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The Final Twist: Dec 2014 Blog Carnival Roundup

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So the month is over, ending with the Bang of New Year’s Fireworks, and the Blog Carnival has migrated to the care and attention Nils over at Enderra – best of luck, Nils!

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

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

My final obligation as the outgoing host is to compile a roundup of the submissions, and there were some interesting and diverse ones. Thanks to everyone who participated! I’ve classified these under some general headings to help make it easier to find what you may be looking for. The Order of categories might seem strange, but there’s method in my madness…

Surprise [Theory & Mechanics]

  • Campaign Mastery: The Unexpected Creeps Up Behind You: I kicked off the carnival in advance with this item. Past practice has been to create an anchor post to which participants can link, and to use it to discuss and explore the theme in terms of what participants could write about, but because I was beginning to discover how tricky the topic could be, I was having trouble coming up with ideas, and because this was appearing prior to the actual commencement of the month, I decided to lead off with an actual article, looking at what people actually experienced when surprised and how various game mechanics could be tweaked to more accurately represent the phenomenon.

Plot Twist Theory

  • Campaign Mastery: Pretzel Thinking – 11 types of Plot Twist for RPGs, Part 1: The first “Official” post of the Carnival. Originally, this was intended to be a straightforward article about how to use the different types of Plot Twist. It came as something of a shock to discover that for one reason or another, none of the established literary plot twist techniques would actually work in an RPG; I had to devise entirely new ones (based on experience in actually using plot twists in my adventures, of course). The resulting article quickly grew too large to be housed in a single piece.

    One minor point: Some people seem under the impression that the three twist types examined in detail in Part One were the ones that I considered the most important. Not so – they just happened to be the first three that I listed!

  • John, of Red Dice Diaries then offered With A Twist, in which he expands on the thoughts contained in “Pretzel Thinking”, anticipating the second part of my article with some thoughts of his own. Unfortunately, when I visited the page just now, he was having some layout problems; hopefully they will be fixed by the time you look in on what he’s had to say, it’s worth reading.
  • Back at Campaign Mastery, I followed up part 1 of the two-part article on plot twists with Let’s Twist Again – Eleven types of Plot Twist for RPGs pt 2, in which I discuss the remaining types of plot twist that I came up with in response to the problem identified in Part one of the article.
  • The Gaming Blog Of General Tangent, in RPG Blog Carnival December 2014 – With A Twist, discusses plot twists in general, and has some sage advice about when to use them and avoiding over-use. A plot twist should be unpredictable; it’s self-defeating if the players are expecting one in every adventure! I think it would be possible to actually craft the adventure The General describes at the end of his article by having the glitch be only partial, so that the adventure still qualifies for the label on “the tin” – but the path takes some very strange byways. You have to rescue the princess from the dragon so that you get the codes to shut down the tractor beams on the death star before you can walk the dog for the vampire heiress (avoiding the ninja assassins) because only its’ super-delicate sense of smell can discover the suburban drugs lab in which Professor Heinous is building the Negabomb which threatens to wipe out the Dwarfish Kingdom before George Washington can cross the Delaware… none of which will make any sense until you read his contribution to the Carnival to obtain some context!
  • I have another entry within this round-up category from Campaign Mastery. There’s Something About Christmas looks at why some plots and plot twists are more effective, or carry extra impact or baggage, at this particular time of year, providing twists on the usual seasonal plotline.

Surprises & The Unexpected

  • Campaign Mastery‘s submission in this category is Gifts In Gaming: Overlooked Seasonal Plot Hooks, which looks at the plot hook potential of the unexpected gift. As a Christmas bonus, I offer a number of idea seeds for memorable characters with opinions on the subject.
  • In a similar vein, Jesse C Cohoon of Fantasy Roleplaying Planes offers, as one of two submissions to the carnival, Good Unexpected Events… And Twists to them to Make them Not as Good, in which he lists six pleasant surprises and multiple ways to use them to cause trouble for your PCs. The architecture of his article reveals a very organized approach to examining the subject which is worth noting and studying in itself; it might initially be a little off-putting as it appears to be a solid block of text, but the formatting of nested lists is a tricky art to master, and the format has the benefit of compressing the content into as small a space as possible, making it easier to see the bigger picture that is inferred by that organized approach. As an experienced blogger, I can tell you that the formatting of his list would have been very tricky, and not something I would have liked to attempt! As might be expected, some of the surprises and twists are familiar, almost clichéd, but some are quite novel; this is the sort of article that you can delve into time after time and extract something new each time. Good Stuff, worth digging for!
  • Jesse’s second article via Fantasy Roleplaying Planes, 12 Reasons Why Someone Might Not Be Dead is more straightforward in format, but was much harder for me to categorize – it could have fitted into three or four separate sections within the roundup! What takes this entry beyond the boundaries of the title are the hints at the consequences of the revelation that rumors of the death were greatly exaggerated. I was reminded on first reading it of the scene in The Hobbit when Bilbo returns from his adventures to find that he has been declared dead, and much of his property given away to relatives, with an auction underway to dispose of the remainder – and how some of his relatives, who lost property they had begun to think of as their own, never did admit acceptance that he wasn’t actually dead. More usefully, perhaps, inspired by this memory, on re-reading the article for this roundup, I thought of an additional entry for the article that’s worth sharing: The person really is dead, and the returnee is actually a fake, assuming the dead person’s identity through convincing subterfuge for their own nefarious purposes…

Tricks and Trickery

  • Creative Mountain Games, offers an entry in their regular column, The Friday Grab Bag, Cursed Sword, an Alternate Reality Artifact, which offers a highly-entertaining tale from the trenches about a magic item that is a play on the old tale of “Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it.” I’d have loved to hear a bit more about the challenges, trials, and tribulations that had to be overcome in the PC’s efforts to undo the changes that had swept over their lives, but even without that, this is a fun read and a great contribution to the Carnival about a type of long-established plot twist (the Twisted Wish) that no-one else mentions.
  • Twisty Turny is another story from real life, this time from James Introcaso at his World Builder Blog, dealing with the introduction of Epic Tier adventures in his D&D 4th Ed Eberron campaign. Along the way, James offers some invaluable advice on keeping your plot twists under wraps until the time is right, and how to make your plot twist yield a strong pay-off. Definitely worth reading once just to enjoy the situation vicariously, and then again to dredge for insights.


  • Campaign Mastery has an entry in this category, too: Pieces of Ordinary Randomness: Random Techniques Of Chance, which is aimed at beginners and experienced GMs (and players) alike. In three distinct parts, it first offers some basic and advanced properties of die rolls and their results, then looks at how to randomly generate a whole bunch of useful information randomly, and wraps up by looking at the usefulness of each of the different die types that I was aware of (and a couple that were new to me!) I spent almost as long generating the tables and graphs as I did writing the article! I had to excerpt what was going to be a featured sub-section on the mechanics of generating encounter tables because it became too dominant; that is scheduled to appear a week after the publication of this roundup, the soonest I could squeeze it into the schedule.

Game Aids

  • Phil Nicholls, of Tales Of A GM, has offered Reading Around the RPG Blog Carnival: Plot Twist Cards, a detailed review of Paizo’s Plot Twist Cards, which sound like an interesting product that can either be used to take some of the work out of game prep or as play proceeds for those adept at Seat-of-the-pants GMing, aided by the fact that if one result doesn’t seem to fit or to be feasible, you can always draw another card.
  • Fitz, of Moebius Adventures. a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery and the RPG Community in general, provided perhaps the most surprising entry into the Carnival, by taking the theme, “With A Twist”, and associating it with Dance In RPG via Chubby Checker’s famous song. Read Let’s Do the Twist if you don’t believe me! Or better yet, go and read it because there are lot of great ideas lurking within this light-hearted submission.

Twist Examples

  • From Michael Christensen of Tiny Gork, RPG Blog Carnival Dec 2014 – Twists contains a stroll down memory lane as he recalls the most memorable plot twists of his past games, offering ideas and inspiration a-plenty. A great submission from a Blog Carnival newcomer!
  • At RPG Alchemy, Samuel Van Der Wall has provided a list of 10 Sci-Fi Plot Twists from famous movies and TV shows. Most of these can be adapted to other genres without difficulty if Sci-Fi isn’t your game. There’s also some good general advice in the closing paragraph. I offer an eleventh, original, twist in the comments, inspired by the changing relationships with the Soviet Union during World War II.
  • Finally, my former partner here at Campaign Mastery and longer-term ally & friend, Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips, brings the “Official” blog entries full circle, with Left Hooks: 24 Plot Twist Ideas & Design Patterns, in which he not only looks at 24 Plot Twists, he reverse-engineers them looking for patterns – and finds them. Full of ideas and useful advice, this makes a great entry to close out the Blog Carnival!

Seventeen submissions, all adopting a different slant on the theme, and all worth your time. Sounds like a success to me!

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Happy New Year! from Campaign Mastery

happy new year 2015

And so another year has either come to an end, or that end is nigh, depending on just where in the world you happen to be located at this precise moment.

I’m posting this earlier than usual to catch as many people in the middle of celebrating the changeover as possible – It’s been 2015 for just over 12 hours here in Australia, but in some parts of the world it’s still late in the 2014 year.

It’s been a year with a few challenges to be overcome, no matter where you’re from. International Crisis after International Crisis, the worst year for air travel in many, many years (if not ever), the threatened unraveling of the United Kingdom and the EU, an American Congress that seems locked into do-nothing-and-let-nothing-be-done mode, an Australian government that seems to have turned its back on everything that the Australian people pride themselves on through an unprecedented string of broken promises… in time, these will no doubt become fodder for contemporary-setting adventures, but at the moment most of them are too close to permit adequate perspective.

Closer to home, D&D’s 40th anniversary was not the love-fest that everyone hoped it would be, but the game remains the dominant single pastime within our hobby. I started the year reliant on an internet cafe for posting articles and ended it reliant on a second-hand laptop for posting articles, with my main computer still down for the count – due to a lack of time more than anything else. Unprecedented spam levels have threatened my ability to post on more than one occasion, and remains an ongoing issue that takes up to five hours a day to manage. All that, on top of health issues that are sometimes good and sometimes bad, but usually disabling to at least some extent…

But, through it all, there have been some great articles published at the end of the day. Ignoring those published in earlier years, the top ten most popular from the year were (in order):

  1. By Popular Demand: The Ergonomics Of Dwarves – Published May 9th, 2014
  2. Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs Part 1 – Published March 21, 2014 (My birthday!)
  3. Seven Circles Of Hell – Creating Politics for an RPG – Published August 29, 2014
  4. Growing Plot Seeds Into Mighty Oaks – Published May 20, 2014
  5. Pretzel Thinking – 11 types of Plot Twist for RPGs, Part 1 – Published December 02, 2014
  6. Ten Million Stories: Breathing life into an urban population – Published April 1, 2014, but not an April Fool’s Day joke!
  7. The Envelope Is Ticking: Insanity In RPGs – Published March 7, 2014
  8. Alien In Innovation: Creating Original Non-human Species – Published November 18, 2014
  9. Tie:

    “I know what’s happening!” – Confirmation Bias and RPGs – Published November 14, 2014, and

    Polished Loquacity: The Secrets of Stylish Narrative Part 1 – Published September 5th, 2014 – and I note that putting all the parts of this series together puts it in the top ten of all time here at Campaign Mastery. The compiled PDF is certainly the most popular download I’ve ever offered here, now approaching 200 downloads across both formats!

  10. Tie:

    The Heirarchy Of Deceipt: How and when to lie to your players – Published January 21, 2014, and,

    The Thinking Man’s Guide to Intelligence for Players and GMs – Published December 16, 2014

Overall, readership in 2014 was down about 20% on 2013 numbers, but it’s astonishing, encouraging, and deeply heartening to see that there are two entries from December and two from November on the list, given that the others have had between 3 and 24 times as long to accumulate page reads!

So there’s plenty to be cheerful and optimistic about, heading into a new year!

I wish all my readers Health, Comfort, Safety, Prosperity, and Happiness in the New Year, and bring on a fantastic 2015!

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There’s Something About Christmas

One last twist in the tale…

rpg blog carnival logo
This month’s Blog Carnival, hosted by Campaign Mastery, is almost finished yet – but there are still a few days left for those who want to contribute!. The subject is “With A Twist” and it covers anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, etc.

I started with an article on the rules interpretation of Surprise, and followed that with a two-part article looking at types of Plot Twist that would work in RPGs after discovering that the literary types all had problems when applied to a communal format (Part One, Part Two). After a mid-carnival break, I came back to the subject to look at the plot potential of the unexpected gift and random results, which are – by definition – always a bit of a surprise, in last weeks’ Pieces of Ordinary Randomness.

Early in the new year I will wrap up this Blog Carnival, having handed the baton on to the next host in line. But before we get there, I have one last shot to fire – on the plot potential of the Christmas Season itself…


The Christmas season carries a mindset that differs significantly from that of the rest of the year. This can be exploited by a GM to ratchet up the emotional intensity of an adventure or to make plots possible that would not be possible, otherwise.


Some things just seem worse against a background of “Peace and Goodwill amongst men”. Scrooge is both victim and villain of A Christmas Carol, and Mr Smith Goes To Washington is a perennial favorite for this time of year, for good reason.

Excessive Greed, Corruption, Cheating, Betrayal of trust, Conning the weak, elderly, or helpless, Stealing from Children – these and many other crimes are even more disgusting against the backdrop of Christmas, and are prone to even greater intensity when the real life season coincides with the adventure timing.


At the same time, the festive season brings with it unusual behaviors and rituals, and these can be exploited. There are a number of Santas, providing a natural disguise for villains. But the effectiveness of this disguise is wasted if you use it on simple bank robbers; with a little more creativity, you can employ it for industrial espionage or sabotage, or a spy ring, or an assassination – something with a little more cleverness, complexity, or flair.

People gather in groups and social circles that they don’t normally frequent. This was the cornerstone of an episode of NCIS entitled “Homesick”.

Synopsis, contains spoilers
The episode begins with a serviceman returning home from overseas deployment in Afghanistan just in time for Christmas. He is greeted by his wife, who tells him that their little girl is in bed with a cold. He goes upstairs to see her and discovers that what was a mildly elevated temperature such as you might get with a cold or flu is now a raging fever. After this teaser, we have some holiday-related interaction between the NCIS members before Tim McGee mentions that the daughter of some friends of his is in hospital with a mystery fever that has the doctors stumped. It isn’t stated explicitly that these are the couple we saw in the teaser, but that is the obvious inference. Gibbs then informs the team that it’s not one child with a mystery illness – it’s eight. (This introduces a plot device that is used repeatedly throughout the episode to increase tension, as the number of sick grows with every status update, all children of servicemen).

The Naval Medical Research Center and CDC are concerned at the potential that this is a bioterrorist attack on Naval and Marine servicemen, and the escalation of sick in various ICUs with similar symptoms lends credence to the possibility. Abby, Assistant M.E. Jimmy Palmer, and another scientist begin attempting to identify the illness in hopes that a cure is on file, while the rest of the team makes the necessary worst-case assumption (deliberately targeted bioterrorist attack) and begins hunting for suspects.

Dig hard enough with sufficient paranoia and eventually you can find a suspect for any crime, and the team eventually focus on a (lab tech? assistant?) who was fired for stealing biohazardous material from the lab where he worked and taking it home with him. Raiding the man’s home, they discover an opened container with biohazard warning labels and no contents, increasing suspicion. Eventually, they locate and intercept the suspect, who they take into custody and begin to interrogate, a process that is interrupted by Lab Tech and Forensic Specialist, Abby Sciuto, who slides a manila folder into the interrogation room advising that he’s not their man.

The material that was removed from the lab by the former suspect bears no resemblance to the disease that has afflicted the children. It’s molds and spores, not a viral agent. The investigation is back to square one.

The team focuses on trying to identify patient zero in hopes that this will generate a new lead. To do so, they resume searching for commonalities between the victims, something that had been happening in the background throughout, interrupted only by the investigation into the suspect. The problem is that they can’t find one. Eventually, they determine that the commonality is a seasonal factor, and that the outbreak is not a deliberate attack: a returning serviceman accidentally acted as a carrier for a rare African disease, which spread to the children when he played Santa Claus at several different Christmas parties for the children of servicemen. This lead narrows the search sufficiently for the lab trio to identify the virus and find that it is known to respond to a particular regimen of antibiotics.

When I watched the episode for the first time, I was drawn to the plot potential of the idea that the carrier may have been deliberately exposed, perhaps by contaminating the premises that house Santa costumes. This would have produced victims city-wide with even fewer commonalities.

To be honest, the seasonal aspect of the plot had been nagging at me for some time, as the investigation didn’t seem to be taking it into account. At Christmas time, people shop in places they don’t normally go. They gather in small groups for seasonal activities like carol singing, or pause to listen to such groups, even if only briefly. Many people volunteer time at hospitals and nursing homes. Social hierarchies are breached both up and down in ways that rarely occur at other times; normal social behavior undergoes a temporary metamorphosis into something completely different. And that represents an opportunity for plots that would also not be possible at any other time of year.

Still more plot opportunities

The principle doesn’t end there. Christmas is one of those rare occasions when a character of iconic appearance is a common sight. There is often a subconscious expectation that the people wearing the disguises and costumes needed to assume this role will share in the personality traits attributed to the role. It is always particularly shocking when one Santa turns out to be someone bad, or is the victim of a crime or injustice.

Inverting expectations in this way can produce a great plot. One of the first plotlines that I ran in the current Zenith-3 campaign was the quest for a serial bomber who struck one random post office each year, and had been doing so for many years, by mailing the explosives in a standard parcel envelope addressed as being from “Poppa Christmas”. Each year was spent planning the next attack – a random mailbox or post office at which to dispatch the device into the mail system, timing how long it would take the parcel to reach the place it was to be detonated, and so on.

The adventure was designed as a way to introduce the team to various aspects of their new environment – the technologies that were in place, how they had altered everyday life, and so on – and to give them the opportunity to interact with different levels of society. The whole thing was inspired by a piece of art that I had stumbled across on the net called “Bad Santa” or “Evil Santa” and which may be related to the movie “Bad Santa” (2003). The earliest reference to it that I can find on the ‘net these days is this page (in traditional Chinese but there aren’t a lot of words to worry about), and the image clearly predates it’s Jul 4, 2008 dating (The image in question is the first one shown, the page is clearly a collection of themed images).

The concept seems to be German in origin, based on the folklore description of Krampus at Wikipedia. But most concepts of Santa seem to have discarded this element or aspect of the myth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the sheer variety of ways that Christmas is celebrated around the world – spend some time at Christmas Traditions around the world and how Christmas is celebrated in different countries and cultures and you’ll see what I mean; if there’s not fodder on that page for an adventure or two, in any given genre, I would be very surprised! (Brief side-note: These articles only scratch the surface, leaving out as much as they include and focusing on ephemeral differences, to judge from the entry on Australia).

Holiday Celebrations are what we make of them. But our duty, as GMs, is to explore the potential for taking the social & cultural norm, flipping it on it’s head, giving the box a shake, and seeing how we can use the results as backdrop or story element to both make the adventures we create seasonally topical and more entertaining to the players. And if that means that we need to get into the holiday mood weeks or months ahead of everyone else, that’s not necessarily all that bad a thing, either!

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Merry Christmas

xmas 2014

Wishing a very Merry Christmas to each and every one of Campaign Mastery’s valued readers … or Happy Hanukkah, or Seasons Greetings, or whatever else is appropriate at this time of year!

I’ll be back with our regular post next week. Until then, best wishes to you, your family, and your friends for a safe and pleasurable Holiday Season.

A critical success to you all on your enjoy-Holidays Check!

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Pieces of Ordinary Randomness: Random Techniques Of Chance

The Twists haven’t stopped yet!

rpg blog carnival logo
This month’s Blog Carnival, hosted by Campaign Mastery, isn’t finished yet!. The subject is still “With A Twist” and it covers anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, etc.

I started with an article on the rules interpretation of Surprise, and followed that with a two-part article looking at types of Plot Twist that would work in RPGs after discovering that the literary types all had problems when applied to a communal format (Part One, Part Two). After a mid-carnival break, I came back to the subject to look at the plot potential of the unexpected gift.

Next week, I have one final salvo to fire in the Blog Carnival department, plus the wrap-up at the start of January, but for now: By definition, the one thing that is supposed to be a surprise, by definition, is the result of a die roll…


I thought I’d throw out a post for everyone from absolute beginners to experienced GMs today, about die rolls, and a few little tricks that I use regularly.

In particular, I want to look at all the exotic dice that are out there, and what they can be used for.

This article is divided into three sections. First some basics, then some practical solutions for random-rolling of values that are frequently needed, and finally the dice roster.

With well over 40 sections and sub-sections to get through, I can’t spend much time on any one section (and there should be something for everybody), so let’s get busy…

Flat Probability

When you roll one die, and each of the sides have the same chance of coming up, you have what’s called a flat probability when you graph the chances of getting each result. It doesn’t matter too much what that chance actually is, just that it’s the same for every result.

2 dice probability

As soon as you add a second dice to the mix, this changes. Instead of a flat probability line, you now have something often described as a curve but which is, in reality, a stepped triangle. That’s because dice don’t roll completely randomly, they only roll integers, In other words, we’re talking about rounding error.

If you count out the number of chances of getting each result on two dice, do a quick table with one die roll across the top and another down the side. Fill in the possible results. When you do this, you find that there’s 1 chance in whatever of getting the minimum result, 2 chances in whatever of getting the next highest result, 3 of the one after that, and so on up to the integer of the average result. Then it starts back down, until you get to 1 chance in whatever of the maximum result.

Since this always happens, once you understand it, you will never go through the tedium of calculating the table again – you’ll just write it out.

The average result of two dice

Most dice I’ve ever seen that aren’t designed for cheating, or rolling averages, have results that run from 1 to maximum without gaps. That means that the average on each is half the maximum result, plus one-half.

  • The average of d4 is 2 + 0.5 = 2.5.
  • The average of d5 is 2.5 + 0.5 = 3.
  • The average of d6 is 3 + 0.5 = 3.5
    …and so on.

The number of outcomes is often something you need to know. You can work it out by multiplying all the maximums from each dice together. So there are 16 possible results from 2d4, 25 from 2d5, and 36 from 2d6. The difference between the maximum and the minimum, plus one, tells you how many results these are spread amongst. So the 16 possible outcomes on 2d4 are spread over 8-2+1=7 results; the 25 possible outcomes on 2d5 are spread over 10-2+1=9 results; and the 36 possible outcomes on 2d6 are spread over 12-2+1=11 results.

Multiple Dice averages

To average multiple dice, simply add the averages of the individual dice together. So:

  • The average of 2d4 is 2.5 + 2.5 = 5.
  • The average of 2d5 is 3 + 3 = 6.
  • The average of 2d6 is 3.5 + 3.5 = 7.
  • The average of d4 and d6 is 2.5 + 3.5 = 6.
  • The average of 3d6 is 7 + 3.5 = 10.5.

Which brings me to:


3 dice probability

Now we’re getting a proper curve, as you can see. In fact, what we have here is commonly known as a bell curve, or even a normal distribution – which is to say that there’s a section in the middle where results are far more likely, and where the average lives, and flatter lower sides where the extremes may be found. The shape is symmetrical, ie the part that’s above the average (right side of the diagram) is the mirror image of the part below it (left side of the diagram).

To work out what the chances are of getting any individual result, list one dice down the left and the tally from the rest across the top. Then, starting with the first row, copy the tally. With each subsequent row, start from one further to the right. When you’ve finished add them all up and that’s the number of ways that you can get the result indicated by the tally line. See the (partial) example below for 3d6.

The patterns should be fairly obvious.

The patterns should be fairly obvious.

So if you want to know what the chance is of getting, say, exactly 8 on 3d6, you take the tally, 21, divide it by the number of possible outcomes (6 x 6 x 6 = 216) and multiply by 100 to convert to a percentage – 9.7222222222%. Call it 10%.

Or, if you want to know what the chance is of getting eight or less, add up the tallies from the 8 result down (1 + 3 + 6 + 10 + 15 + 21 = 56) and divide by 216, and multiply by 100 for the percentage: 25.9259259259%. Near enough to 26%.

The Middle Third

I always find it useful, now and then, to know the middle third of a frequently-used die roll. That’s the result that discards the lowest 1/3 of the outcomes and the highest 1/3 and tells me which results are most likely to occur.

This sort of analysis makes that fairly easy. 33 1/3% of 216 is 72, so I simply need to count and exclude the bottom 72 of the accumulated tally. I already know that 8/- is 56 of that 72. The next tally is 25, for 9/-, which brings the total to 81, well in excess of the 72 target. So the middle third starts at 9 and runs through to the number on the far side that also receives a tally of 25 outcomes, 12.

The middle third of 3d6 is in the relatively narrow range of 8-12. If your target for success (needing to roll low) is less than 8, you have a worse than 1-in-3 chance of success, and so will probably fail any given check. If the target is 13 or better (needing to roll low), you have a better than 2-in-3 chance of success, and so will probably succeed on any given check. If you need to roll above the target number, these are reversed in sequence but the numbers still apply. Only in that middle third are chances so even that you can’t predict with any reliability what is going to be the result of any given check, success or failure.

I was going to include a table of common “Middle Third” results but decided not to, for two reasons:

  • First, there are too many combinations for one to be practical without being overly lengthy;
  • Second, they are so easy to work out using Anydice – use 3d6 and the data given above, have a play around, and you will soon work out how; and,
  • I ran out of time – which is probably the most important reason.

As a player, my goal in any encounter is to – at minimum – get my chances of success better than the low chance through manipulating circumstances into my favor. If possible, I also aim to get my enemy’s chances below the high by taking away advantages that he might have.

As a GM, my goal is to arrange circumstances so that the players are on the wrong ends of these numbers, but have the capacity to swing things the other way. They start out dealing with overwhelming opposition and, one-by-one, strip away the enemy’s advantages while adding to their own, until they end up with either a fair fight, or better yet, one in which they have the advantage.

At lower PC levels, this doesn’t make so much of a difference; characters have so few hit points that the fight is over before these subtleties really have an effect. With increasing levels, combat becomes more and more tactical in nature (at least in theory), and nuances become very important.

Sidebar: Average Blows To Death
Another value that I use in conjunction with the middle third on a frequent basis is “Average Blows To Death”. There are two scales to this: PC and Normal.

The PC value takes the weapon that the attacking character most commonly employs, determines its average damage, and adjusts for the chance of a critical hit; it then divides the total HP of the opposition within the encounter by this amount. The result is the average number of successful blows that the attacker has to succeed with in order to kill the opposition. Dividing by the chance of a successful hit gives an indicator of the number of combat rounds a battle is likely to take. Allow an extra 25% on the top for rounds spent maneuvering, and the results are usually pretty close, and a vital planning tool.

The normal value takes a typical NPC (1st level, if your game uses levels) and performs a similar calculation. This gives a clue as to the fearsomeness and general impression of the creature being attacked, another vital tool in the planning process.

more dice probability

You can keep adding more dice to the total using exactly the same technique. 4d6, 5d8, 17d4 – whatever you want to know. What you will find is that the more dice you add, the steeper the sides of the central curve get – though it’s not always obvious because the number of results contained within that central section of the curve also increases.

There’s a wonderful table that I found at Dragonsfoot which charts as percentages the shape of the curves for 2d6, 3d6, 4d6, and so on, all the way up to 9d6. It’s about half-way down this page.

Of course, if you need to calculate an exact result’s chances, curves like this aren’t all that useful; you need tables. There is a shortcut that may be of a great deal of value to you when this happens.

