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Pacing and the value of the Pause


“2011 zero-mx action-06 1680×1200 press” by Muc10 (own work). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Click on image to view terms of usage.

Discovering The Principles

This was originally envisaged as one small and relatively quick article. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, this is the first part of three…

I was watching a repeat of an old TV show the other week – one that had been subsequently re-cut to facilitate more ad breaks – and noted some extremely interesting consequences of the editing. Those gave rise to some additional thoughts on the pacing of an RPG game session, and a few lessons that can be derived from that and related observations.

Breaks In All The Wrong Places

The first thing that I noticed was that the ad breaks all seemed to fall in “the wrong places”. They sometimes didn’t come at the end of a scene, but would occur in mid-scene, with the dialogue being continued immediately after the break. The post-break dialogue when this occurred always seemed flatter, in terms of emotional connection and drama, than it had been previously; it dragged, as though we had been conditioned by television to expect the scene to end only for it to continue, possibly at some length. It didn’t matter how vital or important the content of the post-break portion of the scene was, the pacing was wrong.

More often, breaks still occurred at the end of scenes, but quite often the content of the scene that followed the break suffered from the same problem. The scene that preceded the break would be one that promised immediate action and drama, in part because of it’s pre-break placement, while the scene that followed would be exposition or dialogue or something else low-key. Again, the scene fell flat and for a period of time, the show was less engaging than it would otherwise have been.

This wasn’t the first time that I had noted these impressions without thinking anything more about them; in the past, I had associated this with the insertion of breaks into a movie when televised, because the movie was never intended to pause for advertising at that particular point in time. Because of the intrusive nature of the break into story flow in this circumstance, I ignored the phenomenon, paying as little attention to it as possible, because anything else might have made it worse. Instead, I shifted focus during the breaks – get a drink, get a snack, use the facilities, channel-hop, write something, whatever. This distracted me from the break so that when the movie returned, it was as though I had pressed the pause button on a DVD.

Because I was seeing the phenomenon under different circumstances – a show designed to have three advert breaks, and four acts, which now had four breaks – I was able to perceive the events from a slightly different perspective, and that enabled me to discover the significance in what I was observing.

The Absence Of A Break

Once I had noticed the impact that having a break in the wrong place was having, I began paying more attention to the pacing of the plot, and another phenomenon that I had noticed on previous occasions became apparent: the absence of a break when one was expected. There would be a dramatic moment and a fade to black followed immediately by a fade-in on a relatively low-key scene. It was as though you were trying to hit a moving target but kept over-anticipating and hence missing the target. Again, the pacing felt off, somehow.

I had previously observed this phenomenon when watching DVDs of TV shows. Most of the time, the fade-to-black for a commercial break was fine, but every now and then, the following scenes would fall flat or feel out of step with the rhythm established before the non-existent break. But, as with the “inserted breaks” mentioned above, I had thought nothing of it on those previous occasions; we never talk about this sort of thing, after all, being far more interested as fans and viewers in the content than the delivery.

It showed me that even back in the early 1970s, television producers were striving to take advantage of the advertising breaks that they knew would be imposed upon their products, and had devised techniques to make these interruptions work on their behalf. They may not have always been successful, but that’s true of any experiment. But, in modern times, it showed that the absence of a break when one was natural could be just as harmful and deflating as inserting a break where one should never be found.

The content prior to the break-that-should-have-been-there built up to a crescendo of tension – and nothing happened. It was as though the level of drama had a momentum of its own that was calculated to catapult viewers back to the screen at the correct level of dramatic tension, but that took time to achieve that effect. When there was no break, the programme overshot the mark quite a bit – it was pushing when it should be pulling, you might say.

It was at this point that I remembered a line in, I think, “Dream Park” by Larry Niven and Stephen Barnes, which talked about Disney using the psychology of waiting time to build anticipation when the rides for Disneyland were being designed. I had never really thought that this was all that relevant to the internal construction of a TV show, never mind an RPG session, but I was starting to see unexpected connections.

We’re used to thinking of waiting times as a source of frustration, and – when it comes to being served in a restaurant or business – that’s quite reasonable. Certainly, the negative aspects of queuing and waiting time dominate the research sources that a Google Search produces for consideration. Searching Wikipedia for articles on “waiting time” and “anticipation” bring up all sorts of articles that are both tantalizing and yet not directly relevant. My conclusions, at this point, were in stark contrast to that perspective – I was quickly forced to the conclusion that waiting times, correctly applied, could be not only a positive factor, but a vital tool in the entertainment process.

Break Incognito

Before I go too far down that path, however, there was one other phenomenon that I observed and that warrants scrutiny: the “invisible break”, where internal content functions as though it were a break in the plot, even though it isn’t one. These are what I sometimes think of as “Meanwhile” or “Elsewhere” moments, but not all of these seem to work. It took me a lot of thought to identify the factors that were at play, and even now I’m not 100% certain I have them all correctly assessed.

First, there’s relevance. The content of the “invisible break” has to be relevant to the main action, explaining a why or how about it. One example is having one character facing an opponent or situation who is far stronger or more dangerous than he is supposed to be or expected to be while another character is elsewhere, discovering the reasons for that increase in effectiveness.

Next, contrast is important. If the main action is violent or action-oriented (and it usually is) then there should be lots of shouting, excitement, and noise while the “break” should be cool, calm and collected. This helps keep the break distinct from the main sequence. This is relatively easy in a TV show, where it is easy to hard-cut between the two scenes and you can even have the calm dialogue over the top of the action. I mention this because it can be much harder to achieve in an RPG.

