was. Some readers seemed to think that I was describing how a complex campaign was created, and getting themselves confused, or thought that they had to understand all of them – neither of which was the intention. Maybe it would have been clearer if I had dealt with each of them in an individual article. But it’s worth calling this out and clarifying it for readers at this point because it presents a different perspective on the subject matter of both this article and the previous one.

The approach that I used to plan the Zenith-3 campaign was to create a series of plotlines, break them up into a couple of thousand little jigsaw pieces, then figure out how to assemble them into a big picture so that as each of the plotlines evolved, the overall picture would change and evolve into a larger storyline. That becomes the blueprint that is used to create each adventure – but none of those jigsaw pieces or even the plotlines are set in stone until the adventure actually takes place that incorporates them. Any and all of them can be changed, events can be added or subtracted to adventures, and so on.

One of these days, when I get to a relatively small and compact plotline, I’ll do an article about how I translate those ‘jigsaw pieces’ into an actual adventure, just to complete the picture.

Taking A Shortcut

A lot of people have told me that they have been able to use the many articles on the subject that I have posted here at Campaign Mastery to short-cut their development process. While appreciative of their efforts, and acknowledging that this is the purpose of those articles, I’m always a little concerned that people are trying to run before they can walk. I strongly recommend that GMs select one of the intermediate plot structures from the Campaign Structures article as an intermediate goal, and especially employ the simpler planning techniques described in Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited for a while before trying to advance.

Russian Nesting Dolls by Bo Hansen

Credit: / Bo Hansen

That said, if you don’t make mistakes, you can never improve (unless you can learn from someone else’s mistakes, of course!) – so if a reader is prepared for the up for the challenge, more power to them. You can always fall back to a simpler technique if you find you have to!

Depth In Plotting

The objective is to achieve depth of plot while avoiding the traps of being locked into a plot locomotive. This is actually much simpler than it sounds. There are two basic approaches to the problem, and innumerable combinations and variations.

Russian Babushka Dolls

Method one is best thought of as a set of nested Babushka dolls. Each “doll” is a layer of plot, separated by a revelation, surprise, or plot twist. Let’s put one together to show you how simple it is.


We start with a few simple plotlines:

  1. The PCs rescue the (incognito) Crown Prince when he is accused of cheating in a card game in a tavern and are rewarded. The Crown Prince recruits the PCs to be his eyes, ears, and hands in dealing with problems that can’t, for some reason, be handled with the military force of the crown. Their first mission: a greedy landowner has failed to pay his taxes despite gouging those under his authority. The PCs are to collect the taxes and punish the landowner before banditry arises as a solution.

Sets up the basic campaign, starts it off with a bang, and gets the PCs involved up to their necks.

  1. The taxes are needed to repay war debts. When the neighboring Kingdom of Skannex invaded, the Dwarves of Zarecht bargained fiercely for their aid, but turned the tide of battle against the Realm’s ancient enemy. Reparations are in the form of a regular sum of gold until the debt plus interest is repaid, plus a series of ‘favors’ doing things that the Dwarves can’t be publicly seen to be party to. The gold makes an attractive target, so it needs to be protected by the PCs; and, when they get it to the Dwarves, they have to perform whatever ‘favor’ they demand, on behalf of the Realm.

Introduces the political situation. The ‘favor’ shouldn’t be anything the PCs particularly object to, but exactly what it will be has not yet been decided. The other iconic fantasy race are Elves, maybe something involving them?

  1. The eldest son of the Elvish Royal Family is about to reach maturity according to the standards of his race. While there has been enmity between Elves and Dwarves in the past, so it would not be politic for the Dwarves to attend the ceremony, the King of the Dwarves wishes to send a gift to the young elf in hopes of building toward a better future relationship. He needs the PCs to escort the gift, a gem the size of a baseball, whose every facet contains a different hue, to the Prince.

Yeah, that will work.

  1. The PCs are sent to help a hamlet in the Northern Reaches who claim to be having problems with an evil cult. The Prince suspects that they are dealing with ‘paper hobgoblins conjured from bad ale and strong imaginations’ but refuses to take chances with the lives of loyal citizens if he can help it.

This set of adventures have as their sole purpose the establishing of the character of the Crown Prince as a good guy who honors the obligations of the throne and cares for the citizens under his protection, and getting the PCs into his company. Next, it’s time for the first babushka doll:

  1. The PCs return to the Prince and tell him of the ‘favor’ demanded by the Dwarves. He casually replies, “oh yes, they sent me something when I turned 18, too, and indicates a similar but smaller gemstone mounted as a paperweight, before giving them their next assignment: to capture a bandit holed up in the Southern Caves and bring him back for a very public execution.
  2. A temple in the Western Plains is preaching sedition. The PCs are to kill the Cleric and level the Temple.

The Crown Prince’s personality has begun to shift. The PCs might not think too much of the shift in adventure 5 – it might be a little extreme but it’s still within reasonable bounds- but it’s rather more noticeable in adventure 6, and probably has the PCs starting to reconsider their association with the Prince. But this is just set-up for the next Babushka Doll:

  1. Someone attempts to poison the King, who has been a recluse since his beloved Queen died in childbirth eight years ago (explaining why the Crown Prince is in charge – he is ruling in his father’s name). The PCs should suspect the Crown Prince, given his recent behavioral shift. They discover that he has been replaced by a Doppleganger, but it takes months for full assimilation; that means that the real Crown Prince is still alive somewhere. The PCs find and rescue him from the Dungeons below the palace, where they discover a number of citizens who have been imprisoned for trivial offenses.
  2. If it wasn’t the Crown Prince, it must have been someone else, so the PCs continue to investigate. They will almost certainly attribute the change of personality to the Doppleganger taking the Prince’s place. Their investigation reveals a conspiracy headed by the son of Duke Archmoz, Chancellor of the exchequer; unknown to everyone until now, the Duke is the King’s older half-brother. The PCs capture the rest of the Duke’s family, but the Duke himself escapes, threatening the realm with Civil War with his very existence. The Crown Prince orders the rest of the Duke’s family put to death – including wife, son, daughter, and three grandchildren, the youngest just 6 months old. The PCs are assigned the task of hunting down the Duke.

Two Babushka dolls for the price of one! Although the Doppleganger revelation seems to explain the change in personality (which is driven home even more forcefully by the discovery in the Dungeons), the treatment of the Duke’s family should raise doubts as to that explanation.

  1. The PCs can either pursue their assignment, can seek out the Duke and push for him to challenge the Prince’s right to the throne because of their concerns that he is really a monster, or can look for an explanation for the personality shift before the Prince takes the Throne – which task they choose is up to them.

    • If they go after the Duke, he will offer terms to surrender peacefully: Cleanse the Prince of the insanity that has seized him; but until then, he cannot and will not abdicate his responsibility to his half-brother and to the people.
    • If they seek to ally with the Duke against the Prince, the same thing will happen.
    • If they choose to go after a solution to whatever is wrong with the Prince instead of pursuing the Duke, he will seek them out and make the same offer.

Three different roads, all leading to the same outcome, which is adventure #10, and the next Babushka Doll.

  1. The PCs get some expert advice on Dopplegangers by tracking down another one and promising to let it go in return for answers. Clues as to the identity of this Doppleganger should be inserted into Adventure 7. They learn that a Doppleganger’s first concern on taking a new form is to blend in, doing nothing that would reveal itself. This confirms that the Prince’s personality shift had nothing to do with his replacement. Eventually, they discover that the Prince is being controlled by a demon, but that it can’t be exorcised because it hasn’t actually possessed him, it lies hidden elsewhere. Before they can locate it, the King dies of the lingering effects of the poison administered in Adventure 7, and the Prince declares the PCs to be traitors to the throne because they have disobeyed his command. With the entire official apparatus of the state now turned against them, they now have to discover the hiding place of the Demon and drive it out or their own lives will (eventually) be forfeit.

There are two possible hiding places that make logical sense: the first is that the Demon has actually possessed the Duke, but that doesn’t actually lead to a completely satisfactory narrative; while there could be a moral about evil defeating itself, it doesn’t have a lot of drama. We want to be heading for a big finish. So that leaves option #2…

  1. While trying to figure out their next move, the PCs hear rumors of the Prince Of The Elves becoming cruel and despotic. This seems too great a coincidence to be accidental – what if the Demon is in the Gemstone sent to the Crown Prince as a gift? And another within the gift that they conveyed to the Prince Of The Elves as a ‘peace offering’? And, come to think of it, didn’t the Dwarven King have another of them mounted on his Jewelled scepter? To prove their theory, all they need do is penetrate the Royal Apartments…

Because I’m presenting this outline bereft of anything that isn’t important, you probably saw that coming. But to the players, the dwarven gifts would be just a bit of color, and not a significant, even critical, piece of the plot.

  1. With the Crown Prince released from the spell of the Demon within the Akh-stone paperweight, the Duke surrenders and is pardoned by the Prince, and declared next in the line of succession. The Prince orders the PCs to raid the Dwarven Tunnels and destroy the gem on the King’s scepter while he sends instructions to the Elvish Royal Family to do the same to the Elf Prince’s “gift”. If the PCs fail, the only recourse will be for an all-out war between an Elf-Human alliance and the Dwarves – which will so weaken the respective Kingdoms that they will be easy prey for their traditional enemies, Skannex.

The dominant element of this campaign plan is that every time the PCs think they have a handle on what the Campaign is all about, it changes gears on them. There are just two loose ends: the Kingdom of Skannex, which is used purely as a boogie-man, and where the Akhstones came from in the first place.

Spiderweb Plots

This is essentially the plotting technique that I use for the Zenith-3 campaign, in which there are a large number of distinct and separate plotlines in more-or-less simultaneous existence. Any given adventure advances only one or two of these plotlines at a time. The plotlines are based on the ambitions and plans of various NPCs and NPC groups. Concurrent with these plotlines are a series of character-driven subplots in which the PCs live their day-to-day lives; sometimes, these will intersect with the main plotline being developed, most of the time they simply provide context and continuity from one adventure to the next.

As examples of the latter, I have required the players to nominate hobbies that they want their characters to pursue; I have had them list skills that they want their characters to develop; and have added various official functions that they have to perform, such as regular media appearances, a favorite charity for which they will work publicly on a regular basis and for which they will generate publicity; and so on. The PCs are employed by a government agency that has embraced variations on the Japanese Management Techniques of the 80s – ‘these things are good for productivity, so you will do these things. These things have been shown to boost staff creativity and problem-solving ability, you will do these things.” This gives me a lot of things that I can show the characters doing, and I simply pick and choose the most interesting of them to actually show in-game; the rest are assumed to be happening in the background – at best, they simply rate a mention. “You are listening to an album of ‘electronic sound-scapes’ called Modus-5 by a Belorussian composer in 2022 – not because you like that sort of thing, but because it’s something you don’t normally listen to – when your comm-badge chimes….” and off we go into the actual plotline.

I won’t go too much more deeply into this, because it is described in detail as part of the article that I linked to earlier, “Campaign Structures”.

Everyone does it differently

“Where there is one solution, there are many” is a maxim that I apply regularly to problems presented to the PCs in-game, but it applies equally to problems of how to perform various tasks associated with being a GM, such as plotting.

Certainly, where there are two solutions to a problem, there are going to be more, and every GM will develop their own style and techniques.

Neither of the techniques described above match the plotting techniques that my co-GM and I use for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, because the Pulp Genre demands more straight-forward plots. At the same time, there are some elements of both the above approaches that are used; the personal-lives-as-subplots-as-continuity approach of Zenith-3 is a recognizable element of the Adventurer’s Club approach, and individual adventures will often use a simplified form of the Babushka Doll model as its internal structure.

Use these techniques as starting points to your own style and technique.

