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Why Are Stories So Important In Video Games? A lesson for RPG Campaigns

game controller

Image provided by / Michel Zarcharzewski

Modern video games are becoming more dynamic when looking at console capabilities, online functions and graphics. The diversity in game types is also increasing. It is never enough these days to have wonderful graphics; so many games with outstanding graphics end up failing, as they lack the story element. When we look at the very best RPG games in the video-game sector, the one thing that is always common is a well-thought and highly developed storyline. But that begs the question, is this a universal law? Quests may basically make a game more attractive but are stories really vital for game success – and what does that say for tabletop RPGs?

Story Vs Plot

When looking at the game’s story aspect, the most important thing is to understand the difference between the two.

A plot is linked to what will happen. It will track character physical movement, at least in gross location. One event will basically lead to the next one. A story is going to serve didactic functions, i.e. it will teach the player something (even if that something is only relevant in the context of the video game narrative).

Stories are a flow of ideas that are arranged and presented through the plot.

As an example, when looking at Assassin’s Creed, the plot revolves around the feud between Assassins and Templars. The story of good versus evil is an oldie but a goodie that never grows stale; it will continue and will lead to gamers wanting to know what will happen.

Character Development

A story is not just about the plot. Characters are very important a these are the movers of the plot, the manifesters of the story, and the point of emotional connection. A story needs them for the players or readers to love or hate.

Judging video game characters is similar to how you look at the characters you normally see in a book. In video game history there are many characters that were so well built that players wanted to know everything about them. This led to the appearance of sequels in some cases.

Stories without great characters are practically impossible these days. There are so many game-makers out there of adequate or better technical skill that any given game needs something to lift it above the noise, and the universally resonant quality, the thing that makes the difference, time after time, is a great story with enticing, compelling characters.

Technical improvements aside (many of which are the product of improvements in the technology, anyway), that’s the biggest difference between video games of the 70s and 80s and those of the modern day. There was a time when it was enough to boast a broader color palette, or faster refresh rate, or snazzier graphics; these days, these can be safely assumed (save when deliberately violated for stylistic effect, I suppose). To take the next step in popularity, aside from great gameplay, we need to see something in a game that has some emotional resonance for us – events that we can relate to and/or characters that we can relate to.

Different Video Game Types

When we read a novel we have to see central characters that are rounded, together with a good story. The smaller their plot role, the flatter the characters can be. In many video games the same usually applies, but it is not always the case. With sports games in particular, titles like NBA Live or Madden NFL do not actually need a story.

Such games do not need a story tacked on, the competition – provided that it is not pre-scripted – constructs its own narrative.

We also have games that benefit from the story and from the actual gameplay at the same time. In this case it is the story that will add depth and that will help those gamers that see stories as particularly important.

Personal Preference

Obviously, at the end of the day player preference is going to dictate the success of a game and whether or not the story is really important for success.

It is really important that game developers focus on both elements. A great story aspect never detracts from a game’s value; it can only enhance it.

Storylines have been proven to make games more successful but only when they were captivating. Similarly to novels, some are a lot better than others. This directly impacts the success of a video game. A great story can even overcome deficiencies in gameplay.

The Tabletop Relevance

Having looked at video games from as many directions as we can, let’s turn our attention to tabletop games and see which of the emerging lessons apply.

First, there is the direct ‘competition’ aspect of sporting games. This is analogous to the basic dungeon bash, in which the challenge is simply to overcome whatever combat challenges the GM places before the characters, and to a certain extent, that can be enough to satisfy; however, directly comparing two games, one that has just this component and one that has both this component and a great story, it can be seen that the difference is night and day. In days long past, it might have been enough to have impressive monsters, or even great visual aids to help manifest them in the minds of the players; that’s no longer the case.

Even a basic dungeon bash needs to have some level of story through-line connecting the events. Every improvement to the story over that minimum requirement simply adds to the value of the campaign.

Second, there needs to be a strong correlation between story and plot. You can’t simply strap the story on like a backpack; it needs to translate into concrete day-to-day manifestations and events. This is often where GMs struggle; there are ample tools and schools to improve your writing skills that can be adapted to the purpose, and getting better at game mechanics is simply a matter of experience and practice; it’s bridging the gap between the two that is different and unique to RPGs, even from the similar problems faced by adapting a story into screenplay (though that probably comes closest).

Third, the PCs are automatically semi-compelling by virtue of being a player’s character, but every enhancement to that compelling, quality that makes the characters more rounded once again functions as an enhancement to the basic value of the game. Furthermore, that basic semi-compelling quality is no guarantee of a rounded character, and contains no promises of interest to any other player. It is incumbent on the GM to fill the gap by ensuring that the NPCs, common to all the players, are as compelling and interesting as possible. That doesn’t mean necessarily compromising them; it can mean mixing your already-dark villain with even darker shades of black.

Video games and RPGs are growing more alike all the time. It’s no longer good enough to have prettier pictures than the guy at the next table; it’s no longer sufficient to have compelling characters whose lives simply meander from random event to random event. The things that produce a compelling video game are also the things that produce a compelling tabletop RPG campaign.

If you were marketing your RPG campaign as a video game, what could you say about it that makes it better than the one in the next booth? Unless you can tick every box, there is room for improvement. And no-one can ever tick every box; as soon as you do, it’s time to raise your standards – because everyone else will be raising theirs.

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Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced) Part 10: Rhythms


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

(I’m sure some have been wondering when it would resume – Part 9 was published in September 2016, after all…) 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 part of three articles in the second-last block of the series.

There’s a tool between the ears of every GM for diagnosing problems and improving their games that few GMs – even those who could claim to be experts – are even aware of, let alone to have mastered. It’s the innate sense of rhythm that we all possess to at least some degree.

This is even cutting-edge stuff so far as my own gaming is concerned. And yet, it seems to me that the less experienced you are, the more easily you can adapt to the needs and the bigger the benefits that you can yield through the use of this tool.

That’s because habits set in and become entrenched over the years, and changing habits of any kind is a lot harder than never forming those habits in the first place. This is one of very few advantages that a beginner can have over an expert, and one that enables the beginner to compete for time, attention, and players even against the most expert of GMs.

It’s also something that’s not all that easy to explain clearly. As I said, I’m only dimly grasping it, and its potentials and implications, myself, so there may be a certain amount of fumbling around in the course of this article. Bear with me!

Circadian Rhythms Of The Game

Every RPG has its own natural rhythm, a complex compounding of players, GMing style, game mechanics, setting, and a whole host of other factors. Often submerged beneath the surface, much of the time you won’t even be aware of it. Only when the rare occasion comes along when blind chance puts you in sync with that rhythm and you notice how much easier, more dynamic, more engaging, and more exciting the game becomes as a result, do you notice it.

Both beginners and Experienced GMs who do so will often (even usually) fall into the trap of trying to replicate the experience by doing the same things a second time on another occasion, but there are so many contributory variables that such attempts inevitably fail.

The circadian rhythm of a game is the call-and-response of combat. That’s when the fundamental rhythm comes to the surface and becomes most noticeable. When everything is synced into the fundamental rhythm, there is a discernible timing pattern to the call-and-response exchanges between players and GM: Action statement, roll, hit, damage, effects, next character, action statement, roll, hit, damage, effects, next character, action statement, roll, hit, damage, effects… it doesn’t matter if the ‘next character’ is a PC or an NPC, there’s a pattern, a definite rhythm, in which each of these steps takes the same amount of time or close to it.

The exact length and timing of those steps varies. Hitting the mark comes most easily when everyone knows what they have to roll or has it clearly shown on their character sheet, where they are able to respond to changing circumstances without having to think about it, but it can still happen when it takes the same length of time for such obstructions for each. The shorter the interval, the more easily you can fall into pattern, so you also tend to notice this more with simpler game mechanics.

That’s all right, more sophisticated systems like D&D, Pathfinder, and the Hero System have their own compensatory advantages; making the rhythm of the game a little harder to access is one of the prices that you pay for that sophistication and depth.

This description makes the process sound very mechanical. In fact, it’s not; because the mechanics of the system are part of the pattern, they actually become less noticeable, mere implementations of and shapers of, the narrative flow of the action.

The existence of this rhythm becomes most obvious when something happens to disrupt it – if a player has to stop to look something up (be it on their character sheet or in a rulebook) and isn’t ready to take their turn when it falls to them to do so, for example.

Awareness of time

Because awareness of time is not a constant, especially without some metronomic influence, there is a certain amount of ‘give’ in the pattern. In particular, a pause that fits into the dynamics of the rhythm permits it to be restarted as thought it had never stopped – you hear this in music when a song stops, falling silent for a moment. This is usually a full bar or two or even four, but there have been some cases when 1/4 or 1/2 a bar have been used to “punctuate” the music.

Quite often, such pauses – especially shorter ones – will be “filled” with a drum-roll or some other piece of musical “color”.

This isn’t a blog about musical composition, so I won’t go into examples or details – listen analytically to pop music from the last 50 years and simply by paying attention to what you are hearing, you will find and identify many for yourself.

But the same thing happens at the gaming table. My rule of thumb is that if a player isn’t ready – hasn’t decided what they want their character to do, or needs to look something up – their action may start when the initiative/action rules say it does, but isn’t completed until after those who also act on that initiative/action number. If they still aren’t ready, their action doesn’t complete until the end of the next character’s turn – and repeat this last as necessary.

This keeps the rhythm going and turns the “offending” player’s turn into a couple of “drum fills” within the rhythm.

The alternatives? Well, the worst thing you can possibly do is to wait and then pick up with the next character immediately. There may be a certain amount of tolerance within the perception of rhythm – which will also vary under all sorts of circumstances – but the greater likelihood is that the “beats” will now fall in the wrong places and the rhythm will collapse into anarchic arrhythmia in terms of the perceptions (conscious or otherwise) of those taking part.

No, the better alternative is to momentarily interrupt combat to engage the players on some other level. Give them something else to think about/take into account (“the tires on the burning truck explode”, “with a rumble, the staircase that was damaged earlier collapses”, whatever), or have an NPC say something (even if it’s just a sneering threat, an encouragement to his side to “Keep fighting, we can still win this,” or sounding a voice of doubt “They are so much stronger than we thought they would be!”). This little “splash” of something different resets perceptions of the rhythm so that even if the combat then resumes, the rhythm can re-establish itself from zero.

The human response to music

It’s long been known by musicians that when people experience a compelling rhythm, heartbeats and other bodily functions tend to “lock into” that rhythm. Some are exciting, some naturally get the feet tapping and heads nodding in time, others are gentler and almost force people to relax. These are some of the many considerations beyond musicality that the soundtrack faces; to some extent, the composer can change the soundtrack to better fit the on-screen action, but to some extent it’s necessary to actually reedit the visuals to match the dynamic rhythm of the sounds. In films, the music tends to yield, even to the point of being recomposed to suit – watch the soundtrack-related extras for the Lord Of The Rings trilogy for more insight. With music videos, the music is (usually) inviolate, and it is the vision that has to be edited to fit. Studying both – or simply paying close attention to both – and listening to interviews about the “making of” both was part of the process by which I became aware of the phenomenon, especially when I began looking for gaming relevance to the observations I was making.

In particular, “Close To Me” by the Cure, Video by Tim Pope, shed light on the relationship between images and sounds; the band actually remixed the song for the video, and it was this remixed version that was ultimately released to become the hit single. The creaking door at the start is the most obvious change that was made but other more subtle variations also resulted.

I’ve written about this sort of phenomenon before, being aware of it as part of the tools available for the emotional pacing of an RPG adventure or campaign. But that application has as much to do with the content as they rhythm; the subject today strips away much of that layer of relevance to look at something more fundamental, and more hidden.

“Swing” in music

It’s possible to change the “feel” of a piece of music quite markedly by relative adjustments of when a note falls, relative to the beat of the music. You can use the same basic four-by-four drum pattern and bass notes, and – depending on how you adjust it – get anything from reggae from disco. Drummers can also vary the “feel” of a piece by similarly adjusting when their drumbeats fall, even by a tiny amount; many do this by pure instinct, trying to get a particular sound or style.

Applied Principles

The same fundamentals can be applied to an RPG. Rolling for damage after you’ve rolled to hit, or rolling for damage at the same time and ignoring the roll on a miss, for example, changes the dynamic properties of the rhythm of the combat.

Again, most GMs tend to formulate such practices by instinct – they find something that works reasonably well for them and build their gaming practices around it from that point on, without really knowing what they are doing.

Once you do become aware of the phenomenon, however, you can begin to experiment and deliberately manipulate the process, looking for a pattern to give the combat the “feel” that you want. Subconsciously, you will begin to build up a “library” of rhythmic variations, something that happens naturally to some extent over time anyway. Better yet, if you pay a little conscious attention to the effects of these variations, you can start using them to manipulate other aspects of the game “feel” during combat.

For example, if you end each turn of combat with something that suggests the opposition are recovering, getting a second wind, or getting stronger, you can make the same battle seem far more difficult and threatening.

Experiments on the side

It’s even possible to do a bit of experimentation on the side. To do so, you need to find an example of play, especially an example of combat, one that gives the blow-by-blow of all the mechanics. Copy this text – even if you have to type it up yourself – into a word processor. Rewrite it into a series of dialogue statements by the players and GM if it isn’t already in that format. Then take a copy of it, and start making your experimental variations on that copy. Insert an additional line of color narrative after every action, or at the end of each turn. If “someone” pauses combat to ask a question, drop in one of the solutions to the “delay” described earlier. With each change, read the original to establish the rhythm, then read the modified version to assess the consequences. Read at different paces – sometimes fast, sometimes slow – to see what impact that has. And so on.

An hour or two of such experimentation can usually be squeezed in somewhere or other, since it’s all a one-off use of time. And if you get interrupted, so much the better – it means that your rhythmic base-line will be reset to zero each time. This exercise can actually be more effective as five minutes here and ten there than as a continuous block of time.

I’ve also found it enlightening to have different pieces of music playing – at a low volume – in the background, so that I can try to match my ‘reading” to the tempo and rhythm of the music.

The Rhythms Of Dialogue

Combat, because of the frequency of back-and-forth – the musical term would be “call and response” – may be the most noticeable manifestation of the game rhythm, but it’s far from being the only one.

Anyone who has written fiction knows that there is a rhythm to good, natural, dialogue. The cadence of the words forms the “metronome”; the number of such “beats” that comprises what one character says should be an even, simple, multiple of the number of beats to either side, and the greater the multiple, the less like dialogue and the more like a lecture the result. Commas and other pauses complicate things; sometimes these are a whole beat, and sometimes a half-beat. If a half-beat, you need another to make a matching pair and count a full “beat”, like the ones in this sentence.

If I take that last sentence and remove the second comma, changing “ones” to “one”, it still makes a reasonable level of sense:

‘If a half-beat, you need another to make a matching pair and count a full “beat” like the one in this sentence.’

It makes even more sense, and gets its point across more clearly, if that word is changed to one with an extra half-beat in it:

‘If a half-beat, you need another to make a matching pair and count a full “beat” like the rhythm in this sentence.’

But the simplest solution is to do what I did with the original, and drop in a matching half-beat comma (and, for those interested, the first comma in this sentence is an example of a “full beat” comma; the natural inclination is to take in a silent breath at the end of “with the original”, lengthening the pause.

Well, that’s all fine for the novelist, who controls both sides of the conversation. It gets a little trickier when there are two separate parties involved, and you only control half the conversation.

But, if you pay close attention to real-world conversations, you will find that they tend to follow this same pattern. One person will say something, and the other person will say something that’s about as long in reply (counted in beats of the natural cadence), or twice as long, or three times as long. And, furthermore, there will be an instinctive reaction on the part of the person listening to that response to “punctuate” the full measure with a nod, or an “okay”, or something – they have naturally fallen into rhythm.

If the reply is short of matching the full multiple of the initial question, the overwhelming temptation will be to adjust the length of the reply to the reply either to the amount that it is short, to tell the other speaker to “continue” or “go on”, or to make the response a multiple of the statement or vice-versa, establishing a new rhythm to the conversation. But that doesn’t happen very often; there is a natural tendency to fill such gaps with information-zero “filler” content, humanizing the conversation. Very few conversations are 100% to the point from start to finish, and those that are seem terse and militaristic, not conversational at all.

That’s also why monosyllabic replies always seem abrupt, and can often end a conversation, even if the topic isn’t yet exhausted.

If you don’t yield to this temptation, the second speaker will be compelled, almost subconsciously, to pod their reply to get back into the same rhythm, or to adjust their next reply to the new rhythm; the more strongly the pattern has been established, the more they will tend toward the first choice.

There’s a lot more to this than I’ve related here; I haven’t touched on the impact of emphasis of certain words, for example – but this is a good starting point, and lets me get to the point of relevance: Canned dialogue and improvised exchanges between characters. If you want to understand more, study a textbook on speech-writing and oratory.

Application 1: Improvised Dialogue

Improvised dialogue will naturally tend to fall into the rhythmic pattern of the conversation. Knowing what it happening, with practice, you can manipulate your side of those conversations to influence the other side, creating gaps into which characterization and roleplay get inserted without the player even realizing what’s happening at the time. The more deeply into-character they are, the more those “fillers” will derive from the character and the less they will be verbal attributes of the player.

Application 2: Canned Dialogue

The following is an extract of canned dialogue from the next Zenith-3 adventure:

“St Barbara, this is the Bright Cutter.” (reply)
    “There is a matter that I would like to discuss with you. Is this a convenient time? I can call back if you’re busy.” (reply)
    “Defender approached me for a chat earlier this morning. I understand that he has been systematically doing so for all the team members, so I was flattered to be included.” (reply)
    “We discussed a wide range of subjects, covering everything from sociology to automata independence, from orbital combat tactics to human/non-human relations.” (reply)
    “In the course of the latter subject of discussion, he suggested…”

First, notice that the second sentence from the Bright Cutter (10 beats) is roughly the same length as the first (8 beats), but a third and fourth sentence then follow which total roughly the same length again (10 beats). Even if the first reply is only a word or two long, without much social chitchat, the rhythm of the conversation becomes established by this repetition of length. The second reply will almost certainly be 8-10 beats long – “No, this is fine, what’s on your mind? (9 beats including two half-beat commas), for example.

The third line of dialogue from the Bright Cutter has two halves, totaling about four times the original 8 beats. But the first sentence is 9 beats long in my usual speaking voice, continuing to reinforce the pattern. There’s not much that can be said in reply aside from a prompt for more information, a social nicety – “go on” (two beats, or 1/4 of the original length), or “what did you talk about?” (4 beats) are both likely responses that perpetuate the rhythm.

The fourth line of dialogue is almost exactly the same length as the third, but leaves unanswered the question of why this conversation is relevant to the PC at the other end of the conversation, which is the subject of the likely response from the player.

The fifth line, of course, starts to answer that question, but I have very deliberately redacted the rest of the planned conversation; suffice it to say that there is only another line or two planned and that the rest of the conversation will need to be improved as the two react to each other’s statements, and since I don’t know for certain how St Barbara’s player will react to the ‘meaty bit’ of the conversation, I couldn’t pre-script it.

No doubt, as you read the extract, the replies would be filled in almost automatically. This is how I used canned dialogue: to impart specific information (which I have redacted from this extract), to establish the character of the speaker through his speech patterns – in this case, intellectual, submissive, meek, even a little attention-starved, and asserting himself in a way that is most unusual for him – which usually signals trouble for the PCs, because it only happens when there is good reason for it.

Here’s another extract, presented without context:

“Mah gudness! Uv co-ahse ah wull hulp in aneh whay ah can. Yuh have come tuh the raght place, Hon-ahy!
    “In 2023, thuh city was menaced by Hurricane Inguh, but thuh levee banks held, though it wuz a close thing fo-ah a while. It wuz then that thuh Society realized thut today is the history of tumorrah, und that we needed tah conserve whut wuz all around us, raht now. We partnered with Ghugle to examine and catalog everah building, everah fixtuh. Und we made shoah to preserve ut least won uv everahthang. Let muh just consult ow-uh datuhbase…”
* Pretend to type on a keyboard for “datuhbase” x2

This is an example of a larger block of text, presented in “lecture” mode, i,e, the PC isn’t expected to make any substantiative contribution to this part of the conversation – it’s an NPC talking to the PC, not an exchange between them. It does eventually migrate into such an exchange, and has already been one for the exchange of social niceties and the PC telling the NPC what he or she wants from them.

Notable is that I have deliberately used phonetics to help me establish a distinctive accent (which I rarely do), in this case something vaguely akin to a southern drawl. There’s also loads of characterization built in – the speaker is clearly bubbly, enthusiastic, educated, and passionate about their cause. Again, eventually, this will need to become an improvised exchange as it becomes more of a conversation, but the most important content – game background, history that the PC doesn’t know (Hurricane Inga and its social consequences within this person’s narrow context) – gets imparted in the pre-planned dialogue, which is its primary purpose within the adventure.

(And apologies to anyone who feels I haven’t really captured the southern accent!)

These blocks of text are clearly long enough that unless the PC responds at length, any pattern is broken. And yet, there IS such a pattern – the first line is three sentences of three beats, ten beats, and nine beats, respectively. The second line up to “Inga” (phonetically, “Inhuh”) is ten beats long, the next part (up to “held”) is five beats long, and the third part is ten beats again. The first half of the next line is 14 or 15 beats long if I drawl out the end of “tumorrah”, and the rest of the line is another 15 beats (thanks to the inclusion of “, raht now” at the end. So, after the initial 3-beat exclamation, everything is following a multiple-of-five-beats rhythm. I continue that rhythm through the next passage, and then deliberately break it with the final sentence, 7 beats in length, enabling me to pause for three beats to indicate action being taken by pretending to type on a keyboard.

Also note that one of the primary characteristics of the faux-accent imparted phonetically is to draw out some words, and break others that would normally be one beat long into two. If I could “put on” an appropriate accent off the top of my head, the phonetics would not be necessary, but I would have to read the text aloud to get the rhythm right. I can’t, so I make the phonetics do double duty. And yes, it does give my spell-correction routine fits!

Dialogue/Narrative Rhythms

Anyone can count out rhythms within pre-planned lines of dialogue. Anyone can tell whether or not a line of improv’d dialogue falls into the rhythm of the conversation, or is too long or short – and will usually instinctively try to pad their dialogue to correct the problem. But most people aren’t aware of the presence of these patterns, let alone thought about what happens when they are violated – never mind intentionally doing so for effect. Yet, these techniques are as accessible to beginners as to experienced GMs, if not more-so.

Your primary focus for any line of dialogue or canned narrative should always be to achieve its’ primary purpose, usually the imparting of information. Your secondary focus should always be adding as much depth of flavor (narrative) or characterization (dialogue) as you can squeeze in. Being aware of the rhythms recognizes the existence of a third layer of impact, one that can enhance or interfere with those primary functions of the text, and one that can be manipulated for effect.

The Wider Picture

Having found rhythms in combat, and looked at how to manipulate them for impact and nuance and flow, and then finding them in dialogue, and – by implication – in narrative, and looking at how to manipulate those and what the effects are of doing so, there doesn’t appear to be much of the game that does not have underlying patterns and rhythms.

Even beyond the topics discussed, the basic give-and-take between player and GM qualifies – and is subject to the same manipulations.

The Emotional Pacing series of articles (Part 1, Part 2, The Yu-Gi-Oh Lesson, and the Further Thoughts On Pacing series of four articles) talk about whole-of-adventure and even whole-of-campaign patterns and rhythms that can be found implicit in the content of what takes place – the plot and the context in which it occurs. In a way, this is a deeper layer of the same subject.

You can spend a lifetime mastering this one aspect of the GMs’ craft. But even partial mastery is available to anyone, no matter what their experience level as a GM, and progress is easier for Beginners than it is for experienced GMs from at least one point of view (it can also be argued that the very experienced, who have enough of the craft down pat that they can focus attention on other things also have an advantage), and the benefits of doing so are immediately accessible. The sooner you start paying attention to this stuff, the faster your game and GMing skills will improve.

In two weeks time (give or take), this series will continue with Part 11: Campaigns!

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With A Polished Pen

gold fountain pen writing

Image provided by / len-k-a

During the week I thought up a design for an infographic that would have encapsulated last week’s post in a single, easy-to-digest/use diagram. But Infographics aren’t my strong suit and I have no experience at doing them, and it became clear that it was going to take longer to complete than it was worth – or that I could spare. So, instead, you get this rather short article to chew on.

A conversation over the weekend got me thinking about the fact that there are still some things that I find easier to do with old=fashioned pen-and-paper than I do with a word processor. That, in turn, led me to reflect on how some things are far more easily done with hardcopies than with text files. And it occurred to me that some people out there might be missing a bet by not taking advantage of the format that is best-suited to the needs they have at the moment.

Baseline: What’s a Word Processor Good For?

A word processor has four big advantages. There’s a guarantee of legibility – that should never be underestimated. You can move or insert blocks of text around, seamlessly (or as close to it as sometimes-fussy technology permits. You can type over the top of what’s already there, perfectly replacing it. And you can provide someone else (or another device) a copy of the text at will, one that is guaranteed to be identical to the original at the time of duplication.

I take advantage of all four of these on a regular basis; my gaming wouldn’t be the same without them.


The legibility side of things is fairly self-evident and self-explanatory. Any problems in relaying/implementing what I’ve written, especially when the text is augmented with action codes, is due to my limitations and imperfections, not the source material that I’ve created. Action Codes are little symbol strings that give function and meaning to what I’ve written. These are usually fairly self-explanatory when they first appear, but do vary from time to time.


  • *** = instructions, eg “CON Check -4” which instructs the PC being addressed to make a CON check. If necessary, or it might be unclear, I specify which PC. That sometimes happens when the modifiers – the “-4” – are different from one character to another. This also indicates a key decision by the players.
  • [space]-[space] = narrative/interpretation branch based on the outcome of the instructions. Examples include “- success”, “- fail”, “- critical”, and so on. I prefer whenever possible to keep these to one line or less, if necessary pointing at numbered paragraphs/sections of text that follow. So one might read, “- success: PC gains entry, read parag 4a.” At the end of parag 4a, there will be another instruction, of the type I’m about to describe.
  • – – > [parag number]= “go to paragraph and keep reading.”
  • %%% = instructions to me as GM, especially relating to how I want to deliver the next block of text, the emotional tone, etc – “%%% sadly” for example, or “%%% cover mouth with wiggling fingers”.
  • [ ] or ( ) = external reference, directing me to show or consult that reference. I use these for three different things: “[Pic 15]” means show the image that I’ve labeled as number 15; “[Hand out X]” means that I have produced a handout of some kind and this is the right time to issue it to the players; and [p158 RBook] tells me that the table I am about to need is on page 158 of the rulebook – though I’m usually more explicit about which rulebook I’m referring to – “PHB”, “DMG”, or whatever.
  • <[condition]: [text]> and <[PC]: note #> indicates a paragraph of optional text and the circumstances under which to read it, or to give a written note to a player.
Move or insert blocks of text

One of the key techniques that I employ is rotating the spotlight around the table at regular intervals at break points in the plot/narrative. This is how I handle a party that has split up. But it’s far easier to write up one character’s entire narrative in one hit and then break it up.

For example, Let’s say I have four PCs: Aldo, Brutus, Clair, and Dobbins. In scene 4 of the plot, they have each gone their separate ways to each tackle a different aspect of an investigation. The entire scene is expected to take about 40 minutes, and should share the spotlight evenly into four ten-minute blocks. I start by writing the 10-minute plot block for Aldo, then do the one for Brutus, and so on.

But ten minutes is too long to maintain the spotlight on one player without getting the others involved. 2-3 minutes is acceptable, 1-2 minutes is better, 4-5 minutes is the absolute maximum – though that varies with genre and a whole heap of other factors. In this case, I would usually split the text of each character’s solo plot thread into three or four sections, as evenly as possible. Then I cut-and-paste or drag-and-drop – usually more the first than the second those sections to interweave the narratives, ending up with scenes 4a, 4b, 4c, and so on.

These blocks of text don’t have to be contemporaneous; one might be “now”, one might be “an hour from now”, a third might be “tomorrow”, and a fourth might be set in the “overnight” in between. That’s better than having two players twiddle their fingers for 20 minutes and the rest do so for 30 minutes.

Nor do they have to follow a rigorously fixed pattern of “A1, B1, C1, D1, A2, B2, C2, D2, A3…”; I employ the pattern that best fits the emotional intensity that I want to the situation with, and also take into consideration travel time and the like. The smaller the passages that you break the narrative into, the more flexibility you have. I might want the sequence to be “B1, A1, C1, D1, C2, A2, B2, C3, D2, B3, D3, A3.”

With practice, you can even break them unevenly, both in length and in number, within the constraints given earlier, though this can be risky – you need to be pretty sure that the plot won’t go off-script, or that you have the bases covered. By the time you incorporate optional text blocks – ones that only happen if a PC does a particular thing – the structure can be quite complex.

Overtyping Text

As I described in One Word At A Time: How I Usually Write A Blog Post, I usually plot things out in synopsis form and then expand on that. In fact, there are usually three stages: I outline the action in sequential blocks, synopsize each block, intersperse them as described above, and then do the final expansion into ready-to-play text in play sequence. This permits a new level of sophistication in which PCs can contact each other, contribute to each other’s plotlines, step into one sub-scene (briefly interrupting their own plotline) and then step out again, even trade plotlines. But this is a very advanced application of the technique, it’s something I’ve only just started to master. And it won’t work at all if you aren’t good at keeping the big picture in mind while micromanaging the individual plot sequences; as soon as one PC goes off-script (and that happens all the time) you will hopelessly lost, otherwise.

This lets me incorporate counterpoints and subtexts and plot twists and more polished forms of plot structure in ways that would be otherwise far more difficult. I can have one character caught up in a situation that is very different from the one he was expecting even as another character is discovering why the situation is different, and a second is discovering a context to the situation that makes it more important than it seems – or less, or just different.

The easiest way to do all this is to complete one pass of the plot structure, then copy-and-paste and overtype. Paragraph becomes bullet points becomes interspersed bullet points becomes plot and narrative.

Here’s part of a real-world example from an upcoming session of the Adventurer’s Club (with details redacted as necessary to protect our secrets):

SpacerDH01 +2 SpacerApproached… Backstory to the DH mini-plot
SpacerFR01 +3 SpacerContacted by…, Backstory to the FR mini-plot
SpacerCF01 +8 SpacerThe Approach & The Deal
SpacerEB01 +1 SpacerOld Friend in trouble, Backstory to the EB mini-plot
SpacerSB01 +3 SpacerA visit from…
SpacerFR02 +3-+6 SpacerFake, Fortune, or Scrap?
SpacerDH02 +3 SpacerVisit and view
SpacerSB02 +4 SpacerConsult [another PC]
SpacerFR03 +7-+8 SpacerDecision
SpacerDH03 +4 SpacerDay or Night?
SpacerSB03 +5 SpacerVisiting …
SpacerCF02 +11 SpacerBoarding
SpacerEB02 +1 Spacer[place] to [place] to On [place] to [place]
SpacerFR04 +8-+9 SpacerGetting … Involved
Spacer… and so on

The first column identifies the PC and the scene within their semi-solo plotlines, the second is in days since the end of the last adventure, and the third contains the (redacted) “bullet point summary” of that part of the plot. If you examine this closely, you’ll see every one of the techniques I’ve touched on in use – from two PCs getting part three of their plots before everyone else has their part two’s; time being shuffled between the different PCs by as much as 10 days just in this section of the whole; crossing plotlines (in SB02) – the dating information is for us to use if the PCs go off-script so that we can see at a glance where the other PCs are supposed to be and what we expect them to be doing.

In short, because my adventures would have to be structured differently without the use of the ability to copy, paste, and then overtype, the adventures themselves would be different.

Perfect Replication

In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, it’s normal for us to use two laptops – one to display images and maps, and the other to show us the adventure as we have written it up. But there have been times when it’s been useful to have them both showing different parts of the same adventure at the same time, and (to make sure they don’t get lost), we only make notes about the adventure on one machine, then port a fresh copy of that over to the other machine using a USB memory stick.

What’s more, most things are written on a third machine again – the one I am currently using to write this article. So the actual playing technique that we employ would be different without this attribute of a document file.

Hardcopy advantages

Hardcopy is also perfectly legible (printer supplies and problems excepted). Hardcopy isn’t power-dependent. You can scrawl notes, and express abstract ideas directly on the page. You can easily sketch battlemap layouts, or thumbnails of a scene to help organize and structure your thoughts when drafting plots or narrative, you can attach sticky notes, you can highlight key passages or things that need more attention, you can have multiple copies that are identical, and you can easily look at one page right next to a completely non-sequential page without the text becoming unmanageably small. Hardcopy can be physically manipulated. You don’t have to stop doing one thing to look at something else. Finally, hardcopy can be selectively distributed – we will always preference hardcopy for player notes, for example – Print them all and then slice them up. Those are some very useful attributes to have.

There was a time when everything we did was geared for hardcopy; we had no laptops. If we couldn’t produce it physically, we didn’t have it.

Even now, we will keep key Adventurer’s Club NPCs in hardcopy – making it easy to find and re-use them the next time that NPC appears.

The next Zenith-3 adventure has so many NPCs that I produced a hardcopy list of them to make sure that when I added another one, I didn’t repeat a name. Some of these are intended to recur from time to time, others will remain in the background to recur when the PCs want to involve them, or the next time we need someone in that particular role, and some are intended to vanish into obscurity immediately after their scene ends.

With this mighty pen

It doesn’t take much reflection to realize that hardcopy bridges the gulf between pen-and-paper and text document. It shares most of the advantages of both – so much so that (aside from the perfect legibility), the advantages list for one would seem to be much the same as for the other.

Not so. The process is different, and that imparts its own, additional, set of advantages – and potential drawbacks. When you write something long-hand, you have to think about what you are writing a lot more; with a word processor, thoughts tend to flow onto the page far more readily (and, sometimes, sloppily). That, in turn, makes it easier to absorb and memorize something.

Layout is another big issue – while they have grown more sophisticated, it still can take quite a bit of effort to create the layout of a complex table in a word processor, and mistakes can be extremely difficult to figure out. Doing your design on paper first can save lots of grief. This is especially true when you haven’t figured out exactly what you want yet, when your thinking is still vague and abstract.

Similarly, if I were to attempt algebra using a word processor, I would continually have to stop and think about layout instead of thinking about the equation, and have to count brackets to be sure I hadn’t missed one – or inserted one too many. I can draw them as big as I need them without thinking about it, doing analysis on paper. Here’s an expression from my Spam-track spreadsheet: IF(L3<1,7+I3+J3,INT(((0.6*((E3*INT(E3+0.5*F3)+F3)*(1+0.904257878278)+G3+(H3+0.5)^2+I3+J3))-7)/3+7.5)) – this determines, from the different variables I have defined, how long a specific condition should be applied for. That condition might be “monitor”, it might be “block”, or it might be the equivalent of “on parole”. If it yields a value higher than a threshold, the originating IP gets tested for permanent blocking – with the default answer being “yes, unless…”.

Trying to come up with this in-spreadsheet would have been very difficult – in fact, I tried doing that and made a mess of it. Three messes, in fact – the E3/F3 complex was wrong, the H3 factor was wrong, and the final range was scaled incorrectly (that’s the “-7, divide by 3, add 7.5” part of the expression at the end). But, when I put it down on paper, with the freedom to put variables where I needed them to be in relation to each other and with brackets big enough to make the relationship between them obvious, it became clear what the right answer was. Because each step of the calculation is built on its own specific logic and guidelines, it gives the right answers.

And, lastly, I used to be able to handwrite much faster than I can type, even now. Not as neatly – not even close – but when time-crunched, the ability to write a page every minute or so can be a life-saver!

Bottom line: There are things that can be done more easily with pen and paper than with any computer. There are things that might only be possible to someone that way, just as there are things that can be done more quickly – or possibly, only – with a computer. Every GM is different – explore the possibilities to find out what works for YOU.

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 12th Shelf


The Twelfth Shelf: Beliefs III – Superstition, Mysticism, and More – Introduction by Mike

Strange creatures. Strange beliefs. We pass no judgment on the reality of any of them; in fact, from a game point of view (and regardless of any personal opinion) there’s always room for the fantastic in an RPG.

In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, we’ve had Zombies. We’ve had mutated homeless people living in the sewers under New York City (no alligators yet, though – just one piece of alligator-skin luggage). We’ve had Chinese Vampires, and something a little more traditional in the European sense. We’ve had giant, mutated alligators in the Florida Swamps. We’ve had Nazis pretend to be ghosts, and almost convince the players that the PCs were encountering genuinely supernatural phenomena. We’ve had modern-day descendants of Dinosaurs, and an unknown species of Great Ape (actually, that last was all Blair). We’ve had Vodou Houngans. We’ve had something suspiciously like alchemy and something that was definitely gem-based magic.

The supernatural has been a recurring, ongoing, plot element within our Pulp Campaign – simply because it expands our palette so much more than a more real-world hard-nose “none of this is real” approach would do. Sometimes, the weirdness is central to the plot, sometimes it’s peripheral; sometimes, it’s central to an encounter, sometimes not.

Our general rule of thumb is that belief in science multiplied by the population density of those who so believe creates a “suppression field” that declines as the inverse square of distance. Which means that if you have a large population who believe science has, or will have, all the answers, magic and the supernatural have a very hard time of it, and science is mostly right and reliable – in principle. The farther away from that population you get, the more scope there is for things to get strange. And if there’s a large population who aren’t completely convinced that science holds all the answers, science may not hold all the answers – but the closer to that population the adventure occurs, the more rigorously nature will conform to local belief. Go to the wrong village in Germany and there really might be a Troll under the bridge, even as Nazis goose-step across it.

But we have also demonstrated on a number of occasions that there are ways for the paranormal to be “enhanced” so that it can function entirely adequately even in the heart of the most modern metropolis. Pentagrams, potions, enchanted gems from the outside, even a little smoke and mirrors to make the viewer receptive… The way in which it manifests may be more explicable by science (or may not), but it works, nevertheless. The phenomena themselves change gear to conform to local expectations.

Which means that if alligators ever do (or ever have) gotten flushed into the New York Sewers, look out! Belief – be it in urban legends or in the supernatural – is the primary agent in dictating the reality, and is therefore self-reinforcing. And there is always more to the story than meets the eye.

But belief remains the common thread that binds it all together into a cohesive whole. And it’s also what binds the content of this shelf of the Reference Library together.

This shelf became a monster, which in a way, is strangely appropriate, given the content. It contained more than 240 recommendations, which would have made it the second-biggest to date (the prize-holder would still be Shelf 5, with 269 recommendations). That’s roughly six times the size that it was originally projected to be, when the taxonomy was laid out. At the eleventh hour last week, the decision was made to split the intended eleventh shelf in two, the first half with ghosts (and a little overflow from the 10th shelf), and this one with everything else that reflects the power of belief.

Relevance to other genres

We can’t think of any subject more ubiquitous to RPGs, regardless of genre, than this one. Where would D&D be without it’s strange beasts? Where would Star Trek be without it’s not-quite-humans? Where would a James Bond RPG be without secret organizations? Bond would be unemployed, for a start!

There really is something for everyone on this shelf.

book with countryside spilling out of it

Image provided by / Mysticsartdesign

Shelf Introduction

We have divided this shelf into five sections and sixteen subsections. Many of them are very small, with only one or two entries; others are vast.

I mentioned a moment ago that what was originally going to be Shelf 11 had become a monster. There are two very good reasons for this:

First, the late discovery of a number of series of books, some of which have now been extracted into their own subsections; and second, the very high degree of crossover between the different sections, which made it almost-impossible to subdivide the shelf into more manageable chunks. Take the regional myths and legends – some are True Crime, some are rumors, some are Cryptozoology, some are superstitions, some are ghosts, and some are extracts from indigenous religious beliefs – all within the one book.

Editorially, Mike did his best to slot things into a logically-progressive sequence, but don’t just look in the section devoted to any particular subject of interest or you will miss a LOT of potentially-valuable references.

That nice, neat taxonomy was blown to pieces by separating the two halves of the monster-sized shelf, but I have retained the section numbering (which usually doesn’t get displayed) so that readers who want to read the entries in the context of the backstory to the article can do so. Some of the comments may not make a lot of sense, otherwise!

2. Vodou – There are lots of books about “voodoo” and most of them aren’t worth the paper they are printed on except as sensationalist idea-fodder. Most serious books on the subject use the correct term, Vodou.

3. Secret Societies – “Secret” is perhaps a misnomer. While some of these qualify, a better description might be “Secretive” – and even that is changing in some cases. We cover Knights Templar, Freemasons, Intelligence Organizations, and more. And are only too keenly aware that we probably didn’t look hard enough for content for this section – there’s nothing on the KGB or its predecessors? How did that happen? Pardon me while we correct that!

3.1 KGB / Chekists – The KGB wasn’t formed until after World War II, but it’s not a difficult matter to temporally relocate that formation into the later pulp era if the GM thinks the recognition-factor benefits of the notorious intelligence service outweigh the probative value of historical accuracy. Fortunately, the books we have selected are equally useful, either way.

3.2 Allied intelligence/security services – You can’t really list the KGB and their forebear agency without at least paying lip service to those who opposed them. The CIA weren’t created until 1947, a final response to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. From 1942 to 1945, they were preceded by the OSS, but that had a definite War orientation. “Prior to the formation of the OSS, American intelligence had been conducted on an ad-hoc basis by the various departments of the executive branch”; “It had no overall direction, coordination, or control.” So that leaves us with only a couple of choices in this category. But we’ve found some good resources relating to them.

3.3 Kali Worship / Thugee Cults – Mike used all his best material in reviewing “Children of Kali” for this subsection. History may say Kali Worship wasn’t a problem during the Pulp Era, but as Pulp GMs we’ve never been afraid to ignore, stonewall, corrupt, manipulate or outright fabricate, history when that suited our game needs and purposes. Or anything else, for that matter.

3.4 Cults in general – A healthy rivalry is always a good thing, and for Pulp Purposes, that principle extends to having several different cults and groups of nut cases running around to get in the PCs way. These books should help.

3.5 Knights Templar – The Knights Templar were active, according to history, from 1129 to 1312, according to Wikipedia. But they were caught up in the legends of the Holy Grail, and anyone who’s seen Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade knows that this makes them Pulp-relevant – especially if rumors of their organization’s dissolution were greatly exaggerated.

3.6 The Freemasons – Secrecy was a watchword for this society up until recent times, and it led to the most extraordinary conspiracy theories. We don’t want to get lost down that particular rabbit hole, but as a real group who were definitely active during the pulp era, we can’t ignore them, either. Fortunately, they have started to become far more open, perhaps in reaction to those conspiracy theories, and so we have a couple of books about the reality and not the myths.

4. Urban Legends – A select group of books from a very wide field. There’s something for everyone in these pages – ghost stories, cryptozoology, true crime, and more.

4.1 Regional Myths & Legends – In the course of researching and compiling the Cryptozoology section, we came across a number of books best described as “regional cryptozoology” (and grouped that way, see below). There were about a dozen of these in a clearly-related series which we have referred to as the “Monsters Of” series. These were set aside for Mike to review and drop-in as 11th-hour additions to the original shelf. In the process of doing so, he discovered a related series, the “Ghosts Of” series, and that, in turn, led us to the “Myths and Mysteries” series that leads this section off. Along the way, he found other books that also fitted into this category. Mostly US-oriented.

5. Cryptozoology – Cryptozoology is the study of creatures that are not acknowledged as having valid existence by “conventional” zoology. The term was coined in the 1950s and has been a staple of sensational reporting ever since. We’ve tried to distinguish and discern between those books that take the subject seriously and scientifically, and those written by “True Believers” – and there are some ring-ins from popular culture and literature, as well.

5.1 Monsters and outer-fringe Cryptozoology – Part of that effort is to group some books that openly deal with the cryptozoology depicted in movies and literature, and some that seem less… “plausible” isn’t quite the right word. Less-rigorous? That will do…

5.2 Regional Cryptozoology – Researching topics in this entire shelf was a maze, as one discovery opened up new avenues to other works. The open invitation into this rabbit-hole was the first book listed in this section. Others followed… US-dominated at first, but eventually a couple of more broadly-based reference works were found to round out the section.

7 General Mysticism, Superstitions, and Other Strange Stuff – This started out as a dumping ground for everything else that fitted under the superstition / mysticism / strange stuff category. When it started getting too anarchic, Mike subdivided almost everything into the subsections below.

7.1 Mysticism/Mystery Compendiums – These books contain a little bit of everything. Those usually head off a shelf, but here they are used as a last word on most of the subjects.

7.2 Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy – We’ve been very strict in this section and listed only a bare minimum of 1 or 2 comprehensive references.

7.3 Gemstone Lore – Similarly, we specifically wanted to avoid getting tangled up in the New Age spiderweb in this section, because that has limited utility to most GMs.

7.4 Strange (but mostly True) Stuff – There aren’t many books listed in this section but the ones that are have obvious utility.

7.5 Documentaries about Strange (but mostly True) Stuff – Mike persuaded the others that in the pulp era, “Hypnotism” was viewed with almost superstitious awe, and these documentaries which get to the heart of what one of the best in the world can do with his talents and skills and what limitations he has to overcome along the way were essential subjects for the Pulp GM. Expect jaw-dropping moments in the course of watching these. It’s also worth noting that these are a very select choice, if you enjoy them, there are more to seek out.

7.6 Strange (but mostly Dubious/Fringe) Stuff – Since this is what the entire shelf is mostly about, almost everything has been separated out into other categories and subcategories. This is what was left.

7.7 Crystal Skulls – We hummed and ha’d quite a bit over where Crystal Skulls should be listed, after overlooking them completely for most of the research phase of the series. They get a mention in the fringe science section – should they have been a dedicated subsection on that shelf? Are they mere archaeological artifacts, placing them in the “valuables” section of the “things” shelf, or in the “treasures” section of the odds-and-sods shelf? Ultimately, the strangeness and sheer variety of beliefs concerning these objects won us over for inclusion here.

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation. But it some cases, that was more than four months ago.


Books About Vodue


Spacer Creole Religions of the Caribbean

1050. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo (2nd ed.) – Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

The nations of the Caribbean have always been a melting pot of influences from all over the place, and yet these syntheses always seem to be more than a simple blending of the sources. This process, when applied to culture and religious beliefs, is so distinctive that it has been given a name: Creolization, the coming together of diverse beliefs and practices to form new beliefs and practices. This book provides “a comprehensive introduction to the syncretic religions that have developed” in the Caribbean, from Vodou (frequently dogmatized be western sensationalists as ‘Voodoo’) to Santeria, from Regla de Palo to Obeah, and more, it traces the cultural origins of the beliefs and places them into context.