If you tally the results for a d6 across the top of a table, and b d6 down the side, you can quickly work out the chances of any given result from a and b, and therefore for a+b, by multiplying the respective tallies. To save table space, it’s a lot easier to write the totals for a+b in the same cell in a different color. Here’s a partial example, showing 3d6 by 2d6:

Calculating the outcomes of 5d6

Calculating the outcomes of 5d6

Tallying the 5d6 results

Tallying the 5d6 results

Look at these tables closely and the patterns should become fairly obvious. You use the top table to generate the entries for the bottom table. Any box in the top table that gives a red 5 result goes next to the red 5 in the bottom table, and the same for a result of 6, and 7, and so on, all the way up to the highest result possible (18+12=30). Once you understand the principles, you can work this trick with any combination of dice – you might have 3d8 across the top and 2d12 down the left, or anything else you can come up with.

One or two hints:

  • Always show your working. The number of times that I have gone “…4,5,6,7,8…” when I meant “…4,5,6,5,4…” beggars belief – and I know what I’m doing. Seriously, its almost impossible to find an error if you don’t. And there WILL be errors.
  • It’s often a lot easier to use every 2nd column instead of single columns as I’m doing here, but I wanted to clearly show both the result and the tally contribution in the same cell.

If you look to the right, you will see how to tally the results from the table above. There’s only one cell with an outcome of 5 in it, so that cell’s results stand alone for the 5 line. There are two cells with outcomes of 6, so the total of the tallies of each is the number of outcomes that gets you a six. There are three cells with outcomes of 7, so the total of those three is the number of outcomes on 5d6 that equal 7, and so on. The maximum number of results on a line is the smaller of the two table axes – in this case, the 2d6.

And, if you plot out the results of the 5d6 tallies, you end up with the curve below:

5d6 bell curve

5d6, generated using, click graph to visit the site

More and ignore highest (or lowest)

These techniques don’t work when trying to calculate NdX and ignore the highest (or lowest). To calculate this, you can’t simply accumulate the results, you need to work out every possible combination. There are still shortcuts, but they are nowhere near as short or as pretty.

Fortunately, there are several sites who have done this sort of maths and graphing for you.

For 4d6 and drop the lowest I recommend this page.

Next best is the graph below, also generated using anydice. Unfortunately, to make it fit, I’ve had to reduce it in size.


The first thing you should notice about the above is that the probability curve of “4d6 drop lowest” is the mirror image of “4d6 drop highest”, reflected about the average result of 3d6. When you think about it, this is exactly what you would expect to be the case, but it’s a great confirmation that I’ve done it right!

I’m a great believer in having the numbers to go with a graph – you never know when you’ll need them, as I’ve learned the hard way on a number of occasions. So, to wrap this section up, to the left are the actual results, obtained from anydice once again and fed into a spreadsheet – then pimped to look pretty:

Mixing Dice

These principles and techniques work regardless of the combinations of dice that you need. If d8+2d6 is what you think you need, the three-dice technique gives you numbers.

So why might you want to mix dice?

Answer: to get the probability curve that you want, with the maximum, minimum, and average result that you want.

For example: 3d6 gives a standard curve. Replacing one of those 3d6 with a d8 and tacking on a -1 gives you exactly the same shape of curve over the 3-18 range. but also extends the range of results down to 2 and up to 19. Replacing a second one and tacking on another -1 gives you a 1-20 roll that is very different in probability to a d20:

bell curve 1-20

Alternatively, you might want to replace one of the d6 of with d4+2 – which gives a 3-18 range, but boosts the average result by 1. Or even all three, to get 3d4+6 – which boosts the minimum result to 9 without changing the maximum.

Any time you want a range of results that bias toward the average, you’re talking about using multiple dice – and that requires understanding them.

Percentage Conversions

Some people convert a 3d6 result to a percentage by simply dividing by the maximum result, and then wonder why it doesn’t add up to 100%. They have neglected the effect of the minimum.

A slightly more sophisticated group simply subtract the minimum from the maximum and wonder why that doesn’t work, either. This ignores the fact that the minimum result is also a valid result.

To convert a range to a percentage, you have to spread the 100% evenly over a range equal to MAXIMUM-MINIMUM, Plus 1.

Why is this important?

There are all sorts of occasions when what you want is a flat roll, and others where you want a “normal” probability that clusters around the mean. On still others, you need still more complicated results. For atmospheric temperatures, for example, where you need two different normal probability curves on different scales – and, occasionally, a d% to fill in the gaps. But I’ll get to that a little later.

Which brings me to part 2 of this article…

Creating Small Custom Tables

So you have a list with an odd number of entries – 11, say – and you want to turn it into a random table. This is easy to do when the number of entries is exactly the same as a standard die size, but that’s why I made it an odd size. The easy answer is to make it a d12 table, and if you can’t come up with a twelfth entry, you can simply make it roll again.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The d12 solution works if you want a flat probability curve – but what if there are some results that seem more likely to you than others?

There are two obvious ways to handle this with a flat-probability die: minimum-and-add, and maximum, distribute, reduce, distribute. And then there’s a trick with multiple dice that can sometimes be simpler.


You need a die size that’s bigger than the number of table entries required. Divide the size by the target and that gives you the “minimum” per entry. Then distribute whatever’s left as you see fit. The bigger the die relative to the target, the more precision and flexibility you can get.

  • 11 on d12 gives a minimum of one and leaves one. So you can make one entry twice as likely as any other. That’s a fairly blunt weapon.
  • 11 on d20 gives a minimum of one and leaves seven, giving you lots of entries to spread around. So that shows rather more finesse.
  • 11 on d% gives a minimum of 9 and leaves 1 – not a lot of room – but reducing the minimum to 8 leaves 12, or reducing the minimum to 7 leaves 23 – and that’s a lot of wiggle room.
Maximum, Distribute, Reduce, Distribute

The flat-roll alternative is to take a large die like d%, decide how big the most common result will be, divide the remainder over the rest, reduce by one each, and distribute the excess.

  • Most common result set at 25%: leaves 75 to distribute over the remaining 10, so 7% each, and leaving 5 remainder. Reducing by one to 6% baseline gives an additional 10 remainder for a total of 15 to distribute. So you could have a 25-17-11-6-6-6-6-6-6-6-6 pattern.
  • Most common result set at 20%: leaves 80 to distribute over the remaining 10, so 8% each. Reducing by one gives a remainder of ten to split up and spread around – probably adding 5% to the likelihood of the next two most likely results, giving 20-12-12-7-7-7-7-7-7-7-7.
  • Most common result set at 15%: leaves 85 to distribute over the remaining 10, so 8% each, with a remainder of 5. Reducing by one gives a baseline of 7% and leaves 15% to distribute. This can give a 15-12-10-9-9-8-8-8-7-7-7 pattern, a reasonably smooth curve.

In fact, there’s a shortcut that I often use: With a baseline of 9 under the minimum-and-add, I double it and round both up and down to get some idea of where the optimum pattern is likely to lie. More often than not, rounding down will be the better choice.

From this starting point, it’s easy to further tweak the resulting table. Taking the 15% maximum pattern and dropping the least likely to a 5 would permit +1 to the 10 and +1 to the first 9, giving an even smoother 15-12-11-10-9-8-7-7-5 pattern. Taking another 1 from the second seven to add to the first, or to the 5, further smooths the curve.

exotic solution

An exotic multidice solution

Here’s a solution that I’ve found useful a couple of times. The image to the right explains it – you start with a d12 or whatever die is larger than the list. If you go beyond the bounds of the solutions listed, you get “the roll to the right” result, dropping a die size. Keep going until you get to d4.

In the example offered, that means that there’s a one in twelve chance that is divided amongst 1 to 9 by the d10, and a one in 120 chance that is divided amongst 1-7 by the d8, and so on.

To save time, you can even roll all the dice at once, since they are all of different sizes.

Usually, when I employ this technique, I also save space by using different colors of text instead of explicitly including a column for each die type.

You can also spread the probabilities out a lot more by going up an additional die size without extending the table – so the first roll is on a d20 instead of a d12, the next is a d12 instead of a d10, and so on. That would mean that it’s 45% being divided up by the d12, and 15% being divided up by the d10, and so on.

I don’t use this very often, but it can be a useful trick to have in your back pocket.

Creating Big Custom Tables

How big is big?

Using a d6 x d6 array, two rolls give you a table for 36 random choices. Make it d10 x d10 and you have 100 – though why you wouldn’t simply use d100 is beyond me.

I once created (and will one day publish as an e-book) a table which used d20 to select from 20 subsequent tables of 20 personality traits and guidelines for integrating the results. An additional roll specified the number of rolls to be made on the table for any individual. That’s effectively a table with 400 entries, 20 across and 20 down. (The problem is that this doesn’t seem to go far enough these days – I have a lot more entries to add – but I can’t assume access to a d30. So I need to rethink the structure a little). And table weighting is another serious consideration. Anyway…)

These are all flat tables – each different result on the die rolls yields a different result on the table. They are relatively trivial problems. A rather more complex problem comes when you construct Encounter tables

…which I intended to demonstrate at this point. I soon realized that it was too big a topic and would have completely overshadowed everything else in this article, while not being granted the recognition that such a big topic warrants. So I made the decision to spin that off into a separate article, which I’ll publish sometime in early January. It probably won’t be in time for the Blog Carnival, unfortunately, but you can’t have everything.


Probably the easiest thing of all to determine. Roll a die with an even number of faces – if it comes up high, it’s PM, if low, it’s AM.

Hour of day

In conjunction with AM/PM, this is easy to determine – just roll a d12. If you would rather get more technical, you could ignore the AM/PM and roll a d24 (they do make those, don’t they?) but this seems an unnecessary complication.


The obvious way of determining this is by rolling for the hour. But sometimes that’s more information than you need; a d4 does the job just fine.

But it’s not always that simple. In summer, morning and afternoon are both longer than Evening and Night; in winter, it’s the other way around. Daylight savings may rob afternoon of an hour and give it to morning. And you might want a separate indication of Sunrise and Sunset as well. When you list out all these little bits and pieces that you might want to know, you end up with 16 slices of time of differing lengths.

There’s no easy way of expressing all this complexity in a die roll with any accuracy. So, a long time ago, I came up with a table to simulate it as simply as possible. It’s a little imperfect, as close examination will reveal, but it’s not too bad.


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Also available as a PDF for your convenience, click icon to download


There are times when you don’t even know what season it is – and need an answer. As with the period-of-day question, this can be simplified to a d4-roll-and-get-on-with-it approach, or you can dig into the quagmire of complexity. Northern Hemisphere? Southern? Latitude? Altitude? Climate? Variation? Sunspots? El Niño? Trade Winds? And on, and on, and on.

The easiest way to avoid all this complexity – well, to build it in under the skin of your die rolls – is to look at the topology of your location, then map it to an equivalent point on Earth – a point for which reliable and detailed climatic information can be accessed. Look for average daily maximums for each month of the year, then simply roll a d12. As a bonus, this is likely to give you information on average minimums, records maximums and minimums, precipitation, and so on. Next to talking to a local about the weather – at great length – this is as good as it’s going to get.

Of course, the more complex your game reality, and the more it differs from our terrestrial experience, the more difficulty you’re going to get yourself into. What is the relationship between climate and axial tilt, to name just one question that cannot be fully answered. We’re still getting to grips with Earth’s climate, and finding that it’s always more complex a question than we thought – never mind trying to take values that are fixed and turning them into variables!

Month Of The Year

A bit of an anticlimax, this – until you wonder how difficult it would be to take into account the different lengths of the months, and then you are suddenly in deep, deep, kumpcha (unless you use some sort of software die roller that lets you specify die size).

In order to work out the month of the year by days since January 1st, you’re looking at a d365 or d366, and knowing when to use which, and all sorts of other complications. Frankly, the easiest method that I’ve come across is d20 x 20 + d20 -20. This is the equivalent of a d400. Then just re-roll anything over 365/366, which will happen roughly 9% of the time. That can be cut back by realizing that a 20 on the first d20 is an automatic re-roll, and a 19 is almost certain to be a re-roll.

Random Month – bias winter

So you don’t know what time of year it is, but you know that it’s more likely to be winter than summer? There are two ways of handling this. The easier way is to roll 2d6 to get the month, with “1” being the middle month of summer. The first alternative is to roll 3d4-1, with “1” meaning the same thing; and the second alternative is to roll 2d4+2, again with “1” being the middle of summer.

The 2d6 still gives a chance of getting a summer result; it’s just not very likely, about 16 2/3 %. The 2d4 approach rules summer out of the question entirely, ruling 4 months of the year out of bounds on the results. That leaves the 3d4-1 approach; technically, it has to be “3d4-0.5″ in order to get the same average as the other results. Making it 3d4 biases results towards the end of winter, leaving it as 3d4-1 biases results toward the start of winter.

Which may make it astonishing to readers who don’t know their math when I suggest that the 3d4-1 approach is actually the most technically accurate. That’s because it isn’t 3d4-1; it’s INT[3d4-0.5], and it identifies the month that the die roll places you in the middle of. In other words, if it says October, the actual result is read as “the middle of October”. With the others, they are indicating the start of the given month, which only qualifies as being that month by the skin of it’s teeth and an accident of the calendar. Really, what’s the difference between August 30th and September 1st, in practical terms? A day in the middle of, say, October, is technically as “October” as it is possible to get.

So, which one should you pick? The answer is to forget all the technicalities and decide how much bias you want toward winter. If you list them in order of increasing severity of bias, the order is 2d6, 3d4-1, 2d4+2.

Personally, I’m lazy when I can be; I’ll use 2d6 unless I have darned good reason not to.

Random Month – bias summer

The same results work perfectly to give a summer bias; just set “1” as the middle of winter.

Month of the season

I’ve sometimes needed to know whether something was happening, or going to happen, at the start, middle, or end of a season. I use a d6 for this: 1-2 is early, 3-4 is middle, and 5-6 is late.

This is actually more convenient than it seems. Most months have 30 or 31 days, which is close enough to 30 for our purposes; so a “1” indicates the first 5 days, “2” indicates the second 5 days, and so on. If you have an extra day, tack it onto the end – so a “6” can indicate the last 5 or 6 days of the month. The only month where this doesn’t work is February, and even that is close enough for practical purposes – and closer on leap years.

Minute of the hour

d10 x 6 + d6 -6 gives you the exact minute of the hour.

Usually, it’s close enough to use d12 x 5 – 5, which gives you 5 minute intervals – H:00, H:05, H:10, and so on.

Seconds of the minute

If you need to, do this in exactly the same way.

Latitude and Longitude

Okay, now we need d360-180, where results <0 are South or West, and results >0 are North or East.

The best way to get d360 is to use d18 x 20 – 20 + d20. But most people don’t have a d18 handy, even though they exist.

d12 x 30 – 30 + d6 x 5 – 6 + d6 is a d360 with errors. You can simplify it to (d12 x 30) + (d6 x 5) + d6 – 36.

A better method, because it reduces the frequency of errors is (d20 – 1 ) * 18 + d20. It’s still not perfect; you can still get results of 361 or 362, and some results like 19, 20, 37, 38, and more, seem to come up more frequently than they should. But it’s only two dice being rolled and a bit of calculation.

Still better is a way that does away with that calculation altogether, even though it involves slightly more die rolls – a d4, to be specific.

Better yet is ((d4-1) * 90) + ((d10-1) * 10) + (d10-1).

But the best answer is (d36-1) x 10 + d10. You get a d36 with (d6-1) x 6 + d6.

Step by step:

  • Roll d6-1.
  • Multiply by 6.
  • Roll d6 and add it to the result.
  • That’s the 10’s place. For the digits, roll a d10.

That’s fairly straightforward. Then just subtract 180 – or (far easier) subtract add 20 and subtract 200.

Day of the week

If I didn’t know the date or couldn’t consult a universal calendar, I used to use d8 and re-roll 8’s. But these days you can get 7-sided dice marked with the days of the week. I don’t know when I’ll need it, but when I do, I have it handy.

Day of the month

I’ve already hinted at the trouble that odd lengths of months can cause. Well, here they are again. There are three different solutions to this particular problem, and a variation or two on those answers to consider, as well.

d30 method

The simplest technique is to roll a d30, assuming you have one. Re-roll the result if it’s too high, and ignore the possibility that a month might have 31 days.

d16 method

If you have a d16, roll d anything; on high, add 16 to the result of a d16 roll. For practicality, roll both at once. Re-roll if you get a date that doesn’t exist, like February 30th.

If you don’t have a d16, you can simulate one with a d8 by rolling a separate d-anything and adding 8 to the result if the d-anything is high.

For example, using d6 for the d8-to-d16 roll and d10 for the d16-to-d32 roll:

  • Rolls: d6:4 d8:5 d10:3
  • d6 is high, so d16 result is 8+d8=13
  • d10 is low, so d32 result is d16+0=13.
  • If the d10 result was a 7, the d32 result would be d16+16=29.
d7 & d4/d5 method

If you have a calendar, you can take advantage of the fact that there are 7 days in a week and never more than 5 of any given days in a month. d7 gives day of the week, and d4 or d5 (depending on how many of that day there are in the month) gives the occurrence of that day, i.e. the exact date.

For example, in December 2014, the first was a Monday and there are 31 days, so there are 5 Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and 4 of everything else.

If you don’t have a d7, use a d8 and re-roll 8’s.
If you don’t have a d5, you can either use half a d10, or a d6 and re-roll 6’s.

My Choice

Because it gives extra info and is so much easier than anything else, my first choice would be the d7/d4/d5 method. If I didn’t have a calendar, my second choice would be the d30 technique – but I don’t have a d30, so I would fall back on the d16 method.

Quick Temperature

How hot is it outside? How cold? Temperature is one of THE big questions that needs to be answered regularly in any RPG. It’s so big a topic that it might have to be excerpted out into an article of it’s own, just as I did with Encounter Tables, but I’m hopeful that I can trim it to size enough for it to be one this article’s centerpieces.

There are two key facts that you need to know for the simplest solution: What is the average daily high or low, for this location, at this time of year, and how much variation can be expected from that?

Average Daily High & Low

These are relatively easy to find for real places. For example, if the climate is the same as Southern Italy, fire up Google Maps, zoom out, find Italy, and zoom in until you find a town of reasonable size (more likely to have weather information online) that looks like it has something close to the right Geography – ocean to the correct side, mountains in the right places.

Next stop is Wikipedia. Enter the town name and see if there’s weather info – occasionally the answer will be yes, more often no. If you don’t find it, go to Google and search for “[Town Name]” +weather the inverted commas and plus sign are very important. If that gets you nowhere, look for a neighboring town – I leave Google Maps up in a separate tab just in case – or an alternative. And sometimes it can be useful to zoom out one or two steps, when the town is simply too small – wait for it to disappear and look at the places that are left.

For example, Ravenna is located towards the north of Italy, is on the coast of a narrow sea, has a mountain range some distance away to the west and a bigger one some distance to the north. The city has a Wikipedia page but no climate info. Google pulls up a number of sites offering forecasts, but I ignore those; I want less current information and more long-term statistics. A “Trip Advisor” website comes to eye, as does another entry listing “average temperatures” – opening both of these gives a gold mine. The Trip Advisor site includes a chart showing average monthly maximum and minimum temperatures for six months of the year, and a great narrative description of the climate. This would be immediately snaffled! The Weather site proves to be “” and contains a chart of daily temperature averages, both maximum and minimum, over the last four years – perfect! This would also be grabbed, if possible, for future reference – in this case, I can, but quite often this isn’t possible.

The problem you are likely to face is that you will often get winter low and summer high, and not a month-by-month value. That’s good enough – a little experience and one key fact is close enough for gaming purposes. But more specific information is better.


You either have this information, and need to analyze it, or you don’t, and need to make assumptions.

Frankly, you shouldn’t get too hung up on the analysis side of things; weather is so variable that it will make no real difference in the long run.

Let’s take a look at the weather chart from Ravenna, continuing the example from the previous section.


A simplified version of the Ravenna Weather Chart from

When I first glanced at the original, five facts leapt out, which I have carefully preserved in the simplified version to the right.

  • Peak temperatures are fairly flat over the peak of summer, which is July/August.
  • In midwinter there is a bump in temperature averages – December and February are both colder than January.
  • After summer, the temperature range between day (maximum) and night (minimum) gets much smaller very quickly and the drops in both averages are very consistent through into December.
  • In comparison, the spring range widens suddenly in May and then narrows again, due more to the nights staying cool while days continue to rise in average temperature.
  • The minimum day-to-night range is about 6º C / 15º F; the maximum is about 11ºC / 21ºF. These ranges seem relatively narrow, until you realize that we’re talking AVERAGE temperatures. Any given day can be hotter than the maximum indicated, or colder; any given night can be hotter or colder than the minimum.

Once I know the time of year, I can determine the day’s minimum and maximum temperatures; once I know the time of day, I can estimate where in that range the temperature currently sits.

What you want is a “normal” die roll, not a flat one, and a modifier so that the average result matches the appropriate average temperature.

The only unanswered question is how much variability to have. In winter, the nighttime temperature doesn’t seem to vary very much, while the daytime temperature can be a bit more variable, in my experience; in summer, daytime temperatures can be very variable, while night-time temperatures vary to about the same degree as winter daytime temperatures.

A good rule of thumb is that the extreme results from the daytime average must never be colder than the average minimum, and the extreme results from the night-time temperature must never be hotter than the lower 1/3 probability mark of the average maximum. Yes, there can be exceptions on rare days, but this gives a guideline that’s close enough.

Forecast Daily Maximum

So the place to start is with the daily maximum, because we’re using the results of that to get the daily minimum.

It’s easier to explain with an example, so let’s pick a month – April – and see what happens in Ravonna.

  • Average Maximum is about 18ºC / 65ºF, Average Minimum is about 10ºC / 49ºF.
  • The difference in temperature is about 2/3 of the the die difference (maximum-minimum) that we want. In this case, 18-10=8ºC / 65-49=16ºF; multiply by 1.5 (round up if necessary) to get 12ºC / 24ºF.
  • With 2 dice, 2 is always the minimum result, so the range is maximum-1. With 3 dice, 3 is the minimum, so the range is maximum-2.
  • One half of (Range-1) tells us the X in 2dX that is needed.
  • One-third of (Range-2) tells us the X in 3dX that is needed.
  • For Ravonna in April, half of 12ºC-1 = 5.5 – and there’s no such thing as a d5.5. But 2d6 should be close enough. Half of 24ºF-1=11.5; 2d12 is indicated.
  • Also for Ravonna in April, 1/3 of 12ºC-1 = 3.67. So 3d4 is acceptable. 1/3 of 24ºF-1=7.7, so 3d8 will work.
  • April is in spring, but a glance at the Ravonna chart says it’s closer to Winter than summer. So I would use the fewer dice option – ie the 2d4 for ºC / 2d6 for ºF – because there is less range for variation.
  • Work out the average results of these die rolls, rounding down if necessary. Average of 2d4 is 5; Average of 2d6 is 7, no rounding necessary.
  • We need a modifier that turns these averages into our average maximum temps – a simple subtraction. 18ºC-5=13; 65ºF-7=58.
  • So the Daily Maximum temperature for Ravonna in April is 2d4+13ºC or 2d6+58ºF.
  • The Middle Third is always useful in these circumstances, and we need it for the Forecast Daily Minimum. These show that the most likely maximum temperatures are 17-19ºC / 64-66ºF.
Forecast Daily Minimum

This process is very similar, but instead of using the daily average maximum, we are using the lowest of the most likely maximums.

  • Lowest Probable Maximum is 17ºC / 64ºF, Average Minimum is about 10ºC / 49ºF.
  • The difference in temperature is about 3/2 of the the die difference (maximum-minimum) that we want. In this case, 17-10=7ºC / 64-49=15ºF; multiply by 2/3 (round up if necessary) to get 5ºC / 10ºF.
  • Half of 5ºC-1=4. So 2d4 works. Half of 10ºF-1=4.5, so 2d5 are indicated.
  • For the same reasons as before, I’ll be using the 2dX choice. I already know that, so there’s no need to calculate the three dice version.
  • Work out the average results of these die rolls, rounding down if necessary. Average of 2d4 is 5; Average of 2d5 is 6, no rounding necessary.
  • We need a modifier that turns these averages into our average minimum temps – a simple subtraction. 10ºC-5=5; 49ºF-6=43.
  • So the Daily Minimum temperatures for Ravonna in April is 2d4+5ºC or 2d5+43ºF.
  • The Middle Third shows that the most likely minimum temperatures are 9-11ºC / 48-50ºF.
Current Temperature

Current temperature is best worked as a flat roll between the two rolled extremes. But why bother rolling, or even working out a die roll? Use your experience and the time of day to work out where you’re at in that range, and estimate the current temperature.

Using ºC:

  • Roll 2d4+5 for last night’s temperature: 12ºC.
  • Roll 2d4+5 for tonight’s forecast maximum: 9ºC.
  • Roll 2d4+13 for today’s forecast maximum: 18ºC.
  • Determine time of day. I get mid-morning, which in late winter or early spring means that the temperature is about 2/3 of the way between last night’s low and as hot as it’s going to get. So I estimate the current temp to be about 16ºC.

Using ºF:
This is done exactly the same way, only the die rolls change.

Quick Weather

So you know the temperature. There are a lot of complicated ways to determine weather, but here’s the simplest I’ve come up with:

  • Roll d5 for the amount of cloud cover. 1 = clear, 2 = scattered cloud, 3 = sunny breaks, 4 = cloud cover, 5 = threatening, heavy clouds. Make allowances for desert environments, etc.
  • Roll d6+1. If the result is less than or equal to the cloud cover, it’s precipitating.
  • Roll d4 for the intensity of the rain IF it’s raining. 1 = light showers/snowfalls, 2 = hvy showers/medium snowfalls, 3 = solid rain/snow, 4 = heavy precipitation/blizzard/hail. Use temperatures to determine the nature of the precipitation (rain/hail/snow). If you roll a 1, it may be fog instead, depending on temperature and time of day.
  • IF it’s hailing, roll d8/2 for the size of most of the hail, in 1/2 cm or 1/4 inches. Exceptions can be 2-3 times this size.
  • Roll d8-1 for the wind strength, in 5kph / 3 mph units. If you get a natural 8, roll again and add 7. If you get a second natural 8, roll again and add 14. If you roll a third natural 8, roll d5 and add 21. If the total is 25 or more, roll d5 for the category rating of the hurricane.
  • Roll 2d4-1 for the strength of gusts, in units of +10%. If you roll a double-four, roll and add d4-1. Average result = +40%, 6.25% chance of needing the 3rd die, 1.56% chance of a result of +100% ie double wind speed.
  • Roll d8 for direction – it’s up to you whether this is the direction it’s coming from or the direction it’s going to. Override the results if they don’t seem to fit the terrain. I usually count clockwise with “1” being North.

This doesn’t account for all weather phenomena, but it covers the most common. And it’s very quick.

Random Choice off a list of unusual length

And that brings me to the piece of ordinary randomness that I use most often of all – where I have a list, and I want to select a random entry from it.

There are two approaches that I use to this process: One Flat Roll and Divide and Conquer

One Flat Roll

For this, you always want a flat roll, and the most important thing is to know the length of the list.

That length divided by 10 and rounded up, becomes the X in my dX +10 -1.

That always leaves a few entries left over; the difference between list length and remainder get excluded if necessary, to leave a short-list of entries to get the “extra chance”.

It’s very quick and relatively straightforward.

Example: there are 39 first-level Sorcerer/Wizard spells listed in the PFRPG Core Rulebook (it took me about three seconds to count them). So I want a d4 for the tens place on the roll and a d10 for the digits. I have one entry left over; I’ll decide what to do with it if I need it. I roll a two on the d4 and a 6 on the d10 for a result of 26. Another count (I was a bit slower this time, it took about 5 seconds) gets me to “Magic Aura”.