The New Beginnings Series

I should probably point out that the New Beginnings series assumes that a lot of these practices are going to be implemented. I talk extensively in that series about how to create a complex campaign based largely on the Spiderweb model, but with recursive elements from the Babushka model incorporated as well. I didn’t go deeply into why I was recommending certain courses of action in that series, it was going to be too long already – so you might find that this article provides context that helps you understand that series, or that the New Beginnings series expands your understanding of the contents of this article.

The Building Blocks Of Deep Plot

Ultimately, Deep Plots are just convoluted arrangements of pieces of adventure. To fully understand how to create a plotline of depth and substance, you need to understand how plotlines integrate with adventures, how one element of an adventure can shape and trigger the next. There are innumerable ways for these elements to be connected, but when you boil all the complexities away, you are left with two basic types of adventure structure (in terms of how the adventures integrate with the meta-plot), and two simple rules.

Plot-Driven Adventures

Some adventures are driven by the larger plot, and exist to advance it. Many of the later adventures in the Babushka Doll example fall into this category.

Adventure-Driven Plots

Others exist primarily for their own sake, as “something that is happening” while meta-plot events are taking place in the background. Take Adventures 5 and 6 of the Babushka example, or – for that matter – adventures 1, 2, and 3. At a meta-plot level, these do the following:

  • Introduce the Crown Prince and the Political situation around the characters, and make both a part of the character’s world;
  • Establish the personality of the Crown Prince…
  • …so that when it changes, the PCs will notice;
  • And finally, and very much under the radar, sneak in the clues that will lead to the final solution to the question of what has been going on.

In fact, the first five or six adventures all establish background. You could just as easily start the campaign with adventure 7, and fill in the rest in the character briefing – “You are in the employ of the Crown Prince, hired as a group to act unofficially when official channels are blocked or inappropriate. The Crown Prince established himself as an honorable man and a good ruler who cares for his subjects, but lately, something’s changed that has you suspicious.”

There are only two problems with cutting the campaign in half in this way: first, the whole thing lacks the impact that seeing it first-hand would provide; and second, it hides the essential clue from the players, turning the campaign into a plot locomotive over which they have little, if any, control. In comparison, the complete campaign as outlined may anticipate what the players will do, may even bait hooks to lure them down certain paths of their own free will, but at no stage actually forces them to follow the script; it’s just that it gives them no reason not to.

Rule One: Make the adventures fun

…and interesting, and unpredictable, with characters that the players care about, and care about playing; and,…

Rule Two: The Forest Mandate:

Always keep one eye on the Bigger Picture by stepping back and thinking not about the adventure you are creating now, but about how that adventure relates to the ones that have preceded it and to the ones that will follow.

When you get right down to it, that’s all that deep plotting really is: making sure that no matter how much attention you pay to the trees, you are always aware of the shape of the forest, and striving to make that interesting as well.

Campaign Outlines: objects of study

I’m going to end this article by pointing you at a couple of other campaign outlines that I have provided in the pages of Campaign Mastery in the past. I recommend studying them, looking not only at what I have done with each adventure described, but why I have done it – bearing in mind that my story-telling and plotting skills have also improved over the years!

  • The Frozen LandsThis article spells out the campaign premise of this near-future Sci-Fi/Pulp/Action-Adventure campaign but doesn’t actually break it down into adventures.
  • All Is ThreeAgain, this doesn’t break the proposed D&D/Pathfinder/fantasy campaign down, focusing more on the development of a campaign from initial premise. That said, all the ingredients are present for this to be a deep plot full of twists and turns, symbolism and meaning.
  • The Remembrance Of The Disquiet DeadThis horror-fantasy mini-campaign could be made part of a larger plotline or could be run as a standalone. It goes into details of the content of the plot-driven adventures and encounters, but doesn’t list any of the adventure-driven plots that would be needed to flesh out the concept. Because it offers four radically-different solutions as to what is happening and why it is taking place, it contains a lot of flexibility.
  • Control-Alt-DeleteThis article spells out not only the campaign premise for this near-future Time-travel/Sc-Fi/Action-Adventure campaign, but also the first 20 adventures in varying levels of detail. How many more adventures will follow is up to the GM; I called a halt to developments when I reached the point where the PCs are about to know what’s really been going on and can start deciding what to do about it. I would suggest a minimum of 2 more adventures (one investigation and one action/resolution) but you could lump the whole thing into one big adventure or break it down into 5 or 6. This was presented to illustrate how to go from premise to deep plot, so it’s completely relevant to today’s article, and utilizes a hybrid of both Spiderweb and Babushka structures.
  • Yesterday Once MoreAnd here’s another sci-fi/time-travel/pulp/action-adventure campaign consisting of 14 adventures, each spelled out in a fair amount of detail – more than I have used in the example offered in this article, for example. It employs a simpler plot structure than either of the deep-plot techniques described in this article while incorporating elements of both Babushka and Spiderweb approaches.

The last two are important, I think, because they not only show that there’s more techniques to deep-plot structuring than the two simplified models I describe in this article but illustrate how most of them are actually hybrids of the two, and that you don’t have to have a really complicated structure to have a rich, complex, plotline.

Concluding Advice

The plot structure that you employ should always be the best one for the plotline that you are comfortable with as a GM.

Too many GMs, especially beginners, mistake complex plot structures with complex plots; they focus on the way the parts of the puzzle move and not what the finished picture will look like. That’s a sure way to get yourself lost in complexities and drowning in details.

Instead, GMs (especially beginners) should think about the complexities of their plotline, and their current level of expertise and experience, and – if necessary to the delivery of that plotline – deliberately choose a simpler plot structure so that they can focus on the things that actually need their attention.

The final part of the current three-part block of this series is due to follow in two weeks’ time, when I tackle the often-contentious subject of Rewards…

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All Wounds Are Not Alike V: Narcotic Healing (part 2)

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Photo Credit: / Ken Thompson

Photo Credit: / Ken Thompson

It has often been suggested that players get addicted to the ease of healing that comes with “Holy Water Drip Bottle” syndrome. And that prompted me to ask what would result from making it really addictive, with all the associated problems that come with it.

In part 1, I simplified the general pattern of addiction into four stages for gaming purposes:

  • The first is with social/remedial usage.
  • The second signals the addiction becoming a force within the characters life, initially in small and trivial ways and progressing through to behavioral shifts severe/frequent enough for the character’s associates to become concerned, and is generally characterized by periodic consumption in excess of the social/recreational/remedial usage that defined stage 1.
  • In the third stage, a minor/occasional problem becomes the defining parameter of the character’s life, taking gradual control of them until the character themselves can no longer deny that they have a problem.
  • The fourth stage is when the character finally succeeds in breaking free of their addiction’s control and enters recovery. It can take real addicts dozens, hundreds, or thousands of attempts to achieve this stage in the process.

I then looked at how to adapt the specifics of each phase into in-game events – some transitory, some more long-lasting, with specific examples from the Zenith-3 campaign in which we have a mage PC becoming addicted to artificial mana-boosts.

Having established this general foundation, I then looked at the types of healing that could be addictive, and discovered that in the case of both potions and clerical healing it made total sense that addiction could take place, and in fact that it would be more surprising if it did not occur on a regular basis. Finally, I looked at three types of dependency that could occur – the usual two (physical and psychological) and one that was unique to this circumstance, which I dubbed ‘spiritual’ dependence.

Translating the Phases Of Healing Addiction

Armed with the knowledge of what the different forms of dependence would look like when the ‘substance’ of addiction is clerical healing or healing potions, we should next examine each stage of addiction for impacts based on the nature of that substance, and in particular, what in-game events would be typical.

Phase 1

This is where every character in every usually sits, quite comfortably. Get injured, get healed, no problem.

Phase 2

This is the phase in which dependence sets in. The mixture of types of dependence and their relative strengths would be different for every character, but all three would be present to some extent.

“The addict seeks, creates, or invents opportunities and reasons for further use for it’s own sake” – the three manifestations that come most readily to mind are:

  • the character thinks he has encountered food poisoning (‘that meat was a little off last night’, ‘don’t you think that beer was still a little green?’);
  • or, they have a mysterious ache somewhere (“I must have done something to myself without noticing it at the time”);
  • or, an old injury seems to have persistent effects (“I know you healed it when you could but that shoulder wound still aches in the morning, maybe you didn’t get to it in time.

In addition, characters might anticipate getting wounded (especially if they have a vigorous practice routine with their weapons each morning ‘to stay sharp’ and imagine that a preemptive healing potion/cure wounds spell will help protect them – this is especially plausible once the ‘old injury’ excuse card is on the table.

“Addict uses to excess, resulting in unwanted problems, which the addict blames on outside factors. Excess use of healing could have any or all of several effects:

  • If the character has to pay for the healing, he will always be short of money; when this starts becoming critical/chronic, he will begin to sponge off others, or penny-pinch in crucial areas. He may engage in risky gambles to raise funds, like betting an NPC in the bar that the character’s fellow-PC is stronger than the NPC, or that they can take him at Darts, or whatever. Once the character takes a loss, he will then keep chasing that loss – this is a trait of gambling addiction, but in this case the gambling is simply a means to an end and a manifestation of the real problem.
  • If the healing is being provided by a member of the party, it may be that on a particularly bad day the cleric simply runs out of healing spells because this PC has used so many of them.
  • The character could be so busy planning how he’s going to get more healing that he is inattentive on watch.
  • The character may become slightly resistant (ignore any ‘1’ results when rolling for healing). This won’t have a noticeable effect most of the time, but every now and then it will leave the character incompletely healed, requiring an additional potion/cure wounds spell to finish the job.
  • One of the scarier possibilities is that an infectious agent may become partially resistant to being healed – which neatly plays into the ‘old wound’ syndrome.
  • The character may suggest/insist that religious services should include healing so that participants can feel closer to their God.
  • Perhaps the most obvious one of all is simply becoming a little more reckless on the battlefield to ensure that he always gets injured in a fight.
  • Increased aggressiveness or obstinateness might trigger fights that didn’t have to happen.
  • While in a religious ecstasy, the character might volunteer the services of the party to the temple for something dangerous, or boring, or whatever.

There are lots of other possibilities. In general, it comes down to what the character has to do to obtain the excess that he desires, what the character should be doing but isn’t doing or isn’t doing as well as he should because he is thinking about what he has to do to satisfy his needs, and what the negative effects of actual consumption to excess might be,

“Addict begins to conceal additional supplies in regularly-frequented locations.” The character who is addicted to clerical healing might begin befriending the local priests wherever they go so that he can get them to supply additional healing “to save on party resources”. If to healing potions, he starts concealing/buying extras.

You get the idea – I’m not going to go into all of the elements of each stage of addiction.

This is all prep work for the GM; it’s an ongoing complication that he can throw into the lives of the PCs.

Game Effects & Rules – or the lack thereof

There are lots of ways of dealing with addiction in terms of game mechanics, and most of them are a bad idea.

You could require characters to save against addiction each time they get healed, for example – but that puts the notion of addiction front and center in their minds, and means that when it eventually happens, it will have all the impact of wet spaghetti.

You could specify some characteristic that indicates the potential for addiction, for example receiving more dice of healing in a day than the character has CON bonus, and only mentioning it when this limit is breached. But this is a lot of time-consuming bookwork that slows play down to no obvious benefit.

You could have an addict make a roll each hour or day or whatever to determine whether or not their addiction is going to cause a problem for them that day – then railroad the results into existence. It shouldn’t need explaining how bad an idea this is.

No, this is all best handled at a metagame level. Make a list of possible life-complications, just as I have demonstrated above, and keep an eye out for more; when an opportunity exists for one to to manifest, make a secret roll to decide whether or not it does. Or simply decide that it does, or doesn’t, based on the current state of addiction and level of dependence and how long it has been since the last time.

I plan things out as subplots in this way on a deliberately accelerating incidence curve. In a given adventure, there might be one or two or three addiction-related incidents. When addiction reaches stage-3, entire plotlines will occur because of the addiction. Keep any railroading – and there may be some – off-camera, and with the players full complicity. When something happens in-game, it’s either external to the character (“you wake up in the stables with no memory of the night before, with only 3 copper pieces in your coin pouch. Your head aches and throbs like there was a drum pounding in time with your heartbeat. You can’t remember getting robbed.”) or hand them a note (“The wound still aches, it doesn’t seem completely healed”) and let the player roleplay the situation.