New copies cost $17.42 or more, used start at $13.31. There is a Kindle edition for about $10, and a few hardcover copies for as little as $6.67 – but most of those cost considerably more.

Haitian Vodou

1051. Haitian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition – Mambo Chita Tann

This book would have been useful on several occasions when we had to rely on Hollywood ‘interpretations’ (more sensationalism) and a little historical knowledge that Blair brought to the table. It includes discussions of Customs, beliefs, sacred spaces, and ritual objects, the Characteristics and behaviors of the Loa (the spirits served by Vodou practitioners), Common misconceptions such as “voodoo dolls” and the zombie phenomenon, Questions and answers for attending ceremonies and getting involved in a sosyete (Vodou house), and provides an extensive list of reference books and online resources. 36 of 43 reviews rated it five stars out of five, the rest rated it 3-4.

Available in Kindle and Paperback.

Tell My Horse

1052. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica – Zora Neale Hurston

Believe it or not, this is Amazon’s #1 best-seller in Travel Guides for Haiti (or it was at the time of review)! Anyway – given what we’ve said in the previous recommendation, you might wonder what this book is doing in the list. The Amazon description will answer that question: “Based on acclaimed author Zora Neale Hurston’s personal experiences in Haiti and Jamaica—where she participated as an initiate rather than just an observer during her visits in the 1930s—Tell My Horse is a fascinating firsthand account of the mysteries of Voodoo. An invaluable resource and remarkable guide to Voodoo practices, rituals, and beliefs, it is a travelogue into a dark, mystical world that offers a vividly authentic picture of ceremonies, customs, and superstitions.” This is the foundation book for the perception of “Voodoo” in the Pulp Era.

Paperback and Kindle.

Voodoo In Haiti

1053. Voodoo In Haiti – Alfred Metraux, translated by Hugo Charteris

Metraux is described as “one of the most distinguished anthropologists of the twentieth century” – which may well be true; the record detailed on his Wikipedia Page is certainly impressive. Born in 1902 and dead in 1963, this is a “rich and lasting study of the lives and rituals of the Haitian mambos and adepts, and of the history and origins of their religion.” The description further claims that this is an “accurate and engaging account” of the culture. The book is described as informative but full of the most extremely condescending tone possible. This 432-page edition dates from 1989, quite obviously the first was a lot sooner. Even though Metraux was a prodigy, he was in his twenties when he began his research, and post-WWII he was engaged in other activities, leaving only a small window of 21 years in which this book could have been written, with a greater likelihood of it being from the first half of that period or so, ie 1924-1935. Once again, this appears to be directly relevant to the Pulp period.

The Complete Idiot's Guide To Voodoo

1054. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Voodoo – Shannon R Turlington

The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Voodoo – Shannon R Turlington
Mike definitely wants a copy of this for his non-Pulp Zenith-3 campaign (in which the PCs are based in 2056 New Orleans), but it would have been just as useful in the first adventure that he and Blair collaborated on for the Adventurer’s Club campaign. And when the Houngan Priest from that adventure was recruited to join an alliance of the Adventurer’s Club’s enemies, a while later. And when Saxon’s character had his encounter with giant mutated Alligators in the Florida Everglades in a solo adventure based loosely on a blend of the origin stories of The Man-Thing (Marvel Comics) and Swamp Thing (DC Comics) and the original series Thunderbirds episode, “Attack Of The Alligators!”, when it wasn’t clear whether it was science run amok, or sorcery, .or some confluence between the two, that was responsible. Or when another Houngan was encountered in Hell. That’s nearly 20% of the adventures that we’ve run – and more than enough justification for the inclusion of this book.

Paperback: 24 used from $8.94, 6 new from too-expensive):

More copies: 16 used from $14.95, 14 new from absolutely-too-expensive):


Books About Secret Societies

We have employed the broadest possible interpretation of the term “Secret Societies”, one that covers everything from Knights Templar to MI6 and some strange points in-between.

The Atlas Of Secret Societies

1055. The Atlas of Secret Societies – David V. Barrett

A good overview of various secret societies and where they were supposed to be located, with great photographic reference. Deals primarily with historical Secret Societies.

Secret Societies Inside History's Most Mysterious Organizations

1056. Secret Societies: Inside History’s Most Mysterious Organizations – Edited by Kelly Knauer (Time)

Another good overview, contains some that aren’t in the the Barrett book. Some of the entries are more modern than the Pulp Era.

The Element Encyclopedia Of Secret Societies

1057. The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies – John Michael Greer

An encyclopedic listing of a broad range of secret societies, concepts, and major members. Available in three formats, which Amazon has listed separately for some reason, all with slightly different covers:

Kindle & some paperbacks; Paperbacks (pictured, many cheaper than those found at the previous link); and Hardcover & expensive paperbacks Of these, we recommend the hardcover be your first choice if you can afford it because it is described as an “Expanded Edition” with almost 700 pages vs almost 600.

Conspiracy Theories For Dummies

1058. Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies For Dummies – Christopher Hodapp and Alice Von Kannon

This book is supposed to cover the most famous (and infamous) conspiracy theories and secret societies of history. Even if it misses a few or deals with the subject in too shallow a manner, this is still going to be a good starting point for the subject.

Kindle $13.66; Paperback 26 new from $13.40, 36 used from $6.16

More paperback copies: 7 new from $21.49, 10 used from $11.38

Books About The KGB / Chekists


The Sword And The Shield

1059. The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB – Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

Based on one of the greatest intelligence coups in history, in which Vasili Mitrokhin smuggled the most classified documents out of the KGB every day for 12 years before he and his entire archive was exfiltrated in 1992. The archive covers the entire period from the Bolshevik Revolution to the 1980s. While most of this will focus on the Cold War, the pre-KGB period of the Pulp Era receives its share of the attention.

The Book is plentiful and cheap. 736 pages, hardcover from $6.49 and paperback from $3.68, with hundreds of copies available between these formats (most second-hand, but there are also more than 60 new copies on offer).

Chekisty A History of the KGB

1060. Chekisty: A History of the KGB – John H Dziak

This book traces the history of Russian Intelligence in a concise format from 1917 to approximately 1988. Which may make it more useful as a reference.

288 pages, Hardcover (35 used from $0.01, 6 new from about $38) or Mass market paperback (27 used from $0.01, 5 new from $41 or thereabouts).

Russia and the Cult of State Security

1061. Russia and the Cult of State Security: The Chekist Tradition from Lenin to Putin – Julie Fedor

This book doesn’t meet our criteria for listing but it is too essential for anyone who wants to pursue further studies of this subject, because this includes details of who Putin, like Stalin and Lenin before him (just to name two), has attempted and continues to attempt to rewrite history and the mythology that he has attempted to create / recreate perpetuate. That makes it invaluable for detecting and decoding manipulations of the record when examining modern information sources.

304 pages, Kindle (rent $14.92, buy $40.81), paperback (12 new from $30.74, 9 used from $32.58) or hardcover (from $116.85).

Near and Distant Neighbors

1062. Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence – Jonathan Haslam

Other histories, including those listed above, have focused on the KGB and its antecedents, largely neglecting the military intelligence and the special service (who specialized in codes and cyphers). This book redresses that balance. While focused on the period from the start of the Cold War through to the modern-day under Putin, this history begins with the October Revolution.

We were slightly concerned by one aspect of the product description – “…crucial to the survival of the Soviet state. This was especially true after Stalin’s death in 1953, as the Cold War heated up and dedicated Communist agents the regime had relied upon –Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs, Donald Maclean — were betrayed” – not “were exposed”. This suggests a potential bias, though whether that is simply the soviet view of those events coming through or actually reveals bias on the part of the author is too subtle a question for our limited review capabilities. Just bear it in mind.

400 pages, Hardcover from $5.60, Paperback from $6.58, or MP3 CD from $13.49.

Books About Allied intelligence/security services


Secret Agent

1063. Secret Agent: The True Story of the Special Operations Executive – David Stafford

The Special Operations Executive were a British WWII covert Military organization. Ian Fleming combined the real-world MI6 with the SOE to create the fictional version of MI6 which employs James Bond in the movies and novels. If you want to move the creation of Mi6 to predate the War, as Blair & I have done in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, this is essential reading.

The Secret War Between the Wars

1064. The Secret War Between the Wars: MI5 in the 1920s and 1930s (History of British Intelligence) – Kevin Quinlan

And this is the essential other half of that story. Unfortunately, this is another book that doesn’t meet our standards of price and availability, but is just too directly relevant to set aside. Each chapter is a case-study in the techniques of spycraft in the era – everything from the use of diplomatic cover to recruitment to defections and debriefings.

278 pages, Kindle ($28.10) or hardcover (13 used from $29.99, 19 new from $28.18).

In the President's Secret Service

1065. In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect – Ronald Kessler

Mike would have sworn that this book was already listed, but a search of all the likely locations on the shelves of this series (both published and unpublished) failed to turn it up. Deciding that it was a lesser failure to list a reference twice than to leave out a vital one, here it is (again?).

The US Secret Service traces it’s history back to the US Civil War, when their mandate was anti-counterfeiting (a task that they continue to this day). Because of the temptations they faced, Standards of acceptable behavior were even higher than other high-profile institutions such as the FBI. Early in the 20th century, that led to the Service receiving the Presidential Protection mandate, which has (in the public’s eyes) come to completely overshadow everything else the Service does.

Notoriously close-mouthed and secretive, this is the first book written about the Service “from the inside”, based on hundreds of interviews with both current and former agents.

Kindle ($9.80) or Paperback (hundreds of copies available starting at 1¢):

Hardcover (hundreds more copies starting at 1¢):

Books About Kali Worship / Thugee Cults


Kali The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar

1066. Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar – Elizabeth U Harding

Some reviewers gush over the author’s ability to bring the Goddess to life in her pages, others describe this as extremely academic and difficult to read, while still others describe it as “a rambling cacophony of the author’s personal experiences, intermingled with lots of quotes from other books” – though negative reviews are definitely in the minority. That blend of descriptions actually reminds us very clearly of the Kali page (and associated pages relating to the subject) on Wikipedia, which we also found a struggle but ultimately rewarding. It soon becomes clear from any unbiased source that you consult that there is far more to Kali than oversimplified western notions of death cults. We gave the Kali “reality” our our own spin in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, based heavily on the “rest of the story” of Kali worship (you can read about our version in Pieces Of Creation: Lon Than, Kalika, and the Prison Of Jade if you’re interested).

The other thing that these disparate comments bring to mind, and the reason for listing this amongst our recommendations, is Mike’s anecdote about the beneficial interplay between “For Dummies” and “Complete Idiot’s Guides”:

A few years back, I was a quite successful self-taught composer of original music. When I received a gift certificate from Dymocks, one of the major book retailer chains in Australia at the time, I used it to buy both the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Composition and Music Composition For Dummies, and discovered something very interesting: The two complimented each other perfectly. What one explained very poorly, the other made very accessible, and vice-versa. Invariably, too, the one that was harder to grasp went into greater technical detail on that aspect of the subject. The combination made for a far more effective self-educational tool than either one alone.

It is our hope that this book performs a similar role with respect to other sources such as Wikipedia, with one clarifying what another leaves confusing. But don’t expect easy, light, reading.

Kindle ($13.85) or 352-page paperback (55 used from $2.27, 44 new from $12.22).

Children Of Kali

1067. Children of Kali: Through India in Search of Bandits, the Thug Cult, and the British Raj – Kevin Rushby

Whenever someone raises the question of the influence (or lack thereof) that Pulp has had on western popular culture, there are two responses that rebuff the implied irrelevance of the genre. You can talk about the Pulp Heroes as the progenitors of superheroes – the Shadow and Doc Savage clearly blur the lines between the two, for example – or you can talk about the presence in the popular zeitgeist of the Thuggee. There is a pronounced pulp association between murderous Kali worshipers and cultists fomented by representations in various pulp fiction and movie serials that creates an impression that these were active between the turn of the century and the beginning of World War II. The reality is that the Thuggee were an active cult in the early 1800s (not the 1900s). The modern impression is purely a product of the pulp genre infiltrating popular perceptions.

And yet, there is something so deliciously pulp about the concept that it can’t be neglected in these lists. Which brings us to this book, which deals with both the original criminal mythology and with the modern-day bandit who was (at the time of publication) India’s most-wanted man (a quick check of Wikipedia reveals that he died in 2004 in a trap set by the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force). There’s a lot there to inspire the Pulp GM…

292 page Hardcover (56 used copies from 1¢, 16 new from $9.03, 3 collectible from $5.97)

Paperback (21 used from 1¢, 12 new from $4.95, 2 collectible from $24.22) and more copies of the hardcover (8 used from $2.90, 7 new from $27.21)

Four more used copies of the paperback from $0.46 at this page:

and some more copies at this link (2 used hardcovers from $12, 1 new paperback at $28.51):

…and there were more copies that fell way outside our price standards and so have not been listed here.

Books About Cults in general


Cults and New Religions

1068. Cults and New Religions: A Brief History – Douglas E Cowan and David G Bromley

Each chapter reviews the “origins, leaders, beliefs, rituals and practices of a NRM” [New Religious Movement], “highlighting the specific controversies surrounding each group.”

Deals with legitimacy of religious movements and – by implication – the difference between a divergent religious movement and a cult; tests the validity of claims of brainwashing techniques, and the fears that cults engender (amongst other related subjects).

Catherine Wessinger of Loyola University, New Orleans, writes “The second edition of Cults and New Religious Movements is an astute and accessible textbook written by two eminent scholars of new religions. Through eight case studies the text examines key issues that arise in relation to new religious movements, thereby shedding light on the study of religions in general.” Others describe the book as “concise” and “authoritative”, “erudite and lucid” (quoted reviews from the back cover, so take them with a grain of salt).

240 pages, Kindle ($16.43) or paperback (19 used from $19.05, 30 new from $16.60).

Cults a bloodstained history

1069. Cults: A Bloodstained History – Natacha Tormey

As you would probably expect from the title, the overwhelming emphasis in this book is negative. The author has good reason to be critical of cults, based on her own life experience; she was raised in the notorious sex cult, The Children Of God aka The Family International. (Don’t read her Amazon bio or your deja vu will have a serious case of deja vu, it’s the same two lines repeated about 5 times).

Tormey starts with Joshua in 1500BC, through the Zealot Riots, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and eventually reaches the cult murders and suicides of the 20th century. In the course of the discussion, she attempts to find rational answers to the questions that such incidents naturally give rise to – “How can an ordinary person or group of people be manipulated to such an extent that they willingly murder another life or take their own? What drives the leaders of such movements to turn their followers into war machines or killers? Is religion in itself to blame or are the culprits the interpreters of religious doctrines?” (and more, but those are the topics of relevance to the Pulp GM, and which make this a doubly-useful reference).

Kindle ($7.76) or 208-page paperback (15 used from $4.45, 21 new from $10.85).

Books About the Knights Templar


The Templar Code for Dummies

1070. The Templar Code For Dummies – Christopher Hoddap and Alice Von Kannon

The Templars are one of those organizations that can be subject to many different treatments in a pulp campaign, from a relatively straightforward role (such as the one in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) through to fanciful ideas of Templars cursed with Vampirism or Lycanthropy and struggling to find redemption – which in turn lets all of Vampire: The Masquerade become Pulp background material. In the adventurer’s club, we went with the full-on “supernatural curse” concept and had the last of the Templars opposing a Nazi super-soldier program on Rugen Island, for example. This places the organization in the unusual position in which too much real-world information can either be a blessing or a curse, depending on how much of it you decide to integrate and how much you invent / romanticize to fit your concept of the Templars. But it’s always better to have reference material that you can then choose to ignore or cherry-pick than it is not to know and have to create it all yourself. Which is where this book comes in and why it deserves a place on these lists.

Kindle ($12.68) or paperback (27 used from $5.13, 21 new from $8.75):

More copies (7 used from $12.40, 5 new from $15.35):

Crusade Against The Grail

1071. Crusade Against The Grail – Otto Rahn

This book, by a prominent Nazi Archaeologist, offers his theories of the interplay between the Templars, The Cathar Sects, and the Church of Rome, but pre-dates Nazi control of Germany. There are few other works that discuss possible interactions between these societies, and that makes this book worth listing. On top of that, the reader may gain insights into the psychology of Nazi Germany and the trend toward Fascism in western Europe.

Possibly too academic for casual use, and assumes a lot of preexisting expertise on the part of the reader; questionable in its factual accuracy, but contains several fun elements for pulp GMs if you can wade through the heavy going.

Available in both Kindle and Paperback formats.

The Templar Revelation

1072. The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Jesus Christ – Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince

Suggests that the Templars are the “secret guardians” of the subtitle. The Priory Of Sion (an alleged French secret society – Wikipedia entry), Rennes Le Chateau (refer the entry on “The Holy Blood and Holy Grail, item 915, on shelf #10), and Freemasons (see the subsection below), all get a mention.

One reviewer on Amazon offers a summary that we agree with: “…for a while at least you’re likely to find yourself at sea as the authors switch from one subject to another in kaleidoscopic fashion. In fairness, the evidence does seem by its nature to be complex and often ambiguous. Prepare to bring patience when you open the book; eventually, a sort of mosaic picture does emerge.”

The Templars and the Ark Of The Covenant

1073. The Templars and the Ark Of The Covenant: The Discovery of the Treasure of Solomon – Graham Phillips

This book is actually about the author’s search for the Gemstones from the High Priests’ breastplate in England, but he does connect things with the Templars. To lots of people who have drunk the kool-aid, this is a brilliant book. Fortunately, as with most of the books in this section, it doesn’t matter if you think the author is a genius, a madman, or both – its grist for the mill, and has the advantage of reading like an adventure novel.

The Templar's Secret Island

1074. The Templar’s Secret Island: The Knights, The Priest and the Treasure – Erling Haagensen and Henry Lincoln

Presents the theory that the Templars used “sacred geometry” to bury treasure on Bornholm Island in the Baltic – which is certainly strange enough to spark a pulp plotline! Released with at least three different covers, we’ve chosen the one we think is the most stylish, even though it’s not the same one showing on the copy we have linked to (for price/availability reasons).

Pirates and the lost Templar Fleet

1075. Pirates and the lost Templar Fleet: The Secret Naval War Between the Templars & the Vatican – David Hatcher Childress

Connects the Templar Fleet with the discovery of America and the Caribbean pirates, bringing the Sinclairs (a Scottish family with alleged links to the Templars and the Grail) of Rosslin (home of Rosslin Chapel, Wikipedia Page which featured in both the book and film The DaVinci Code, and the Templar Treasure, into the mix.

The Templar Pirates

1076. The Templar Pirates: The Secret Alliance to build the new Jerusalem – Ernesto Frers

Constructs a maritime history for the Templars that connects them with Pirates, Freemasons, the early history of the USA and the Caribbean, Oak Island (site of the “Money Pit”) (Wikipedia Page), and more.

Books About the Freemasons


Freemasons For Dummies

1077. Freemasons For Dummies – Christopher Hodapp

Speaking of “secret societies”, the Freemasons are one of the most legendary – and completely real. They have, of late, cracked open the wall of secrecy just a tiny smidgen, having tired of being placed at the center of every second conspiracy theory aired.

2005 edition (pictured): MP3 CD (from $51.09) or paperback (53 used from $3.80, 14 new from $18.80);

2013 edition (same page count): Kindle ($10.15) or paperback (24 used from $9.84, 36 new from $10.27).

We recommend the 2005 edition until prices outstrip those of the more recent edition. The Pulp GM will almost certainly be reinventing large parts of the society for story purposes, anyway; this is to serve as inspiration, guidance, and a source of additional color.

The Complete Idiot's Guide To Freemasonry

1078. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Freemasonry – S Brent Morris Ph D

We were more than a little uncertain about listing this book given the default assumptions regarding overlaps between it and “Freemasons For Dummies”, but decided that the subject matter was sufficiently esoteric and just distinctive enough that the two could stand separately. It’s the difference between the organization and what they believe/practice – a subtle but important difference (though there would be a lot of overlap).

First Edition (pictured): 334 pages, paperback (66 used from 1¢, 23 new from $3.67):

Second Edition: 352 pages, Kindle ($11.35) or paperback (25 new from $5.78, 29 used from $1.24):

More copies of the 2nd Edition: (8 used from $7.51, 7 new from $19.93):

If price is important (and it might be, given the number of references in this article / this series), go with the first edition until the prices go beyond those of the second. If comprehensive coverage is more important, it’s hard to overlook the extra 18 pages in the 2nd edition, buy from whichever of the two links is cheapest.


Books About Urban Legends


Encyclopedia Of Urban Legends

1079. Encyclopedia Of Urban Legends – Jan Harold Brunvand

A comprehensive introduction to the subject, lots of copies available at a very affordable price.

The 500 best urban legends ever

1080. The 500 best Urban Legends ever – Yorick Brown & Mike Flynn

From the Phantom Hitchhiker to Raining Whalemeat, these are either pulp-period or easily translated to that time-frame. Limited copies available.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker

1081. The Vanishing Hitchhiker – Jan Harold Brunvand

Urban legends and possible meanings, specifically referring to American Culture

The Mexican Pet

1082. The Mexican Pet – Jan Harold Brunvand

More urban legends and some older myths.

The Choking Doberman

1083. The Choking Doberman – Jan Harold Brunvand

Still more urban legends and some more old myths.

The big book of urban legends

1084. The Big Book of Urban Legends – Jan Harold Brunvald

And still more urban legends, presented in a comic-book / illustrated format and part of a series (The big book of conspiracies, the unexplained, weirdos, hoaxes, etc).

Chicago History The Stranger Side

1085. Chicago History: The Stranger Side – Raymond Johnson

“Former criminal investigator, author, and local historian Ray Johnson takes a new look at nine popular Chicago locations and their history, digging up strange new discoveries and connections.

Who may have murdered sisters Barbara and Patricia Grimes in 1956? Who is the seventh body located under the 1893 Columbian Expo Cold Storage Fire Memorial at Oak Woods Cemetery…when there should only be six? Is there more of a link between H.H. Holmes and Chicago’s White City than previously thought, and could there also be another connection to England and other murders? What ties Chicago to the Titanic disaster of 1912? What rituals were being performed at El-Sabarum (currently The Tonic Room) that could explain some of the bizarre occurrences reported there?

Most (if not all) of these incidents could easily be the basis of a Pulp adventure (some may need more revision than others). Most (if not all) could also be revised to place them somewhere and somewhen else for use in a non-Pulp genre. To use them in a Fantasy milieu, for example, all you need to provide is a reason for the PCs to care – like one of them being accused of the crime…

Paperback, 160 pages, 17 used from $3.99, 25 new from $10.20

Weird Europe

1086. Weird Europe: A Guide to Bizarre, Macabre, and Just Plain Weird Sights – Kristan Lawson and Anneli Rufus

“A Guidebook to Europe’s dark side. From strange natural wonders to the handiwork of mad scientists, dreamers, and zealots, Europe harbors hundreds of fascinating-and occasionally gruesome-surprises. In these pages, you’ll discover Two-headed animals, Erotic museums, Creepy catacombs, A cathedral made of salt, A railroad operated by children, The Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, An all-ice hotel, Ancient pagan rituals, Mines, Sewer tours, A museum of espionage, UFO landing sites, Pictures drawn by the dead, A frog museum, Pancake races, Oddball art, Underground cities, Giants, freaks, and Siamese twins, The Temple of Echoes, and more.” … “Covering twenty-five countries, with complete directions, opening hours, and admission prices for nearly a thousand wild attractions, Weird Europe is an indispensable guide to a world that you never knew existed.”

Some of these we had heard of – the Salt Cathedral and Ice Hotel, for example – while others were definitely new to us. We figure that between 1/3 and 2/3 of these post-date World War II, but even so, there should be enough material here to neatly ‘weird-up’ any number of trips to the Continental Mainland by adventurers – and there’s always the possibility of retroactively “installing” something modern back in the pulp era, if it seems to fit. The ice hotel would certainly be a good example!

Kindle ($5.32) or 352-page paperback (41 used from 1¢, 10 new from $22.22, 2 collectible from $9.85).

Regional Myths & Legends

The “Monsters of” series (Which will appear in Cryptozoology later on this shelf) led us to the “Ghosts Of” series which was included on Shelf #11, and that in turn led us to the “Myths and Mysteries” series that leads this section off. There are far too many titles for detailed review, even though not every state is represented (Louisiana’s absence was especially surprising!). Heck, Amazon haven’t even provided book descriptions for some of them! We’ve extracted what details were quickly available but in some cases that is nothing more than availability information.

However, we are comfortable with doing so; there are enough details from enough of the books that a series pattern can be easily discerned, so while we may not know anything about the exact content, we can predict the type of content with a high degree of confidence.

Each book is a combination of historical anecdote, famous murder cases, cryptozoology, and other forms of local legend; the exact break-up of the content varies from state to state. Where possible, we’ve included a very brief and necessarily incomplete summary of the content. The most recent entries in the series have a common cover design; somewhat older entries had relatively individualized cover designs; and the oldest had a different common design with a common illustration and mostly common cover text, making it harder to distinguish one book from the next. We noted that at least two of those were through different publishers, which is why not all the books have kindle editions available.

In the course of compiling the links for the “Myths and Mysteries” series, we noticed some books from a rival series dealing with the western states, and deliberately sought out a couple of other entries as ringers in the name of comprehensiveness. Unless noted otherwise, assume that the above description covers these as well. There may also be one or two overlaps between the different series. Within each series or thematic grouping, we have roughly alphabetized the entries.

Most of these books are by different authors, and – even more-so than the “Monsters of” series – there is every indication that there is little or no overlap in content, though we have not been able to verify this with complete certainty. Hope for the best, live with the reality.

Finally, we have deliberately chosen to ignore our usual price/availability criteria in this section in the interests of being comprehensive.

Myths and Mysteries of Alaska

1087. Myths and Mysteries of Alaska: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Cherry Lyon Jones
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Paperback, 168 pages, 23 used from $0.79, 13 new from $7.74.

Myths and Mysteries Arizona

1088. Mysteries and Legends of Arizona: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Sam Lowe
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

A haunted hotel, America’s last Stagecoach robber, a mysterious disappearance in the Grand Canyon in 1928, the Lost Dutchman Mine, Apache Leap, and the story of Ira Hayes, a Prima Indian and reluctant war hero who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima.
Kindle ($9.38) or 208-page Paperback (21 used from $4.99, 15 new from $7.73)
See also “Arizona Myths and Legends” in the Legends of The West series that concludes this section.

Myths and Mysteries of California

1089. Myths and Mysteries of California: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Ray Jones and Joe Lubow
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Contents range from the head of Zorro to The Big One, from William Randolph Hearst to the alleged shootout during WWII between Los Angeles antiaircraft gunners and an alien spacecraft, to the Shadow God of California.
Kindle (9.37) or 168-page paperback (30 used from $1.48, 22 new from $7.01)

Myths and Mysteries of Colorado

1090. Mysteries and Legends of Colorado: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Jan Murphy
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Contents range from the Anasazi cliff dwellings and the Towers of Hovenweep to the tale of Buffalo Bill’s questioned grave-site, from UFO sightings to rumors of buried treasure. Plus PT Barnham, legends of a Russian Spy, the lost loot from the 1864 Reynolds Gang bank robbery, and the naming of Colfax Avenue.
Paperback, 144 pages, 35 used from $1.93, 27 new from $5.58, 1 collectible at $10
See also “Colorado Myths and Legends” in the Legends of The West series that concludes this section.

Myths and Mysteries of Florida

1091. Myths and Mysteries of Florida: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – E Lynne Wright
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Kindle ($9.43) or 208-page paperback (26 used from $1.28, 22 new from $2.43)

Myths and Mysteries of Georgia

1092. Mysteries and Legends of Georgia: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Dan Rhodes
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

12 chapters, covering everything From a puzzle of lost confederate gold to a woman who mysteriously spent her life waving at more than 50,000 passing ships.
192 page paperback, 14 used from $5.27, 8 new from $9.90
See also “Georgia Myths and Legends” below, which might even be the same book.

Georgia Myths and Legends

1093. Georgia Myths and Legends: The True Stories Behind History’s Mysteries – Don Rhodes
(Legends of America series)

Although this appears to be a completely different series to Myths and Mysteries, the product description at Amazon is an almost-verbatim recapitulation of the generic description used for many of the books in that series. Certainly, at least some of the content overlaps, and there is a remarkable similarity in parts of the back cover text, and the names of the authors are suspiciously similar (“Don Rhodes” vs “Dan Rhodes”, and the publisher is the same, and this is described as the “Second Edition”… despite all that, they might be different books. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Kindle ($9.40) or 224-page paperback (17 used from $3.24, 21 new from $9.89).

Myths and Mysteries of Illinois

1094. Myths and Mysteries of Illinois: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Richard Moreno
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

14 chapters, each detailing a separate incident or event. The ghost at Parks’ College in Cahokia is a notable omission.
Paperback, 208 pages, 26 used from $4.23, 23 new from $6.70

Myths and Mysteries of Kansas

1095. Myths and Mysteries of Kansas: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Diana Lambdin Meyer
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Kindle $10
Paperback: 176 pages, 19 used from $2.35, 15 new from $7.75, 1 collectible from $4.76

Myths and Mysteries of Kentucky

1096. Myths and Mysteries of Kentucky: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Mimi O’malley and Susan Sawyer
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Paperback, 208 pages, 17 used from $8.33, 29 new from $8.79

Strange But True Louisiana

1097. Strange But True Louisiana – Lynne L Hall

Having noted the curious absence of Louisiana from the Myths and Mysteries series, we deliberately went looking for something to plug the gap. There may be other holes in the coverage of that series, but this is the biggest one that we noted. (nor, for that matter, did we spot anything much for the rest of the world, despite searching for the generic term “Myths and Mysteries”… could it be that only Americans are fascinated by this sort of thing? Surely, not…)

“Wacky Wonders and Strange Sights you won’t see anywhere else fill the pages of Strange But True Louisiana.” ”The Frog Capital of the World”, “the world’s smallest church”, “Cities of the Dead”, “An oil and gas festival”, and the voodoo queen herself populate these pages, amongst others.

Page-count makes this slightly less value-for-money than most of the Myths and Mysteries series, too. Which is why we didn’t go looking for more from it. But if you spot another omission from the collection, a missing state, that would be the first place we would look.

Paperback, 143 pages; 13 used from $3.45, 9 new from $3.99.

Stay Out Of New Orleans

1098. Stay Out of New Orleans: Strange Stories – P Curran

It’s been a while since we had an outright ringer! While there might be some overlap between this book and the previous one in terms of content, our impression is that New Orleans can more than hold its own when it comes to weirdness, and the description seems to bear that out. “A writer who had just moved to the French Quarter … thought: ‘What if I wrote a collection of Robert Aickman stories set down here, starring all these lowlifes I hang out with?’” … “Pieces from the resulting book wound up in various print magazines, but the collection itself existed only in bound manuscripts passed around by the ever-shrinking downtown netherworld that had inspired it. Until now. A bohemia stretching back to the dawn of absinthe. A town of hidden doors and open secrets. Each day a fresh crime eager to happen, transcendent, fertile. Death lurking in every bar. No one knew this was a Golden Age. See what the flood washed away.”

Yes, this focuses on New Orleans in the 1990s in all it’s Gothic splendor, but there’s more than enough that can be translated back into the Pulp Era (or anywhere else) to justify it’s inclusion, from “energy-feeding vampires to crackpot-religious teenage cult members to the would-be Rear Window sleuth who can’t really be bothered to care whether her neighbor is a serial killer”.
Kindle ($5.41) or 326-page paperback (14 used from $10.80, 17 new from $11.00, Amazon’s price is competitive at $15).

Myths and Mysteries of Michigan

1099. Myths and Mysteries of Michigan: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Sally Barber
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

From the back cover:
“Twelve Mind-Boggling Tales from the Great Lakes State.

  • Does a legendary pirate treasure lie beneath the waters of Lake Michigan near Poverty Island? Legends dating back to the Civil War tell of massive chests of gold flung into the water that were never seen again. Or were they?
  • What really happened to Jimmy Hoffa? The legendary Teamster leader drove away from the elegant Red Fox Restaurant in July 1975 and was never seen again, but theories abound as to his final resting place.
  • Is the Great Lakes Triangle as deadly as its Bermuda counterpart? Hundreds of baffling events and unexplained shipwrecks have occurred between longitudes 76 degrees and 92 degrees west and latitudes 41 degrees and 49 degrees north.

“From the true story behind folk hero Paul Bunyan to the last voyage of the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald, Myths and Mysteries of Michigan makes history fun and pulls back the curtain on some of the state’s most fascinating and compelling stories.”

Kindle (8.98) or 176-page paperback (24 used from $1.89, 14 new from $7.74)

Myths and Mysteries of Missouri

1100. Myths and Mysteries of Missouri: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Josh Young
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Out if 10 customer reviews, eight give this book five stars out of five (and the other two, 4/5). Thirteen chapters, each detailing a separate tale, many of which were long-forgotten even by local residents.
Kindle ($9.40) or 208-page Paperback (25 used from $5.20, 26 new from $9.67)

Myths and Mysteries of Montana

1101. Mysteries and Legends of Montana: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Edward Lawrence
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Paperback, 144 pages, 21 used from $0.01, 19 new from $3.95, 1 collectible from $14
See also “Montana Myths and Legends” in the Legends of The West series that concludes this section.

Myths and Mysteries of Nevada

1102. Mysteries and Legends of Nevada: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Richard Moreno
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

14 “True” stories, or 17, depending on who’s doing the counting, Amazon or the back cover, respectively. Mystery surrounds the death of a US Senator – was he kept on ice until after the election, as some believe? Is the Governor’s mansion haunted? Did a monster named the Ong live in the depths of Lake Tahoe? Does a monster named Tahoe Tessie live there now? What evidence is there for a tribe of red-headed giant Indians in the state’s North? What led a 1924 newspaper to suggest that the Garden Of Eden lay within the Silver State? Plus abandoned mining villages and ghost towns!
Kindle ($9.52) or 208-page paperback (27 used from $1.94, 14 new from $11.34, 1 collectible at $12)

Myths and Mysteries of New England

1103. Mysteries and Legends of New England: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Diana McCain
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Yes, we realize that “New England” is not a US State, but a region containing several US States! Don’t blame us, we didn’t edit the series! Kindle ($8.99) or 192-page paperback (24 used from $4.98, 25 new from $4.14, 1 Collectible from $7.99)

Myths and Mysteries of New Hampshire

1104. Myths and Mysteries of New Hampshire: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Matthew P Mayo
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Includes Betty and Barney Hill’s alleged alien abduction, a corpse-like man who accosts hikers on Mount Moosilauke, the New Hampshire “Mystery Stone”, Sasquatch, buried pirate treasure, and more.
Paperback, 208 pages; 16 used from $7.41, 29 new from $9.84.
More copies: 14 used from $11.83, 12 new from $23.16:

Myths and Mysteries of New Jersey

1105. Myths and Mysteries of New Jersey: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Fran Capo
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Eleven reports including the Dark Side of Thomas Edison (whose experiments led to the execution of thousands of animals and one man), the ghosts of Overbrook Asylum, the Robin Hood of Pine Barrens, the New Jersey Devil, and the voyage of the Morro Castle.
Kindle ($8.99) or paperback (23 used from 1¢, 15 new from $2.57).

Notorious New Jersey

1106. Notorious New Jersey: 100 true tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels – Jon Blackwell

If we’d found this book in time, we would have included it in the “Crime” section. But there’s enough weird stuff in its pages to justify placing it here, as well.

In addition to the more expected “…accounts of Alexander Hamilton falling mortally wounded on the dueling grounds of Weehawken; Dutch Schultz getting pumped full of lead in the men’s room of the Palace Chop House in Newark; and a gang of Islamic terrorists in Jersey City mixing the witch’s brew of explosives that became the first bomb to rock the World Trade Center,” are stranger stories such as the nineteenth-century murderer whose skin was turned into leather souvenirs, and the state senator from Jersey City who faked his death in a scuba accident in the 1970s in an effort to avoid prison,” and some historical whodunits such as “was Bruno Hauptmann really guilty of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby? Who was behind the anthrax attacks of 2001?” and a number of notorious characters, both the convicted and the merely condemned.

Despite this obvious historical focus, most of the criticism seems directed at the contents not being about “relative modern times” (sic). The fact that at least three of the critical comments are verbatim repetitions also makes us question how much credence to lend them.

Fundamentally, for RPG purposes, who cares about a Tabloid-style “punching up” of historical incidents? Lots of these will fit right into a Pulp campaign, and many more will slot neatly into the background of such a campaign.

Paperback, 424 pages; 38 new from $11.55, 44 used from 1¢.

Myths and Mysteries of New Mexico

1107. Myths and Mysteries of New Mexico: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Barbara Marriott Ph D
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Thirteen reports including the disappearance of the lawyer who defended Billy The Kid and his son, whose bodies have never been found, an old mining town buried 75 feet deep in Bonito Lake which was the setting for an unpremeditated, unexplained, and unpredictable murder, the lost Adams gold and legends of Lincoln.

Kindle ($9) or 200-page paperback (14 used from $6.92, 13 new from $7.93, 1 collectible from $7.37)

See also “New Mexico Myths and Legends” in the Legends of The West series that concludes this section.

Myths and Mysteries of New York

1108. Myths and Mysteries of New York: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Fran Capo
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Many commentators suggest that the title should be “…of New York City”, or words to that effect. Others are critical of the depth of coverage or suggest factual errors (especially noted in the stories marked “NB” below). Tales cover sunken treasure off Manhattan, Sewer Alligators, ghost sightings, the Lake Champlain monster (NB), the ghostly hostess of Skene Manor, and the Leather Man (NB) as well as the Montauk Project and it’s alleged connection to the Philadelphia Experiment.

Kindle ($8.99) or 208 page paperback (29 used from 1¢, 21 new from $6.66).

Myths and Mysteries of North Carolina

1109. Myths and Mysteries of North Carolina: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Sara Pitzer
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Content includes the disappearance of the settlers on Roanoke Island sometime between 1587 and 1590, the devil Tsul ‘Kalu of Cherokee lore, the hanging of Tom Dula in 1868 for allegedly murdering his fiancée (a conviction that remains in doubt to this day), Pee Dee A.D., and the Spirits of Salisbury.

Kindle ($9.02), Paperback 176 pages (17 new from $10.94, 23 used from $3.57).

Myths and Mysteries of South Carolina

1110. Myths and Mysteries of South Carolina: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Rachel Haynie
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Lost (and possibly mythical) gold mines, buried confederate gold, aviation Pioneer Paul Redfern who vanished after pioneering the air route to South America, Spanish Horses, a submarine pioneer, and the Atomic Bomb that fell on a farm in Mars Bluff in 1958. We’ve deliberately listed this out of sequence to keep the Carolinas together.

Kindle ($9.47) or 192-page paperback (22 used from 70¢, 12 new from $4.31).

See also “South Carolina Myths and Legends” below.

South Carolina Myths and Legends

1111. South Carolina Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Rachel Haynie
(Legends of America series)

After making the notes on the Georgia book in the Legends Of America series (above), we made it our business to check the details of this one, as well. Same almost-verbatim description, same publisher, same author, same “2nd edition” notation. But the content… well, Aviator Paul Redfern and hidden Confederate Gold are common to both, but beyond that, the content featured on the back cover is NOT the content featured on the back cover of the other book. We’re not 100% convinced, either way, and postage to Australia is too high to buy both on spec just to check it out. So it’s a case of Caveat Emptor and You Have Been Warned (again).

Kindle (9.63) and 208-page paperback (10 used from $12.02, 23 new from $8.66).

Myths and Mysteries of Ohio

1112. Myths and Mysteries of Ohio: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Sandra Gurvis
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

“…this is an absolute masterpiece. There are stories you have heard before, like Hell Town, but then there are things happening that you have no ideal about like the Golf coarse Mound controversy, and a theater that reminds you of the Phantom Of The Opera… …the map is a nice touch; many books like this, you wind up needing a map just to get your bearings.” We have no idea if the other books in the series also include map(s), but thought it worth highlighting this one which explicitly does.

Kindle ($9.84) or 224-page paperback (20 used from $1.84, 29 new from $8.55)

Myths and Mysteries of Oklohoma

1113. Myths and Mysteries of Oklahoma: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Robert Dorman
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

“Introduces the reader to a dozen or so Oklahoma mysteries. However, if any of them are of interest to you, please seek out additional information. This is very high level and doesn’t always give the most interesting facts regarding the situation.”

Paperback, 200-pages; 18 used from $2.19, 34 new from $8.01.

Myths and Mysteries of Oregan

1114. Mysteries and Legends of Oregon: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Jim Yuskavitch
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

11 Chapters, despite some sources claiming 14; the difference lies in counting things like “Introduction”, “Bibliography”, etc. Contents include Lewis and Clark’s submerged forest, a legendary lost 22,000-pound meteorite, a haunted lighthouse, the disappearance of DB Cooper, and Bigfoot. This definitely includes a state map showing the locations of events described.

Paperback, 192 pages; 26 used from $0.90, 19 new from $8.85.

Myths and Mysteries of Pennsylvania

1115. Myths and Mysteries of Pennsylvania: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Kara Hughes
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Kindle ($9.61) or 192 page paperback (21 used from $1.28, 20 new from $6.20).

Myths and Mysteries of Tennessee

1116. Myths and Mysteries of Tennessee: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Susan Sawyer
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Paperback, 176 pages, 18 used from $6.01, 24 new from $8.80)

Legends & Lore of East Tennessee

1117. Legends & Lore of East Tennessee – Shane S Simmons
(American Legends Series)

“The mountains of East Tennessee are chock full of unique folklore passed down through generations. Locals spin age-old yarns of legends like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and Dragging Canoe. Stories of snake-handling churches and the myths behind the death crown superstitions dot the landscape. The mysteries surrounding the Sensabaugh Tunnel still haunt residents.”

One customer review was astonished at how many of the stories included were new to him/her despite having grown up in the region, and the author was able to provide additional details even of the stories that were known. The description quoted above gives the impression that there’s more history and less ghosts / cryptozoology / other weirdness, but (a) that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and (b) at least one customer review hints to the contrary.

Kindle ($7.49) or 128-page paperback (11 used from $15.07, 16 new from $11.45, Amazon’s price (includes P&H) $15.88).

Myths and Legends of Texas

1118. Mysteries and Legends of Texas: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Donna Ingham
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

4.3 stars out of 5 from 12 customer reviews. Twelve stories from Texas history and folklore, including the Navidad Wilman (is it hard to find Bigfoot because he’s migrated to Texas?), the blood-sucking chupacabra, the mysterious Marfa lights, Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure, the hanging of Chipita Rodriguez, the love story of Frenchy McCormick, and the many ghostly sightings in Jefferson that lead some to claim it as the most-haunted city in Texas, while others cede that recognition to San Antonio, which has enough ghosts to justify three different ghost tours.

Kindle ($8.98) and 192-page paperback (29 used from $1.67, 13 new from $10.01)

Mysteries and Legends of Utah

1119. Mysteries and Legends of Utah: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Michael O’reilly
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

Twelve stories, including Jedediah Smith’s final moments, Bigfoot sightings, the rise of an unlikely uranium magnate, the mysterious end of Butch Cassidy, Caleb Rhoades lost cave of Gold Artifacts. Damaging the credibility of this collection is the following from the back cover: “’Alien’ Dave Rosenfeld and other members of the Mutual UFO Network have plenty of out-of-this-world stories to share. Among the questions that arise: Have reptilian aliens infiltrated human society? Was Fort Duchesne the site of a modern-day Roswell incident?”

Paperback, 192 pages, 29 used from $3.50, 19 new from $4.66, 1 collectible $19.99.

Mysteries and Legends of Virginia

1120. Mysteries and Legends of Virginia: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained – Emilee Hines
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

The Kidnapping and abandonment as a child of the strongest man in the Revolution. The Vampire of Church Hill Tunnel in Richmond. Anna Anderson Manahan, either the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia (as she claimed) or a Polish-born waitress and best actress/con-woman of the twentieth century. The Witch of Pungo. The Parkway Killer. And more, in the over-a-dozen chapters.

Kindle ($8.99) 192-page paperback (25 used from 1¢, 15 new from $10.81).

Myths and Mysteries of Washington

1121. Myths and Mysteries of Washington – Lynn Bragg
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

A cover design that’s completely different to all the others in the series, and the absence of the usual subtitle, yet it’s clearly part of the same series. Contains fifteen tales from the 19th and early 20th centuries, verifying some of them from multiple accounts and exposing what may have really happened in the case of others. Puget Sound’s Demon Of The Deep, Captain Ingall’s lost treasure, strange saucer-shaped things flying in the skies of Mount Rainier, the hunt for skyjacker DB Cooper (see also the Oregon entry in the series), and the ghostly aura of the Mad Doctor’s Mansion, are just some of the contents.

Paperback, 176 pages, 34 used from 1¢, 18 new from $4.79, and 3 collectible from $14.00.

See also “Washington Myths and Legends” in the Legends of The West series that concludes this section.

Myths and Mysteries of Wisconsin

1122. Myths and Mysteries of Wisconsin: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained – Michael Bie
(Myths and Mysteries Series)

When Blair and Mike wanted an American NPC for the Adventurer’s Club campaign from an epically dull and ordinary background, Wisconsin was the first place that came to mind for both of them. This was obviously because they had never read this book. Or those in the Ghosts section. “Most Wisconsin history books cover important highlights, but somehow they miss the stories of headless bankers, the part-time Santa visited by a saucer from space, and the Wisconsin pirate who killed a man. With a piano.” So wrote Dennis McCann, former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist, when reviewing this book. 14 stories, ranging from a Civil War veteran and Menominee Indian who was also alleged to be the illegitimate son of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, the murder of HC Mead in the Exchange Bank of Waupaca, and pirate ships, to pancakes from outer space.

Paperback, 160 pages; 26 used from $3.74, 25 new from $7.99.

Myths And Mysteries Of The Old West

1123. Myths And Mysteries Of The Old West – Michael Rutter

This book serves as a gateway to the final subsection of this collection of regional mythology. A lot of people in the modern era have the impression that the wild west was a LONG time ago, a myth that Mike busted handily with his 2016 article (and useful tool) Throw Me A Life-line: A Character Background Planning Tool.

According to Mike’s research, the ‘great years’ of the American Wild West (as romanticized in the 20th century) took place within the period 1880-1898. Any adult character’s parents would have seen this time-period first-hand, and any character who is more than 22 years old at the start of the Pulp Era (1918) would have (at the very least) memories of it as a reality. For every campaign year past 1918, add a year to the age for this statement to hold true. The Adventurer’s Club campaign is set mid-1930s – if we say it’s 1935 (it isn’t, not completely), that’s another 17 years, so a 39-year-old would have been 3 or 4 years of age at the end of the Wild West. Every year above that age increases the strength of the connection, until you reach the point of adding another 36 years – at which point, and for anyone older, they would have been an adult at the start of the Wild West.