The final factor is duration, and it’s the hardest to pin down. The break needs to be long enough to have its own level of significance, but not so long that it overshadows the main action in importance. This is not only a variable quantity in its own right, it is variable according to the precise content of the main sequence. Now, that’s an inconvenience when editing a TV show, but you can cut and trim until the timing is exactly right. In any RPG application of these thoughts, that’s not going to be so easy.

Nevertheless, there is a way, and while it’s getting ahead of myself slightly in the article, this is the best time to explain this part of the the technique. It relies on having prepped a combination of ad-hoc and pre-scripted dialogue. The pre-scripted part consists of a couple of lines of dialogue between two participants that leads directly to one of them providing the key information or resolving the scene. You can then pad with as much incidental ad-hoc dialogue as you need until your GM’s instinct tells you the scene is approaching it’s length limit – then switch seamlessly to the pre-scripted dialogue. Note that this will only work if the revelatory dialogue is succinct and to the point – no long-winded explanations or chains of logic; use those as the content of the ad-hoc conversation, if necessary!

Episodic Breaks: Good & Bad

Of course, there’s another sort of break that bears contemplating because of its impact on the pacing of the content – the end of episode break in a more serial environment, such as a two-part episode, which is to last until the start of the next episode. That could be just a matter of seconds if watching the show on a DVD or it could be a day, or a week – or it could be several months, in the case of an end-of-season show.

Because the show needs to sustain interest over a longer period, and – if possible – water-cooler buzz and speculation that keeps the memory of the show alive – the content immediately prior to the break needs to be even bigger and more dramatic than that of lesser breaks. There are two essential techniques: the cliffhanger and the paradigm shift.

The Cliffhanger

The cliffhanger leads a situation unresolved, even seemingly incapable of being resolved in favor of the protagonists. While cliffhanger scenes were used in television and movies, and were a mandatory ingredient of Saturday Morning Serials and radio dramas, the modern usage really hit its stride with the “Who Shot J.R.?” phenomenon at the end of the 1979-80 season, which had most of the western world hooked until the anticlimax revelation several episodes into the subsequent season.

These days, we’d describe it as having Gone Viral, but the term (like the web itself) had not yet come into existence; even without that instant explosion creating a critical mass of opinion, the question was the topic of social conversation for months. It became the prototype for the modern end-of-season cliffhanger.

The dramatic tension of the unresolved situation demands some sort of resolution immediately following the break. Where the producers and writers of Dallas were especially clever is that they were able to resolve the shooting itself and its aftermath, i.e. the immediate situation, while leaving the larger question hanging for months after the show resumed. But this also became a liability, as the buzz about the situation continued to build until it became impossible to deliver anything but an anticlimax. And that’s the big danger with a cliffhanger – that the payoff doesn’t live up to the expectations.

Things are a little different when it comes to RPGs. The closer analogy is to part one of a mid-season two-part episode, which doesn’t have to quite set such a high standard. However, many gaming groups don’t meet over the Christmas period, simply because there are more outside social obligations to get in the way, so you might end up with an end-of-season analogue as well.

The Paradigm Shift

The alternative is to end your season with a resolved, self-contained plot, but one that nevertheless engenders interest in what is to follow by ratcheting up the intensity, threat level, or importance of what can be expected in the next season. One of the most common approaches is to package the final episode as a Paradigm Shift, i.e. the delivery system for some revelation that completely alters the fundamental foundations of the series.


“Trajectoria parabòlica” by Arturo Reina Sánchez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to view terms of use.

The Utility Of The Pause

Clearly, pauses can be extremely useful, though this utility can operate on negatives as well as positives if the pause is mistimed, mishandled, or of incorrect duration. I keep finding myself thinking about ballistics.

The illustration shows a ball in ballistic flight. It starts with a certain velocity, i.e. a certain energy in this case, an energy of movement) which continues to elevate the ball until gravity slows it’s vertical motion to a stop – and then it begins to decline, at first only slowly, becoming more and more rapid with each interval of time. In a very similar way, the pre-break content “launches” the plot’s emotional energy, which continues to grow for a while, but then begins to decline, a decline that increases in pace with each passing time interval. A break functions, then, as a natural amplifier – for a while – increasing whatever the mood was, on-screen, just prior to the break, through the power of anticipation.

Complicating The Ballistics

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Emotions of a given type can only be sustained for so long. The analogy would be for a second ballistic trajectory to be in play – one that began at the commencement of the scene, and operates throughout – and for there to be a “lethargy barrier” which constrains the audience’s capacity and tolerance for that emotional energy. You can’t go from zero to 100 in one step, you need to build up to it in a series of smaller gains, followed by partial relief, before building up again from the new base point. What’s more, the “angle of launch” is effectively varied by other content in the course of the broader scene – interruptions and side conversations and cutaways and whatever.

Now think about a motorcycle jump – this also follows a parabolic arc, but requires the moving object to land on the other side. The altitude of the landing point can also be quite different to that of the launch, and that is all that’s required to make this a useful analogy to make. The landing point is the post-break content – and if it’s too high for the trajectory of the moving motorcycle, or too low, the results are a horrific crash. Only if you get the height exactly right is there a seamless transition from pre-break to post-break. And, because the vertical speed is changing all the time, the time interval – the length of the break, in other words – is a critical element in determining what “the right height” actually is.

Fortunately, audiences have a might broader tolerance than motorcycle stunts – you don’t need to get the landing point “exactly” right, only right within that tolerance level.

Used correctly, a break builds anticipation and gives tension elements and drama a chance to increase to new levels as though there was exciting content on-screen. But anything can be amplified, and the timing has to be correct, and the launch energy and landing elevation have to be a reasonably matched pair – so there are many ways to get it wrong.