You want the addiction to be just a piece of the background, something that you (and the players) have to take into account but which doesn’t totally control their lives. Use it as a plot device to get the characters into and out of dramatic situations and adventures; use it to complicate their lives; don’t use it to slow gameplay down or take control. Nudge and steer, don’t railroad.

Social Effects Of Addiction

If it is possible for a character to become addicted to healing, he won’t be the first and he won’t be the last when it does actually happen. And that means that the society around the characters will evolve in response to the phenomenon.


Think about how public drunkenness is treated. Think about how it was regarded in the 1980s. In the 1960s. In the 1920s. During Prohibition. In the 1870s. There are similarities to them all, but there are also subtle differences. There is always a social stigma attached to addiction; the intensity of the manifestation varies from era to era and individual to individual. When I was a child, drunkenness was quite tolerable provided that your behavior while intoxicated was socially acceptable and that you weren’t so alcohol-dependent that you had thrown away your life and been reduced to living in the gutter, for example; these days, more of the focus is on moderation of consumption, and the potential for drunken misbehavior is considered the responsibility of the individual to manage. Whereas misbehavior was treated in the past as a consequence of the alcohol, and responsibility of the individual for actions while intoxicated was mitigated or diminished, these days that is no longer considered a valid defense; by consuming to excess you are deemed to have accepted responsibility for anything you might do while under the influence.

But there are other forms of addiction that are treated far more gently – until they get out of control. Gambling addiction. Addiction to painkillers. Addiction to social media. Addiction to publicity. Addiction to sympathy. Addiction to generosity.

Humans can become addicted to any behavior that either makes them feel good, or makes them feel better than they did. Much of the rehabilitation process can be seen as transference of dependence from a socially-unacceptable form to a socially-acceptable support mechanism (often with vows of secrecy attached, in order to avoid the social stigma).

In addition, there is always a counter-movement within society when the incidence of individuals suffering from a social stigma arise – or when there is political capital to be gained. The Temperance movements at the start of the 20th century. Prohibition. The War On Drugs. Even the vegan and vegetarian movements can be considered a reaction to the excessive consumption of unhealthy fast/prepackaged foods in modern society, though that’s probably too extreme an interpretation. All of these movements were conceived with noble purposes and good intentions, and all of them (with the possible exception of the vegan/vegetarian movements) had unintended consequences that harmed societies when they became dominant influences to at least some extent – whether they did more harm than good is a whole different question, and has to be determined on a case-by-case basis.


There is always a moral dimension attached to addiction because of the immoral activities that people may be driven to in order to satisfy their addiction. That moral dimension always lends itself to stories of redemption from the evils of excessive consumption. Ordinary people can become extraordinary role models and cautionary tales, and these stories of redemption are rendered all the more relevant, poignant, and accessible by the very ordinariness of their beginnings.

Every PC will have heard stories of such people. The societal attitude towards the addiction itself will provide an important point of context for such tales; if the problem is not viewed as widespread, and healing is considered safe for most people most of the time, the focus will be on the extremity of the circumstances that led to the addiction and less on the cautionary tale. The story will be one of unusual tragedy leading to unusual redemption, with no trace of the “it could happen to you, too” moral warnings; instead, the focus would be on seeking help when you need it and being honest with yourself. Inspiration, not Warning, and an emphasis on the positive outcome at the end.

It is in the best interests of most religious organizations to so depict any form of addiction to their services. This may well lead to the real scale of the problem being ignored or actively downplayed. To this end, religious orders may even create interventionist services to conceal the problem and get it “out of sight and hence out of mind”. Only when the problem becomes too big to ignore, too obvious, is there a shift in the nature of the stories being told from pulpits etc to the cautionary tale. In many respects, this is a natural response to the evolution of the situation; as more ordinary people become addicted, so more tales of ordinary people destroying their lives surface to provide the foundations of these morality plays. Redemption remains rare and the examples of it lauded; the incidence of afflicted to redeemed rises, but there is a broader pool for ‘the lucky few’ to be drawn from.

This places the whole concept of the ‘adventurer’ into an interesting context. There can be a perception that adventurers risk addiction to healing in order to serve the public good – separating ‘us’ from ‘them’, and implying that ‘we’ are safe from this danger, at least ordinarily. This would then manifest in Institutions for the retired adventurer, where hopeless addicts are confined “for their own good” by “a grateful populace”. As the population sub-group most likely to be afflicted with this problem, the existence of healing addiction to any substantive extent forces the GM to consider adventurers as a social class or caste with (at least a fuzzily-) defined place within society. Even if that perception did not exist, recognition of this problem makes this treatment of adventurers an inevitability.

Nobles and lawmakers always like this sort of thing because it enables them to pass special laws pertaining to adventurers, for example “Adventurers arouse threats to the community, earning great wealth in the process. For the community to be protected from these consequences is expensive, and therefore a special tax levied on adventurers is justified”.

In some campaigns, the GM will already have thought about the role of, and the public perception of, adventurers within society, and will need to adapt his approach to the healing addiction stigma accordingly; in others, he can let the tail wag the dog, establishing the social reaction to addiction that he wants and using that to define an emerging perception of adventurers as a social class.

Social Trust

Quite often, the first casualty of addiction will be a perceived betrayal of a social trust. There are certain professions which are held to a higher standard by public opinion, such as pilots, bankers, police, fire, and rescue services, doctors, and priests. Even if such individuals succumb and are redeemed, the loss of public trust can be an even harder burden to overcome.

This is the reason why institutions and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are so strict about preserving the secrecy around the identities of attendees – to preserve the social trust of individuals wrestling with a problem.

Of course, this is always fraught with danger, as a policy. It means that people may be in positions of trust who cannot be trusted in those positions, and this is regarded as a necessary price to protect those in positions of trust who would not be trusted but who can nevertheless still discharge their public trusts with dignity and honor.

There is no easy social solution to this dilemma, and never has been. The best compromise that has been found is to protect secrecy up to the point of actual betrayal of that social trust without possibility of correction or restitution, at which point discovery of this failure ‘outs’ the sufferer. It’s not perfect, but it more or less works.

In any fantasy RPG, there is a reasonable expectation that ‘adventurers’ might be added to such a list. They are often granted extraordinary freedoms and latitudes; they may receive adulation as the ‘rock stars’ of their day. They may be held up as role models to others, as examples to which others should aspire. This would amplify greatly any social stigma attached to addiction; as much as pity and sympathy, there would also be a sense of betrayal of trust in some cases. The more your society lets adventurers simply ‘get on with adventuring’, the greater the level of trust being placed in adventurers to do the right thing and police their own numbers accordingly. Should they manifestly fail to do so, external controls will be enacted.

This opens up a whole new branch of plotlines to the GM in which the PCs are confronted with an NPC adventurer who may have betrayed that trust and who are required to apply and enforce appropriate discipline, or to investigate for possible breaches. Such plotlines also give the GM a ready conduit for providing the players with the social background and context that have been discussed. The offender need not be an addiction sufferer; he may be accused of cheating on his taxes, or taking advantage of the public, or seducing the daughter of the Count or the Mayor, or any of a dozen other transgressions. But as a way of educating players in the social treatment and expectations of adventurers, it’s hard to beat.


Theologians in fantasy societies are, or at least should be, frequently called upon to make moral judgments on behalf of the broader community when those judgments are beyond the capacities of that community. In theory, they can see the bigger picture, and there is a theological network by which problems can be escalated until they reach the proper level for a solution. Clouding this idyllic picture is the specter of self-interest and conflicts of interest, and the scandals of pedophilia in the priesthood have shown that organized religion has a very poor track record in such cases. History also shows that politics has proven equally corruptive.

When you consider the reactions of organized religion to Healing Addiction, you get some very interesting thoughts presenting themselves. An internal policy that is quite different from the public posture of the theology is almost certain to emerge; the very notion that healing can be addictive threatens the trust that the public places in their religious institutions. It may even be a mandated requirement of the priesthood that such addictions be supplied with as much as they need, in total secrecy, until the sufferer can be quietly withdrawn from society.

But I would not then put it past some to willfully addict nobles and others of high rank in order to give the church leverage over the civil authorities. I am completely convinced that there would have been the occasional such corruption in the campaigns’ history, carefully swept under the carpet. Healing Addiction requires the GM to think carefully about the role of religious institutions within their game world – something they should do anyway, but this makes it imperative.

Beyond that, theologians would have their own explanations for the phenomenon and would base the treatment they appear to provide to sufferers accordingly.

Radical Variant: The Gift Of Devils?

While I was planning this article, an original idea came to mind. Given all the social harm and disruption that can manifest, there is a solid case to be made for Clerical Healing to have been a “gift” from the Devils, a systematically-corruptive influence that is tolerated by the theologies of the world because the benefits appear to outweigh the harm – which is exactly the sort of moral judgment that I had in mind when writing the preceding section.

This is a secret that churchmen would be required to take to the grave – if they ever learned it in the first place. A PC undergoing such a revelation might well lead to Clerical Healing in all forms being banned, permanently ending the “Holy Drip Bottle” syndrome. And provided that you were prepared to let the PC make his own decision about what to do with this discovery, and the chips fall where they may, no player in that campaign would ever be in any doubt that their characters make a difference within the game world.

Not saying that’s the way it has to have happened, just saying that the idea raises interesting possibilities – ones that would obviously be a focal point of the campaign.

Less-radical Variant: The addiction sickness

An alternative idea might be that there is a sickness that is resistant to clerical healing – again, perhaps released by some inimical agency – that some people are occasionally afflicted with, and that it is this sickness that makes people susceptible to Healing Addiction. This is a convenient idea in many ways because it removes the ‘blame’ element from the addiction syndrome; anyone can come down with this problem if they are unlucky enough. Perhaps some healers are “typhoid maries” spreading the addiction potential even as they heal the sick and injured. Because adventurers need to be healed far more frequently than ordinary people, they are especially susceptible as a class to this disease, which has not yet even been recognized, let alone a cure found.

Because this is far less systematic and far more random and anarchic in its’ causation, this would be appropriate as the Demonic equivalent of the Devilish origins of the problem. And it would yield a completely different campaign if this were one of the centerpieces. Again, food for thought.


The other side of social stigma is always shame. Some will feel it keenly, others not at all, but most will feel at least moderately ashamed of having let themselves, their friends, their supporters, and the public, down. Even if there is no act of public redemption, and the addiction is kept completely secret, that sense of shame should be an influence on the character in the future as the character strives to make amends.

Na Pedra by  Thiago Rezende

Photo Credit: / Thiago Rezende

The absence of old adventurers?

Any mathematical analysis of relative numbers of characters of a given character level makes it clear that the numbers on any encounter table are vastly out of whack, referring specifically to the number of low-level characters relative to high-level characters.

If there is a 50% chance of surviving long enough to achieve the next character level, then for every member of character level X, there needs to be 2 characters of character level X-1.

That means that for each representative of character level X anywhere in the game, there needs to be 2 to the power of X-1 first level characters. For each character of 20th level, for example, there need to be 524,288 first level characters who are actively adventuring.

If the chances of survival are worse, this rises alarmingly – a 25% survival rate, level-on-level, increases the 2 to a 4. For every 20th level character, there need to be 274,877,906,944 first level characters! If the levels are more in line with typical PC experiences – 80% survival rate, or 90%, or even 95% – they drop, and the high-level population rises. At 80%, the ratio is 69.39:1 (1st:20th); at 90%, it’s 7.4:1 (1st:20th); and at 95%, it’s 2.65:1 (1st:20th).