For the Adventurer’s Club campaign, based on the 1935 yardstick, that means 75 years of age or more. There’s also enough fudge-factor (is it 1933, instead? Sometimes…) (and just what age conferred adulthood in the Wild West? This calculation has used 18 years, but 14 or 15 could be plausibly argued…) that you could say anyone from 70-years-on would have memories of the start of it, and anyone older than 52 would have memories of the end of it. And that’s from as late as 17 years into the Pulp Era…

>Ahem,< getting back on track, that means that myths and legends from the wild west are certainly living memories for some, and can be motivation, or personal history, or the foundation of a modern-day adventure. This book absolutely deserves a place on this list, therefore. However, while there are hundreds of books on the subject of the West, and the subject of the “real” Wild West, trying to pick and choose between all of those is a bit beyond the scope of this series, which is quite big enough already! Consider this to be placing your feet on the path to your own discoveries.

Available in 161-page Hardcover (44 used from 1¢, 17 new from $2.71, 3 collectible from $6.98) or paperback (62 used from 1¢, 39 new from $2, 2 collectible from $9.85).

Arizona Myths and Legends

1124. Arizona Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Sam Lowe
(Legends Of The West series)

And so, to the Legends Of The West Series, whose inclusion is justified on the basis of direct relevance, as explained above. There may be some overlap between the contents and those of the other books listed for the state within this section, but we would expect a lot of differentiation. That said, the cover design looks suspiciously like those of the Legends of America series (above); this also gets a “second edition” notation; the publisher is the company behind the early editions of the Myths and Mysteries series; and the author is the same. So we would expect at least some overlap.

Kindle ($9.83) and 224-page paperback (18 used from $10, 29 new from $9.17).

Colorado Myths and Legends

1125. Colorado Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Jan Murphy
(Legends Of the West Series)

Same Caveats and suspicions as reported above. Specific content cited is mostly different, but the previous listing was incomplete.

Kindle ($9.61) or 164 page paperback (10 used from $9.03, 27 new from $8.33).

Montana Myths and Legends

1126. Montana Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Edward Lawrence and Michael Ober
(Legends Of the West Series)

Same Caveats and suspicions as reported above. Ober wasn’t listed as a co-author on Mysteries and Legends of Montana offering hope that at least some of the content is different.

Kindle ($9.63) or 160-page paperback (9 used from $12.03, 20 new from $9.69).

New Mexico Myths and Legends

1127. New Mexico Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Barbara Marriott Ph D
(Legends Of the West Series)

Same Caveats and suspicions as reported above. The contents listed on the back cover are virtually identical, as well.

Kindle ($9.37) or 232-page paperback (8 used from $6.45, 6 new from $13.78).

Texas Myths and Legends

1128. Texas Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Donna Ingham
(Legends Of The West Series)

Same Caveats and suspicions as reported above. No content details.

Kindle ($9.59) or 200-page paperback (14 used from $10.06, 23 new from $9.89).

Washington Myths and Legends

1129. Washington Myths and Legends: The True Stories behind History’s Mysteries – Lynn Bragg
(Legends Of the West Series)

Same Caveats and suspicions as reported above. This time, even the back cover text is the same.

208-page paperback, 14 used from $2.91, 19 new from $10.18.

Myths, mysteries and legends of Alabama

1130. Myths, mysteries and legends of Alabama – Elaine Hobson Miller

We came across this book while gathering the rest of the list, and noticed that Alabama was another notable exception to the inclusions of the Mysteries and Legends series. We are as sure as it’s possible to be that this is not part of the series; different publisher, different cover design. The content of the 12 stories is very familiar in style, though: The legendary Civil War soldier who was supposedly buried alive, the Pecan tree that cried, the Indian Chief who caused and earthquake, the winter that UFOs buzzed an Alabama town, cattle mutilations without leaving a trace of blood, and a strange beast that prowled an old cemetery.

Paperback, 136 pages, 16 used from $2.89, 5 new from $9.95.


Books About Cryptozoology


Cryptozoology A To Z

1131. Cryptozoology A To Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature – Loren Coleman & Jerome Clark

Short entries on numerous cryptids (“an animal/creature whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated”) and some of the people involved in cryptozoology. Described as “the first encyclopedia of its kind” by the Amazon editorial review – a statement which we dispute (see the entry for “The Book Of Imaginary Beings”, below) – this is, nevertheless, the most comprehensive reference on the subject available. The encyclopedia format makes it great for looking things up, but not easily read cover-to-cover as an introduction to the subject. For that, you should turn to one or two of our other recommendations.

The Book Of Imaginary Beings

1132a. The Book Of Imaginary Beings (1970) – Jorge Luis Borges (shown incorrectly as “George Luis Borges” on Amazon’s listing) with Margarita Guerrero, translated by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni


1132b. The Book Of Imaginary Beings (2006) – Jorge Luis Borges, illustrated by Peter Sis, translated by Andrew Hurley

Publisher’s Weekly describes the history of this book as follows: “[Borges], writing with sometime collaborator Guerrero, compiled 82 one- and two-page descriptions of everything from ‘The Borametz’ (a Chinese ‘plant shaped like a lamb, covered with golden fleece’) to ‘The Simurgh’ (‘an immortal bird that makes its nest in the tree of science’) and ‘The Zaratan’ (a particularly cunning whale) in ‘An Anthology of Fantastic Zoology’ in 1954” (retitled ‘A Handbook Of Fantastic Zoology’ in 1957). “He added 34 more [entries] (and illustrations) for a 1967 edition”… “and it was published in English in 1969.”

The 1970 edition is the one Mike has, which makes the point that the book wasn’t simply translated by di Giovanni, it was “revised, translated and enlarged”…“in collaboration with the author”. Many of the weird and wild creatures reported by 16th, 17th, and 18th century travelers are listed in this book, which thereby moves it beyond basic cryptozoology. The translation somehow makes the language seem more turn-of-the-century, the slightly Victorian language of HG Welles, at least to read.

The 2006 version (pictured) adds 20 illustrations by award-winning artist Peter Sis There aren’t quite as many copies available and they cost slightly more. The page-count of the two are identical, and the editorial description of the newer one lists the same number of entries – but, since this appears to be a new translation, the language might seem a little less archaic (which could be a plus or a minus, in our view).

In either edition, this book is more difficult to use than we would like because, while some entries are under the names of the creatures, others are not – there is a general entry under “F” for “Fauna of the United States”, for example. Fortunately, there is an index. This book is probably not as useful as the “A to Z” listed above, but without taking time that we don’t have to confirm it, our suspicion is that this will list creatures not found in the A-Z and vice-versa, and that’s why we’ve included it.

A Menagerie of Mysterious Beasts

1133. A Menagerie of Mysterious Beasts: Encounters with Cryptid Creatures – Ken Gerhard

We haven’t read this book, which was discovered in the course of researching this article. What makes it particularly useful is that these are all first-hand accounts (which may bear little or no resemblance to the “truth” of any given story as you imagine it to be in your campaign world. Indeed, you could build and entire Pulp campaign around the concept of attempting to verify these encounters (in some sort of random order). There is a Kindle edition in addition to the paperback that we have linked to.

Breverton's Phantasmagorica

1134. Breverton’s Phantasmagoria – Terry Breverton

A compendium of myths and legends and the reality behind them, plus lots of fevered imaginings, tall tales, strange real-world creatures and real-world theories from other people.

Monsters Among Us

1135. Monsters Among Us: An exploration of Otherworldly Bigfoots, Wolfmen, Portals, Phantoms, and Odd Phenomena – Linda S. Godfrey

In addition to the usual cryptozoological fare, this contains entries on the Lost Lizard People of Los Angeles, people stalked by invisible predators, and more. We’re recommending this unread by us because at the time of writing this text, the book has not yet been published. That’s due to happen on October 11th 2016, so the situation will have changed by the time you get to read this entry.

My Quest For The Yeti

1136. My Quest For The Yeti – Reinhold Messner

One man’s quest in Nepal and Tibet to find the world’s best-known cryptid. We’ve linked to three different editions of this book with virtually no differences, save cosmetic ones, that we are aware of.


Paperback 1:

Paperback 2 (pictured):

The Complete Guide To Mysterious Beings

1137. The Complete Guide To Mysterious Beings – John A Keel

As with all these books, this one lists things that the others omit and vice-versa. This one covers (amongst others) Angels, Demons, the mothman, contemporary dinosaurs, Bigfoot, the abominable snowman, a real-life ‘land of the giants’, the Silver Lake sea serpent, leprechauns, and carnivorous plants from outer space. There are two different editions but only one that meets our availability standards.

Paranormal Animals of North America

1138. Paranormal Animals of North America – Nigel D Findley
(Shadowrun 1st edition supplement)

A lot of these creatures are directly insertable into any pulp campaign (relocate to elsewhere in the world as necessary) even if you need to convert the game details. Some ambitious sellers want $850 for a copy, but there are some available for about $4.

Paranormal Animals of Europe

1139. Paranormal Animals of Europe – Carl Sargent
(Shadowrun 1st edition supplement)

Fewer surprises, but still a great source of nasty encounters.

The Weiser Field Guide to Cryptozoology

1140. The Weiser Field Guide to Cryptozoology: Werewolves, Dragons, Skyfish, Lizard Men, and Other Fascinating Creatures Real and Mysterious – Deena West Budd

Details, interviews, and stories about 40 different cryptids seen all over the world by credible eyewitnesses like policemen, rangers, and doctors. Coverage ranges from the “traditional cryptids” (Big Foot, the Abominable Snowman and Nessie), to mythical cryptids (unicorns, vampires, dragons, and werewolves), to lesser-known cryptids like bunyips (waterhorses), Encantado (Dolphin Men of Brazil), thunderbirds, mothmen, and chupacabra. Includes a brief history of the field and surveys all the creatures for which any credible amount of research exists. Includes “tips on how to spot them” and “cautionary advice on how to interact with them”, both of which are gold for the GM, regardless of game genre.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good out there. One review was harshly critical of this book – “This does not read as a Field Guide, more like “Deena Wast Budd’s Musings on Cryptids and Other Beasts.” Each entry is a cursory look at what the author thinks of each creature, no depth of history, modus operandi, characteristics, etc.” Another associates the excessive use of exclamation marks as contributing to an excess of sensationalism, while a third laments the paucity of specific detail and the excess of opinion. That said, many others comment on the light, breezy, engaging style, and how it facilitates an easy introduction to the subject.

In terms of “objective cryptozoology”, then, this is a disappointment. As Pulp GMs, though, we only care about objectivity when it suits us. Use this as a launchpad and inspiration for your own takes on these creatures, modify, discard, re-engineer, revise or accept content as you see fit! So long as you bear these limitations in mind, you’ll do just fine with it. But when you find a contradiction between sources on Cryptids, this is the one that has to be considered “less reliable”.

Kindle ($9.99) or 192-page paperback (24 used from $5, 33 new from $9.41).

Cryptid Creatures From Dark Domains

1141. Cryptid Creatures From Dark Domains: Dogmen, Devil Hounds, Phantom Canines And Real Werewolves – Timothy Green Beckley et. al.

And, speaking of sensationalized accounts, this book is full of them, and suffers from the flaw of considering anecdotal evidence to be “proof”. This is a compilation of material from “experts” in various cryptids – Phantom Cats, Dogmen, Hell Hounds, and more. Not exclusively North American in approach and content, which may make this useful when no other reference contributes – and is why we have chosen to list it.

Kindle ($8.54) or 236 page paperback (8 used from $19.82, 15 new from $17.95).

See Also:

“Mysteries of the Deep,” compiled by Frank Spaeth, in our “Places” section – Entry #283, 4th Shelf.

Monsters and outer-fringe Cryptozoology

Some people consider these creatures to be Cryptids, others are more circumspect (and want to be taken more seriously, we suspect). Certainly, “Wolf-men” would be ‘legitimate’ cryptids, but Werewolves? Maybe not. Vampires and Zombies? That’s really starting to bend the definition of ‘Cryptid’ out of shape, in our view. So we have isolated books on those subjects to this subsection. Make no mistake, though – we’re equally sure that there’s a grain of truth somewhere in most legends of these creatures. It might just be exceedingly small. Which has zero bearing on whether or not we’ll use these in our Pulp Campaign – indeed, we have already done so in the case of Vampires.

Banshees, Werewolves, Vampires, and Other Creatures of the Night

1142. Banshees, Werewolves, Vampires, and Other Creatures of the Night: Facts, Fictions, and First-Hand Accounts – Varia Ventura

”Huffington Post Weird News columnist and author Varla Ventura takes readers on a wild ride through the shadowy hills of rural Ireland, the dark German forests, and along abandoned farms and country roads across the world to discover some of the most frightening and freak-tacular tales, tidbits, and encounters with all those beasties that go bump in the night.” This is a mixture of myth, anecdote, and fiction, leaning more heavily toward the literary sources. Since most books on Cryptozoology take the subject matter seriously as “real world” phenomena, it provides a compelling counterpoint and expands the scope of foundations for GM-crafted creatures and encounters.

Kindle ($10) or 256-page paperback (27 used from $5.49, 39 new from $8.50).

The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters

1143. The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters – Rosemary Ellen Guiley

600 entries provide definitions, explanations, and lists of suggested further reading. Focuses on cross-cultural mythology, folklore, historical cases, and the presence of shape-shifting creatures in arts, media, and pop culture.

Kindle ($63.78 – who do Amazon think they’re kidding?) or 352-page paperback (44 used from $4.24, 9 new from $29.95):

Hardcover (17 used from $16.69, 10 new from triple-figures-so-forget-it):

True Werewolves of History

1144. True Werewolves of History – Donald F Glut

This is a hard book to assess. Glut uses “contemporary chronicles and new research to bring to life the stories of over 100 werewolves from the pages of history. This new 21st Century tour-de-force brings together real tales of werewolves (not to mention “were” bears and “were” jaguars) from throughout the world and across the centuries.”

The only review of the book states, however, “This book has nothing on Werewolves in folklore or legend (no lore, anyway). It’s just a compilation of ancient stories. However, these may be still of some use… especially the stories about phantom werewolves (that is, lycanthropes that have returned from the grave as ghosts).”

Are the contents fictional accounts? Spooky stories from before the industrial revolution to before the age of the printing press?

As usual, however, the Pulp GM cares not about this issue, being only interested in grist for the mill. And, since no other reference we’ve come across has explicitly mentioned “phantom werewolves”, this promises to add at least one new bolt to our crossbow.

136 pages, hardcover (7 used from $13.99, 18 new from $9.17) or paperback (12 used from $6.83, 19 new from $7.83, 1 collectible from $9.99).

The Werewolf Handbook

1145. The Werewolf Handbook: An Essential Guide to Werewolves and, More Importantly, How to Avoid Them – Robert Curran

This book is very highly rated. Despite that, the one and only critical review is so lengthy and expert in its comments that it is not only impossible to quote but impossible to ignore; we recommend that you read it for yourself (opens in a new tab; ignore the three-star “top critical review” and scroll down to the 1-star review by André Geissenhoener).

Back already? Yeah, we only skimmed it, too, but we got the gist of what the reviewer had to say, and spotted enough specifics to know that he is very well versed in the subject. It must also be reiterated that thirteen of the twenty reviews gave this 5 stars out of five, and nineteen of them rate it as three-star or better. So, with that as context and caveat, let’s consider the actual content: Types of werewolf, including some that we hadn’t come across before; where they live; telltale traits; advice on how to avoid becoming one; tips on what to do when attacked; and more than 100 color illustrations that are reportedly excellent at conveying mood and atmosphere.

We think there’s enough value there to make this a useful resource, despite the problems highlighted by André’s review; but there’s enough doubt on our parts that we wanted to present the case to the reader to make up his own mind.

Hardcover, 80 pages, 37 used from $0.99, 9 new from $37.

The Monster Hunter's Handbook

1146. The Monster Hunter’s Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Saving Mankind from Vampires, Zombies, Hellhounds, and Other Mythical Beasts – Ibrahim Amin

“…details everything a new generation of valiant monster hunters needs to know to vanquish antiquity’s biggest?and baddest?beasts.”

“From a hellhound’s three-headed assault to a brain-eating zombie attack, The Monster Hunter’s Handbook instructs readers in the background of each creature and the dangers each present. It also includes an impressive catalog of the pre-modern world’s most powerful armament.”

As always with a creature-oriented encounter, the GM’s first goal has to be ensuring that firearms don’t end the encounter ‘prematurely’; once that is done, this fully-illustrated book becomes right-on-point to the pulp RPG.

224 pages, hardcover (24 used from $15.12, 12 new from $28.37, 1 collectible at $48.99). There is also a paperback (13 used from $19.56, 3 new from $132.18) but prices suggest that interested purchasers should grab the hardcover while they are still affordable.

The Werewolf Book

1147. The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings (2nd Edition) – Brad Steiger

Possibly the most-complete compendium of this information available, covering myth, legend, literature, true crime, and media depictions of shape-changers (many of whom would not be considered werewolves at all) – everything from “hirsute mass-murderer Albert Fish and Fritz Haarman, who slaughtered and ate his victims, selling the leftovers as steaks and roasts in his butcher shop” to 140,000 years of myth and legend to classic and modern werewolf movies, with stops along the way to look at gargoyles, totem poles, and internet depictions, television shows, songs, and computer games. In fact, it is this very comprehensiveness that is the source of most of the criticism of the book. Not for the serious cryptid researcher / true believer, but wonderful for a GM.

Kindle ($10.07) 384 page paperback (28 used from $4.95, 19 new from $5.95) plus first edition with library binding* (10 new from $5, 13 used from $5, may have a different cover).

* Library Binding is the process of rebinding books with more durable materials. This may include replacing covers, repairing damaged pages, and plastic-covering covers to provide increased protection. Amazon sometimes fails to distinguish library-bound older editions from current editions, as in the case of “The Werewolf Book” above, as can be discerned by the clearly visible “second edition” text on the cover of the product on offer and the absence of that text on the version accessible through the “library binding” tab on the product page.


The Complete Idiot's Guide To Vampires

1148. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Vampires – Jay Stevenson

There does seem to be a greater willingness on the part of the Complete Idiot’s Guides to embrace “fringe subjects” than the “For Dummies” books. This is another volume that we couldn’t resist – we have no idea of the content, and whether or not it would have been useful when we hit our players with a Chinese Vampire who had stowed away on their ship, but even without that, it raised our eyebrows.

Kindle ($10.21) or paperback (37 used from 5¢, 10 new from $25.69, 2 collectible from $9):

The Complete Idiot's Guide To Zombies

1149. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Zombies – Nathan Robert Brown

Mike has never been a big fan of the Zombie Horde in movies or fiction (with one or two little-known exceptions) – he far prefers intelligent opposition in his games. But the irony of enjoying the relentlessness of the Terminators isn’t lost on him. Nevertheless, Zombies and Voodoo go together like swamps and mosquitoes – and, as mentioned earlier, 20% of the adventures he has collaborated on have had a Voodoo element, as does his Zenith-3 campaign. So this book definitely deserves a place on the reference shelf.
Kindle $11.76 or paperback (31 used from 1¢, 9 new from $28.97).

The Genesis Shield

1150. The Genesis Shield – Steven Spruill

Two things have to be said straight up: First, this is a work of fiction. Second, Mike is listing it (at the very last minute) without consulting the co-authors of this series.

Why? Because aside from being the most entertaining zombie book or movie he’s ever seen, bar none, it also has an excellent pseudo-scientific foundation for its sentient, conniving, cooperating zombie horde – and never even comes close to using the term Zombie, which would undermine that credibility. He also loves the perverse twist on the Captain America origin concept.

How adaptable to Pulp would it be? Well, there would need to be some changes made, that’s for certain, but it’s a matter of replacing one or two details with something more period-appropriate, and the central chain of logic would then hold true. Those changes would also change the scope of the problem from nation-wide to relatively local (no artificial weapons of mass destruction yet) – which makes this more suitable as a Pulp plotline, not less.

Paperback. 25 used from $0.01, 4 new from $65.21, 8 collectible from $2.75.

More copies: 13 used from $0.01, 4 new from $89.05, 1 collectible from $2.34.

Still more copies: 5 used from $14.49, 3 new from more than $200.

Regional Cryptozoology

The discovery of the first book listed in this section made us aware of the existence of “regional guides to weird stuff” for the first time. The next thing that we uncovered were the books listed in the haunting/ghosts section, followed by the remainder of the items in this section, and then the “Regional Myths and Legends” sections’ contents as the piece-de-resistance.

The Mystery Animals of Pennsylvania

1151. The Mystery Animals of Pennsylvania – Andrew Gable

The product description at Amazon tells us about the author and nothing about the book. Fortunately, there are two customer reviews that are more on-point. “Decent book with a few good stories about various cryptids in Pennsylvania. Overall, the book is good, my only complaint is that it’s a little disjointed in places and isn’t really well organized. In addition, most of the information is taken from other books, for example the chapter on thunderbirds is mostly taken from Lyman’s books about Potter County, PA.” – “‘Mystery Animals of Pennsylvania’ is by far the best work available on the zoological mysteries of the state. Gable’s attention to historical detail gives the work an almost scholarly feel, and the breadth of topics covered make the book a consistently interesting read from cover to cover.”

228-page Paperback; 8 used copies from $21.40 (but were a lot less when we listed the book), 15 new from $13.67. For a buck-fourty, we’ll look the other way.

Monsters of Maryland

1152. Monsters of Maryland: Mysterious Creatures in the Old Line State – Ed Okonowicz

Maryland seems to be well-populated by Cryptids to judge by the content list for this book, which covers Bigfoot, the Sea Serpent Chessie, the Snarly Yow, the Bunnyman, goat-men, swamp monsters, and more. Five of 7 readers have it five stars (and the other two gave it four), so that’s approaching a consensus in our book. The biggest criticism offered is that the Bigfoot chapter is “a little boring”.

Kindle ($9.46) and 160-page Paperback (19 used from $2.89, 25 new from $7.54):

More copies of the paperback (7 used from $5.79, 7 new from $24.02):

Still more copies of the paperback (10 used from $6.87, 9 new from $16.47):

Monsters of North Carolina

1153. Monsters of North Carolina: Mysterious Creatures in the Tar Heel States – John Hairr

Nick Redfern, another author, provides the product description: “From supernatural lake monsters to giant snakes, Bigfoot to big cats, and wild men to strange, flying things, Hairr covers them all . . . and then some!” Also includes some ghost stories.

Kindle ($9.27) and 128-page Paperback (13 used from $7.13, 15 new from the same price):

More copies: 9 used from $17.05, 9 New from $18.79:

Strange Pennsylvania Monsters

1154. Strange Pennsylvania Monsters – Michael Newton

We were going to recommend another in the “Monsters Of” series, but at almost $40 a copy, the price was too high. Fortunately, Mike spotted this alternative. Not much more need be said about it, you know exactly what the book will be about.

Paperback, 192 pages, 20 used copies from $8.27, 14 new from $10.

If you want a Kindle edition, “Monsters Of Pennsylvania” offers one for $8.99.

Monsters of Virginia

1155. Monsters of Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Old Dominion – L B Taylor, Jr.

Bigfoot, The Wampus Cat, Chessie the sea serpent, The Snallygaster, and Other strange phenomena including vampires, werewolves, thunderbirds, goatmen, and out-of-place animals.

Kindle (9.58), 144-page Paperback (27 used from $2.50, 19 new from $7.26).

Monsters of West Virginia

1156. Monsters of West Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Mountain States – Rosemary Ellen Gulley

Mothman, The Grafton Monster, The Wampus Cat, White Things, and other bizarre creatures including Bigfoot, lizard people, and out-of-place panthers.

Kindle ($9.59) or 144-page paperback (18 used from $5.32, 15 new from $7.42).

Monsters of New York

1157. Monsters of New York: Mysterious Creatures in the Empire State – Bruce Hallenbeck

‘Champ’ the Lake Champlain Monster, the Adirondack Bigfoot, the Kinderhook Creature, Sewer Alligators, the Montauk Monster, Catamounts, and more. In fact, everything up to and including aliens, courtesy of this offering from Fortean Researcher Bruce Hallenbeck. It certainly impressed another ‘true believer’.

Kindle ($9.06) or 144-page paperback (15 used from $7.16, 17 new from $7.25).

Monsters of Massachusetts

1158. Monsters of Massachusetts: Mysterious Creatures in the Bay State – Loren Coleman

Some consider Loren Coleman to be the leader of the pack when it comes to Cryptozoology. Massachusetts mysteries like the Dover Demon and the Bridgewater Triangle have names because Coleman ‘discovered’ and named them. This book includes, amongst others, the Dover Demon, the Gloucester Sea Serpent, Hockomock Swamp’s Beasties, Pukwudgees, and of course, Bigfoot.

Kindle ($9.02) or 128-page paperback (18 used from $7.30, 20 new from $7.41)

Monsters Of Illiinois

1159. Monsters of Illinois: Mysterious Creatures in the Prairie State – Troy Taylor

Bigfoot, the Big Muddy Monster, the Piasa Bird, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, and other strange creatures, including vampires, alligators in the sewer, out-of-place panthers, thunderbirds, and lake monsters.

Kindle ($8.99) or 128-page paperback (22 used from $0.98, 15 new from $7.29)

… and there, the “Monsters Of” series seems to end. But not the Cryptids!

Strange Minnesota Monsters

1160. Strange Minnesota Monsters – Christopher S. Larsen

Minnesota eyewitnesses allege sightings of Bigfoot in Two Harbors, Wendigos in Roseau, lake monsters in Lake Pepin, Mothman near Rochester, and trolls in Cannon Falls. (The book description then adds a witty remark about Prince as a Cryptid). Deliberately excludes ghosts, as the author has another book covering Ghosts of Southwestern Minnesota.

Paperback, 192 Pages; 18 used from $2.59, 15 new from $8.90.

It Came From Ohio

1161. It Came From Ohio: True Tales of the Weird, Wild, and Unexplained – James Renner

An investigative reporter, Renner reports on 13 tales of “mysterious, creepy, and unexplained events in the Buckeye State, including the giant, spark-emitting Loveland Frog; the bloodthirsty Melon Heads of Kirtland; the lumber-wielding Werewolf of Defiance; the Mothman of the Ohio River; the UFO that [allegedly] inspired “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”; and more.”

Kindle ($3) or 116-page paperback (15 used from $3.98, 15 new from $4.17).

The Field Guide to Bigfoot and other mystery primates

1162. The Field Guide to Bigfoot and other mystery primates – Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe

“…a comprehensive study of the astonishing variety of puzzling primates that are being reported by eyewitnesses around the world – but that science has failed to recognize. This fully illustrated volume … contains … references, range maps, and typical footprints.”

“…attempts to sort out the different creatures, coming up with a classification of eight possible mystery primates. But this book makes no real attempt to persuade skeptics of the existence of any of them. It’s [a] sort of speculative taxonomy…”

Many of the reviews seem to value the book based on the degree to which the content agrees with their personal theories and biases. Some note that there’s an absence of fluff; this doesn’t report on sightings so much as compiles available information on what was sighted. Which makes it a great reference book on the subject.

Kindle ($7.90), hardcover 224 pages (13 new from $22.95, 9 used from $26.54) or paperback (same page-count, and our recommendation) 23 new from $14, 17 used from $6.91).

The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep

1163. The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep – Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe

After the listing above, you should know exactly what to expect from this book.

Kindle ($9.98) or 380-page paperback (38 used from $1.29, 31 new from $7.86)


Books About General Mysticism, Superstitions, and other Strange Stuff


Superstitions of the Sea

1164. Superstitions of the Sea: A Digest of Beliefs, Customs, and Mystery – Jim Clary

A late discovery, this book is a compilation of the strange, mythical, and often comical beliefs of mariners from ancient times to the present. Although not the primary field of interest of the author, he kept discovering maritime folklore entwined within whatever he was studying at the time, finding himself lured off-topic for hours at a time as this or that maritime superstition held him spellbound. This book is the inevitable result.

Clary has built the book around a classification system for the myths and superstitions that he had encountered over the years, including anecdotes on: animals, burials, charms, demons, evil eyes, figureheads, ghost ships, hexes, icebergs, Jonahs, knots, launchings, myths, navigation, omens, people, romance, shipwrecks, triangles, the unexplained, Vikings, and weather phenomena. His own experiences have been supplemented by research in old volumes of maritime lore and contemporary interviews with sailors.

Free Audiobook or 360-page hardcover (36 used from $2.66, 19 new from $25.92, 2 collectible from $19.95).

Mysticism/Mystery Compendiums


Mysteries Of The World

1165. Mysteries Of The World: Unexplained Wonders and Mysterious Phenomena – Herbert Genzmer and Ulrich Hellenbrond

Short entries on a number of unusual phenomena, one of several candidates to substitute for our preferred choice, which does not have enough copies available. There are lots of cheap copies and it seems reasonably comprehensive.

Mysteries Of The World - Parragon Books

1166. Mysteries Of The World – Parragon Books

Not to be confused with the book of the same name listed previously (and the “rr” in “Parragon” is also not a mistake). Like the two previous suggestions, this appears to stake a wide territory and is reported to be lavishly-illustrated with few stock photographs – and that alone might make it an excellent companion to either of the preceding recommendations. Reviews suggest that the author is too quick to swallow anything UFO-related and relatively skeptical of biblical anecdotes, a bias that might need to be taken into account.

100 of the world's greatest mysteries

1167. 100 Of The World’s Greatest Mysteries – E. Randall Floyd

This reportedly takes a more serious and less credulous look at the subject. Floyd is a news journalist and professor of history, so his approach is relatively no-nonsense – providing balance to the other suggested works. Some reviews have been critical and suggested that there is nothing new in the content, however. Used copies start at 1 cent (plus P&H) so it’s not unreasonable to find out for yourself.

Books about Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy


Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy

1168. Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy – Emile Grillot De Givry, translated by J Courtenay Locke

395 pages and 373 illustrations of the iconography of occultism. If you can’t get at least 100 pulp plots out of this book, you aren’t trying hard enough. Some of them might be awfully similar to each other, though. The original edition was published in 1973 and is the copy we have based this referral on (pictured) but it was republished in 1991 (with a very different cover). Although there aren’t many copies of the later edition around, the few that are tend to be cheaper than the older version – so try this link first, and if they are all gone (or more than about US$7 a copy) try this one

The Complete Idiot's Guide To Alchemy

1169. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Alchemy – Dennis William Hauck

Everyone knows that the “Holy Grail” goal of Alchemy was to turn a base metal (cheap) into gold (valuable) [Irrelevant side-note: there is actually an atomic reaction that turns iron into radioactive gold]. But Alchemy was much more than this, being a foundation for both Chemistry and Pharmacology. Throw in the arcane associations with the subject (largely the result of populist writers of books about the paranormal who were also known to be interested in, or believers in, Alchemy), and you have ample foundations for a pulp adventure or even a whole campaign.

Kindle ($11.76) or paperback (32 used from $7.21, 44 new from $9.55):

More copies (11 used from $11.54, 8 new from $27.65):

Still More Copies (23 used from $11.54, 17 new from $39.49):

These are all exactly the same book, so buy from whichever page is currently the cheapest.

Gemstone Lore


The Mystical Lore of Precious Stones, Volume 1

1170. The Mystical Lore of Precious Stones – Volume 1: Superstitions, Talismans & Amulets, and Crystal Gazing The Classic Writings of George Frederick Kunz, Ph. D.

See below for description.

The Mystical Lore of Precious Stones, Volume 2

1171. The Mystical Lore of Precious Stones – Volume 2: Astrology, Birth Stones, and Therapeutic & Religious uses – The Classic Writings of George Frederick Kunz, Ph. D.

Kunz was the most respected researcher into Gemstones and Gemology of the early 20th century, so much so that a century later, many of his works are still in print. Quantities of this book fall just short of our standards, but we’ve made an exception.

The Curious Lore of Precious Stones

1172. The Curious Lore Of Precious Stones

This may be a compendium of other books, including the two listed above, or it may be a completely separate work. We suspect the latter from comments, but don’t have a copy (yet) to state so, definitively. This is a 512-page compilation of folklore and folk-beliefs relating to gemstones from all over the world as well as an in-depth study of the history of gemstones. Don’t expect light reading, this is a serious book by a renowned expert.

Books about Strange (but mostly True) Stuff


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols
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1173. The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs & Symbols – Adele Nozedar

We were unsure quite where to list this one, described as “The Ultimate A-Z Guide from Alchemy to the Zodiac”, so we created this category to hold it – then added other things to the mix.

The paperback is cheaper but the hardcover (pictured) is also affordable. Also available in a Kindle Edition for a price in between the two, from either of the links provided.

Documentaries about Strange (but mostly True) Stuff



1174. Derren Brown: Messiah

This is a TV special from Channel 4 in the UK, featuring hypnotist and stage magician Derren Brown, one of several that we recommend. This special explores the relationship between confirmation bias and belief in the supernatural and theological. Conversions to Christianity with a touch are just one of the feats that Brown demonstrates.

Unfortunately, it appears to never have been released on DVD. You can read about the special at this Wikipedia page which is better than nothing.

Derren Brown - The Specials

1175. Derren Brown: The Heist

Under the cover of a motivational seminar, Derren Brown convinces a group of ordinary British businessmen and women to steal £100,000 in what they believe is an armed robbery. Available as part of a collection, “Derren Brown: The Specials” (the others are worth watching, too).

There aren’t many copies left in the US (and it is a UK import, which may not play on some DVD players) but they are reasonably-priced: Readers from the UK have a slightly more generous supply, also at good prices: Once again, Canadian readers are the most poorly-served in both supply and price:

Derren Brown - The Experiments

1176. Derren Brown: The Experiments

This is a series of 4 specials, each of which stands alone.

The first is “The Assassin”, in which the power of suggestion is used to turn an ordinary person into a willing Assassin without their consent or knowledge.

The second investigates the power of deindividuation, in which a group will do things that the individual would not find conscionable without really understanding how things reach that point – this is directly relevant to the way the Nazi state persuaded its citizens to carry out atrocities before and during the second world war.

The third, “The Guilt Trip”, shows how a completely innocent person can be persuaded to not only confess to a crime they did not commit, but can be completely convinced that they did in fact carry out the crime.

The final episode is “The Secret Of Luck” and it’s the only one that isn’t directly relevant to the Pulp GM. It’s about the perception of lucky or unlucky streaks and how they influence behavior. Okay, maybe it’s relevant after all!

Once again, there are limited copies available through Amazon US and these are UK imports which may not work in domestic players: Also once again, UK readers fair rather better in terms of both availability and price: As usual, there are fewer copies available to Canadian readers and they are more expensive, but still reasonable in price.


1177. Kuru: The Science And The Sorcery

Kuru is a disease that is transmitted solely by cannibalism and is endemic to the wilds of New Guinea where that practice is a recurring ritual. This tells the story of how the disease was discovered (during the pulp era or close to it), how the native tribes react to an outbreak, what limited treatments are available even in modern times, and how Papua New Guinea tribal society is evolving as a result. Includes interviews with family members of sufferers and footage of sufferers which some viewers may find disturbing. This is NOT one to show the kids. While this documentary has been released on DVD, we were unable to locate any available copies through any of the usual vendors. We did find it on YouTube, however:

Books about Strange (but mostly Dubious/Fringe) Stuff


The Complete Books Of Charles Fort

1178. The Complete Books Of Charles Fort – Charles Fort and Damon Knight

A collection of unusual anecdotes such as rains of fish etc that might be useful to the Pulp GM.

Those who want a physical book should buy the volume listed (pictured), but anyone with a Kindle should instead look at “The Fortean Collection” which appears to contain an extra “book” not in the “complete books” and costs a lot less.

Secret Of The Andes

1179. Secret Of The Andes – Borther Philip, illustrated by David Singer

“Secret of the Andes contains messages from the Brotherhood hidden high in the Andes Mountains. There, ancient truths and knowledge from highly-evolved cultures have been stored for thousands of years. From the monastery of the Seven Rays.” Ohhhkayyy, if you say so.

Second- and third-hand information is taken as fact and used as the foundation for wild speculation in this early new age book – that isn’t even very well written. But throw all that aside and keep the interesting parts for your campaign – “High in the Andes there is a secret Brotherhood living in something called ‘The Monastery Of Rays’ that preserves secret truths and knowledge from past highly-evolved cultures until…” write the rest yourself.

Hardcovers are too expensive for this list, but paperback copies (144 pages) start at around $10.

Crystal Skulls

The resources in this section are presented in a very specific sequence, from as mainstream and non-fringe as we could find through to extremely strange – what conventional science might describe as “fruitcake fringe, with added nuts”.

By the way, and (almost) totally off-topic, while gathering these links we came across something truly remarkable, the most expensive Kindle book that we’ve ever seen! There is a book (we’re not bothering with a link for reasons that will become obvious) named “Crystal Skull: Thirteen gates, Quetzalcoatl, Eldorado, archeology, interest and egg”. There is one second-hand copy available for $187.72; there are 6 new from $178.59; Amazon wants $200; and the Kindle edition is a “mere” (wait for it) $158.06. For a 107-page book claiming to be in its 78th edition, and written for 5-18 year olds… oh, and it has one customer rating (wonder if it’s from the person with the one second-hand copy available?) in the form of a completely unrelated poem, which rates the book as having five stars…


The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls

1180. The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls: Unlocking the Secrets of the Past, Present, and Future – Chris Morton and Ceri Louise Thomas

We couldn’t possibly put it any better than the back cover blurb:

“Native American legend tells of thirteen life-size crystal skulls said to contain crucial information about humankind’s true purpose and destiny. The legend prophesied[1] that one day, at a time of great crisis for humanity, all thirteen crystal skulls would be rediscovered and brought together to reveal information vital to the very survival of the human race. To date several skulls have been discovered.

“This book is the definitive guide to the facts and legends that inspired the May 2008 movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It explores what these mysterious crystal skulls are, where they came from, and what they may have to offer. The book follows Chris Morton and Ceri Louise Thomas on their journey of discovery from the ancient temples of the Maya to the British Museum, the Smithsonian, and to the crystal laboratories of Hewlett-Packard, where scientific tests on one of the skulls — made from the same quartz crystal used in today’s computers[2] — lead to the conclusion, “This skull shouldn’t even exist.” Their journey also leads to Native shamans and elders who reveal the sacred knowledge and vital information that these skulls hold about coming Earth changes and humanity’s imminent destiny.”

Our footnotes:
[1] Past Tense? It doesn’t prophecy this any more? Or the prophecy has come to pass?
[2] This is drawing rather a long bow. Quartz was used in computers back in the 80s for digital watches and other electronics, but had nothing to do with memory or processing power – they simply set the clock speed, the speed of the electrical impulses that were, in turn, used to control the computers. It’s like pointing to a plastic milk bottle and saying, “this is made from exactly the same compound, plastics, as used in modern after-market wheel hubs, so this bottle must have something to do with transportation.”

Of course, the authors have drunk deeply of the kool-aid. The British Museum and Smithsonian crystal skulls have been discovered to be modern fakes, and the Mitchell-Hodges skull is also a fake according to the sworn testimony of his adopted daughter, Anna, who was with him at the time.

This book takes them all as genuine and dismisses or ignores all evidence to the contrary (some of which didn’t emerge until after it was first published, to be fair). At least the authors take a superficially scientific approach in their attempts to evaluate the skulls! But the Pulp GM is free to do whatever he wants with the legend…

Kindle ($9.33) or 424 page paperback; 100 used copies from 1¢, 27 new from $5.88, 1 collectible from $9.85.

There are also a few copies of what appears to be an older edition with a different subtitle (“A Real Life Detective Story of the Ancient World”) and an arguably prettier cover (pictured): Paperback, 400 pages, 40 used from 1¢, 7 new from $4.

The Crystal Skull

1181. The Crystal Skull: The story of the mystery, myth, and magic of the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull discovered in a lost Mayan city during a search for Atlantis – Richard M Garvin

From a customer review: “In the 1920s, F. A. Mitchell-Hedges and his adopted daughter, Anna, [reportedly] discovered a mysterious skull made of quartz crystal in the ruins called Lubaantun in Honduras. Since then, people have speculated about the origins of the skull and what its purpose was.”

A second customer picks up the story: “It is alleged that Anna Mitchel-Hedges paid $50,000 to Richard M Garvin to write a legend about the so-called Crystal Skull. In fact, there were two identical crystal Skull that are supposed to have been made in Bavaria. One was said to have been sold to F Mitchel-Hedges at auction in England for £4400. However, many years later, Anna Mitchel-Hedges married and sold the Crystal Skull to the ‘That’s Incredible’ Museum on the basis of the legend.”

This book includes a photograph of an affidavit signed by Anna attesting to the story of the skull’s origin and is the original account of the alleged finding and of subsequent attempts at verification and validation. There is a large overlap with the content of the previous book, which retraces the steps of those verification/validation attempts.

Is the Crystal Skull a hoax? The most recent testing seems to say yes. But this 108-page 1973 book contains the original tale of the Skull’s discovery, be it fiction, deception, or truth, from long before those findings – and hence details what the world would know during the Pulp Era. Where his story goes from there is up to the GM!

Don’t bother considering new or collectible copies, they are way too expensive, especially given the page count. Used hardcovers start at $6.74 (26 available) and used paperbacks are from $2.04 (22 available).

The Crystal Skulls

1182. The Crystal Skulls: Astonishing Portals to Man’s Past – David Childress and Stephen S Mehler

“Crystal skulls are said to have caused violence, physical injury, and even death. Can it be that these uncanny objects are our link to mankind’s dark, magical past? Are they messengers from another age-or another world? A fascinating compendium of current information on crystal skulls by two authors with first hand knowledge.”

So, who are these authors with such experience? Childress is “a recognized expert not only on ancient civilizations and technology, but also on free energy, anti-gravity and UFOs. His books on these subjects include: The Anti-Gravity Handbook; Anti-Gravity & the World Grid; Anti-Gravity and the Unified Field; Extraterrestrial Archeology; Vimana Aircraft of Ancient India & Atlantis; A Hitchhikers Guide To Armageddon The Free-Energy Device Handbook, Man-Made UFOs, The Time Travel Handbook, Atlantis & the Power System of the Gods and others.” And, indeed, we see his footprints all over these lists, because in an RPG, there is room for the fantastic, no matter how implausible, if it can be made to look good.

And Stephen Mehler? A former director of the Rosicrucians of San Jose, he “is currently a student of the ancient Egyptian mysteries.”

The astonishing thing isn’t that this book is fringe theory at best; it’s that it only marks the mid-way point in our journey through the strange and unlikely beliefs associated with Crystal Skulls. Which must mean that the next two books are really strange…

Kindle ($9.52) or 294-page paperback (23 used from $5.18, 20 new from $14.01

Crystal Skull Magick

1183. Crystal Skull Magick – Elizabeth Gardiepy

“Working with crystal skull energy is an amazing experience. This book shares basic magick involving the crystal skull energy and how to use it. From ritual and spells to chants and gridding, everything you need to know to start working with the crystal skull energy in a magickal way, is now at your fingertips!”

New Age magic intersects with Crystal Skull mythology and legend in this 104-page paperback (6 used from $11.13, 14 new from $10.15, also available for Kindle at $4.99).

The Starchild Channels

1184. The StarChild Channels: The Crystal Skull from Beyond the Stars – Linda Hostalek D O, with introduction by Joshua Shapiro and Katrina Head

We almost included a book co-written by Shapiro but on close inspection it didn’t seem to offer anything that this book didn’t cover, at a relatively steep price. He is big on the “Crystal Skulls as alien technology” theory; the fact that he penned an introduction therefore provides a very basic foundation to the subject matter when coupled with the title. But, before we get into specifics about the content, let’s first meet the author.

Linda Hostalek was born and raised near Chicago, with a love of art and spirituality. She is a trained cranial osteopath, a medical intuitive, an Andean-trained shaman, an artist, an author, and a holistic physician. She “weaves the teachings of the earth and human energetic systems, with medical and spiritual insight. As a master ceremonialist and teacher of Shamanic apprenticeships, she helps people to live in the energetic stream and to restore the mind body and spirit.

“Most of her painting are made with holy water and contain the a vibrational essence of healing….”

Okay, to the content. Look, there’s no way to synopsize or sugar-coat this without diminishing the awesome jaw-dropping totality. This is the out-there extreme of fringe beliefs, at least by most people’s standards. To convey the full impact, we have no choice but to quote the Amazon product description verbatim:

“StarChild, the Crystal Skull beyond the Stars, is a crystalline star being who desires to communicate with humans in an effort to guide them through this world to their true purpose in the multiverse. StarChild and Linda were united during the 11-11-11 vortex of transformation, and the information of this and other worlds has been coming through ever since.

“The introduction to this work is by the Crystal Skull Explorers, Joshua Shapiro and Katrina Head, who first introduced Linda to StarChild. The fascinating background lays the groundwork for over a hundred channels. Designed to be a divination work, one can flip through the pages or read it outright to gain wisdom and understanding to guide your own life. Information is contained regarding other realms, star ships, consciousness, love, healing, compassion, and wisdom. You are invited to explore this realm with StarChild. Read it all or one channel a day for the essence of the day, and how to prepare your energy field for it. As a bonus gift, some selected channels from the Starkeepers material, which also come through Linda, are also included, as is a photo gallery of StarChild.”

Where does one begin to assess that? She comes across as someone who genuinely wants to help people…

It’s radical even for New Age beliefs, but it gets to alien contact by way of crystal skulls… This entire shelf has been devoted to superstition and weird beliefs, but the above would seem to be the last word, bringing this shelf to a close – because what could possibly follow it?.

Kindle ($6.08) or 348-page paperback (6 used from $14.28, 15 new from $13.03).



Afterword by Blair:

What would Pulp be without the Mystical?

Mystic artifacts like the Ark Of The Covenant or the Spear Of Destiny make great Macguffins, and Voodoo Priests*, Nazi Blood Magicians or Asian Mystics are perfect Enemies for two-fisted Pulp Adventurers.
   * Spelling chosen deliberately to signify an “over the top” interpretation.

Large parts of the world – the Jungles of Brazil, the Himalayan mountains, the Gobi Desert, Frozen Antarctica – are poorly explored and mostly unknown at best. Where better to place a lost temple or city or mystical artifact?

In a Pulp universe, any superstition or legend might be a true story. Does the ghost of a gangster still haunt the place where (according to local legend) he was murdered, or could it be a hoax to cover up some other nefarious scheme?