The Gaming Break

All of which is quite interesting in and of itself, but this is a gaming blog. So let’s now start to seriously contemplate the value and necessity of breaks during gaming. To differentiate them, I intend to use the term “Pause” to describe such gaps in play, leaving the term “break” for use in referring to media analogies.

The earlier discussion has been very useful, insofar as it’s told us what needs to be considered when examining the role a break can play in a successful gaming session. There are three major plot functions that a pause can fill: Punctuation, expectation, and linkage. There are a number of basic types of pause within gaming – I have a list of seven, from a metagame perspective. I’ll go into all of these within the rest of this article.

In part two, I’m going to look at the construction of the gaming pause. I have identified four types of pre-pause activity, some good and some bad (in terms of the effects that the pause will have). The same four types of activity can also exist post-pause, so there are 16 combinations of types of plot content that can be connected by a pause – not all of them successful. Then there’s the pause itself; there are all sorts, from both and in-game and out-of-game perspective. I’ve come up with a list of nine that I think reasonably comprehensive, bringing the total number of possible combinations to a rather unwieldy 144.

In part three, I’ll attempt a broad, in-principle analysis of those 144 combinations, first looking at combinations that work, and then at combinations that don’t, and in particular looking for common patterns. I’m then going to wrap the series up by looking at how you can analyze whatever circumstances you find yourself in to determine the most useful course of action for you to take at any given moment. Call a break? Don’t call a break? Start the next scene/activity before a break? Start it after? Interrupt it mid-way? How long should the break be? The timing is everything! Finally, I’ll talk about building break-points into your games in advance – how many there should be, and how often they should occur.

Pause as Punctuation

The first major function of a pause is to serve as punctuation. This can be a full stop, an exclamation point, or an ellipsis (…).

The Break as a Full Stop

A scene has been resolved or concluded. The break puts an interval in real-time between that scene and what follows. Audiences and players subconsciously associate a real-time interval with an in-game interval, so the plot can either resume immediately after the pause or a period of time can be hand-waved out of existence by the GM, effectively saying “nothing of significance occurs until…”

This can be important, because without such a real-time break, the subsequent scene feels like it is occurring immediately after the resolution. This can feel rushed, even forced. It puts the players (who are still on a high from the scene that was just resolved) out of emotional step with their characters (for whom it was some time ago), so the absence of an appropriate pause can actually hinder game-play.

What’s more, players can be mentally fatigued by the concentration required in certain kinds of scenes, whether that’s an exciting battle, a confrontation of high drama, or a period of hard thinking and absorbing of information. A break can give the player time to recuperate – often at a price in the latter case, as details become lost or blurred in memory.

Full stops are important. Most paragraphs end with one for a reason.

The Break as an Exclamation Point

A scene has just begun that promises exciting action, some revelation has just come to hand, or a dramatic pronouncement has just been made. The break can function as an exclamation point that lets the significance sink in, and the ramifications grow in significance in the minds of the players. It heightens the drama of the situation.

Again, this can come with a price-tag, and there will be times when the price is too high. These costs are similar but not necessarily the same in all three cases.

With the promise of action, it can negate any surprise experienced by the players, giving them time to formulate plans of action. This is fine if the characters are less likely to be caught off-balance than the players, but can be counterproductive when this is not the case. The depth of planning possible is a factor to be considered when determining the length of the pause.

In the case of a revelation, the shock value can wear off to at least some extent. How much effect this has depends on the magnitude of the shock dealt to the players. Some developments are so stunning that players can respond, “I don’t know what to do” – which makes for rather dull gaming, and can even be fatal to the characters if hostile NPCs are present who were not stunned by the revelation. However, if the revelation holds significance beyond the immediate situation, especially significance with respect to the future rather than the past, the pause can give that significance time to grow in the minds of the players exactly as it would do in the minds of their characters. There is no definitive right-or-wrong general answer; it depends on the nature and scope of the revelation, the degree to which the players have anticipated it (which can be entirely different to the degree that their characters have anticipated it), the personalities involved, and more besides. You’re the GM, you have to make the call.

In the case of a dramatic pronouncement, the effects and possible consequences of a break are the same as for a revelation, but the circumstances are entirely different. What may have been undesirable in the case of a revelation can be entirely appropriate under this circumstance.

The general rule of thumb for both of the latter cases is that the more you want the players and PCs to be able to respond smoothly to the pronouncement, the more utility you will get out of a break; the more you want them to feel the shock, the more undesirable a break at that point becomes.

The Break as an Ellipsis

An ellipsis is somewhere in between the first two applications. It generally emphasizes an ominous foreboding imparted by the plot sequence which has just occurred. They are actually easier to define in the negative – what they aren’t, rather than what they are.

The exclamation mark and full stop generally signal a change in the emotional intensity of the scene that is about to unfold, compared to the one that has just unfolded. They may or may not also signal a change in the emotional content, i.e. the tone. An ellipsis conveys much less of an expectation of a change in intensity, or an expectation of a much smaller change of intensity, while definitively flagging a change in tone, usually toward the grim, dark, or serious. Contemplate the following four examples of the use of an ellipsis to conclude a scene:

  1. “Let’s get to work.”
    “And, when we’ve finished, it’s Payback Time…”
  2. “You know he’s not going to come quietly, don’t you?”
    “Yes, but one way or another, I’ll make it happen…”
  3. “Whatever it takes, Whatever the cost, he’s going down for this…”
  4. “I’ve decided to ask Juliet to marry me…”

In all cases, they are suggesting a change in emotional content that’s about to occur, and promising a deferred change in intensity, and they all have in common a decision that has been made in the course of the scene that they conclude.