But 50% is the level we aim for, because the goal set by most encounter systems is to match PCs and opposition power levels, on average, and by definition, that’s a 50-50 challenge as the standard. The problems start with relative wealth by level, which gives a different ratio when analyzed (and one that’s variable level-on-level); and only deepen with most encounter tables, in which higher-level characters are over-represented in some and under-represented in others. Going into details is vastly beyond the scope of this article – I started working on an e-book years ago that crashed-and-burned dramatically three times on these problems before being abandoned as something I just didn’t have time to work on. I had come to the conclusion that there needed to be something other than death that forced adventurers to retire, a risk that grew with increasing character level (unlike most risks, which decrease). Unable to think of one, the whole project dead-ended.

Addictive Healing could be the answer. It actively reduces the occurrence rate of higher-level adventurers, becomes more likely with accumulated exposure to healing (i.e. increasing character levels), and impacts on available character wealth along the way. Because there is one thing for sure: Addictive Healing would reduce the incidence of high-level adventurers, increasing the ‘rock-star’ potential of those who make it unscathed (or who beat their addiction and are able to stay in-the-game) – which SHOULD include any PCs. But I’ll get that that point in a minute.

It means that there should be a number of encounters with ‘ordinary people’ along the way who are ex-adventurers, who probably miss that life, and who want to relive it vicariously by either telling their stories to others or by hearing the latest stories from those who are still active. Such characters often feature in fantasy campaigns anyway, but there is always an unanswered question of why they had to give up adventuring. This proposal answers that question.

There is even a form of semi-retirement possible in which a character can adventure, in a limited way, but has to rely on natural healing afterwards – unless the situation is really life-and-death dire. Of course, natural healing has its own risks – things not healing properly, limbs being lost, etc – so this is a very precarious choice. Spacing the risks out – an annual adventure – mitigates that risk and hopefully delays the inevitable.

And we all know people like that, who once a year hang up their aprons and their day jobs and go out camping in the wilderness or white-water rafting or, well, you name it. They spend that entire year leading up to those events preparing themselves, both financially and physically, for the holiday of a lifetime – because they never know which one will be their last chance. Old age happens to us all, in the end.

The Metagame

So let’s talk a bit more about the metagame aspects of introducing Addictive Healing. It’s quite one thing to threaten the PCs with Healing Addiction, and to populate their world with a sprinkling of individuals and institutions affected by it; but there is an element from the player side of the table of “it will never happen to us”. PCs are, after all, to at least a certain extent, protected animals – at least in comparison to NPCs. There are things that you, as GM, can do to an NPC that you could never contemplate doing to a PC, and most of your players will assume that this is one of them.

This can completely undermine your GMing credibility; you have issued a threat but are seen as never being willing-and-able to back it up. It also confers a sense of security to the players; they might avoid healing for relatively small hit point losses (as a percentage of total hit point) but otherwise would still take it when they needed it. In the end, not a whole lot would be seen to be different.

Until you lower the boom on one of them. Actually, it shouldn’t be like lowering the boom; it should be a slow meander down the garden path of temptation, until the target takes one step too far.

Player Approval

If you are going to mess with a PC so fundamentally, even to the point of risking their ability to continue within the game, you really need to have the player’s approval. If they are fighting against the tide, you can still force the issue, but the whole thing stops being fun for everyone. That means that you need to select your target carefully, and make sure that it is worth their while to play along.

You need to be able to guarantee to the player that if they go along, their character will be one of the lucky ones who make a full recovery in the end (provided the character survives, of course).

On top of that, because you are taking something that players take for granted and willfully barring one specific character from enjoying it for the rest of their adventuring life, there needs to be some counterbalancing benefit to the character. This is NOT a bribe, but it can be an inducement to play ball – for example, setting things up so that the character achieves some life-long ambition as a result of their condition or recovery from it.

If your players trust you sufficiently, you may not need to get specific – I haven’t told Runeweaver’s player what reward the character will earn by participating in the mage-addicted-to-magic plotline that is underway in the Zenith-3 universe, only that the experience won’t permanently impair the character and will be instrumental in achieving something that the character really wants to achieve. Or, more to the point, that it will permit the character to achieve something that the player has said that the character really wants to achieve.

Final Advice

I started this proposal as a way of permitting clerical characters to step out from behind the shadow of being the party’s healer. It certainly achieves that, but it also fundamentally alters the shape of the game around such characters. This is not a mistake or a coincidence; that’s what you should expect when you alter something so profound and fundamental.

If Healing Addiction is real, however rare, in your game world, then I would expect profound implications at all levels. You may need to space adventures out more, creating a more episodic look-and-feel to the game, so as to permit time for the PCs to heal between adventures; that’s a metagame impact. You may need to be a little more liberal and generous in interpreting the conditions under which characters can heal naturally. You may need to throw a little more cash the player’s way in your rewards, enabling them to hire protectors so that they can be defended while recuperating ‘on the road’.

You’re fundamentally changing the paradigm of the adventuring world around the PCs. How they attempt to accommodate and adapt to that change is up to them; you should expect that most solutions will have been tried before, and found to be at least partially successful. Keep an open mind and let the players adjust to the changes – then evolve and adapt your gaming style accordingly. Occasionally exploit flaws or limitations in their approach, but only once it has been established that it does work. Say ‘yes, but…’ to whatever ideas they have in how to cope with the situation.

Addictive Healing is scarily plausible, more than enough so to be a perpetual feature of every campaign that you run; but don’t use it every time just because you can. This is the fifth solution I’ve offered to the problem of the “holy water drip bottle”, and there are others besides – the approach used in Assassin’s Amulet is ‘none of the above’, for example, and equates to a sixth solution.

Finding a different answer each time results in each campaign assuming its own identity, its own uniqueness. The trick is always making sure that the adventures you run and the world that you set them in are in sync, that they combine to form a campaign that is greater than the sum of its parts, and make sure that it’s fun for everybody, and it will be a success.

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A Heart Of Shiny Magic: Spell Storage Solutions Pt 2

based on Gem by Jaycy Castañeda

Photo Credit: / Jaycy Castañeda
Additional effects added by Mike

This is the second part of a very intermittent series that will examine alternatives and possible implications to the standard spell storage solutions built into D&D, Pathfinder, and, in fact, most fantasy games.
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It’s very unusual to identify an entire class of magic item that the benchmark games like D&D and Pathfinder appear not to have even noticed, but that’s exactly what I have for you all today.

Key Characteristics

So, what are the specifications that define this overlooked type of magic item?

  • Persistence
  • Mutable State
  • Limited Power/Complexity (with possible exceptions)
  • Rechargeable
  • Open or Closed
  • Restarting, Pausible, or Triggered
  • Reluctant or Eager

Although the magic in the item is consumed when the effect it contains is released, the item itself survives.

Mutable State

Although it is not strictly necessary, I like for there to be some visual indication that the item has been charged, or the charge dissipated. This helps to give this type of magic item a unique flavor all its own.

One-use Rechargeable

These are one-shot items that deliver their effect on a single occasion but (unlike potions and the other one-shot item types considered in Part 1), because this class of magic item persists beyond the release of the magic, one can be recharged to deliver the effect again on a subsequent occasion. In effect, these are spellcasters or deities putting a particular effect “in the bank” for later use or for distribution.

Limited Power/Complexity

The constraints on power level of this type of item tend to be the same as those of one-shot non-reusable items. But there can be exceptions if you use them to solve a logical inconsistency that was identified in Part 1:

The Illuminating Scroll Variations

In part one, I pointed out that Scrolls broke the ‘rules’ for potions. In a nutshell, you can only put limited power levels of spell into a potion, but you can put any power level of spell into a scroll, and this undermines the general in-game logic used to explain that power-level restriction.

One solution to this problem that was not explored in that article is the notion of restricting scrolls in utility. Perhaps “ordinary” magic scrolls can only hold spells of level 1-3; that with additional (expensive) special treatments, a scroll can hold spells of levels 4-6; but that to store spells of level 7-9, something more permanent is needed.

This violates the “low power level” principle suggested earlier, but that’s all right – since this is a completely new class of magic item that has no analogue within the major rules systems, we can add any rules or restrictions we want, so long as we can provide an appropriate in-game logic and metagame rules structure.

Things get even more interesting if spells embodied in this type of magic item cannot be simply cast from the item, but need to be ‘released’ in some manner. That means that such spells can’t be triggered at will, but can be activated eventually. All that remains is some mechanism by which a spellcaster can ‘read’ the magic within (consuming it in the process) to add the spell to their spell-book.


Nor do they have to be one or the other. To avoid confusion, I would suggest that the encapsulating medium be different for the different interpretations, but even that doesn’t have to be the case.

Open, Schooled, or Closed, with Specific or Broad definition

To close out this list of characteristics, I have a trio of parameters that could be one thing or the other, but that will usually be consistent throughout a campaign. But it’s always possible that consistency might be item-to-item (costing different amounts, of course) or even that there is no consistency and it’s all down to how an item is prepped. You’ll see what I mean as I proceed.

The first of these either/or parameters is “Open,” “Schooled,” or “Closed”.

  • Open means that once any spell/effect stored in the item is expended, it can be recharged to contain any other spell/effect of appropriate power level (see “Specific” and “Broad” below).
  • Schooled permits an expended spell/effect to be replaced by any other spell/effect of appropriate power level that is of the same school or otherwise matches the common theme ‘defined’ as a parameter of the object, eg “Fire”.
  • Closed mandates that an expended spell/effect can only be replaced with a spell/effect of exactly the same description; the initial enchantment has created an inflexible arcane ‘matrix’ within the object.

Two of these three require the GM to think about what happens when one attempts to shoehorn a spell or effect that doesn’t “fit” into such objects.

Attached to some of these choices is a sub-parameter, “Specific” or “Broad”. Specific means that spell and caster levels must match exactly the capacities of the object (defined by the first casting); unused caster levels may provide a bonus to successful enchantment, or may be consumed loading the effect with metamagics (the GM should pick one and stay with it throughout a campaign, at least for a given class of object – there’s nothing that says that opaque gemstones like pearls can’t be different to translucent ones like rubies).

Now that you have the context, the earlier suggestion regarding flexibility within this parameter be a function of the cost of the item should make more sense. That, once again, depends on how the GM wants to use these items within his campaign.

Restarting, Pausible, or Triggered

The same “flexibility for a greater price” line of thinking may or may not be applied to this parameter, which describes the triggering of the spell or effect contained within the magic item. This choice can have serious game-balance issues, but I’ve built in a protection to mitigate the worst of these effects.

  • Restarting items mean that once the effect is triggered but not yet activated, the count-down to activation can be stopped and will restart at the same mark (whatever it might be) the next time it is activated. With this option, a specific fixed countdown (3, 4, 5, or 6 rounds) should be pre-determined by the GM and applied to all magic items of the type, purely for simplicity.
  • Pausible permits the countdown to activation to be suspended prior to activation of the effect, but will resume where it left off the next time the item is triggered. To stop clever players from using this to create a set of ‘instant spells’, bypassing the casting time constraints completely by pausing the countdown at ‘1’, the GM should assign a die size for the determination of how long a countdown will be on any specific example and roll secretly for how long the countdown will last. d8 rounds is probably a fair number for higher levels of spell or effect.
  • Triggered Once these items are triggered, nothing can stop the effect from activating and running for its full duration, whatever that might be.
Reluctant or Eager

The final parameter describes what happens when the item is broken. “Reluctant” means that the magic is simply dissipated, and nothing happens. “Eager” means that the spell or effect is activated. To avoid “Eager” overriding the game-balance safeguards specified under the previous parameter, the target of the spell or effect should be chosen randomly from amongst those within a given range of the object, NOT the person who has actually broken the magic item.

Mordenkainen’s Disjunction

I have a great personal dislike for this spell. I have never seen it used in a manner that did not damage a campaign, even completely shortcut an adventure. I have once even had a campaign permanently disrupted by it (or it would have been save that the players and I decided to backtrack).