Surprises of any sort can appear, real or otherwise, at any time in a pulp Universe. It can truly be said that the laws of nature are absolute – but only move at the speed of plot.

And there is always the possibility of people with extraordinary or unusual abilities – though here the GM should exercise a little caution, as they can easily overpower the game. Still, an NPC with knowledge of the dark arts – or the hidden truths – may be useful to feed information to the players.

Which, of course, raises the possibility of Cryptids. Whether they be Yetis in the snow-topped Himalayas, Thunderbirds in the American Southwest, or Bunyips in the Australian Outback, a Cryptid always makes a good excuse for an Adventure – regardless of that cryptid being real, fantasy, delusion, hysterical conviction, or hoax being used by a villain to scare away potential witnesses. The cryptid’s role in the adventure is, in many respects, secondary to the mere fact of its existence.

The Pulp GM, like all Gamemasters, has a certain amount of suspension-of-disbelief capital that he can play, but this can be frittered away by evaporating the sense of mystery inherent to the game. As much as you possibly can, you want to always leave mysteries alive for another day. No matter what the PCs may encounter, think very carefully before permitting them to capture it and parade it through the streets back in civilization.

Don’t squander your capital, and it will continue to reward you in adventure after adventure. Every mysterious creature, strange event, or urban legend that is positively confirmed (one way or another) erodes the wellspring of suspension-of-disbelief; before too long, your players can come to expect answers, every time.

And don’t forget to give your players time to get used to “normality” in between encounters. The weird should always be a surprise.

Exploit the fringes of the known, flirt with the strange and unlikely, but always leave room for doubt and deniability, and those fringes will always be up your sleeve when you want or need them.

Next in this series (in early February): The 13th shelf – The first of two Odds & Sods shelves, this one focusing on GMing and related tools and skills, and especially on books that offer practical advice or useful tools or techniques.


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The Pentagon Of Encounter Design

If You Go Down To The Woods by Jim Daly

Image by / jim daly

There are five attributes to any encounter that define it, and any one of them can be the foundation of that encounter.

In the old days of D&D, it used to be that there was relatively limited flexibility. You chose an encounter based on one of these five criteria and everything else was more-or-less dictated by that choice. This was both a blessing and a curse, because it limited the scope to which the GM could tailor has encounters to his needs, and one or more of these corners of the Pentagon usually had to be compromised – but it also meant that encounters could be created fairly quickly and easily, simply because most of the choices were dictated by the domino effect of the one primary choice.

Points-based systems such as the Hero System afford far greater flexibility because you can construct any encounter more-or-less to order. But they provide this flexibility at a cost – construction time and complexity. One of the skills any GM of such a game system must acquire is the capacity to shortcut this creation process.

About six or seven years ago, everything changed with the advent of a new technique: Reskinning. Depending on how far you went with it, suddenly the entire gamut of possibilities was open to you, quickly and relatively easily – but with freedom to choose comes the need to consider the options; no matter how efficient the reskinning process is made, it is inherently always going to be longer and more complex than simply picking a monster out of the appropriate rulebook

This article is going to attempt to simplify the process of making effective choices in such a way that it applies equally to the really-flexible systems and to the process of reskinning. If I succeed, the results should be better encounters, produced more efficiently, regardless of game system.

The Pentagon

The reason that I have high hopes – in fact, near-total confidence – in my ability to pull this off is that theoretical studies of this sort of thing have always assumed that the five variables, the points of the Pentagon, are independent of each other. It’s my belief and contention that they are actually far more closely interrelated, and that this relationship permits the construction of a logical road-map through the choices that defines the easiest path for the GM to follow.

Before we can get there, you need to understand what the five choices, or points on the Pentagon, are, and this is where a lot of past analysts have gotten themselves into a tangle, because this is a Pentagon with 9 points! This causes complications than obscure the relatively simplicity. Tell you what, let’s deal with these as we come to them.

The five points are:

  • 1. Plot
    • 1a. Purpose
  • 2. Environment
  • 3. Abilities
    • 3a. Offensive
    • 3b. Defensive
    • 3c. Other
  • 4. Character
    • 4a. Capabilities
    • 4b. History
  • 5. Challenge

I have no doubt that most readers will know what most if not all of these are, but let’s (briefly) get acquainted with each in this context”


What encounter does the story need to propel it forward? Is it someone who knows something the PCs need to know, or someone to complicate their lives, or a undead in thrall, or what?


What’s the villain’s plan, and how is the next encounter to fit into that? Is he removing potential opposition, distracting an enemy, correcting a mistake, or going about his nefarious business? This is a sub-type of Plot.


“Well, the PCs are in the elemental plane of fire, so some sort of fire-based encounter….”


‘Abilities’ refers to what the enemy in the encounter can do. You might pick a particular ability because it hasn’t been used for a while, or because you think it would be interesting, or because you have an idea for doing something interesting with it, or simply because it catches your eye. Abilities are often subdivided into three broad categories.


Offensive Abilities are those used to harm, manipulate, or impede the PCs.


Defensive Abilities are used to protect the NPC from harm, manipulation, or from being impeded.


Other can be very broad in scope, but usually comes down to information-gathering or protection from information-gathering.


Character-based encounters are those based on what one or more of the PCs can do or have done. There are two sub-varieties.


This is the “can do” part of the encounter definition.


This is the “have done” part of the encounter definition.


Finally, you might choose an opponent for the PCs based simply on the degree of challenge that you want them to pose to the PCs. The only thing wrong with that is that one or more of the other aspects of the encounter often get scant or no attention.

The process of encounter selection

The contention that I am offering up is that because of the degree of interdependence and inter-relatedness of these various aspects of an encounter, once you have selected one as being the determining factor in who or what will be encountered, there will be a logical choice for the secondary criteria to employ, and that will lead to a logical choice for the tertiary, and so on. One answer leads to the next question like dominos falling.

A key 6th criterion will be used to dictate this logic: Instigator.


Whoever causes the encounter to take place usually has a lot of control over the circumstances. If the PCs are confronting the villain in his lair, this control is shared; the villain has control over the environment, the PCs have control over the manner in which the confrontation proceeds, and the timing.

The instigator, coupled with the principle of self-interest, creates a compelling logical channel through the process of defining the encounter. No matter which starting point you choose from amongst the five, or amongst the nine if you prefer, there is a single “best path” through the minefield of all these decisions that not only simplifies the choices, but that defines the encounter in the process.

Plot-based encounters

I do a lot of these, because I’m a strongly story-focused GM. But I also leaven the mix with some random-chance encounters, simply because there is a hostile force to be encountered; some of these are based on where the plot has brought the PCs (environment-based), some on one or more abilities that I think will be fun and challenging, and so on. A lot of the focus here at Campaign Mastery is on showing how to accomplish this, for which I make no apologies; but other approaches can be equally valid.

So the plot calls for an encounter with a character of ambition A, whose plan is B, whose personality is C, whose plot function or personal story arc is D and whose stage within that personal story arc is D1 – the very beginning, from the point of view of his interaction with the PCs. I will probably have a name, though even that might be up for grabs.

Some of his abilities might be dictated by future plot function, but there is no restriction that states that he has to have those abilities already; he might acquire them in between this encounter and that future one, possibly even in response to this encounter. In fact, this encounter might have no purpose other than to introduce this character and his motivations and ambitions and to justify his acquiring that future capability. But beyond that, I have no idea of what this character can do, at least not at this point in time.

In the case of plot-based encounters, the logical path is as follows:

  1. Plot
  2. Instigator
  3. Environment
  4. Challenge
  5. Abilities
  6. Character

Plot is first, because that has been selected as the foundation of the encounter.

Instigator is second, because that defines who has control over the remaining aspects of the encounter. A key decision related to Instigator is always “why is the creature instigating the encounter”?

Environment is third. If the villain is the instigator, he will choose a battleground that gives him the advantage and that is within his reach. That advantage might be in enhancing his own abilities or in handicapping the PCs. What environment that the instigator can reach is most advantageous to his achieving his goals? If the villain is not the instigator, the environment is determined by where the PCs are and what they are doing at the time of the encounter.

Challenge is fourth. Once you know the environment, and whether it helps, hinders, or is neutral to either or both parties within the encounter, you can assess the challenge required, so that is fourth. If neither side are advantaged or hindered, or if both are equally impacted, the determinant factor is how difficult you want the encounter to be; if one side is advantaged relative to the other, you may need to weaken that side relative to the challenge level you would have set were the encounter to take place on neutral ground. In D&D / Pathfinder, this is the point at which you choose the base creature that is to be reskinned or enhanced. In a points-based system, this is where you decide the basics of what the character can do, given the environment and the challenge desired.

Abilities come fifth. Once you have the base creature, the environment, and the challenge level desired, you can compare the abilities of the base creature and tweak them accordingly, either enhancing them, diminishing them, or replacing them. This is the actual process of re-skinning. In a points-based system, this is where you decide all the nuances that distinguish this character’s “fire blast” (or whatever) from that of the last character.

Finally, Character. The significance of the encounter to any character is defined by that character’s relationship to the plot arc that is producing the encounter. It has no determinant value so far as any other defining element of the encounter is concerned.

Once you know all these things, you can create the encounter itself relatively easily. What is the base personality of the being that is to be encountered? How is that going to be affected by the foundation decisions? How does this individual vary from the “base model” – how representative is he? How well does the creature know the environment? How can he best take advantage of the opportunities it offers, how can ge minimize any impairments that result, what is he doing, how are the PCs likely to react and how will the creature react? The foundation decisions and knowledge of who is instigating the encounter and why make these decisions as straightforward as they can possibly be.

Purpose-based encounters

This is a variation on the plot-based encounter in which the encounter is taking place because the creature being encountered is acting to achieve some purpose or carry out some plan. This produces some subtly but profound variations on the process, and even reverses the sequence of two of the later steps.

In the case of purpose-based encounters, the logical path is as follows:

  1. Plot (purpose)
  2. Instigator
  3. Environment
  4. Abilities
  5. Challenge
  6. Character

Plot is first. You can only employ this architecture if you know what the character’s plan is, and are developing the encounter to fit that plan. This is reasoning backwards; it’s normal to have the character and to make a plan based on the character’s capabilities and objective, but this is also much harder work for the GM. It’s usually far easier to come up with a plan, and if the character doesn’t have the capabilities needed to carry that plan out, to set out to obtain them. Instant plot arc! But, more importantly, the character now has a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The plan produces the plotline.

Instigator is second. There are only two alternatives here: either the encounter is an integral part of the plan (in which case the hostile is the instigator) or PCs are to encounter and potentially disrupt the plan (in which case, they are the instigators but with limited control over the situation.

Environment is largely dictated by the plan – it is whatever environment is most conducive to the success of the plan. If the hostile is the instigator, his greater control over the encounter yields a more favorable environment: about 45% of the time, it will be beneficial to him, about 35% of the time it will be neutral, and about 20% of the time it will be to his disadvantage within the encounter. For the PCs, the division is even – one-third beneficial, 1/3 neutral, 1/3 inimical, unless their involvement is a mandated part of the plan, in which case the odds are 20%, 35%, and 45%, respectively. If the hostile is not the instigator, the differences are not so profound: for the hostile, 40, 30, 30; for the PCs, 35, 35, 30. These numbers reflect a number of considerations – the hostile has control over the plan, and environmental variables are going to be a consideration in that plan; and there is a good chance that what suits the hostile will also suit the PCs. So, if a range of environments are suitable to the plan, use these percentages, roll randomly, and decide based on the outcome – and bear in mind that any deliberate choice informs as to the personality of the chooser.

Having defined the plan and the environment, the next logical step is to answer the question, “what does the hostile need to carry out the plan, given these conditions?” This starts you down the road of determining the capabilities of the hostile, of deciding (in D&D terms) what the new skin will be before you decide what creature you are going to wrap it around.

Defining the abilities first can make the next decision, Challenge, more difficult, because you are now matching against two different criteria. First, there is the overall challenge level of the encounter, and second, there is the question of reskinned-abilities relative to the base abilities of the creature and any effect they may have on that overall challenge rating. There are two solutions to this: one quick and easy but vague and risky, and the other more difficult but more rigorous.

Difficult but rigorous: a table of challenge adjustments
There is a very rigorous system provided in the Monster’s Handbook by FFG for the D&D/Pathfinder/d20 system which can be reverse-engineered. But it seems overkill in this situation. So, instead, here are a couple of rough rules of thumb:

  • Rule-of-thumb #1: 1d6 per level, or 1/2 d6 per level with enhancement;
  • Rule-of-thumb #2: every level in advance of the base in one respect is 1/2 a dice overall.

Using these, we can construct a table as follows:

excerpt from table of challenge adjustments

An excerpt from the table. Click on the image to download the table as a PDF.

Down the left-hand column we have the actual number of Hit Dice of the encounter (or equivalent from other systems) – multiply by 20 and add 100 to get Hero System build points, for example. Across the top, we have an estimate of the effectiveness of the combined new abilities of the creature. Most importantly, in the middle, the table contents, we have a rough estimate of the effective power level, assuming that the abilities are replacing those that the creature would normally have. A “+” indicates that you can either distribute +3 in stats or add half a HD of appropriate size.

I have color coded the results – white is fine, no problem; yellow is with caution; pink means with serious care; and red means “not recommended, proceed at your own risk”. In general, yellow starts with a difference between HD and effective power level of 2, pink at a difference of 5 to the top right or 4 to the bottom left, and red at a difference of about 6 or 7 to the top right or 5 to the bottom left. These are just my opinion, and they probably understate the danger margins, if anything.

The table can be used in either of two ways: you can identify the point on each axis of a proposed reskinning job and determine the approximate effectiveness level of the combination; or you can choose the appropriate ability level, track down that column until you get to the white zone, and then move left to identify a range of appropriate HD creatures to re-skin with the new abilities.

Example 1: You want a Kobold (1 HD) who has STR of about 20 and can throw lightning bolts. STR 20 is about 10 higher than what is defined as “average” for the D&D system, so that’s roughly +5 to the level (based on Rule of Thumb #2) – so this along would be appropriate for a creature of 6HD or more. Most creatures of 6HD or more also have an ability of some sort, the Lightning Bolt is not unreasonable; According to the 1HD=1d6 principle (Rule Of Thumb #1) that says 6d6 lightning bolts. Those sound a little strong to the GM, so he drops them to 4d6, a reduction of two, which says that the “appropriate level” should drop by half that (Rule of thumb #2 again). So the combination of abilities is about right for a 5HD creature. Using Kobolds (1HD) as the base creature gives an effective level of 3, and is within the yellow zone. With only 1HD, the kobolds won’t last very long, and will pay off better in XP than their longevity indicates they should.

Example 2: So let’s pick something else, re-skin it as a Kobold, with our extra abilities. The logic that took us to Column five on the table hasn’t changed; so let’s track down that column to get an appropriate range of creatures to be reskinned as our new breed of Thunder Kobold. The first white entry is an effective level of 4, and the last one is 7, with an additional bonus “plus” to get there. Tracking left from those entries gives a HD range of three to eight. Anything in that HD range is appropriate for this reskinning; it’s just a matter of what other abilities and stats come along for the ride, how powerful the PCs are, and how hard we want to challenge them. Consulting my Pathfinder Bestiary, Appendix 9, Creatures by CR reveals Troll in the CR5 category. Perfect – replacing the Trollish regeneration with 4d6 Lightning Bolts, upping the STR slightly, and “reskinning” the result into a Kobold-like shape, and this part of the process is complete!

Finally, Character. The significance of the encounter to any character is defined by that character’s relationship to the purpose/plot that is producing the encounter. It has no determinant value so far as any other defining element of the encounter is concerned.

Once again, the encounter itself is relatively straightforward to write from this point. Any PC encountering a group of these creatures will quickly learn not to judge a book by its’ cover!

Environment-based encounters

There are times when where an encounter is to occur is the dominant consideration. That might be a desert, because the PCs happen to be in a desert, or in an elemental plane, or whatever.

The logical path to defining an environment-based encounter is:

  1. Environment
  2. Instigator
  3. Challenge
  4. Abilities
  5. Plot
  6. Character

First, the environment. Does it advantage or disadvantage the PCs? Will it advantage or disadvantage the hostile?

If the environment hinders the hostile, he is unlikely to be the instigator; he or they is more likely to represent a passive barrier that the PCs must overcome. If the environment helps the hostile, he is more likely to be secure enough to be aggressive or territorial, and therefore to instigate the encounter.

Once you know that, the logical next step is to decide how difficult a challenge this encounter is to pose, given the environmental considerations.

This decision made, it’s easy to replace or modify abilities; the key question is always, “how can the creature use the environment to its advantage, if it’s the instigator? What does it need?” Similar logic enables the creation of abilities for an encounter being built with the Hero system. Use the same principles outlined earlier for any abilities that you decide to change.

By now, the basic outline of how the encounter is going to proceed should be fairly clear; you know the creature and how it is going to fit into the environment, you know how it is going to behave and why the encounter is going to take place. The next decision is how the encounter is going to fit into the plot. If the answer is that it is superfluous to the plot, an arbitrary danger to be faced, then the “plot” question devolves into its’ sub-entity, “Purpose”. What does the creature hope to achieve by Instigating combat? That should define how the encounter will begin, and the various ways in which it could end, requiring only translation into specific outcome descriptions and guidelines. You have the beginning and possible endings of this little mini-story; the middle is up to the players to choose.

A major factor in that choice will be the character histories and attitudes. Having outlined the various outcomes, you can use past behavior and current attitudes as a guideline to the outcomes that are most likely, and lavish a little extra care and prep on them.

Once that’s finished, the encounter is ready to play; there is little or no additional work required. Okay, maybe the narrative that introduces the encounter could do with some additional polish.

Abilities-based encounters

It doesn’t especially matter what the nature of the ability is, the logical path is still the same – but that path has a slight twist to it, compared to the simpler ones that I have examined so far. The path is:

  1. Abilities
  2. Plot/Instigator?
  3. Character
  4. Instigator/Plot
  5. Environment
  6. Challenge

When the most important factor in the encounter creation process is an ability that you want the encountered creature to posses, your reasons for wanting to base an encounter around that ability are going to be metagame-based nine times out of ten. Whether it’s an idea that sounds like fun, or because legend has it that creatures with that ability can be found in this part of the game world (and you’ve decided to make it true and not a myth), or because you haven’t used the ability (or anything like it) for a while, or whatever – those are all metagame to some extent.

An ability-based encounter, by definition, has a limited plot function. If it didn’t, the plot point would be the primary factor.

The second step, after defining the abilities that the encounter is to be based on, is to determine whether or not you have enough information based on that limited plot function to determine who is going to be the instigator. Obviously, if the PCs are looking for a creature with a certain ability – and there are reasons why they may want to do so – they are the instigator, if not then the either the creature is the instigator by virtue of that limited plot function, or you can’t say yet.

If you can’t say, then you need to create a plot outline for the encounter that will determine the identity of the instigator. It’s not often that you have a genuinely blank canvas to draw on, so this is your chance to do something you normally wouldn’t, your chance to do something unusual – and unexpected. A Drow with hydrophobia who leaps into a raging river to rescue children on a raft without thinking – and then needs rescuing himself. A goblin seeking wisdom, in search of a holy man that he saw in a vision. A white dragon that just wants to be left alone to practice his ice sculpture. A bugbear poet who is seeking out those who have decimated his people in past encounters to get to know them, that he can include them in his epic Saga about the suffering of his people. These may be insane by the standards of their race, or they may reveal a little hidden corner of light within the racial makeup (one that is usually suppressed). A devil who, once every hundred years or so, needs to do someone a genuinely good deed to permit him to be fully evil the rest of the time – and who isn’t going to leave until he has done so to his satisfaction, no matter how it might inconvenience the PCs to have him hanging around. An Elf who wants to enslave the Orcs until they have repaid his society for all the damage they’ve done through the eons and who is willing to start a war to achieve it.

In all these cases, the heart of the plotline is going to be how the characters are going to react. The plot is defined as being provocative to them, to their assumptions and to their personal histories.

A race always seems more evil if they have a choice and choose to be the way they usually are. By carefully playing against the stereotype, you can actually reinforce the stereotype.

Of course, if it were just the aberrant representative, there is no real challenge for the PCs. So you need something for them to overcome, be it a natural danger (the river) or other members of the society who oppose what the aberrant representative is doing, or a fearful mob, or whatever. Perhaps, for social class reasons, they can’t stop the aberrant from doing whatever he’s doing, but they can make sure there are no witnesses afterwards… And with that, the focus shifts from the encounter being based on the aberrant creature to being about the nature of the challenge that has to be overcome.

After making your choice of plotline, based on the character interaction with that plotline, you are therefore able to return to the question that we started with – who is the instigator? You need a clear answer to this before you can proceed, because the instigator controls, at least partially, the circumstances of the encounter.

Once you have that information, you can take the plot from being broad concept to an outline of specifics.

The instigator, of course, has the choice of the environment in which the encounter takes place. I once used the “bugbear poet” idea, with him stalking/hunting the PCs for almost a week, evading any traps they set for him, until they reached a place where the environment was suitable – he wanted to be able to approach from cover, and to have lots of room to evade them if they were not receptive. The two are often mutually-exclusive.

With that done, you are able to determine the challenge to be faced, i.e. how much trouble the encounter is going to be for the PCs, at which point the fleshing out of the encounter can proceed easily.

Character Capability -based encounters

This can be one of the most complex types of encounter to craft, depending on what you want to achieve – a metagame decision. It might be that you feel it’s been a while since a PC got to parade one of his abilities, and want to craft an encounter that does so. Or it might be that you are tired of the PCs employing a particular tactic and want to shake them up a bit by denying them access to or the functionality of, a key element of that tactic.

The logical sequence is:

  1. Character – Capabilities
  2. Environment/Abilities
  3. Plot – basic
  4. Environment/Abilities Revisited
  5. Plot – specific
  6. Instigator
  7. Challenge

This is often a push-pull situation in which you not only need the encounter to have a particular (fairly obvious) vulnerability, but also need to deny the PCs any easier answers.

Part of that can sometimes be achieved through the environment in which the encounter takes place, part of it will need to be the result of the abilities that you give the creature, either defensive or offensive. A nice twist is to have the encounter not merely immune to whatever the PCs normally use, but actually empowered by it, either directly or indirectly.

However you are going to arrange to have it happen, you need to identify specifically what parameters you need for the encounter to have, and then devise a combination of environment and encounter abilities that produces that outcome.

That generally gives you the outline of the plot for the encounter. This usually reads, (1) Encounter Begins, (2) PCs use standard tactics, (3) PCs realize standard tactics won’t work, (4) PCs improvise/call upon tactics that will work, (4) Resolve encounter. In effect, this gives the enemy a free hit or two at one or more PCs while they are engaged in steps (2) and (3), so it may be necessary to weaken the encounter to take that into account, either directly (perhaps as a consequence of whatever treatment conferred the immunity/defensive ability) or indirectly (as a secondary environmental effect).

And that’s where the real complications start. With so many consequences and moving parts, it becomes easy to create the impression that the encounter has been crafted from a Chinese menu, more or less at random. The encounter can lack coherence. And achieving coherence while still ticking all those boxes is the difficult bit.

Having done so, it will often – even usually – be necessary to revise the plot in more specific fashion to achieve the broad outlines given above. How are the PCs to learn what they need to know? Or are they simply to remain ignorant until one of them realizes that the creature should have dropped by now – and hasn’t? How much damage are you willing to inflict on them in the meantime?

Once you have all of the above nailed down, the instigator of the combat will usually be obvious, and mostly irrelevant (for the first time). Of greater difficulty is determining the appropriate level of challenge, as I’ve implied above. How much an immunity or defense is worth depends on a host of factors, not least of which is how broadly it is defined.

The more specifically-targeted an immunity, the more obviously the encounter is targeted at the PCs – unless the GM is able to justify that, he can be (legitimately) accused of picking on them. This adds an additional burden on the plot – (3a) Justification – which makes these encounters more difficult to pull off, again. I would suggest that specifically-targeted immunity/defense should be worth +2 or +3 CR.

A very broad immunity is often the easiest to articulate, and even to justify at a metagame/plot level. But it makes the creature very dangerous. Such an immunity should often be defined as having a capacity limit, because that makes the encounter seem more plausible once the PCs discover the limit – but that again brings in the questions of how the PCs are to learn of this restriction, and how long it is going to take. Choice of language can often be the answer; instead of having the encounter gloat that he is immune to all physical attacks, have him sneer that the PCs are incapable of manifesting sufficient force to harm him. The key difference is between “all” and “sufficient force,” which implies that there is some limit.

But this can backfire, giving the Players hope that continuing with their standard tactics will eventually bear fruit instead of persuading them to try something else. So this, too, requires careful management and plotting by the GM.

A broad-based immunity can be worth as much as +10 CR. +8 is more usual. This usually mandates the provision of 2-4 more abilities of equal power, and it’s very easy for a snowball effect to make the encounter overwhelming except to very high-level PCs. One way that GMs can get around this is by specifying that weapons/attacks with a given magical bonus can penetrate the defense – but this can easily tip the balance in the other direction, because it’s not too difficult to stack an extra magical plus or two onto an attack.

The final danger that I want to mention has been intimated above – that of making a casual, passing encounter more significant than the boss-monster, making the rest of the adventure an anticlimax. You need to plan now how this problem is going to be avoided.

Character History -based encounters

The second-last variety of encounter foundation is a lot simpler, thankfully! Quite often, you will want to base an encounter around a character’s past, as much to give them an opportunity to talk about that character background as anything else. Whenever a character drops something into their background, I tend to look (hard!) for a plot arc (big or small) to build around that background element – and tend to leave the element sitting on the shelf until I come up with something satisfactory. Case in point: St Barbara, from my Zenith-3 campaign, has an African Warlord named The Blood Dove as an enemy. Nothing much was known about him until the player and I collaborated on the character’s background, many years ago, and because I’ve never found a good plotline, he’s remained in limbo since. In the course of plotting the overall structure of the current campaign, I finally came up with a small plotline revolving around him, and have dropped it into the master plan at an appropriate point.

The Evolution of an encounter based on a character’s past history is fairly straightforward:

  1. Character – History
  2. Instigator
  3. Plot
  4. Challenge
  5. Environment
  6. Plot Revised

Sometimes, you know that you want to do something with something from a character’s past but don’t know what; it’s just a way of giving that character a share of the spotlight for a while, and not meant to go anywhere major in plot terms. At other times, you have a clear plot arc for the NPC to follow, with (of course) the PC’s life intersecting with that plot arc at strategic points. The starting point has to be getting both of these up to the same standard of definition by selecting the character history element around which the encounter is to be built.

Second, you need to decide whether the instigator is going to be the PC (confronting their past) or the enemy (the past confronting the character).

That gives you the beginning of the plot, so the next decision has to be listing the possible endings, and (in particular) whether this is the end-point or just the first chapter in a larger plotline, perhaps one that is to be spread over a number of widely-separated encounters.

The fourth decision is the degree of challenge that this encounter is supposed to provide. This is an important decision because quite often the answer will differ from the level of outright challenge that the enemy represents.

That difference can stem from one or both of two sources: the circumstances (which may require some revision of the plot), and the environment in which the encounter is to occur. In general, there are limits to the effectiveness of the environmental factor, so it’s better to decide that first and then make up any shortfall by stacking the odds created by the circumstances in the NPCs favor – though sometimes an environment can be so hostile that the circumstances need to be in the PCs favor to balance things out the other way.

Challenge-based encounters

I’ve left the most obvious one until last. Choosing an encounter based on nothing more than it being sufficiently challenging to the PCs is probably the most common approach. You could argue that the entire concept of reskinning arose as a way of injecting greater variety of choice into this approach.

The pathway to defining this type of encounter is also straightforward.

  1. Challenge
  2. Instigator
  3. Environment
  4. Abilities
  5. Character
  6. Plot

You start by deciding on a challenge level relative to the PCs, and then factoring in their capabilities to determine an overall challenge rating.

Second, you need to decide who the instigator is going to be. Most of the time, this will be the hostile force, but from time to time it will be the party (depending on the make-up and attitude of the PCs, it must be added – some are super-aggressive).

Next, the environment. If the PCs are the instigators, the environment will probably not be of their choosing, it will be somewhere that the creature to be encountered calls home, or whatever the local conditions are at the PCs current location at the time of the encounter. The smarter the creature, the more it will have manipulated the local environment to create a sub-environment that is even more conducive to its success.

Fourth, the abilities that the creature needs to take advantage of the environment to whatever degree is desired. This permits the completion of the reskinning process. It also completes what you need to know to plan the start of the encounter.

Fifth, in order to determine and prepare for the possible endings of the encounter, you need some idea of how the PCs are likely to react, based on their history and current circumstances.

Sixth, using that knowledge, complete the plot outline for the encounter, and you will be ready to write it.

The limits of logic

That’s every possible foundation of starting point for an encounter, and a logical road map through the different decisions that leads through the maze of endless possibilities.

Except one.

The ultimate type of encounter is one which derives from the personality of the individual being encountered, which is a subset of the generalized personality of the race. These can be the hardest, and most satisfying, encounters to craft – and the most frustrating to play if the players insist on engaging in combat instead of roleplay, or vice-versa. There’s nothing worse than crafting a Combat Monster only for the players to parley with it.

Such encounters are best handled by applying the advice offered in a series of articles that I wrote back in 2010 (it doesn’t seem like 6+ years ago): Making A Great Villain. You don’t need to go to the same extent that you would if this was to be the main villain (or one of them) for the campaign, but applying the principles to even a small personality-based encounter yields the best possible result.

Use those techniques to make a great one-shot villain, use the result to generate a plot, and use the plot-based technique offered at the start of this article. And play them to the hilt; for this character, there is no tomorrow.

But don’t be surprised if the enemy totally takes over the adventure. Expect them to do so, and plan accordingly – don’t be caught short without enough plot!

Have fun :)

Comments (2)

Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 11th Shelf


The Eleventh Shelf: Beliefs II – Ghosts, Poltergeists, and Apparitions – Introduction by Mike

Wouldn’t the world be dull if everything was predictable? That’s as true of the world in a pulp game as it is of the so-called objective reality that surrounds us. And from the cracks and crannies of what is usually a reasonably logical and predictable world, strange things can slither forth to challenge our perceptions of reality.

A ghost implies that something persists beyond death, and – given sufficient motivation or an external interdiction of sufficient force – the afterlife to which a spirit should be condemned / released can be denied, leaving that something to wander the Earth, interacting with the living.

This is a situation pregnant with profound moral and theological issues. If the ghost lingers for a morally-positive reason, does this nevertheless constitute a sin (denying the will of God)? If the ghost lingers for a morally-neutral or darker motive, such as revenge, are they condemned to damnation when eventually released?

Our conceptions of right and wrong have only limited grasp on the choices of action after death. And that puts characters who ten to try and do the right thing, the moral thing, in a bit of a spot when they are confronted by such spirits. When the Spectre was rebooted by DC Comics in the late 70s, this was the territory that they began to explore; a murdered policeman who was sent back to earth to bring his killers to justice, from the moment of this reboot he became an absolutist in dealing with those who thought they had gotten away with the ultimate crime, that of relieving another of their life. Sadly, the series came to an end after only about six issues, and before the creative team could really get into the implications of what they had created. The Spectre went back to being just another mystic heavy who wasn’t afraid to kill if he considered that just.

But there’s a great deal of similarity between that Spectre and a pulp character once one overlooks the outré means by which he inflicted justice. While a pulp PC should avoid killing his enemies unless left no other choice, he is still perfectly capable of doing so if there is an imminent threat to others and no other way of ending it.

As soon as you introduce a ghostly presence into a pulp campaign, then, all those moral and theological question-marks begin to swirl around in the background. They can be ignored for a time, but eventually, they will surface. Because an afterlife, and the ability to deny it, even if only temporarily, gets to the heart of what is right – and that’s something that is at the heart of any Pulp adventure. Its their morals that restrict and define the PCs, that pose a challenge for them to overcome.

But, even beyond that, it’s fun to rattle a PC’s cage every now and then… The first adventure that Blair and I collaborated on revolved around a Ghost Ship, first exposing it as a clever fraud, and culminating in an encounter that raised all the question marks over whether or not the phenomenon was real, all over again.

And that’s the space in which ghosts should operate in a Pulp campaign – trapped between plausibility and not, confined between the supernatural and the merely strange. The place defined, in fact, by Edgar Alan Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart, one of the earliest “modern” ghost stories.

The especially observant may have noticed that what was one shelf devoted to the weirder side of human beliefs (from a mainstream pulp-era perspective)

Up until the last possible moment (and some distance beyond, if I’m honest) it was the intent to get Beliefs finished with one monster post. But the workload involved was so high that it would not have been possible to post it until Saturday, maybe Sunday. One day late I’m happy to live with; three or four is just too far.

What happened?

The shelf became a monster, which in a way, is strangely appropriate, given the content. It contained more than 240 recommendations, which would have made it the second-biggest to date (the prize-holder would still be Shelf 5, with 269 recommendations). That’s roughly six times the size that it was originally projected to be, when the taxonomy was laid out.

There are two very good reasons for this: First, the late discovery of a number of series of books, some of which have now been extracted into their own subsections; and second, the very high degree of crossover between the different sections, which made it almost-impossible to subdivide the shelf into more manageable chunks. Take the regional myths and legends – some are True Crime, some are rumors, some are Cryptozoology, some are superstitions, some are myths and legends, and some are extracts from indigenous religious beliefs – all within the one book.

Editorially, I had done my best to slot things into a logically-progressive sequence, but that sequence has been twisted very strangely by the late decision. Don’t only look in the section devoted to any particular subject of interest over these two shelves or you will miss a LOT of potentially-valuable references.

Case in point: This shelf now covers ghosts and hauntings. Urban Legends are in the newly-created next shelf. Yet, many of those urban legends relate to hauntings, apparitions, and ghostly encounters, so if you only look here, you’ll miss out on a LOT of good material.

This last-minute reorganization has also delayed publication until Friday – the 13th, no less – which, given the subject matter, is also strangely appropriate. It’s almost as though it were predestined to play out this way…

Relevance to other genres

We can’t think of any subject more ubiquitous to RPGs, regardless of genre, than this one. Where would D&D be without it’s strange beasts? Where would Star Trek be without it’s not-quite-humans? Where would a James Bond RPG be without secret organizations? Well, Bond would be unemployed, for a start!

There really is something for everyone on this shelf. Or at least there would be, were it still intact. As it stands, most of the content touched on in that opening paragraph relates to material now dispatched to the newly-created 12th shelf.

Does that mean that what’s left has no value to the non-pulp GM? Not at all! Any genre can use a good ghost story – and that’s most of what’s here, post-split.

ghost reader

This image combines books 1 by / debora prado with public domain clip art.
Click on the image to see it full-size.

Shelf Introduction

We have divided this duo of shelves into seven sections and twelve subsections. Some of them are very small, with only one or two entries; others are vast. But most of them will have to wait until next week, and the new twelfth shelf. I have deliberately chosen to preserve the section numbering that was added to clarify the relationship between sections and subsections unchanged – which is why this article jumps from “1” to “6”.

sections “2”, “3”, “4”, “5” and “7” – almost exactly half the article – will be found on the twelfth shelf.

1. Leftover Mythology and Religion – We start this shelf with a handful (plus one) of items that should have appeared on the previous one but which were misfiled for one reason or another, or which have come to our attention since the last shelf was published.

6 Ghosts, Poltergeists, etc – Ghostly phenomena were always going to be part of this shelf, and many of the Regional Myths and Legends relate to ghostly experiences. We’ve tried hard to broaden this section beyond the US.

6.1 Documentaries about Ghosts – the plural is misleading, but we do have one that we’re recommending.

6.2 Haunted Regional Britain – The series that was [will be] collected as “Regional Myths and Legends” led to a few new additions to the Regional Cryptozoology, and then Mike turned his attention to attempting to expand the “Regional Myths” beyond the US, in the course of which he discovered the series that has been compiled (with a few extras) into this section. There was no time to review the content of these at all, and no space in the article, so we’ve simply provided bare-bones information on price and availability for most of them. Unless you’re running a UK-based campaign, we recommend only picking one of these up when you know that it is going to be specifically-relevant. But the counter-argument is that many of these are in short supply, and if you wait, they might all be gone…

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Decoding the “Availability” Comments

It may surprise readers to learn that these aren’t mere flavor that has been added to create a sense of the availability of items we are recommending. We have guidelines – sometimes overlooked or honored more in the breach than the observance, but they are there, nevertheless.

  • “Slightly Limited” generally means 18-20 copies.
  • “Limited” generally means 11-17 copies but can also be used as a generic term for under twenty, especially if there is a great disparity in prices (in which case it will usually be accompanied by the qualifier “cheap” or “affordable”).
  • “Very Limited” means 6-10 copies.
  • “Extremely Limited” means five or less copies, in which case we will usually specify exactly how many there are.
  • “Ample” or “Plentiful” or “Abundant” or any similar terminology sometimes means thirty or more affordably-priced copies, sometimes means fifty or more copies available, and sometimes means triple digit availability.
  • If we haven’t said anything, that means that there were at least 20 copies available and most if not all will be under our $20 cap.

Of course, most of the time, if there are fewer than twenty copies at or under our price cap, or close to it, we won’t list the product at all, but sometimes one format or another will be restricted in quantities.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation.


Leftover Books About Mythology and Religion

With the exception of the first item on the list, these were all misfiled in our notes. It was tempting to simply forget about them, but there’s too much potential value – and relevance to the overall topic to be ignored.

Spacer Myths and Mysteries of the World

919. Myths and Mysteries of the World (Book & DVD) (Gift Folder DVD) – Parragon Books

A book and DVD in a bundle? Where do we file this? The book is 256 pages, and at almost 8 inches by 10 inches, more of a “softcover” than a “paperback” as we normally consider the term. There’s no indication of the length of the DVD, but it’s long enough to cover 25 topics, however briefly – so even 3 minutes to a topic gives something on the order of an hour and a quarter, and it only goes up from there. On that basis, it’s hard to elevate one component of this package above the other.

Breaking the deadlock came down to this: a DVD is hard to reference during play, but a “highly illustrated book” can be pulled off the shelf and used to illustrate something, or simply answer a quick question. That makes the book component ever-so-slightly more useful for our purposes.

And so, to the content: this compilation looks at basic questions of history that are sometimes controversial even today. “What secrets lie hidden in the pyramids? Is Teotihuacan really a city modeled on the cosmos? Who built Stonehenge, and what was it used for? Did the ancient world develop sophisticated technology? Are there people with X-ray eyes?” That’s everything from archeology to mythology and religion to fortean beliefs to cryptids. The cover implies that we can add crop circles and dragons to that list. So maybe it’s found its way to the right shelf, after all!

16 used copies from $0.13 (DVD may be missing, check specifics carefully) and 4 new from $16.75.


World Mythology 2nd Edition

920. World Mythology 2nd Edition – Donna Rosenberg

This volume offers 59 of the world’s great myths including selections from The Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf, King Arthur, and Quetzalcoatl. Each is accompanied by an introduction that offers historical background and suggested avenues for literary analysis. In other words, this treats myths as “stories” – not the approach that is most conducive to RPG functionality, but better than nothing. What’s more, there’s a subtle difference between “mythology” (implying a system or coherence of common social origins) and a “myth” in isolation, at least to our mind – though we may be nitpicking, the title nevertheless seems to promise more than the book delivers.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that what it does deliver seems to be very well done, including an extensive notes section and carefully curated bibliography. Some reviewers love this book, others are less convinced. The author has censored the myths to something that would be appropriate for younger teens, removing any hint of sexual content from the myths. Some can survive that treatment, but many are decimated by the omission. There is also little attempt to inject color and life into the text. In short, this is a passable reference work with serious shortcomings.

The fact that we’re looking for RPG reference materials here transforms many of those criticisms into potential assets. Presentation of a more “G-rated” version of the myths makes them more suitable for use in a public application, or with younger players, and gives the GM the freedom to re-insert whatever level of sexuality he feels appropriate for his ‘audience’. The lifeless, dry text means that the GM can decide what the color should be and how to express it – even hitting different beats within different campaigns. The same base text could yield very different interpretations when applied to a high-school D&D campaign and a more mature-player Pulp campaign even by the same GM, for example. What we (ideally) want is a reasonable reference work that lets us inject our own creativity into the mix – and this actually comes pretty close to that mark. Just don’t take this as the definitive word on any of the myths presented – check Wikipedia at the very least!

584 pages, paperback; 33 new from $7.46, 90 used from $0.01 – so clearly the criticisms have had an impact on the prices. Which means that you can probably afford to buy this book and any value that you can get from it will be sufficient to justify the purchase.


Stuff You Missed in History Class

921. Stuff You Missed in History Class: A Guide to History’s Biggest Myths, Mysteries, and Marvels –

“From the hosts of’s popular podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class, comes a crash course in world history. Featuring the best of HSW’s content and packed with quizzes, trivia, and more, this books explores the craziest scandals, myths, lies, and crimes the human record has to offer.”
272 page paperback, 30 used from $0.24, 31 new from $5.18.


The Enigmas of History

922. The Enigmas of History: Myths, Mysteries & Madness from Around the World – Alan Baker

“History is replete with unanswered questions regarding rumored past events, objects, and cultures that often turn into the stuff of legends.” This book takes 31 of them and gives a brief overview of each.

There’s a chapter on Lovecraft, and one on the Amazons, and another on El Dorado. Stigmata and Black Madonnas and Atlantis and…. let’s just say that there’s a wide coverage.

You don’t have to look very hard at this book to discover that there are a lot of very critical opinions of it, despite Amazon’s 5-star rating (from just one review).

Goodreads rates it about three-and-a-half, and has reviews that are scathing. Google Books only has one, but it’s even more harsh in it’s criticism, and gives the book only two stars out of five.

So don’t expect too much from what initially appears to be a most promising source. (That, incidentally, is why we consider 5 reviews to be an absolute minimum for reliability and 10 to be the minimum for any sort of confidence in a book’s rating).

Having reported all that, there are sections in this book that cover subjects that, to the best of our knowledge, aren’t dealt with by any other source we have listed. However poor, something is always better than nothing and so this makes the list even though it doesn’t meet our availability standards by a margin of about 5 copies.

Hardcover, 304 pages; 13 used from $1.85, 5 new from $18.95.

One final word of warning, buying this from Amazon direct “usually ships in 1-2 months”.

Myths & Mysteries of the First World War

923. Myths & Mysteries of the First World War – Leonard James

My goodness, that title sounds tantalizing, doesn’t it? Relax; that’s as good as this book gets. There are some ghost stories, a couple of true-adventure stories, and a pronounced absence of anything of greater substance. That said, if you’re looking for something to spice up the background of some military officer or enlisted man from the First World War – and every pulp GM should be – this could be the perfect resource. And it’s one of the very few books available on the subject. Search Amazon using the title as your term and you find this book (two different listings), a couple of books about Canadians in WWI, and a lot of irrelevancies – ranging from The Fellowship Of The Ring to a history of the Catholic Church on Audio CD. Beggars can’t be choosers…

Available on Kindle ($3.05) or 144-page Paperback (12 new from $5.55, no used copies):

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries - Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology

924. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology 9th edition – Kenneth Feder

This is the first book Mike has ever seen that has 9 editions with different covers for each. The cover he’s chosen to represent them all is the 4th, not because it’s the most visually attractive (it’s not) but because that’s the edition that best matches our availability criteria.

Be very careful what links you click on in the Amazon pages devoted to the book, it’s very easy to find yourself down the rabbit hole of looking at a completely different edition to the one you had, and the “back” button won’t always save you.

And so, to the content. “Frauds, myths, and supposed mysteries about humanity’s past are moving targets for anyone committed to the scientific investigation of human antiquity. It is important for anyone interested in the human past to know, for example, that there is no evidence for a race of giant human beings in antiquity and no broken shards of laser guns under Egyptian pyramids. Debunking such nonsense is fun and useful in its own way, but more important is the process by which we determine that such claims are bunk.” “This is the only textbook for a course of this sort.” This is, in other words, a splash of the cold waters of reality and reason after all the less-credible material in this section and before the even vaster deluge that is still to come.

9th edition: not released until February 1st of 2017. 352 page paperback, $49.95. For which reason, we don’t recommend the 9th edition.

8th Edition: 416 page paperback, 7 new from $94 and 41 used from $59.98 – for which reason, the 8th edition isn’t recommended either.

7th Edition: 416 page paperback, 7 new from $54.99, 50 used from $17.89 – so this meets our criteria.

6th edition (described as a “book supplement”) 387 pages, paperback, 3 new from $12.99, 12 used from $0.14. If there were more copies available, this would get our recommendation (it certainly has the prettiest cover).

4th Edition (pictured): 352 pages, paperback, 8 new from $24.93, 57 used from $0.01, 1 collectible from $9.85. Which makes this our recommended option, with the 6th edition in reserve.

3rd Edition: 320 pages, paperback, 17 used from $16.14, 16 new from $55.63. Our third choice only, because of the page count.


Books about Ghosts, Poltergeists, Hauntings, etc

We were quite disappointed to find that the only books on the haunts of France and Germany that we could find were Kindle-only editions. In fact, we had to bend our usual criteria to be able to include something on Canada, and that ‘something’ is about as anecdotal as it gets. Similarly, we had trouble finding good choices on Scotland, Wales, and Ireland – either there weren’t enough copies, or they were far too expensive, or both, or something about the book raised alarm bells, or it simply failed to sufficiently excite us (That was, until the series we’ve listed as “The Haunted Regional Britain collection” came to our attention). If we wouldn’t buy it for our own use (or haven’t done so already), it doesn’t deserve a place on this list – even if that leaves topics with incomplete coverage. But if someone knows of one or more good books on the ghosts and hauntings of Canada, Australia, Asia, Africa, or Continental Europe, we’d love to add them to the list!

Empire Ghosts

925. Empire Ghosts: New York State’s Haunted Landmarks – Lynda Lee Macken

There are hundreds of ghost stories set in the state of New York. This collection gathers some of the most notable tales of hauntings, from hotels, restaurants, museums, theaters and resorts to ancient forts, historic landmarks and private mansions. Stories are often accompanied by brief commentaries, but the reported events themselves are the central focus, related in a light, conversational style. Paperback, 75 pages, 14 used from $0.01, 16 new from $1.99, 2 Collectible from $6.92.


Ghosts & Haunted Houses of Maryland

926. Ghosts & Haunted Houses of Maryland – Trish Gallagher, illustrated by Howard Burns

Twenty-five of the most fascinating paranormal / supernatural tales from a state awash with “ghosts, haunted houses, and things that go bump in the day as well as the night”. This book was written back in 1988, when the ghost-craze was just beginning; there are times when this dates the text. One reviewer states, “…many of the books coming out today aren’t worth the ectoplasm that it might take to slime a gnat. I am happy to report however that this book has stood the test of time very well and is much superior to many of the books that have followed in it’s ghostly footsteps.” and others echo the sentiment with less panache.
95 pages, of which only about 80 contain text.