Another way of looking at it is this: the full stop suggests that what follows can be handwaved, at least up to a certain point where it is approaching fruition. The Ellipsis says that rather than hand-waving that subsequent period of preparation or cleanup or response, it needs to be presented in-game, that it is going to be significant.

Pause as Expectation

Pauses can also be viewed as a function to convert expectation into anticipation. The expectation that derives from the pre-pause scene is that something is going to happen as a result; anticipation builds during the break because that expectation is not being fulfilled, making the release of anticipation far more intense when it eventually does occur.

A common element of many of the examples of breaks in the wrong place when thinking of television programs was the fact that no expectation had been created.

Contrast the following examples of break placement:

  • “The flying saucer lands on the grassy plain…”
    “As you watch intently, a door appears as a line in the hull and then begins to slowly grind open; revealing, in the blindingly-bright interior, first the feet, and then the entire silhouette, of the the pilot.”
  • “The flying saucer lands on the grassy plain, and the outline of a door appears in its hull…”
    “As you watch intently, the door begins to slowly grind open. Within, you can see nothing at all because it is blindingly bright, but slowly the feet of the pilot, and then his entire silhouette, can be made out.”
  • “The flying saucer lands on the grassy plain. The outline of a door appears in its hull, and begins to slowly grind open!”
    “At first, all you can see is blinding light, but slowly, his feet first, the pilot’s silhouette is revealed.”
  • “The flying saucer lands on the grassy plain. As you watch intently, a door appears as a line in the hull and then begins to slowly grind open, revealing first the feet and then the entire silhouette of the the pilot!”

Each of the examples places the immediate focus of the post-break action on a slightly different element of the scene. In the first, the flying saucer itself is the object of dramatic focus during the break, suggesting that the identity of the pilot is less dramatic than his mode of transport. In the second, it is the appearance of a door, and the focus is on the question of when it will open. In the third, the door has opened, and the emphasis is on what is about to be revealed, and in the fourth and final example, the dramatic emphasis during the break is all about who the pilot is; the mode of transport is rendered unimportant in comparison with that identity, and since the mode of transport is very dramatic indeed, the promise, and the expectation, is that the pilot’s identity will be earthshakingly important. If that subsequently is not the case, or not sufficiently the case, the post-break scene will be an anticlimax.

This is also a problem in the second example, but it has the drama of the door slowly griding open, followed by the the revelation of the pilot, to sustain interest and overcome whatever level of anticlimax may have resulted. Similarly, the third has the same advantage, simply occurring in a different point in the sequence of events. The first example is perhaps the most pure example of anticipation of the four, simply because so much of what’s about to happen is a mystery.

Pause as Linkage

A pause can link cause with effect, joining two halves of a particular scene. This is usually simply a different and much lower-key form of expectation and fulfillment, with the intervening period hand-waved. The characters decide to do something, there is a break, and then the results of that activity are shown. A break can even be used to imply cause-and-effect when no such relationship is immediately obvious, by virtue of this function.

The most extreme example that I have experienced was an experimental game session in which an unusual game structure was trialled. The PCs would learn about a situation in the course of roleplay, and decide what they were going to do about it. There would be a break. After the pause, the scene would be inside the chief villain’s lair as his subordinates informed him as to the results of the PCs action, and he reacted accordingly. The scene would then cut back to the PCs, hand-waving the resolution of their actions completely; play would resume with them assessing the effectiveness of their actions, roleplaying their post-activity interaction, and letting them decide what they were going to do next. Repeat the process until you reach the point where the PCs finally confront the villain.

This greatly accelerated the pace of the session, cutting out virtually all combat – so it will not work with all players. I subsequently found that this structure also works where the PCs are decision-makers with NPCs actually carrying out the decisions that they make, and ran an entire campaign based around this structure; instead of cutting to the villains, I simply had the NPCs reporting the results to the PCs.

Another time this structure could work is when the PCs are so effective in comparison to their enemies that victory in combat is a foregone conclusion; this would simply describe the outcome ex-cathedra.

It might seem like there are an awful lot of breaks involved, but in most cases, these don’t have to be what you actually think of as breaks; there’s enough variety (as you will see in part two of this series) that it becomes practical. Without jumping the gun too much, for example, contemplate two concurrent plotlines being run with the same characters; developments in one plot constitute a break in the other.

Pause as Thinking Time

The final function a pause, in game terms, is as a means of giving the players thinking time. This is especially important when the capabilities of the PC outstrip those of the player considerably; in effect, the break is a time-out for the player to think about his character’s options.

If you are going to use a break in this fashion, it’s important to tell the player, or his attention will be on whatever else is going on in the meantime, whether that’s side conversation or whatever. It can also be important for you to make yourself available to the player for discussion about the decision the character faces.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not you permit the player to discuss the subject with the other players without them necessarily playing the role of their characters. I generally permit this, with restrictions – the other player’s PC has to be there, so that if necessary, the conversation can be retconned or reinterpreted as character-to-character conversation.

Pause nature

There are seven types of pause from a metagame perspective. This system of classification, unlike the analysis that will appear in part two, can have any type of content; this is more about why there is a pause.

Deliberate Pauses

Most of what I’ve talked about has assumed that the GM has made a deliberate choice to pause at this point in play, intending to use that pause to the game’s benefit. Even if the decision is made for negative reasons – “A break is needed sometime soon, and this is the least harmful time to have it” – that is still a decision based on maximizing the entertainment value of the game for all concerned.