In all my campaigns, following that experience, the Disjunction produces a temporary interruption to the effects of a magic item. Artifacts are disrupted for d6 rounds, Major Wondrous Items, Armor, and Weapons for d8 hours; Minor Wondrous items, Wands, and Staves for d12 half-days; Ammunition, Scrolls and Potions for d20 weeks.

The Lord Of The Rings is no fun if the One Ring can be beaten by simply casting Disjunctions until one ‘takes’. In my campaigns, the permanent destruction of a magic item is difficult, and that of an artifact requires a quest of Fellowship proportions.

Because we can define and describe these magic items in any way that we want, an interesting possibility suggested itself: What if the spell/effect were already ‘activated’ within the magic item, and the ‘trigger’ is actually something holding that spell/effect back from activation? That means that the one sure way of getting these magic items to function immediately is to hit them with a Disjunction.

Any impediment to something that can wreck a campaign is worth considering as a ‘good thing’. If you think of these magic items as video-game ‘power-ups’, the prospect of triggering all of an enemies stored power-ups at once should have the effect of deterring characters from casting ‘Disjunction’ in battle; it might cut out the usual protections of the target but it risks making the problem faced by the PCs worse.

This permits some very interesting (and nasty) trap designs become possible – contemplate a ring of these with Fireballs (or whatever) in them and another of these with a Disjunction to trigger all those fireballs at once. (Even without the Disjunction trigger, some fun can be had: a lich’s false phylactery could be one of these with a Sphere Of Annihilation waiting to be released by the act of destroying the ‘phylactery’.)

Effect Contents

So, what sort of effects could be contained in these magic devices?


The most obvious and dull answer. There are lots of magic items out there that already do this. But that doesn’t rule this out as a viable answer; in fact, as noted earlier, it can provide a neat solution to some existing problems within the most common game systems.

Skill Bonuses

+2n to a specific skill is equivalent to a spell of N level. Duration is one round. This can be increased to one minute by halving the bonus, and then to one hour by halving it again. The effect is halved if the character does not already have at least one rank in the skill, and halved again if the skill is considered a cross-class skill.

EG: +16 to Lock-picking for 1 round = 8th level spell = +8 for 1 minute, or +4 for 1 hour. These are halved if the character has no existing skill in Lock-picking, (+8, +4, and +2, respectively). These values are then halved if the skill is a cross-class skill – +8, +4, +2 if the character has ranks in the skill, respectively, or +4, +2, +1 if the character does not.

When you’re in a tight spot, having an extra skill bonus ‘on tap’, however temporary, can be exactly what you need to get you past the hump.

Can’t be applied retroactively to a failed check.

Temporary Stat Boosts

+n to a stat bonus is equivalent to a spell of N+1 level. Duration is one round. This can be increased to one minute by halving the bonus and adding one to the spell, and then to one hour by halving it again and adding an addition +1 to the spell level. Each additional +1 to the ‘spell level’ equivalence adds +1 to the number of time units.

EG: +4 CON bonus for one round = 5th level spell, for two rounds = 6th level spell, for three rounds = 7th level spell. +2 CON bonus for 1 minute = 6th level spell, for 2 minutes = 7th level spell, and for 3 minutes = 8th level spell. +1 CON bonus for 1 hour = 7th level spell, for 2 hours = 8th level spell, and for 3 hours = 9th level spell.


Granting temporary access to a Feat that the character does not have, and indeed might not be normally able to qualify for, is another great magical item, vastly increasing the tactical options open to characters if used correctly. It is recommended that these should be relatively rare, or the game system may come unstuck.

1 feat with all requirements met by the character for 4 minutes = 5th level spell; for 4 hours = 6th level spell; for 1 day = 7th level spell; for 4 days = 8th level spell; for 2 weeks = 9th level spell. Each prerequisite that the character does not meet halves the duration.
If the character meets all the prerequisites and has a feat slot open, he may make the effect permanent, learning in the duration what may otherwise take weeks, months, or years.

One of the early professional successes I enjoyed at Campaign Mastery was my article on Open Game Table: The Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs, Vol. 2, still available through RPGNow (click the link). An unfortunate error mis-credited the article to Johnn Four, my collaborator at CM at the time, but it was still my first article in print.

The point of the article is that it offers a way to prevent the time requirements of acquiring a prestige level from disrupting an ongoing plotline just because a character has leveled up.

This mechanism for acquiring feats further contributes to the goal of minimizing the disruption of play by level gains.


Why not put a metamagic in such a magic item, giving a spellcaster the opportunity to add it to his spell without increasing the spell level from his point of view? The one-use nature of these magic items keeps this power boost from being too game-unbalancing, and you can further control any such tendency by specifying that when an item supplies the metamagic, it must be the only metamagic in the spell – which means that as spellcasters become more powerful, this limitation will curtail the desire to use such items.


But, for me, the greatest application is the potential to add something new to the game. Consider a Yu-Gi-Oh deck – you can summon a creature to fight on your behalf or a spell to enhance an ally or impair an opponent. All you need is some simple equivalence method for converting the very simple card stats into stats/effects and some guidelines for determining the spell-level equivalence. Suddenly, the horizons of what is possible for a character in a game explode.


What forms might this type of magic item take? The keys are that a visible change is needed and that the item not be consumed by the transition of this visible difference.

Gems with a internal glow when charged are the idea that comes most readily to mind. Scrolls and stones with words or symbols that vanish. Knots that untie themselves – or that have to be cut, to release the magic within. A deck of cards whose faces go blank when emptied of the magical effect contents. Even vials of something that becomes cloudy when empty and clear and sparkling when charged. A coin that is blank and featureless until charged.

There are many different ways to present this magic item, and that’s a very good thing; it means that there is enough diversity to encompass the versatility on offer. Which really does make you wonder just why this particular variety of magic item has been overlooked for so long, doesn’t it?

Part three of this series will eventually appear, and when it does, the subject will be Charged Power Packs – wands, etc.

On a completely unrelated subject, VOTING FOR THE ENNIES HAS STARTED and I WANT YOUR VOTE! If you like what I put out in 2015, please head to The Voting Page and cast your vote for Campaign Mastery for best Blog! You have until 11AM CDT on July 21 – just over 10 days – to make a difference!

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All Wounds Are Not Alike V: Narcotic Healing (part 1)

Photo Credit: / Ken Thompson

Photo Credit: / Ken Thompson

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I wasn’t going to make this a two-part article, but – as happens all too often – there was simply too much to include in the one post. Part two of this article will appear next week.

I’ve often seen it suggested that players get addicted to the ease of healing that comes with “Holy Water Drip Bottle” syndrome. Run, Fight, Heal, Loot, and Repeat. Sounds like a videogame – and one without a lot of depth, right?

I don’t know what your first reaction is, but mine – whenever I hear that suggestion – is, well, why not make it really addictive – with all the attendant problems that come with that problem?

Background Information

A lot of the research for this article was actually done for my Zenith-3 superhero campaign, where one of the characters (Runeweaver) is becoming addicted to magical power-ups / mana boosts. In fact, it is all based on four saved web pages that I compiled years ago. I don’t know if these are still available, but we’ll see how we go.

  • Stages Of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction – This was a page from “” but it is no longer available, and the domain is for sale.
  • Stages Of Substance Abuse – This was a page sourced from, which was a project of Boston University’s School Of Public Health, but which no seems to available.
  • Symptoms Of Addiction is an excerpt from “The Most Personal Addiction: How I Overcame Sex Addiction And How Anyone Can Overcome It” by Joe Zychik. This page is still online and the chapter excerpt is unchanged; the website is at this link (reader discretion advised).
  • Classic Story Structure meets the Phases Of Addiction – this page is from EIC, the Entertainment Industries Council, whose purpose is to encourage a more accurate and beneficial depiction of major health and social issues. This specific web page no longer appears to be available or has moved, but EIC are still there and deserve recognition and support. Note that their brief is far more diverse than simply dealing with addiction.
  • I also drew quite heavily on the Iron Man plotline now known as Demon In A Bottle, especially in terms of the initial stages and development of the disease. However, the recovery process depicted, while also referential, is completed in the course of only a page or two, and I have always felt that it lets the story down, as a whole, so that was something that I deliberately wanted to avoid in my “addiction plotline”.

Putting the information from these together, I came up with the following synopsis:

Stage 1: Experimental/Recreational/Social


  1. Substance is used to achieve some perceived or actual benefit without perceived negative consequences
Stage 2: Dependance/Excess

Some impacts may persist for some time before the first occurrance of #3.


  1. Addict seeks out, creates, or invents opportunities and reasons for further Use for its own sake.
  2. Addict denies there is a problem.
  3. Addict uses to excess, resulting in unwanted problems, which the addict blames on outside factors.
  4. Addict begins to conceal additional supplies in regularly-frequented locations
  5. Addict grows defensive when the issue is broached
  6. Friends and Family begin to grow concerned and seek to limit or restrict the addict’s intake
Stage 3: Addiction

While the suggestion is of a hard-and-fast demarcation between stages 2 and 3, reality is usually messier. For example, Runeweaver, the mana-addicted PC that I mentioned earlier, has already achieved items #2 and #3 or this list, even though he is still on the downward slide through item #3 of stage 2. Stage 3 begins to end when the final item (#10) is achieved, though the next step may not take place for days, months, or years (if ever).


  1. Satisfaction of the addiction becomes a dominant personal objective
  2. Addict persues addiction to the point of damaging other areas of his personal or professional life
  3. Existance of a problem is clear to friends and family
  4. Addict vehemently/violently denies theree is a problem
  5. Addict begins to experience increasing tolerance toward the source of addiction – it takes more to get the same effect
  6. Addict engages in behavior he would have considered reprehensible, degrading, or even criminal in order to satisfy addiction
  7. Addict begins to realise that there is a problem and attempts to stop, may even promise family/friends/etc that he has stopped/will stop. He is clearly sincere.
  8. Addict experiences withdrawal to the point of incapacity.
  9. Addict yields to his addiction during a time of increased percieved need.
  10. Addict realises that he is addicted.
Stage 4: Recovery

Characteristics: Some people never reach this phase, even after acknowledging that their addiction now rules their lives. Pride, or the loss of support of friends and family, or the social consuences of their addiction, or any one of dozens of other factors prevent them from achieving the self-respect necessary to regain the self-confidence to go day-to-day without satisfying their addiction. The struggle to overcome an addiction is as heroic and difficult as any other struggle faced in a superheroic campaign.

Recovery is achieved through a four step process:

  1. Acknowledgement and Removal of temptation
  2. Recovery of trust and support / Withdrawal
  3. Recovery of self-respect
  4. Recovery of self-confidence.

Recovery is very much considered to be an ongoing process. Addicts can slip back into Stage 3, and quite often will delude themselves into thinking that this time they can “handle it”, operating in a state of denial.

How I used this in the Zenith-3 Campaign:

The methodology which I employed to translate these general symptoms into in-game events is very instructive for any GM contemplating this approach.

In some ways, it would make more sense to actually leave this discussion until after I’ve talked about the healing variation, but because it follows on so logically from the previous section, I’ve pre-empted it and brought it forward.


I created a list of subplots reflecting one or more of the characteristics of the current stage of addiction. At the moment, the plotline has Runeweaver in the last period of Stage 2, gradually seguing into Stage 3. In the course of this stage, there have been the following subplots/plot elements:

  • RA 4. Runeweaver prioritises END cost reduction over Mana reduction in designing his spells, to force Glory to boost the frequency of Mana “recharges” she provides him.
  • RA 5. Runeweaver denies there is a problem throughout this stage.
  • RA 6. Glory grew concerned and decided to restrict the occasions of her Mana boosts to circumstances of Dire Need.
  • RA 7. Runeweaver becomes increasingly moody and irritable due to initial withdrawel symptoms.

These four actually took place in the course of the previous campaign.