Haunted Florida

927. Haunted Florida: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Sunshine State (Haunted Series) – Cynthia Thuma and Catherine Lower

There are at least three different series of books collecting ghost stories from this continental state or the other. So far as we can tell, none of these series contain entries for every state; in this series or that, there are states without entries, while some states are represented by multiple choices of series.

While not even striving to be comprehensive in our listings, merely representative of the most interesting choices, where multiple options came to our attention, we have done our best to select the offering that seemed most useful to us, guided by our usual price / availability criteria, and by both the number and overall rating of reviews. Page count ranked a lowly fifth in our considerations. In many cases. these choices were subjective or even instinctive (and when in doubt, we list both); we mention this to facilitate readers taking the alternatives into consideration.

Which brings us to this book and the subject of haunted locations in Florida. At 112 pages, it’s substantially longer than most such books (compare with the New York and Maryland books listed previously). One of the coauthors is a native of the state in question, and one reviewer has commented favorably on its completeness of coverage.

Available in both Kindle ($7.49) and Paperback format (28 used copies at $1.81, 24 new from $5.39).

Haunted Ohio

928. Haunted Ohio: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Buckeye State (Haunted Series) – Charles A Stansfield, Jr

If there’s one state that seems to be ghost central in the USA, it’s Ohio. There is even a five volume standalone set dedicated to the subject (also named “Haunted Ohio”)! To be honest, this book seems to have a lower value-for-money quotient than the alternative listed below, but the specific contents described were too tantalizing to ignore: “Dead presidents, swamp monsters, and spying spaceships… the phantom in Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery who perches atop his tombstone, the pitiful spirits of the Millfield miners, the fearsome ghost of boatman Mike Fink, and many more”.
Kindle ($7.50) and 112-Page Paperback (28 used from $2.48, 18 new from $6.25).

Ghosthunting Ohio

929. Ghosthunting Ohio – John B Kachuba (America’s Haunted Road Trip series)

More than 25 haunted places are described by the author who reportedly visited them all first-hand. Adding to the appeal of this volume is that each report is accompanied by a map and travel information, even though some of the latter may either be out-of-date or not relevant in the Pulp Era.
Kindle ($9.37) and 256 page Paperback (40 used from $2.02, 36 new from $3.92, 1 Collectible at $7.99).

Old Ghosts of New England

930. Old Ghosts of New England: A Traveler’s Guide to the Spookiest Sites in the Northeast – C J Fusco

“By State” isn’t the only way these series are organized. Some, like this one, deal with entire regions. As with “Haunted Ohio”, it was the specific contents described that compelled inclusion: “…traveler’s guide to the many purportedly haunted inns, restaurants, lighthouses, pubs, museums, parks, graveyards, and schools in the New England states – as well as a few of the region’s most infamous haunted houses. Painstakingly researched, this book delves deep into the histories of New England’s “old ghosts” and provides pictures, maps, directions and contact information”.
Paperback, 256 pages, 26 used from $7.78, 29 new from $10.21, 2 Collectible from $12.85.

Tales from the Haunted South

931. Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era – Tiya Miles (The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era)

This book is not entirely what you might expect, being less about the haunting “Incidents” and more about the phenomenon of “ghost tours” through plantations, urban manor homes, and cemeteries throughout the American South. “Examining popular sites and stories from these tours, Miles shows that haunted tales routinely appropriate and skew African American history to produce representations of slavery for commercial gain… [highlighting] the most sensationalist and macabre aspects of slavery, from salacious sexual ties between white masters and black women slaves to the physical abuse and torture of black bodies to the supposedly exotic nature of African spiritual practices. Because the realities of slavery are largely absent from these tours, Miles reveals how they continue to feed problematic ‘Old South’ narratives and erase the hard truths of the Civil War era”.

We have real problems with that description – there is a reason we have quoted it so extensively – because logical analysis leads to the conclusion that this book is pro-slavery, i.e. argues that slavery wasn’t as bad as popular perception would have us believe. After all, if the most sensationalist aspects of the institution of slavery – which universally play up the horrors of the practice – ‘feed problematic ‘Old South’ narratives’, as the description implies, it can only be interpreted as a claim by the author that these sensationalist practices are distorting the truth (which they probably are to some extent) and that the truth is counter to the impression created.

Countering this initial impression is the racial background of the author, who is not – as might have been expected from the position implied above, Caucasian – but is in fact Afro-Cherokee and a respected historian, unlikely to be a party to a pro-slavery perspective as a result; and one of the customer reviews, which emphasizes the vivid descriptions of the tours that the author actually undertook as part of her research into the subject.

Not that it’s relevant, or that we are especially privileged to have a more valid opinion, but our take is that sensationalized accounts of the worst practices of slavery represent accounts of how bad things could be, worst case representations of the institution. Logically, there would also be a minority of cases in which the slaves were well-cared for, and treated with dignity and respect (at least in comparison with the social expectations of the day), while the majority lie somewhere in between, suffering a level abuse that only rarely rises to the most sensational accounts; but any abuse is still abuse, and not to be considered acceptable. And that a Pulp Game is definitely the place for sensationalized accounts of absolutely anything to fit right in!

At best, then, this must be recommended with the very strong caveat that it may have its own social axe to grind and may not be what you think you might be buying from the title alone (which is why we have deliberately done as Amazon do, and included the series title in our headline). And why we have discussed the issue so thoroughly.

Kindle ($14.36) or 176-page Hardcover (21 used from $15.62, 33 new from the same price, published by The University of North Carolina Press.

New England's Haunted Lighthouses

932. New England’s Haunted Lighthouses: Guide to New England’s Haunted Lighthouses, Forts and Ships – Theodore Burbank

The third way that collections can be structured is by type of location, and this is an example of this approach. Ghostly Spirits that (allegedly) haunt lighthouses and old forts, and the phantom ships that “sail” the New England waters. Incidents are grouped Geographically, which might be useful.

Available in Kindle ($8.63 and 246-page paperback (9 used from $9.95, 15 new from $11.97

Haunted Boston Harbor

933. Haunted Boston Harbor – Sam Baltrusis (Haunted America)

Not to be confused with the book listed below, which has a very similar title. “Boston Harbor brims with the restless spirits of pirates, prisoners and victims of disease and injustice. Uncover the truth behind the Lady in Black on Georges Island. Learn about the former asylums on Long Island that inspired the movie Shutter Island, and dig up the skeletal secrets left behind by the Woman in Scarlet Robes. From items flying off the shelves at a North End cigar shop to the postmortem cries of tragedy at the centuries-old Boston Light on Little Brewster, author Sam Baltrusis breathes new life into the horrors that occurred in the historic waters surrounding Boston.”

Mike opines that from a sociological perspective, this description offers an insight into why “Ghost Tours” are popular – the sensational stories of hauntings are counter-fables, warnings of the depths and depravities of which humans are capable, and places them in a historical context, offering a point of accessibility to those who find history to be dry reading. They punch up the vividness of history, in other words, while providing vicarious thrills and entertainments.

While not completely convinced of this perspective as the be-all and end-all of the topic, what we can all agree on is that this shows up a second, indirect, source of value in books on the subject to Pulp GMs, and indeed, to GMs of any Genre – Ghost Stories can be used directly, as an encounter for the PCs that does nothing but add some supernatural color; can be used indirectly as templates for encounters of greater relevance to a plotline (while still adding that supernatural color), or even more indirectly as inspiration for villainous acts and motivations that are so dark as to linger in legends of hauntings. The first two, we knew about already; the last is a new thought, even to us.

Kindle ($7.65) and Paperback (144 pages, 14 used from $10.13, 24 new from $10.20).


Ghosts Of Boston

934. Ghosts Of Boston: Haunts Of The Hub – Sam Baltrusis (Haunted America)

We had the previous book on Boston Harbor, shortlisted for inclusion; in the process of gathering links and reviewing the products that we are recommending in these lists, this item popped up and was almost listed as an additional source of the previous volume. Mike spotted the error, fortunately. We’re listing it as much as a reminder to our readers of this peril as for the content itself.

And, of course, it also neatly segues into still another level of series organization – books about the ghosts of a specific city, in this case, Boston (one of a handful of American cities that Mike has actually visited).

As usual, we were more impressed by the specifics included in the content description than we would have been by the generalities employed to describe books in other series. “Boston, Massachusetts, boasts countless stories of the supernatural. Many students at Boston College have encountered an unearthly hound that haunts O’Connell House to this day. Be on the watch for an actor who sits in on rehearsals at Huntington Theater and restless spirits rumored to haunt Boston Common at night. From the Victorian brownstones of Back Bay to the shores of the Boston Harbor Islands … there is hardly a corner of the Hub where the paranormal cannot be experienced”. Furthermore, because they have the same author, it is to be hoped that there is no overlap between this book and the preceding one.

Kindle ($7.69) and 128-page Paperback (19 used from $6.83, 30 new from $6.06).

America's Haunted Universities

935. America’s Haunted Universities: Ghosts that Roam Hallowed Halls – Matthew L Swayne

The combination of stress, freedom from authority, rampaging hormones, over-the-top passions, and an age-bracket that makes everything feel directed at you, personally, makes institutions of later learning especially fertile ground for melodramatic responses to situations, sometimes with tragic outcomes. The surprising thing is not that there are ghosts said to haunt many such institutions, but that they are not even more common.

This particular book has some very mixed reviews, but also has more reviews than most books in this category, and still ends up with a respectable overall average. Much of the criticism complains that the writing is not all that vivid/exciting/thrilling, or that it doesn’t provide enough background details on the backgrounds of the alleged ghosts and, in particular, the circumstances that led to them becoming ‘ghosts’. The praise tends to directly contradict the first complaint, and also focuses on a reasonable degree of comprehensive coverage.

Even if not of direct usage, the book is full of little anecdotes that color and distinguish different institutions, and since these are certain to appear in a pulp campaign from time-to-time, or have analogues in other genres, this book offers value beyond the direct applicability of the legends described within, and more than enough reason to list it.

Kindle ($9.83) and 240-page Paperback (24 used from $3.98, 28 new from $3.62)


Haunted Colleges and Universities

936. Haunted Colleges and Universities: Creepy Campuses, Scary Scholars, and Deadly Dorms – Tom Ogden

If the preceding book isn’t quite right for you, this one might be. It lacks the anecdotal color, but that means that it can devote more of its text to the hauntings themselves. “This comprehensive guide contains information on over two hundred colleges and universities around the United States” … “If Haunted Colleges and Universities has a flaw, it is that it overreaches and cannot devote enough space to any one college (although there are certain colleges in the book that have a lot more space devoted to them than others)” …. “you will have to look in the reference section if you want to find a more in-depth examination of each location.” The author’s introduction acknowledges the scope of the problem – instead of two or three dozen entries, he found himself dealing with hundreds of tales of the Paranormal – which provides new perspective on the complaints regarding the preceding book, as well.

Kindle ($9.37), 336-page paperback (25 used from $0.01, 28 New from $8.00).

Haunted Halls

937. Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses – Elizabeth Tucker

Rounding out our triumvirate of campus-oriented ghost collections is this offering. “the first book-length interpretive study of college ghostlore”, which will introduce the reader to stories such as those of “Emory University’s Dooley, who can disband classes by shooting professors with his water pistol; Mansfield University’s Sara, who threw herself down a flight of stairs after being rejected by her boyfriend; and Huntingdon College’s Red Lady, who slit her wrists while dressed in a red robe. Gettysburg College students have collided with ghosts of soldiers, while students at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College have reported frightening glimpses of the Faceless Nun.”

If this book has a flaw, it’s that the content may be less Pulp-usage-friendly than the others listed. “Tucker presents campus ghostlore from the mid-1960s to 2006, with special attention to stories told by twenty-first-century students through e-mail and instant messages. Her approach combines social, psychological, and cultural analysis, with close attention to students’ own explanations of the significance of spectral phenomena. As metaphors of disorder, insanity, and school spirit, college ghosts convey multiple meanings. Their colorful stories warn students about the dangers of overindulgence, as well as the pitfalls of potentially horrifying relationships.” This approach is more pragmatically real-world than others, attempting to look behind the curtain of this subset of urban legends into the reasons the stories are spread and perpetuated and the insights that they offer into campus life rather than simply documenting the legends themselves.

To our way of thinking, that doesn’t diminish its potential value, but instead provides a different kind of value to the GM, a context that helps place all the other sources in this section into perspective.

Available in Kindle ($9.91), Hardcover (too expensive at $48.66+), and Paperback (29 used from $10, 16 new from $20).

Haunted Washington, DC

938. Haunted Washington, DC: Federal Phantoms, Government Ghosts, and Beltway Banshees – Tom Ogden

“Washington, DC can make a legitimate claim to being the most haunted city in America. With its rich history and the parade of passionate, colorful characters that have walked its streets over the past two centuries, it’s amazing the district doesn’t have more ghosts than it already does.”
Kindle ($9.96) and 240-page paperback (20 used from $8.70, 25 new from $9.90).

Haunted Chicago

939. Haunted Chicago: Famous Phantoms, Sinister Sites, and Lingering Legends – Tom Ogden

Amongst the most generic and least exciting product descriptions we’ve found, the mystique of the city of Chicago in the Pulp Era is enough to convince us that there is probably meat in these pages for the Pulp GM (or for the creative GM who runs a fantasy city with a Thieves Guild!) If we hadn’t already listed a couple from this particular author that were rather more promising, we would have given this book a miss; even now, we recommend that you carefully consider the two that follow before settling on this as your choice, unless you are especially budget-challenged.
Kindle ($10) or 304-page paperback (24 used from $4.24, 35 new from $7.68)

The Ghosts Of Chicago

940. The Ghosts Of Chicago: The Windy City’s Most Famous Haunts – Adam Selzer

“Behind the crumbling walls, under the ancient bricks and the nearly forgotten streetcar tracks, the ghosts of Chicago live on. From Resurrection Mary and Al Capone to the Murder Castle of H. H. Holmes and the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, the spine-tingling sights and sounds of Chicago’s yesteryear are still with us… and so are its ghosts.”

“…dozens of never-before-told firsthand accounts. Take a historical tour of the famous and not-so-famous haunts around town, from the Alley of Death and Mutilation to Satan’s Mile and beyond. Sometimes the real story is far different from the urban legend?and most of the time it’s even gorier.”

Which all sounds excellent to us! We especially like the fact that this book offers the GM a choice that can be made incident-by-incident, either to use the urban legend or the truth behind the legend, depending on which is most colorful and which serves his game purposes better. Twenty customer reviews give this an average of 4.8 out of 5; the most critical review reads “It was interesting. A lot of background info, which made it more interesting. Had some humor, as well, which was good” – and which begs the question of why it was rated only three stars by that reader!

Available in Kindle ($10) or 360-page paperback (17 used from $7.99, 32 new from $9.40).

Haunted New York City

941. Haunted New York City: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Big Apple – Cheri Revai

There are lots of books on this subject, as befits a city of the prominence of NYC. Unfortunately, none of them rates all that highly. This one has more customer reviews than the one below, an average rating of 2.7, and no five-star ratings. Which, unfortunately makes is a contender for best book on the subject. “Dry”… ”Poorly written and edited”… ”too short”… ”fractured”… ”not-so-haunted”… “Plenty creepy. Not too much of a thrill though. A lot of this is based on the history of certain areas/buildings.”

It was that last comment that got this one over the line, promising value beyond the failure to deliver too much in the way of ghostly sightings/stories. But buy the cheapest copy you can find.

Kindle ($6.77), 128-page paperback (21 used from $2.29, 24 new from $5.68 – close enough to Amazon’s price once P&H are factored in, though Amazon say they only have one copy left).

Ghosthunting New York City

942. Ghosthunting New York City – L’Aura Hladik (America’s Haunted Road Trip)

The next contender for best title on the subject, this has fewer reviews but a higher average rating at 3.3 out of 5 – and four of the seven reviews give it 4 or 5 stars (evenly divided between the two). So this is at least promising, but inconclusive.

Criticisms are that it seems to exclude some parts of the city, notably Brooklyn and Queens, and reads like fiction aimed at (younger) high-school students. But it brings the ghosts, at least – the overall impression is best summed up by one reviewer who wrote, “If you want a taste of places in NYC that are haunted without too much detail or any talent in writing, then this is the book for you.”

Kindle ($6.95) or 256-page paperback (20 used from $4, 19 new from $5.80, 1 collectible from $14.95, Amazon has 5 copies for $15.95 but P&H is included – the other vendors will charge $4 on top of the quoted price for that).

Spooky New York

943. Spooky New York: Tales Of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, And Other Local Lore – S E Schlosser, illustrated by Paul Hoffman

The third contender! An average rating of 3.2 out of 5, with more 5-star reviews than any other rating by some considerable margin, from 9 reviews. But it’s only when you dig into the reviews and description that you realize that the thirty stories contained within deal with the … majority … of New York State and not the big apple exclusively. It is, nevertheless criticized for not being comprehensive (hence the caveat).

That said, one reviewer offers, “Quite a number of stories took place around New York City. I had no idea that Central Park, the Empire State Building, and Ellis Island had ghost stories associated with them. Also, Captain Kidd left buried treasure on Liberty Island, the Devil had a fiddle contest in Brooklyn, a monster once roamed Wall Street, and a Revolutionary War hero rose from his Bronx grave to defend his widow and baby son.” So we feel justified in including it as a contender for the best books about haunted NYC – which is perhaps a more damning criticism of the others already mentioned than anything else written about them!

Kindle ($7.90) or 227-page Paperback (48 used from $0.01, 36 new from $2.75, 2 collectible from $9.85 – so at least this has price on its side!)

Ghosts Of New York City

944. Ghosts Of New York City: The Haunted Locations of The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island – Jeffrey Fisher

And the winner is… well, not this book, because it’s only available for Kindle, and while it has the best review average (3.8), it earns that rating from only 4 reviews. Still, even with that paucity of conclusive evidence, this gets a big tick for answering every one of the criticisms leveled at the preceding books, which left us no choice but to list it as a contender despite being illegible for inclusion under our usual guidelines.

Criticized by some for grammatical errors, especially mismatching tenses, which can drive some readers to distraction, but otherwise appears to be well-written. It certainly covers those parts of New York that Ghosthunting New York leaves out, as the title makes explicitly clear. If this were available in a hardcopy format, we would have no hesitation in listing it as the resource to have and specifically rejecting the others. As things stand, this is an equal contender – the preferred choice if you have a Kindle, not available otherwise. 132 pages, $8.42.

The Granny Curse

945. The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends from East Tennessee – Randy Russell and Janet Barnett

There’s something about Tennessee. Maybe it’s the legacy of too many repeats of the Beverly Hillbillies (which seems to have been in Syndication forever, here in Australia, most recently in 2014 or -15), but something about the state has entered the popular zeitgeist almost subliminally; it holds obscure associations in our minds as somewhere that we would expect to find tales of the macabre, true or otherwise, though if pinned down to it, none of us could actually cite a compelling reason for that association.

This book amply justifies that unsubstantiated impression. Where other states have a dozen or so prominent ghost stories (as reported in the books listed above), less if you exclude the big cities and seacoasts, this book offers 25 tales, all based on historical fact entwined with regional folklore and it only covers half the state!

“Witches who fly down chimneys. A chair that won’t release its occupant until a drop of blood stains the floor. A mountain that grew — and continues to grow — from the grave of a woman who was larger than life. The ghost of a woman who jumps on the bumpers of cars driving past the graveyard where she is buried. An apple tree that growls at people who pick its fruit. A woman who rose from her grave each night to get food for a baby born to her after she was buried. A peach tree that grows on the head of a deer…” this book certainly packs a lot into its 112 pages!

Available in Kindle ($3.80) and Paperback (47 used from 1¢, 22 new from $4.22, 1 collectible at $2.98) formats.

These Haunted Hills

946. These Haunted Hills: East Tennessee Lore – Tabitha Prock

As if the preceding listing weren’t enough, there is also this book. We would expect at least some overlap in the content, but 25 – the number of “tales” in that preceding recommendation – seems rather too neat a number for that to be “all there is”. But there is no table of contents, making it hard to confirm or refute this impression.
Kindle ($2.87) or 118-page Paperback (6 used from $5.89, 15 new from $4.35).

Haunted Wisconsin (1)

947. Haunted Wisconsin: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Badger State (Haunted Series) – Linda S Godfrey

Wisconsin may be in the popular zeitgeist as a “quiet state” (that comment will make more sense when you read the entries from the “Myths and Mysteries” series next week that were supposed to precede this section) but between this and the two books below, plus the Myths and Mysteries entry you have yet to see, the citizens are either working hard to change that impression, or have very definitely been flying beneath the radar! There seems to be enough weirdness going on there for any half-decent state and a couple of its neighbors.

Contents include Witches in the Wisconsin Dells, Spirits in the state capital, the Headless Nun of Kenosha, the Man-Bat of Lacrosse, ‘Rocky’ the Rock Lake Monster, the pancake aliens (also described in the Myths and Mysteries volume). the ghost of notorious gangster John Dillinger, exploration of Aztalan’s ancient mounds, the ghostly bars of Madison and Milwaukee, and the town of Caryville, reportedly one of the most haunted places in America.

Kindle ($8.12) or 128-page Paperback (28 used from $4.62, 29 new from $5.43).

Haunted Wisconsin (2)

948. Haunted Wisconsin – Michael Norman

Not to be confused with the preceding reference is this collection of scores of ghostly incidents, which have been gathered from ‘credible’ first-hand accounts, on-site explorations, historical archives, newspaper reports, and other sources (what’s left besides personal correspondence?) Remarkably, from the product description, there is minimal-to-no overlap with the Godfrey book. This volume includes Wisconsin’s most famous haunted house, Summerwind; three Milwaukee men who encountered the beautiful ghost of National Avenue; a phantom basketball player; a spectral horse that signaled death in the pioneer era of the Wisconsin Dells; a poltergeist in St. Croix County who attracted a crowd of more than three hundred spectators; the Ridgeway Ghost who haunts the driftless valleys of southwestern Wisconsin; a swinging railroad lantern held by unseen hands; and the Ghost Island of the Chippewa Flowage. Note that this is a 3rd and revised edition published in 2011 with many additional details/incidents.

Kindle ($9.98) or 272-page paperback (18 used from $11.01, 21 new from $12.79).


Spooky Wisconsin

949. Spooky Wisconsin: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore – Retold be S E Schlosser, illustrated by Paul G Hoffman

“Spooky” is probably a misnomer when applied to several of the stories collected in this third ‘weird Wisconsin’ book. While it does contain it’s fair share of ghostly sightings and a cryptid or two, it goes well beyond those limits. Again, it’s surprising how little overlap there appears to be with the previously-listed entries. Though it must be acknowledged that this offers fewer details about the contents than the first two:

“Paul Bunyon and Babe, Native American Indians, ghosts, river mysteries, and more … You’ll meet the shrouded horseman of Milwaukee, the troll of Mount Horeb, the dark horse of the Dells…”

Kindle ($8.98) or paperback, 224 pages (17 new from $0.48, 26 used from $4.00, and Amazon have 19 new copies for $9.75).

The Most Amazing Haunted and Mysterious Places in Britain

950. The Most Amazing Haunted and Mysterious Places in Britain: More Than 1000 British Ghosts, Eerie Haunts and Enduring Mysteries – Reader’s Digest

“Goast Stories in great britain” (sic). We’re listing this, despite that being the sum total of the product description, for two reasons: first, because of our respect for the quality of most Reader’s Digest books; and second, because “Great Britain” is England, Scotland and Wales, and all the books we found on Scotland and Ireland’s ghosts didn’t seem to work out for one reason or another.
Paperback, 256 pages, 18 used from $0.81, 4 new from $63.66.

Haunted England (Westwood & Simpson)

951. Haunted England: The Penguin Book Of Ghosts – Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson

“Watch out for a ghostly ship and its spectral crew off the coast of Cornwall. Listen for the unearthly tread and rustling silk dress of Darlington’s Lady Jarratt. Shiver at the malevolent apparition of 50 Berkeley Square that no one survives seeing. England’s past echoes with stories of unquiet spirits and hauntings, of headless highwaymen and grey ladies, indelible bloodstains, and ghastly premonitions.

“Here, county by county, are the nation’s most fascinating supernatural tales and bone-chilling legends: from a ghostly army marching across Cumbria to the vanishing hitchhiker of Bluebell Hill, from the gruesome Man-Monkey of Shropshire to the phantom congregation who gather for a Sermon of the Dead.”

Kindle ($10.79) or 480-page paperback (19 used from $0.77, 24 new from $7.40).

Haunted England (Whitaker)

952. Haunted England: Royal Spirits, Castle Ghosts, Phantom Coaches, & Wailing Ghouls – Terence Whitaker

The subtitle is all the information available about the contents, but it is so provocative that we couldn’t not list this book.
Hardcover, unknown page count, 20 used from $0.97, 12 new from $9.98, 2 collectible from $3.49

Haunted London (Underwood)

953. Haunted London – Peter Underwood

The first of two books with the same name. We have listed them in order of priority as far as recommendations go. Underwood earns pride of place because he got there first – this was the first published book on the ghosts of London, written and published when Underwood was President of the London Ghost Club.

“As well as all the famous hauntings – the Cock Lane ghost, the Grey Man at Drury Lane, the Tower ghosts, the haunted house at Berkeley Square etc – [this] book contains many new and hitherto unpublished findings. Not all ghosts date back to earlier centuries: there are ghost motorcyclists, for instance, and new buildings on the sites of older ones are as likely to have ghosts as those which still stand.

“For easy reference, Haunted London has divided up London geographically. Ghostly associations are uncovered in churches, theaters, hotels, inns and scenes of murders.

“Poltergeist infestation is another phenomenon included in this work”.

Kindle ($8.75) or 192-page hardcover (11 used from $18.22, 4 new from don’t-ask), pictured.
Paperback (slightly different cover) 23 used from $1.94, 26 new from $8.57). If buying from Amazon themselves note “Usually ships in 1 to 2 months”.

Haunted London (Jones)

954. Haunted London: Discovering the City’s Best-Kept Secrets – Richard Jones

Our second recommendation under the title “Haunted London”, Jones earns second place through comprehensiveness and evocative description, ready to be usurped for flavor text. “…more than 100 sites, from the Tower of London and Westminster Bridge to disused underground stations and 16th-century inns. Each haunted location is described in detail and is accompanied by contact details, maps and travel information to show the reader where to find it.”
Hardcover (32 used from 1¢, 10 new from $15.49) or Paperback (11 used from $10, 3 new from $11.29).

Haunted London Pubs

955. Haunted London Pubs – David Brandon and Alan Brooke

“London is a historical city full of mysteries and curiosities, and is home to many of England’s oldest and quirky pubs. It comes as no surprise that these pubs have a great deal more than their fair share of ghosts, phantoms, and ghouls!

“A menacing ghostly soldier lurks in Mayfair’s Grenadier pub; the hooves of Dick Turpin’s Black Bess can be heard galloping up to the Spaniard’s Inn at Hampstead; a scary nun does the rounds at the Horns in Bermondsey; and many people have heard the voices of long-dead drinkers killed when the King’s Arms in Peckham Rye was blitzed.

“Combining some well-known stories with others that are long-forgotten, this fascinating book delves into the rich tapestry of London’s pub history, with a perfect mix of the past, folklore, popular culture, and the supernatural.

96 page paperback, 13 used from $5.68, 18 new from $6.14.

Joe Kwon's True Ghost Stories Volume 4

956. Joe Kwon’s True Ghost Stories Volume 4: True Ghost Stories from Canada & The Rockies – compiled by Joe Kwon

This book only just squeaks by our eligibility criteria because of a separately-listed Kindle edition. But it’s the only book on the subject of Canadian ghosts that popped out from our searches. “We asked readers to send us their own paranormal encounters, and they did. By the thousands. This volume contains some of the most interesting and most terrifying recent encounters Canada and The Rocky Mountains (including more than 100 recent encounters in the USA).”

Paperback, 346 pages, 4 used from $11.85, 11 new fro $9.31, Amazon have an unknown number for $12.99.

Kindle: $3.03

Joe Kwon's True Ghost Stories Volume 6

957. Joe Kwon’s True Ghost Stories Volume 6: Real Ghost Encounters in England – compiled by Joe Kwon

The book that brought the Joe Kwon series to our attention. “We asked people to tell us of the strangest and scariest ghostly goings-on that they had personally witnessed, and they did:” “Submissions from all over England, of the weird, the frightening, the horrid. More than one hundred tales.”

Paperback, 258 pages, 4 used from $10.73, 11 new from $8.33 – both of which make Amazon’s price of $11.99 look pretty good, at least as long as the copies last.

Haunted Castles & Houses of Scotland

958. Haunted Castles & Houses of Scotland – Martin Coventry

200 detailed ghost stories associated with Scotland’s many castles and great houses, including Edinburgh, Stirling, Fyvie, Crathes, Dunnottar, and Neidpath. A map locates all the sites, plus there are numerous photos of the castles. There are tales of headless horsemen, sorrowful Green Ladies, murdered serving girls, men too evil to rest, portents of death, and even a phantom cannonball.
Paperback, 230 pages, 18 used from $1.88, 11 new from $24.56.

Haunted Wales

959. Haunted Wales: A Guide to Welsh Ghostlore – Richard Holland

According to the product description, in 1831 researcher William Howells voiced the written opinion that Wales had more ghosts and goblins that any other country. Wales “abounds in castles and mansions, ancient churches, lonely lanes and crossroads, even bare mountainsides which can lay claim to a resident spook or two.” Holland has carefully studied the original sources of these myths, legends, and supernatural encounters, “delving into old books, journals, Eisteddfod transactions, and unpublished essays” resurrecting ghost stories which had long been forgotten, many of which are uniquely Welsh in character.
Kindle ($2.29) or 240-page paperback (13 used from $2.74, 19 new from $8.40)

Haunted Inns Of Britain & Ireland

960. Haunted Inns Of Britain & Ireland – Richard Jones

There is so little product detail that we’re of two minds about recommending this book. What description there is only adds to that disquiet: “Find out which inns are reputed to be haunted in the British Isles.” Still, even if you have to invent your own haunting details/manifestations using the other works listed as inspiration, this could be worth having – simply because of the greater scope it affords. Ultimately, we’ve decided to leave that decision to the reader.
Paperback, 176 pages, 42 used from 1¢, 12 new form $5, 1 collectible from $9.85.

Edinburgh After Dark

961. Edinburgh After Dark: Ghost, Vampires, and Witches of the Old Town – Ron Halliday

This book covers everything from UFO sightings to Vampires and all points supernatural that lie in between. Which actually makes it more like the “Regional Myths and Mysteries” series (to be listed next week) than most of the books in this section.
Kindle ($2.87) or 224-page paperback (13 used from $1.12, 23 new from $7.25)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings

962. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Ghosts & Hauntings – Tom Ogden

One of the recurring tropes that we employ in the Adventurer’s Club campaign is the presentation of apparently-supernatural events with mundane explanations (the Scooby-Doo trope) and vice-versa as characters become more remote to civilization – with a huge fudge-factor up our sleeves in terms of how “remote” they actually have to be (more on that in the introduction to next time). Ghosts and Hauntings of isolated mansions, farmsteads, battlefields, cemeteries, and castles definitely fits that prescription!

Ogden is all over this list – we’ve recommended several other of his books – which only completes a compelling case for this book to be in the main section.

First Edition: paperback (17 used from $2.90, 12 new from $43.23):

Second Edition (Pictured): Kindle $12.40, paperback (46 used from 1¢, 11 new from $9):

Given the price differential, we recommend the second edition while copies are available, with the first edition as only a back-up choice. No page count was given for the 1st edition, but in general there was a reasonably substantial increase from 1st to 2nd editions of other Complete Idiot’s Guides.

Haunted Castles Of The World

963. Haunted Castles of the World: Ghostly Legends and Phenomena from Keeps and Fortresses Around the Globe – Charles A Coulombe

Haunted Castles and fortresses can be found on every continent – from the Scottish Moors to German Hillsides, from the battlements of old Japan to the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. This book takes the reader on a guided tour of these locations, examining the legends and incidents that gained them their reputation for possessing ghostly residents.

Reported to be short on the Ghost stories and long on the travelogue; criticized for the lack of a bibliography; and denounced for omitting some of the best known, such as Hapsburg Castle, and exotic, such as the Malacanang Palace of Manilla. At best, then, this is an incomplete foundation – but that alone is sufficient to justify its inclusion.

288 page paperback, 20 used from $2.01, 10 new from $8.50.


Documentaries about Ghosts, Poltergeists, Hauntings, etc



964. Is It Real?: Ghost Ships

This is the final episode of the 2nd season of this series, and is the only one we consider worth recommending – the others were over-sensationalized, didn’t tell us anything new, and often contained substantial errors and significant omissions. We couldn’t find the series on DVD, but that hardly matters because unless it was dirt cheap, we could not in good conscience recommend buying the whole for this one part. However, individual episodes (including this one) are available through Amazon’s streaming service and for anyone who can’t access those (the rest of the world?), the episode is online through YouTube


The Haunted Regional Britain collection

This is a series that we came across while searching for other things, but didn’t have time to review even to the extent we have done the regional US references (published next week). These deal with the various counties of England, Scotland, and Ireland with which (we have to admit), we are far less familiar than we are with the states of the US. Which, perhaps, says something about the influence of Hollywood on Australian Culture more than about any other subject. There may even be some Wales in there, we aren’t familiar enough with the locations to say.

Note that there are a couple of books in the series that have been omitted because they were far too expensive, or now only available for Kindle.

Since most of the text for next week’s entry in the series is already written, if there’s time, Mike will start retroactively adding descriptions – but that will take a back seat to getting future articles out on time, so don’t wait for him to do so!

Haunted 1

965. Haunted Aberdeen & District – Geoff Holder

Kindle $2.87 or paperback from $1.88

966. Haunted Ashford – Neil Arnold

96 pages, Paperback from $5.93

Haunted 2

967. Haunted Barnsley – Richard Bramall and Joe Collins

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $7.33, very limited copies

968. Haunted Bath – David Brandon

Paperback, 96 pages, from $6.09

Haunted 3

969. Haunted Bedford – William H King

96 pages, Kindle $2.87 or paperback from $3.96

970. Haunted Berkshire – Roger Long

Paperback, 96 pages, from $1.41

Haunted 4

971. Haunted Berwick – Darren W Ritson

Paperback, 96 pages, from $6.17

972. Haunted Bishop’s Stortford – Jenni Kemp

96 pages, Kindle $4.66 or paperback from $5.69

Haunted 5

973. Haunted Black Country – Philip Soloman

Paperback, 96 pages, from $0.96

974. Haunted Bolton – Stuart Hilton and Michelle Cardno

96 pages, Kindle $4.60 or paperback from $10.20, limited copies

Haunted 6

975. Haunted Boston – Gemma King

This is Boston in Lincolnshire, not Boston, Massachusetts.
96 pages, Kindle $2.91 or paperback from $5.71

976. Haunted Bray and Environs – Eddie Tynan

96 page paperback from 5.95

Haunted 7

977. Haunted Bristol – Sue Le’Queux

128 pages, Kindle $2.87 or paperback from $0.77

978. Haunted Bromley – Neil Arnold

96 pages, Kindle $2.91, paperback from $2.79, copies in very short supply

Haunted 8

979. Haunted Canterbury – John Hippisley

96 pages, paperback from $11.97, limited copies

980. Haunted Carlisle – Darren W Ritson

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $6.26, limited copies available

Haunted 9

981. Haunted Carlow – Cormac Strain and Danny Carthy

96 pages, paperback from $6.88

982. Haunted Chatham – Neil Arnold

96 pages, Kindle $2.31 or paperback from $5.26, limited availability

Haunted 10

983. Haunted Chelmsford – Jason Day

96 pages, Kindle $2.73, paperback from $6.20

984. Haunted Cheltenham – Diz White

96 page paperback from $6.03, limited cheap availability

Haunted 11

985. Haunted Cork – Darren Mann

96 page paperback from $5.97

986. Haunted Cotswolds – Diz White

96 pages, Kindle $2.98 or paperback from $0.77, plentiful supply

Haunted 12

987. Haunted Dartmoor – Kevin Hynes

96 pages, Kindle $4.66 or paperback from $5.56

988. Haunted Derbyshire – Jill Armitage

96 page paperback from $10.45

Haunted 13

989. Haunted Derry – Madeline McCurry

96 pages, Kindle $4.59 or paperback from $5.67

990. Haunted Doncaster – Richard Bramall and Joe Collins

96 pages, Kindle $4.76 or paperback from $11.21

Haunted 14

991. Haunted Donegal – Madeline McCully

96 pages, Kindle $4.59 or paperback from $6.49

992. Haunted Dundee – Geoff Holder

96 pages, Kindle $7.58 or paperback from $4.32, limited availability.

Haunted 15

993. Haunted Edinburgh – Rupert Matthews

Not strictly part of the series, but this still seemed the right place to list this book. NB: Amazon were showing the wrong cover at the time of compilation. Be aware, however, that the cover might be correct and this actually refers to Haunted London by Matthews.
24 pages (that’s not a typo), paperback from 1¢, limited availability.

994. Haunted Edinburgh – Alan Murdie

This is the “Haunted Edinburgh” that is part of the series.
96 page paperback from $6.

Haunted 16

995. Haunted Enfield – Jason Hollisi

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $10.37, limited availability.

996. Haunted Essex – Carmel King

96 page paperback, from $9.18

Haunted 17

997. Haunted Exeter – Suze Gardner

96-page paperback from $6.10, slightly limited availability.

998. Haunted Grimsby – Jason Day

96 page paperback from $6.30, slightly limited availability.

Haunted 18

999. Haunted Halifax and District – Kai Roberts

96 pages, Kindle $4.59, paperback from $5.57

1000. Haunted Hampshire – Rupert Matthews

96 page paperback from $0.77

Haunted 19

1001. Haunted Hartlepool & East Durham – Paul Screeton

96 pages, Kindle $4.59 or paperback from $4.96

1002. Haunted Herefordshire: A ghostly Gazetteer – Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell

We suspect that this might not be part of the series we’ve been tracking, despite the title, because it has a subtitle and a quite different cover, and is very different in page-count, but this seems the right place to list this book.
410 page paperback from $16.19.

Haunted 20

1003. Haunted Hertford – Ruth Stratton

96 pages, Kindle $2.91 or paperback from $3.59

1004. Haunted High Wycombe – Eddie Brazil

96 pages, Kindle $2.29, paperback from $5.68, limited availability.

Haunted 21

1005. Haunted Highgate – Della Farrant

112 pages, Kindle $4.66 or paperback from $5.52

1006. Haunted Huddersfield – Kai Roberts

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $6.97

Haunted 22

1007. Haunted Hull – Mark Riley

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $7.46, slightly limited availability.

1008. Haunted Ipswich – Pete Jennings

96 page paperback from $6.50, limited availability.

Haunted 23

1009. Haunted Isle Of Sheppey – Neil Arnold

96 pages, Kindle $4.66 or paperback from $5.65. Limited availability.

1010. Haunted Kilkenny – Cormac Strain

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $6.40. Limited availability.

Haunted 24

1011. Haunted Kirkcaldy – Gregor Stewart

96 pages, Kindle $4.59 or paperback from $5.63

1012. Haunted Lambeth – James Clark

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $5.70

Haunted 25

1013. Haunted Leeds – Ken Goor

96 page paperback from $1.77. Ample availability.

1014. Haunted Luton & Dunstable – Paul Adams

96 page paperback from $1.52, ample availability.

Haunted 26

1015. Haunted Maidstone – Neil Arnold

96 pages, Kindle $4.66 or paperback from $6.41, limited availability.

1016. Haunted Mansfield – Ian Morgan

96 page paperback from $25.37, very limited availability and possibly should not have been listed.

Haunted 27

1017. Haunted Neath – Robert King

96 page paperback from $6.14.

1018. Haunted Newcastle – Darren W Ritson

128 pages, Kindle $2.87, paperback from $7.82, slightly limited availability.

Haunted 28

1019. Haunted North Cornwall – Michael Williams

96 pages, Kindle $4.65 or paperback from $0.78

1020. Haunted Peterborough – Stuart Orme

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $14.93, very limited availability.

Haunted 29

1021. Haunted Places of Nottinghamshire – Rupert Matthews

Not part of the series but this seemed the right place to list it.
96 pages, paperback, from $2.13, very limited availability.

1022. Haunted Plymouth – Kevin Hynes

96 pages, Kindle $7.47 or paperback from $2.53, very limited availability.

Haunted 30

1023. Haunted Rotherham – Richard Bramall & Joe Collins

96 page paperback from $5.

1024. Haunted Salisbury – Frogg Moody

96 pages, Kindle $2.31 or paperback from $2.83

Haunted 31

1025. Haunted Scarborough – Mark Riley

96 page paperback from $5.27, slightly limited availability.

1026. Haunted Scunthorpe – Jason Day

96 page paperback from $6.63, limited availability.

Haunted 32

1027. Haunted Southampton – Penny Legg

96 page paperback from $5.49.

1028. Haunted Southend – Dee Gordon

96 pages, Kindle $2.89 or paperback from $17.95, extremely limited availability.

Haunted 33

1029. Haunted Spalding – Gemma King

96 pages, Kindle $2.33 or paperback from $7.12, limited availability.

1030. Haunted St Albans – Paul Adams

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $5.68.

Haunted 34

1031. Haunted St Andrews – Geoff Holder

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $6.01.

1032. Haunted St Ives – Ian Addicoat

96 page paperback from $6.61.

Haunted 35

1033. Haunted Stevenage – Paul Adams

96 pages, Kindle $4.59 or paperback from $5.69

1034. Haunted Stirling – David Kinnaird

96 pages, Kindle $7.74 or paperback from $6.99, limited availability.

Haunted 36

1035. Haunted Stockton – Robert Woodhouse

96 page paperback from $19.54, very limited availability.

1036. Haunted Surrey – Rupert Matthews

96 page paperback from $8.00, possibly limited availability.

Haunted 37

1037. Haunted Swansea and Beyond – South Wales Paranormal Research

96 page paperback from $2.45.

1038. Haunted Teesside – Rebecca Hall

96 pages, Kindle $4.60 or paperback from $5.64.

Haunted 38

1039. Haunted Telford – Philip Soloman

96 page paperback from $5.64.

1040. Haunted Tunbridge Wells – Neil Arnold

96 pages, Kindle $2.33, paperback from $14.95, very limited availability.

Haunted 39

1041. Haunted Tyrone – Cormac Strain

96 pages, Kindle $4.59, paperback from $5.53.

1042. Haunted West End – Gilly Pickup

96 page paperback from $4.10.

More copies at ridiculous prices, plus a Kindle edition for $2.72:

Haunted 40

1043. Haunted Wexford – Michael Benson

96 pages, Kindle ($4.66) or paperback from $5.01.

1044. Haunted Weymouth – Alex Woodward

96 page paperback from $5.50. Slightly limited availability.

Haunted 41

1045. Haunted Whitby – Alan Brooke

96 page paperback from $6.36. May be slightly limited availability.

1046. Haunted Wigan – Sarah Carberry and Nicola Johnson

96 pages, Kindle $2.29 or paperback from $6.23.

Haunted 42

1047. Haunted Worcestershire – Anthony Poulton-Smith

128 pages, Kindle $2.33 or paperback from $8.31, may be limited availability.

1048. Haunted Worthing – Wendy Hughes

96 page paperback from $14.63, limited availability.

Haunted Nottingham

1049. Haunted Nottingham: Myths, Magic & Folklore – Wayne Anthony

We are also reasonably certain that this is not being part of this series, but this seems an appropriate location.
192 pages, hardcover (4 used from $18.36) or paperback (4 new from $20.07) plus Amazon have an unknown quantity in stock for $28.58. (They usually start issuing warnings about limited supplies when reserves drop below twenty copies or so, and as a result we are reasonably confident of availability, if not price).



Afterword by Mike: How To Make A Story Scary

Blair had written an afterword for this article back when it was all one big shelf, but that is more appropriate for the new Shelf 12, so I’m stepping in to fill the breach.

Have you ever dried your face with a soft, fluffy towel?

Didn’t have a lot of impact, did it? Comfort-factor off the scale, but danger? Stress? Excitement? Not so much.

One of the cardinal sins of ghosts and hauntings is make the disquiet dead no more spooky than that metaphoric soft, fluffy towel.

There’s a real art form to projecting spookiness. It’s a combination of hushed tones and slowed delivery, slightly deepened voice and breathy delivery (with the occasional shiver in your voice if you can manage it), delayed responses, and then being completely deadpan and ordinary and matter-of-fact in tone and delivery at just the right moments.

You’ll know when you’re doing it right because your own pulse will quicken, your own palms grow just a little sweaty, and you too will have to face – and overcome – a natural tendency to babble faster and louder than usual.

It’s not a complete guide or perfect technique, but here’s what I consider to be the basics of what vocal technique to use, when.

  • If you would normally offer an immediate response, wait a heartbeat. Half a second, holding your breath (if you can see it coming, hold your breath while waiting for the triggering phrase). Then use your most serious tone of voice, the one you would use to tell someone that they were going to die of some terrible disease; the slight breathiness will take care of itself. (1)
  • When you feel like breaking out a big cheesy, malevolent, grin, because you know what’s about to be said is something that should scare the pants off your audience, that’s the time to force yourself to be deadpan and matter-of-fact and ordinary. In fact, whenever there is something for the PCs to get excited about, don’t. (2)
  • When approaching the point where you are likely to need the matter-of-fact voice, hush your voice by as much as you can get away with without compromising your ability to communicate. If environmental-noisily challenged, a stage whisper is better than nothing. But you need to be a little bit subtle about it, or what you’re doing will be completely obvious, and the effect will be broken. (3)
  • Putting the slightest shiver in your voice when roleplaying an NPC is hard. Much harder than anything else in this block of advice. It’s hard to do and easy to overdo. But do it right and you convey an undercurrent of fear , quite possibly with nothing apparent to be fearful of, priming those hearing to associate that fear (subconsciously) with the next scary thing to happen.
  • The rest of the time, speak just a little bit more slowly than normal. Don’t slow or slow the delivery of individual words; space them out just a little more than you usually would, as though you were speaking with deliberate care, making an extra effort to be sure that you are not misunderstood. Try and get into a slight rhythm of speaking, avoiding any sing-song quality (which normally slips in when we try to speak rhythmically unless we’ve practiced otherwise). (4)
  • When building up to the first spooky event, when there’s nothing to be scared of yet, use your normal tone of voice and delivery. (5)

That’s how to take a ghostly encounter and give it the gravitas that it deserves – instead of the fluffy-kitten-and-bathtowel treatment. Well, it’s the basics. There’s a lot more that could be said on the subject, for example controlling the use of sibilants (Ess-sounds) and harsh sounds like ‘-ack’ and ‘uck’, the use of alliteration and opposites and push-pull vocabulary, but I’m not an expert. I know such things exist and matter, but that’s about it.