This might be the spell that has been cast on an area, a spell on a scroll, a spell that is nullified by a particular magic item – whatever I needed it for. Counting 1-2 seconds to pick up the dice, a second to roll them, and another 1-2 seconds to read them and get my answer, it took me less than 15 seconds to pick the spell at random.

Divide and Conquer

This technique employs 3d6, though if the list is really big, I may substitute one or more larger dice.

Roll all the dice you think you need, and line them up in the order they lie on the table after the roll, left to right. Then shift dice to the right according to die size.

The first d6 tells me top, middle, or bottom of the list. I do this quickly and roughly, by eye.

The second d6 tells me top, middle, or bottom of the selected part of the list. Again, this is done quickly and by eye.

There will be one entry in the middle of the selected range. I count up from that roughly half the size of the dice – well, when I say count, it doesn’t have to be exact. I then use the final dice to determine where in that range the actual result that’s been selected is. It only takes a second or two to nail down a result in quite a long list.

I’m looking at the double-page list of weapons in the Pathfinder Core Rules (table 6-4). I have no idea how many entries there are, but I want to pick a weapon off the list. First, I need some idea of how big my third die should be – I estimate by eye a tenth of the total list and then estimate by eye the number of entries in that span. I get a result of about 10 entries. So I’m actually using either 4d6 or 2d6 and d10. It’s always easier to go “start, middle, end” than to count to 10, so I’ll choose the 4d6 method.

I roll 3, 5, 1, and 4. The Three says the middle third of the list, which is roughly the last 1/3 of the first page and the top 1/3 of the second page. The Five says the last third of that range, which starts a couple of entries down from the top of page two – from somewhere in the vicinity of “Greatclub” to “Shortbow”, say. The one says to focus on the first part of that list, from “Greatclub” to “Guisarme”. The final roll puts me in the middle of that range – either Heavy Flail or Greatsword – and since it was on the high end of that middle, I choose Greatsword. Total time: about 6 seconds, 1/3 of which was spent deciding between 4d6 and 2d6,d10.

I can estimate by eye, taking into account entries that span two lines, very quickly. But others aren’t as adept at it. So your mileage may vary.

Rolling impractical numbers of dice

Have you ever rolled 860d6? I’ve had to, once, or more specifically, one of the players in the Zenith-3 campaign had to, a matter of various spell-amplifying circumstances, and a runaway chain reaction. (the rules that led to this are now a lot more constrained).

Here’s how to roll a ridiculous number of dice.

Once you get over 20 dice, there’s not going to be a lot of difference between four times the result of five dice and rolling all 20 dice. However, the final point or two can be crucial if we’re looking at thresholds and game mechanics that subtract from the total. So:

  1. pick a convenient factor, something that the number of dice will more-or-less be evenly divisible by. I’ll usually use 10 as the factor, but there have been times when something else has been more convenient.
  2. Do the division. Round the results down to get the Multiplier.
  3. Multiplier times factor will be less than the total number of dice required, which should always be a reasonable number – more than 6, say. Call this the remainder. Reduce multiplier if remainder isn’t a reasonable number.
  4. You can either roll factor-number-of-dice and multiply by multiplier, or roll multiplier number of dice and multiply by factor. Pick the one that’s most convenient.
  5. Make the roll, and multiply the result by the other part of the factor-multiplier pair. Then roll the remainder dice, and add them to the total.
  6. Job done!

It actually takes a lot more time to explain it than to do it. Here are a couple of examples:

  • 40d6. Roll 10d6, multiply by 4, and add a roll of 10d6. Note that the other way around, Rolling 4d6 and multiplying by 10, is too random it’s outcome. Rolling 8d6 and multiplying by 5 would be OK.
  • 63d8. Roll 10d8, multiply by 5, and add 13d8.
  • 124d6. Roll 11d6, multiply by 10, and add 14d6. Or add two rolls of 7d6, if you prefer.
  • 394d10. Roll 19d10, multiply by 20, and add 14d10.
  • 860d6. Roll 8d6 and multiply by 100. Roll 5d6, multiply by 10, and add to the result. Roll 10d6 and add to the result.
  • 1024d6. Roll 10d6 and multiply by 100. Roll 4d6 and double the result, then double it again; add to the total. Roll 10d6 and add to the total.
  • 1,120d6. Roll 10d6. Multiply by 100. Roll 6d6. Double it, then multiply by 10, and add. Subtract 35 (the average of 10d6). Roll 10d6 and add to the result.

It really is that quick.

Bonus Tip: quickly adding up lots of dice
This seems really obvious to me, but I’ve seen players who don’t know it, even after months or years of gaming experience.

Count in groups if you have to. Four people can total 20 dice as fast if not faster than one person can total 5 dice – if they are all using the technique outlined below.

Create 10s. Put 6’s and 4’s together, and pairs of 5’s and so on. Keep these in a line. You will be left with a few. Try using three dice to make tens – 4,4,2. 4,3,3. 6,2,2. It’s a lot easier to count 10, 20, 30… or 20, 40, 60, 80… and then have only a couple of oddballs left at the end.

If there are too many oddballs, or you are rolling d12s or something, get a third party to select pairs of dice that add up to less than 20 – then reduce one until it reads 10 while the other gets increased by the same amount, or reduce it to whatever you need to complete another 10-combination. The adjusted “other” goes back into the dice pool remaining to be counted, the 10 goes into the 10s stack or 20s stack (whichever one you’re using). Note that the third party has to pick them up so that no-one else grabs them to make up a ten-combination.

Count the 10 or 20 combos going around the table as necessary – person one gets to say, 40-and-that’s-it and the next person then starts their count with 50 or 60 or whatever’s appropriate. Meanwhile, person one has added up the odd dice that remained.

Part 3 of this article is relatively short and looks at the properties and usefulness of dice, by size.


Exotic, Beautiful, but absolutely worthless. Go to Awesome Dice if you want to look at one, and this page if you want one of your very own. They are even prettier in real life.


Not so attractive – by a long shot – and not of huge value, since it’s so easy to get a high/low result on a d6.


Similarly, there is not a lot of value in these when low/middle/high are so easy on a d6. However, those playing with younger children may find them useful.


The smallest of the traditional polyhedra, and a die shape which I don’t like at all. It takes practice to be able to actually roll them, and effort. I usually cup my hands together to form a chamber in which I can’t see the die or dice and give it a shake to randomize the result before “rolling” them – just in case.

I’m far more in favor of some of the modern alternatives for reasons of practicality – the crystal shaped ones in particular.


Most of these aren’t particularly attractive, either – but you can get some 10-sided dice marked only 1-5. The problem with the latter is that they are easy to confuse with a normal d10, and you don’t want to get the two mixed up. At best, it’s shooting yourself in the metaphoric foot, at worst it’s cheating, whether intentional or not. That said, Game Science make some very nice crystal ones.

That said, they are incredibly useful. There aren’t many dice out there with an odd number of faces, and that gives the d5 a niche that few other dice can fill.

However, it’s very easy to use a d10 and either divide by 2 (rounding up) or subtracting 5 from any result higher than 5, if you need a d5. Or you can simply roll a d6 and re-roll sixes. So they aren’t hard to simulate.


The six-sided die has been the workhorse of dice games since forever. It’s such a simple shape, and only has one more side than we have fingers on a hand – and both are relevant factors. I have about 120 of these – enough that I can extract a couple of d6 that are visibly distinct (and all I think I’ll need) and toss the remainder onto a battlemap as boulders or the locations of mines or whatever.


Except in exotic combination rolls, like some of the suggestions offered above, the d7 is useful only for days of the week. I have one for that purpose.


This used to be almost equal in the workhorse department with the d6, simply because AD&D used d8’s for most monsters’ hit points. There’s more variety in use these days, but the d8 remains incredibly useful.


The d10 was rarely useful in it’s own right; only when married to a partner to create a d% does it become almost irreplaceable.


The d12 has always felt like the ugly duckling to me, never really getting the respect and attention it deserves. It’s most obvious use is for time – hours, minutes, seconds.


I’ll be honest – I can’t think of a single reason for this dice to exist as anything but a curiosity. Days of the fortnight, perhaps? Either I’m overlooking something colossally obvious, or this is worthless in most practical senses most of the time. It’s probably just a showpiece, so if you buy a d14, make it a pretty one.


Almost the same story as the d14, to be honest. Now if they marked one up with the results of a 2d4 roll, that would be valuable. However, the d16 can do one thing that the d14 can’t – and it justifies the existence of both of them. A d16 plus a high-low roll that triggers a +16 to the roll on a high result is just about as easy a way to get days of the month as I’ve seen.


As a GM, I consider this a little more useful than you might think. Firstly, you can multiply the results by 5 to get a value of 5-90 – in combination with a d6-1, that gives a much simpler way to get latitude and longitude than I listed above.

Secondly, it’s great for a GM to use to cheat in the character’s favor, by making it impossible to roll a 20 in a d20-based game. You just slip your d18 in hand, and forget about inflicting critical hits – with most weapons, anyway. Use it when you find that you’ve overestimated how effective your monsters and tactics would be and don’t want to completely ruin your adventure by pounding the PCs into the pavement – and don’t want to ruin the fun (or your rep as GM) by admitting your mistake.

In any game where you need to roll low on a d20, the advantage swings the other way; 20 is impossible to reach, and you actually have a slightly higher chance of rolling a 1.

Use it with a GM Shield, for obvious reasons.


So ubiquitous it has multiple game systems named after it. Not much more needs to be said.


The other side of the coin from the d18 – so long as you remember that a 21 or 22 are to be treated as a “twenty”. Which makes twenties three times as likely (or thereabouts) as they are on a proper d20.


I didn’t know these existed. Greatest use is for hours of the day.


These are still treated as a novelty item by most gamers that I know, simply because it’s so easy to have three d10 tables selected by a d6 roll. But there are times when they can be quite useful.


Wait, they make a d60 now? Since when? Obvious use is for minutes and seconds. Anything else is a bonus.


I started this list with the sublime, and I end with the ridiculous. These are so hard to roll and keep within reasonable bounds that it’s not funny. And they can be hard to read – 100 results takes up a lot of space on a small die! I suspect that the d60 might suffer from similar problems, but I’ve never seen a real one. Use d10s, it really is MUCH easier.


A footnote, this: According to Wikipedia, you can also find d26s, d32s, d34s, and d50s. I can see obvious utility for the d32; the rest I’m not so sure of.

The d26 might suggest a set of alphabetic markings, but ignores the fact that distribution of letters in English is not uniform – not even first letters of words.

Which brings me to the end of this particular article. While pitched mainly at inexperienced players and GMs, I hope that everyone out there got something from it!

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Gifts In Gaming: Overlooked Seasonal Plot Hooks

rpg blog carnival logo

Still Twisting…

Campaign Mastery is hosting this month’s Blog Carnival. The subject I’ve chosen is “With A Twist” and anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, Plot Twists, etc, is right on topic.

I started with an article on the rules interpretation of Surprise, and followed that with a two-part article looking at types of Plot Twist that would work in RPGs after discovering that the literary types all had problems when applied to a communal format (Part One, Part Two).

This time around, I’m look at what should be the most pleasant surprise of all – the unexpected gift…

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It never fails to surprise me how many GMs fail to appreciate the plot potential of gifts, especially when coupled with the season of giving that is Christmas. I’ve often made a point of emphasizing the PCs giving gifts to each other in my campaigns at such times, something I discussed in ‘Tis The Season: A Christmas Scenario, in which I described an adventure from the Zenith-3 campaign that had this principle as its’ theme.

In fact, to be both seasonal and topical, you don’t need to have a version of the Christmas Holiday in your game at all; simply have an enemy of the PCs give them a gift and play the resulting adventure at the appropriate time of year, and your players will make a metagame connection to the Holiday Season with no need for in-game festivities at all. It could be any time of year, game time.

Using Gifts as adventure springboards ultimately comes down to three elements:

  • The Personality of the Giver;
  • The Motivation for the Gift; and,
  • The nature of the Gift.

The first two clearly shape the third, and are also strongly interelated.

I’ve chosen to use Motivation as the differentiator within this article, and have identified six different Motivations which could prompt the issuance of a Gift from Villain to PCs. Some are benign, some are anything but.

Christmas Bonus: Characters

I’ve offered up a quote to mark each of the Motivations. While some of these are traditional or from outside sources, most of them are original, offered up from fictitious (original) villains, and contain a lot of characterization. These character seeds are my Christmas gift to the readers of Campaign Mastery – take the names, or the personas, or both, and grow new characters for your games from them!

Have a very happy and safe Christmas season, everyone!

Gifts As Surprises

“I like to watch them scurry about like ants before the rain.”
— Uberlord The Cruel


Doing something nice for your enemies just to mess with their heads only works when you have already established a sufficient level of paranoia on the part of the players, but when it does, BOY does it work well!

These gifts need to be mysterious, tantalizing, and at the same time, innocent of any nasty surprises. Quite obviously, the villain won’t give away anything that could possibly be used against him, so that’s a second key criterion. And it should be something that reflects his personality in some way, so that’s criterion number three.

You can have it be something that’s vaguely or superficially threatening if you need to actively engage the PCs paranoia, but it’s far better if you forgo this and let their own inability to find anything wrong with it fuel the plot.

That’s all setup, the first act of the adventure. It obviously needs to link to something more substantial if it’s to stand alone; here, you have three options.

Option One

The first is to have this be part of a general Gift-giving between the PCs. This uses The Gift as a seasoning to this main plot, rather than the primary object of the day’s play; your adventure should be crafted accordingly, with this just one of several encounters or incidents along the way.

Option Two

The second is for the gift t3o lead to someone who’s in trouble and needs the PCs help, a breadcrumb that lets them be the Good Guys somewhere. Exactly where depends on what the transportation capabilities of the PCs are; if they are limited to foot- or horse- travel, you might need to incorporate a one-off travel gimmick into the gift.

What the Villain is actually offering as a gift is not the physical item (which may well be consumed in the process of transport), but the opportunity to feel good about themselves.

Taking that as the theme of the resolution of whatever the trouble is that the PCs end up in gives a significant clue as to the nature of that trouble. It also has to be something that will pose considerable difficulty for the PCs, but which they can ultimately overcome fairly quickly, and those requirements further restrict the nature of the plot.

Finally, the people to be helped should be isolated, so that they don’t form a resource for the PCs. It’s even possible that they will be massively ungrateful by nature, or rabidly xenophobic. That doesn’t matter, in fact it only helps (from the villain’s point of view).

Option Three

The third alternative is to focus on the mind-games aspect of the gift. This can be the hardest of the lot to do, but the most satisfying – to the GM, I doubt the players would agree – if it comes off.

In this approach, the gift is just the first breadcrumb in a series that ultimately proves a tail-chasing exercise of no significance. It’s effectively a boast on the part of the villain, a reminder that he’s out there and is not going to go away – and if he’s quiet for any length of time it’s because events are proceeding exactly to his liking, thank you very much.

This really works well as an opening salvo, assuming that the villain (and/or his machinations) are going to be central to the adventures of the next year or whatever. It can be viewed as a throwing down of the gauntlet. Again, use these themes and threads as the foundation for your decision-making in terms of what the gift is and what it invokes.

Option Four

Yes, I know I said that there were only three. I don’t consider this a full option because it is too dependent on player actions and behavior. Rather than making a general case, a quick example should explain everything:

The weather is absolutely miserable, either hot or cold (depending on the local season). If we’re talking Christmas, and the PCs are in the northern hemisphere, the bitterest winter imaginable is unfolding; if in the southern hemisphere at that time of year, use a heat wave. You then need one of the PCs to wish aloud for a change of weather or a bit of relief. The villain then flips the earth on it’s axis of rotation for 24 hours, reversing the seasons. Sure, there will be all sorts of other unwanted consequences, but he makes the PC’s wish come true and that’s the key point. Of course, there are all sorts of implications to this idea that may require scaling down, depending on the campaign; villain power level, villain awareness of what the PCs have said, and so on. And, at the end, you need some sort of connection to make it obvious why this has been done.

Gifts As Characterization

“Every once in a while, declare peace. It confuses the hell out of your enemies.”
Spacer– 76th Rule Of Acquisition,


Gifts can be a wonderful way to add depth of characterization, or to reinforce key personality attributes, on the part of the giver. The first is achieved with a gift that contradicts the perceived personality, in whole or in part; the second by reflecting the elements of the personality that are to be reinforced.

Clearly, the primary differentiator is the nature of the gift. Who exactly it is sent to is a secondary consideration, though it may be used to focus attention on a relationship (even if the PC receiving the gift isn’t aware that there is one, or even sent to the group as a whole.

Consider: You’re the Avengers and UPS contacts you to say they have a package for you with only the return address “Hydra HQ”. You’re Batman and you get a similar call about a package to you from the Joker. You’re the X-Men and something from Magneto turns up on your doorstep.

Is it a threat? Is it a trap? Is it a genuine gesture? What does it mean? Is it an attempt to curry favor, or repay a debt (real or perceived?)

More: the people or person who benefits most from the gift may not be the gift recipient. It might be a clue to a deep, unsolved mystery. It might be a breadcrumb leading to an entirely separate adventure – one with a villain, and victims who need rescuing. It doesn’t even have to be the usual genre of adventure if the gift provides transport into another realm, even as a one-shot. It might target a rival of the sender, or it might simply target someone who deserves to be taken down a notch.

One adventure for some future point in the Zenith-3 campaign is a gift from an enemy who forces the team into an opportunity to altar the villain’s past – just a little – in such a way that he is not as ruthless and consumed by his obsessions, by playing the part of the three ghosts to his Scrooge. It still needs a lot of work, and I don’t currently have the right villain for this plot on tap in the campaign, and the fact that there are more than three PCs is a plot hole that needs to be solved, but the basic principle is right. Even if the villain was certain that the attempt would end in failure, the opportunity is itself a priceless gift – and the mere offer (whether acceptance is forced on the PCs or not) makes the villain some shade less than pitch-black.

In a slightly-similar vein, I have a plot somewhere in the back of my head about a joker-style homicidal maniac who – for reasons not yet figured out – decides to gift the PCs with 48 hours in which he will do charitable things and help people and not let them end up dead if he can help it. Of course, everything is stacked against him succeeding, and he has the worst luck imaginable. Will the PCs apprehend him, or let him try and take one small step towards reform? Will they help him, overtly or surreptitiously? The last is what I will want circumstances to lead to, if I can manage it, but the choice of how to deal with the situation will be up to the players. Again, I don’t have most of the required building blocks in place for this adventure at the moment, and it has plot holes that I might never be able to solve – but the idea is there, and win, lose, or draw, it adds a lot to the character of the villain.

Because gift-giving only happens on rare occasions, they always represent an unusual circumstance, and that can bring about unusual actions and expose unseen corners of personalities – a rare opportunity to make things more interesting, as well as more “real”.

Gifts As Tactics

“Just because I’m a cyberdroid, that doesn’t mean I’m completely heartless. I keep several in jars on my shelf.”
Spacer– Vax Digitus


Some people are always looking for an advantage. Christmas represents a time when guards are lowered, when people want to think the best of everyone, and when opportunities, therefore, abound.

The more indirect the advantage that can be gained by a gift, the better the resulting campaign effect, at least in the long term. In the short-term, however, the more remote the consequences, the less engaging the adventure. Clearly, you need to find a way to make the two live with each other. The best solution is to have two targets, with one dependent on achieving the other. Target one could be just a distraction, but it’s even better if the opportunity to achieve target two is an unnoticed objective of achieving – or failing to achieve – target one.

You may be wondering how failure to achieve a target can have a positive effect without that target being a distraction. The answer can be characterized as “a contingency plan” – ie the bad guy uses a gift to go after an obvious advantage, which he would quite happily take if he can get it, but he is prepared to settle for something smaller and far less obvious that he can pick up along the way, or on the way out.

Think of this as a series of dominos, with the attempt to seize target one being just the first. Not the success, just the attempt. Every subsequent domino up until something close to the last is to take place in the shadows, unseen and unremarked by the PCs (at least at the time). So the PCs get to see, and stop, what they think is the first (and last) domino. Villain goes away, content with his hidden win, PCs go away, content with their overt win, everyone’s happy. At some later point, they notice one of the later dominos fall, but can’t work out how the villain gains from it. They start investigating and find a clue about the real significance of domino one, and start backtracking through the connection that leads to the later domino, and discover what the villain has really been up to. Two adventures and a lot of seemingly unimportant background stuff going on in the meantime.

Using this basic example as a template, you can design as many of these as you want; the shape and content of the dominos may vary, but the principle remains the same.

An alternative that might be fun is to have two villains trying the same basic ploy at the same time, and inadvertently interfering with each other, getting in each other’s way, drawing unwanted attention to what the other is up to, even leaking information on each other’s activities (anonymously) to the PCs.

There are lots of ways to have fun with this basic scenario. Another key point of difference is the end goal, which might in fact turn out to be something mundane, even trivial, from the point of view of the players (who have no doubt been imagining all the terrible things that might be done with the power and resources that the villain has accumulated) only to find that it’s merely something that has great personal value to him.

One adventure that I started to write, but never got to use, worked along similar lines; the supervillain went to a lot of trouble to kidnap one of the world’s greatest artists, went to even more trouble to steal a painting from the Louvre, and went to even more trouble to get his hands on the latest and greatest microscope and variant on the mass spectrometer. When he added a microbiologist to the list of kidnap victims, one who specialized in weaponizing disease organisms, they naturally began putting together all sorts of disaster scenarios built around the concept that plague bacteria had somehow survived in the natural pigments of the paint. The artist was needed to separate out samples of the different pigments, using the microscope; the mass spectrometer was needed to confirm the viability of the disease; and the microbiologist was needed to breed the bacteria and turn it into a weapon. In actual fact, the villains grandmother was in love with the stolen painting, and he had promised her a perfect copy for her birthday. He needed the artist to paint the copy, the mass spectrometer to ensure that the pigments were reproduced exactly, the microscope to study the brushwork, and the microbiologist to work the equipment.

The fact that the “gift” aspect of this plotline only happens at the end of the adventure – and might not happen at all, if the PCs get clumsy about things – doesn’t make it any less relevant to the theme of gift-related adventures. To make it even more relevant, you could change “birthday” to “Christmas”. Oh yes, the old woman is dying, this will be the final opportunity to make her happy.

If I were actually writing this up today, I would make sure that the PCs didn’t find the villain until he was actually giving the copy to his grandmother, and didn’t get to confront him until later – when they learn that it was a near-perfect copy, and the villain trades the location of his kidnap victims, the original, and the equipment for his freedom. Will the PCs take the deal? I would also have large sums of (possibly stolen) money paid into the kidnap victim’s bank accounts (payment for services rendered, even if the rendering was involuntary), just to muddy the waters along the way. And I do mean large – a couple of hundred thousand, enough that they might be payments for collaborating with an Enemy Of Mankind.

Random Acts Of Kindness

“Once a year I indulge my generous side just so that I can really enjoy being evil the rest of the year.”
Spacer– Grandmother Sinister


I love throwing morally-complex characters and difficult decisions at my players. The hard choices are the ones that really define who and what their characters are, what they want, and how far they are willing to go to get it. A black cat at midnight makes a great gimmick for a scary story, but it’s an awful visual. For black to really look black, it needs something to contrast with.

The best villains in comics have always had this – Kang The Conqueror, who wanted to restore his lost love Ravonna, almost as much as he wanted to conquer the earth throughout time. Doctor Doom, whose mother was trapped in hell, and who he would do anything to free – so long as that did not in any way injure his pride. The Dread Dormmammu, who was – at least initially – a noble (if despotic) ruler who cared for his subjects and sought to protect them – but saw nothing wrong with expanding his realm by conquest. And, of course, Magneto, who will go to any length to protect Mutant-kind from attacks from blind, bigoted, Homo Sapiens. Even the original Green Goblin, who was a good man gone bad, and who genuinely cared for his son – but thought that discipline and tough love were necessary to toughen the much weaker Harry up, even when it degenerated into abuse.

Of course, there are some villains who are only weakened and made more ambivalent by such humanizing characteristics. Deathstroke. The Joker. The Red Skull. Loki, as portrayed in the comics and movies.

It’s no coincidence that these lists contain the lead villain of most of the major superhero movies to date. Once, I would have included Lex Luthor in the second group, because he works very well that way, but the somewhat-softened versions that appeared in Lois & Clark and Smallville – refer this article on Wikipedia – shows that he is that rarest of creations, a villain which can be equally-effective both ways.

One of the best ways to show a humanizing streak is for the villain to perform a random act of kindness as a gift to whoever they help. The PCs hear about it taking place, of course, and assume the worst, and go off to stop whatever nefarious plan the villain has in mind, not realizing that they are casting themselves, in this light, as the villains.

Picture the following: the news carries a feel-good story about a community helping a crippled child who has experienced some sort of tragedy just prior to the Holidays. The boy’s condition is uncommon but not especially rare. Our Villain buys a couple of pharmaceutical labs that he didn’t have before, and directs them to find a cure for the boys’ condition, sparing no expense. He also announces to the press that he has been touched by the boys’ story, and what he has done in response, and that he is donating $10,000,000 to ease their burdens in the meantime, so that wheelchairs and medical attention and whatever else they need can be provided. Meanwhile, he carries on being an utterly evil villain, opposed by the PCs, so that when he subsequently (a week or two later) announces a breakthrough that will be given to the original victim free of charge, they will assume the worst. In fact, they may even think he has sunk lower than they thought possible, seeking to take advantage of the boy. Villain shows up, PCs show up, they fight, boy is accidentally endangered, villain rescues him. PCs make one final stab at convincing the boy not to trust the villain, but he has no other hope – he accepts the treatment, and lo and behold, it works – in front of the mass media who have been attracted to the story like flies to honey.

The next day, the Villain (back to being evil) announces to the media that the treatment will go on sale in (some market that doesn’t have a rigorous approvals regime) for $10,000 a dose – but that he will subsidize that down to a mere $100 a dose for anyone who comes to work for him, or who sends him credible intelligence on the PCs. And if the treatment should later turn out to be flawed, even if the PCs discover the problem, who’s going to listen to them after all this? They can have ironclad proof, and even if they did manage to convince others of the flaw – something that can be independently verified – any hint of allegation that the Villain knew about the flaw all along will be routinely assumed to have been fabricated by the PCs. Public Opinion is against them.

Of course, your plots can be simpler: Villain donates rare piece to a local museum. Villain rebuilds orphanage. Villain stops a runaway train, or averts a meltdown. Villain donates toys to a hospital. There doesn’t have to be a zing to it, a sting in the tail – it can simply be a random act of kindness. And if he can make the media, and through them the world, think that the PCs are just a little nuts where he’s concerned, so much the better!

Gifts as Traps

“Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Spacer– Traditional Roman Proverb

“…but always examine it’s droppings..”
Spacer– Azanar Quint’s rebuttal to the Roman Proverb


I’ve largely covered this already, but there so many possibilities, it’s hard to be sure that I’ve dealt with them all.

A trap is a situation designed to harm or hamper those affected. That covers a wide range of territory, of which direct attacks via gifts are only the most overt. Some measure of the subtlety that is possible was made evident in the previous section, where I described an attack on the reputation and credibility of the PCs.

To a large extent, the more overt and obvious the attack, the more insignificant the event, no matter how dangerous the attack itself might be. The more subtle and indirect the attack, the more interesting the resulting adventure will be.

For example, contemplate a Personality Bomb that swaps the minds of the PCs with the minds of ordinary passersby. This puts the PCs in a position of having no extraordinary abilities, or very reduced capacities, while three ordinary people now have the opportunity of a lifetime to do whatever. Will they try and be heroes? Will that act for their own gain? Will they seek revenge for some past slight, real or perceived? There are a great many possibilities – and none of them are good from the PC’s point of view.