  • RA 8. Runeweaver begins creating his own mana batteries within gems and concealing them about his person.
  • RA 9. Runeweaver begins using the “rush” to alter his moods.
  • RA 10. Runeweaver develops a secondary supply, purchasing mana batteries from Avalon.
  • RA 11. Runeweaver implants mana batteries on each wall of the base “so that he can get to them quickly if he needs to”.
  • RA 12. Runeweaver begins involuntarily expending excessive mana in his spells, miscasting spells, etc as though drunk creating side effects, sometimes beneficial, sometimes undesirable.

These subplots / plot elements then played out in the course of completely unrelated adventures, and RA 9 and 12 are still continuing. In fact, so far, RA 12 hasn’t had any major effect. Just to help complete the picture (without giving too much away, as the plotline is still very much ongoing), here’s what will happen next, as the first step into Stage 3:

  • RA 13. Runeweaver begins to start each day with a secret “pick-me-up” from a mana battery.

Of course, there have been a few other incidents along the way, most of which were logical outgrowths or interpretations of the ‘planned moments’, but several of which were spontanious and unplanned – just another case of an ongoing aspect of the characters’ “lives” within the campaign.

  • At one point, Runeweaver (who also serves as the team’s Field Commander) found himself Acting Chairman, and took advantage of the opportunity to authorize himself visiting Avalon to obtain the needed supply of Mana Batteries in the form of fragile gems; crush one, and a quick boost of Mana is released.
  • When the real Chairwoman returned to the job, she discovered this authorization. She was concerned because there was growing awareness amongst the PCs that something wasn’t right with Runeweaver (the players knew darned well that there was a Mana Addiction plotline underway, and that it was going to pose serious problems for both themselves and the mage), but reasoned that if she blocked him, he might very well go behind her back to do it anyway. Nevertheless she had a talk with him in which RA 5 was clearly on display.
  • When Runeweaver approached St Barbara with the idea contained in RA 11, she wanted very much to argue with him but the arguments he put forward to justify it were so logical that she couldn’t muster a good reason to deny him. She did her best to restrict the damage by laying down some very strict rules about how they should be spaced and where they should not be placed, and hoped that would be enough.
  • Zenith-3’s headquarters, The Knightly Building, hadn’t been designed at the time this plan was drafted, so it wasn’t clear how many “mana gems” would be required. When I started to do the calculations, it became clear that the total required would be truly horrendous (I’ll get to that total in a moment). The total completely outstripped the “industrial capacity” of the fantasy environment of Avalon, so Runeweaver began ordering them and then time-travelling into Avalon’s future to collect his order and place a new one – deciding to omit briefing St Barbara about this ‘so as not to worry her’ (the player knows, but the character doesn’t). This behaviour is tantamount to a stage-3 addiction symptom, lacking only the personal harm that stage-3 actions cause an addict.
  • Emplacing the ‘mana gems’ was an ongoing subplot for some time, even to the point of Runeweaver eschewing other social activities (he has resumed them since completing the task).
  • When the group were visiting their parent team (who operate in a parallel dimension), Runeweaver happened to mention the project to the overall Chairman, Bioman, who – knowing nothing of the context or background – replied that he thought that was a good idea and when Runeweaver finished, he might want to do the same thing at their new base, then under construction, alarming St Barbara and placing her in the difficult moral position of supporting her friend and teammate or spilling the beans. Reluctantly, she told Bioman of her concerns. Fortunately, because of the supply situation, it was not possible for Runeweaver to accept the offer to fit out the new facility.
  • The next thing that happened was that St Barbara recieved a report from Kira, the A.I. who runs the Knightly Building, indicating that the installation of the ‘mana gems’ was complete:

    “Summary: Construction enhancements of the Knightly Building are now complete as per specified parameters with minor variations documented. Specifics: Installation of three thousand, two hundred and sixty-five mana batteries. A hardcopy of this report has been routed to your inbox for formal acceptance. Do you require additional details?”

    *** pause for reply (expect ‘yes’ given that number).

    “Background: Authorization was granted for Runeweaver to emplace gemstone-based mana storage devices throughout the facility within the following parameters and restrictions:
         “One. Within small rooms, 1 each on two opposing walls and 1 mounted in the ceiling.
         “Two. Within medium rooms, 1 on each wall plus one ceiling mounted.
         “Three. Within corridors and rooms larger than 25m in one or more dimensions, additional wall and ceiling emplacements permitted provided that no mana battery be less than 20m removed from it’s nearest neighbor within the corridor or room.
         “Four. Vala’s personal quarters to be excluded at her request.
         “Report Request and Authorization: This unit was specifically requested by the current Chairman of Zenith-3, known locally as The Champions, to “keep an eye” on Runeweaver’s implementation of this task and specifically in referance to variations of these parameters and other relevant behavior noted in the course of that implementation. This was interpreted as a resquest to monitor activities within the scope of the project, to document any variations on the approved project parameters, and to generate a report stating these observations at project conclusion, or sooner if deemed to be warranted.
         “Report Contents: The following variations on accepted parameters have been observed and documented:
         “One. Stairwells and escelators have been treated as non-horizontal corridors for the purpose of determining mana point installations.
         “Two. Elevator Cars and elevator shafts have been treated as seperate rooms, the former being considered vertical “corridors”.
         “Three. No emplacements have been made in areas designated as restricted to individuals of the female gender such as rest rooms, changing rooms, etc.
         “Four. No emplacements have been made in areas designated as high-security or prisoner-confinement chambours. However, emplacements in areas providing access to such chambers have been increased 50%.
         “Five. With the exception of the lift lobbies and the Hanging Gardens no emplacements have been made within the residential chambers of any Zenith-3 member, *excluding* Runeweaver’s own quarters.
         “Six. Runeweaver has stated that he developed and refined his emplacement techniques by practicing upon the walls of his residential chambers, resulting in a significantly higher emplacement density on those floors. The exact count of emplacements in unmonitored spaces is unknown.
         “Seven. Not all gemstones designated for the purposes of emplacement have been utilized in this manner. It has been observed that after using his abilities to emplace 25-50 stones, Runeweaver would “consume” one of the stones to replenish his personal mana levels.
         “Eight. Runeweaver has further emplaced in various locations quantities of stones described as Emergency reserves. These include potted plants, air conditioning ducts, plumbing and wiring accesses, etc.
         “Eight-A. It is believed that Runeweaver has modified his accoutrements and attire to include concealed spaces for storing mana recepticals. The estimated number of such mana recepticals has been included in the total of additional stores specified in the summary appended to this report.
         “Nine. The parking garages on levels 29 and 30 and the Hanging Hardens which occupy the centre of the building from floor 2 to floor 18 have been treated as a single large space.
         “Ten. Where strict interpretation of the parameters would have resulted in installations within the operational field of transporter devices, additional wall mountings were used instead.
         “Eleven. No emplacements have been installed within the Danger Room environment but additional programming subroutines have been inserted to incorporate simalcra of emplacements in any appropriate simulation setting by default, which can be overridden by the console operator. Exception: the control room itself.
         “Total emplacements: 3-2-6-5. Additional stores: 4-5-0. Consumed during emplacement: 8-2. Unused, stored in official locations: 2-0-3. Project Total: 4-0-0-0 mana gems. Total project duration: 5-7-point-7-5 hrs over 6-point-1-2 days.”

    In summary, if anything, Runeweaver was more restrained than St Barbara had required him to be, so there was nothing for her to complain about – but the grand total was still a hugely revolting number far in excess of St Barbara’s expectations, who thought that the discussion would be dealing with two or three hundred of them. Five hundred, tops.

So that’s an example of how to take an addiction concept and incorporate it into game-play.

The Future of the Runeweaver Addiction plotline

Of course, darker days are ahead for the character, and the player knows it. He has asked me to accelerate the plotline as much as possible, and I have been doing so; but, at the same time, addiction is too serious a subject to trivialize; the road through purgatory to redemption will not be a quick and easy one, but the character will get there in the end – and, much later, will discover that it holds far greater significance than is currently appreciated. In fact, it – and its resolution – are pivotal developments in the broader plotline, and the latter will be one of the character’s most heroic achievements.

Beyond that tease, I can’t give anything away, I’m afraid.

What is addictive?

So, let’s turn our attention to the concept of Narcotic Healing. There is some real medical science that we can employ; painkillers aren’t given to people post-surgery just for their comfort. Pain causes all sorts of biological responses, and alleviating it speeds the recovery and provides better patient outcomes. Without painkillers, the system shock that arises from many surgical interventions kills more than such intervention can save. So there is some foundation in reality for the concept of some accelerated healing being addictive in nature.

There are a lot of aspects to addiction, something I’ll look into in more detail a little later. Among other aspects that will have to be considered, we have dependance, both physical and psychological, and withdrawal.

Before we can go there, we first need to ask just what forms of healing are to be considered by us as potentially addictive.

Healing Potions

The most obvious type of healing that could be addictive in nature is the ubiquitous Healing Potion. This is, after all, a foreign substance that is introduced to the body to induce rapid recovery from injuries. So quickly do they take effect that any adrenalyn rush from the incident that caused the injury, not to mention any biological responses to the injury by the body, have not had time to wear off. The effect would inevitably be an exhiliration, a rush, not unlike the results of consuming a narcotic. Yet PCs and NPCs toss the things down like candy. Even if there is no physical addiction, those vulnerable to addiction would undoubtedly suffer from psychological dependance if healing potions were consumed too frequently.

Clerical Healing

That wouldn’t do much to resolve the “Holy Water Drip Bottle” effect, however. For that, we need something else to be addictive: Clerical Healing Spells. Why might they be addictive?

Aside from the psychological dependance on the resulting rush, to answer that question fully, we need to understand what the character would experience when they are the recipient of a Cure Wounds spell – whether that be Light, Serious, Critical, or whatever. If the character experiences nothing more than the rapid cessation of pain, there isn’t a lot to discuss. But if there is some metaphysical contact with the divine being actually providing the healing, we enter a whole new realm of possibility. “The cleric touches your hand, and you feel the warmth and affection of his God. You feel safe and cared for by the ultimate Mother figure (or Father figure if a male deity), as if – for that instant – you are the most important thing in the world to her/him. You sense her/his concern that you are hurt, and a loving determination to make you feel better as quickly as possible, and then the pain is gone and the injury healed.”

If that isn’t going to be addictive, I don’t know what would be.

It also begs the immediate question of whether or not this effect would be experienced even if there was no injury to heal. But I’ll come back to that later.

based on Jump by Stuart Bryce

Image Credit: / Stuart Bryce
Colorization & Photoediting: Mike Bourke

Physical vs Psychological vs Emotional dependance?

First, let’s look a little more closely at the types of dependance that we’re dealing with.

Physical Dependance

Physical dependance is a biological effect that the body becomes accustomed to and even demands. It’s the most tangible form of dependance, and implies that there is a long-term biological alteration induced by the effect to which the individual is addicted. If we were talking real-world biology, now would be the time to wheel out terms such as “neuroreceptor”, “bioelectrical signal conversion”, and possibly “synaptic resistance”. All of which sound wonderfully technical, but clerical healing occurs in a fantasy domain in which these are meaningless (except, perhaps, in the grittiest possible expression of low fantasy).

No, to be meaningful in the more common fantasy milieu, we need a more abstract concept of physical addiction, and the simplest one that I can think of is this: if it isn’t exercised regularly, a muscle becomes weak and flabby. By analogy, then, if characters do not heal naturally for any period of time, their ability to do so could be compromised, leaving them physically dependant on external sources of healing.

At first, that might not seem such a bad thing; healing in fantasy games is plentiful and reliable, and far more efficient than natural recovery. To maintain some sort of cost-benefit parity, there need to be some additional negative consequences to physical addiction.

The ones that occured to me immediately are (1) the limits of external healing, and (2) the indiscriminate nature of external healing.