(1). We subconsciously associate heavy breathing with exertion and potential danger or excitement. The tone of voice tells them it’s something serious, i.e. the first, not the second. So if you deliberately make yourself breathe just a little harder than normal, the players will involuntarily be triggered to be on high alert.

(2). Excitement in the voice can be catching, but it can also be suggestive of hysteria and sensationalism. Being deadpan at such times conveys the message that “this – is – really – happening”, conveying a sense of danger rather than excitement.

(3). Secrets and privileged communications are always whispered – how else do you communicate that it’s a secret by tone of voice alone? But there’s an implication that there is something to be secretive about, that all is not as it seems – and that is both thrilling and just a little bit scary. That’s why human beings love to gossip – by it’s very nature, gossiping is the sharing of secrets, it’s vicariously thrilling. On top of that, we tend to automatically listen just a little bit harder when someone gets slightly quieter in their vocalizations, especially if it’s not obvious that they are doing so.

(4). One of the secrets to music is the metronomic beat at the pace that you want the listener’s heart-rate to beat at. Up-tempo rock is 110-120 beats per minute. Gentle love songs are usually around 80-100 beats per minute. Dance Music can often be faster than 120 bpm. Thrash and Punk can go as high as 180 bpm. (A beat is when something happens, rhythmically, or could happen but doesn’t). The heart-rate responds to the rhythm, helping create the very mood that you want the music to convey. When we speak rhythmically, almost chant (without the sing-song OF a chant), the brain responds as though it were hearing music.

(5). Most of these effects are rooted in the fight-or-flight response, and that can’t (and isn’t) sustained indefinitely. Half-an-hour, tops. Scariness is most effective when there’s a fear-inducing effect or sequence followed by a lull, then another trigger (without warning, but with buildup) just as it’s about to wear off. Watching a good horror movie will help you get the timing right – the second half of Alien is a great example to use. Watching a bad horror movie, or one that’s been butchered by commercial breaks will quickly show you what happens when you get it wrong – so that you’ll know what to watch for.

One more tip: a dramatic and unexpected sound effect to signal something scary instead of simply announcing it – and I don’t mean a ghostly wail or moan or anything cheesy like that – can be worth a dozen delivery tricks. I used to use the underside of the table and rap it with my knuckles, but the players can usually see me tensing my muscles to do so and know it’s coming. But you know those neutral-gas packing pillows that Amazon use? Slip one of those underfoot when the players aren’t looking, at least ten minutes in advance, and at the right moment, pop it with your heel, then tell them what that sound signifies… bonus points if you’ve built up the tension to the point where the players jump!

Next in this series: The 12th shelf – Everything that got left out of this one! Secret Societies!! Freemasons!! Knights Templar!! Voodoo!! Zombies!! Vampires!! Werewolves!! Urban Legends!! Cryptozoology!! And some really strange stuff!!!


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A radical concept: The GM Task Experience Table


Champagne-1 by / Marcello Terraza
Score highly in this test and you too will feel like celebrating!

On twitter the other day, one of my regular contacts (Rising Stars Press) posted a meme that read something along the lines of “All right folks, give yourselves 500 xp for surviving 2016” and an image of Gary Jackson. And, as sometimes happens, one stray thought had a whirlwind romance with another, and before you know it, a highly improbably and quite radical concept was born.

What if players gave the GM experience after each game session for all the things that GMs are supposed to do well?

And what if the XP so received translated into boundaries within which the players trusted the GM, would ‘go with the flow’ and not sweat the small stuff?

But Seriously….

No, I’m not seriously proposing that such a system be implemented. But simply developing one with your players holds benefits that aren’t immediately obvious.

You see, it’s relatively easy to make a list of all the things that GMs should do for, and in, each game session. It’s quite another putting them in any sort of priority sequence, let alone having some means of assessing the relative weight the players collectively place on the different aspects of gaming.

But, if you were to state that the absolute maximum xp to be awarded to a GM was 1,000xp, with up to X points coming from this aspect of the game, up to Y being awarded for another, and up to Z being awarded for a third – and so on – getting the players to reach agreement between themselves over what X, Y, and Z should be tells the GM what their priorities are, and in the process, what areas of his game he should be focusing on.

But even more usefully, the GM gets to hear what the players think as they are discussing it.

There’s no actual need for the players to rate any individual performance by the GM; if there’s something they aren’t getting enough of, they will naturally place a greater emphasis on that, it’s only human nature.

Furthermore, suitably massaged, it can provide a guideline for what the players want the GM to spend his prep time on – which might be radically different to what the GM is actually doing – as described in Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity.

A list of tasks

To get the ball rolling, I’ve come up with a list of thirty-four GM functions, within five broad categories – Concepts, Prep, Execution, Admin, and General. Because the list is so long, I’ve actually placed it in three columns – not something that I routinely do at Campaign Mastery. After the list, I’ll discuss each (relatively briefly).

Spacer Spacer Spacer
  • 1. Concepts
    • 1.1 Engaging Background
    • 1.2 Scope Of Background
    • 1.3 Interesting NPCs
    • 1.4 Fascinating Plots
    • 1.5 Surprising Twists
  • 2. Prep
    • 2.1 Dialogue
    • 2.2 Adventure
    • 2.3 Plot Logic
    • 2.4 Simulation Aids
    • 2.5 References
    • 2.6 Rules
  • 3. Execution
    • 3.1 Player Immersion
    • 3.2 Scope For Player Decisions
    • 3.3 Dynamic World
    • 3.4 Responsive World
    • 3.5 Responsive Actions
    • 3.6 PC Integration
    • 3.7 Difficulty Of Combat
    • 3.8 Tactical Involvement
    • 3.9 Emotional Involvement
    • 3.10 Vicarious Involvement
    • 3.11 Opportunities To Roleplay
    • 3.12 Adequacy Of Rewards
    • 3.13 GM Flexibility
  • 4. Admin
    • 4.1 Experience
    • 4.2 Character Evolution
    • 4.3 Rules Knowledge
    • 4.4 Rules Interpretation
    • 4.5 Campaign Knowledge
    • 4.6 Social Management
    • 4.7 Timing
  • 5. General
    • 5.1 Fun
    • 5.2 Interest
    • 5.3 Eagerness To Continue

Let’s take a quick look at what each of these encompasses, because it’s not completely clear in some cases.

1. Concepts

Concepts are all about ideas and big-picture.

1.1 Engaging Background

Are the players interested in the background, and does the background make a difference, or is it simply hanging behind the action like set dressing?

1.2 Scope Of Background

Is the background too big, sprawling, and complicated for the players to grasp? Has the GM introduced too much too soon? Or is it too small to inspire and give the game world a distinctive flavor?

1.3 Interesting NPCs

Are the NPCs interesting to interact with, or are they meaningless cyphers that the players could care less about?

1.4 Fascinating Plots

Do the plots, in general, hold the player’s interest? Or are they mechanical plodding from A to B?

1.5 Surprising Twists

This section evaluates not just the quality of the perceived twists but whether or not they were actually surprising, or did the players see them coming from a mile away?

2. Prep

Prep is about taking those big-picture elements and turning them into an adventure ready for the PCs to get involved in. All prep questions come in two forms: was there enough prep done and what was the quality of the result?

2.1 Dialogue

Canned dialogue and narrative are essential components of any game. If the players are comfortable with the GM winging it, they may require less prep in this area. But if it’s hard to tell who’s doing the talking, they may want more prep time invested. Remember, this isn’t about how much the GM did, but how well he satisfied player expectations in this area.

2.2 Adventure

How interesting and complete was the basic adventure design? Was it too big, too complicated, too small, too yellow, too anything?

2.3 Plot Logic

Did the plot make sense? What holes manifested, if any? Did the plot seem to emerge from the basic personalities of the characters (both PC and NPC) involved? Or did it seem/feel contrived?

2.4 Simulation Aids

Props and minis – did the GM have everything he needed in this respect, or some reasonable facsimile?

2.5 References

If there were any references that had to be consulted, did the GM have them at hand?

2.6 Rules

How well did the GM know the basic rules? If any unusual section of rules needed to be used, had he read up on them in advance? Or was the game continually interrupted by the opening of rule books?

3. Execution

Prep all happens in advance of play. How well the GM actually performed on the day is the province of Execution, the biggest single category.

3.1 Player Immersion

Immersion is good. How well did the GM make the players forget the mundane world outside the game table? How tangible did he make the game world feel?

3.2 Scope For Player Decisions

How much room did the GM make for players to make their own decisions? Was he prepared to let them flounder until the thought of something else to try, or did he head frustration off at the pass by introducing a new plot development when the players got lost? Could the players simply follow their noses and adventure by the numbers, or were there non-trivial decisions they had to make – and did those decisions alter the outcome?

3.3 Dynamic World

How much did the campaign world feel like it had evolved since the last game? Since the first game? Is the world dynamic, changing around the PCs, evolving and developing new angles and situations that have genuine impact on the choices available to the players and keep the game fresh? Or does the whole thing reset to a static default at the end of each adventure?

3.4 Responsive World

How much does the world evolve as a specific consequence of PC decisions, both past and present? Are there consequences (beyond mere game mechanics) for mistakes – and benefits for smart play?

3.5 Responsive Actions

How much did the current adventure evolve as a consequence of PC decisions, for good or ill? Or did the GM only have to pay lip service to player self-actualization?

3.6 PC Integration

How much did the PCs feel connected to the world, a part of it, and how much did they feel like they were tacked-on afterthoughts? Would replacing any of the PCs with someone of identical skills and stats but different personality have made a material difference to the situation or how it developed?

3.7 Difficulty Of Combat

Were the fights too easy or too hard – or just right – and was that difficulty level appropriate for the situation in-game?

3.8 Tactical Involvement

Did the players have to think about their choices of actions? Or was this a push-button RPG session in which the PCs were algorithms, with a predetermined and predictable response to every situation?

3.9 Emotional Involvement

Did the players feel like their characters were emotionally involved in the game – caring about the things they were supposed to care about, angry about the things that should have angered them, enjoying experiences that they would have found pleasant? How much did the players care about the outcome – and did that match the degree to which the PCs should have cared about the outcome?

3.10 Vicarious Involvement

How much fun was it to be a fly on the wall when not directly involved in the action? Did the group feel like leaves in the wind, each following their own almost-random path but with an overall collective direction, and how much did they feel like they were a cohesive unit, sharing in each other’s successes and feeling each other’s defeats?

3.11 Opportunities To Roleplay
How much scope did the GM give for players to roleplay their characters? Did the players feel like they were their characters at all times? Most of the time? Whenever not confronted by system mechanics? Whenever not in combat? Only when the GM provided a set piece for roleplay? Or not at all?

3.12 Adequacy Of Rewards

Would the PCs have felt adequately rewarded for their efforts? Do the players? Is there a difference, and is that difference appropriate? Were the rewards disproportionate to the situations faced?

3.13 GM Flexibility

When something unexpected happened, how well did the GM bend to accommodate it? If the players wanted to do something he hadn’t planned for, could he cope? Did it feel like he was ready for anything the players might choose to do?

4. Admin

Some admin is almost inevitable. For most GMs, it’s a necessary evil, to be minimized at every turn. The best use it as a future planning tool, and are experts in their own campaigns, able to answer almost any question at the drop of a hat.

4.1 Experience

How much did the character learn from the encounter, and is that reflected in an appropriate amount of XP? Are the characters progressing so slowly that they feel stuck in neutral, or advancing so fast that the players can’t take the time to enjoy what they’ve got?

4.2 Character Evolution

How much did the PCs, both individually and collectively, evolve in the course of the adventure? Were changes to characters as a result of previous game sessions at least signposted within the adventure? Does it feel like advancements made through game mechanics come out of the blue, or does it feel like a natural step on the character’s personal journeys from what they were to whatever they will become (even if no-one knows what that may be)?

4.3 Rules Knowledge

How well did the GM know the rules of the game he was running – and how disruptive was any shortcoming in that department?

4.4 Rules Interpretation

Did the GM seem impartial when adjudicating rules decisions? Was he able to make a decision on the fly when the rules were inadequate or too complicated? Did the game keep moving, or did it bog down?

4.5 Campaign Knowledge

How well did the GM know his own creations? Were there any obvious oversights, and were any of these serious enough to require a retcon?

4.6 Social Management

While the GM can’t dictate player behavior, he is responsible for managing the social situation. Having players be engaged enough that they won’t get caught up in side conversations over the top of whatever else is happening? Rotating the spotlight fast enough? Giving a fair share of that spotlight to each? If any situations arose, did the GM manage them?

4.7 Timing

Did the game start on time, and if not, how much of the blame belongs to the GM? Did the game finish early or late? Did the GM fill the hours that the game was allocated?

5. General

Finally, we have a trio of big-picture overall considerations. It’s not far wrong to say that if the GM gets these three things right, it doesn’t really matter what happens in all the other areas – but the odds are that if the GM does well in these three areas, he would also score high marks in several of the earlier areas.

5.1 Fun

How much fun was it to be part of the game? And make no mistake, a PC can be enduring absolute misery while his player is having a whale of a time! One definition of role-playing vs roll-playing that I’ve come across in the past: Role-playing makes it fun even when your character isn’t having fun, roll-playing implicitly ties a player’s enjoyment to how much his character is enjoying himself.

5.2 Interest

How much food for thought did the game offer? Was it intellectually fascinating, did it offer situations that the players had never expected or come across before? Was it original, or did it feel derivative? Was it so original that it became hard work just trying to keep up?

5.3 Eagerness To Continue

How much are the players looking forward to the next game session? Would they have wanted to keep going if time permitted? Would playing a day earlier be a good thing just because you got to play sooner?

Three systems of approach

There are two basic approaches that can be adopted to negotiating how much each of these categories should be worth. The first is to start with a total and break it up amongst the major sections, then sub-divide to reach each detail item’s worth. The second is to allocate a convenient base number to each of the detail items and then adjust accordingly, letting the broader categories take care of themselves. The third is a “score out of five” system.

Let’s take a look at how each of these would work.


In the big-picture approach, you start with a convenient total maximum award and then break it up amongst the major categories. With 34 categories, 1700 or 3400 seem to be obvious choices, but let’s be a little unconventional and choose 2000. That gives each of the five major categories a base 400 points each – after which, it’s a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

You might decide that the big three items at the end should be worth half the total – that’s as much as everything else put together, by definition. That would certainly be a reasonable weighting, in my personal opinion. So category 5 is worth 1000 points and categories 1-4 are worth 1000 points between them, or an average of 250 points each.

Next, the players might decide that execution should be worth as much as the remaining three categories put together. That means that category 3 is worth 500 points, while categories 1, 2, and 4 are worth 500 points.

Opinion might well be divided over which of categories 1 and 2 are more important. I can even see the balance being different from one campaign to the next, even with exactly the same players and GM. Admin, on the other hand, is almost certainly going to be low dog on the totem pole. Let’s say that the players decide that both categories 1 and 2 should be worth three times as much each as category 1. 3+3+1=7, so category 4 would get 1/7th of the 500 points – call it 70 points for convenience – while the rest (430 points) gets split evenly between categories 1 and 2, i.e. 215 points each.

So far, then, we have: Category 1, 215 points. Category 2, 215 points. Category 3, 500 points. Category 4, 70 points. Category 5, 1000 points.

Alternative perspective insights

Of course, there are an almost infinite number of alternatives. There would be absolutely nothing wrong with a breakup of 200, 300, 600, 100, and 800 points. Or one of 100, 300, 800, 200, 600 points. Or 300, 100, 800, 100, 700 points. If the objective was to playtest a new set of rules, the breakup might be 100, 800, 800, 100, 200 – placing all the emphasis on this adventure and its execution, with very little regard for the bigger picture.

Because that’s another way to think about the five major categories: 1 and 5 are big-picture, 2 and 3 are immediate, and 4 is the infrastructure that ties everything together.

In any event, we have a breakup of 215, 215, 500, 70, and 1000 points. Now we look at each of the categories and sub-divide. Again, it’s just my personal opinion, but I would start with the smallest total and go up from there.

Category 4, admin, 70 points:

Admin represents 7 tasks, which gives an average of 10 per task. It might be collectively decided that 1 and 4 are the most important, then 2, and everything else in third place. So let’s start by making 1 and 4 worth 20 points each, and 2 worth 15 points, and see what the rest would be worth: 20+20+15=55, leaving 15; divided four ways gives just under 4 points each. To have them be worth 4, we would need to steal back a point from somewhere else, with 2 the most likely candidate. That gives a final breakdown of:

  • 4.1 Experience: 20 points
  • 4.2 Character Evolution: 15 points
  • 4.3 Rules Knowledge: 4 points
  • 4.4 Rules Interpretation: 20 points
  • 4.5 Campaign Knowledge: 4 points
  • 4.6 Social Management: 4 points
  • 4.7 Timing: 4 points

As before, there are many alternative choices that would be equally valid. 10, 10, 10, 30, 5, 0, 5, for example. Or 15, 5, 5, 20, 5, 0, 20, which should tell the GM immediately that he needs to keep a closer eye on his timing (he should automatically always be keeping a careful watch on his fairness).

Category 1, concepts, 215 points:

Five tasks, an average of 43 points each. That’s a slightly awkward number; so ignore the 3 and set a base value of 40 points each, with 15 bonus points to be awarded.

For my money, if I were assessing where I place my priorities, there isn’t a lot to distinguish one of these as more important than the rest. 3 and 4 might be a shade more important than 1, 2 a shade less important, and 5 the low man on the totem pole by a small margin. So, lets say +10 each for 3 and 4, -10 for 2, and -20 for 5, increasing the bonus pool to 25,

That gives allocations of:

  • 1.1 Engaging Background: 40;
  • 1.2 Scope Of Background: 40-10=30;
  • 1.3 Interesting NPCs: 40+10=50;
  • 1.4 Fascinating Plots: 40+10=50;
  • 1.5 Surprising Twists: 40-20=20.
What to do with the bonus pool?

At this point, the players have to decide what to do with those 25 unallocated points. They have several choices: they can simply forget them; they could add +10 to 3 and 4 and +5 to 5, increasing the emphasis on the two major items and diminishing the de-emphasis on plot twists; or they could define some additional skill that fits in the category and give it the entirety of the 25 points. That category might be “Game Physics”, or it might be “Historical Knowledge”, or it might be “Educational Value” (in a game used for teaching students), or it might be something broad like “Creativity”. Or it might be a couple of these, each receiving a share of the 25 points – and possibly triggering a reassessment of the amounts already allocated.

Remember, the point of the exercise is for the players to define the relative importance they place on various aspects of the GM’s role in the game and quantify those results for the GM to use as a planning / prioritization / self-improvement tool.

The other categories

I could work through the other categories, but the above examples really sum up the entire process between them. So, instead, let’s turn our attention to method 2.

Small Picture

The second approach starts with the assumption that all aspects of the GM’s craft are equally important, at least in theory, and then modifies that theoretical result to something that accords a bit closer to reality. There are 34 tasks on the list; if we give each item a base score of 25, that’s 1,190 points in total. If we’re aiming for 1000, we would need to deemphasize some tasks by a collective total of 190 points. Dropping a task from 25 to 10 points in value saves 15 points; dropping about 1/3 of the list would get us close to the 1000 points target.

This really is very similar to the first approach, except that it increases the scope of the adjustments. You could boost “fun” by reducing “plot twists”, or emphasize Dialogue while deemphasizing Rules Knowledge and Dynamic World.

What it often means is that you don’t get the big swings that the first system can produce. Take category 5 of the “big picture” system: we (hypothetically, as an example) gave it a total value of 1000, which means that each task has a value of about 300, with 100 points left over. Compare those values with the ones that we were considering for the tasks in category 1, where we were sweating five-point differences! While the initial allocation of points and emphasis at the big-picture scale seemed reasonable, the results when you get down to the nitty gritty can be quite startling and even carry implications that weren’t intended.

On the other hand, it takes a big task and turns it into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks. So there is a lot to commend it.

Frankly, neither approach is all that ideal. Which is why I came up with a third alternative.

The “Score out of 5” system

Each player rates the importance of the five major categories out of 5. They then rate the importance of each task within the list out of 5. The GM gathers these results; he multiplies each of the tasks by the major category rating, then totals the results from each player to get an aggregate. Finally, he produces a grand total of all these individual ratings; dividing the overall score required (be it 1000 or 5,000 or whatever) by the total gives a conversion factor, which he can multiply the unrounded scores by, then rounded as he sees fit (to the nearest 10 or 20).

Let’s see how it works. I’ve invented 3 “players” with different priorities and preferences, then had them do the “ratings by 5”. The table below shows the results of the whole process (Never fear, I’ll walk you through it!)

Player 1 is a Storyteller, and even the roleplaying of his character is secondary to his engagement in an interesting plotline. Player 2 is a typical roleplayer, whose primary interest is in playing his character, and everything else is measured against its contribution to that end. Player 3 is someone who simply wants to let off some steam at the end of the week by killing something (or at least, beating it to a pulp). As you might expect, keeping this disparate group happy, week after week, would not be easy, with the first two often united in common interests against the third (the secret would be making the combat an integral part of the plot, using the resulting commonality between players 1 and 3 to balance the trend toward plot/roleplay at the expense of combat).

Scores by five table

I’ve also produced this as a PDF, for those who want to study it more closely, or who are sight-impaired and need the data in text form. Click the image to grab it (it’s also helpful to have the lists and the example side-by-side).

The first column identifies the category and the tasks within each category.

The second column has the scores player 1 gave to each category and to each task, out of 5. For example, Category 1 has been given a rating by him of 4 out of 5 for importance, and task 1.1, an engaging background, has also been rated by him as 4 out of 5 for importance.

In the third column, I’ve multiplied each task rating by the category rating – so, for player 1, this is a result of 16, (four from the category multiplied by four from the task).

The fourth and fifth columns give the ratings and multiplied products for player 2 in the same way. For category one, player two gave a rating of 2, and for task 1.1, a rating of three, giving a combined value of six.

Ditto the sixth and seventh columns, which give the results from player 3. Her rated category 1 as a one, and task 1.1 as a two, so the product for his scores for this task is two.

The eighth column is where things get interesting. I’ve added the product for task 1.1 from player one (16) to that for the task from player two (6), and that from player 3 (2) to get a subtotal of 24. At the bottom of the column, I’ve totaled all these scores, and ended with a total of 1,058. Underneath that, I divided 2000 by this total to get an adjustment factor of 1.89. In theory, if I were to multiply each rating by 1.89, they should add up to a total of exactly 2000.

In column 9, I’ve done exactly that (without bothering to check the total). For task 1.1, the subtotal of 24 turns into an adjusted value of 45.36.

I didn’t check the total because in Column 10, I’ve rounded each results to the nearest 5. For task 1.1, that was (quite obviously) 45.

Again, in theory, the total of all the rounded, adjusted, results should be 2,000. Again, I haven’t bothered checking this; from what I noted as I produced the table, the rounding errors appear to be on the high side, though, so the end result might be 2030 or something. In the real world, I would then tweak the results to distribute that error and get an exact total, but that wasn’t necessary for the example.

Superiority Demonstrated

This method combines all the advantages of both the alternatives with none of the drawbacks. Values for any specific task range from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 25. The geometric nature of one number multiplied by another means that relative value rises disproportionately to the size of the small increase in the actual ratings – going from 4 to 5 might not seem like a big deal, but going from 4 times 4 to 5 times 5 is a difference of 25-16=9, or an increase of more than 50%.

At the same time, the effect of totaling the results from each player mean that if there’s something that only one player rated highly, it is the same as all three rating it of medium-low or mediocre significance. Only things that they all agree on get to the really big scores.

It also means that if one player habitually rates such things high, or low, such variations are evened out by the system, removing individual player biases.

Analyzing the example results

So, what was the washup of this theoretical example? The highest score by a small margin was “fun”. Players will forgive almost anything if they are having fun! It scored 115 points.

The only other result in the triple digits was 3.5, Responsive Actions. The players are placing an emphasis on NPCs reacting to PC decisions, suggesting either that this is a weak point of the GMs, or that they want a continued focus on it.

Scoring 95, and coming in in third place as a result, is 3.13, GM Flexibility. There seems to be some concern about plot trains, which definitely ties into the Responsive Actions result.

Almost scoring as highly at 90 points is 3.2, Scope for player decisions. There is a definite theme developing here!

Tied for fifth place, with 85 points, are another two items from the execution category, 3.6, PC Integration, and 3.8, Tactical Involvement. The players want to feel more strongly that their characters are a part of the world, and want combats to be more tactical than straightforward fights; again, the same theme shows up.

Two execution items also tie for 7th place, with 75 points, followed two execution items and the remaining general items at 70.

That means that nine of the top 12 scores are to be found in the execution category, and the other three comprise the general category. The highest score in the concepts category is 50, the highest in the prep category is 60, and the highest in the admin category is a 55. These are roughly half the highest-rated item.

All in all, the picture emerges of a trio of players who are fairly happy with the campaign the GM is running, with just one area needing specific attention.

Wrapping up the bundle

This article was originally subtitled “crawl before you can walk”. I’ve seen too many novice GMs try to run a marathon before they can even crawl. Don’t haul out and use your best idea for your first campaign; it will almost certainly prove to be too big and complex for your level of expertise as a GM. Start with something simple and fairly generic, with a lot of blank spaces; then add to it, week after week, filling in those empty places. This week, they discover a clever twist on Giants; next week, a twist on the relationship between piety, religious faith, and nobility; the week after, do something interesting with the politics of a new kingdom. Master the “just in time” approach and build your campaign using the Baby Steps In Campaign Design technique that I wrote about way back in Roleplaying Tips number 308.

One final application of the “scores out of five” technique merits mention as a closing thought: The GM could always do the survey on his own to assess the priority that he is currently placing on things. Because there is only the one “player” providing scores, the Factor would be relatively high, but the results would be directly comparable with player expectations and requirements as shown by their results, and should be highly enlightening.

This is a simple tool, but capable of producing profound insights. Make of it what you will – but remember that small steps in a given direction can have a big impact; if a campaign is mostly working already, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

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A trio of campaigns for your consideration

Well, that didn’t take long! It seems like only a couple of days since I made noise about the new plans for Campaign Mastery… wait, it has only been a couple of days!

Having realized late in the day that there is absolutely no chance of finishing the first big article in time for publishing tonight, and quite possibly not even tomorrow, it was time to pull a Plan B out of my back pocket – in this case, a slush pile of campaign ideas (which I mentioned having in Monday’s article, you may recall).

Rather than taking the time to more fully develop one of them as a feature in its own right, I have decided to take the quick-and-easy route, and simply post all three ideas as a single article – requiring minimal editing and costing minimal writing time, which can then be invested back into that longer article, greatly increasing the likelihood that it will be ready to publish next week.

These were originally developed as examples to accompany A Vague Beginning, which was written in 2011 and published in 2015. So these ideas are all six years or so old…

The Frozen North – a fantasy / Pathfinder / D&D campaign premise

Snowy Mountain 1 by Tamlyn Rhodes

Image by / Tamlyn Rhodes. Click the thumbnail to see the full-sized original image

The existence of fire Elementals, the Elemental Plane of Fire, and the many creatures adapted to a fire-based existence, raises the question why there are no cold/ice -based equivalents.

The truth of the matter has been lost in the sands of time, or perhaps was never discovered: that there was once an elemental plane of ice but it was destroyed eons ago in a terrible war when the inhabitants attempted to conquer the prime material plane, bringing forth an unprecedented age of ice. All but a few of the Elementals of cold and ice were destroyed, and today they are a forgotten species.

Unknown to mankind, a few survive, secretly locked away in the Castles Of Ice of the Frost Giants, and in the lairs of White Dragons. It is by drinking the “lifesblood” of these domesticated slaves that these races attain their resilience and adaption to the cold regions they inhabit.

Also lost was the secret of what caused this attempted conquest to fail, but this is a secret that the PCs will need to discover, for one of the Ice Elementals has escaped during a tribal feud amongst Frost Giants, and it has slowly gathered an army of creatures that it has seized, converted into icy versions of their species (Ice-Elves, Ice-Dwarves, Ice-Men, etc). Now it is poised to once again walk the paths of conquest and revenge.

  • Will the PCs suborn the slavery of an entire species – when the alternative is the destruction under walls of ice of their homelands?
  • Will they seek the final destruction of a sentient species, condemning the Frost Giants in the process?
  • Will the people of the warmlands declare war on the Giants – and how will the other races of Giant react?
  • Will the old tribal alliances between them hold firm?
  • What role will the manipulative and evil White Dragons play in these events?
  • And – the biggest question of all – who arranged for the escape of the Ice Elemental and what is their agenda?

There are clearly questions for the GM to answer, but there’s no rush – let the campaign sprout and grow on its own from these beginnings, and wait for the cool ideas (pun intended) to show up!

Echoes Of Tomorrow – a fantasy / Pathfinder / D&D campaign premise

Hourglass by Guilherme Silva combined with Broken Glass by Brano Hudak

This image combines Hourglass by / Guilherme Silva and Broken Glass by / Brano Hudak. Digital editing by Mike. Click the thumbnail to open a larger version.

It is a truism to say “your whole life has been leading to this moment”, but there are those with a different perspective. The Anachrons believe that a creature’s life is but an echo of their true existence in the afterlife propagating backwards in time, and that this destiny shapes the mortal existences that lead up to it. It takes all kinds…

But there is, it seems, some truth to the Anachron philosophy, incomplete and bewildering as it may be, for the Mad Lich Luciferous has conceived a grand scheme to conquer all of existence by altering the past. Stealing and diverting the souls of those about to enter the afterlife with his foul necromancy, he has sent rapists and thieves and murderers to Heaven and the spirits of the faithful to the planes of Hell.

The innocent dispatched to the lower planes are easy prey for the vile inhabitants of those realms, while the gentle fields of Elysium have proven no match for the wanton cruelty of the wicked who were diverted there, and are now all-but-conquered. The Gods, whose province is the natural order, were taken by surprise by the machinations of the profoundly un-natural Lich, and are besieged and all-but-helpless before the Lich and his followers and minions.

And with each diverted spirit, the past history of the world changes, becoming more vile and corrupt, more in keeping with an existence in which the innocent are eternally tortured in hell by demons and devils, and the wicked and cruel are lauded in heavenly revelry, and the temporal power of Luciferous grows.

In desperation, the Gods have banded together to shelter a few privileged individuals (the PCs) from the worst of these changes, a last desperate hope for the past, future, and present of all existence. These privileged few have been largely untouched by the depredations of wickedness, only slowly becoming aware of what seems – to them – to be an ongoing collapse of society into barbarity. They are slowly coming to realize that to everyone else, things are now as they have always been. At last, they are ready to undertake the greatest and most desperate adventure of all time, the overthrow of an evil grown supernaturally preeminent over all of time and existence…

Unlike the previous concept, this one requires a lot of specific details still to be worked out.

What’s the mechanism? Do the PCs have to travel in time to the scene of various climactic confrontations to make sure they come out “right”? Or is the GM prepared to leave all that up to the players to figure out?

While the first campaign would suit a relatively structured GMing approach, like the one I use, this would suit a more improvisational style.

The Currents Of Space – a Space Opera / Sci-fi campaign premise

Original image by NASA

Original image source: NASA, photo-manipulation by Mike. Click the thumbnail to see a larger image.

There are 23 perpetual motion machines with patents approved by the US patents office. Supposedly, one of the requirements is the provision of a working model. There’s a plot in these facts somewhere… but in the meantime, this is about the third time that I’ve used it as inspiration!

In fact, the problem with most such machines is that they consume more energy than they produce, if in fact they produce any at all.

The theoretical problems are harder to overcome, but they all depend on the definition of a closed system. So long as there is some source of energy that lies outside that closed system, perpetual motion – or something that looks very much like it to the layman – is easy.

The sun, for example, emits vast streams of charged particles. It would not be all that difficult to construct some orbital device that employed solar sails to convert some of that “lost energy” into rotational motion, just as does a windmill. The trick would be doing so in such a way as to reduce or eliminate the translation of that energy into movement of the collector as a whole rather than just the “blades” of our windmill – i,e, erecting our windmill on “solid ground”.

The lunar surface seems an obvious solution, as does the idea of placing asteroids into relatively stable orbits around the sun and then “coring” them to turn them into housings for our windmill blades. A relatively minor energy expenditure is needed for attitude control, making sure that the blades always face the sun.

Rotational energy can be converted into electrical power by a simple generator. The next trick is getting that energy to where it is needed – and, until recently, that has been a largely insoluble problem. As our battery technology has improved through research into efficient electric cars, however, it is becoming less of an issue.

This scheme is plausible enough that fifty years from now, if not a LOT sooner, it will be sufficiently viable that a pilot program would be undertaken. Let’s assume that it appears to be successful, and construction begins on a whole heap of these.

But that’s when the fun can begin. What happens to the solar wind? Does it keep going forever? or is it still gravitationally bound to the Sun, able to get a long way out before falling back? Perhaps a great solar current flows from solar equator out to the limits of the solar system before arcing back to re-impact the sun at the poles, twisted and accelerated by solar magnetic fields in a ballet of quasi-stability that has persisted for eons.

Our “windmills” would not only rob parts of the solar wind of some their energy, slowing them and causing them to arc back “prematurely”, causing a short-term increase in the radiation striking the sun, they would also quite likely perturb the smooth “flow”, creating turbulence within these slow-moving streams of solar wind.

There are two likely consequences:

(1) the sun suddenly starts to get a LOT hotter, effectively shortening its lifespan artificially. It would therefore expand in size. But at the same time, these returning particles have a lot less energy than they used to, so they would not be accelerated by the sun to the same degree on their next “loop” through the system – a potential domino effect in which the sun loses energy in the medium-term, slowly making it harder to sustain fusion at the core. A runaway cascade toward red giant status.

Then throw in the turbulence producing additional unstable “hot spots” within the sun, potentially blowing off additional chunks of the surface in solar flares.

Now factor in the human reluctance to grapple with environmental issues until forced, very reluctantly to do otherwise. It might take a thousand years, it might take ten thousand, it may take quite a lot less. It might take decades or centuries to convince the world that there’s a problem beyond the consequences of increased solar flare activity.

Humans have never encountered an energy source that we didn’t become dependent on. It would take rather less than decades or centuries to get to liking this new energy supply – a lot!

Shutting down the solar generators isn’t an option. What’s the answer? I’ll get back to that, shortly.

First, though, there’s consequence number (2). From time to time, at regular intervals*, one of those lower-energy turbulent ‘streams’ of solar wind would strike the earth. The interaction between the solar winds and our climate is only dimly understood at the moment, and the interaction between solar winds and the magnetosphere even less so; there have been some suggestions that this is a factor in the flipping of Earth’s Magnetic Field.

*Actually, it’s my impression that the frequency would rise and fall from an annual peak to an annual trough based on how close the planet is to the sun. But the rate of change would be relatively negligible; the Earth’s orbit may be an ellipse, but it’s a pretty round one, varying on a 100,000 year-long cycle from 0 to about 5%. Refer Milankovitch cycles.

So, what happens if the Magnetic Field flips? That’s not all that big a deal is it? We’re not exactly dependent on compasses any more. Unfortunately, it is a VERY big deal, as this article from Live Science makes clear.

How big a risk of that happening are we facing? NASA has detected dramatic weakening of the Magnetic Field, and believes that the next flip is no more than 1,000 years away – and could commence in less than 100 years (refer NASA Warns Earth’s Magnetic Field Weakening, Poles Shift Imminent). That means that it would already be teetering on the brink at the time of the deployment of our solar windmills!

Between these two consequences, we would be facing a catastrophic situation – one short-term, and one long-term. Suddenly, generation ships searching for a backup habitable planet and relativity-based ships searching for a replacement energy source become engineering necessities.

So, the campaign:

  • Phase one, PCs attempt to build generation ships, battling cynicism and conservatism, while protecting both the ships and themselves from religious fanaticism.
  • Phase two, different PCs (the same players) explore the universe in a desperate search for a solution.
  • Phase three, the first PCs have to save as many people as they can when the magnetic field begins to flip (or begins to flip out, as some have described it).
  • Phase four, PC group 2 encounter aliens who have a solution (steal one from sci-fi) and are captured. They have to escape, steal one of the aliens FTL ships, learn how to fly it, and get the solution back to Earth, where x00 years have passed.
  • Phase five, the astronauts get back to Earth and discover how successful, or unsuccessful, PC group 1 really were in Phase 3. They have to transform this post-apocalyptic society into a state-of-the-art high-tech military powerhouse quick-smart, because the aliens are almost certainly hot on their heels.
  • Phase six is the showdown, as the Astronauts and their newly-equipped soldiers have to fight off the aliens and establish human independence.

An unconventional campaign structure, but one that makes sense given the premise. I would have liked a third phase involving the first group of PCs in between phases four and five, but couldn’t think of one that didn’t violate the relatively straightforward continuity. Nevertheless, the first group of PCs would be with the second group in spirit during phase five, because it’s the choices made in phase 3 that determine what the returning astronauts will have to work with when the time comes.

So there you have it – three campaign concepts that need only a little TLC and creative juice from the individual GM to have them ready to play. The Big articles will resume next week!

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Plotting The Phone Book: A How-To Of Adventure Inspiration

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0. New Year, Old Business

Welcome to 2017! I hope every reader has had a happy and safe Holiday period and is now ready to face the New Year with gusto and confidence, recharged and re-energized. For the first time in, I think, eight or nine years, I took the Christmas/New Period off, completely. No thinking about future articles. No thinking about unfinished articles or series. No work on RPGs of any kind. It was great so long as I kept active doing something, but the itch to write grew stronger when time weighed on my hands. Which is another way of saying that I certainly feel all fired up and ready-to-go.

Though I did find it a little hard to get back into the routine that I had established in the latter part of 2016. I can’t say that I’m all the way there, yet – but, like an old comfortable shoe, that should change in a week or two, as I get back into the swing of things.

For the first few months of 2017 (at least), readers will notice a change here at Campaign Mastery – well, that’s the theory. I’m revisiting something that I’ve tried to do in the past – major articles or parts of a series once a week, on Thursdays, and “shorter” more ad-hoc articles on Mondays. Written using my usual techniques, mind, so they should still make sense and be fairly comprehensive within their subject matter.

In the past, this pattern has worked for a short while, and then floundered when an article wasn’t quite ready on time, or when something came up that took priority over the existing publishing schedule, or whatever. It’s certainly not set in stone!

One reason for that is that in December, Campaign Mastery very quietly celebrated it’s eighth anniversary. Which means that this coming December will be it’s ninth – that’s nine full years of publishing articles completed – and will start what is intended to be a year-long celebration culminating in the tenth anniversary. I have lots of plans for this, but they are all going to take a lot of time to execute – I’m talking months of extra work – so I’m trying to make room for it.

Not all that successfully, at least to judge from today’s article, a 21-section opus on creating plots. This is a subject that I’ll be writing about a number of times in early 2017, simply because I have a number of articles in mind on various aspects of the subject. And, like most of my articles, it started with a short, simple idea – so much so that I wasn’t sure it would be meaty enough to build an article around…

1. New Year, New Business

I used to pride myself on being able to build a plotline around just about anything. Not necessarily a good plotline, but a playable plotline nevertheless. From time to time, I would challenge myself by picking something at random or getting someone else to do so.

2. Take A Phone Book…

Take, for example, a phone book or directory. What could be done with that? Well, by inserting coded entries that someone else knew to watch for, you could pass vital intelligence – once a year – just by registering dummy corporations and setting up some sort of phone bank for all them. On the face of it, the flaws in that technique makes this not a very good plot – but it will be by the end of the process, I assure you! But I want to take readers through that process, step-by-step, so that means starting off from my first thought.

3. Function/Purpose

I reached that initial concept by looking at the selected foundation – a telephone directory – and analyzing its purpose, its function. In this case, it’s about associating specific information about an individual or business by name with numeric information (a phone number).

4. Adaption

Right away, codes and hidden messages leaped into mind (actually. its use as a cypher key leapt into mind but was immediately tossed aside because it wasn’t immediate enough, wasn’t dramatic enough, even though it’s more plausibly realistic). Why? because it’s a twist on the usual purpose of the phone book – a message with a “different” payload and intended recipient.

If we were talking about a vending machine, the purpose might be to dispense small quantities of snack foods, and pharmaceutical experimentation on unsuspecting subjects is the twist that comes most readily to mind.

If it was a packet of cigarettes, the first thought would be as a top-secret distribution mechanism for some life-saving serum back in the 40s, 50s, or 60s (when just about everyone at least tried smoking, and the cigarette companies worked very hard on getting members of the public to do so) without causing a mass panic. Why? Because, as the government never stops reminding us, they are bad for you, so why not a twist that makes them at least temporarily good for you at the same time? Perhaps there was good reason for the secrecy – an accidental release by a Russian Agent during the cold war, the US accepts the evidence from the Kremlin that release was accidental, but knows that if the truth is ever revealed, the public will go fully-paranoid and demand a nuclear retaliation for this “act of war”. Heck, even Congress couldn’t be told! Hmmm, that all holds together reasonably well – which brings me to the next stage of the process:

5. The Credibility Test

It’s easy to mess this up, to fall in love with your own ideas. The test isn’t to approve or reject ideas, it’s to pinpoint any and all flaws and weak points in your idea so that you can fix them.

In the case of the vending machine, the problem lies in tracking the effects of the pharmaceutical. Solve that by running a competition with the biggest prizewinners being the ones exposed to the new product – thereby giving them an incentive to provide their details to the company behind the snack-selling ‘front’.Beyond that, you need to think about why this method of testing would even be contemplated, let alone put into practice, compared with all the other ones available to a drug manufacturer. Lab tests of the chemistry, animal testing, even legitimate and properly-monitored human trials all have to be ruled out, or to have already been conducted with enough success to bring them to this point – and the potential benefits must be pretty significant, too, to both the company and the individual receiving the ‘treatment’. Tracking dosage can be built into the ‘contest’ rules by making it look like a marketing exercise – and that has the added benefit of being a superficially valid reason for the contest, an effective smokescreen.

In the case of our phone directory, the flaws are threefold. First, phone numbers are the logical place to encode information and those are assigned by the phone companies; my first-glance idea solves that by putting the encoding in the company names. Second, there’s the once-a-year nature of the method, and third, there’s the limited scope of the amount of code that can be delivered. And – an afterthought – fourth, it takes time and money to set up that many shell companies, and someone might notice and investigate.

All these problems except the once-a-year problem go away if you are the company subcontracted to produce the phone book. You can insert as many false entries as you want to, and even pretend that someone with authority ordered you to do so, like an obscure and secretive government intelligence agency, though that might pose additional risks, so save that for if someone asks questions and won’t be deflected.

You can even solve the once-a-year problem in the modern world of online telephone directories. Heck, you can even invent a non-existent 51st state (in the US) and list as many phone numbers as you want – and, because the code groups are so short, and only the intended recipient knows the intended sequence of names in which the numbers should be interrogated, the code would be practically impossible to break. And, because the phone numbers are not valid, anyone discovering one by accident and using it by mistake will get a “your call could not be completed, please recheck the number and dial again” message from the telephone carriers. You could even add to the credibility of the whole thing by calling your additional (fictitious) state “test” and claiming the whole data block is used for testing new display arrangements, new search protocols, and the security of the database.

What’s more, you can change the “hidden content” at will – names, addresses, and phone numbers – so you have a HUGE dump of information. You lose the cold-war relevance and immediacy, but solve all the practical problems with the idea – a trade-off that’s more than acceptable.

6. Correcting The Flaws

This is an excellent example of “Correcting The Flaws”. You can change who, you can change why, you can change how, you can even change what they are doing. In fact, you can change just about anything so long as you protect the original idea (or come up with an even better variation, and solve the flaws you identified.

7. Making it unique/A point of failure

In order to use this as a plot, you need some reasonable way for the whole dastardly plot to unravel when the “right” string gets pulled. You need a point of failure that hasn’t been anticipated, and that it is reasonable that the people behind whatever is going on would not have anticipated. Serendipity can work but is often viewed as the lazy way out. So is a turncoat spilling the beans, though you could use the latter by making the actual adventure about getting the prospective source out of wherever he is. But that can introduce new credibility problems in the case of our phone book example – this secret would be VERY highly classified, and the likelihood that anyone privy to that level of information becoming a defector is really, really slim.

The other thing that you need to do is make sure that this plotline is sufficiently original and unique. That’s not a problem in the case of our telephone book example – I’ve never heard of anything remotely like it, despite its now-obvious plausibility – so, to look at that, and a few other aspects of the process, we need a fresh example to work with. So lets take one of the most basic of all plots – boy meets girl.

7a. Boy-Meets-Girl with a twist

How can you make your plotline or story different from all the other ones that use the same basic model? Core concept or backdrop or characterization can all be your point of uniqueness – but just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean that it necessarily should be done.

But this is gaming, and things that for various reasons would never fly in Hollywood can be completely acceptable in a smaller audience market. Boy-meets-girl – on Mars. Boy-meets-girl – but one of them is an AI (that one’s been done). My initial thought: Boy meets girl – but one of them is a demon, and the two have to (literally) overcome heaven and hell to be together. This would be a story all about redemption and changing the unchangeable for someone you love – or trying to do so and failing. It almost writes itself – but Hollywood would never make the movie, the religious subtext is too controversial. That makes it perfect for gaming purposes because it’s something that can’t be done anywhere else (okay, maybe it would work in comics).

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you just need to decorate it differently – and maybe use it in a different terrain.

8. Connecting to your PCs

In a novel, or a movie that isn’t part of a franchise, it’s so easy – because your protagonist(s) are, by definition, the ones most suited to being in the heart of the plot.

For a TV show, or a movie franchise, you need to work with an established cast and somehow integrate them into the plotline. In a game, you need to connect your players with the plot.

Sometimes that’s easy to do, sometimes you have to be indirect about it. You could add an element of potentially unrequited love (heightening the tragic content if the quest is to ultimately end in failure) by having an NPC demon fall for a PC and attempt to reinvent themselves for them (hang on, this is sounding a lot like some of the plots from Buffy and Charmed – maybe Hollywood would do it, after all!) That leaves the PC in total control of his role in the story while still involving them – up to their neck. But the story becomes far more dramatic if there are tender feelings (or more) on both sides of this unlikely match, so it might be better to make them both NPCs and to cast the PC in the role of the arbiter or enabler to whom they turn for help in dealing with the resulting challenges being thrown at the ‘happy couple’. Because the PCs are all going to be different, the best choice will vary from one game to another. But you need someone who isn’t a complete fatalist, and who is a bit of a romantic, to really make this plot work.