Or perhaps, a Taint Ray, that simply amplifies negative instincts and behaviors – just for a while.

The Gift of Pandora’s Box

“It’s easy to take the high ground when you never have to make the hard choices.”
Spacer– Baron Zuker Von Darkholde


I mentioned earlier that I love to put my players in moral quandaries, and that I like to use enemies that do the same. Making things matter is an easy way to make the adventures more interesting. “Gifts” that offer such moral dilemmas are obvious fodder.

These adventures are actually harder than they appear. It can be quite difficult not to be clumsy, heavy-handed, or morally simplistic. For example: “There are two bombs. One will affect just one person of some importance, but has a very short fuse. The other will harm a great many people, of less importance, but has a much longer fuse. Which bomb do you want to arm, and which to disarm?”

Or, “I have overridden the controls of a nuclear reactor in France, and initiated a process that will lead to a meltdown in about an hour. I have also planted a cannister of biological agent in a subway station somewhere in the world with a timer that will detonate in just under an hour. For every person that you publicly sacrifice in the name of the Darker God Below All, I will reveal one letter from the name of one of these two targets. You have a little less than an hour to decide who lives and who dies. Don’t waste it.”

Or, “You have a simple choice. Take the pill, and your power will double for an hour – but somewhere, someone will die to empower you. Don’t take it, and the disease with which I have infected you will halve your power for that hour. And, did I mention that there’s an alien invasion fleet that I have lured into position to attack Earth any minute now?”


“It’s a gift. Take it,” he said with a smile.
Spacer– Any villain, any time


Gifts offer innumerable possibilities for GMs. They can enhance an existing plotline or character, or stand alone as a seasonal plotline. They can be a side-story, the main story, or can presage an even bigger story. Surprise “Gifts” are a Gift for the creative GM – take advantage of them!

The observant may have noted that I usually post articles here at Campaign Mastery on Mondays and Thursdays – and that both Christmas and New Year’s Day this year fall on Thursdays! I do have something I’ve prepared to post on those days, but it won’t be a full article – unless my plans change for something like the 15th time in the last six weeks, of course…

Comments (4)

The Thinking Man’s Guide to Intelligence for Players and GMs


A Message from the Writer/Publisher:

As I write, a hostage situation continues to unfold in Sydney, as it has for almost 15 hours, capturing world attention for all the worst reasons. For those who may be concerned, I am completely fine. But I must share my contempt for those who have attempted to politicize events even as they continued to unfold.

I have said before, and reiterate now, my belief that every time our behavior is changed as a result of such events, every time our freedom is eroded because of fear, every time xenophobia is given fresh impetus by such events, the terrorists win.

Every time the ill-informed speculate without hard facts, making it that much harder for those facts to be heard and acted upon correctly, they give the groups they name/accuse free publicity and support. As I first drafted this insert, the siege had just entered its fifth hour, and all that was known was that there was one gunman, with one confirmed weapon, one bag, and a widely-available flag with a verse from the Quran that is considered fundamental to all Islamic beliefs.

When something like this happens – and it will happen again – don’t speculate, don’t spread rumors, don’t accept unreasonable erosions of freedoms and surveillance of ordinary citizens in the aftermath, and don’t give terrorists or criminals what they want. The more we let ourselves change as a result of events of this type, the more the perpetrators win.

What I fear most is a knee-jerk reaction on the part of elements of the public. That, too, is a victory for those who would spread fear and terror. Every time an incident such as this excites xenophobia, causing intolerance and fear within the community, we marginalize citizens of our nations who would otherwise be good citizens, driving the vulnerable into the arms of the recruiters. Over-reactions play into their hands.

We’ve seen it so many times before; to what extent the threat of Islamic State is the result of the xenophobic reaction by the world following 9/11 is unknown, may never be known, but I remain convinced that it made it much easier for that group to gather its forces. 99.999% of those of the Muslim faith are just as horrified by these events as anyone else, if not more so, because by using the Quran to justify their actions, they commit what most regard as an act of blasphemy.

We are rightly horrified in modern times by the excesses of political correctness run amok during the McCarthy era. Yet, the 9/11 response of paranoia toward anyone of Islamic descent was almost a mirror image of that excess; only the target had changed. The phone-tapping, the surveillance, the acts of illegality that have recently come to light but that were always suspected, they exactly parallel the techniques in vogue in the 1950s, and will eventually be seen in exactly the same light, I’m sure.

The price we pay for freedom is the risk that someone will abuse it, or seek to take it away from us. Yet we accept a worse risk every time we cross the streets or get in a car – check the statistics!

We are also, and again quite rightly, horrified by the acts of violence by extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere. But I won’t, and you shouldn’t, let that, or these latest events, drive me into an overreaction, and neither should anyone else.

The message I want to send out to our readers is that it is Business As Usual here at Campaign Mastery, and in Australia. And that means that it’s time to get on with today’s article.


This article was originally intended for Roleplaying Tips, so it’s not quite in my usual style. Whether that makes it better or worse, I can’t really judge – but it was a lot harder to write than that usual style, so expect it to remain an aberration. To make matters worse, it has had to be extensively reformatted to work on a web page.

The backstory is this: I wrote an article for RPT on Charisma called Systems Of Attraction, (Part 1, Part 2) and was encouraged by Johnn to tackle the other D&D stats. I started on this article and one on Strength immediately; the Strength article is several times the length of this and also still unfinished. In fact, it is so large that in 2007 I split it into three parts (Let me know if you want me to finish it).

Getting back to this article, I started writing it way back in 2004 or 2005, long before there was a Campaign Mastery; it’s hung around my “unfinished articles” folder, 90% complete, for nine or ten years! I finally dusted it off and got it finished.

One of the more difficult aspects of roleplaying, both as a player and a referee, is handling characters of different intelligence levels to that of the person playing. Over the years, everyone works out methods of dealing with these situations, but they often don’t think to pass them on to others. So, for whatever they’re worth, here are my tips for playing characters of differing intelligence, for both players and referees.

Part One: Referees:

Simply by virtue of the fact that they have to play the parts of “everyone else”, Referees have to cope with characters of extremely different intelligence to their own more frequently. For that reason, this article will largely concentrate on techniques the referee can use to handle the problem.

Playing Low Intelligence NPCs

The way to play low intelligence NPCs is to simplify the situation and to slow their thinking down. Many referees make low-intelligence characters just plain dumb, and there are times when that’s appropriate – when an NPC has an INT of 3 or 4 on the D&D / Pathfinder Scale, for example. But most lower-intelligence characters aren’t really all that stupid, they’re just a bit slower than most. Here are some techniques to “Think simple” without “playing dumb”:

  • Halfway through speaking a sentence in character, stop and count silently to yourself, 1-2-3, before resuming.
  • Simplify the language. Low intelligence characters – INT 5-7 on the D&D Scale – generally understand anything said in 2 syllables or less, provided they are given time to digest each statement before the speaker moves on to the next. When they aren’t given that time, they will “lose” the end of the first statement and the start of the second; producing either gibberish (“I don’t understand” or just looking lost) or a complete misunderstanding.
  • They often misunderstand and mispronounce words of 3 syllables if the reference is a common one – an uncommon reference they simply won’t get.
  • Personality traits of such characters tend to be emphasized, even emphatic, and they don’t really follow the concept of exceptions to the rule – everything gets put into a given “shoe-box” of personal experience, and they can’t shift anything until they can re-address it to a different box.
  • They will often use slang and poor grammar.
  • They tend to stay fixed on one line of thought regardless of what is said.

For example, consider the following dialogue between an NPC whose dominant personality trait is “suspicion of foreigners” and a typical PC who needs to discuss the accidental contamination of the farmland:

“You ain’t from around these parts. Never trust a furriner…. (1-2-3)…. that’s what my ma used to tell me.”
    “But you can trust me, I’m from the government.”
    “And my Da, he told me that too.”
    “Do you understand? I’m your friend! I’m here to talk about your land.”
    “Told my brother, too. But he died.”
    “I have to talk to you about your land!”
    “Land’s mine all right. Been in my family since my grandpa was a kid.”
    “Yes, I’m sure. Look, there was an accident, right, and something was spilt on your land,” (PC is trying to dumb himself down to talk to the character)
    “Grows good corn. You tried our corn? Best in the county!”
    “I’m sure it is. Now the government’s going to clean it up, but we want you to sign this first.”
    “Came second at the state fair three years back with my corn.”
    “Just please sign here, all it says is that we’re going to fix everything and you agree not to sue the government.”
    “First prize went to one of them furriners from Black Ridge County, (1-2-3), over them hills a piece.”
    “Mr Farmer. please just sign here,”
    “Never trust a furriner, Mister…. (1-2-3) who did you say you were again?”

Of course, not all NPCs are going to be obstructions, as this one was; they simply use their base concepts as recurring themes, to which they keep returning, over and over. A generous person might offer to help – reacting to the same government rep by offering to cook the kind government men some (contaminated) corn for lunch. After the government man patiently explains that the corn is not safe, “So you don’t want any corn. Maybe for the workers?”.

GMing Very Low Intelligence NPCs

Characters with less than 50% of average INT scores (under 5 on the D&D Scale) are even more easily stereotyped and easily become less than realistic as a result. I learned how to simulate such people from 2 different sources almost simultaneously: “Benny” on LA Law, and “Camo” in Anne McCafferey’s “Dragonsinger”, part of the Pern series. The former is probably not something that’s easily tracked down, but the latter should not be hard to find. Another good reference is “Simon” from the movie “Mercury Rising”.

  • People at this extreme don’t understand complications, setbacks, difficulties, or obstacles. For them, deciding that they want something, or want to do something, is pretty much enough.
  • They usually aren’t unreasonably stubborn – that’s a cliché – they are just slow to change their minds. A good reason to do so will eventually get through to them – unless they are continually distracted by being told new things they have to figure out.
  • They have a normal emotional range of reactions, but view the world with an immediacy that can sometimes provoke seemingly out-of-place reactions. When they hear about a tragedy that took place 50 years ago, they react as though it had only just happened.
  • At the same time, they have no real sense of perspective or scale; last year was “a long time ago”. Numerically, they can often only count “1,2,3,4…. …10, many” – at best.
  • They don’t simplify what they don’t understand, they just ignore it. They oversimplify everything else.
  • They rarely differentiate between wants and needs.
  • Personality traits of such characters tend to be buried to a large extent, surfacing only Indirectly through behavior that is performed as rote – a generous person of this intellect will give a coin to anyone who helps them, or who they think helps them, or who needs it, or who they think needs it. A miserly person will not give anything to anyone. A warm-hearted person won’t ask if visitors want a cup of tea, they’ll just make it.
  • They don’t understand nuances and shades of gray – things are either good or bad. And they often think that they have been “bad” if they make a mistake, largely due to the way they have been treated by others of greater intellect. They are usually very, if not completely, trusting, though they can be very shy.
  • The latter point is the key to a society where everyone is on the slow side – Ogres, for example, as they are often portrayed in role-playing games. Because they DON’T get mistreated because of their intellect, they SHOULDN’T automatically consider themselves bad for making mistakes – they just shrug it off and ignore it. Mistakes are expected and even a source of humor – and the butt of the joked usually joins in the laughter.
  • They will often play simple games at seemingly inappropriate times – games that are sometimes made violent because of their strength, not because they want to hurt people.

GMing Extremely High Intelligence (EHI) NPCs

Some referees consider these bogeymen, impossible to play properly, and requiring lots of work. This is a reputation the character type does not deserve – these are frequently the EASIEST characters to play, provided that you acknowledge that they would be smarter than you are! (This entire article actually started out being about how to play these characters, but grew somewhat).

  • EHI Characters ALWAYS have an objective.
  • EHI Characters ALWAYS have a plan with multiple contingencies and fall-backs and bailout options.
  • EHI Characters usually only fail in the long term because of (1) changing objectives, or (2) loss of resources, or (3) opposition of equal caliber, or (4) personality flaws that limit the application of their intellect in, or to, one particular area, ie they have Blind Spots. In the short term, bad luck or lateral thinking can cause reversals, but overall these are little more than inconvenient bumps in the road.
EHI-initiated Plots

Realizing all of the above, and that you don’t have to do it all in advance, these characters can become extremely easy to play:

  • If the EHI character is the instigator of the current game situation, they have had time to plan in advance. The referee should, in advance, determine how events would proceed in an ideal world from the EHI character’s point of view. Assume that he knows, or can deduce, everything he could possibly know or deduce.
  • It follows that if events deviate from their expectations, they are being actively opposed, and both the plan and themselves are potentially at risk. They will immediately begin to prepare a fall-back plan, and a bailout/escape option, while at the same time performing whatever they can to counter the interference AND prevent further interference. I go into detail about how to determine these responses in a separate section below.
EHI NPCs seizing an advantage from someone else’s plot/circumstances
  • If the EHI NPC is simply stumbling in to complicate the plot, determine the maximum advantage that he can gain from the situation; that defines his objective within the scenario. In this case, he is going to be acting more off-the-cuff; simply treat events as though he has just suffered a setback at the hands of the PCs and is picking up the pieces, as described below.
  • Let the players do what they want, as usual. As soon as they realize the characteristics of who they are tangling with, they will start throwing out all sorts of ideas you can use, simply by discussing what the EHI character might do and what the PCs can do to stop it.
  • What’s more, you will think of your own variations as you listen.
When the PCs (or another NPC) do something to interfere with the plans of an EHI character
  • Work out what the EHI NPC needs to have done in to be in a position to counter or undo or interfere with the PCs actions. Assume that any necessary preparations have been made in advance. Check that the requirements do not exceed the resources they have available, that the PCs would not have discovered the preparations already, and that the PCs actions don’t fall within one of the blind spots of the NPC; if any of these apply, the PCs actions then become a Major Reversal of the NPCs fortunes (see below). But, if there’s no reason for them NOT to have done whatever it is, assume that they have everything all set up and ready to go, and describe events accordingly. These actions then become a contingency plan that the NPC has had “all along”.
  • If you can’t think of something on the spot to counter the PCs actions, try to think of what the EHI character could have set up to take advantage of the PCs actions, in order to further some other goal. Run the idea through the same list of possible personality / preparation infringements given above; if it’s “clean,” assume that this was the EHI character’s REAL objective all along, that he has everything in place ready to go, and describe the action accordingly.
  • If you can’t think of anything that falls into that category, either, then the PCs have once again dealt the NPCs plans a Major Setback, and the NPC will react accordingly, as described below.
  • There should be limits to the planning ability of the NPC, based on their intelligence. In general, a good rule of thumb is to have 1 additional fall-back or contingency plans for every multiple of average human intelligence. If 10 is the average human intelligence score, and the EHI has an INT of 40, then that’s four fall-backs or contingencies. If they have an INT of 100, that’s ten.
EHI NPCs encountering a Major Setback

Every EHI character sooner or later encounters a Major Setback. When that’s the case, it’s time to think of (a) their personal liberty & survival, and (b) their long-term plans.

  • Survival first. With that as the defined objective, determine what the character needs to have done in order to achieve it. If those things are within their means, they will have done so. Most REALLY smart types will have at least 1/3 of their contingency plans reserved for this sort of bailout. Better a temporary incarceration than a permanent death.
  • Liberty second. Better even than a temporary incarceration is a clean getaway. Fall guys, secret exits, temporally-suspended spells – whatever it took, an EHI character will have prepared it accordingly. Some may even have gone to the trouble of falsifying blind spots and flaws so that some escape routes believed to be closed to them are actually in readiness – but save that for Masterminds who expect to be opposed.
EHI Characters recovering from a Major Setback

Once they are free and clear, they – and the referee – can spend a bit of time working out how the situation has now changed, in terms of their long-term plans.

  • If possible, they will turn everything that happened to their long-term advantage! If not, they will simply pick up the pieces and start again.
  • In general, I like to allow 1 real-time week for every multiple of average intelligence they have, to equate to a game-time week. So the character with INT 100 should get 10 weeks real-time for me (as Referee) to work out what they would have done in the game week following the Setback.
  • In many cases, that time frame just won’t work in a practical sense. Time gets compressed and expanded dramatically during ongoing play, and there can be anything from seconds to years of game time between one game session and the next. To get around this handicap, take advantage of the GM’s power to rewrite the past, so as to have things happen that the PCs didn’t notice, or pay any attention to, at the time.
The Language and Dialogue of EHI NPCs

Another key point is the language of the NPC. In general, characters have to make an effort to make themselves understood by people with less than 75% of their INT score, and there is a real art to speaking in character as a person of exceptional intelligence.

The best method is to invest in a little effort in advance – select a number of useful phrases and write some “high-brow” equivalents, taking into account the personality of the speaker if at all possible. The very best role model for this aspect of intelligence comes from a pair of British comedy TV series, “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”. In addition to being hilarious, they are a perfect example of the art of speaking over someone’s head, intellectually. If you can’t get your hands on the DVDs, get the books – you won’t regret it.

In the meantime, here are some practical guidelines on how to go about it. The primary solution is to rewrite the phrasing, then the words, then the phrasing, then the words, and so on, as many times as necessary. Each subsequent rewrite is the equivalent of another multiple of average intelligence, but after a while you reach your personal limitations. The following example should give you a clearer notion of the process:

  • Start with the simplest, clearest, phrase possible. That then becomes the entry under which you “index” your stock phrases:
        “You can’t win, [NAME].”
  • Rewrite the phrasing to express the thought without contractions. Embellish it with one or two supplementary phrases:
        “You cannot win, [NAME]. I have prepared for anything you can possibly do.” (Int = Twice Average)
  • Rewrite the words – never use one word when three will do, never use one syllable when 3 will mean the same thing:
        “Your efforts are in vain, [NAME]! Any possible maneuver you might attempt has been anticipated and preparations put in place not merely to counter them, but even to use them to further MY ends and plans!” (Int = up to triple average).
  • Re-rewrite the phrasing to pad what’s said even further. Try to turn each phrase into a sentence in it’s own right:
        “Any effort you may make is futile, [NAME]. Any possible maneuver, any theoretical strategy, any hypothetical scenario you can conjure, all have been anticipated! Preparations not merely to counter any such, but to shape the consequences to ends of MY choosing, have been established and set in motion long ago. My ultimate victory is inevitable, your greatest efforts are mere thrashing within the nets and coils of my plans!” (Int = up to four times average).
  • Re-rewrite the words, adding adjectives, and look for alternatives in a Thesaurus if necessary. In particular, look for possible uses of alliteration, sub-phrases that repeat the same sounds:
        “Any endeavor you may undertake in opposition to the circumstances I have set before you is both futile and pitiful, [NAME]. Any possible maneuver, theoretical stratagem, or hypothetical scenario, no matter how improbable, has not merely been anticipated and countered prior to the first whispers of subconscious inspiration within your pathetic little minds; mechanisms set in motion by my hand will dynamically remap the confluence of consequences toward destinies that will ultimately further goals and ends of MY devising. My ultimate victory is inevitably proclaimed through the operation of the scientific applications of chaos mechanics and probability remapping, advances of unparalleled delicacy which only I have mastered. Your many-fold tomorrows are to me an open book, your potential destinies mere clay that will be reshaped and molded in whatever manner I see fit. Your most heroic enterprises are rendered mere thrashing within the indestructible coils of my net, in comparison to the intellect and resources applied to the achievement of goals that your barbaric understandings are incapable of appreciating!” (Int = up to five times average).
  • At this point, it’s all getting a little long-winded, so on the next rewrite, I would look for ways to compress the statement into a more concise form. There’s no easy way to do this, and I think an example might do more harm than good because it won’t be the only way to approach the problem, so this is where I will end the demonstration. You can get a few tips from my series, The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative even though that didn’t target dialogue.

Note that, when you boil it back down, all the above speech REALLY says is the original statement: “You can’t win, [NAME]!”

A technique that helps achieve these ends is to take advantage of the computer’s ability to cut and past and over-type text. Instead of starting fresh each time, simply make a copy of your last version and type over the top of it.

EHI NPCs Final Advice

Of course, that’s not all there is to it, but that’s 99% of the task of running super-smart NPCs as being super-smart. Using these guidelines, the referee can cope with just about any degree of extra intelligence just by dialing up or down the advantage that they confer to the NPC.

I should also refer you to my tips on the Mastermind at this point, as many of those will be relevant (and vice versa).

Players with PCs of Unusual Intelligence

Players face slightly different challenges than referees. In some ways, they face a more difficult task than the referee and in others, they have life a little easier.

Playing & GMing Low Intelligence PCs

All of the techniques described earlier for use by the referee work equally well when applied to a PC. However, there are some extra challenges involved for all concerned.

  • It can be difficult for the player to constantly change gears back and forth, mentally, between speaking as the player and the character.
  • The player can fall into the trap of only being “slow” when there is no penalty to the character. GMs should watch for this, and mandate an INT check when necessary.
  • The referee can mistake player statements for character statements, leading to unjustified accusations of poor roleplaying. So think twice before demanding an INT check as described above.
  • Synopses of past adventures generally describe what really happened and not what the character thought was happening, increasing the workload of the player, who has to keep track of the character’s mental processes and understanding – and misunderstandings – from session to session.

These problems all have cures in common.

  • Stay in character in group discussions and planning – it’s important to remember that the group doing the planning ARE the characters and not the players. The group supposedly doing the planning have certain mental resources and personality traits, and these should be roleplayed faithfully at such times. By enforcing this policy, the referee can help the player adopt the role he’s chosen.
  • That does not mean keeping quiet! The character has ideas and opinions and these should be expressed at such times, within the bounds of the personality. It’s when everyone else is metagaming that good roleplaying can be most noticeable. If there is an important point being missed, that the character would not understand, a quick note from the player of the Low-INT PC to the player of the most intelligent PC brings the point out for discussion without breaking character, helping both players stay in character.
  • The other players can quickly fall into the trap of disregarding the character’s contributions at such times, which can be a source of acute frustration for the player. Instead of getting worked up and indignant at such times, use it to your advantage – when they miss something important, jot it down, and bring it up only when everyone else thinks the discussion is over, or even a day or two later, completely out of context. Remember – SLOW, not STUPID. And when your character is proved right, work off all that frustration by crowing for days (in character!)
  • Get the referee on-side. Remind him occasionally that people often confuse Slow with Stupid, and so should the NPCs! They should occasionally let things slip that no-one else notices. For example, if the characters are being tricked into doing some dirty work by someone they think is a friend, the referee can quietly tip off the player during a break in play or between game sessions. The delay HELPS you roleplay. (This should not happen all the time, but should happen every now and then. Prod the referee about it whenever the other players start making the same mistake!)
  • It’s even more important than usual, at such times, to distinguish between player knowledge and character knowledge. This is because, in addition to these two distinct aspects of roleplaying, there is also player understanding and character understanding. Make sure that you distinguish between the two, and that the other players note that you are playing within the limitations of your character. It is common for players to use “I” as shorthand for “My character” – “I do this”, “I think”, “I want to” – DON’T DO IT when roleplaying a character of lower intelligence. Instead, be careful to always announce your character’s perspective as being just that.
  • KNOW THE SYSTEM. Take notes between game sessions, as necessary, to remind you how to do key things like saving throws, skill checks, and so on. It really spoils the momentum of roleplay that you build up using these techniques if you have to break character to ask “How do I…. ?” Also, learn the geography of your character sheet, for the same reason. Sure, this is good advice anytime, but it’s absolutely (and, perhaps, surprisingly) CRITICAL when playing a low-intelligence character.
  • Try putting a drawn-out “Aaah” or “Umm” or “Urrr”at the start every time your character starts to talk. In time, everyone will come to recognize this as shorthand for “I’m speaking in character”.
  • Obviously, even if you follow the advice above when participating in group discussions, you will have less to do as a player than the rest. This is when you get the opportunity to take notes on what’s going on, As Your Character Understands It, and anything that the character does NOT understand about what’s going on. These notes are your “translation” of the synopsis of events, enabling you to be consistent in your play from session to session.
  • And finally, get the referee on-side – again! Arrange with him that he will “pull his punch” when the character does something stupid in combat despite the player knowing better – but do it in advance! Point out that you are reducing your character’s effectiveness in order to better roleplay.

The following are two examples – these are versions of the same scene, differing only in that the low-INT character, Bone, has initiative in one and not in the other:

    Referee: “Into the firelight bounds a Sabretooth Tiger wearing a diamond-studded collar and a skullcap embroidered with the sygil of the Shape-changer’s Guild.”
    Bone: “Awwww, Nice Kitty. I am going to hug you and pet you and stroke you and…”
    Other Players: Draw weapons amidst calls for Bone to get back, get out of the way, etc.
    Referee: “As you approach the cat and start stroking it’s fur, it growls and takes a swipe at you, slashing your arm.” (Rolls To Hit) “You were not expecting it to attack, so it’s blow hits.” (Rolls Damage) “You take 32 points of damage, but because you weren’t tensed up,” (Note the very flimsy excuse) “…you are able to avoid the worst of it. I’m going to rule that you take 6 points of real damage and 24 points of shock damage from your surprise at its attack. Next round.”
    Bone: “Awww, You’re not a nice kitty at all! I will hurt you bad with my sword!” and makes gestures suggestive of drawing the weapon.

    Referee: “Into the firelight bounds a Sabretooth Tiger wearing a diamond-studded collar and a skullcap embroidered with the sygil of the Shape-changer’s Guild.” (exactly the same intro)
    Other Players: “Draw weapons!” – “Backs to the fire!” – “It’s a Were!” – “I grab some loose earth off the ground and try to fling it into it’s eyes!” – “Where’s my wand?”
    Bone: Draws Sword and says, “Awww, Don’t Hurt The nice Kitty!”…..

Playing & GMing Very Low Intelligence PCs

In terms of techniques, the suggestions outlined previously for use by referees are all that are needed to play these characters and play them well. However, very low intelligence PCs also face some extra challenges. Most of these were discussed above under the heading of “Low Intelligence NPCs”, as were the solutions.

It’s worth noting that some of the problems are actually diminished with a further reduction in character intelligence. It generally becomes easier for all concerned to tell when the player is roleplaying, for example.

With decreasing intelligence, the understanding of abstract concepts will also decrease. The player should discuss in advance with the referee how a given skill score or ability will be interpreted for the character. It’s fair to pick some aspect of each skill that the character cannot master, and to come up with ways to compensate.

Take, for example, the skill of picking locks. A clever character might master the art of using bent bits of wire, nails, etc etc. The thicker-witted character might learn to use a small hammer to “shock” a lock open with a precisely-judged rap after wrapping the lock in a cloth to muffle the noise.

Another example is the skill of tracking. I once played a scout with zero sense of direction. One of the players tried to explain north to him by pointing toward a mountain that was, at the time, to the north; from that moment on, to the character, north was in the direction of that mountain (even after we had climbed over it). The abstract concept was beyond the character’s understanding (the fools then trusted him to draw the map). But he could find tracks where no-one else could see them – he could follow anyone anywhere. He once tracked a magic carpet by following the line of dust dropped from it – it was a slightly different color to the local soil. A speck on this leaf, another on that flower…. the referee had agreed to accept an artificial limitation on the character’s abilities in exchange for brilliance in the remaining areas. The system was not D&D but the same thing could be achieved by a -10 skill modifier for abstract concepts and +10 on practical applications, with the referee deciding when the penalty applied (by raising or lowering the difficulty numbers). This means that, to the other players, the process is invisible – all they can tell is that the character is appalling at some things and brilliant at others.


Playing & GMing Extremely High Intelligence (EHI) PCs

I have met players who hold the opinion that these are the easiest characters of all to play; they frequently have skill levels so high that nothing is impossible, they have IQs so high that they can think of every possible contingency, can learn skills by merely glancing at a textbook, and they can never be tricked – or so those players like to think. Such thinking is incredibly sloppy and overconfident, and referees should take full advantage of it to educate the player in question.