Natural Pauses

It might not be obvious, but there are times in a game session where play naturally pauses, usually to permit game mechanics to function. Examples include handing out experience, listing treasure, dealing with hit points and post-combat recovery, and even (at its most fundamental) the characters going to sleep. If you have any reason to hand-wave time, it constitutes a natural break. The decision that needs to be made when a natural pause becomes available is how best to take advantage of it; your choices come down to whether to eliminate the possibility of a pause being needed for other reasons, permitting a longer stint of uninterrupted play to follow, and what sort of scene you will reopen play with after the pause.

But there’s also another sub-variety that has to be considered. It’s my experience that players can only go so long without side chatter starting. This is yet another natural pause.

Forced Pauses

There are also times when you need to pause whether you want to or not. If it starts to rain, you may need to close windows. If someone trips over, you need to pause to ensure that they don’t need medical attention. If you’re dependent on a computer and the power goes out, you may be forced to stop play (depending on battery condition and the nature of the computer in question). A can of soda can have been agitated unintentionally and – when opened – sprays everywhere. People can suffer from sudden incontinence. Someone’s telephone can ring. There can be a knock on the door. The pizza delivery can arrive. A die can get lost under the table. Heck, the table, or a chair, can collapse (I’ve seen it happen)! The list of reasons goes on and on, and they all boil down to an intrusion by the real world on the gaming table.

When this happens, you have no choice as to the timing of the pause, and may have no choice as to its duration; all you can do is decide how to reengage the game following the forced pause.

Flawed Pauses

You can call a pause when you shouldn’t. This happens to everyone; experience teaches better judgment, but takes time, mistakes, and reflection to do its work. You usually can’t tell that a pause is of this type until after the fact.

In truth, pauses can be flawed only in two ways – the content prior to the pause, and the content after the pause. Everything else is manageable. Pause length is at best, a secondary factor, only relevant in the context of these content considerations.

One of the greatest skills that you can develop (within the context of Pause Handling and Pacing) is the ability to recognize a flawed pause while still in the pause, giving you the opportunity to adjust the game accordingly. Insert an additional scene, if you have to! Have a salesman knock on the door! Provide a moment of in-game levity! Tune in on a character’s private moment! Have something arrive in the mail! Something!

Or it might be that you are fighting an impending anticlimax. Throw in an accident to ramp up the activity/excitement! A soldier accidentally discharges his weapon. A car crashes, its driver distracted by whatever is going on. You spot an intruder on the gamma-bomb test range! A scuffle breaks out in the crowd, which is already close to rioting!

Remember those broader tolerances that I talked about a while back? Your intervention doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to get you close enough to where you need to be to reach that tolerance level.

Unnatural Pauses

If, for some reason, you have cause to speak to a player privately, away from the game table – perhaps because the PC he controls is doing something the other players shouldn’t know about – it constitutes a natural break for that player/PC combination, but may not be a natural break from the point of view of the other players/PCs. There can be times, when you let your PCs pursue private agendas, where circumstances will intersect and they will cross paths, necessitating an interruption of dealing with one player/PC to get the other one up to the same point in time – simply because there’s only one of you, and no GM has yet mastered the trick of being in several places at the same time.

With careful planning, these problems can be minimized. I make it a point, when planning these solo scenes, of building in what I call potential pauses – a point where a natural break can be inserted in a solo plot sequence so that I can switch to handling another seamlessly.

The players are the other sources of unnatural pauses. It doesn’t happen often anymore – I have too much experience under my metaphoric belt – but whenever I am totally surprised or caught off-guard by a PC’s choice of action, I will deliberately call a break to think about how to handle the unexpected development. These actually work as pauses normally do, because the unexpected nature of the action that has triggered the pause is enough of a dramatic development to sustain a brief interruption. Again, one of the most important considerations is how best to restart the game after the pause.

This is also the case when I realize that I’ve gotten carried away with something at the game table and need to reassess the “big picture”. Again, this isn’t a mistake that I make as often as I used to, though it remains something I have to remain alert to.

Longer Pauses

Longer pauses need more careful handling than brief ones – meal breaks, for example, or someone needing to pop down to the corner store. The “ballistics” metaphor explains the reasons – the longer duration gives more time for reactions to occur. Either the action pre-break needs to be even more intense and dramatic in order to sustain the interest level through the longer break, or you need to cut to a lower-intensity scene (inserting one if necessary) if excitement will have waned.

Because these longer breaks give players a chance to discuss their options and plan, or simply think about the situation their PCs are in, it is sometimes helpful to require them to write down what they are trying to do at the moment the break begins and how they intend to go about it, simply to help them get back into the head-space that they were occupying on behalf of their characters before the break.

Ending On A High: The ultimate Pause

Of course, the ultimate pause is the end of the day’s play. If the adventure has come to an end, that’s not a problem; but if this is only part one of two, three, or more, it can be vitally important. Especially if there is any risk at all that your next-scheduled game date might not happen! You may need to sustain interest for a lengthy period of time; failure to do so can kill campaigns. And that’s no fun for anyone!

My usual pattern is to start from an abstract or theoretical perspective and explore my way to practical application of what analysis of that exploration reveals. Because this article has been divided, we are still midway through that process; most of the practical advice is still to come. Hopefully I’ve been able to include enough nuggets along the way to make the article worthwhile!

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Fogs, Clouds and Confusion: A Battlemap technique


Another filler post, I’m afraid – the next part of the New Beginnings series is turning out larger than I expected! I intended to get an early start on it yesterday, but thought of an article for later this week and started putting thoughts down on electronic “paper”, and totally lost track of time.

Have you ever thought about the best way to depict mists and fogs on a battlemap? For next to no-cost?