It would work for me as the player of a PC because my profile is both of those things. I always tend to hope for the best (while preparing for the alternative) and have definite romantic inclinations – I can look at a relationship (and have in the past) and predict with confidence that it will never work out, even while doing everything I can to make it a success, even at personal cost. And my only regret will be that I wasn’t able to do enough to make it a success-against-all-odds.

Others may be more pragmatic, or more half-hearted, or more unwilling to put themselves out over such an improbable long-shot; that’s their prerogative, but it means that no matter what the inclinations of a character under their control might be, they won’t be the perfect target of such a plotline.

The better you know both your players and their characters, the more effectively you can connect them to a plot. And, if your understanding in either of these areas is lacking, the more you can learn by analyzing their choices of reaction to such a plot. The trick in the latter case is sometimes to separate the player from the character and correctly attribute the reactions. But that’s a subject for some other time.

9. Subthemes and side-plots

A really good plot will involve everyone in some way – in the case of an RPG adventure, that means all the PCs, not just the one that is the focus. Everyone should have some reason to react and interact with the plotline beyond simply being there. One character might have no personal feelings on the subject and even care less about it – but the couple and that PC have a mutual antagonist, inclining him to be “on their side” despite his personal lack of empathy for the situation – that introduces a subtheme of “the enemy of my enemy”. A romantic might be disposed to be supportive. A strongly religious person would have strong objections, as would anyone who is more practical than romantic in inclination. A character with feelings for the target might be jealous, and even motivated to doing things they normally wouldn’t countenance. There’s a strong vein of “redemption” as a theme for the adventure, which might tie in with other characters and their own needs for redemption. Various characters might recall and even decide to do something about their own estranged relationships as the focal one strikes rockier ground.

If you haven’t already covered everyone (or perhaps even if you have), you can also look to give them subplots and side-plots to explore aspects of the situation. That religious character might need to confront articles of their faith – specifically, can anyone be redeemed? What of someone who is so ideologically opposed that they commit acts that directly contradict their usual policies.

10. Resolution

Before you can begin to plot the specifics of your adventure, the other thing that you need to think about is the resolution of the storyline. These come in four major categories.

10a. Consequences

What are the consequences of success? What are the consequences of failure? Which of these are mutually incompatible, and hence will leave the GM with an either-or choice in the advent of a partial or limited success?

10b. Ramifications

What are the ramifications of the question being raised at all? In the case of our boy-meets-girl plot, the very fact that a Demon can fall in love with a mortal and even attempt to change their nature is front-page headline news in terms of the campaign background, shedding light on who and what Demons are and why they behave the way they do. Simply being involved may make the PCs new friends – and new enemies, catalyzing further plotlines.

In the case of the “Telephone Directory” plot, the are a raft of security questions that arise over who is permitted to offer an internet service, and how you can stop them. A draconian over-reaction is certainly a possibility, and (if one judges by past history) even a probability. That would have ramifications.

I have a deep and abiding love of plotlines and conundrums built around the engagement of the legal mechanics of society and super-heroics. Superheroes routinely violate legal protocols, for example, which could cause every crime to be thrown out of court because the criminals rights were violated. There’s the whole question of secret identities, in the legal sense – it doesn’t matter what law you make about this, I can get a plotline out of it (All this, of course, is a subdivision within the whole “I can get a plotline out of almost anything” attitude). But my players don’t share that love, and non-weekly play isn’t conducive to such plotlines (Non-fortnightly even less so), so I rarely get to scratch that itch.

In the original Champions campaign, I got four adventures out of a law protecting secret identities – one putting the nature of sanctioned vigilantism under the spotlight, leading to the law itself, one in which testimony was thrown out as potentially tainted by the PC’s anonymity, and two in which a hero and a villain, respectively, were hoist upon the petard of the law, leading to it being changed.

Eventually, I might get the chance at a fifth, exploiting the loopholes and/or flaws and/or ramifications of the revised law – and there are all of those things present. It’s a situation in which there are no perfect solutions.

10c. Parachutes

It doesn’t matter how much you think you players will love a plotline, there are no guarantees until you actually start play. Again, the better you know both players and characters, the better you can anticipate and stack the cards in your favor. Worse still is the situation in which the players have already done everything they can think of about a situation and it wasn’t enough, and are now getting tired of the frustration. And then, there’s the situation in which the players make all the right moves but luck turns against them.

In all these circumstances, you will want to think about a parachute – a way to get out of a plot as quickly and painlessly as possible, wrapping things up in a nice, neat bow. And, potentially, a lesser parachute to get them past any particular challenge that they can’t solve – preferably without simply handing them the solution on a platter.

In fact, it’s entirely possible to write a plot that consists of nothing more than the introductory sequence and the desired resolution and a whole raft of parachutes. I don’t recommend it – it places maximum flexibility and responsibility before and on the players, and maximum stress on the GM’s ability to Improv – but it can be done.

10d. Measures of satisfaction

For any given adventure, there should always be at least two possible resolutions, and sometimes anything in-between is also a possibility. Normally, on most things, I am a strictly neutral GM, neither favoring nor hindering the PCs unreasonably, and letting the dice fall where they may; in most campaigns, though, I yield that neutrality to protect the lives of the PCs if the players are still enjoying playing the character and I still have plotlines that require that character. Losing a PC is traumatic at the campaign scale – another subject for another day – and not something that I do lightly, and definitely not something that I do without as much advance planning as possible.

The other factor that can cause me to yield my position of neutrality is anticipated player satisfaction over one resolution vs the alternative. I have no problem with the PCs losing if it merely sets the stage for a big comeback in a follow-up adventure. Similarly, I have no problem with the PCs solving a problem with which I had hoped to bedevil them for some time to come.

But, when one outcome is clearly going to be less satisfying to the players in the long-term, taking into account any subsequent come-back, I become very quietly partisan. Sometimes that means heaping complications on their shoulders (preventing too easy a victory) even if they have thought of something I had overlooked, sometimes it means shading the odds in their favor.

My goal is always to make sure that I am telling a story that the players enjoy being a part of, and a participant in. Every other consideration is subordinate to that goal.

So, for example, when my players encountered Mortus (better known to them as a variant Thanos), even though there was an easy way to resolve the encounter but not the long-term problem that the character represented, when they thought of the solution to the long-term problem, I was fine with them pre-empting a far-distant plotline (in terms of my campaign plan) to put their solution into place. Having done so, I then simply had to find a way to parachute the character out of the campaign so that he didn’t provide an easy resolution to other challenges that lay in the players’ future, in other words to park him until I needed him again. If I had been unable to think of a way to do so, I would have delayed their success, making the current problems too difficult for them to solve (they were already at a higher level of complexity than anything they had faced before or since) – but, once I had my parachute, the priority goal of giving the players the maximum hard-earned satisfaction possible took control.

There were occasions in the preceding Zenith-3 campaign when problems that they should have solved quickly and easily lingered because the players hadn’t yet found the right question to ask. Short- and medium-term low levels of frustration only yielded a greater degree of satisfaction when those problems were ultimately resolved.

No campaign plan survives contact with the players unscathed. The purpose of such plans is not for you, the GM, to get your literary rocks off, it’s a planning tool to facilitate the goal. For that reason, you invest the minimum possible time into such planning – just enough for it to fulfill its purpose, no more – so that no plotline ever seduces you so much that you become incapable of an objective assessment of likely player satisfaction.

11. A Second Credibility Test

We’ve added a lot of material to the basic outline since our initial credibility test, so with that final architectural block at the metaphoric plot construction site, it’s time for a second one before things get cemented in place. This works exactly the same as the first, but ultimately will be far more detailed in content and in the changes that get made at this. the 11th hour of plot design. This is also when any basic research needed should be done.

For example, if you had decided in the phone directory plot to go with the “get the turncoat out of danger” option because it provides a more action-oriented plot with more opportunities for the various players to participate, this is where you have to address the credibility problem raised earlier. The background and motivation for the source’s change-of-heart need to be rock-solid, and (at the very least) to motivate the PCs to be sympathetic toward him. You will want to test their ability to keep him alive to the maximum, and that requires their very best efforts – something that won’t happen if they are doing it all dispassionately, “by the numbers”. Especially since, for reasons of credibility, you will need to present the NPC “warts and all” in the course of the adventure.

In fact, it would be ideal if there was some history of the NPC being a known enemy of the PCs. Establishing his bonafides in this way in advance – even if there are adventures that have no other big-picture (metagame) purpose – buys him credibility in his position that can’t be obtained any other way. And it adds an element of both sides needing to overlook past animosities, always a great source of good roleplaying.

12. Big Bang or Many Little Bangs?

You have one final decision to make before you can execute final plot creation – dole this plotline out as a series of subplots and encounters in many adventures, or have it all happen in one big plotline? Or a third choice, using subplots to foreshadow the main plot?

For example, there might be those adventures to establish the NPC as a villain; an adventure in which things go pear-shaped because the other side had better intelligence; and perhaps even an adventure somewhere in the middle in which mutual interests forces the PCs and NPC to set aside their animosity, showing the character as not being all dark and evil, and giving the GM the chance to establish his motivation for eventually becoming a turncoat (this should be in the middle so that the character can re-establish his villainous bonafides afterwards).

These adventures don’t just buy credibility, they buy shared history and player engagement when the real plotline rolls around.

13. Refining The Plot

So critical is this decision that when you have made it, you should turn right around and go back to step 1, reexamining everything in light of how best to execute it. If you are going to make the NPC the focus of several prior adventures, for example, it becomes important to establish his capabilities and past history, and to ensure that this doesn’t produce any credibility gaps. In fact, you may need to go through the entire process a number of times, refining the plot and trying variations, before achieving a satisfactory result. Fortunately, it’s fairly quick!

13a. Spotlight Issues

One of the things that you definitely want to look at in the course of this refinement is the balance of the spotlight on the various PCs involved. I talked about that, and about introducing unrelated subplots purely to share the spotlight around a little more evenly, in late 2016, so I won’t go into it here in great detail – consult Ordinary Lives In Paranormal Space and Time, Ordinary Life in an RPG, and Paving Over Plot Holes: A Masterclass in Adventure Creation for information on the subject, and Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign? for some of the fundamental concepts (which should have been included in the list of links at the end of the “plot holes” article).

13b. Linking and Conflicting Plot Threads

The other thing to specifically look at – and this may need to be done some time in advance – is how to tie other campaign plot threads into this plotline, and whether or not there is a conflict with any of them. For example, you might need this spy-turning-traitor to be the architect of the system for information smuggling that is the background focus of this plotline so that he knows enough about it to spill all the beans, but realize that having him do anything more would violate the premise of a planned future adventure by compromising his former intelligence service too much. That leaves you with two choices: revise that future plotline to incorporate the consequences of this one, or add a final act to this one in which, having stilt the beans on the Telephone Directory (and put the cat amongst the pigeons), a double agent from his former service kills him (protecting the future adventure at the price of compromising the satisfaction levels of this one).

I would choose between these by first trying to employ option (a), revising the future adventure; but if I couldn’t find a way to do so that didn’t excessively weaken its credibility, I would reluctantly choose option (b) – but then boost the satisfaction levels some way back to where they would have been by enabling the PCs to kill or capture the assassin. A minor flunky, he knows very little of value – certainly nowhere near as much as the now-deceased spy-master – and therefore poses far less danger to that future adventure.

In fact, I specifically aim to make this easier by having the different plots involving “villainous agency X” listed as a discrete plot thread so that it becomes obvious that a future adventure will rest on the resolution of this one. You may spend most of your time and effort pruning and shaping the tree in front of you, but being able to easily step back and see the shape of the neighboring trees can be invaluable to keeping one eye on the bigger picture.

14. Creativity Is A Muscle

Well, not literally, but certainly figuratively – the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. As I’ve commented before in any number of articles, I create campaigns and adventure concepts that I know I will never get to play simply for the exercising of my creativity (and for the pleasure I get out of it). Usually, these get thrown away, or filed away for future use when I need something on short notice (a lesson I’ve learned the hard way – ALWAYS have a campaign on-tap, however unfinished it might be). Since starting Campaign Mastery, I’ve gotten in the habit of sharing these from time to time – for example, in Yesterday Once More: A pulp time-travel Campaign.

There’s no better way to get better at writing and executing adventures than by doing it. There’s no better way to get better at Improv than to start small (limiting the damage you can do) and doing it regularly. And there’s no better way to become more creative than being creative. Treat this approach as an exercise in creativity, even if the adventures you come up with have no relevance to your current campaigns.

Look around you, once a week or once a day, pick an object or an advert on TV or a random page from a sourcebook or reference book and build a plot around something you find. Don’t spend a lot of time; ten minutes, say, at most. Save the results (and index them) – you never know when one will come in handy – and in 6 months or a year, look back at the earliest ones and marvel at how far you’ve come.

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Risk Assessment For GMs

Image Credit: / J. Henning Buchholz

Image Credit: / J. Henning Buchholz

This article was started way back when I was submitting articles to Roleplaying Tips, in fact, more than ten years ago, but it was never finished – until now. So “recently” means “relative to 2006″…

I recently read a book describing the calamities that befell Lloyds of London in the early 80s and 90s and it got me thinking back to the days when I was an insurance clerk, and what I had learned then about how insurance premiums were calculated. And I suddenly realized that some of what I had learned back then had not only started to make more sense in the decade or so since, but this new understanding had applications in the world of Gaming, in enabling the GM to adopt a whole new approach to some aspects of his craft. Does it work in practice? That we’ll have to wait and see.

Understanding Risk

Insurance premiums are set by calculating the risk that the insured party will have a claim of value “X” in the year, and then the risk of a claim of value 2X, and then the risk of one of 3X, and so on. Multiply each risk by the claim value and add up the results and you have the total risk of the insurance, ie (in theory) how much the premium should be for that particular driver or homeowner or whatever.

For example, let’s say that there’s a 1 in 100 chance of a $5,000 claim, a 1 in 1,000 chance of a $20,000 claim, and a 1 in 5,000 chance of a $50,000 claim, per year.

  • 1/100th of $5,000 = $50.
  • 1/1000th of $20,000 = $20.
  • 1/5000th of $50,000 = $10.

So if those are the only risks to worry about, the average claim per year per customer would be $80. Set your premium for that, plus a share of your administrative, operational, & infrastructure costs, plus a profit margin, and all will be well.

In theory, you don’t need insurance – you just need to save $80 a year and you’ll have enough saved when the time comes, even without interest on those savings. But in practice, that’s not the case, as anyone who’s rolled dice knows – that 1 in 100 chance might come up on the first roll, the 15th, the 80th, or the 131st. The likelihood that it will hold off until the one-hundredth, when you will have saved the $5000 to pay the cost of repairs is vanishingly small.

How small?

Compound Risks

Well, for technical reasons, it’s a lot easier to work with the chance that something won’t happen.

  • In the first year, there’s a 99% chance that the first event won’t happen, or 0.99.
  • In the second year, there’s a 99%x99% chance that the first event won’t happen, or 0.9801.
  • In the third year, there’s a 99%x99%x99% chance that the first event won’t happen, or 0.970299.
    …and so on.

Right away, you’ll notice that the chance that something will happen in those three years is smaller than you would get by just adding three lots of the 1% chance together. In the 100th year, the chance that it won’t have happened yet is still 36.6032341273%! Or, to put it another way, the chance that it will have happened at least once by this point is about 63.4%. And, the chance that it will have happened at least two times in that 100-year period is going to be a smidgen less than 63.4% of 63.4%, or 40.2%. There’s a significant chance that this once-in-a-century event will have occurred at least 5 times in the course of a century – just over 10% chance, in fact.

For most people, probability is inherently counter-intuitive (and yes, I’m one of the majority). This shows quite clearly that an insurance company who relied on once-a-century items only happening once a century would go out of business in short order. In fact, there’s a significant risk that the company would have to pay out $5000 five times in the course of that century. To be adequately prepared, the premium would have to be more than five times the $80 a year.

Risk Leveling

Except that this is impractical and unprofitable. Insurance companies make their product more attractive by dividing that risk by the number of insured that are not likely to have any claims in the year in question, and then insuring themselves against catastrophic events that would cause more people than normal to make claims. So if only 1 in 5 will actually have an accident in a given year, then you can divide the “true premium” by 5.

The Insurance Risk Assessment Shortcut

That’s all well and good in theory, but in practice it’s way too fiddly and it takes too long to be entirely practical. There are far too many combinations; it would take weeks if not months to calculate a single individual’s premium.

Instead, most insurance companies assume that they will have enough customers that they will encounter every possible outcome in the course of a year (within the scope of their coverage, at least) – in other words, that their customer pool represents a statistical universe.

They then use statistical tools to determine the average value of claims expected in the year and simply assess the risk of any given car having a claim of that size; they can then determine the premium to charge (plus a share of expenses and a profit margin). To make things easier for their staff, they use a points-based system to calculate an estimate of that risk – staff simply look up the total points scored on a table and compare it with the value of the insurance to get the premium (or have a computer system do it for them).

This means that staff can determine premiums without being taught really understanding the underlying complexities.

The same approach can be used by GMs for a number of types of Event and Occurrence in RPGs. Wandering monsters, weather, plot complications, etc. The result is a table showing a die roll on one side and an outcome based on the risk.

Why this would be an advantage over the traditional methods of creating such tables are the ability to incorporate a multitude of factors that normally have to be handwaved due to the complexity of calculating probability combinations, as will shortly be seen.

Wandering Monsters & Other Chance Encounters

Every game system, whether it’s level based or points based, has a method by which the power level of an encounter can be measured. In points based systems, it might be set multiples of character points in the encounter, for example 100, 125, 150, and so on. In level based systems, it’s levels. But levels are not a linear measurement in most systems; it takes more experience to go from level 17 to level 18 than it did to go from level 7 to level 8. This distorts things, because it means that there will be far fewer encounters of higher levels than the straightforward “by level” system would allow for. The answer (again) is to use the experience-point equivalent of the level, instead of the level directly: 1000, 2000, 3000, and so on. D&D 3rd Ed (and 3.5) uses an Encounter Level system to allow for the non-linearity.

Because most people will be familiar with it, I’ll be using the D&D / Pathfinder model for this discussion.

Encounter Table Structure

Most encounter tables assign specific encounters to entries on their encounter tables. I think that’s actually counterproductive, because it means that the table contents have to be continually revised as characters increase in levels.

A better approach would be to employ a more abstract system that doesn’t need such revision.

For example, you might list on the table:


You will have noted the empty column – we’ll populate that shortly. Right now, it’s the entries on the right that we’re interested in – the first of them is EL-3/- which should be reas as “Encounter Level minus three, or less”. That’s followed by EL-2, EL-1, EL, EL+1, and so on all the way up to “Encounter Level plus three or more”. The term “Encounter Level” in this table refers to the EL of the PCs, collectively.

The table functions as an index of encounter levels relative to the level of the party, so “EL+2” means the “encounter level value of the party, plus two”. As a general rule of thumb, encounters should rarely be less than 2 below the party’s level or more than 2 above, according to the DMG.

Using this table requires and assumes that you have a separate record, possibly even a completely separate document that lists all the actual encounters that you have prepared, and that meet the specified encounter level; the first page might be labeled EL0, the next EL1, then EL2, and so on. On each page you list encounters, an entry for each monster type that exists in your campaign world that can meet the EL target. The first entry for EL1 might be “1 Orc”, then on page EL3 would be “2 Orcs”, EL4 would have “3 Orcs”, EL 5 “4 Orcs”, and so on.

In the 3.x system, EL rises with numbers as a multiple of the square root of 2: 1, 1.4 (no such thing), 2, 2.8 (call it 3), 4, 5.6 (call it 6), 8, and so on. One representative of a given creature will have its base EL given in its writeup as its CR, or Challenge Rating. You keep going until the numbers no longer make sense to you, as in “there is no way that many of them would be found in one place”.

Depending on the creatures, that might be 1, 2, 3, 4, or 32. That’s up to you. The beauty of this system is that you can keep adding to it as you go, and you can populate the lists with as many customized encounters as you like. If you decide that a creature that is normally CR2, such as a bugbear, becomes CR4 if it has this ability or that equipment package, you know that EL4 should list one creature with that package, EL6 should list 2 of them, and so on.

As a very rough rule of thumb, for example, you might decide that if you total the magical plusses of armor and weapons that a creature wields, you get the increase in the creature’s CR. You might also decide that increases in Hit Dice follow the same 1.4-factor progression, so that a CR4 creature with 4 levels in a character class is a CR 9, as shown below:

You can get a larger version of this chart without the markings and against a plain background by clicking on the image.

You can get a larger version of this chart without the markings and against a plain background by clicking on the image.

The top row is the number of creatures of CR1 that are needed to reach the EL designated in the third row, after appropiate rounding. The middle row shows the real values with a decimal place, the “raw data”. To permit the chart to be a reasonable size, I’ve split it into two triple-rows – the first deals with ELs 1 to 10, the next, ELs 11-20. (If I were doing this for real, I would extend it to at least EL30 and possibly 50).

Some of the “rounded” values have a + symbol. If you look closely, you will see that if the raw value is something-point-two, or in fact anything less than something-and-a-third, it has no plus symbol and is simply rounded down; if there is a decimal higher than 2/3, it is rounded up. The plus is there for those in-between values like “1.4” and “5.6”.

The “+” symbol also confers some kind of advantage to the creatures – so a group of creatures whose EL has a + next to it needs a minor advantage beyond the number of creatures encountered and any other form of EL adjustment.

As you can see, character levels are really easy when you make the assumption described earlier – simply find the cell with EL that has everything else taken into account and move to the right 1 space for each character level. (Note that you don’t have to use this shortcut method if you don’t want to, it is NOT canon. My experience is that it comes pretty close to “reality”, though, in terms of relative effectiveness in combat).

Or perhaps the table is telling you that you need eleven creatures of a given CR to reach your target EL but you want fewer creatures and to give them a couple of character levels instead – just count one space on the table left for each character level on the top line to find how many of the modified creatures should be encountered. Two character levels, two spaces left, so 11 to 8 to your choice of 5 creatures with an extra little “+” advantage or 6 creatures without.

The chart can be used in a host of other ways. Suppose you were to have a group of 8 CR2 creatures who you wanted to take up to EL10. Look across the top row until you find 8, then down to the third row to get the CR of 8 CR2 creatures – a seven. That means that you need to give each of them +3 CR’s worth of advantages. Those advantages can be the same for all, or you could decide to give this one +3 STR Bonuses (i.e. +6 STR), that one +3 CON Bonuses (+6 CON), a third gets +3 in magical weapons and armor, a fourth gets three extra hit dice, and the other 4 receive 2 class levels each – in different character classes. Your eight CR2 creatures start to look like a population of individuals and not a homogeneous, generic, monster “with benefits”.

Event Likelihood

Okay, let’s turn our attention to the empty column. What we want here starts off as a dumbbell probability curve, such as you might get from 3d6. But we want one that gives us some multiple of 7 result categories, because our table has 7 slots to fill.

A few minutes playing around at (my go-to site for this sort of thing) gives me the results as percentages. But there’s some messy rounding involved – the numbers are 1.16%, 8.56%, 23.84%, 32.87%, 23.84%, 8.56%, and 1.16%.

That curve is a little sharp for my tastes, though. I’d like to roughly halve those percentages and apply a flat +7% to each. 7 plus-7-percents is 49%, so the curve component is providing 51% of the roll, so that’s what those numbers have to be multiplied by, as shown below.


When I did the calculations, as you can see, I ended up with a 3% error unaccounted for.

I flattened the top result 1% more to make it an evenly divisible 4% error, and then gave 1% each to the two values on either side of the peak to arrive at the final numbers in the table.

Encounter Probability – base chance

So far, it’s all been fairly conventional going, but here’s where the risk assessment element comes into play.

Most adventures simply assign a percentage chance of an encounter. Surely we can do better than that?

Let’s start by saying that there’s a base chance of an encounter that we want to assign based on the levels of monster inhabitation in the area.


Right away, that incorporates the climate and the levels of non-monster population (who would drive hostile creatures away) and a host of other factors. From there, it’s all about conditional modifiers.

Encounter Modifiers

Those modifiers all go in another table, one with a whole bunch of headings. There are three possible types of adjustment: An increased chance with an increased risk, an adjusted chance (up or down, evenly balanced) with an bias on the encounter table, and a straightforward encounter chance adjustment with no increase in risk.

Every time you think of a factor that you want to track individually to tweak the results, all you have to do is add another set of lines to the modifier table.

For example, you might want to track time of day. Monsters are more likely to be active late at night if nocturnal or in the early morning and late evening if not. At first, it might seem that only unintelligent monsters would follow this pattern, but for that very reason, intelligent monsters would be out hunting at that time of day. Noonish is typically the quietest time of day.

Right away, there’s a complication: nothing we have so far distinguishes nocturnal from diurnal creatures. Our list of potential encounters certainly doesn’t. So, we either complicate our nice simple process, or we use risk assessment techniques to balance the books. No normally nocturnal creature would operate during the day unless they were desperate, or had some advantage that made them diurnal instead, one that most members of the creature’s race don’t have. Similarly, diurnal creatures don’t operate at night unless desperate or they have an advantage at night that most such creatures don’t have.

Instead of a straight adjustment to the encounter chance, we are better served by converting some of the adjustment into an increase in risk posed by the encounter. +1 EL worth is the standard, and it’s worth -5% in my book.

Using this information as a basis, I created the following:


Let me walk you through the table and the process that it demonstrates.

  • I started by breaking the day up into eight of broadly-defined time periods. That makes it easy to make symmetrical “probability curves”.
  • I populated the Nocturnal Modifiers column with a peak of 12%, diminishing to a minimum of 0%. Then, because there were two Diurnal columns, I doubled those values, and finally, because those two diurnal columns were going to be distributed without a lot of overlap, I reduced the nocturnal values to 3/4 of their interim values.
  • That scaled the nocturnal readings to match diurnal peaks of 12%, so I added them – one with a peak in the early hours and one with a peak in midafternoon. I reasoned that more creatures would stir in the very early morning than in the afternoon because those who had already found what they needed would not be active; this bias shifted the morning peak to earlier in the day.
  • Adding those up gave me the first subtotal column.
  • Next, I allowed for normally nocturnal creatures becoming diurnal because of an advantage and vice-versa using the “-5%” column – I’ll talk a little more about that in a moment.
  • Another subtotal.
  • ..Which was needed so that I could calculate a relative adjustment. Because our base value incorporates the overall impact of every variable, the average modifier needs to be +0%. If you total the values in the second subtotal column, you get 83%. 80 divided by 8 gave a base adjustment of -10%; I then tweaked the after-dark adjustment to -9%, giving me a total of 4% to deduct. Two of it was allocated to the Evening timeslot to make it more closely resemble the “after dark” total, while the other 2% were split up and applied to mid-morning and “noonish”.
  • Adding the Relative Adjustment and second subtotal together gives the final adjustment values. But note that five of these adjustments refer to creatures with an added advantage and three don’t; so this table is a mixture of straight adjustments and adjustments with an increased risk attached.
The Increased Risk adjustment

These represent an increased capability in exchange for a reduction in likelihood to occur. In this case, I applied them to those time periods when nocturnal variations of day creatures were most likely to be operating, and to when diurnal variations of traditionally nocturnal creatures would be most likely. I also took into account the increased competition and danger that would be faced during the time periods when the greatest number of the “normal creatures of opposing type” would be active – that’s why there is no pre-dawn adjustment when one would otherwise be expected.

What do these values mean? Well, I wouldn’t write this whole table in my modifiers table; just the conditions and the final scores. Those that got a -5% adjustment for increased risk would be marked with an asterisk.

If it’s, say, Midmorning when I make my encounter roll, then the base chance of an encounter is down 7%, but if an encounter does result, the creature has +1EL relative to whatever the encounter table says. When I select from my list of appropriate encounters, if the creature is normally diurnal, I can choose to use that to “flip” their orientation; if not, or I choose to have them at a disadvantage in respect of the time of day, I can use it for something else.

That’s how you can take a specific condition and turn it into a general one so that there’s no need to differentiate between them in your encounter lists.

How Often should checks be made?

It’s important to realize that if you wait long enough, any given level of encounter will eventually take place. The risks being assessed are the risks in a specific time frame. In roleplaying terms, this should be the risk of whatever time unit is next highest compared to the frequency with which you are going to be making die rolls to check against the risk, on average. If your checks are to be daily, then your base levels should be the risk of such an encounter in a week; if hourly, then in a day; and so on.

This means that you can produce a different base chance chart for each of the major time-spans that you might want to hand-wave. One table – the one I showed earlier – would be reasonable for a week’s, or perhaps a month’s, travels. That’s why there’s such a high risk shown for the “Extremely High” habitation level; daily, it would probably be only half or even a third of that amount, despite the population “density”.

Most of the time, nothing happens.

Other Modifiers to consider

ANY condition that might impact the chance of an encounter can be taken into account.

Are the PCs carrying torches, advertising their presence and potentially attracting diurnal creatures?

Or are they using some form of Infravision to get around without so advertising their presence, which reduces the opportunity for other creatures to flee a potential danger?

The first would increase the risk of encountering high-level creatures who have enough confidence that they aren’t frightened off, while reducing the risk of encountering low-level creatures who don’t have that confidence.

The latter increases the likelihood of low-level encounters and removes the opportunity for high-level creatures to be attracted to the PCs – by the time the relative adjustment is made, the high-level encounter likelihood is effectively reduced. So this would be a case of a modifier with a bias to the encounter chart. In some cases, it would be a reduction in encounter chance, in others it would be a reduction in encounter chance and a bias toward low results on the encounter table – perhaps a -10% or a -20%.

Use your imagination a little. The PCs have a lot of magic with them? Then they are more likely to encounter beings that can detect that magic. They have captured some rare artifact? Then they are more likely to encounter beings that have an interest in that artifact. Both of these suggest an increase in the encounter rating. The PCs are currently engaging in, or have just had, a battle? The noise generated must increase the chance of another encounter, but it will reduce the risk of a low-level encounter (which is more likely to run) and increase the risk of a high-level encounter (which feels secure enough to investigate) – in other words, it would be an increase in the chance of an encounter and a bias high on the encounter table.

Check Frequency Revisited

It gets even more entertaining when the time comes to use the table.

First, vary the frequency of die rolls according to the risk the party are taking. One roll in camp on the way to an encounter per night is enough; maybe 2 a night on the way back. Perhaps you might increase the risk of a low-level encounter if they have no campfire, or the risk of a high-level encounter if they light one.

Instead of a roll every hour when they are exploring the dungeon, make one every 3 hours – but make an extra roll at the start of combat to see if an unexpected encounter will take place during, and another one afterwards to see if one is drawn by the sounds of battle.

By doing this, you let the circumstances help you to determine the nature of the encounter – (What type of encounter would be brave enough to show up in the middle of the fight? Or perhaps the extra is cowering in a hidden lair within the room – until the fight crashes through into their living room. After the battle, looters and carrion eaters are more likely) – and use the history of what the PCs have been and are currently doing to compile modifiers as you need them and as you think of them.

Remember, because of the “Base Chance” system, any factor you haven’t specifically included a modifier for is automatically taken into account. All of them.

The Net Effect

There are obvious advantages to this approach. Not only are you assessing the risks of encounters based on the behavior of the party, encouraging clever game play, but you are adding realism. You are also increasing the risks when the party have more to lose (and hence making the party more interested in the outcome) but you are increasing the risks when they are freshly-weakened by battle. In short, you are making your random encounters more interesting, more relevant, and more appropriate.

Application II: Setbacks And Plot Complications

When originally conceiving of this article, the Random Encounters portion was as far as I intended to go. But in the course of writing it, I began to catch glimpses of other ways of utilizing the same basic approach.

For example, scenario generation – plot twists always happen about 2/3 of the way through the story or later, right? That gives the players time to understand the situation, to have wasted efforts and resources going down the wrong path, to be committed to “X” when they suddenly find that “Y” is what they should have been trying to achieve all along, and still have time to reverse course and achieve a last-minute opportunity to turn things around.

But setbacks and plot complications can occur ANYWHERE in the story, provided they are not resolved until the end. You can work out a table of likelihood of a complication occurring at each given point in a scenario in exactly the same way as I have done with encounters, and roll for them according to how quickly the party are getting through the scenario. If your campaign has strong continuity, you don’t even have to explain them in the course of the scenario – you can just leave the events a mystery for a later occasion.

The PCs are receiving their mission briefing when their car explodes in the parking lot (a medium level setback).

The PCs are about to board their flight to the adventure location when they discover a mistake with their tickets (another medium-level setback).

The PCs break into the vault to recover the stolen crown jewels only to discover that they have tracked down the crown jewels of a completely different Kingdom – which may or may not have been stolen (a high-level setback).

Another favorite trick (if not overused) is to make the triviality of the encounter proportional to the level of paranoia of the party. I once had a group obsessing for hours about a flower, much to my entertainment; a young woman approached a member of the party, took a flower out from a bunch of them that she happened to have with her, and pinned it to the lapel of one of the PCs, simply saying this would look better on you, and then walking away, casually tossing the rest of the flowers in the garbage… (she had just broken up with her fiancé, who had given her the flowers. The PC reminded her for a moment of her boyfriend) – (a low-level setback).

The more of this sort of thing that you can come up with on-the-spot and leave to be explained later, the more dynamic your plots will be as actually played. Some of your best ideas will be spur-of-the-moment and I’ll-explain-it-later. If YOU can’t predict when these things will come up, neither can your PCs – and they will never be completely sure of the significance of any encounter. Your players are more than capable of complicating the lives of their characters with no help from you – given enough rope – and this helps massively when it comes to avoiding plot trains.

Application III: Weather

Another area where this sort of risk assessment approach is useful is in the determination of the weather. Assume an average day and then roll for deviations from it. Here, the risks are unlikely to be modified too much by what the PCs are doing or have done; the basis of the risk is the combination of local geography and preceding weather conditions.

As a trivial news item within one campaign, I once mentioned that a Weather Wizard had escaped from custody while the PCs were on their last adventure, and a large reward had been posted. By sheer chance, every time they passed through a certain small town thereafter, it began to rain. After 4 or 5 such occasions of sudden shifts in the weather, they became convinced that the Weather Wizard was hiding there. He wasn’t, but an economic war was being waged in the vicinity using weather magic, true enough. Why? Because when they went looking for the Wizard, I decided that they should find SOMETHING for their troubles. Meanwhile, the Weather Wizard was safely tucked away in his glacier, putting the finishing touches on his plans to trigger a new ice age, and carefully NOT doing anything to give away his location….


These basic examples show how the principles of risk assessment, as used by insurance companies the world over, can be applied to RPGs in a number of interesting and beneficial ways. But these only scratch the surface. Tactical situations can be described in terms of minimizing risks, for example. There has been no real effort to treat different kinds of risks separately. Even combat can be considered in terms of the level of risk of taking damage given the conditions, defenses, and armaments involved.

And if a really fun idea occurs to you, as GM, you can always fudge the dice. The risk of a powerful artifact disguised as something trivial that everyone wants to get their hands on being mistakenly sold to the PCs for a silver piece must be pretty low… “But he gave all the right recognition signals and code phrases!”

Have fun…!

This is the last post at Campaign Mastery for 2016. I had hoped to generate Christmas/New Years Greeting and schedule publication in advance, but time (and Christmas planning) simply won’t permit it. For the first time in about 10 years, I’m taking the Christmas/New Year period off (aside from ongoing maintenance of the site, of course). So let me take this opportunity to wish every reader a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! See you in 2017…

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Paving Over Plot Holes: A Masterclass in Adventure Creation

This image combines a texture by / sundeip arora with a jigsaw image by / erik araujo

This image combines a texture by / sundeip arora
with a jigsaw image by / erik araujo

I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of weeks working on the next adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign, and the techniques employed have enabled me to illustrate some of the techniques that I’ve written about in the past.

Normally, I would not post an article on the subject until after the adventure had been played, because I know that several of my players read Campaign Mastery regularly if not religiously, but since my intent is to generalize a fair bit, that shouldn’t be a problem in this case – and it’s usually better to write these things when thoughts are fresh in your mind and recent experience.

Because I intend to touch on a range of issues, this article might seem a little less organized than usual. You have been warned!

Adventure Structure

The basic structure of this adventure is as follows:

  1. Real Life of the characters I (for 4 PCs and 2 NPCs)
  2. Incident
  3. Real Life of the characters II (for 4 PCs and 2 NPCs)
  4. Murder Mystery
  5. Investigation
  6. Complication/Setback
  7. Solution

The Blank Page

One of the advantages that I didn’t mention in my various posts on the Real Lives of the PCs but that was presented to me fairly forcefully in the writing of “Cold Cases” is that it provides an easy icebreaker. There was very little blank-page angst; I was able to just dive right in and start writing.

It’s never that simple.

I had a list of subplots and pieces of real life that I was supposed to touch on in the course of the two Real Life segments, but for the most part they were sufficiently vague in content that they could go anywhere. I had the basic outline of the mystery and complication segments in a fair amount of detail but nothing more than a wealth of possibilities and no idea how they would all go together into a coherent form. As a result, I hit writer’s block almost immediately.

More than anything else, two particular tools are my go-to solutions to this problem: the Adventure Title, and the Adventure Theme.

Adventure Title

I strongly believe that names matter enormously, even if the title’s relevance is going to be vanishingly obscure to the players, or not even revealed to them. Not just adventures, but characters, and places, and campaigns. They are a crystallization of the thought process of the GM, especially when they apply to the totality of the thing being named. That’s why I wrote a major series on Names a few years back.

Ideas for the adventure title in this case began flowing very quickly and easily. In short order, I had a dozen – I’ll quote some of them because trying to understand them won’t give my players any real clues: “What if they held a Zombie Apocalypse and no-one came?”, “Always In The Kitchen At Parties,” “CSI: Arcanum,” “A Bad Moon Rising,” and “Hallowed be thy name.”

Picking a name helps because it lets me examine each of the minor plot points to be incorporated from the perspective of linking it to the title in some way. When there is only one title that really sums up the major part of the plot – items 4 through 7 on the list in this case – as was the case with “The Monster Makers,” the adventure that’s about to wrap up and which I have written about extensively over the last 6 weeks or so – that provides context that can be used to generate ideas and expand the vague list of items into situations that enhance or reinforce the heart of the story.

Take, for example, the “Incident” phase of the plot. This is just an encounter that has no direct bearing on the plot. I had a character name but no real concept for either the character or the way that character would produce a situation for the PCs to have to resolve; it was just window dressing, present to show the team doing the things that superhero teams do, i.e. take down a bad guy. If I had chosen “Zombie Apocalypse” then I might have picked some other interpretation of the phrase “Zombie” and built the incident around that. This in turn would make “Zombie” or “Loss of self-control” or “Slave to whatever” the theme of the adventure and away I would go.

In this case, the title was no help – I had too many titles that touched on part of the main plot without really summing it up. So, I turned to plan B: the Adventure Theme.

Adventure Theme

Again, this is a conceptual touchstone about which everything in the adventure should revolve in one way or another. But themes are rather more slippery than a title; they can be abstract, or literal, or conceptual, or metaphoric, or several of these things at the same time. And, right now, my adventure didn’t have a theme – it was just a bunch of stuff that was going to happen.

I tried thinking of one. In fact, I thought of about half-a-dozen – none of which really fitted. To clarify and refine my thoughts, and give my subconscious something to chew over, I took another look at what I did know about those personal life incidents. I noticed that one event was a character attending an autopsy. That seemed to connect with the Murder Mystery angle. Thirty seconds more thought gave me a theme that perfectly fitted based around the synchronicity of these two unrelated events. Another thirty seconds showed me how each of the other planned incidents (and several that were empty spaces waiting to be filled) could be an expression of that theme.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the theme was; it reveals entirely too much about the adventure. But it finalized the choice of title (to something that wasn’t even on the list of possibilities that I had created), and gave me the nature of the Incident. It also made that incident rather more important in the context of the campaign.

Character “Real Life” I

The theme gave me about 75% of the particulars of these incidents – what they were, why they were happening, and so on. A number of minor plot threads would progress. In most of these cases, they were things that the players had said they wanted their characters to do or learn, in others they were outgrowths of that activity. Once I had the theme, I really did just dive in and start writing.

The events in this phase were tagged with the unofficial names “Premonition”, “Showman”, “Industrial Relations”, “Self-Image”, and “Fitness”. These are all of the variety, “what were you doing when the incident started?” Player involvement is minimal and primarily consists of “these is what you are doing and a reminder of what’s been on your mind lately” so that players can decide what their character’s head-space is like at the moment. What’s their mood? Their emotional state? The primary purpose is to enable the players to decide how their characters will react to “The Incident” when it begins, given this context.

The Incident

A recurring subplot that started in the last adventure or two was that magic had gone wild. When a mage cast a spell, they suffered a compulsion to exhaust their mana reserves (which power spells in this game system) and as much more as the mage can suck in from the surrounding environment, dumping it all into the spell that they were casting, which is horrendously over-powered as a result. A “flare” spell sucked the PC mage dry, was visible over half the North American continent, and blinded the pilots of three aircraft coming in to land who were too close to the spell (and could have been much worse).It’s important to note that I know why this is happening, but the players (and characters) do not.

In the course of “The Monster Makers,” an NPC who claims to be a mage (a Voodoo Priest, to be more precise) made a discovery that only spells which affected the world around the mage were subject to this problem, and passed the information on to the PCs. So long as the spell only affected the mage, it would work just fine.

I had more particulars about the nature of this effect to be revealed to the players as circumstances warranted. The Incident, given the shape it assumed by making it relevant to the Theme and the title, became the perfect vehicle for providing some of that information. But it also presented the next roadblock in writing the adventure – because I needed to come up with a unique and original fantasy world as background to the characters at the heart of the Incident, as the cold case that one was pursuing suddenly spontaneously combusted.

That took a day or two, but when it was done, writing was again straightforward. Everything to this point was then collectively labeled as Part I of the adventure, and given the title “Fangs Of The Dragon”.

Real Life of the characters II

The ultimate effect of The Incident will be minor – one character will regain some lost confidence, and his teammates will regain some confidence in his abilities to participate in situations when they develop. The game universe will expand a little to contain that new fantasy world, and they will gain an ally – but one with problems of his own, so ‘don’t expect much benefit in the short-term’. That expansion is not an unalloyed blessing; it also opens a new vector for future team problems to arise. In general terms, though, it can largely be characterized as edging the day-to-day lives of the team back towards normality, and getting the adventure started with a bang – assuming the PCs don’t make a meal of The Incident, of course.

But that leads into the first major roleplaying section of the adventure, as life settles down to something resembling normality for a while and the characters go about living their ordinary lives. This is reflected in the title for this part of the adventure: “Business As Usual”.

There are several ongoing subplots that progress in this phase. Characters get to spend time doing the things their players have said they want to do, there’s some cultural reference for them to play with, and some opportunities for roleplaying.

Again, I can’t do much in the way of being specific. But I can offer the following summaries of the events, secure in the knowledge that they won’t tell the players anything I don’t want them to know in advance:

  • Scene 1, “Prussian Blues” advances one character’s social life, enhances the game world, and gives progress in a subplot of that character’s.
  • Scene 2, “Puppet To The Red Tape” is all about the responsibilities of leadership and the personality of one of the PCs, and the price that has to be paid for the privilege. An ongoing theme for the character involved, this continues exploring those key themes of the character and is more about establishing precedents and connections with other plotlines.
  • Scene 3, “A Taste Of Not-Quite Home” permits another PC to touch base with his cultural roots, and marks a distinct change of pace compared to recent subplots for the character. But it also advances an ongoing plotline focusing on that character, and gives two characters the opportunity to advance in hobbies that the players have respectively selected for their characters, enlarging on that personal development subplot, and develops the interaction between the two.
  • Scene 4, “The Holiday is over” gives a character who didn’t get much of a chance to roleplay in this part of the plot the opportunity to do so, and also edges circumstances back to “Business as usual” while enlarging on the consequences of the recent divergence from routine. This develops a PC-NPC relationship and progresses the history of the world beyond the PCs.
  • Scene 5, “Muffin Routine” establishes a new subplot within this campaign for a PC, provides some additional color and verisimilitude for the game world, introduces a new NPC, and advances the relationship between that PC and another NPC while furthering a subplot focusing on that NPC. Furthermore, it touches on the relationship that has developed “off-camera” between two of the major NPCs for the first time in the campaign, signposting a further evolution in the game world around the PCs.

    That’s an important tip, actually: NPC subplots only matter to the extent that they impact on a PC at the time. If there is no such impact, they can be hand-waved until the next time a PC interacts with that NPC. Which means that if there is an important plot development in the life of an NPC, you need to find some way to have it impact on a PC. You can even generalize this further: NPCs only matter within the game to the extent that they interact with PCs. PCs can have solo encounters and plot developments; while NPCs can also have these, actual play of them should be handwaved until the next interaction of NPC and PC.

  • Scene 6, “A different perspective/Anatomy lesson” contains two beats for a particular PC. The first is a continued exploration of the character’s non-human perspective yielding an unusual theory about the observed behavior of humanity, and the second permits the character to learn something she needs to understand in order to achieve a personal development that the player has decided he wants the character to have. It also introduces a new NPC and gives the player of the PC a chance to do some roleplaying.”
  • Scene 7, “Koffee Klatch” advances the social life of another PC, adds a circle of new NPCs to that social life, and touches on the a consequence of the abnormalities of his physical condition that I doubt the player, or the creator of the character, ever thought of. It also teases a future plotline, and advances a subplot belonging to another PC, which should heighten the sense that this subplot will soon be resolved – a “cold case” that has been troubling the PC who is attached to it for some time, and which occasionally spills over onto the rest of the characters. I guess you could say that it actually teases two future plotlines in the same scene.
  • Scene 8, “Fourth corner of the triangle” builds on an NPC-PC relationship that has become a focus lately, adds to the NPCs value to the team, and builds on the ongoing subplot that was the non-immediate relevance of The Incident, further pushing the campaign toward a sense of “getting back to normal”. Depending on how it goes, it could also introduce a new relationship between two PCs and offer three of the four Players a roleplaying opportunity.

These all flowed from the keyboard without pause, except briefly when I tweaked the order of presentation to spread the spotlight around a little more and give a nicer flow from one item to another. Each assumes that the other players are in earshot. And seven of these eight scenes relate in some way to the overall theme and title of the adventure, while the eighth provides a partial foundation for the main plot of the adventure, and so is also indirectly linked to the theme.