More realistic players will realize that logic develops conclusions from assumptions and from known facts. If the assumptions are flawed, or the facts are deceptions or incomplete, the conclusions may also be incorrect. Furthermore, no matter how smart someone is, they are still capable of self-deception. They will still face challenges and difficulties that will have to be overcome.

Most of the tools needed are similar, if not identical, to those presented for referees earlier in this article, but they have one additional requirement that could be taken for granted for NPCs – the willing cooperation of the referee.

  • Players like to surprise GMs. If you are playing an EHI PC, DON’T DO IT. Tell the GM what your plans are, what your character’s immediate objectives are, and how you expect to go about achieving it. You aren’t (in theory) in competition with the GM, and getting him onside to assist with your planning both enables you to play your character as though he were more intelligent and permits the GM to take some of the burden from your shoulders. He can have the enemy do something that surprises everyone (including you) but then hands you a note telling you exactly how you have already prepared a counter-move, or what the counter-move should be, or he can simply have your character implement that countermove as though you had told him in advance that this was a contingency plan for this event.
  • Make sure that you and the GM have worked out in advance what your “blind spots” are. Occasions when these are applicable are when you want to be given no special advantages over the other PCs. Work out a signal between you and the GM that can be used to warn the other, “Blind Spot Engaged” – then trust each other. These are your opportunities to shine in terms of roleplay, make the most of them.
  • Give the GM a list of the resources you have built up. Let both of you add to this master list from time to time. Let the GM use these as Plot Devices, both to get your character into trouble and to get your character (and the group) out of trouble.
  • Work out ways of simulating appropriate pastimes with the GM. These let you challenge a PC (or an NPC) to a game of four-dimensional chess or whatever and actually play something rather than having it sound all contrived.
  • The GM should, in advance, determine how events would proceed in an ideal world from the EHI character’s point of view, taking into account his Blind Spots. Assume that he knows, or can deduce, everything he could possibly know or deduce. You can either then get a briefing from the GM in advance (it only takes a few minutes to hit the highlights) or can get tips of what is about to happen by way of notes, or some combination of the two. The GM may even e-mail you a carefully-censored excerpt of his adventure outline in advance of play, or give one to you during play on a flash drive – enabling it to be broken up as necessary.
  • The GM should look at his planned adventures to see if there’s an opportunity for the character to gain a resource or advantage, then communicate that fact to the player at the appropriate time – and what needs to be done by the player to achieve that advantage.
  • From time to time, the GM should craft adventures that are nothing but opportunities for the character to gain an advantage or resource, turning your PC into a plot instigator. You should co-operate with the GM when that happens, even if it does mean a little railroading to get everyone into the plot. Define things that your PC will NOT do in order to gain these advantages in advance so that the GM doesn’t have your character do anything too objectionable.
  • An alternative approach is for the GM and player to have a brief one-on-one roleplaying session – over the phone, over social media, whatever – when he is developing the plot. The GM walks the character through the possible advantage that he can gain, and makes it seem simple – then stops play at the moment that another PC would become aware that something was happening, and THEN writes the rest of the adventure.
  • Apply the advice given to GMs on how to roleplay EHI NPCs as though you were the GM. Prepare stock phrases. Practice delivering them between game sessions.
  • From time to time, the GM may need to “dumb your character down” in order to get the plot happening. Don’t kick up a fuss when that happens – when the GM decides for example that you failed a skill roll that you would not expect to fail – assume that the GM will make it up to your character later in the adventure.
  • When the GM exploits one of your character’s Blind Spots – and he will – concentrate on roleplay and let the other players take the lead in coming up with a way out of whatever mess “you’ve” just gotten “yourself” into.
  • Come up with a personal habit that the character can exhibit when he gets out of his depth (due to a blind spot) as a kickoff to that roleplay. Does he throw himself into an easy chair and close his eyes in deep concentration? Does he become (briefly) acutely depressed? Does he attempt to do something abnormally social in an attempt to curry favor with the other players? Or something obnoxiously anti-social in an attempt to be left alone? Does he reach for his violin, or play the 1812 overture on a beat-up old gramophone? Be consistent about it and the other players will learn the signal and start to pick up on the cue.
  • Look for ways, and relationships, that can humanize the character. If you are supposed to be the coldly logical type, or the geek, you can underplay these. Look at Spock in the original Star Trek, and in particular his relationships with McCoy, Kirk, and Uhura.
  • Master the art of the understated compliment. “Mr Scott is a competent engineer” speaks to both the high standards of the character speaking and delivers a major compliment – when it comes from someone like Spock – whereas it is very neutral, damning with faint praise, when it comes from just about anyone else.
  • Finally, and most importantly. Look for ways to have FUN with the character – and I don’t mean the vicarious thrill of hardly ever failing a skill-check. Most especially, look for ways for the CHARACTER to have fun – and how he will display it when he does.

Degrees Of Intelligence

You can reasonably assume that most PCs will fall into the “normal” range of intelligence – close enough that skill rolls etc will cover any differences, assuming average intelligence on the part of the Player. Anything from 8 to say, 17, 18, or 19 (on the D&D scale) fall into that range. Above or below that, characters are exceptional, and need to be treated in an exceptional manner by both Player and GM. The same is true of most game systems.

GMs are more likely to encounter the extremes, from Hill Giants and Ogres to The Lich In The Manor, in the form of NPCs. Playing these as average intelligence creatures who do stupid things (in the case of the lower INT races), or as average-INT creatures with high skill rolls, is doing your game, your players, and yourself a disservice – to say nothing of the creatures themselves.

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Flavors Of Victory: Why do good GMs fail?


I’m blessed, or cursed, with a naturally analytic mindset. I can’t help but look for patterns and, having seen one, trying to understand what it means and why it is a pattern. Of course, the more frequently you can observe the circumstances that produce the pattern, the more easily those patterns are to detect.

Local television has been repeating episodes of Iron Chef five times a week. This has already inspired one article here at Campaign Mastery (Layers Of Mis-translation: RPGs and Dubbed TV), and now I have another. You see, I’ve started noticing patterns in the reasons why one contestant on this cooking contest appear to win and the other to lose, and those patterns have some surprising relevance to RPGs.

Key Failures

Sometimes, the reason for a loss is obvious – one chef simply under-performs in one of the key criteria – flavor, originality, and presentation, leaving the door open for his opponent to outperform him, even if the opponent does not do quite as well in the other two areas.

And there are obvious analogies to RPGs. One GM may excel at Adventure Construction, or Characterization, or Creating Immersion, or Rules Interpretation, or Prop Construction, or however you want to slice up the overall task of being a GM. In fact, most GMs will be at least mediocre in these and will have a reputation for excellence in several of them.

But it doesn’t matter how much the first GM excels in the other areas if they are completely inadequate in one of them. This fatal flaw will drag down the overall popularity of their game until that of another GM – who is not as brilliant in the areas where he is strong as the first GM, but who is reason[Link]
ably good, and who lacks that weak point – will have greater success as a GM.

Showing why is simply a matter of adding up some fictitious scores:

  • First GM: 10 + 9 + 6 + 4 + 3 + 1 = 34/60 = 56.7%.
  • Second GM: 8 + 7 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 5 = 36/60 = 60%.

Here we have a situation in which a GM who is at least OK at everything, and a little better than that at a couple of them, is compared with a GM who is a genius at one thing, excellent at another, and OK at a third – but who is poor or worse at the rest. And, if for some reason, the GM’s strengths aren’t relevant to a particular day’s play, look what happens:

  • First GM: 10 (not counted), 9 + 6 + 4 + 3 + 1 = 23/50 = 46%.
  • Second GM: 8 (not counted), 7 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 5 = 30/50 = 60%.

The second GM’s game is consistently better than that of the First GM, in the eyes of the players who are supposedly doing the rating, and only when the first GM can exploit his natural genius can he even come close to the second, more mediocre GM.

Why should that be so?

If someone isn’t good at something, they tend to avoid it. It doesn’t take long for this to constrain the variety of options available in response to any given situation. It also begins to erode the palette of available adventures. Greater predictability and weakened versatility begin to wear away at the verisimilitude of the game – when NPCs don’t react in the most natural way to a situation because the GM is inadequate at refereeing that type of reaction, plausibility, immersion, and characterization all take a hit, no matter how good the GM may naturally be at them.

At the same time, the GM has the choice of either playing to his strengths every single time, further reducing variety of adventures and available responses to situations, or foregoing their greatest asset. Either way, it should be clear that any weakness – real or imagined – is far more important than any strengths that a GM might have.

A weakness in GMing abilities undermines any areas of superior capability that a GM might have.

Remedial Action

Of course, if the first GM figures out that he is weak in one or two areas and expends extra effort into them, and into getting better at them, he will soon leave the second in his wake. Not only will all those direct negatives go away, so will all the indirect negatives mentioned in the previous section.

All they have to do is get themselves up to a “mediocre” standard:

  • First GM: 10 + 9 + 7 + 5 + 5 + 5 = 41/60 = 68.3%. Noticeably better than the 60% of GM two.
  • Excluding best: 9 + 7 + 5 + 5 + 5 = 31/50 = 62%. Still better than the 60% of GM two and MASSIVELY better than the 46% GM one scored the first time around.

The GM no longer needs to use what he is good at as a crutch, but can save it for those occasions when it really elevates his game.

In The Long Term

It might seem that these differences are too small to make much difference. But let’s see what happens when they have an affect, game after game. Let’s assume that a result of 55% is needed for a campaign to grow:

First GM:

  • 100 x (56.7%/55%)^1 = 103.1% approval
  • 100 x (56.7%/55%)^2 = 106.3% approval
  • 100 x (56.7%/55%)^3 = 109.6% approval
  • 100 x (56.7%/55%)^10 = 135.6% approval.

Second GM:

  • 100 x (60%/55%)^1 = 109.1% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^2 = 119.0% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^3 = 129.8% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^10 = 238.7% approval.

But those numbers assume that a GM can play to his strengths all the time. If they can’t:

First GM:

  • 100 x (46%/55%)^1 = 83.6% approval
  • 100 x (46%/55%)^2 = 69.95% approval
  • 100 x (46%/55%)^3 = 58.5% approval
  • 100 x (46%/55%)^10 = 16.75% approval.

Second GM:

  • 100 x (60%/55%)^1 = 109.1% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^2 = 119.0% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^3 = 129.8% approval
  • 100 x (60%/55%)^10 = 238.7% approval.

One campaign is clearly going to be hemorrhaging players to the other. Using his strengths every game session or two will slow the rot but 56.7% is too close to the break-even mark of 55 to make up for the 46%.

So the fatal flaw in GMing ability can kill games even from GMs who are brilliant in as many areas as they are deficient.

The Opposing Brilliance

Sometimes, it comes down to the smallest of mistakes, especially when the two sides are equal or close to it. Let’s consider a situation in which one GM scores an 8 most of the time in two categories, but every third game, scores a solid 10 out of 10, while his opposition scores a nine in two of three games, but only a 6 in the third – using the same out-of-60 scale and 55% success mark. We’ll assume that the other scores are all 6/10.

GM One:

  • 8 + 8 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 40 out of 60 = 66.7% – most of the time.
  • 10 + 10 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 44 out of 60 = 73.33% one time in three.
  • so his three-game streak is 100 x (66.7/55) x (66.7/55) x (73.33/55) = 196.09%

GM Two:

  • 9 + 9 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 42 out of 60 = 70% – most of the time.
  • 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 36 out of 60 = 60%, one time in three.
  • so his three game streak is 100 x (70/55) x (70/55) x (60/55) = 176.7%

These results show that there is more to the story. I mentioned previously that if the GM with the weakness applied himself to eradicating that fatal flaw, his games would skyrocket in popularity relative to the consistently a-little-above-average GM, and this is clearly evidencing that pattern. Yet, on his day, it doesn’t matter what GM Two can do, GM One will outperform him – he can’t touch that 73.33% top score.

Yet, it only takes one more bad session for GM One to be overtaken by a consistently above-average GM Two. Any time GM One is off his game, and GM Two is at his usual standard, GM Two will run the more satisfying game for his players.

Sometimes, you win because you are brilliant in one area and your opponent simply can’t make up the difference.

When I’m looking at Iron Chef, this is the equivalent of rating each individual dish provided by each contestant. Being consistently good can overcome a combination of one perfect dish and a couple that under-perform in the eyes of the tasters – but is not enough if the others are at least comparable.

Sometimes, a game will not succeed because everyone wants to play something else – no matter how consistently reasonably good your game is.

Remedial Action

If another game is consistently reasonable and occasionally brilliant, your best means of countering the effect is to be just a little better than reasonable and be consistent at it. Playing the long game and improving yourself just a little in areas where you’re already OK works. The gaming equivalent is to go in for a niche that suits a couple of players who don’t like what the star attraction is offering, and get better at delivering what they want.

This is the equivalent of focusing on your “core business”, and getting it right, in order to fend off the competition from a rival who occasionally does things better than you can. And, if necessary, shifting the “core business” to target an area that he can’t compete in, because he has this diverse group of interests to try and satisfy.

Here’s a real-world gaming equivalent: For a long time (and in theory, still), my Fumanor campaign is stacked up against Ian M’s 7th Sea campaign. For various reasons, my players were either not interested in the latter game, or there was no room for them. Over time, many of my players have drifted away, for various reasons; but the two core players are still there. I’m not interested in trying to steal Ian’s players; my game can survive just fine without doing so, just by satisfying those players who aren’t part of his game, in other words, by targeting a different market segment. There’s room for both of us, so long as I don’t try to compete directly with him.

From the point of view of number of players, Ian’s game is the winner of a comparison between the two. But that’s not the only way to measure success. By choosing a different measure, my game survives.


Something that I have seen a number of times on Iron Chef is that a Wonderful recipe is undone by being too similar to other dishes served by the same chef. Blandness, in other words, can contaminate brilliance.

Games need variety.

That can be more easily said than done, because you still have to satisfy your players; if they only want a limited range of things, variety can get in the way of satisfying them, game in and game out.

Remedial Action

This is actually some of the oldest gaming advice in the book, dressed in new clothes; if your players are action junkies, you can do anything you like so long as there is an adequate serving of action in the plot. The action can be in the service of political intrigue, or going shopping, or discovering the secret of the ruined temple, or finding the lost starship, or preventing the mutant uprising, or dealing with the star-crossed love interest; but the action has to be there, either resulting from the variety or altering the outcome of the variety plotline.

If you have one or two elements in your game that have to be central in order to satisfy your players, you still need to cloak them in variety, and that means looking for ways in which each variant plotline can lead to the core elements your players demand, looking for ways in which the two can co-exist at the same time, and looking for ways in which the core elements can be given context by the variation in plotline.

There is no excuse for focusing so much on the core “deliverables” that they become bland. There are reasons why it might happen, but they are hardly justifiable. Laziness. Failure of imagination. Habit.

Overcome these by starting all your adventure ideas from the point of view of variety and looking for ways to incorporate the requisite core elements, rather than the other way around.

A Bigger Picture

The final pattern that I have observed is that mediocre dishes that are arranged in such a way that they tell an overall “story” can defeat dishes that are excellent in isolation but which don’t connect to each other. Even when dishes stand in isolation, having a narrative flow is possible, simply by having some elements contrast while others provide a form of continuity. Spiciness, Sweetness, Saltness, Texture, and so on, can all be manipulated to create this overarching narrative within food.

This is relevant to gaming in two ways.

Bigger-Picture Content within an adventure

Contemplate this scenario: The PCs do something, and nothing appears to change as a result. The game keeps following the script laid out for it by the GM without diverging to any perceptible extent – perceptible by the players, that is. No matter how much may have changed behind the scenes, or how much the PCs opposition may have had to scramble to keep their plans on-track.

This has certainly happened to me in the past, and it really irks when you get accused of railroad plotting as a result, because you know darned well that it ain’t so; you’ve just been better at thinking on your feet than you have been given credit for.

Why does this happen?

There are two cause-and-effect continuities going on in any adventure – maybe more – and not just the obvious one of Characters act and opponents react.

The second one that I have in mind is “Characters act and opponents are seen to react.”

If the Players do something to counter whatever the situation is that the GM has orchestrated, there needs to be a tangible response by their opposition before the end of that day’s play. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the opposition has to abandon its’ plans; it may not even have to break stride. But there should be some evidence of:

  1. A pre-planned contingency plan being put into operation, even if the GM had to come up with it on the spot to keep the main plan on course; or,
  2. Some indication of a scramble to react on the other side, exposing potential flaws in the situation that the PCs can possibly exploit; or,
  3. Some definite and clear set-back in the progress of the other side’s plans, however temporary; or,
  4. The exposure of some fatal flaw in the opposition’s plans as a result of the PCs’ intervention.

How well thought-out the enemy’s plans should be is a function of their capabilities and is neither here nor there. Even a vexed message from the opposition complaining that the PCs (or their actions) have proven no small inconvenience can be enough. But there needs to be some visible reaction from the other side.

Perhaps a hidden asset has had to be revealed to the PCs in order to counter their move. Or a team of flunkies sent to deal with their impertinence (and keep them busy) while the big boss undoes the damage.

Best of all – and circumstances don’t often permit this – there will be no visible reaction from the other side until the climax of the day’s play, when it becomes clear that as a result of whatever the opposition have done to keep their plot rolling along apparently undisturbed, a fatal flaw in the plan has been opened up by the PCs actions – a flaw that they can begin to exploit in the next game session, and possibly one that the opposition is not even aware of.

I used to think – and this was a mistake that I made for a long time, and which is even embedded within some advice here at Campaign Mastery, I suspect – that it was sufficient for the NPCs to have to react to the PCs counter-actions. In other words, I was dealing only with the primary cause-and-effect layer. It’s only been quite recently that I have realized that my life as a GM would have been much easier if I paid closer attention – heck, any attention – to the second cause-and-effect layer as well.

PC actions not only have to affect in-game actions by NPCs, they have to be Seen to affect in-game actions by NPCs.

Bigger-Picture Content bridging adventures

This is probably the most obvious way in which the patterns of Victories on Iron Chef can be perceived as an analogy for something RPG-related. This was actually the observation that kicked off the entire train of thought encapsulated in this article. The chef in question arranged his courses so that each item had something in common with the item before it and something else in common with the item after it, but which contrasted with both surrounding offerings in other ways. The result was a series of strongly individual dishes that were individually not quite as highly praised as the best his rival was offering, but which were woven together to tell a more complete story, to make a more complete experience.

That’s a powerful formula, and one that GMs can definitely learn from. Have some point of similarity in terms of style or content, beyond the obvious, that connects this adventure to the one before it, and a second thing that connects this to the adventure that is to follow – and make other such elements quite different.

Follow something that’s grim and gritty with something a little more light-hearted, at least in places. Follow an uber-powerful enemy’s latest move with something more everyday and pedestrian, or something more socially aware, or something more uplifting. The contrast accentuates both adventures, while the point of connection keeps everything part of the same overall game universe.

This is emotional intensity control, as advocated in my two-part article “Swell And Lull – Emotional Pacing in RPGs” (Part 1, Part 2) on a campaign scale. It’s the sort of thing that I was trying to suggest back in Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow.

The “connecting threads” that I talked about at that time were

  • Emotional Intensity
  • Level of Action
  • “Cosmic” content
  • “Fantasy” content
  • Mood/Tone (Dark to Light>

And these days, I would add

  • Character Focus, and
  • Sense Of Resolution.

The first five are described in detail back in the original article, but are largely self-evident in meaning, so I won’t go into them again.

“Character Focus” ensures that if a plotline is all about one character having the spotlight, that the spotlight shifts with the next adventure to either one of the other characters or to the group as a whole – refer to “Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign?” for more information.

And “Sense of Resolution” is something that has been coming to my attention lately as a result of the players in the Zenith-3 campaign pre-empting what was supposed to be a quick introductory adventure intended to populate the world and make the players aware of various characters and situations and running it to a conclusion of sorts, as described in Monday’s Let’s Twist Again – Eleven Types Of Plot Twist for RPGs part 2.

You see, I’m still not sure that I did the right thing in letting the PCs go beyond that initial intent when they wanted to. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough for a way to end the plotline before they got involved in the later adventure – for example, deciding that it would take time for them to track down the Cosmic Symbiote that was the MacGuffin they decided to go after. If I had done that, then I could have left the intended recipient, Thanos-Prime, as a menace lurking in the background – no overt threat, not figuring in any significant adventures hence (not for a long time, anyway), a dark and shadowy part of the wallpaper.

Instead, he is a threat neutralized and a potential future ally. I’ll be able to shuffle him to the sidelines for now – it will take time for him to “connect” with the Cosmic Symbiote he is about to receive – so I can keep him from contaminating future plotlines. But there is a sense of momentum that was building up with the introduction of many threats that has been dissipated by the premature resolution of the plotline. The PCs have achieved victory too soon, and for a while I’m going to have to shift gears to rebuild the intensity that I had been building up, or future plotlines won’t have the gravitas and drama needed to make them interesting instead of anticlimactic.

What’s done is done; the PCs have made some hard moral choices, prevented an interdimensional Nazi invasion by super-powered cybernetically-“enhanced” meta-humans, and sparked a revolution that will restore freedom to a planet of oppressed citizens, dealt with problems they were not supposed to be ready to face yet (which is one reason why it took so much angst for them to make those hard choices – the adventure itself, viewed in isolation, was a success). More importantly, from a campaign perspective, they have established a precedent and a policy; it will be easier for them to “go there” next time a similar problem arises, making it much easier to resolve some problems they have yet to encounter. Things that should have been difficult will be easier to contemplate.

Foreshadowing has become resolution, and the campaign overall might suffer for a while as a result. The flow of the courses from one to the next has been disrupted, and it will take careful planning to get it back on track.

A little behind-the-scenes info because it provides a cautionary tale for other GMs is appropriate. There were certain plot problems that I had not devised a solution to in terms of the long-term plotline for Thanos-Prime. When the PCs proposed their solution, they did so in such a way that I immediately saw a solution to those problems, and in a burst of enthusiasm, let the PCs get the results that they needed in order to progress the plotline. That’s why I didn’t look harder for a stalling tactic at the time – I was too distracted by analyzing the solution and it’s implications, and got carried away by my own enthusiasm.

The effect was a short-term success, but one that will cause problems for the campaign for some time to come. In fact, it’s badly damaged some aspects of what I had planned for the future.

Victory Over Whom?

Ultimately, the person a GM scores a victory over when he gets things right are his own worst instincts and inherent flaws – we all have them, and the wise thing to do is always to seek to control or counteract them. We’re competing with ourselves to run the best, most interesting, most entertaining campaign that we can. In return, we get not only the vicarious thrill of sharing the player’s enjoyment of the game, but we also get all the fun of being creative and of being the instigator of that fun.

I think it’s telling that the initial passages of this analysis described one GM competing for players with another – because it was by forgetting the opposition and focusing on self-improvement, of competing against yourself, that victory was to be achieved. Learn from what the GM at the next table (or its internet equivalent) is doing right, and doing wrong, and use it to make your own game better than it was. Everything else will follow, and everyone wins in the end.

Games run by Good GMs fail, just as they do for everyone else. But, Good GMs learn from the experience, and come back stronger for the next round – and ultimately win the war against themselves. That’s a lesson we can all take from the patterns of victories on Iron Chef.

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Let’s Twist Again – Eleven types of Plot Twist for RPGs pt 2

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With A Twist

Campaign Mastery is hosting this month’s Blog Carnival. The subject I’ve chosen is “With A Twist” and anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, Plot Twists, etc, is fair game.

The Carnival started with an article on the rules interpretation of Surprise, and last week I posted the first part of this exploration of the Plot Twist.

In this part, I take up the cudgels and look at the fourth through eleventh different types of plot twist I’ve come up with for RPGs…

Unfolding Tesseract

This perpetually-unfolding Tesseract is the perfect metaphor for a plot twist as the hidden interior emerges to completely dominate the shape of events. Image Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – click image to view licence


The Plot twist is amongst the hardest literary devices to employ in an RPG setting, as explained in part 1 of this two-part article, because none of the literary techniques are appropriate to an RPG application. That means that new techniques are needed, preferably ones that take advantage of the nature of an RPG instead of fighting it.

Last time, I developed eight rules that plot twists in an RPG should follow:

  1. The GM cannot hide or distort facts that the PCs should be able to discern.
  2. The GM cannot lie to the players, though he can mislead them, or let them mislead themselves – but beware of Confirmation Bias.
  3. The plot twist has to follow logically from the combination of the facts observed by the PCs and other facts to which they were reasonably not privy, but which will become clear in the course of the revelation of the twist.
  4. Characterization should be consistent within reasonable normality. That means that a character can pretend to be something they aren’t, but this should be detectable unless they are consummate actors; outside of a deliberate act of deception by the character, their personality should be consistent, however complex.
  5. Ideally, the plot twist should make the PCs world richer, more detailed, and more substantial.
  6. The Plot Twist must not required the PCs to behave in a manner dictated by the GM. Misguided PC behavior based on incorrect understanding of a situation by players is fine.
  7. The Plot Twist must not take away the PCs ability to do something about whatever situation they are in, and should not confine PC actions to a single subsequent path.
  8. The key to a good plot twist is the surprise factor. The plot twist must not only maintain the surprise but deliver it as a “punch” at the right time. The perfect plot twist will drop player’s jaws in surprise (I’ve managed that about four times, which shows how hard it is).

And then offered a list of no less than eleven plot twist varieties that were designed to work in an RPG:

  1. The Instinctive Twist
  2. Emergent Opportunism
  3. Inverted Identities
    • The villain is a hero.
    • The hero is a villain.
    • The victim is a hero.
    • The victim is a villain.
    • The villain is the victim.
    • The hero is the victim.
  4. Key Fact Substitution
  5. The Figure From The Shadows
  6. Lurking Opportunities, Hidden Significance
  7. Predestined Failure
  8. Pointillism And Context
  9. Multi-track Planning
  10. Twist Ten: Dust in the wind
  11. Twist Eleven: More Than Meets The Eye

Finally, I looked at the first three types in more detail, especially the many variations on the third type, Inverted Identities. But that’s where I ran out of time – so let’s pick right up where I left off…

Twist Four: Key Fact Substitution

Describe a situation – what happened, and why people did what they are believed to have done. These are the key facts of the situation. Using such a situation as the core of an RPG adventure involves the PCs discovering these key facts, either before or after the situation has reached its ultimate conclusion, and acting upon the situation, one way or another. Some of the key facts may not be revealed but must be surmised by the players in their roles as the PCs. It follows that the minimalist description of the adventure is that same list of key facts, in chronological sequence, with an indicator of when the PCs are to get involved and when events will reach their conclusion. Of course, the PCs involvement should change the outcome, or the outcome should change the lives of the PCs, or both.

Creating a plot twist is as simple as choosing one or more of the key facts and replacing them with something different, while retaining the appearance that the original key “fact(s)” were correct until the moment of revelation. In other words, Circumstances or villain design lead to a key fact being incorrectly reported or assumed. Revelation of the true fact creates the twist.

This is really easily done using a table in a word processor, one divided into two columns. In the left-hand column, you list the apparent key facts, one per row. Where any fact is not going to change, you merge the cell that contains that fact with its neighbor to the right. Where a fact is to be replaced, you enter the “true” fact in the right-hand column. Simply reading down the page then gives you a summary of what seems to have happened, and what really happened.


Of course, it’s not quite that simple. You need to justify the illusion or deception or whatever the cause is of the misapprehended fact. This may require inserting additional rows into the event structure.


If you change a character’s motivation, you also alter how that character might act in future events. It’s also always useful to review the events and characterizations as they are perceived by each individual involved, because if one character changes, they way others react to that character might also change. You need consistency of characterization throughout.