It’s not all that easy, but I have a solution to offer. What you will need:

  • Your battlemap tiles
  • A box of tissues or tracing paper, the thinner the better
  • A little Blu-tack or equivalent
  • At least two matching decks of playing cards that you don’t mind destroying (can be re-used in the future)
  • A pair of scissors, sharp if possible
  • Two small containers for storage – you can use the packs that the cards came from, in a pinch
  • (Optional) a bag of cotton-wool balls (can be re-used if stored afterwards)

Step One: Select your tiles

Since there is a little prep involved, start by selecting the tiles that you are going to need. That prep will be relatively quick – a matter of half a minute or less per tile, once you get into the swing of things – but it does take time.

Step Two: Organize by size

The process is slightly different for different sizes of tile, so organize them accordingly.

Step Three: Wrap tiles

Wrap tiles tightly in the paper, using the blu-tack in SMALL quantities to join sheets together and trimming the tissue paper as needed. The idea is that you want to be able to see the tile through the base “fog” just enough for the tiles to function and hint at what’s underneath, while showing that vision is impeded.

Note that the amount of blu-tack is very important – you don’t want any of it to come into direct contact with the tile, because the volatiles (oils?) that make the blu-tack malleable can discolor the tiles. If you’re especially paranoid about that, you can use sticky tape (sticky face out) to provide a line of insulation along the tissue paper where the blu-tack is to be placed (not shown on the diagram, this is an afterthought).

It’s important to secure the paper so that it doesn’t shift during the course of play; if this weren’t a factor, I’d just lay sheets of the stuff over the top of the finished battlemap.

In a pinch, you can skip this step, but it adds so much to the verisimilitude of the scene that it is worthing doing if you possibly can. You may need to use a pencil to lightly draw the outlines of the tile squares on the tissue very quickly (press lightly to avoid damaging the tile). In particular, when representing fogs and mists generated by spellcasters, you will have to live without this step.

Step Four (only needs doing once): Halve One Deck

Take one deck of the cards, and if you haven’t done so already, cut them in half horizontally across the card, as close to mid-way as you can manage. This gives you large tokens for use in areas of 4 squares x 4 squares. Store these in a suitable container, ready for use.

Step Five (only needs doing once): Tokenize the other deck

Take the other deck of cards. Cut off the corner icons that show suite and card number from each corner. Then cut out each pip showing on the rest of the cards into roughly square tokens. Store these in a suitable container, ready for use.

Step Six: lay out your battlemap

This step excludes placing “decorations” like barrels, chairs, light sources, stairs, and any elevated features. What you want here is the basic ground-level terrain.

Some outdoor-setting tiles may cause you some head-scratching. A building’s roof is an “elevated feature” isn’t it? Or is it? What about forest tiles with trees?

Make the choice for yourself based on two criteria – the thickness of the paper wrapping (if it’s thin enough, you can get away with considering these ground-level), and whether or not you have some other tiles that you can use to represent just the roofs or trees. Green glass beads for trees can be an excellent choice – in which case the beads are the “elevated features” and the tile is ground-level.

Note that every tile laid should feature the paper “mist”, except when you have had to skip the “wrapping” step.

Step Six-A: Decorate your battlemap excluding light sources and elevated features

Next, place every decorative tile (each wrapped in it’s own temporary covering of tissue paper) that isn’t going to show through the fog onto the battlemap. Tables, chairs, barrels, pits, wells, carts, whatever.

If you need to save a little time, by not sealing the ends of the tissue wrap, you can simply slide these between the tissue paper covering the larger tile and the tile it covers instead of wrapping these decorative tiles.

Step Seven: Define Fringe

Using the individual pips cut from the cards, define the outer fringe of the fog, one pip to every 2 squares is better. Note that fog and mist will expand into lower ground, so this might not be a smooth edge, and that if the entire area is covered in mist, there might BE no fringe showing on the map.

Step Eight: Define Heart

Separate out the tokens for the picture cards (Jack, Queen, King, and Ace). Place these on the battlemap to represent the thickest areas of fog, generally the terrain of lowest elevation or the center of an open area (especially one with a lot of water, like a lake), or possibly even one entire side of the battlemap. Use the half-cards for large tile areas (4 squares by 4 squares or 5×5) and the corners cut from the second deck for smaller areas (2×2 or 1×1). As a general rule of thumb, I will try to use black suits (spades and clubs) to indicate the presence of a “Dark Shape” visible though the fog, i.e. there’s something there, and red suits (hearts and diamonds) to indicate the absence of anything but white – which includes any lightly-colored objects that may be present. Every try to see a white car in fog? It’s twice as hard as seeing a dark car or moderately-toned car! But this may not be possible, depending on how many you need.

When you’ve finished, set aside the picture cards; you’re more or less done with them (save for occasionally changing your mind and extending the heart).

Step Nine: Separate Tokens & Half-Cards into “thick” and “thin” counters

Taking the tokens and half-cards that remain, separate them into three groups: single pips, low value counters (2-5), and high-value counters (6-10).

Step Ten: Draw & Place “Thick” counters

After randomly mixing the 6-10 group of counters, draw and place them one at a time in those areas where the fog will be at its thickest. This is anywhere that’s sheltered from wind, in a fringe surrounding the heart, and anywhere that’s under cover or shaded. Again, use the half-cards for large areas and the cut corners for details, and – if you’re going the extra step – the difference between dark suits and red suits.

“Thick” counters should not normally come into direct contact with the fringe, there should always be a gap of at least two squares, but use your own judgment according to the terrain.

As a rule of thumb, natural fogs should not be more than about 1/3 “thick” (excluding the heart), but that’s also something that you will have to judge according to the circumstances.

Note that this is a lot easier if you place the half-cards first and follow them with the tokens.