The Mystery

That all leads into the major plot of the adventure, a murder mystery of very outré nature. I can’t give any details at all without ruining the adventure for the players, so let’s talk a little in more general terms.

Mysteries are easy to create – all you need do is have something happen, or reveal that something has happened, with no obvious explanation.

Good Mysteries with predetermined solutions are even easier in fiction because the author has a privileged position – he knows what actually happened and why that solution to the mystery is hidden. It’s then simply a matter of leading the investigators one step at a time until the other improbable explanations are eliminated and the truth stands revealed in some suitably dramatic fashion.

Problems arise when the author is forced to induce incompetence on the part of an investigator in order to explain why they didn’t solve the puzzle right away, or makes the mystery so impenetrable that a dues-ex-machina is required to solve the puzzle – something that always leaves the reader feeling cheated, or when there is a flaw in the author’s logic.

One of the most obvious techniques for plotting such mysteries is to start with the solution, consider what the criminal can and would do to cover it up, and then ask “what does the investigator need to know in order to determine the culprit and solve the mystery?” – then work backwards determining how and from whom the investigator gets that information until you get to the initial condition of confusion before any investigation has begun. Then you actually write the narrative from front to back, guided by this outline.

Things elevate exponentially in difficulty when you’re talking about an RPG, for three reasons:

  1. The GM doesn’t know what questions the PCs will ask.
  2. The author has to ensure that the investigator is competent, as explained earlier. The GM has no control over the competence and deductive abilities of the players.
  3. While a strongly linear plot can work for a novelist, players and PCs can’t be controlled by the GM.

Getting around these problems largely means providing several different ways for the PCs to get the information they need, and simplifying the mystery to the point where the GM can be sure that the players will be able to solve it without relying on ultimately-unsatisfactory die rolls to do so. But every such compromise weakens the mystery and the entertainment value that can derive from it.

A long time ago, I offered several “GM’s cheats” for creating successful mysteries in RPGs, and the heart of them all is the GM being as ignorant of what really happened and who is responsible, and operating under the theory that if the investigation continually advances in some way, it will eventually reach a destination. That article has been a very popular one, and is often mentioned on other blogs as the state-of-the-art in creating mysteries for RPGs, which is very gratifying.

The Problem

For various reasons, those techniques simply wouldn’t work in this case. So I had to do an old-fashioned mystery while avoiding the pitfalls listed above. On top of that, one of the PCs is a telepath; I had to frame the mystery in such a way that it followed the rules of “fairness” of a mystery while ensuring that an inadvertent mind-scan wouldn’t upend the apple-cart.

At first, I had no idea how to achieve this second requirement, so I simply ignored it for the moment and assumed that a solution would present itself in time.

The Process

I started by outlining how the mystery would come to the PCs attention, and what the actual mystery was going to be. That gave me several obvious leads that I could reasonably assume the PCs would follow during the investigation phase. It also set up a number of roadblocks and hurdles that would have to be overcome by the PCs in the course of the investigation, and introduced a number of NPCs who would figure into the discovery of what the mystery was. Finally, I was able to introduce an entirely-reasonable-in-context constraint that would prevent the players from getting too creative in their approach or taking too many shortcuts.

Along the way, I also decided on a title for this part of the adventure, one that was tantalizing and appropriate but that didn’t give anything away: “Body of Confusion”.

It was important to ensure that none of those obvious leads could lead immediately to the solution to the mystery, but each one would have to advance the investigation process in some way. So, having written the narrative of the introduction of the mystery, I turned my attention to those obvious leads. For each, I asked “what might be learned that would move the PCs closer to the solution to the mystery? I was also able to throw in a red herring or two and ensure that the herring nature became obvious in due course, and ensure that there was enough going on in each stage that each PC would get a fair share of the spotlight. Finally, I made sure that the featured NPCs never did anything that did not involve at least one PC – following the same maxim as outlined in the sidebar box above.

At this point, I was forced to make assumptions based on the abilities and personalities of the PCs in terms of who would do what. Those assumptions let me write the narrative for each of the initial stages of the investigation, populating it with interesting and colorful characters. At the same time, I made sure that if my assumptions were incorrect, that the critical information would still be learned; the encounters might not have the same impact under those circumstances, because I was pitching the roleplay as much at the players as to the PCs that they controlled, but they would still be interesting enough.

So long as each of these leads either dead-ended or produced a new line of investigation as to what had really happened, i,e, advanced the plot, that was all I needed from them. I would then repeat the process for the resultant next batch of leads, incorporating challenges for the players to overcome and ensuring that failure was always an option, and would not derange the overall plotline.

The combination is a situation in which the overall plot can be shaped and directed, while still leaving room for the players to make their own decisions.

Body of Confusion

So far, then, “Body of confusion” contained the following scenes:

  1. “Prologue: State Of Mind” – links the beginning of the adventure to the previous part by doing the same thing as the events did in “Real Life of the characters I”, establishing circumstances that permit the players to determine the PCs state of mind when the main events start.
  2. Mystery:
    • “Scene Of The Crime” – gets the PCs to the scene of the crime and introduces the person who’s going to drop the mystery into the PCs laps.
    • “Hall Monitor” – introduces an NPC who will complicate and restrict the PCs freedom to take investigative shortcuts and gives him a motivation that the PCs would support, making their cooperation with the restrictions more likely. Also lays the foundations for the mystery.
    • “Discovery of the crime” – tells the PCs how the crime came to be discovered and introduces the NPCs who made the discovery and called in Law-enforcement.
    • “Preliminary Investigation” – tells the PCs what the police discovered in their investigation of the crime scene, completing the particulars of the mystery, introduces an ally in the investigation, describes the source of the road-blocks and shows that the PCs have a better chance of going around them than the police do, which in turn explains why the problem is being handed to them.
    • “Formalities” – sets the PCs involvement in motion and directs the clues to the PCs attention.
  3. Investigation, Wave 1 [note that the PC who featured strongly in “The Incident” does not feature in this phase):
    • “Zuber” – follows obvious lead #1 and introduces a colorful NPC who should be lots of fun for a PC to roleplay with.
    • “Case File” – follows obvious lead #2 and delivers a number of specifics about the case that the PCs didn’t have, opening a second generation of leads to investigate, and permitting roleplay for a second PC.
    • “Arrangements” – makes arrangements for investigation of obvious lead #3 while giving a third PC the chance to roleplay and reintroducing an NPC from earlier in the adventure. This plays on a piece of serendipity that would have been impossible for me as a GM to predict, since it ties a pre-adventure decision by a player to this plot.
  4. Investigation, Wave 2:
    • “Research” – follows up a lead from “Case File”.
    • “Assignments” – identifies a second wave of investigation results and almost-certainly puts an NPC in charge of this part of the investigation. He spells out certain facts that he needs and details the PCs to obtain them, assigning the problems logically according to personalities, positions, and abilities.
    • “General Motors” – two PCs attempt to carry out their assignment, encounter a road-block, get to roleplay and to find a solution to the roadblock which will lead to a subsequent scene.
    • “Council” – another PC attempts to carry out her assignment, encounter a road block, get to roleplay and a solution is hinted at which will lead to a subsequent scene.
    • “Picture of trouble” – fourth PC carries out the first part of his assignment, encounters a major roadblock that is built into the campaign background, gets to roleplay.
  5. Investigation, Wave 3:
    • “Collector” – follow-up scene to “General Motors” in which the PCs from that scene implement their solution to the roadblock only to encounter another one with three possible solutions offered to them (or they could devise a fourth). They get to roleplay and may interact with another PC in the course of it.

… and that’s where I encountered a major road-block of my own. I needed to find a solution to the inherent problem mentioned in “Picture Of Trouble” or be left with a plot hole the size of Jupiter. Everything to this point had simply flowed, requiring little or no pause, but this was going to require careful thought.

I could contrive a one-off solution – the latest in a series of such solutions to this particular restriction – or I could implement a permanent solution that removed or revised one of the fundamental tenets of the campaign.


So far, this entire adventure had contained little of lasting significance in terms of the overall campaign. A number of subplots had inched forwards, and there were the long-term consequences of The Incident, but the dominant part of the campaign, the mystery, held no major repercussions for the campaign; it was a standalone adventure. This was an opportunity to change that and make this another milestone in the campaign. This is something that I’m always keen to do when significance doesn’t automatically attach to the plot, but there were good reasons for the presence of the restriction that created the problem in “Picture Of Trouble”.

The alternative was to revise part of the adventure, significantly reducing the involvement of the PC who was at the heart of the situation in the adventure, and significantly shortcutting the adventure. And, since I still had no clear path forward after the follow-ups to “Collector” and “Council”. that also held a certain level of appeal, because the “Investigation” phase was already larger than I had originally expected.

There are, in my campaign plan, a number of “free-floating” events that I intended to introduce at some point if the opportunity presented itself, but that weren’t necessary to the campaign plan. After wrestling with the problem for a couple of days, I realized that choosing the more significant change would permit me to integrate a couple of those major campaign background developments, and tie this adventure to a previous one. The choice, then, was between no real significance, or a triple-dose of significance.

The decision was made when further thought showed that this triple-dose of significance reflected an ongoing campaign theme, giving a fourth layer of significance to the whole thing. That combination was too much to resist.


But, in order to pull this off, I needed to contrive some means of getting the PC in question (or possibly all the PCs) to the point of revelation. That could only be done by laying some groundwork earlier in the adventure, a dues-ex-machina that the PCs would have to earn, and adding still another layer of mystery to the overall plot, and still another connection to the adventure theme.

In order to pave over the Plot Hole, I needed a significant scene – by far the largest and most complicated of them, involving all the PCs – somewhere back in “Real Life of the characters II”. This would prominently feature the PC who had no involvement in “Investigation Wave 1”, equalizing the screen time each PC was receiving, a further benefit.

I therefore decided to attach this additional sequence close to the end of “Real Life of the characters II”, i.e. as close to “Investigation Wave I” as possible. The optimum point was the end of Scene 8 of “Business As Usual”, and so “Scene 9: Puzzle Box” was added, about 2 1/4 pages in length, doing nothing but setting up the next scene in “Investigation Wave 3”, “Leapfrog”.

“Puzzle Box”

I have to be very vague about the content of those 2 1/4 pages. Something unexpected happens, which adds to the campaign background and to the PCs base of operations. That leads to an authentication procedure that is fairly rigorous – only the PCs could reasonably be expected to pass it – resulting in a foreshadowing of the significance of a future event and introducing yet another mystery to the overall mix.

Most entertainingly, while the specific events are definitely not “Business as usual”, the broader context of something unexpectedly leaping out of the plot shadows is very definitely “Business as usual” for the PCs. This was the final tick of approval for what I was planning, so far as I was concerned – “Puzzle Box” was an essential part of the adventure, I just hadn’t known it at the time.

The relevance of The Ordinary Lives Of The PCs

At the start of this article, I indicated that this would be illustrative of a number of things discussed in recent articles here at Campaign Mastery. It’s time to haul that relevance out into the open and spotlight it.

It would be entirely possible to write the adventure without the “Ordinary Lives” sequences, hand-waving the character development, and skipping straight to the “good stuff” – The Incident, Puzzle Box, Mystery, Investigation, Complication, Solution. It would also be possible to hand-wave a lot of the roleplay in “Investigation” – “you go to X and learn Y”.

Doing either or both of these things would elevate the significance of Puzzle Box, conferring a disproportionate share of the spotlight to one particular PC, and make the obvious-contrivance levels go off the chart. It would significantly shorten the adventure, making it far more disjointed internally and making the campaign far less contiguous. Since I’m of the opinion that roleplay is a vital ingredient in making an RPG fun, it would also diminish greatly the entertainment value of the adventure as a whole.

In a different campaign, that would not be the case. The style of this campaign is far more Marvel than DC, far more about telling the story of the lives of extraordinary people living in even more extraordinary times. The Ordinary Lives sequences make “Puzzle Box” just one event amongst several, and the high level of detail in those sequences justifies an equally-high level in the main part of the adventure. I am deliberately counterbalancing the outlandish nature of the events and concepts that are central to the superheroic genre with an infusion of “reality” that makes the PCs people, with foibles and flaws and problems, some of which assume larger-than-life significance because of who the PCs are.

Where to from here?

If the following gives the impression that the as-yet unwritten parts of the adventure are now clear in my mind, and need only to be executed, you would be interpreting things correctly. The Puzzle Box Sequence is essential to the “Simulation”, which is critical to the Solution being available for the PCs to discover. “Puzzle Box” broke the creative logjam.

  • I have a couple of minor creative elements to work out that form part of “Leapfrog”.
  • I have a couple of scenes already emplaced that need a little further expansion in one case and a lot in the other – Scenes “Research” (listed above) and “Inside Man” (the planned follow-up to “Council”).
  • That will be followed by “Ancient”, the planned follow-up to “Leapfrog” and which will resolve the Puzzle Box part of mystery, then “Breaking The Barriers”, which is the major payoff to the “Puzzle Box” – “Leapfrog” – “Ancient” plot thread. That will lead into “Life Of The Streets” and “Moonlighting”, which will connect the “Puzzle Box” sequence back to the main mystery, overcoming the roadblocks in “Council” and “Picture Of Trouble” respectively, and concluding Wave #3 of the investigation.
  • Wave #4 will comprise “Prescription”, “Simulation”, “Hope”, and “Missing”.
  • “Complication” consists of “Vanished”, “Lost and Found”, “Dead Men Tell Tales”. and “Discovery”.
  • “Solution”, “Dash”, “Hunt”, and “Justice” will follow, wrapping up the mystery.
  • Finally. “Hobby”, “Zombie”, “Law Of The Jungle”, “Connections” and “Contact” are epilogues and will wrap up the whole adventure.


There are many points in the above where the PCs make critical decisions. Despite the linear structure described, there is no certainty of success at any point short of “Solution”. What the PCs decide to do before the investigation even starts will have a material effect on the outcome – in the ideal situation, a criminal’s guilt is proven and another suspect exonerated, accelerating an increase in racial tensions and triggering a wave of racial unrest. A lesser success if possible in which all of the above takes place except that the criminal escapes. And complete failure is equally possible, in which the criminal escapes justice at the expense of another man, also triggering the increase in racial tensions and wave of racial unrest. If the PCs do make a meal of things at some point, there are also ways to salvage the situation.

The biggest lessons from this exercise are to make progress one step at a time, using outlines and brief mnemonics to keep track of the bigger picture, to remember the importance of NPCs, the genre balancing (‘mundanity’ to counterbalance the fantastic), spotlight round-robins, the principles of significance, themes, and titles, and inserting content as a way of empowering you to break through writer’s block.

The adventure is now 33 pages long, full of dialogue and narrative and with barely any mention of game mechanics. By the time it’s finished, that number will probably be closer to 60 than to 50. What resemblance the planned adventure has to what actually transpires remains to be seen; I’m always optimistic, but three times in four (or more) it won’t be the case.

If it were not a mystery, which requires an adventure to swarm with details, and the need to be consistent in prep standards throughout an adventure, I would not be writing to the level of detail that I am. The previous adventure was about as lengthy in playing time and complexity and consumed a ‘mere’ 17 pages. The one before that was 25 pages, and before that, an even more complex situation was detailed in only 10.

Most of the difference is in canned, pre-prepared dialogue. A lesson that I didn’t get to relate in the course of the article is that information should never be related ex cathedra when it can be conveyed by dialogue, i.e. by NPC-PC interaction. Using the old yardstick of a picture being worth a thousand words, I have also saved about 56,000 words of descriptions of people, places and objects by using photographs, digitally altering them as necessary.

When play has finished, I’ll revisit the subject, either in a follow-up article or by appending to this one, and providing the actual adventure for people to compare to what I’ve described herein. Although it wasn’t intended to be such, this has definitely turned into a masterclass on adventure creation, but that is needed to complete the value of it. I guess a lot of the decision between those options rests on how far the players deviate from what I expect them to do.

And no, guys, that’s not a challenge.

Articles referenced in the above text (directly or indirectly);

I have one more post to make before Christmas, and then Campaign Mastery will be taking a week off in terms of substantial content, resuming in the new year. So, the following oldies-but-goodies will give you something to read (or re-read) in the meantime.

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 10th Shelf

The Tenth Shelf: Beliefs I (Religions, Nazi Occultism, & Cthulhu) – Introduction by Mike


It’s always difficult when you need to take something that was supposed to be whole and split it in two, usually for reasons of practicality. Take this shelf and the next as a case in point: No-one can argue that Religion, Superstition, Unlikely Beliefs (such as Cryptozoology), and Mysticism form a continuity of sorts, bound together by the common foundation that people believe in them to varying degrees, and that those beliefs are held in different degrees of social credibility. But where do you draw the dividing lines? If you are a devout believer in one particular theology, all others have to be superstitions. If you don’t then they all hold equal weight, except when considered as a social force that one must take into account.

Fortunately for us, we can adopt the objective measurement of the level of acceptance, globally, in the 1930s, without making any statement as to the validity of those beliefs – a statement that would be sure to rub someone the wrong way. That’s a position that lets us then employ the even more objective measure of simply dividing the two halves as evenly as we can manage, given the categories and subcategories which we have employed to bind like subjects together, sometimes superficially.

Even so, the placement of individual works into different categories was often the subject of much angst. Take Wicca: should it be listed as a religion (which is how modern practitioners want it to be perceived) or a superstition (because that’s how most people in the 1930s see it)? Where should Voodoo be placed?

Or take superstitions – some of these have a foundation in fact that has been recognized; others are as out-there-with-the-pixies as flying saucers, which is to say that while some people believe implicitly, others are skeptical, and some are even derogatory in their assessments.

Taking fringe science out of this category helped, even though there is at least a superficial match in terms of the core subject. If the principle approach to a subject was science-based, no matter how flawed or manipulated the science, then the core of the subject is evidentiary-based and supposedly objective, rather than being matters of faith. That distinction made the distinction between Fringe Science and Mysticism/Superstition/Religion easier to make and ‘purified’ the remaining content.

This shelf and the next, then, are all about beliefs. Some are deemed credible by a large number of citizens, some not; some are respected by the western world of the 1930s, some are not.

Before concluding this introduction, I need to make it clear that no offense is intended to anyone’s beliefs by the categories into which a particular book has been placed. Such decisions are not intended to even be commentary on the beliefs except in terms of how the world at large perceived them during the 1920s and 1930s. Many churches and faiths don’t even get a mention, and omission should not be deemed significant in any way, either.

Of course, what is “truth” in the Pulp Reality of a game may be something completely different to what is acceptable as a belief in the real world. The Adventurer’s Club campaign has featured Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, Amazons, A reincarnated Aztec Deity (or so that person thought), a Chinese Vampire, A Japanese Demon, A Freshwater Kraken, A unified Hell, Ghosts and people pretending to be ghosts, and a resurrected Chinese Emperor – amongst other things. The Wrath of God routinely strikes down supernatural evils. How much of this do we believe in ourselves? In the form in which they have appeared in the campaign – pretty close to zero. That’s never stopped us in the past; the criteria is always what makes for the most interesting story.

So check your personal beliefs at the door and join us as we begin an exploration of human beliefs in the Pulp Era.

Relevance to other genres

Of all the shelves, this one and the next are the ones with the most direct relevance to many other genres. Superstitions are fertile grounds for plots in any genre, and where would a cleric be without his religion? Then we have all the books on Nazi Occultism, which offer a completely different perspective on the relationship between power and “theology” to the usual – in particular, the discordance between those beliefs and the way in which the Nazis were nevertheless able to cozy up with the Vatican. And, as for the Cryptozoology (on the eleventh shelf), what campaign can’t make use of additional weird creatures?

glasses on opened book, mobile phone

Image credit: / DariusZSankowski

Shelf Introduction

This shelf contains five sections, some of which started life as subsections within others.

Religion, Mythology, and Philosophy – We aren’t especially inclined toward political correctness, but at the same time, remain sensitive to, and respectful of, any individual’s beliefs and in particular of that individual’s right to believe. In our original plans for this series, we weren’t going to list anything that meets this description, as much because we didn’t want to leave anyone out as because the subject didn’t seem that strongly in keeping with pulp sensibilities; but as one compromise after another was forced on us. and we were forced to grapple with the realization that this list was not and could not be perfect, it became clear that something needed to be offered in this section. There was also a strong temptation to include these books as a section or subsection in the “everyday life” shelves, because that was the connection that seemed to have the greatest relevance to the Pulp GM; what changed that position was a count by Mike of the number of adventures within the Adventurer’s Club campaign in which Religion, Mythology, or Philosophy had played a strong role, either to the main adventure or to a singular encounter. The only responsible course after the results were revealed to the co-authors was to make the category as broad and inclusive as possible. But, because we’re human and this was an afterthought mid-way through the development of this series, it’s always possible (even probable) that something has been left out, or mis-categorized as a legacy of earlier phases of planning.

Nazi Occultism & Nazi-related Fringe Theories – Although it is listed second, this was actually the first section to be explicitly defined as being part of this shelf. When turning everything up to eleven for a pulp campaign, it becomes impossible to ignore the superstitions and radical occultism of the Nazi regime. Indeed, it would be very easy to construct a pulp campaign which was nothing but Nazi Occultism and an elite force who sought to block them from achieving supernatural primacy. Of course, the extraordinary levels of success achieved by the Nazis in their early campaigns play into these myths and legends and always raises the question of what changed – how was Britain able to resist, and why did Eastern Russia fail to fall? And then there were the Maltese campaigns and North Africa. In the real world, there were sound tactical and political reasons for those failures, but the contrast in success rates is so marked that in a fictional environment, the temptation must always exist to attribute the change in fortunes to some behind-the-scenes supernatural cause. Although we weren’t able to include all the books in this section that we wanted to list for reasons of price and availability, we were pleasantly surprised at the number that we were able to provide.

The Spear Of Longinus – While tempted to include these books in the preceding section, it was ultimately decided that there was enough non-Nazi involvement in the subject to warrant creating a new, specific, subsection. Note that many of the books listed in the previous section probably mention the Spear at some point.

The Ark Of The Covenant & Holy Grail – Similar logic and caveats to those expressed regarding the Spear Of Longinus. It’s probably worth observing that there is good reason for two of the Indiana Jones movies being derived from these legendary artifacts.

Cthulhu Mythos Reference – If there is an outlier on this shelf, this is it. No-one actually believes in the Cthulhu Mythos except the characters involved, and yet the nature of those beliefs on the part of the characters is completely appropriate to this section. And, in a way, that’s the significance of including this section on this shelf, signaling that we aren’t interested in what people believe in the real world, but we are interested in what characters believe in the pulp world. Besides, it was the right size in terms of number of entries to even the two halves up at the time we committed to our taxonomy! So, why include it at all? The answer comes in a single word: Inspiration. Cthulhu literature is a strange beast in many ways, bridging the gap between modern horror and the more lurid and macabre imaginings of the Victorian age. The concepts of ancient evils awakening is one that can be cited as a source of inspiration for everything from Hellboy to Alien, and is prime fodder for pulp adventures. On top of that, a lot of Cthulhu sourcebooks provide invaluable cultural and social relevance to the pulp era.

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation.


Books About Religion, Mythology, and Philosophy


Spacer comparative-religion-for-dummies

884. Comparative Religion For Dummies – William P Lazarus and Mark Sullivan

Most GMs, pulp or otherwise, have neither the time nor the inclination to make an in-depth study of the religions of the world, even though religious beliefs of some sort are pretty omnipresent – and distinctive – throughout the world. This book promises the ‘abridged version’ of this vast subject and as such should conceivably have a place on every GM’s bookshelf.

If we were relying on Amazon’s description, or on the cover, this book would not even have made the list, let alone being deliberately placed to lead off this section. Fortunately, we looked deeper, specifically at the contents pages, and discovered that it was far more comprehensive than either of those sources would lead you to believe. There are sections on everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Kabbalah. Nevertheless, there are major omissions from this book, and we are not going to pretend otherwise.

Where it provides greater value is in demonstrating the principles of Comparative Religion, and that’s something that any GM can benefit from – and the minor distinction that has promoted it to the head of the queue.


885. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to (Eastern) Philosophy – Jay Stevenson Ph.D. (Second Edition)

While there are many “For Dummies” books and “Complete Idiot’s Guides” on specific religions and philosophical movements, we deemed these to be too specific in subject matter to have general relevance; hence our recommendation of “Comparative Religion for Dummies”. This book fits neatly under the same umbrella.

The first edition included the word “Eastern” in the title, but there are virtually no copies left and the less-than-a-handful that were listed commanded ridiculously high prices. So we have linked to the more liberal second edition which omits “Eastern” from the title, of which there are many copies available at low prices. For now.

There is also a third edition (pictured) available with comparable prices and availability. This has an additional 71 pages of content, so you might want to make this your first choice, even though the existence of this more-recent edition will suppress prices of the older one for a while to come.

…and a fourth edition, but there aren’t as many copies of that, and prices are a bit higher. And some of those additional 71 pages aren’t there any more – this edition is only 352 pages in length.


886. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religions, 4th Edition – Brandon Toropov and Father Luke Buckles

This is similar subject matter to “Comparative Religion For Dummies” but this seems to tread, however lightly, into strange religious backwaters and side-alleys that other books do not. And there are specific sections that would definitely have been useful in the Adventurer’s Club campaign. It definitely belongs in this list.


887. 12 Major World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity’s Most Influential Faiths – Jason Boyett

A great many books treat a faith as a monolithic whole. Not only does this go beyond the “big three”, covering religious systems as diverse as those of ancient Egypt and of the Norsemen, but it also looks at the subdivisions within the most common faiths, which include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism, Judaism, Confucianism, Bahá’í, Shinto, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism! What’s more, a number of reviewers have commented on a complete lack of bias within the text.


888. South American Mythology – Harold Osborne

Lacking the expertise to criticize the volume, we can only describe it as lavishly-illustrated and seemingly comprehensive. Includes the Incas but not the Aztecs (who either were not considered “South American” by the author or who were covered in a separate volume of the series), and that’s our biggest criticism.


889. Tales From The Rainforest: Myths and Legends from the Amazonian Indians of Brazil – Jeanne Wilmot and Mercedes Dorsen

Compiled from numerous sources, these tales place the mythology of the Amazonian Indians into urban, social, and village-life context.


890. Mythology Of The American Nations: An Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The Gods, Heroes, Spirits, Sacred Places, Rituals And Ancient Beliefs Of The North American Indian, Inuit, Aztec, Inca And Maya Nations – David M Jones and Bryan L Molyneaux

It’s ironic given their exclusion from the previously-mentioned volume that the only South/Central American deities to figure in either the Adventurer’s Club or Zenith-3 campaigns are Aztec in origin! To address the deficit, we recommend this volume, which has the bonus value of Amerind mythology. 256 pages and over 500 images suggests that they are not terribly lavish, and the description of this as an A-Z suggests a less-than-user-friendly encyclopedia- or dictionary-style format, but it’s hard to find books on the subject that aren’t, for some reason. Interestingly, this was first published in paperback format and has only just come out (Mar 2016) in Hardcover; most publishing works in the other direction.


891. Celtic Mythology – Ward Rutherford

We also lack the expertise to critique this one very much. Reviews tend to give it from 3-5 stars out of five – from which we infer that it’s at least reasonable, and might be better than that.


892. African Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend – Jan Knappert

More useful as a reference than a primer on the subject, and criticized by one gamer in a position to do so fairly for being insufficiently critical in separating the beliefs of one African Culture from those of another. But there’s not a lot going around on the subject.

There is another volume by the same author entitled “The Aquarian Guide To African Mythology” with virtually the same cover, of exactly the same page count and page size, and which we suspect of being the same book with a different name. If there are no reasonably-priced copies of the first available, buy the second.

“An Encyclopedia”:
“The Aquarian Guide” (pictured):


893. Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines – W Ramsay Smith

Since our preferred choice isn’t available in anything close to sufficient quantities (and therefore has to be listed in the honorable mentions section), we can only rely on recommendations by others, and this volume seems like a good place to start. It suffers from a common problem in homogenizing the aborigines into a single culture when, in reality, there were thousands of separate cultures side-by-side, but as a collection of stories without context, it’s a good starting point.

(To understand the scale of the homogenizing problem, take a look at this map of Native Australian Tribal groups/languages). (yes, this is the same resource that Mike has linked to in the past).


894. Mythology of Asia & The Far East – Rachel Storm

Not quite enough copies to make our list normally, but there is a shortage of alternatives. The utility is obvious.


895. Mongolian Folktales – Hilary Roe Matternich

Contains 25 folk tales from the plateau between Russia and China. “The most ancient date back to the 12th century and are concerned with human relations with the natural world. Others use the whimsicality of animals to describe people’s struggles to find a good and decent life. Still others frankly applaud cunning … and the ability to survive an unfriendly competition.” 132 pages, from $12.31. New copies are currently one cent cheaper than used.


896. Tibetan Shamanism: Ecstasy and Healing – Larry Peters

The results of sixteen years spent investigating the daily lives, beliefs, and healing rituals of four Tibetan shamans forced into exile by the Chinese invasion of the 1950s. Which means that these belief systems and practices were present in Tibet during the Pulp Era.

For-Dummies Books relating to Religion, Mythology, and Philosophy

In most cases, we haven’t read any of these, and are recommending them for consideration based purely upon the publisher’s descriptions and on general principles except where otherwise noted. This also shifts the content of each review from one of “this book is recommended and here’s why” to “this book might be useful and here’s why”. We have made the assumption that availability and price would fall within our parameters, or close enough to them; we have rarely found this not to be the case.

Selected works were so promising and so relevant, that they have been promoted to the main list of recommendations, excluding them from the above caveats.

A note about Complete Idiot’s Guides

While the “For Dummies” series has a website that lists all the books currently available in the series, there is no equivalent for the “Complete Idiot’s Guides”.

Our blanket advice is that if Amazon lists a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” that matches the subject of one of our “For Dummies” recommendations, you should buy both.


897. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft – Denise Zimmerman and Katherine Gleason

This book has enough material in it that might be of value that it deserves a listing somewhere, but we have some concerns that the Pulp GM will want to romanticize what magic and witchcraft can and can’t do in their campaigns and this book – which treats Wicca from the perspective that modern practitioners want to promote, i.e. that it’s a religious movement – is more likely to confine if used too liberally. Make up your own mind. And yes, we know this isn’t a “For Dummies” book. Never seen a ringer before?


898. The Origins Of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth For Dummies – Greg Harvey

Tolkien drew on a lot of influences to achieve his stated goal of creating a European-style epic mythology for England in Middle-earth. Many of his creations have assumed iconic status in many RPGs, regardless of genre. We defy any gamer not to have immediately thought “Orc!” on seeing the green-skinned pig-faced guards in Jabba The Hut’s palace in Return Of The Jedi, for example.

Of more relevance in the pulp genre, Mike has seen one interpretation of the three primary groups of Elves being French, Swiss, and Belgians, respectively, while the Orcs were allegedly inspired by the invading Mongol armies of Genghis Kahn. We don’t necessarily agree with that interpretation, but drawing such parallels can afford a distinctive and unusual perceived flavor to the different nationalities of Europe.

Finally, there’s the mythology itself, which can be used as the inspirational foundation for pulp adventures set in Northwestern England or spun more broadly to inspire adventures elsewhere in Europe. Sauron’s sword makes a perfectly acceptable Macguffin that can have your players guessing about lost history for many contented hours. So this book definitely deserves a place somewhere on the bookshelf.


Books About Nazi Occultism & Nazi-related Fringe Theories

The big-name Nazis may be near-to household names in their strange beliefs, but their predecessors in intellectual mysticism are not. Most works that describe the beliefs and activities of these predecessors would be informative regarding mysticism and racial politics within the Nazi regime. The predecessors that we have in mind are Guido von List, Lanz von Liebenfels, Rudolf von Sebottendorf, Karl Maria Wiligut, Hans Horbinger, Dietrich Eckart, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who were the more notorious mystics of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Any work which does not cite Goodrick-Clarke, who wrote the definitive analysis of these early mystics, is also a little suspect in our eyes.


899. The Secret King: The Myth and Reality of Nazi Occultism – Stephen E. Flowers and Michael Moynihan

This is a fairly factual book on the subject, which makes it less useful to a pulp GM than a more sensationalist work might be. This book will be at its most useful if you want to parallel and contrast such a sensationalist work with this one to define the differences between what (some of) the Nazis thought they were doing and what was really going on in some of the stranger recesses of the Third Reich. This would not normally have been one of our first choices but our two primary choices had to be rejected due to excessive prices.


900. Unholy Alliance: A History of Nazi involvement in the Occult – Peter Levenda

If there is a book in third place (behind the two we would like to recommend but can’t), it’s likely to be this. Controversial in that some reviewers appear to have made deliberately misleading statements attempting to discredit it with claims of bias, but the research appears impeccable; the author even specifies where readers can find the original microfiche versions of his source documents. Accordingly, we discount those. Of greater concern are one or two reviews that suggest the book’s organization is scattered and anarchic; however, most reviews describe it as very readable. A few reviews hint that the presence of side-bars on every page, or close to it, interrupting the main text, might be the source of these complaints. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most promising-sounding volumes we can suggest under this heading – since the books we want to offer aren’t available to us. Once again, there are times when he seems to believe his own theories too unobjectively.


901. The Nazis and the Occult – Dusty Sklar

This is a difficult book to evaluate. The same comment can complain both that the book is too broad in its subject matter and also that subjects such as the search for the Spear Of Destiny are not mentioned – but you can’t have it both ways! This book had the conspiracy theorists coming out in droves in the reviews – which could mean that it’s perfect for a GM’s needs, or that the author has drunk too deeply of the kool-aid – it’s very hard to know. Fortunately, used copies are quite affordable so most readers will be able to make up their own minds. We find it useful. Not to be confused with the similarly-title book below.


902. Nazis and the Occult: The Dark Forces unleashed by the Third Reich – Paul Roland

This volume is rife with unsubstantiated speculation of the worst kind, so much so that it is useless. On top of that, the author steeped the book in scandal by posting his own reviews both in his own name and using pseudonyms. Nevertheless, the title sounds so good that we’re including it with a recommendation not to buy at any price. Not to be confused with the similarly-title book above.


903. Hitler’s Occult War – Michael Fitzgerald

Also known by its original title, “Storm-troopers Of Satan”. Reviews suggest that this is an excellent overview of all – well, most – of the loony fringe theories surrounding World War II. They also suggest that the author implicitly believes them all, on the flimsiest of evidence or no evidence at all, has melded them all together into one grand conspiracy, and that might make them difficult to tease back apart for use in a Pulp campaign, where one would want to pick and choose.


904. The Nazi Occult (Dark Osprey) – Kenneth Hite, illustrated by Darren Tan

The first paragraph of the Amazon description of this book makes it sound perfect for a Pulp GM’s needs, and certainly comprehensive in its content. The second paragraph undoes most of this good impression by stating, “For years, the Allied governments worked to keep this information from reaching the public, and sought to discredit those few who dared to seek the truth.” Nevertheless, this book offers content that the previous one does not (and apparently leaves out some of the things that it reports) so you would need both to be comprehensive. This is a fun book to read, but the author freely admits to mixing real history, Nazi occultism mythology and invented fantasy based on literary and film in-jokes, on his website. This makes it unreliable as an overview, but might make it more culturally-accessible to a pulp GM.


905. The Occult Reich – J H Brennan

An examination of the occult influences on the third Reich and on Hitler personally. Most interestingly, it goes into the symbolism of the Nazis, something that many other works ignore.


Documentaries About Nazi Occultism & Nazi-related Fringe Theories



906. Hitler’s Jurassic Monsters

The title is misleading. This National Geographic Channel documentary describes Nazi attempts to retro-evolve modern-day creatures into their more primitive antecedents. This was (of course) completely unsuccessful, but does not have to be so in a Pulp World – and neither does the title have to be so misleading in such a campaign, either. It does not appear to be on DVD anywhere (perhaps it’s part of a series, and we’ve forgotten the fact), but it is available through YouTube
at the current time.


907. Myth Hunters, aka Raiders Of The Lost Past, season 1

We are recommending this for five of the 13 episodes: Episode 1: “Hitler and the Spear Of Destiny”, Episode 3: “The Hunt For Pirate Treasure”, Episode 7: “Himmler and the Holy Grail”, Episode 8: “The Hunt For The Book Of Spells”, and Episode 10: “The Nazis and the Book Of Power”.

Available in the US as an import from Australia only ($63.69, but the UK has access to domestic versions of the DVD set (£47.69 Unfortunately, Canadian readers again miss out – while Amazon Canada lists the box set, they also state that there are no copies available.

Fortunately, three of the episodes are available through YouTube as well (again, at the time of writing): “Hitler and the Spear Of Destiny”, “Himmler and the Holy Grail”, and “The Hunt For The Book Of Spells” For both these and the remaining episodes, you can also try this link. [UPDATE: That resource now appears to have gone belly-up. We’re continuing to list it anyway in case it was just a temporary problem when we checked].

NB: We had already approved part of this, back when there were only two episodes we were recommending, with a caveat that the price might be too high. With the increase in desirability, we dug a little deeper to uncover the additional options.


Books About The Spear Of Longinus

There are three artifacts of early catholicism that figure prominently in Nazi Occultism, bridging the gap between the two preceding sections. Another of the somewhat esoteric discussions that took place in planning this list was whether those three should be grouped into a single category. Bearing in mind that this section was originally a subsection within the broader subject of Nazi Occultism, whereas outside of the Indiana Jones movies, the other two were not the subjects of as much Nazi attention, the ultimate decision was taken to maintain the separation because their treatment and historical relevance were sufficiently different and distinctive.


908. The Spear Of Destiny: The Occult Power behind the Spear which pierced the side of Christ – Trevor Ravenscroft

Not to be confused with any of several other books with the same name, this is a ‘history’ of the Spear of Longinus up to Adolph Hitler. It can be very heavy going, but is one of the most ‘definitive works’ on the subject – if you can say any such thing about a subject in which much of the evidence was obtained by Psychic Visions courtesy of Rudolf Steiner and General Helmuth von Moltke. In addition, many of the more grandiose statements in the book are not referenced at all, and thus the reader has no way of verifying the authenticity of the author’s claims. All of which can be ignored by the Pulp GM who decides that Ravenscroft was bang on-the-money for campaign/plot purposes.


909. The Mark Of The Beast – Trevor Ravenscroft and Tim Wallace-Murphy

Built on the same foundations as “The Spear Of Destiny”, rehashed. Any good conspiracy theory grows to incorporate new and disparate events, and this narrative follows the same pattern, building to a rather spiritual and mystically-oriented sequel, carrying the ‘story’ of the Spear of Longinus all the way forward to its role in the The Apocalypse – with some very strange stops along its travels.


910. Secrets Of The Holy Lance: The Spear Of Destiny in History and Legend – Jerry E Smith and George Piccard

Not to be confused with “Adolf Hitler and the Secrets Of The Holy Lance,” which you will find in our Honorable Mentions. This is similar to the other books listed, but it includes the Nazi period in between as well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t flow in a linear fashion, chapters jumping from one era to another and back again. This makes it heavy going and hard to use as a reference work.


Books About The Ark Of The Covenant & Holy Grail



911. Otto Rahn and the Quest for the Holy Grail: The Amazing Life of the Real “Indiana Jones” – Nigel Graddon

This book has a mixed reputation as a result of containing too much frothing speculation and too little fact with some of those few facts demonstrably wrong. That makes it unreliable as a historical reference but lovely for the Pulp GM willing to go over the top. Available in Kindle and in Paperback. And, no, your eyes are not deceiving you: the cover text really is off-center.


912. Emerald Cup, Ark Of Gold – Col. Howard Buechner

Traces the history of the Cup and the Ark and ties in Otto Rahn. Receives mostly negative reviews on Amazon – one states “An extremely speculative work about the real quest for the Grail in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. He gives at least two new definitions as to what the grail is: 1) The Cup of Moses, 2) A series of enruned tablets,” while a second, more negative, reviewer comments, “The whole book is filled with highly speculative stories and straight out inaccuracies”, based on the reviewers personal knowledge of the subject matter of one chapter and projecting its flaws over the totality. None of which should matter to the Pulp GM who wants to use it as source material!


913. The Lost Ark Of The Covenant: Solving the 2,500-Year-Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark – Tudor Parfitt

One man, who the Wall Street Journal describes as “The British Indiana Jones”, and his quest to find the Ark. Booklist describes the book as “thoroughly cinematic in tone, with scenes of heart-stopping action and featuring characters so quirky they feel more fictional than real” – though they add the caveat that with the names (and who knows how much more) changed and no notes, it’s hard to tell where reality ends and fiction begins. That said, if you are going to reinvent the content for a pulp setting, who cares? It might even make it easier to use for our purposes!


914. Blood Of Avalon: The Secret History of the Grail Dynasty from King Arthur to Prince William – Adrian Gilbert

The author’s name on Amazon has a middle initial “G” that doesn’t show on the front cover, and can complicate attempts to locate copies of this book, which suggests that Princess Diana was related to King Arthur as part of its thesis on the importance of the Holy Grail in British History. In order to find this book credible, you first have to accept that King Arthur is real, and not a myth. That said, using the logic espoused above, the difference between what we consider “true” in the real world and what we consider “true” in a Pulp Campaign can be worlds apart.


915. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln

Rennes-le-Chateau is a small mountain village in the foot of Pyrenees where a buried cache of documents were reportedly discovered by a French Priest in the 19th century. Starting from these alleged documents, the authors trace their way back through the Knights Templar, the Cathar Heretics of the 12th and 13th centuries to a dynasty of obscure French Kings deposed more than 1300 years ago, suggesting that Christ did not die on the cross, instead marrying and becoming a father to a bloodline that persists to the modern day.

There are three editions of this volume, and each has their own attraction; the oldest dates from 1996 and has a kindle edition and a lot of cheap copies

The middle edition is from 2004, has hundreds more copies available at a pittance,, and is 118 pages shorter that the first; while it’s possible that this saving has been achieved by smaller print and tighter editing, it represents more than 1/6th of the length of the original – so it seems more likely that there has been a cut in content.

At first, Mike thought that maybe they had cut out a large photographic section to account for a large portion of the reduction, but then he found the third edition – one explicitly described as an “Illustrated Edition” (pictured), with an abbreviated title – and another reduction of 7 pages. There are not as many copies of this version and they are not as cheap, but if you want to use this for inspiration, the illustrations are likely to represent a significant enhancement of its utility – and the illustrated edition is still well within our price and availability criteria.


Books About The Cthulhu Mythos



916. Cthulhu by Gaslight – William A. Barton

Predates the pulp era a little but there’s enough crossover to make it worthwhile. If you want a new copy, the third edition is more affordable, if you want to save a few bucks and buy a used one, the second edition is the better-priced.
2nd Ed:
3rd Ed (pictured):


917. The Keeper’s Companion Vol 1: Blasphemous Knowledge, Hidden Secrets – Herber, Deitz (Chaosium)

Lots of excellent material on the era in general as well as more Cthulhu-mythos specific content. Parts were reprinted in the Call Of Cthulhu 1920s sourcebook “Keeper’s Compendium” which may contain new material as well, but we weren’t confident enough of that to list it separately.


918. The Keeper’s Companion Vol 2 – Gauntlett, Sammons, et al. (Chaosium)

More content useful in both general and mythos-specific ways. We suspect that the Keeper’s Compendium may also contain reprints of some of this volume.



Afterword by Saxon:

This may seem like a broad and eclectic category – and it is! – but a gamesmaster can usefully get a handle on it by identifying what the various mystical elements are contributing to the adventure or even the game setting as a whole. On the one hand, the mystical elements can be thematically linked by a general description that: “Some people think that the world operates in a way other than that of the everyday, obvious and mundane (and who knows, they may be correct).” (And thinking about it, that’s a description that even applies to weirder and counter-intuitive aspects of modern physics.)

On the other hand different religious and mystical elements may be doing different things, from benign cultural effects all the way through to incredibly hostile metaphysical threats. In a pulp game based on two-fisted adventure these might be arranged by answering the question: “How much (and what type) of danger does it pose to the player characters?” That’s not the only way sort the answers, of course, but it can be used as a starting point.

At the simplest, it might act as local color. This has been discussed before in this series, and can be summarized as minor details placed to pique the interest of characters (and players). Then again, it need not be quiet as simple, since religion and mysticism can form an important part of a non-player character’s world view. In such a case, the gamesmaster could use it to answer basic questions such as: “How would character X react in such-and-such a situation?” Moving on, does a religion or cult hold some form of influence that complicates the local politics? Is there some element that complicates local (or not so local) metaphysics? Is there some way that it provides a Macguffin for the player characters to chase after? Does it provide some sort of problem, threat or enemy that the player characters must work around or overcome? And since this shelf includes the possibility of using Cthulhu mythos elements, is there some existential threat which overshadows the entire campaign setting?

And, finally, there is the eternal question of how one set of beliefs interact and interrelate with another. One population believes one thing, another believes something else, and they can’t both be right. Or can they? Are there unspoken assumptions that, if challenged by the creative GM, makes room for both? Or perhaps it’s the case that they are both 95% right – and unity of applicability can be forged in those 5% gaps, through things that have been left unspoken. Mike and Blair have repeatedly challenged simplistic perceptions of religion and theology while permitting individual characters to be as singular and unwavering in their beliefs as the operator of that character thought appropriate to their personality. An excellent example is the assistance offered the group by the Goddess Kali through one of the least-religious and most practically-minded characters in the party simply to put such questions aside when they weren’t relevant to the situation at hand – a neat technique for preserving that respectful divergence between “objective character reality” and “subjective understanding of the world”. If Kali had chosen to work through my character, a catholic priest, a theological crisis for the character would be a foregone conclusion; working through Captain Ferguson avoided that issue, leaving Father O’Malley free to continue to wrestle with the compromises forced on the religious authority he regards as supreme and the political realities of the world around him.

Although these questions have been ranked in a rough hierarchy of danger for simplicity’s sake, you’ll observe that the answers are not simply escalating levels of threat. The answers demonstrate how different elements of religion and mysticism will operate in different ways within a game, possibly in several different ways at the same time. That’s a useful analytical tool, for real life as well as Game and campaign construction. The gamesmaster can variously use that as a springboard for new ideas, as well as a way of identifying something that the game needs and then looking about to see what elements can be used to fulfill that need.

Next in this series: The 11th shelf – Other beliefs from the credible to the even stranger fringes: Secret Societies! Freemasons! Knights Templar! Voodoo! Zombies! Urban Legends! Ghosts! Cryptozoology! plus General Mysticism, Superstitions, and some really strange stuff!!


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