This approach is one of the simplest techniques for plotting a mystery, so that deserves special mention. A similar approach, listing events as each character reportedly perceived them, is also one of the best tools for solving mysteries – which also merits highlighting.

Twist Five: The Figure From The Shadows

An RPG is bigger than any one adventure. No matter how serial in nature the campaign might be, it is nevertheless a larger tapestry than one isolated story. The fifth type of plot twist takes advantage of this broader tapestry by bringing in a third party at the climax who has been orchestrating events to create an opportunity for themselves.

In a self-contained work, this is unacceptable, and viewed as cheating the audience or the reader. In an RPG adventure, it is entirely fair, and actually enhances the game most of the time. Of course, this violates the “serial” nature of some campaigns, so it should be used sparingly, but it’s one way for serial campaigns to nevertheless have a bigger picture that is not static, evolving over time.

It’s a big game world out there. Why should the players (and, by extension, the PCs) be the only ones who take advantage of the fact?

But there is an even greater significance to this type of plot structure, because even in the most serial of game structures, the characters should always behave as though there had been a yesterday before they got involved in the adventure, and will be a tomorrow. Any other assumption immediately makes them two-dimensional, no matter how complex, deep, and rounded they might be.

Twist Six: Lurking Opportunities, Hidden Significance

This method concerns the meaning of events, the reason things are happening. What appeared to be coincidence, chance, or simply unrelated to events, turns out to be all-important, and the reason things are happening is something completely different to what it seemed. To avoid anticlimax, this is almost always a development in the direction of greater significance.

This type of plot twist can be difficult to plan unless you start by putting the cart ahead of the horse. Work out what’s really going on, and who is really behind it all, and then find ways to conceal the truth (the best way is for the true villain to deliberately emulate another villain’s M.O.) Once you have done so, look at the gap that’s left and deliberately choose something to fill them that looks plausible. Then go through the plan and look for ways to make that plausible item look right, look even more plausible.

At least half of the adventure, from the point of view of the PCs, should result in them undermining that plausibility, so it’s important to make a note of as many “tiny details that don’t fit” as you can.

Opportunism and Threat Response

A variation on this approach is through opportunism and threat response. Let’s say that you have three established antagonists in the campaign, and another lurking in the wings. Every time Antagonist #1 does something, or the PCs do something about him, the other three should not only look at ways to profit from the turn of events (even indirectly), while also examining the situation for possible threats to whatever they have going on. They should then act accordingly.

The same is true of any Allies the PCs might have, and any neutral opportunists. The more well-stocked with lively, interesting characters that a campaign is, the more certain it is that at least one character will see a potential opportunity and another will perceive a threat, and both will act accordingly to complicate the situation. Paying attention to the speed of information is vital in all such cases – it makes no sense for anyone to act in response to an opportunity that existed three months earlier; instead, you should extrapolate forwards to a best guess of the current / future situation that will result, and examine that for opportunities.

The logic is not quite the same when it comes to threats. A threat that existed three months earlier might still be a danger today; or the threat might even have caused a reversal at the time, the news of which has not yet reached the person making the assessment. Accordingly, there is an immediate need to act, regardless, and to act in three ways at the same time:

  • Find out what the outcome was, and whether or not remedial action is possible even at this late date;
  • Assume that the threat has befallen, and immediately begin taking steps to compensate / prepare;
  • Review all other operations and operational needs that might be placed at threat under similar circumstances and make preparations as best as is possible to deal with such threats.

Nor should these assessments (both pro and anti) be restricted to those not involved in the adventure already. All those participating in the adventure should similarly be reviewed for both opportunities and threats.

There is little that is so pleasurable to both players and to GMs than a character who does unpredictable things when the right clue is figured out and it all suddenly makes perfect sense!

Twist Seven: Predestined Failure

This is a hard one to pull off. It requires the villain to have made a mistake before the PCs even got involved in the plot, that at the last moment, is shown to make the failure of his plans inevitable, or his victory at best, Pyrrhic.

In order for this plot twist to be effective, everyone – villain, PCs, and onlookers alike – have to be convinced that victory is at hand. That’s hard enough to do, but the trouble doesn’t end there; next, the PCs can’t feel like fifth wheels, and the plot can’t be railroaded at any point, and has to be seen not to be railroaded. In fact, ideally, the actual act that unknowingly undoes the plans of the villain will be something that the PCs have inadvertently done or changed, something so apparently trivial that neither they nor the villain are aware of it.

Method 1

And that’s the key that unlocks this particular variety of plot twist. Start with some minor trivial act by the PCs and then come up with a chain of events – “for want of a nail” stuff – that transforms that trivial act into something of epic significance. Once you have that chain of events – and you may need several tries to get it right – you then need to hide it, disguise it, wrap it until the very last minute with a seemingly inevitable victory on the part of the villain. It’s this need to disguise what is going on beneath the surface that means you may need to redo your chain of “true events” time and time again.

Method 2

A slower, and somewhat more difficult approach is to build your plan up a bit like growing a tree – you do part of the roots, then part of the canopy (the part that shows), then a bit more of the roots, then a bit more of the canopy, and so on. This sort of step-by-step approach means that you don’t have a clear and simple construction of “what’s really happening” to follow, but it means that if a step can’t be concealed by the “canopy” you only have to go back and change that part of the “roots” growth – in the long run, it can save time and effort.

Method 3

A hybrid approach is also possible, constructing a slightly vague and generic “real story” skeleton which is then used as a guideline to the “tree” approach, and this is the technique that I usually employ when creating this type of adventure.

Employing a third party

It’s absolutely critical that the deception be complete on both sides. This is often most easily achieved by employing a third party behind the scenes, a rival who is conducting a very well-planned operation to take down a rival, an operation that will ultimately be successful. That gives you a character pulling strings behind the scenes to make sure things turn out the way he wants, burying facts, providing misinformation, and manipulating everyone else involved. Quite often, when I use this approach, I will use a prior adventure to establish the bona-fides of the apparent villain as a credible threat to the PCs and/or their ambitions, so they will be minded to see his attempt at a comprehensive victory as being just as credible. When the sting is revealed, and he is ruthlessly crushed or brushed aside, it immediately elevates the true villain as being even more dangerous than the first threat was; I know from experience that this one adventure can build up the threat posed by the real villain as much, if not more, than three or four appearances of any other sort.

If this is the real purpose of this adventure from a metagame campaign standpoint, then it becomes immediately worthwhile to spend three or even four times as long as normal in plotting the adventure, crossing T’s and dotting i’s.

To be honest, the work involved makes it hard to otherwise justify this variety of plot twist, but – like all such – it only has a limited repeatability when used as a one-trick pony. Even though it entails undesirable overheads, you have to occasionally use this plot twist variety at a time when you can’t justify it, just to keep it available and useful when you do need it.

Twist Eight: Pointillism And Context

Caption Text

An example of Pointillism

caption text

Close-up of the Pointillism Example

Think of each plotline or adventure in a campaign as a single dot on a canvas. The style of painting which employs this technique is called Pointillism, and you can see an example of it above. Only when many of these points are viewed collectively does a larger pattern become revealed. The points, meaningless in isolation, quite literally come together to form a “bigger picture”.

Things are a little more complicated when it comes to real-world adventures rather than abstract conceptual entities. Each adventure has a meaning and a structure all it’s own, and it is in the spaces in between that there is room for the color of the “dot”. Zoom in and you can see this texture and complexity; zoom out and the big picture still emerges.

It’s the equivalent of a photographic image in which each apparent pixel of color is really a microdot containing vast amounts of additional information.

It used to be thought that this was also an analogy for reality; you had the macro-world dominated by physics, you had the atomic scale of molecules and chemistry, and the subatomic world of particles beneath that, and so on. Even the macro-world was broken into layers – there was the layer at which Gravity was relatively insignificant, easily overcome by one of the other forces, and a larger scale of planets and solar systems in which something close to parity was achieved, and the still-larger scale of galaxies in which gravity was all-important. Even today, when we know better, it is often simpler to assume this simplified view of reality in order to solve problems.

Another way of looking at it is a form of abstract steganography, but one in which it is the buried image that we see all the time and not the larger picture. The detail usually hidden in steganography is overt, and the image that is hidden is the broader one. This is also analogous to the old-school dot-matrix images which used alphabetic characters to create an image – something now known as ASCII Art.

Wikipedia Logo with letters

Wikipedia logo made with letters (too small to make out in this image) – Art by Rascal the Peaceful at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0], click image to view licence, via Wikimedia Commons

Caption text

Closeup of part of the image. You can almost make out some of the individual letters. Art by Rascal the Peaceful at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0], click image to view licence, via Wikimedia Commons

RPGs actually perpetuate this mode of thinking as a tool. A bigger picture is an emergent property of all campaigns, either explicit and deliberately created or a subconscious manifestation of the GM’s thinking and plotting processes, and always shaped by the players through the actions of their characters.

Many plotting techniques for campaigns employ this technique to link subplots that are otherwise unrelated to the main plot into a broader narrative:

  • Campaign Background
    • Lays the foundation for the bigger picture
  • Adventure #1
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 1
  • Adventure #2
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 2
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 3
  • Adventure #3
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 4
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 5
  • Adventure #4
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 6
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 7
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 8
    • Bigger Picture noticed for the first time but still incomplete
  • Adventure #5
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 9
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 10
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 11
    • Subplot = Bigger Picture part 12
    • Bigger picture forms a coherent image for the first time
  • Adventure #6
    • Bigger Picture complicates the main plot or otherwise takes a secondary role to the main adventure
  • Adventure #7
    • Bigger Picture forms a Main plot element
  • Adventure #8
    • Plot focuses directly on the bigger picture

A campaign may have several of these bigger pictures going on either sequentially or simultaneously. It is even possible to have several such bigger pictures combine into a still larger narrative structure. That’s the level of complexity of plotting for my Zenith-3 campaign.


Way back when, I wrote an article called “Back To Basics: Campaign Structures” describing the step-by-step evolution in complexity of plotting that was possible, from the simplest possible structure all the way through to the Zenith-3 level of complexity as part of a series looking at some of the fundamentals of the art of DMing. The image to the side is an extreme scale reduction of my color-coordinated campaign “map”, updated to show just how far the campaign has come since we started play in January 2012 – not as far as expected, but there are two things to note in that regard: Not all adventures are the same size (the pace picks up considerably the farther through it we get), and the players spent half this playing year pre-empting an adventure that wasn’t supposed to happen until much later in the campaign (actually, a pair of adventures). Even without taking that into account, we are more-or-less where I expected to be after 24 months play, so only about 20% behind schedule of what was planned to be a seven-year campaign (with three years margin for error and additional adventures along the way). Taking the pre-preemption into account, we’re actually 33% behind schedule but will make up half of that when we reach the point where the Thanos War was supposed to occur.

I’ve wandered slightly off my point, which is that the techniques described in that article are exactly the same as the abstract example given above, and therefore show you how to create this sort of plot. There are even a couple of examples in the series for you to look at. Here’s the complete list of the Back-to-Basics series of articles:

And here are a couple of related articles that might be useful:

(If parts of this list look familiar, it’s because I refer people to these articles almost every time this subject comes up).

Getting back on-topic:

Manifesting these plot structures into a plot twist simply requires an adventure which has been deliberately designed to appear self-contained and unrelated but whose outcome will be radically changed by the revelation of the pattern. The greatest difficulty is hiding the pattern from the players while being true to the ground rules laid out earlier; the best technique for doing so that I can offer is the palimpsest, where you embed a layer for the PCs to penetrate and a still-deeper layer to use as the campaign-scale plot twist.

Twist Nine: Multi-track Planning

This type of Plot Twist is relatively easy to implement, but it suffers from a fatal flaw, which will become obvious when we get to it – though I’ll point it out, nevertheless.

There are three distinct phases to the planning of this plot twist.

Phase 1:
Start by planning a fairly straightforward plotline up to the point at which the PCs will be compelled by circumstances to act in some fairly obvious way. Next, assume that whatever that obvious action is, it will be the exact wrong thing to do, if only the PCs knew the full circumstances.

Phase 2:
Next, decide exactly what it is that the players don’t know that justifies the description of “the worst possible thing to do” – this will usually be “playing into the hands of the villain” or something similar, but there’s room to get creative here. Finally, go backwards through the events leading up to this point looking for what has to be altered in terms of those events to accommodate both outcomes – thereby determining what clues there will be to the impending plot twist. These have to be either pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit, or that can be subsequently discovered.

Phase 3:
Having revised the lead-up to the plot twist, it’s then a simple job of plotting your way forward from the point of critical mistake, through to the moment of revelation (NOT necessarily the same thing!) and thence through to the resolution and conclusion of the plotline. After all, you now know everything that’s going on and how the situation has been manipulated to influence the PCs into a reasonable mistake that benefits their opposition.

So, did you spot the huge danger that this entails? That’s right, it all hinges on the PCs being predictable. And if there’s one word that GMs should use with caution when describing PCs, it’s “Predictable”.

There are two solutions to this particular problem of predictability, and GMs can use either or both at the same time, as they see fit, and as in-game circumstances dictate.

If the PCs behave in some manner other than expected, there can be only three outcomes. They can move in the direction of discovering the manipulation, they can simply jump ahead to a later point in the chain of logic the GM expects them to follow, or they can move in a completely different direction.

The GM, for his part, has two choices: he can attempt to nudge them back in the direction they were expected to follow, or he can simply go with the flow while thinking about how the orchestrator will react.

Predictability solution one:

If it isn’t going to be absolutely catastrophic, choose “go with the flow”. If that means the PCs don’t fall for the manipulations of the villain, so be it – the players will have earned the high-fives they will exchange when they learn the significance of their discovery. And if it cuts the adventure short, that just gives them more time to celebrate.

Predictability solution two:

There are times when going with the flow will upset more important apple-carts. In which case I recommend junking the elaborate deception that you had planned, and going with the flow – up to a point (Trust me – it will all make sense in a moment). When you get to the point of revelation, ie the last possible point of going with the flow, you reveal one of two plot twists: Either the original overt agenda that the PCs were expected to follow is now the hidden plot of the villain, or his secret plot is still in operation, but instead of the cover that he had thought up, the PCs (and the players) have contrived their own. The point of revelation comes when one of these two is just short of being unstoppable.

Explaining the multi-tracks

This plotting technique develops two competing theories as to what is going on and why it is happening and who is behind it (and so on), one overt and one hidden. Both predictability solutions add a third track, one generated by the PCs. It’s up to the GM which one is what appears to be going on, and which one is what is really taking place; and he doesn’t have to decide until the last possible moment. Until then, he can simply keep his options open and let the PCs do as they will.

I advocated a similar approach (explained somewhat differently and in more detail) in an article I wrote on mysteries in RPGs a couple of years ago.

In essence, you could synopsize this technique as deliberately choosing events that can have two different meanings, one overt and one covert; at the moment of revelation, you reveal the covert as being the true plotline and the overt as a deception or error in judgment.

NPCs are fallible

It often helps if you prepare the ground early on in the adventure. Have an NPC not known for their logical thinking suggest the “covert” interpretation of events, only for the idea to be poo-poohed by another NPC who is usually much stronger (in the PCs estimation) on deductive reasoning. Don’t make either too obvious, or too easy. If the evidence keeps piling up, but they encounter reverses and difficulties in obtaining such evidence, the PCs will put much more stock in the theory than if it walks in and sits down at the table.

Players are used to the GM speaking ex-cathedra, and therefore expect NPCs to speak truthfully most of the time – at the very least, to get rolls to notice that someone is lying. So practice your deception (refer The Hierarchy Of Deceipt: How and when to lie to your players) and disguise any necessary rolls as something else, or make them before the game starts.

Twist Ten: Dust in the wind

Player thoughts are like motes of slightly-sticky dust, flying this way and that in the wind. Occasionally one will connect to another and form a close bond, and from these speculations, players will develop a theory as to what’s going on, either within the adventure or within the campaign. This may or may not accord with what the GM had intended to be the explanation for the events in question. To use this as the foundation of a plot twist, the GM needs to do five things:

  1. Listen to the player’s emergent theories and superficially conform with them – or at least, not contradict them until he’s ready.
  2. As the moment of revelation approaches, the GM makes the assumption that the players are wrong.
  3. He then evolves an alternative explanation for events that is radically different, noting any events in past adventures that contradict this new theory.
  4. He then invents or contrives an explanation for those contradictions that is plausible – usually an act of deception or manipulation by the real motive force.

Important: the moment of revelation should be the 11th hour for whatever the motive force is trying to achieve, leaving the PCs with just enough time to scramble to a solution.

The similarities between this approach and the second “Predictability” solution for Twist Type Nine are fairly obvious, so there’s little more to be said about the actual mechanics.

However, this twist has a couple of advantages, most notably that you don’t have to worry about lying to the players – which is a good thing if you aren’t good at deception. Instead, it harnesses the power of indecision.

Twist Eleven: More Than Meets The Eye

Try this sometime: Do a rough outline of a straightforward plotline. About half-way through it, pick an NPC who is unique to this particular plotline and decide that they are not who they seem to be. Don’t worry about who they actually are, yet – instead, look at what this implies for their contributions to the plotline. If the results are trivial, pick another NPC instead, or in addition to, this ringer, and repeat the process. There is little that is more fun for the GM than two NPCs both trying to deceive the PCs for their own purposes and in total ignorance of the other! Eventually, you will find an NPC who has a profound effect on the adventure if they can’t be trusted, or if they haven’t been telling the truth.

Once you’ve identified the rotten apple in the barrel, look at what their position within society; assuming that they took this disguise for a reason, what might it be? What does their employment/position give them access to? Information, Opportunities, Power, Security? Who would most like to have that benefit/advantage? This enables you to narrow down your choices as to who the NPC really is.

I once ran a Super-spy adventure in which eight NPCs figured prominently – and each of them was secretly a double-agent for someone else. Ostensible allies were actually enemies, ostensible enemies were secretly in cahoots, and the PCs job was to identify the triple agent amongst them who had killed a ninth agent. Everyone was acting at cross-purposes, sabotaging both their own efforts and those of everyone else. And each of them got it into their heads that the PCs were about to blow their covers. Four of them (independently) sabotaged the PCs car, two of them presented genuine credentials (blowing their covers to the PCs in an attempt to prevent the PCs asking the wrong person the wrong question), and two presented forged credentials (attempting to persuade the PCs not to blow non-existent covers). The triple-agent/assassin they were chasing ended up being identified as a mole for still another agency, one the PCs thought had been shut down…

The Final Twist

Sometimes, just to keep my players on their toes, I’ll set up a situation in which it seems like there is going to be a plot twist, and a fairly obvious one – then NOT deliver a plot twist. I even occasionally challenge myself to see how many different plot twists I could hint at and then not deliver in a single hour’s play – my record is twenty-three, but the circumstances were unusual. The more paranoid your players are, the more fun you can have with this non-twist.

However, most of the time, you will need some sort of plot twist on a regular basis. This would get awfully predictable and problematic if there was only one or two ways to skin that particular cat – so it’s a good thing there are so many different ways to twist the plot in an RPG!

Whew! Sorry for the delay in posting – the layout threw up some unexpected headaches at the last minute. The way the side-by-side images look is not at ALL the way they were supposed to, but my limited knowledge of stylesheets proved inadequate to the look I was trying to create.

On a completely unrelated issue, the usual schedule has posts due at Campaign Mastery on both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to handle that – so there may or may not be something special in people’s Christmas stockings!

Comments (1)

Ask The GMs: Buzz and Background

Excitement. Buzz. Anticipation. Enthusiasm. How best to create these for a new campaign?

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from BlueNinja, who wrote:

“I have an idea for a campaign, that follows off the plot of a popular CRPG [Computer RPG — Mike] (set a few centuries later, of course, so that the PCs don’t have to compete directly with the game’s PCs). While I am enthused about the idea, most of my gaming group has not played the game and know virtually nothing about it. Without finding them a copy to play, or otherwise mandating it, what is a good way to put out the background of the world to try and give my players the enthusiasm that makes for good gameplay?”


Saxon Brenton contributed to this article.

It was my initial impression that this was a tricky question to answer, because it was actually asking for two things that may be at cross-purposes.

The first is the best way to deliver Background information to the players, and the second is how to generate enthusiasm for the proposed campaign. The goals and purposes of these two activities are not necessarily mutually compatible.

When I consulted one of my fellow GMs, he thought the same thing. But we all have new campaigns to launch from time to time, so…

Today’s answer is going to be broken into three parts.

  • Ways to deliver background, and their respective pros and cons;
  • The best ways to generate buzz/enthusiasm; and
  • A wrap-up considering What common ground, if any, can be found between the two.


Mike’s Answer [incorporating Saxon’s Solutions], Part 1: Imparting Background to prospective and confirmed players

There are lots of ways to impart campaign background to players. Most of them have major potential downsides. After all, you can lead a player to information but can’t make him read – and even if he does, he may not understand. I’ve categorized the different approaches that I’ve experienced (or can conceive of) into 8 broad categories, and after looking at these in detail, I’ve got a little general advice on the subject.

1. Major Info Dump

“I’m starting a new campaign, here’s 700 pages of background to read. And 300 pages of House Rules to go with them.”

There are some out there who would accuse me of the above, but even at my most extreme, I never went that far. But I do know one GM who required his players to have read the Eberron setting – ALL of it – before play began. They didn’t, of course.

And that’s just the start of the problems with this approach. With so much, things get lost – we refer to it as information overload.

Nevertheless, there are rare occasions when this is the best way to go. When you have a lot of information to dispense, for example, and your players are all avid readers – and you are an avid writer.

Cross-referenced, Indexed, Searchable, Annotatable
These are all tools for making information accessible to the reader. They are also areas where RPGs are notoriously deficient. The more of these that you can provide with your Info Dump, the better off you are.

Campaign Wiki
One alternative to the prose dump is to create a campaign Wiki. If you grant players the appropriate privileges, they can annotate to their heart’s content, and it’s usually easy to incorporate a custom Google Search if the Wiki doesn’t have that sort of function already. A variant on this theme is to start a Google+ Group for the Campaign. Cross-referencing and Indexing still have to be done manually, though, however the use of pages and sub-pages can be an automatic poor-GM’s substitute, at least to a minimal extent.

A free WordPress Site
Using Blog Software as though it were a Wiki not only provides all the advantages of a Wiki, but by providing multiple ways of indexing – keywords, internal links, categories – provides greater flexibility and multiple layers of indexing, as I pointed out in Have WordPress, will Game.

Upside for Mind-Mappers
An upside for anyone who uses mind-mapping to organize their thoughts and notes is that the information to populate these sites is already organized appropriately to at least some extent!

As I discovered when I went to do a reasonably minor update to CM several years ago (“Reconstructing the Campaign Mastery Blog), it’s massively inconvenient to change your taxonomy in mid-stream. On this occasion, less than two months into what is about to become a Six-year existence, it still took six-and-a-half hours to update a mere 20 blog entries. Even granted that my system was slow at the time, that’s still just under twenty minutes per blog entry. These days, with 642 blog entries – including this one – we’re talking about 210 HOURS of work to do the same job.

Spending a whole day (or even a working week) preening your taxonomy might seem like a lot at the time, but it’s trivial compared to the time it would take to correct a flawed design.

ALL such work is an additional overhead, campaign prep that needs to be done and done right before it gets used by anyone, including you. So that’s a downside.

2. Major Info Dump In-Game

I tried this; the idea was that by roleplaying the delivery, I could break up the info dump into more digestible chunks. You can read all about how it worked out here: My Biggest Mistakes: Information Overload in the Zenith-3 Campaign, but the title alone should tell you all you need to know.

In smaller doses, this might still work, so the technique must still be considered viable – but lose the “Major” from the technique description.

caption text

A reduced-size example of the Fumanor Website

3. Tailored Info Dump

This is a variant on the Campaign Wiki / WordPress Site approach mentioned above, and one that worked a treat for the original Fumanor Campaign.

I constructed a website designed for off-line access, using custom links at the bottom of each page to string separate pages (and even variant forms of some pages) into a coherent narrative that was tailored to the characters. There was a Common/Everyman thread, a Priests-and-Mages thread, an Elves thread, and a GM-only thread. This enabled players to read the Common/Everyman thread and decide what character class they wanted to be, and – if they decided to run a Mage, Cleric, or whatever, they could access specialist knowledge that these groups had preserved that had been forgotten by the everyday man. Of course, there was heavy bias at work in the various groups, and it was made clear that this was all being delivered “in-game” and not ex-cathedra – meaning that there was no guarantee that a single word of it was true. Distortion, Bias, and simple Error were all built-in. Then I bundled the whole thing up in a self-extracting Zip file small enough to email around. What’s more, I could (and did) annotate and expand and correct it from time to time.

The downside to this approach is that it takes a lot of prep time, and you need to know your way around a website editor capable of producing off-line web sites. Frontpage Express has always been my weapon of choice even though it’s zonks old, now. I also know basic HTML, and know the trick of renaming HTML files as .rtf to enable direct-editing of the code with wordpad (somewhat more powerful than notepad, but not so powerful that it gets in the way), so I had and have the know-how to use this approach. If you don’t, go for something more WISIWIG that will do the job for you.

4. Limited Info Dump

Or, here’s an idea, Don’t Tell The Players Everything. Restrict yourself to The things they need to know at the start of play, and plan on educating them as things come up.

This puts even more responsibility on the GM’s shoulders than he had already; it means that every time he has information that the PC would have and the player doesn’t, he is honor-bound to make the player aware of it. This can interrupt game-flow, but that can be the lesser evil.

Synopsize the campaign world’s history onto a single page or less. Use another page for the society, politics, crime & punishment, money and trade, etc that the players need to know. Produce a one-page map with just the bare bones on it. Produce dedicated half-pages for each of the races available to players for PCs, and another for each of the major class types (if you’re talking D&D or Pathfinder), using copy-and-paste if necessary. The result is a four-page dossier that is theoretically unique to each character and gives them just enough knowledge to start play.

Depending on the campaign, you might be able to go further. Try halving that – you can’t reduce the map much, but that’s 4 pages down to 2-and-a-half. Halve it again, and you’re down to less than a page of text and a page of map. That’s the target most people aim for when designing Tournament Adventures.

Of course, if you’re using standard races / alien species from the sourcebooks, or classes, you need not do anything but point people at the appropriate pages and maybe offer a URL or two.

The Downside to such severe restriction might be an apparent lack of depth and originality. The more you rely on other people’s sources, the more “canned” the campaign can feel. And there is always the danger of leaving out something important. For an ongoing campaign, I think four or five pages is about right, most of the time.

5. Introductory Campaign Phase

One way to limit what you need to tell players about up-front is to design a phase of the campaign that is about nothing but bringing the campaign background to life and presenting it to the players. With the exception of the most recent adventure, that describes exactly the technique being employed in the Zenith-3 “Earth Regency” campaign – and it was supposed to apply to the most recent adventure, too, but the players decided to get clever on me and pre-empted a couple of adventures intended to take place much later in the campaign. What was supposed to be a quick introduction to a background character who would eventually become significant ended up taking most of the year. You can read more about that next week.

You can design an entire phase of your campaign around imparting necessary information to the PCs in-play instead of in advance. Don’t tell them about Drow, have them encounter Drow. Or have them meet someone who is frightened by Drow. Or who was once attacked by Drow. Or who wants to attack the Drow. Build an adventure around the concept of making each “chunk” of the campaign background essential information for that Adventure, and let the players start to build up their own “Big Picture” – before the main campaign starts in earnest.

6. The Preliminary Campaign: PCs as Youths

A variation on this approach is to get the players to give you a summary of the life events they want their characters to have experienced prior to the start of play. Use the “Limited Info Dump” to give them what they need for that, and require them be generic. Then, in a series of solo game sessions, and compressing time in between key events as much as possible, roleplay the actual events, filling in background as you go. “You want to be orphaned at a young age and raised by an Elf? Okay.” “You want to be taken under the wing of a legendary fighter and trained by him? No problem.”