Step Eleven: Draw & Place “Thin” counters

Roughly count up the number of “thin” counters that you are going to need – one for every 2×2 space, not counting any areas large enough to use a half-card.

Divide the result by three, and add one for each large area where you intend to use a half-card.

Count out that many single pips and randomly scatter them between the fringe and “thick” areas.

Then randomly mix the 2-5 group of counters, drawing and placing them to complete filling up the fog-enshrouded area.

Step Six-B: Place light sources and elevated features onto battlemap

Over the top of the counters now placed over the battlemap, add your remaining tiles – light sources and elevated features. This includes glass beads being used for trees, etc. These (beads excepted) will need to have been individually tissue “coated”l, I’m afraid. Over each light source, lay about 1/4 of a cotton-wool ball that you have fluffed out and then pressed more-or-less flat, to represent the diffusion that occurs; quite often, you can tell there’s a light source but not what it is until you get closer, and it automatically makes the fog seem thicker.

Despite this, most governments recommend using headlights on low-beam in foggy conditions, not because it makes it any easier for you to see things (it doesn’t), but because it makes you more visible to others. What is lost in safety on the one hand is more than gained on the other.

In-play interpretation

All this may seem like quite a lot of trouble to go to. There is a method to this madness, however.

The numbers showing can be used to represent the relative thickness of the fog and mist, and hence the modifiers to the rolls for achieving various activities, given the conditions.


Assuming that you’re using a d20 system or something similar (works for 3d6-based systems as well), the DC or difficulty can be assessed as 5+variable for mist, 10+variable for light fog, and 15+variable for thick fog.

Actually, there are a couple of additional conditions that this system can be used for, noted below.


Mist is the thinnest of the three conditions that this is system can be used to simulate.

  1. Determine the direction the character is looking, or the direction to whatever he is looking for.
  2. Count out a range of 8 hexes/spaces in that direction, or until you reach an obstruction that can’t be seen through, like a wall.
  3. Total the values of the 3 lowest counters within that range and divide by 2, rounding down. Jack=11, Queen=12, King=13, Ace=15. Isolated pips are “1”.
  4. This is the “variable”; add a further 5 to get the modifier to any perception or concealment checks. For drizzle or light rain, divide by 3 instead of 2.
Thin Fog/Light Snow/Sleet/Heavy Rain/Thin Smoke

Next up the extremity scale is the above quintuple threat. Note that if you have two of these – fog and smoke, say – determine each separately and add the effects together. However, this would be quite an unnatural combination of conditions; I’m not saying that it couldn’t be made to happen, but the circumstances would be quite unusual.

  1. Determine the direction the character is looking, or the direction to whatever he is looking for.
  2. Count out a range of 4 hexes/spaces in that direction, or until you reach an obstruction that can’t be seen through, like a wall.
  3. Total the values of the highest and lowest single counters within that range and divide by 2, rounding down. Jack=11, Queen=12, King=13, Ace=15. Isolated pips are “1”.
  4. This is the “variable”; add a further 10 to get the modifier to any perception or concealment checks. For Smoke, add 5 instead of 10.

In the case of smoke, I would also use this modifier as the target to avoid coughing.

Thick Fog/Heavy Snow/Dense Smoke

At the most extreme, it can be very hard to see anything at all. Once again, if you can contrive circumstances by which two or more of these conditions are in effect at the same time, calculate the effects separately and then total them.

  1. Determine the direction the character is looking, or the direction to whatever he is looking for.
  2. Count out a range of 4 hexes/spaces in that direction, or until you reach an obstruction that can’t be seen through, like a wall.
  3. Total the values of the two highest counters within that range and divide by 2, rounding down. Jack=11, Queen=12, King=13, Ace=15. Isolated pips are “1”.
  4. This is the “variable”; add a further 15 to get the modifier to any perception or concealment checks.

In the case of smoke, I would also use this modifier as the target to avoid choking/asphyxia.

Combat Modifier

It’s harder to predict where an opponent is going to be and what he’s going to do when you can’t see him clearly. This should be reflected with an increase in their AC or DCV or equivalent – this applies to all combatants.

For ranged combat, use the adjustments given for “Perception”. Note that the target’s location qualifies as “an obstruction that can’t be seen through” in this context.

I would use the same calculation method given above, but reduce the modifier by 5.

Random changes

After a chit has been used in a calculation, there is a chance that it will change value. Simply draw a new one from the appropriate stack and replace the old, returning the discarded chit to the appropriate stack.

How great that chance is should be determined by the GM based on conditions. I would suggest 25% or 50% or 1-2 on a d6 or something along those lines, but a lot depends on what’s going on in this particular battle scene.


Store the counters, chits, and cotton balls, and remove the tissue paper from the tiles immediately after play, to minimize the chances of damage to the tiles from the blu-tack.


This proposal adds a lot of verisimilitude to a scene. It also does an excellent job of taking what would otherwise be a “universal” adjustment that applied to the whole battlefield and all combatants and making it a dynamic, changing environment. This also permits a new mode of interaction between characters and environment – a Fireball might cause fog to thin or lift temporarily, for example; simply adjust the non-variable amount accordingly.

Although I didn’t go into specifics above, you could also employ this system for underwater explorations – the clarity of the water, the presence of a light-source, and the density of the fish population being the factors that would be the modifier determinants. You could, perhaps, make your “tissue paper” from two or more panels of transparent blue contact plastic back-to-back.

I’m sure that there are applications for this system that simply haven’t occurred to me; as you could probably tell, I have been thinking of more throughout the writing of the article. Use it as you see fit!

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Taking advantage of the sensory heirarchy

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As humans, we rely on our senses to connect us to the world around us. There is a hierarchy amongst those senses that GMs can take advantage of, the better to communicate with our players.