The Limits Of External Healing

Cure Wounds spells can’t do much in the way of reattaching severed limbs or replacing lost organs. If the character has not yet been maimed, if there is still some biological connection to work with, then the healing might be in with a shot; if not, then the best that can result is that the stump heals over. That suggests that critical wounds, i.e. those resulting from a critical hit, might not heal properly if the sufferer is exposed to external healing. That’s a prospect that was discussed in earlier parts of this series, so I won’t go into it any further at this time; but, in the interests of making this approach to limiting the effectiveness of external healing, why not assume that this isn’t the case. So long as the injury is fresh, i.e. rot has not set in, a cure wounds spell CAN reattach a severed limb, reconnect a lost eyeball, or whatever – you simply have to put it back into place before beginning the healing.

External Healing Is Indiscriminate

That leaves option B. The human body is far more complex than a single organism; all sorts of other biological entities have entered into a symbiotic relationship with it. In particular, there are bacteria in the gut that aid us in harvesting the nutrients from food, the loss of which have some nasty effects: digestive upsets, malnutrition, and dehydration. In a weakened individual, these can be fatal; in a healthy individual, they are uncomfortable.

Modern medicine also has artificial supports for healing bones properly, transplants, and other invasive technologies. Rejection is a serious problem that even today can be hard to manage. In some cases, we have devised better materials, in others it becomes necessary to reduce or even shut down the natural immune responses.

It’s a good thing that those techniques weren’t in place in our fantasy world, because external healing would also be akin to super-charging the immune system (enabling the character to fight off wound infections). It’s a near-certainty that if Cure Wounds spells can’t handle maimings, existing prosthetics would no longer fit properly after being exposed to such healing.

Fortunately, we’ve already decided that we want our cure wounds spells to be able to cope with such maimings, at least to some extent, reducing this impact. It can also be said, fairly reasonably, that – provided the character’s diet is adequate – the application of external healing would mean that they are not ‘in a weakened condition’, and hence would experience only the painful and irritating consequences of drinking strange and possibly tainted water.

Well, since there seems to be nothing more to add to the list of negative consequences from a standpoint of physical dependance, if we are to achieve something closer in cost-benefit parity between external and natural healing, we are going to have to find what we need in some other form of dependance.

Psychological Dependance

Euphoria can make people reckless and foolhardy. Aside from the direct dependance on the ‘rush’ after healing – it feels good so you want to feel it again – that naturally means that judgement is impaired in such a way that a repeated exposure to external healing becomes more likely to be necessary.

This is a fairly subtle effect that can be induced by careful choices in narrative by the GM; simply choosing descriptive terms that underestimate the danger a subsequent encounter or situation represents. Playing down the danger level that such encounters represent encourages players to engage – which is when they discover their misjudgment.

Beyond that, psychological dependance can be viewed through the prism of our ‘flabby muscle’ analogy. Just as physical dependance might impair natural healing, so psychological dependance may impair or inhibit the feeling of pleasure except as triggered by the healing.

This is not depression, or not acute depression, anyway. That is accompanied by a sense of helplessness, of being trapped by circumstances; that would not apply until late in stage 3 of the addiction cycle. Prior to that, the worst a character would experience would be the occasional passing lack of enthusiasm. Food might be tasty but it might as well be cardboard. Drinks may be alcoholic – they would certainly still impair judgement – but they might as well be alcoholic dishwater.

There are some who might become more dangerous enemies under these circumstances. Dispassion and ruthlessness can’t be far away, and sociopathy just one step beyond. But that (hopefully) would only be for extreme cases. On the other hand, such symptoms might explain a lack of old adventurers.

Nor would such effects necessarily be linked in anyone’s eyes to the effects of external healing. ‘The trauma and misery and pain of adventuring takes its toll on us all’ would be the more popular explanation. “I’ve seen so much death and destruction that I have no enthusiasm for living” might be another common complaint. In many ways, this would be an induced form of post-traumatic stress disorder (or whatever they are calling it these days).

Spiritual Dependance

And then there’s the potential for spiritual dependance (I couldn’t come up with a better term). That’s the dependance on the sense of protection and love of the deity doing the healing that I suggested earlier. At first, that sense would linger, and the character would feel more connected to the world; as dependance grew, the world after coming down from the healing ‘high’ would seem empty and bland. This is, in effect, an altered state of consciousness.

If this effect can be experienced without actual damage that needs to be healed, some people would deliberately induce it to gain a sense of protection and invulnerability in combat that would make them fearsome enemies, unconcerned with their own preservation, confident in being healed and cared for by the deity providing the healing. In effect, it would remove the DEX bonus and any level-based improvements from AC and add it to attack rolls.

If actual damage is required, then a more extreme outcome would take place amongst a smaller number who ritually cut themselves before going into battle to then be healed, inducing this same spiritual euphoria. Some might even rub dirt into the wounds to ensure a scar as a lasting symbol of the love of their god.

This could only exacerbate the psychological ‘rush’ and corresponding dependence discussed already, and the trend for the effects of addiction to include behavior that was more likely to trigger a renewed need for healing.

Again applying the ‘flabby muscle’ analogy, it could also become possible in advanced stages of addiction that the character would become conditioned to the point where they could only truly feel one with their god during combat. That would only make the character even more likely to engage in ‘risky behavior’.

An unhealthy plausibility

There is a definite sense of these effects being all-too-plausible in terms of how most of us perceive addiction. The need for ever increasing doses, either in active substance or in frequency or both is a known trait of most addictions. At the same time, there is a strong internal logic at work that holds the idea together. Certainly, the idea seems to posses a conceptual validity that is both fascinating and frightening in its implications.

….and that’s where I ran out of time. Part two will apply the broad general symptoms of the different phases of addiction (discussed above) to the specific concept of narcotic healing, will look at game mechanics to simulate the risks of narcotic healing, examine the impact on both a typical fantasy society of this concept and on an addicted individual within such a society, and wrap up with some metagame implications that would need to be considered before implementing this policy, With one or two interesting side-turns along the way. You’ll never look at Cure Light Wounds the same way again…

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Pt 7: Adventures

Frame by Billy Alexander Dice Image by Armin Mechanist

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

I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the first of a trio of articles that will carry this series through it’s half-way mark and beyond.

There have been 140 articles here at Campaign Mastery tagged as relating to “Adventure Creation”.

That’s a lot of advice, some of it probably redundant, and a lot of it specific to one particular subtopic or aspect of the craft.

It certainly raises the question of whether or not there is anything more to say. And, to be honest, I’m not sure that the following article will contain all that much that is new or revolutionary; what it will do, at the very least, is re-frame that advice in a straightforward fashion suitable for beginners to implement right away.

And you never know, there might be a new thought or idea that sneaks in when none of us are looking!

The Usual Pattern

When beginners first GM, there is a pattern that is so ubiquitous it can be considered ‘normal’. It doesn’t always apply in every case, but the majority of GMs who are honest with themselves will recognize similarities between that patten and their own experiences.

The pattern is the result of ignorance becoming experience and an inevitable process of learning what works and what doesn’t. I’ve divided the early stages into four stages of development; these may be experienced for just a short time or may be the GM’s modus operandi for months or years.

The First-Stage Adventure

Typically, the first adventures – in D&D / Pathfinder terms – is a dungeon consisting of individual rooms with individual encounters within. These are usually emplaced with little or no connection between them, and often too close together for real believability. At best, there will be a coherent origin story for the dungeon, of little or no relevance to the encounters.

Always assuming, of course, that the GM doesn’t start with a canned third-party adventure module.

The Second-Stage Adventure: The Mega-dungeon Option

When the GM advances to the second stage of development, one of two things tends to happen: either the GM is encouraged sufficiently by their first experience that they go bigger and better, or someone has pointed up the logical inconsistencies inherent in that first dungeon and they go right away from the dungeon concept for an adventure or two. I’ll deal with the latter alternative in a moment; first, let’s talk about the GM’s first home-grown mega-dungeon. That’s certainly the approach that I took, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

This mega-dungeon (a term that didn’t actually exist when I crafted mine) is at least four times the size of the first, if not 40 times. I went from a six-room dungeon to a multi-level monstrosity with about 600 rooms, each and every one of which had something of interest. As the D&D equivalent of an anecdote collection, it was wonderful; as a coherent piece of design, it was… limited, at best.

But everything else is typically magnified. I didn’t make the mistake of putting a Dragon in a 10′ x 10′ room (something that I have seen others do in similar circumstances), but I DID have a dragon on the 17th subterranean level of the dungeon – with the only way for it to get there being through 8′ wide corridors. Some things I got right – if I indicated a wall as a line, it was defined as extending 1′ out from that line (which is why the corridors looked 10′ wide on the map but were only 8′ wide “in reality”), and I had actually thought about ventilation and how it reached the lower levels (little portals into the elemental plane of air and giant dragonflies trained to use their wings to blow the fresh air through the dungeon – but with no explanation as to who created them or where they had come from, so it wasn’t a perfect solution).

As is usually the case, by the end of that mega-dungeon (and I admit mine was much bigger than most), I had become acutely aware of its shortcomings – the lack of a meaningful plotline creating a narrative ‘thread’ through the ‘adventure’, the fact that there was no real depth to the setting and surrounds, the absence of PC-NPC interactions of a non-violent nature, and the total absence of any sort of society or ‘campaign’ background.

The Second-Stage Adventure: The Long And Winding Road

The other route that is commonly taken by a GM, if they are made aware of the logical ‘holes’ in their game world in the course of their first adventure – which often happens if they have more experienced players – is to eschew the most improbable elements completely. Dungeons? They make no sense, except in the traditional usage as a place to imprison people. Unbelievable varieties and proliferations of monsters? That makes no sense, so they begin thinking about ecologies and dominant populations in different regions of the world. The focus shifts to the journey and what you encounter during its beginning, middle, and end; and each journey is then followed by another, and then another.

There are some problems in common with the mega-dungeon approach; there is still usually minimal or no narrative thread connecting the whole of the journey. It’s a trip from A to B to C with no significance beyond the fact of the journey itself. It also tends to suffer from too much smallness in too large a framework – an open-air mega-dungeon of isolated environments that don’t really interconnect or interrelate.

In both cases, the ‘adventure’ is just a bunch of stuff that just “sort of happens”.

The Third-Stage Adventure: The Grand Railroad

Eventually, GMs tire of the vacuousness of these variations on the same approach and begin to focus on making story the dominant element. Often this happens gradually, without them even realizing that it’s taking place. But a new pitfall awaits; the plot train. The GM becomes so focused on producing a coherent and satisfying story within the game that he begins circumscribing the freedom of the players to make decisions for their characters. In every other way, things start coming together, and the GM learns to craft these great and imaginative tapestries, circumstances and characters and settings uniting in the service of the story, and for a while, players will revel in the sense of purpose to what is happening to their characters and not protest.

Usually, the GM won’t set out to railroad the characters; it will be a defensive response to the players derailing the plotline and going off on a tangent that the GM wasn’t ready for, and that has nothing to do with the narrative that he has envisaged within his head.

Eventually, the players will rebel. This usually happens as a result of a mistake on the part of the GM, a hole in their plot that the players pick up on, some obvious solution to their problems that the GM hasn’t even thought of, and when the GM learns to cope with this problem and give the players their freedom back, they become ‘mature’ as a GM.

It doesn’t have to be that way

It should be clear that this development path is natural and organic, a process that naturally transpires as a consequence of trying to be better at what you are doing, of trying to squeeze the maximum amount of entertainment value out of your game, both for yourself and your friends. Each phase is a natural evolution that derives from addressing the problems of the previous one.

But it’s possible to shortcut the process by learning from others. If you are a player in a game, analyzing what the GM is doing and understanding why they are doing it not only educates you in more advanced tricks of the trade, but gives you a giant step forwards. The internet, where people like myself discuss aspects and elements of their craft, is another giant resource.

There are limits, however; you can become an absolute master of the theory of GMing while never learning how to put those lessons into practice for yourself if you never actually GM a game. When you do so, it quickly becomes apparent that there are wide gulfs between theory and practice, and not everything that you have learned will apply to the real world. The problem is that every GM’s experience behind the GM screen (be it literal or figurative) will be different, and the lessons that apply to one GM’s experience at running a game will be different to those that apply to this other GM with this other group of players.