The notion is that each of the player’s chosen life events gets filtered by the GM, adjusted and altered to be accommodated within the campaign setting. The player doesn’t need to know in advance how the game society treats orphans, the GM can show him. This can bring a character backstory to life in a way nothing else will.

I would even contemplate using a different game system, one designed for more narrative interaction, ie a “storytelling” game system. I’ve never used one, but several have been recommended in comments here at Campaign Mastery in the past – FATE and FUDGE have both been mentioned in this context in the past (and thanks to Brent P. Newhall of for supplying the links, way back in May, 2009!)

7. Information Osmosis

The absolute best way to give information to the players is as they play. It’s not easy, but as I demonstrated in Yesterday Once More, the Campaign that I gave away a couple of weeks ago, it is possible. A key part of each adventure is telling the PCs what they need to know about the game world and the physics and the tech involved and it’s limitations as it becomes relevant.

In practice, it’s rare that the whole background can be imparted in this way; but combining this with the “Limited” or “Targeted” information-dump techniques can save you a lot of grief.

8. Exotic Solutions

Create an Infographic, or a video trailer, for the campaign. This sort of thing is way beyond my level of expertise but if this sort of thing is up your alley, take advantage of it!

The assumption of Ignorance

To paraphrase what I said earlier, “You can lead a player to information but you can’t make him read.” One of the decisions that should be made up-front when you deciding how to disseminate the campaign background to the players is “How am I going to handle someone not having read it?”

There are lots of alternatives. Peer pressure, holding up the game while you educate the player on what he should already know, is one approach. Assuming that if the player doesn’t know, neither does the character, is a fairly brutal but effective solution. Even more brutal is requiring the character to “buy” the background they should already know, one word at a time, with XP, is even more brutal. Still another is simply forcing decisions onto the character when they were made in “willful ignorance”, though I don’t recommend that as a technique. Assuming that none of the players have read the relevant information, or that at least one will have forgotten it, is another, rather more generous approach, because it leads you to build “educational reminders” into your adventures that get everyone on the same page when it’s necessary.

The degree of harshness should depend on how reasonable your expectations are, which is hard for you to judge. It’s utterly unreasonable to expect anyone to have memorized that proverbial 700-page magnum opus that I mentioned as an extreme example at the start. But if you were more reasonable in your expectations, it provides less reason to be forgiving – though you should always take individual circumstances into account. Letting the other players choose the punishment to be applied is sometimes the best policy, because they are in the best position to decide how reasonable you were being in the first place.

It’s all about Them

You should always remember that you aren’t writing Campaign Background for yourself; any benefits you get from being able to use it as reference material is a bonus. It should be an extract from your Campaign Planning Notes aimed at telling the Players what they need to know, and that means that the delivery method and depth should be something that suits them. There are worse ideas than providing a limited background and permitting them to ask questions for more information in things that interest them, or that they think their character should know a little more about.

The players define the standards of what is acceptable, what is required, and how success in delivering the background is to be measured. You’re just along for the ride.

Mike’s Answer, [incorporating Saxon’s Solutions], Part 2: Enthusiasm

But all that presupposes that you have players in the first place. How do you get potential players interested enough to sign up in the first place? This is a LOT easier said than done. I’m lucky – I’ve never had to actively spruik for players, and there have been times when I’ve had to do everything short of beating them off with a stick! At one point (in the mid-90s, I think it was), I had 23 players on the waiting list for my Superhero campaign!!

But I won’t let my lack of direct experience get in the way – I’m used to winging it and pretending to be an Expert In Everything. I’ve given the subject some thought, and I have twelve specific thoughts, and three pieces of general advice, to offer. But I’m warning readers up front that this is likely to be far from complete or as robust as usual – apply grains of salt at your own discretion!

i. Be Enthusiastic

Smiles, and enthusiasm, are contagious. If you are excited by what you’re doing, share that excitement! Describe your campaign with zest and gusto when speaking to prospective players.

ii. Track Record

The better your established track record of running interesting campaigns with lots of fun and solid foundations, the easier it will be to persuade players to join your next one. The implications can be profound; if your prospective players think you are biting off more than you can chew with the proposed campaign, the smart move can be to set it aside and run a number of smaller campaigns designed to ensure (and demonstrate) that you have the skills needed to pull off “the big one”.

So far as I am concerned, those smaller campaigns are as much for the purpose of generating enthusiasm for the Big Campaign idea as they are for the removal of perceived impediments to the success of that campaign.

A negative reputation can also have a significant effect, and may need to be countered specifically. Graham McDonald was a good friend, but he had developed the reputation for starting campaigns and then dumping them in three-to-six months. As a result, he found it hard to attract players to his later campaigns, and found it even harder to persuade them to invest any sort of effort in their characters. Any enthusiasm for those campaigns was in spite of his reputation, not because of it.

iii. Originality

Originality is always a great selling point for a campaign, especially if the players think the GM knows what he’s doing. Like Track Record, though, it can also be a double-edged sword – if the prospective players lack confidence in the GM’s game mechanics, they may be less inclined to sign on for anything more than a one-off trial run.

iv. Marketing Your Campaign

Marketing, at it’s most fundamental, is about creating a perception of need that the product being marketed can then be shown to satisfy. It doesn’t matter how necessary the product really is, or how real the need is – perception is more important than reality in the world of marketing.

A key element of most marketing strategies is about generating enthusiasm for the product, and that means that the full range of marketing techniques (or some reasonable facsimile) can be applied to the task of getting players to sign up to the campaign and be happy about doing so – until they see whether or not it lives up to the hype, at least!

I won’t go any further into this, having already written an article on this specific subject – Cause And Inflect: Marketing your way to a better game. This Google Search might be helpful if this route is something you want to consider.

v. Salesmanship – Put Yourself In Their Shoes

The key to selling something is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes, identify why they need the product in question, and then impart that knowledge in a convincing manner to the customer. If you’re “selling” participation in your next campaign, or enthusiasm about it, the principle still holds. (I’ve never been a fan of the hard sell; while it may work at the time, it can also produce anger and disappointment if the product doesn’t live up to expectations. This is a soft-sell technique that is almost as effective and is much less prone to arousing anger.

Of course, the more you know about the person you’re trying to “sell” to, the better your chances of success. That’s why cold calling is such a painful occupation for anyone with half-human empathy – you are required to make assumptions about the person you’re selling to, and they immediately resent that. To compensate, hard-sell tactics are forced on the seller, who then forces them onto the prospective customer.

Having done both, I’d rather sell Vacuum Cleaners door-to-door than cold-call people from a marketing call center.

vi. Mind Games & Teases

The more interesting you can make the campaign seem, the more interested and enthusiastic the prospective players will be. When you put your promotional material (or equivalent) together, pay special attention to arousing some intellectual appeal. Don’t make it all about this, of course, but don’t neglect it, either.

vii. Mysteries & Mayhem

Don’t explain everything. Include some teasers for the first couple of adventures. Try to arouse curiosity about the campaign – curiosity that can only be resolved by joining in. The more you hook the prospective players’ curiosity, the more enthusiastic they will be about getting answers. Then make sure that as each solution is delivered, a new question or mystery gets raised. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know it will probably be fun” is what you want to aim for.

viii. A short story

If you’re a good writer, use a short short story to make players connect with the campaign. If you aren’t, try using someone else’s and building your campaign around it. That four-or-five pages length that I mentioned back in the first part of this ATGMs answer is a good guideline. Even better, you can use it to deliver (and immerse) your prospective players in the campaign background.

ix. Campaign Blurb

Try to come up with a campaign blurb – a one-sentence synopsis of what the campaign is going to be about. Load it with things that you know your prospective players like as much as you can, but that will probably have to wait for a more comprehensive description.

Part of the process of creating a blurb is to give your campaign a memorable name. From my series on
, and past campaigns by other GMs from the days when I had to produce a game schedule, compare these (they’re in alphabetical order in each category, so don’t read anything into their sequence within each list):

  • GREAT:
    • Fumanor: The Last Deity
    • Fumanor: The Seeds Of Empire
    • Shards Of Divinity
    • The Adventurer’s Club
    • The Tree Of Life
    • Zenith-3: Earth Regency

    These all work because they tell you something about the campaign and it’s flavor or genre beyond the name of the game system. That additional meaning needs no interpretation, it leaps out at you. “The Last Deity”? The mortality of the gods is an obvious central theme. “The Seeds Of Empire”? Clearly, it’s about a political structure becoming an Empire.

    The only name that may not be familiar to regular readers of Campaign Mastery is “The Tree Of Life”, which was the Campaign that I devised to playtest what is now D&D 5e, and which was just “D&D Next” at the time.

  • GOOD:
    • Ars Magica: Triamore
    • Ars Magica: The Novgorod Tribunal
    • Champions: Zenith-3
    • Cyberpunk by Bill K
    • Fumanor: One Faith
    • Riddleport
    • The Carnus Campaign
    • Yesterday Once More

    These are not great, but are not bad either; in general, they tell you something about the campaign in addition to any info about the Game System, but the information needs context or explanation. Once that information is supplied, the name works.

    I’ve included three ringers with deliberate intent. The first is “Yesterday Once More“, which hasn’t changed since the last time I mentioned it. The name implies regular Time Travel, but also holds hidden layers of meaning that will only become clear to the players in hindsight (I almost titled it “Yesterday, but not as we know it,” but decided that this title gave away too much of the plot twist).

    The other is “Cyberpunk by Bill K,” aka “Bill’s Cyberpunk”. At first glance, this deserves relegation to the “Poor” category below, but what isn’t shown is that Bill had a rep for his Cyberpunk campaigns that elevated the meaning of the “name”. And now that the context has been explained, the name works – barely.

  • POOR:
    • 7th Sea
    • Mike W’s Game
    • Phil’s Game
    • Rings Of Time
    • Warcry

    I agonized briefly about including “Warcry” in this part of the list – but supplying the context (it’s all about a character formerly of the Champions: Zenith-3 campaign) doesn’t elevate understanding of the campaign; you need to actually explain the context of the context to get there. So for all it’s being a great name to anyone who knows the significance, and sounds nice and dramatic (as a superhero nom-de-plum should), it doesn’t quite make the grade on it’s own Merits.

    “Rings Of Time” took its name from the first adventure, which was supposed to be a one-shot game. The players insisted that it continue. While it’s a great name in and of itself, it actually has little-to-no relevance beyond that one adventure. Again, once you explain the meaning, you have to explain the significance of the meaning before you know anything about the campaign. Worse, this is actually misleading in its implications.

    “7th Sea” tells you most of what you need to know, IF you recognize the name of the Game System. Without that, it’s in the same category as “Warcry”, and for the same reason.

    And the other two are what you call a campaign when you don’t know what name it’s been given – or when it hasn’t been given one.

x. Art, Banners, Logos, & Game Aids

A great graphic can excite the senses, tease as to the content of the campaign it represents, and be worth a thousand words. More, because it can cut straight through to an emotional response, it can do things that those thousand words can’t unless in the hands of a GREAT writer.

Banners are like name-tags – stick one on everything to do with the game and simply showing them off generates some excitement.

A logo is simply a name-tag without an illustration.

Game Aids, like character sheets with the campaign’s logo on them, also grab attention and suggest that you’re serious about this campaign. That can be vital if commitment is thought to be an issue.

These are all variations on the giveaway gimmick, which has been a part of sales since early in the 20th century, maybe longer. They are the equivalent of Crackerjacks prizes and toys in cereal boxes. On their own, they don’t do much – but when coupled with other promotional elements, they can push you over the line and into a “sale”.

xi. Promises, Promises

Whatever you produce to promote your campaign should promise to deliver whatever it is that the players want. That’s the style of adventure/campaign, the type of genre, the type of location, the relative degree of action, the style of adventure, and so on. EVERYTHING they receive prior to the start of play should instill the notion that this is exactly what they want. And then, the campaign has to deliver on those promises.

Promising “Move and countermove in the minefield of pan-racial polytheistic fantasy politics” might get some players excited – but if what you want is to thump something every week, this isn’t going to cut it.

In particular, if you are an experienced GM, you have to promise that this campaign is not going to fall victim to whatever negativity is associated with the last one that you ran (or perhaps the last half dozen). But, it’s not enough simply to say “this will be different” – you have to actually tell the people you are trying to enthuse why it will be different. “My roleplaying will be better this time because I’ve been taking acting lessons.” “I won’t let this campaign bog down with rules arguments because I have a new protocol on how to resolve these problems.” “No more bunnies with sub-machine-guns, I promise!” “I’ve fixed every problem with the rules that came to my attention last game.” “Now, without added MSG!” Whatever it was, no matter what you thought of it, if the players were unhappy with it, it needs to change. And actions speak louder than words – so show that you have taken some action!

xii. Referencing Inspiration

In the case of BlueNinja, he wants to base his campaign on a computer game he likes, and wants to generate excitement for the idea, but doesn’t know how to impart the background he has in mind in such a way that the players will be enthusiastic without forcing them to play the game.

The last is a lousy idea – if they don’t like the game, you’ve blown any chance of hooking them, and since an entirely different skillset is involved, the results would be unpredictable at best.

What you need to do is translate the game into the medium that you need for an RPG background – then edit the results into something that stands a chance of generating enthusiasm.

  • Cover Art - Can you use the game’s cover art as your campaign illustration? DON’T try using screen grabs – instead, search for fan art of the characters, settings, locations, etc. Of course, this breaks copyright, so you won’t be able to publish it, and may not be able to publish the campaign, either – if you’re going to have to file off serial numbers, doing so before play starts is far better.
  • Campaign Name - Can you reference the source Game’s name in your Campaign Name? “Space Invaders: The Retribution” is it’s own hook. But this may also run you afoul of copyright and intellectual property law.
  • Logo - Can you photoshop out a copy of the cover art to extract the logo – then use that for your campaign (with additions, if necessary)? Note that this has the same problem as cover art.
  • Reviews - Assuming that you still want to go ahead, dig up every text review of the game that you can. Any review worth reading will describe the game’s setting and overall plotline, however briefly – and that makes it an ideal place to mine for content to insert into your background.
  • Wikipedia - Another great source is to look for a description of the game on Wikipedia. You might find nothing – but anythiA6FFA6ng you DO find could be gold.
  • Advertising - Advertising for the original game is designed to make a positive impression and make you want to play. If you are translating the game into a different medium, even if just as a campaign background for original adventures (rather than forcing the players to re-enact the computer game), advertising for the original can also do the job of making players enthusiastic about your adaption. Some of this advertising may be in video format, but most is likely to be print-based. The newer the game, the less likely this is to be true.
  • Video Reviews (youTube) - Similarly, look for a video review that you might be able to show the players.
  • Game Company - Don’t forget to look for goodies (text and visual) at the website of the game company!
  • Pop Culture references - Finally, look for any pop culture references that you can use to describe key aspects of the background that you have in mind. “Dirty Harry in the 1930s” tells people what they need to know with a minimum of verbiage.
  • Soundtrack - If the computer game itself has an antecedent as a movie or TV show, look for a theme or soundtrack recording. If it works for them, maybe it can work for your game, too.
“This isn’t the game they’re looking for…”

No matter how enthusiastic you might be, the available players might not be interested. I don’t care how excited my friends get about a Western, I’m just not into the genre. I can count the number of Westerns I’ve enjoyed on one hand – “Evil Roy Slade” and two episodes of “Walker, Texas Ranger” that I caught by accident. Full Stop. If you stretched the point, you could include “A Fist Full Of Datas” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And maybe the Tremors movies, especially the original.

So, if I’m offered a Western-genre RPG, you will need to move mountains to get me to sign up.

I like a lot of Sci-Fi, but Avatar bored me to tears. Offer me a game based on Avatar, and I’ll wish you all the luck in the world – but I won’t be joining you at the game table.

The only Pirate movies that I like are the Pirates Of The Caribbean series – but I like a lot of action-adventure, and fantasy, so offer me action-adventure with a recurring comedic strand and a little fantasy thrown in on the side, and I’ll sign up for a buccaneering adventure or two, maybe even a whole campaign. In fact, I did.

The bottom line: unless there’s some predisposition that you can tap into, the success of your persuading a player to join your game rests on the genre and style that are going to underpin it; and if they aren’t interested at all, they aren’t going to become interested, no matter what you do or say. Save the idea for some other time, some other group of players. Or write it up and sell it.

It’s Never Going To Be The Same

Something that I’ve seen happen on a number of occasions: GM generates campaign based on some property – novel, TV show, movie – and expects their game to have exactly the same flavor. It won’t. As I pointed out in Layers Of Mis-translation: RPGs and Dubbed TV, the way any given campaign plays is due to the players as much as the GM, with the game system and campaign genre throwing their hats into the ring, to boot. If you expect to re-create the experience that you had when playing/reading/watching the original, back off now before the memories become contaminated – it WON’T be the same.

I’ve thought for a while that there might be something to be said for taking a series that had potential but squandered it and trying to “do it right” – I even did a complete outline for a “Babylon 5: Excalibur Redux” campaign on that basis, which had players signing up on the spot – but which I’ve never had time to develop, let alone run.

Rollerbladed Time-traveling Cyber-Ninja Hobbits On A Ship

Finally, there are always some concepts that just won’t work no matter how enthusiastic the originator might be. Not if you try and play them straight, anyway – there might be room in the above concept for a farce, though I don’t know how much longevity it would have. If you can’t get your players to be enthusiastic about your idea – and it does happen to all of us now and then – examine it closely. Is it a distant relative of the “Rollerbladed Time-traveling Cyber-Ninja Hobbits On A Ship”?

The Wrap-up: Mike’s Answer, [incorporating Saxon’s Solutions], Part 3: Integrating Buzz-Builders and Background

The campaign background exists to do a job, but there’s always more than one way to skin a cat. Using marketing and sales techniques to insert key elements into your background can be a way of achieving both goals at the same time. All you have to do is ensure that the marketing and buzz-building doesn’t get in the way of the essential purpose of the background.

That becomes a lot easier if you use something other than the info-dump as your primary technique for imparting background. After all, there’s nothing that says you can’t use the marketing technique analogies that I have described as your primary method of separating what limited information you retain from what you intend to reveal in play. There’s nothing that says that you can’t use source-related materials like covers and advertising to convey part or all of your background.

But it all needs to harmonize – what you leave out of the background shapes what has to be revealed in play, which in turn shapes the campaign’s adventures. It does no-one any good if everything you put into your background promises Black Forest Cake and you deliver the best Banana Bread ever, with cherries and chocolate on top. You only damage your credibility.

So: Use the marketing principles to design your background so that it appeals to your proposed player’s tastes and interests them; use the background – both what’s promised and what’s been left out – to shape your campaign plan, and hence your adventures; and have the whole package ready before you try and interest your players – and you might just have a shot at getting them on-board.

I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights. While I seem to have done most of the talking in answer to the question, I had virtually nothing other than the section on Assistant GMs until the others put in their two cent’s worth. Blair & Saxon: Much appreciated!

About the contributors:

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

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

Next in this series: Creating cool spell components!

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Pretzel Thinking – 11 types of Plot Twist for RPGs, Part 1

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With A Twist

So it’s Blog Carnival time again, and (as I explained last week) this time around, Campaign Mastery is hosting. The Subject is “With A Twist” which means anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, Plot Twists, etc, is fair game.

I kicked the month off with an article on Surprise, and this time around it’s Part One of a two-part exploration of the Plot Twist, which will be followed sometime very soon with Part Two. Later this month, I have two more up my sleeve (if it all comes together). But more on that a little farther down the track.

In the meantime, let’s take a good hard look at Plot Twists, and why they are often much harder than it seems they should be – and what can be done about the problem…

Twisted Directions 1061652_17898544

Pretzel Thinking – Eleven types of Plot Twist for RPGs, Part 1

The Plot twist is amongst the hardest literary devices to employ in an RPG setting. The main reason for the difficulty is that so few of the literary techniques used in literature, TV, and movies, can be applied to the RPG environment.

The wikipedia page on the subject that I listed a moment ago lists 11 plot twist mechanics, and for one reason or another, not one of them can be translated directly to an RPG.

Some are unfair to the players, some require a non-linear sequence of events which is much harder to pull off in an RPG without being both obvious and clumsy about it, and some are simple last-minute solutions to mysteries that lead to an unexpected perpetrator. No matter which one you look at, they all suffer from one problem or another that makes them unusable in an RPG.

If there is no past art that we can draw upon, then the GM has to go beyond known techniques and find his own methods, then refine them through failure and painful experience, getting it wrong more often than right.

Do we really need plot twists?

Plotlines keep the game interesting beyond the simple mechanics of “see monster, hit monster”. Without the capacity for surprises and unexpected developments, those plotlines become predictable and less interesting – in other words, starts losing their effect. Predictable quickly becomes dull, and dull quickly becomes “Let’s play something else.”

At the same time, you can’t just have all sorts of crazy stuff happen at random just for the surprise factor. That, too, quickly becomes predictable, and it also excludes the opportunity to have fun exploring the world because it simply won’t make sense.

So you need the world to be sensible and predictable, up to a point, and then for a surprising development to shine a new perspective on the past and create a new context for future events, reinvigorating the game’s plot potential.

And a surprising development that changes the interpretation of events and lends unexpected significance to the plot is what we call – a plot twist.

Ground rules

Having determined that the recognized literary techniques for plot twists don’t work in an RPG environment, but that plot twists are a necessary part of any RPG, then we have to find new techniques, ones that take advantage of the nature of an RPG instead of fighting it. The place to start is by laying down a couple of ground rules that our techniques will have to follow. It is violation of these ground rules that excludes the traditional plot twist techniques – in fact, the following eight rules were generated by working backwards from the question “what’s wrong with this?” as applied to those traditional techniques.

  1. The GM cannot hide or distort facts that the PCs should be able to discern.
  2. The GM cannot lie to the players, though he can mislead them, or let them mislead themselves – but beware of Confirmation Bias.
  3. The plot twist has to follow logically from the combination of the facts observed by the PCs and other facts to which they were reasonably not privy, but which will become clear in the course of the revelation of the twist.
  4. Characterization should be consistent within reasonable normality. That means that a character can pretend to be something they aren’t, but this should be detectable unless they are consummate actors; outside of a deliberate act of deception by the character, their personality should be consistent, however complex.
  5. Ideally, the plot twist should make the PCs world richer, more detailed, and more substantial.
  6. The Plot Twist must not required the PCs to behave in a manner dictated by the GM. Misguided PC behavior based on incorrect understanding of a situation by players is fine.
  7. The Plot Twist must not take away the PCs ability to do something about whatever situation they are in, and should not confine PC actions to a single subsequent path.
  8. The key to a good plot twist is the surprise factor. The plot twist must not only maintain the surprise but deliver it as a “punch” at the right time. The perfect plot twist will drop player’s jaws in surprise (I’ve managed that about four times, which shows how hard it is).

Types Of Plot Twist

With those rules defined, we can turn our attention to types of plot twist suitable for RPGs, how to create them, and how to implement them effectively.

I stated earlier that, since the literary plot twists don’t work, it would be necessary for a GM to find his own methods and acquire proficiency in them on his own. Over the last 33+ years of gaming, I have matched the official eleven with eleven approaches of my own:

  1. The Instinctive Twist
  2. Emergent Opportunism
  3. Inverted Identities
    • The villain is a hero.
    • The hero is a villain.
    • The victim is a hero.
    • The victim is a villain.
    • The villain is the victim.
    • The hero is the victim.
  4. Key Fact Substitution
  5. The Figure From The Shadows
  6. Lurking Opportunities, Hidden Significance
  7. Predestined Failure
  8. Pointillism And Context
  9. Multi-track Planning
  10. Dust in the wind
  11. More Than Meets The Eye

Now, without explanation, some (most?) of those will be meaningless, though some may be obvious. There’s something to be said about each of them, though, so let’s start looking at them in detail:

Twist One: The Instinctive Twist

The most basic sort of plot twist is the one that is achieved by the GM deciding that the players are too on top of whatever the situation happens to be and deciding to throw a surprise monkey wrench into proceedings – “They’ll never expect this!”

With the exception of novice GMs who try to plot-railroad a twist into their adventures, this is where we all start learning the art of the plot twist, and many never go beyond it.

Like a player making an instinctive move in chess with the aim of surprising an opponent, this technique is instinctively complicating the situation for shock value and rationalizing it afterwards. It’s biggest flaws are that sometimes it can’t be made rational, and is never very well thought out, so it often creates opportunities for the players to exploit. In fact, one player I once knew used to deliberately provoke his GM by emphasizing the predictable aspects of the game in the most irritating way possible just to create these opportunities. Players claiming that something was predictable after the fact should be taken with a grain of salt! If the GM in question had not risen to the bait time and time again, and simply stuck to the situation he had so carefully crafted to challenge the players, his adventures would have been more successful and entertaining.

If, however, a player is successfully predicting what’s going to happen next, either verbally to the others, or simply through preparations for whatever they expect to encounter, the temptation to throw an unscripted and unplanned complication into the works, no matter what it does to the plotline, can be overwhelming. While this can work in the short-term, the better long-term solution is to get better at crafting plots that have built-in plot twists.

To be honest, my strike rate with this type of plot twist is about one in three. Quite often, they make things more “interesting” in the short-term but do long-term damage to the campaign; and about one in ten can’t be rationalized because they contradict something I had forgotten but the players haven’t. But, every so often, your instinctive creation of a complication that you haven’t thought through will succeed on all fronts.

I got a lot better at doing this when I learned to swallow my pride, admit that the plotline was not delivering the excitement that it should have, and calling a five-minute break to give me time to come up with a plot twist and think it through at least somewhat. Similarly, when the players do something unexpected, or manage to shortcut the plot into a place that the GM hasn’t prepped, you will have more success at coping if you give the players credit and call a break to assess your options.

I should make it clear that I plot at two levels simultaneously – I know what the NPCs’ ambitions and goals are, and how they are going about achieving them (that’s one level), and I know how I expect the PCs to learn of the NPCs actions and what I think they can do about it. Whether or not they actually follow the path to success that I perceived is irrelevant and completely up to the players. On rare occasions, I’ve had to breadcrumb the route to my solution rather than letting the game come to a complete standstill, but this is rare – and something I only do when I’m convinced that the PCs would not be as lost as the players are!

It’s a long-held maxim of my gaming that where there is one solution to the problem confronting the PCs, there will be more, and any of them are acceptable. This makes it much easier to respond when the players go off the reservation or think outside the box; all I have to do is make sure that I have something interesting for the rest of the day, and that whatever I come up with in the way of an unexpected development does not invalidate the solution, ie fail rules 6 and 7.

As I have become more skilled at plotting in this way, I have found myself relying on this technique far more infrequently. I still have it in my toolbox if I need it, but it is very much a last resort. The other techniques described in this article are better.

Twist Two: Emergent Opportunism

I try to keep track of what all the PCs enemies are up to; this is easier in some campaigns than others. It’s especially hard in the Zenith-3 campaign because a superhero campaign (by its nature) has so many villains!

An adventure is essentially one of two things: either it’s an NPC doing something that should trigger a response or reaction from the PCs, or it’s an NPC reacting or responding to something the PCs have done (on some occasions, it’s both at the same time). I can’t predict what the PCs will do with any certainty (though I can make educated guesses); but I certainly do know what the primary villain of an adventure is up to. Every time I plot an action by an NPC, I briefly run down the mental catalog of other NPC enemies in play (whether the PCs know about them already or not) and ask four questions:

  1. Does this create an opportunity for the second NPC to advance his agenda?
  2. Does this pose a threat to the second NPC’s goals?
  3. Can the second NPC gain a future advantage by becoming involved in the plotline?
  4. Does the second NPC have a personality that would mandate their involvement in the situation?

If any of these questions are “yes”, then I have a potential plot twist, and I move on to a second set of three questions:

  1. Will the second NPC acting in the current situation harm my long-term plans for either of the NPCs (or for any others)?
  2. Does the second NPC have a personality that would regard any risks in their involvement as unacceptable?
  3. Will their involvement in the current situation make it more interesting?

If these indicate that the second NPC would not get involved (for whatever reason), I create a rational reason for them not to do so, despite the potential gains and/or compulsion to do so, if I haven’t got one already. If it’s something trivial like “didn’t learn about it in time” then I usually don’t bother recording it in time; if it’s anything more interesting, I do.

But if the stars align, the second NPC can be written in as a plot twist. Note that it will usually qualify as one because of the keyword “interesting”, and especially in terms of the dynamic of the relationship between the two NPCs that either exists or will develop in the course of the encounter.

I’ve had second villains turn up and seize control of a situation, leading the original villain to ally with the PCs to undo his own plot. I’ve had a second villain turn up and fight the first for control of the situation because only one can benefit from it. I’ve had villains revealed as each other’s arch enemies. I’ve had second villains turn up and tell the PCs, “He [first villain] must be stopped, even if it means we must work together to do so!” I’ve had second villains get involved indirectly because something they are doing is making the current situation worse, or because the current situation is making what they are up to worse. And I’ve had second villains turn up and say, “Your plan interests me, but I believe I have identified a flaw. Why not do [x]…” (this is especially galling to the players if they had been planning to exploit that flaw!)

Every one of those examples would qualify as a plot twist!

In addition, even masterminds make mistakes – and not all villains are masterminds. If the combination promises to be interesting enough, that can be enough reason to involve the second villain even if (logically) he shouldn’t. The real killer is question 5 – if that’s a “yes” then I won’t do it, no matter what.

That disposes of the preplanned NPC actions. The other part of the picture comes from PC responses to these preplanned NPC actions, and to unplanned NPC reactions to those responses. As decisions get made in-game, I use the shortlist of second characters who might get involved to quickly assess the same eight questions, usually without even needing to articulate them mentally. It only takes a second or so to make a decision about bringing in a complication at a future point consistent with the time it would take the NPC in question to make his decision and act upon it. Never neglect travel time!

This technique relies upon the fact that an RPG can have a wider pool of villains than the cast that appear to be involved at the start of an adventure; unlike a novel or TV show, where this would be considered a dues-ex-machina (introducing a character who had not previously appeared in the story), this draws upon the wider setting possible to an RPG.

Twist Three: Inverted Identities

Another fairly obvious technique is for the characters participating in the plot to exchange roles within that plot unexpectedly. Since there are multiple roles within the plot, this option contains a number of subtypes to consider. To understand them. we first need a system of classification (to make sure we don’t miss any). Fortunately, this is fairly simple.

The Conflict Triangle

There are three basic roles in any encounter – the good guy, the bad guy, and the person the bad guy is trying to harm or has harmed, assuming that we have a more complex situation than one simply attacking the other. These roles may be occupied by a single individual, an organization, or a group. Any change of roles implies an exchange with one of the other points of the triangle or there is no explanation for the conflict between them, and certainly no conflict to resolve in the rest of the plot. That means that there are six basic inversions to consider.

The Role Of the PCs

But wait, it’s more complicated than that. Where are the PCs? Are they occupying one of these roles, or are they bystanders trying to understand what is happening, and deciding how to intervene? In particular, are they occupying the Hero role?

The triangle gives six options, and in two of them the hero changes roles. If the hero role is not reassigned, it makes no difference whether or not the hero is one or all of the PCs; so in fact we have eight options. Rather than duplicate a lot of the discussion, however, I have chosen to ignore the additional variations except when they matter.

Variation 1: The apparent villain is a hero.

This immediately calls into question the motivation for the conflict between villain and victim, with the implication that either there has been some misunderstanding which got out of hand, or the victim is actually a villain (a double-exchange). Since there is no change in the status of the hero role, upon this revelation taking place, an uneasy alliance between former villain and PCs is likely to ensue; however, if the PCs have already attacked, they may also be recast as villains in the plot, without even knowing it. One way or the other, however, this exchange collapses the Conflict Triangle into a straightforward conflict.

This would seem to violate our fifth rule, but that is not the case on closer examination; it creates moral ambiguities, expands on the concept of hero and villain as transitional roles in at least some cases, renders an NPC into a more complex and complete character, signaling greater importance for that character in the future or more of the same. Far from simplifying the game world, this adds moral depth and shades of gray to it.

This is therefore a great way of taking a morally simple (or even simplistic) world-view, which is often part of some genres, and adapting that genre and world-view to a more modern, cosmopolitan audience.

Variation 2: The apparent hero is a villain.

This takes on two quite different meanings if the PCs are filling the hero role or if they are bystanders.

Hero Role:
The PCs are doing something that seems to be the right thing to do, but for some reason it’s not. That usually means that the apparent villain is actually filling the hero role, and the apparent victim is another villain, but that doesn’t have to be the case – the villain and victims might also be filling their allocated roles. This creates a situation in which the PCs and the villains are unwitting rivals for something the victim has or knows.

Things get more interesting when the PCs aren’t occupying one of the three roles. It means that the actual situation is a rivalry between two villains, and regardless of what the PCs do about the situation, one or both will be disadvantaged. If one can capitalize on the disadvantage to his rival, he will win the prize with the help of the PCs – putting them in a position where they hand an advantage to an enemy, and have to undo their mistake. Or perhaps both will be disadvantaged, and the PCs will end up with the prize – without knowing what it is or what it can do, a potential time bomb.

Variation 3: The apparent victim is a hero.

At first, this may look like a fairly straightforward option, but there are a couple of subtle nuances. Heroes, after all, come in three sub-varieties: they are either the PCs’ antecedents, the PC’s peers, or the next generation (or a wannabe) coming along to make them feel old. The first shines a light on campaign history and is a great way to deliver additional background to the players; the second introduces a potential rival, or a potential NPC member of the group, which is always a handy thing to have on tap; and the third can be either a great way to make the players feel the passage of time within the game, while boosting their confidence because there is a new generation coming to take their place if the worst happens, or is an additional source of worry if the victim is actually a wannabe hero. Of the two, the peer is the weakest option, unless one of two circumstances apply: (1) the victim is someone with a personality that immediately irritates the PCs, sending the encounter down the rivalry route, and potentially eventually turning the hero into a villain; or (2) the victim/hero is a genuine peer who is getting the tar beaten out of him, to the point where he may be forced to retire for a lengthy period of recuperation if not permanently, it shows the power of the opposition to the PCs.

This inversion focuses on campaign continuity, no matter which variation you choose. The campaign will always be a little bigger afterwards.

Variation 4: The apparent victim is a villain.

An interesting moral problem for the PCs in some genres: what do you do when someone is beating an enemy to a pulp, as in, there is serious threat of permanent injury or death? Is the villain a hero, and anti-hero, or a villain? This is one of the most straightforward of the variations, and almost inevitably casts the PCs in the hero role while making it unclear what the heroic thing to do is.

Variation 5: The apparent villain is the victim.

Closing in on the final variation, but before we get there, let’s consider this interesting situation. This is a perfect swap in role between villain and victim, and is clearly the result of the victim having picked on the wrong target, who has turned the tables by the time the PCs show up. The reasons for the conflict will vary from case to case, but the PCs are obviously cast in the position of the hero and may be unsure about who to help – or may help the wrong party.

Variation 6: The apparent hero is the victim.

Our final variation is a tricky one to work out. But that only makes it potentially more interesting. It’s clearly a case of the original victim having turned the tables on someone, in the same way as Variation #5, but on whom? Is the person who was initially serving as the hero now the victim? That would describe a trap for a vigilante, perhaps. Or is the original villain now the victim? That would describe a situation in which a vigilante has drawn a villain out for disproportionate punishment.

A fourth corner to the triangle: the witness

Did I say there were only six, sorry, eight variations? There aren’t. The whole situation can be complicated endlessly by way of the witness – a witness who spots an opportunity (becoming the villain), a witness who is threatened for what he has seen (the victim), a witness who leaps in to try and help (the hero). It’s easy to end up in a situation in which no-one is exactly who they appear to be at the moment the PCs come across the situation.

A general lesson

And that gives a clue as to how to handle plot twists in general. They are usually situations which had a beginning that the PCs didn’t see, and which are prone to misinterpretation or manipulation through a deliberate act of deception by someone. If you remember that part of the story happened “off camera” and do nothing that contradicts the truth of what occurred in that preliminary time-frame except through subsequent lies and deception, anything else is fair game – until the time comes to reveal the truth, of course!

And that, unfortunately, is where I ran out of time. In part two, I’ll look at the remaining eight types of plot twist (yes, we really are about half-way – well, maybe 40% of the way – through!)

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The Unexpected Creeps Up Behind You – Dec 2014 Blog Carnival

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November 2014

The November Blog Carnival hosted by Roleplaying Tips, is winding up – there are just a few days left to post your articles on the subjects of Aliens and Races.

December 2014

That also means that its time for me to gear up for the December Carnival, because I’ve put Campaign Mastery’s hand up to serve as Host. The subject this time around is going to be “With A Twist” – surprises, plot twists, the unexpected in any form, and anything else that’s relevant to these subjects.

I’ve got one two-part article aimed at the topic so far (not counting this one), and I’m looking forward to the variety of interesting submissions that such a broad topic should produce. Remember, anything that has anything at all to do with surprises, tricks, twists, or the unexpected is fair game!

This page is the anchor for the month – Bloggers, link to this page to generate a pingback and drop me a comment here about your article, so that it can be included in the end-of-month roundup on the subject.

But I’m not the type (usually) to simply put up an empty “send your comments here” and call it an article. So I’m kicking the month off early with a modest essay on the subject of — Well…



Let’s start with a definition, from


  1. To encounter suddenly or unexpectedly; take or catch unawares.
  2. To attack or capture suddenly and without warning.
  3. To cause to feel wonder, astonishment, or amazement, as at something unanticipated.
    • To cause (someone) to do or say something unintended.
    • To elicit or detect through surprise.


  1. The act of surprising or the condition of being surprised.
  2. Something, such as an unexpected encounter, event, or gift, that surprises.

Surprise is also a vital game mechanic in many if not most game systems. And that’s only fair enough; the ability to cope with the unexpected is a key factor in events in real life, and some can react while others only stand and gape.

Surprise is also a huge tactical advantage, one that many game systems don’t simulate very well, usually severely underestimating its impact. There are some good reasons for this – surprise takes away from the PCs ability to act or react to a situation, and that’s no fun for the PCs. However, the lame implementations that are common are so mild as to make surprise tactically almost-insignificant, and that’s going too far. Ideally, you want surprise to dump the PCs just deep enough into trouble that they can fight their way back out – barely.

The effects of Surprise

Game systems have all sorts of different ways of simulating the condition of surprise. Before we can discuss them, though, we need to understand what the effects of surprise are.

My research says:

  1. Surprise causes hesitation even in the face of the immediate need to act.
  2. Surprise causes a gap in comprehension; and if another unexpected event occurs while in a surprised state, it can extend that surprise state as the mind struggles to integrate perceptions into a view of the world that it can comprehend and act upon.
  3. Surprise can redirect or refocus attention onto something new instead of maintaining concentration on whatever someone was doing at the moment they were surprised. If the new focus of attention is perceived as threatening (whether it is or not), it can trigger an involuntary fight-or-flight response, whether or not that response is actually warranted by the degree of threat. Note that fight-or-flight means that the focus shifts immediately once again away from the threat to search for escape routes; if one presents, it will be taken if surprise is still in effect, regardless of how unsafe it may be. If no escape route presents itself, focus will return to the threat; if there is an opening to attack, it will be taken, otherwise a defensive posture will probably be adopted.
  4. Responses to surprise can be trained, but this conditioned response will only be applicable to stimuli that match those trained for. These responses may be triggered as any other conditioned response, regardless of whether or not the person is surprised at the time.
  5. People can be desensitized to particular types of surprise, which over time leads to a decrease in the level of surprise intensity experienced. This doesn’t mean that they won’t be surprised in a scary movie, just that they might expect the startling scene due to familiarity with past movies of the genre, lowering the level of surprise.
  6. Some studies show that higher IQ corresponds to a shortened surprise reaction. Some show that higher IQ corresponds with an increased propensity to be surprised. Some studies that don’t differentiate between these two aspects of the phenomenon suggest that IQ makes no quantifiable difference. None of these results have been proven to a statistical certainty.

By my count, that’s six criteria that any surprise system has to simulate in order to correspond with reality. I doubt any will, simply because playability mandates some level of compromise. But let’s take a look at one or two and see how we go.

D&D 3.x

3.x has two mechanisms for simulating surprise: “Surprise” and “Flat-footed”.

“Surprise” is described as the situation when combat begins and you are not aware of your enemy while they are aware of you. Awareness is up to the GM to decide, there are some examples and guidelines. In the event that some participants are surprised and others are not, combat begins with a “Surprise Round” in which only those who are not surprised can act.

Actions in a surprise round consist of a Standard Action, and any additional Free Actions that the GM permits. This is slightly more restrictive than a normal combat round. Those who don’t get to act in a Surprise round are considered flat-footed. Interestingly, the term “Surprise” is mentioned only in the heading of the rules section summarized above.

“Flat-footed” sounds impressive, but in fact everyone who has yet to act in a combat is in that condition. It means that you can’t use your Dexterity Bonus to AC, and can’t make attacks of opportunity. What’s more, some classes have the potential to avoid being considered flat-footed.

So what does “surprise” amount to under these game mechanics? A delay in the end of a slightly-reduced ability to defend yourself for one combat round – and some characters can avoid that penalty – and the inability to act for that same fixed period of time. Full stop.

Comparing that with our list of real-world effects, we can rate this system as one out of six. If we allow for the uncertainty of the last and assume that everyone not trained to do otherwise will react the same overall, two out of six.

It can be argued that it’s unreasonable to mandate effect three, that’s a matter of roleplay. I consider that true, as far as it goes – but since players don’t typically so roleplay, instead focusing on the threats displayed under the situation, I would argue that some game mechanics should be at least considered.

However, there’s one vital element that the rules quoted above don’t mention, and it changes the entire picture. How long is a combat round? For how long should surprise continue, in combat rounds?

I’ve always been told that there’s one surprise round and then the characters act normally, but a stricter reading of the rules suggests otherwise. Surprise rounds continue as long as one or more characters are unaware of the presence of a hostile force. That means that if the hostile force does something sneaky instead of attacking in their surprise round, surprise will continue to apply. However, the number of participating characters might change.

The big shortcoming is that Surprise is all or nothing, and being caught “Flatfooted” is not all that significant. While the DEX bonus to AC is useful, it is not all that substantial.

Proposed Optional Rules

I have four House Rules to propose that, in combination, would lift the score to five out of six, possible six out of six.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number One:
“Flatfooted” also prevents the use of a shield (including any AC bonuses it may confer) and prevents any weapon from being reloaded, i.e. if you have an arrow in hand, you may fire that arrow, but may not then draw another arrow from the quiver; if your crossbow is cocked and loaded, you can fire it, but cannot cock and reload it.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number Two:
The round after a character is attacked while in a state of surprise, they enter “fight-or-flight” status. While in this status they are no longer considered flat-footed and may act as any other character within the Surprise Round, but must make a WIS check at DC15 or be forced to use their one standard action for movement in the direction of the nearest escape route in as straight a line as possible, which may subject the character to attacks of opportunity. If there are no escape routes, the character may attack. If presented with multiple foes, they will attack in the direction of what would be the most immediate escape route if the target attacked were not there. Thereafter, in any round in which they are not attacked, they may make additional WIS checks at DC15 to end this condition. If they are attacked, they may also save, but the DC is increased by 1 per dice of damage inflicted on the character in that round.

2a: Any class ability or feat that prevents the character from being caught flatfooted while surprised places that character in “Fight or Flight” mode immediately, as though they had just exited the condition of being surprised, but also confers a +2 to the first WIS check. Furthermore, they may choose their route of movement towards the escape route rather than being restricted to straight-line movement as described.

2b: Fighters and other soldiers may, at the GM’s discretion, make a save vs military class level to avoid this status completely by virtue of their training.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number Three:
While in “fight-or-flight” condition, the character must make an INT check (same DCs) to use any INT-based skill or ability, including the ability to cast spells. Exceptions are at the GMs discretion but should normally include wands, scrolls, and quickened spells.

Proposed Optional 3.x Rule Number Four:
If a character is attacked from behind or the side, or by any foe they did not realize was present, while in “fight-or-flight” condition, they resume being flatfooted for their subsequent action in the current or next combat round, whichever comes first. If anything else occurs that could be considered surprising or unexpected, they must make a WIS check at DC15 to avoid reentering a surprised state for a round. These events occur even if the character is now aware of hostile forces (but this would mean that they will automatically come out of surprise after one combat round. Characters who are not subject to being flatfooted by virtue of class abilities or feats do not lose a round to surprise; the primary effect on such characters is to restart the saves sequence in “fight or flight” status.

The first proposed rule employs the logic that if you can’t effectively dodge to one side in combat (i.e. employ your DEX-based AC Modifier, you shouldn’t be able to do anything else similar, like moving a shield into position to block an attack. My first draft outlawed all ranged weapons fire – can’t aim at anything for the same reason – but I decided that was too harsh and restrictive.

The second rule creates an intermediate combat condition after a character is surprised in which they are less in control of their actions, while permitting players the chance of regaining control. It also confers the opportunity for a character to be returned to a state of surprise if attacked unexpectedly, or some other surprising development occurs. Rule 2a describes how Rogue and Barbarian immunity to surprise is interacts with this combat condition. Rule 2b gives an out to those who can reasonably be described as having trained for surprise combat if they are experienced enough will still letting surprise pose a risk to these characters.

Rule number three deals with the difficulty in comprehending the environment and in performing complex mental tasks while surprised.

Lastly, Rule Four permits the unexpected to disturb mental equilibrium even once a character has started to recover from being surprised.

Personal assessment:

I would keep Rule number one. I would consider rules two through four on a trial basis before committing to them; they may complicate combat too much, failing the playability test. But the description of “Surprise” that results is so much closer to the real condition that it’s definitely worth considering.


Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many differences between 3.x and Pathfinder. They are explicit in stating that characters are only flatfooted when surprised because they haven’t acted yet, and until they become aware of a hostile opponent, they won’t get to act. Free actions are no longer only if the GM permits them.

That means that they don’t even meet the same standard as the 3.x rules in terms of realism because they don’t fully replicate the one aspect of being surprised as well as 3.x does. However, the rules are considerably simpler in explanation, and so would score more highly in terms of playability.

Optional Rules

The optional rules stated above work fine in principle but are out of step with the relative simplicity of the pathfinder rules. So I would simplify them somewhat to bring them more into line:

Proposed Optional Pathfinder Rule Number One:
When you are “Flatfooted” you cant use a shield or get any AC bonus from a shield. You can’t reload a ranged weapon, but may use any ammunition already in hand.

Proposed Optional Pathfinder Rule Number Two:
When a character stops being surprised, they enter “fight-or-flight” status. They must move in as straight a line as possible toward the nearest escape route unless they make a WIS check at DC 15. This may subject the character to attacks of opportunity. If the escape routes are blocked by enemies, the character must attack the enemy blocking the most accessible escape route until the character makes a WIS Check as described. As soon as the character succeeds in a WIS check, they are free to choose their actions as normal. Characters with the Uncanny Dodge ability who would otherwise be flatfooted are forced to move as described until making a successful WIS check but may choose the direction of movement. Fighters and other martial character classes may, at the GM’s discretion, make a save vs military class level to avoid this condition completely by virtue of their training.

Proposed Optional Pathfinder Rule Number Three:
While in “fight-or-flight” status, the character must make an INT check (DC 15) to use any INT-based skill or ability, including the ability to cast spells. Exceptions are at the GMs discretion but should normally include wands, scrolls, and quickened spells.

This says effectively the same thing, but with a some simplification, and it eliminates the fourth proposed house rule entirely, more in keeping with the simplicity and increased emphasis on playability. They do take a little of the flexibility away from the characters but simplify the mechanics considerably in the process.

The loss of proposed house rule four removes the simulation of recurring panic from the mechanics, and so this would only score four or five out of six – but that is a great deal better than the original state of the simulation, and makes Surprise something to be avoided if it is at all possible, something that is not the case in many high-level campaigns.

Personal Assessment:

I don’t currently run a Pathfinder campaign, but if I did, I would adopt all the rules as given above. I might raise the DC required, bearing in mind how easy it is for most mid-level characters to achieve this standard.

D&D 4e

I don’t run this system and have never played it; I quickly became convinced that it moved its emphasis in a direction that didn’t suit my existing campaigns. Those campaigns are still running and 5e is now out, so I kind of doubt that I ever will. So I’m not qualified to comment. I did an online search for the relevant rules but found everything pointing at one of the online 3.5 SRDs, so that was a bust, too. If anyone wants to synopsis how 4e handles Surprise and assess it against the six criteria listed earlier, drop your contribution into the comments section!

D&D 5e

A similar story with the latest iteration of the D&D rules, I’m afraid – they have simply been beyond the reach of my wallet so far, and while I have access to the playtesting drafts of the rules, if there was no change from those to the final game rules I would be quite disappointed. Once again, if anyone wants to synopsize and evaluate the surprise rules, please direct the info to a comment!

Hero System 5e

The Hero System is another game system that I use frequently because it’s the basis of the Pulp Campaign. It recognizes two distinct types of Surprise – there’s an attack from an unexpected direction or quarter while already engaged in combat or expecting combat, and a more severe situation when you aren’t expecting an attack at all.

Being surprised in-combat makes you easier to hit. There are no other direct effects. And, of course, once you’ve been surprised by a given combatant, it’s much harder to be surprised by them again, though there are ways it can be done using powers like invisibility combined with some stealthy movement capability.

Being surprised when you aren’t expecting combat is far more serious. Such targets are not only easier to hit but take double stun damage, which can be enough to induce other combat effects. It’s also easier for attackers who have the advantage of surprise to target using a Placed Shot, which can compound the effectiveness of the attack.

It’s those “other combat effects” that are critical. If the attack inflicts more STUN damage than the targets’ CON, after his defenses are taken into account, then the character is Stunned. This is bad news – not only can you not act, but powers which are voluntary shut down, you remain at half-defense (so subsequent attacks continue to be easier to succeed with), and the character doesn’t get some of his normal recoveries, meaning that he is vulnerable to running out of STUN completely, inducing unconsciousness. Finally, in order to get to act normally, he has to use a full action to Recover from being stunned, and ANY damage inflicted while he is attempting to do so prevents the Recovery from succeeding.

In effect, this means that if the initial hit (the surprise, in other words) is big enough, the character can do nothing but gape and try to make sense of what is going on until he gets an action in which he is not successfully hit again – with his defense against being so hit reduced.

By my count, that’s two or three out of six of the effects of stun. What’s more, tucked away in the relevant rules is the statement that Soldiers, Police, etc, can’t be surprised while on duty – that seems a little too generous to me, but it’s close enough to the “trained response” to add another one to the score. In fact, the only real-world effects not modeled by this system are the contentious “INT differences” and the “fight-or-flight”.

But that’s not the end of this particular story.

While characters can start “Recovery from being Stunned” in their action, it takes their FULL action. Depending on how you interpret the rules, that can be significant.

The easier option, in terms of game playability, is to have a character complete a full round action at the point when they act in the battle sequence. The more realistic option is for this action to be complete the instant before their next action begins. This makes a huge difference in terms of the rule that “any additional damage that penetrates defenses prevents the success of the Recovery”.

Optional Rules

There are a number of rules variations possible that attempt to combine the more playable game mechanics with what seems to be the intent of the rules, i.e. the more severe combat effects.

Proposed Optional Hero System Rule Number One:
The simplest such variation that I have found is to define an additional combat status, “In Danger of being Re-Stunned”, which the character enters after executing a “Recovery from being Stunned” action. In this half-way state, the character has all the game effects of being stunned lifted, but any damage that penetrates his defenses immediately makes the character Stunned again.

That leaves the question of how and when a character exits this combat status. There are two options here, and while the difference might seem trivial at first, it is actually rather profound.attempt

Proposed Optional Hero System Rule Number Two – standard rules:
As soon as the character is permitted to act following an attempt to “Recover from being Stunned”, they are no longer “In Danger of being Re-Stunned”.

Proposed Optional Hero System Rule Number Two – ‘fight or flight’ rules:
As soon as the character completes a full action following an attempt to “Recover from being Stunned” and is permitted to make a second full action, they are no longer “In Danger of being Re-Stunned”.

The second version means that a character may have a full action after recovering from being stunned, but remains vulnerable to being Re-Stunned until they commence the action after that – which means that there is a tactical imperative to use that first full action to minimize the dangers of being hit again. This constrains what the character should choose to do to the normal “fight or flight” responses – head for a point of protection, take cover, or try to get whatever is in between them and safety out of the way if there is no other option. It’s not a perfect implementation but it comes close.

Personal Assessment:

Implementation of the first rule should be pretty much universal, since it does nothing but simplify the game mechanics without changing them. The choice between versions one and two of the second rule is a little more problematic, and should be made along genre lines, and possibly even on a case-by-case, combat-by-combat, basis.

The players in the Adventurer’s Club campaign are the types to seek cover in this sort of situation anyway, do I don’t think version two would be needed very often in that campaign – we can trust our players to behave sensibly. If I were running a superhero campaign, genre conventions dictate that superhero slugfests are over the top, so I would commit to the first version of the rule. A super-agents campaign, on the other hand, should emphasize melodramatic combat and high-stakes danger, so I would commit such a campaign to the second version of the rule, and this would also be the case with Fantasy Hero campaigns (with possible exceptions). The same would probably hold true for Ninja Hero and Star Hero campaigns, for the increased gritty realism and heightened melodrama, respectively.

Other Game Systems

There are a LOT of other game systems out there, from TORG to who-knows-what. I’m sure that some of them have innovative or unique methods of simulating Surprise, and it would not surprise me if some of them ignored the subject entirely. The purpose of this article is not so much to be comprehensive (though I would like to have covered the most popular game systems), but to act as an example and a template for others to consider the way in which the game system they are playing simulates Surprise.

Does it do it well? Does it miss any of the key criteria? Does it play well? I want each GM reading this to spend 60 seconds asking how well the game system they are using handles this aspect of the simulated reality – and whether or not some house rule to implement a closer simulation would be worth the experiment.

By all means, if there is a different way of handling surprise, tell me about it in the comments. If you try a house rule to better simulate surprise, I want to know if it’s an improvement or not. Let’s make this a month of pleasant surprises!

An unsurprising conclusion?

All game systems are a compromise between reality, an idealized genre-rooted distortion of reality, and playability. Each occupies a different position within this triangle. The trend should always be towards a point on the axis between the latter two, with “reality” harnessed in service of the other goals, which in turn exist only to create entertainment for the participants.

The rules for Surprise in a game system are representative of this point, varying from “very close to reality” in some cases to “extremely compromised” in others.

However, in all cases examined, it is not all that difficult to frame rules that more accurately simulate reality without compromising the other priorities; the inevitable question has to be, why were these rules not included in the game systems in question. Is it simply a case of human error, or was it a necessary compromise to make room for something judged more essential?

Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that every game system examined was compromised to at least some extent, perhaps unnecessarily. The decision as to whether or not to leave things in that state for your game is up to you, as GM, after due input from your players. This article tells you what you need to know in order to make an informed decision; what you make of it is up to you. It’s your campaign, I can only offer food for thought.

There’s always something unexpected creeping up behind you…

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