Ultimately. there is no substitute for real world experience, from being willing to make mistakes and learn from them.

One of the biggest challenges that a GM faces is a new group of players, especially if you’ve been gaming with the same group for a long period of time. Without even being consciously aware of it, familiarity leads to a GM tailoring and customizing the way that they plan and operate to suit the foibles and desires of their regular players, and a new group of players will not respond to the old techniques.

Perhaps the greatest advantage that I had as a developing GM was being part of a large and organized Club, one which (at times) had as many as four or five different RPGs being played simultaneously with 5 or 6 players each. When one campaign wrapped up and a new one began, there was an osmosis from other groups into the new campaign, while players with less interest in that campaign would jump ship and hook up with one of the others. Each campaign thus tended to consist of a loyal “core” of players who came and went infrequently, and a variety of others who would join up for a few months or a couple of years and then move on. The dynamics that the GM had to cope with and build around were perpetually changing and evolving as new players brought new ideas and approaches and priorities and expectations to the gaming table. You were forced to become a better GM whether you wanted to or not – or you dropped out of GMing altogether if you were unable to cut the mustard (or were sufficiently lacking in confidence that you didn’t think you could cope).


Speaking of confidence and competence, the one person who is never in a position to give a fair and unbiased perception of a GM’s abilities are the GM themselves; they will always under- or over-estimate their abilities. Unwarranted self-doubt can be crippling, but equally bad is over-arrogant self-confidence. No GM can objectively assess their own abilities.

Instead, look for subjective clues. If you have players who want to play in your game, if you get the occasional compliment from a player, if everyone seems to be having fun, then you are a successful GM.

Contrariwise, however, if none of these is true, that doesn’t make you a bad GM. It might simply mean that what you are offering doesn’t fit the needs and desires of the particular group of potential players that you have around you, that there is a clash of styles, or even that you are being judged unfairly on the basis of past mistakes. The absence of information tells you nothing.

Another phenomenon that should be taken into consideration is that it is very rare for a particular preference for a specific playing style to translate into a natural preference for that style as a GM. More often, the opposite is true. This has to do with the perception of challenge and of the potential for success; we all enjoy a challenge if we think we can succeed, but if success seems out of reach and impossible to achieve, we shy away from the frustration that will inevitably result.

That sounds entirely reasonable until you factor in my earlier comments about confidence and competence. If you can’t accurately assess how good you are as a GM, or your strengths and weaknesses, you can never make an accurate assessment of how successful we will be at any particular challenge.

The only real way to know is to try anyway – and then assess the success or failure afterwards. Never let a lack of confidence hold you back; you always learn more from failure than from success.

There is a perception amongst some readers that GMs with as much experience under the belts as I do have achieved some sort of “GMing Nirvana” in which we never make mistakes, running with complete success adventures and campaigns that they could never even dream of. There’s a small grain of truth buried in a whole heap of inaccuracy in such a perception; I can run campaigns and adventures of far greater complexity now than I could a decade ago, or two, or three. But that’s only true because I’ve made mistakes in the past (My Biggest Mistakes [series]) and learned from them – and it certainly doesn’t prevent me from totally messing up, even now (An Experimental Failure – 10 lessons from a train-wreck Session) – and learning from that, too.

I’ll stop learning and improving my abilities when I’m dead and buried, and not before – at least, if I have anything to say about it.

A Better Plan

There are two important contexts from which to view and assess an adventure. The first is as an entity in it’s own right, a discrete piece of gameplay, a narrative with start, finish, and end. The second is as an element in a broader storyline, the campaign. Another way to view the ‘typical developmental path’ that I outlined earlier is to think of it as a process of broadening perspectives from the former to the latter. Railroading happens when the ‘campaign perspective’ becomes so dominant that it crowds out consideration of the adventure as a discrete unit. Having learned to walk the tightrope between these two perspectives is the trait of a mature GM.

Again, there are techniques that can be employed to shortcut this developmental process. I’ve addressed this subject many times in many articles, but thought it might be useful to provide a simpler alternative for the beginner to follow and ‘get their feet wet’.

A Grand Vision

The place to start is by outlining the campaign-wide story, as simply and concisely as possible. Think of this as your internal ‘blurb’ describing the campaign to yourself (it might or might not also be the ‘blurb’ that you use to promote/describe the campaign to prospective players). This could be simple (“A peaceful kingdom is betrayed to an Orcish Alliance”) or complex (“A mad god holds magic for ransom unless his deranged demands are met”).

Once you have this “back cover blurb” for the campaign, break it into logical steps and stages. Take the first example: the stages might be:

  1. Establish Peaceful Kingdom – self-explanatory, provides the campaign background, intros the PCs;
  2. Establish Status Quo – an adventure into Orcish territory for no other reason than to provide the rest of the background;
  3. Create The Orcish Alliance – an adventure in which rumors of the Alliance begin to be heard in a sub-plot;
  4. Motivation For Betrayal – something happens that doesn’t directly impact the PCs (another sub-plot) but that will provide the motivation for someone to betray the kingdom to the Alliance;
  5. Invasion – for the first time, the campaign-scale plotline is the sole focus of an adventure, as the Alliance invades and village after village falls before them as a result of the betrayal, which is discovered by the PCs;
  6. Battlefield Stalemate – the PCs find a way to neutralize the advantage that was conferred by the betrayal, producing a stalemate in the war, and buying them time to dig more deeply;
  7. The Architect Of War – PCs discover who was behind both the creation of the Alliance and the betrayal of the kingdom;
  8. Broken Alliance – PCs use that information to break the Alliance;
  9. Peace In Our Time – PCs negotiate a peace treaty with the Kingdom’s Orcish neighbors, cemented when they save the life of the Orcish Leaders (and themselves) from an assassin sent by the villain in a last-ditch attempt at revenge;
  10. The Price Of Treason – the PCs hunt down the betrayer, discovering that the apparent villain was just a flunky, and confront the real architect of the war. Big Finish.

Or to put it another way, the PC’s ordinary lives are turned upside down by someone manipulating events to create War between the Kingdom and the Orcs, and it’s up to them to undo the machinations, expose, and punish the culprits. This outline has things starting slowly and building to a dramatic conclusion.

Strong Characters

Step two is to populate the campaign with strong characters, i.e. characters with depth and interesting personality. Take the betrayer – you need him to be a trusted person with considerable authority (or his betrayal will be meaningless), but with some sort of weakness or dark secret that can be exploited. It would be easier to have his betrayal be overt and obvious, but a lot more fun to have him lurk unsuspected at first, even apparently still loyal but wringing his hands and at his wit’s end, with only one idea to solve the problem – send in the PCs even though “it’s hopeless, there’s nothing [they] can do…”

This is a character who I could really get my teeth into, in terms of roleplaying, and the irony that the one move that he makes (thinking that it will be completely ineffectual) turns out to be the best move that could be made to undo and expose the treachery he’s committed.

Lurking Plots

The result is a ten-adventure campaign that seems completely reasonable on the face of it. The next thing that I do is start working on the background to the campaign, taking care to sprinkle ideas for potential plotlines beyond the main one throughout. Some of these will form the basis of the early, relatively self-contained adventures; others will lie unused and untriggered, just part of the color of the campaign. The primary goal of any campaign background – aside from telling the players what they need to know in order to participate in the planned campaign plotline – is to convey a sense of potential to the players, to create the impression of an environment in which fantastic adventures lurk around every corner.

More experienced GMs would look to advance and resolve some of these background plots while seeding new potential adventures into the campaign, ensuring that the world is dynamic and not static, but beginners should crawl before they walk.

Players set the direction, GM sets the context

Reading that campaign outline, or any of the many others that I have shared here at Campaign Mastery over the years, you might get the impression that there is a case of “do as I say, not as I do” taking place – that I am advising one thing and then demonstrating another. How can anything that reads “the PCs find a way to…” co-exist with the notion of player freedom of choice?

The answer is that it doesn’t matter how the players come to the adventure that you have in mind, so long as they get there eventually. The challenge is to permit the players to choose the actions of their PCs and then find a way for those choices to lead them into the plotline that the GM had in mind without force.

A good way to think of the process is the one expressed in the title of this sub-section of the article. Another, even more clarifying, version might read, “The players control the rudder, but the GM controls the winds and current.”

The big secret to achieving this is to be continually aware of the ‘trigger events’ you have buried in the plot and how these will affect NPCs that the PCs interact with. This gives you several paths that can be followed by the PCs into the adventure, and is the RPG equivalent of the “Magician’s Force” or “Magician’s Choice“.

All Roads Lead To Rome

At the very beginning of the campaign, the GM will have no idea of the characters and not much more idea (if any) of the players. Given this state of ignorance, the GM has absolutely no idea of what the players will want to do; all he can do is try to stay one step ahead of them, building the adventure on his understanding and knowledge of the campaign background.

As usual, there is a less obvious easier route – the technique described in the previous section. One event, trivial in terms of the big picture, but important when immediate and proximate, that will connect with a wide range of people and social classes, and then let the PCs find their own path to the adventure.

The Extended Sandbox

The final piece of advice in this section is not to commit yourself too far too soon. At any given time, the state of play should be:

  • Current adventure – complete and ready to run
  • Next adventure – detailed plans complete, approaching a ready-to-run condition, to be completed 1 game session before it is needed
  • Adventure after – rough plans and ideas noted down, focusing on those parts that will be directly connected to by “next adventure”
  • Adventures after that – little or nothing done, just a note of resources (characters, settings, illustrations, etc) that have been prepared for earlier adventures but which will also be required for these adventures.

This is called “just in time” delivery, a principle that I learned as an Analyst Programmer. I won’t go into detail here – for one thing, it’s too complicated a subject to fit within the bounds of this particular article, and for another, I’ve already addressed the topic in a pair of articles:

The Prep Investment

Which brings me to the subject of game prep in general. Getting the amount of game prep that you do right is a an art that none of us ever master, and even fewer can ever be completely confident of having gotten it right. Because it’s generally better to err on the side of caution, we tend to over-prepare. The articles listed above will help zero GMs in on the correct amount of game prep to do to avoid both burnout and under-prep, but there’s a caveat that they don’t go into.

Game prep that is sufficiently universal in application, in the early phases of a campaign, can actually save prep time in the long run. You work more efficiently if not yet distracted by actually running the game, and every hour of prep that is invested in elements that can be applied globally and can channel and direct your creativity in the future (rather than wasting time casting about for inspiration) is an investment in the campaign that will be repaid many-fold before it comes to an end.

In particular, it’s never too soon to start thinking about the problems and reversals that the PCs might face, how they could be overcome, and how everything is to culminate and pay off in a big finish.

In conclusion

There’s always more that can be said on this subject. My draft notes, for example, had me now commencing a discussion of the anatomy of an adventure (A hook to get the players interested, deepening trouble, some early success, events take a turn for the worse, adventure is resolved, plus sub-plots and background developments that connect together with each other and with other adventures to form “the big picture”) but in the end I felt that it was rather redundant and might even get in the way of the advice already offered. As I said at the start, there have been a LOT of articles here at Campaign Mastery on the subject of creating adventures, and there will undoubtedly be more in the future. It’s better to leave something out now and not overwhelm readers (especially beginners) with too much all at once.

Breaking News!

As I was finishing up today’s article, the news broke that for the second time in it’s history, Campaign Mastery is (drum-roll please): An


Congratulations and the best of luck to all my fellow nominees – but right now, I’m on top of the world!!

Voting opens on the 11th – that’s next Monday (US timezone) – and closes on the 21st, just 10 days later. So, if you like what I do here at Campaign Mastery, consider sending a vote my way. Whether you do or not, no hard feelings – it’s an honor just to be nominated!

The next part of this series, due in two week’s time, will get more strongly into the subject of Depth of planning and plotting.

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