The Associated Senses

At the bottom end of the senses are the associated senses – the sense of balance, and of motion, and the senses of hot and cold. The first two are strongly linked but there’s not much that we can be do with them in a static session such as sitting around a game table (there’s one exception that I’ll get to a little later). The third and fourth are bound up with our sense of touch, as is the fifth, our awareness of texture. As such, I’ll deal with the “tactile super-sense” when I get to that level of the hierarchy.

The Flavor Senses

That brings me to the linked senses of taste and scent. It’s possible to do something with these, though it can be a lot of effort and sometimes not worthwhile. In fact, the sense of taste is a tightly-grouped collection of six different senses – the five basic flavors, plus that aspect of the tactile sense that is experienced through the tongue.


The sense of taste can be used by presenting flavor “samples” that are iconically associated with a particular region, and help connect the place with the player’s awareness. Serving a bowl of chili, or salsa and corn chips, is a great way to make players “connect” with the idea that they are in Mexico. It doesn’t matter whether or not they particularly like the food on offer; a small taste is all that’s needed. Similarly, curries are quintessentially associated with the Indian region and neighboring countries, cheesecakes and créme caramels with France, and so on. Your selections don’t even have to be geographically accurate provided that the association exists in the minds of the players.

Provided that you understand something about the relationship between climate, geography and the foods that can be grown in the resulting environment, and the cuisine that results, you can even link various regions of an invented world with existing real-world cuisines (perhaps with variations) to create an instant association. Steamed broccoli (Chinese style) dipped in soy sauce and then sprinkled with sugar, for example – it doesn’t have to be a mindblowingly brilliant flavor creation (so long as it isn’t nauseating), so long as it is distinctive. A mixture of apple juice and dry ginger ale as a non-alcoholic representation of Dwarven Ale? why not?


Scent is both more subtle and more profound a sense. Even the memory of a scent is enough to invoke strong memories of a flavor that can actually stimulate the taste buds as though we were really consuming the flavor in question. Focus on recalling, just for a moment or two, the scent of lemon and you will find that the taste-buds at the sides of the back of the tongue respond – and trigger salivation, just as the real thing would.

More than once, the power of scent has broken through an amnesiac barrier. There are particular combinations of scents that seem to go directly to the hind-brain and label a place as “home”. And scent has a big role to play in the perception of flavor, to boot – in fact, appearance and scent can completely or partially overcome our senses of what we are actually tasting, as has been shown by a number of fascinating psychological experiments over the years. (I’d love to link to some authoritative websites regarding the phenomenon but they are being drowned out by thematically-related sites about enhancing weight-loss ability using the techniques. The best that I can offer are this site, and this article from the BBC, I’m afraid).

But there’s more. Different scents have been found to influence the behavior of the brain – lavender makes us sleepy and sluggish, lemon scents stimulate the brain and make us more alert and aware. Unfortunately, a web-search on the subject is dominated by two areas that are only marginally valuable and a plethora of sites that either make unsubstantiated claims or are blatantly commercial or counterculture in nature – Aromachology and Aromatherapy. Most will have heard of the latter, fewer will know of the former. Wikipedia defines Aromachology as “the study of the influence of odors on human behavior” and “the relationship between feelings and emotions such as relaxation, exhilaration, sensuality, happiness and well-being brought about by odors stimulating the olfactory pathways in the brain and, in particular, the limbic system.”

In theory, you can use air fresheners, scented candles, and the like to create an “atmosphere” that simulates the environment. In practice, it’s very difficult to remove or neutralize the “scent palette” after releasing one odor so that the next can be appreciated without contamination. It can be managed by using small sealed containers (about 1 cubic inch) which contain a particular scent – open and inhale – but this is a LOT of trouble to go to, and probably not worth the effort.

You can adopt a simpler approach of selecting one dominant odor combination that reflects the most “important” scent of the day’s setting. Wildflowers and a lemon air-freshening spray, for example, or a sandalwood-incense odor that you deliberately associate with Orcs.

The other problem to be faced is that many people suffer from asthma and/or allergies to various substances, and you may inadvertently trigger an attack, and some people may simply not like the scent – I used to burn incense regularly at home when I wanted privacy because the people with whom I shared accommodations weren’t fans of the scent, while I liked it. These days, a combination of Lemon and Vanilla makes up my favorite environmental scent. But I’m wandering off-topic.

These difficulties and potential complications make this powerful tool less than universally-applicable. Think twice before using it, and make the relevant inquiries of your players in advance.


With each step up the sensory ladder, the sense being considered is both more powerful in communicating subtle aspects of the world and more accessible to us at the game table – a potent double-whammy that explains why many GMs never explore beyond certain core senses and obvious applications of those senses. Hearing is the first of those core senses, and often the only one relied upon by GMs. Certainly, when I first started playing RPGs, this was as far as it went – people spoke and that was it.

large dwarven platinum bar

Vocal Communications

The GM delivers a verbal description of the scene and environment and speaks on behalf of any NPCs. Each player responds with any verbal descriptions that the GM can’t provide (eg of their characters or actions) and speaks on behalf of the character they are playing, as well as requesting further details from the GM. Vocal communication is at the heart of every RPG that is not conducted in an online environment and many of those that are, as well. Only when the computer takes over the role of the GM and everyone is playing in a simulated world, ie a computer game, does vocal communication take a back seat; with text-based communications between a GM and one or more remote players either in a live-chat-room setting or by play-by-email taking somewhat of an intermediate space between the two extremes.

One of the earliest pieces of GM advice that I can remember reading had, as the subject, the enhancement of Vocal Communications through the use of accents and “alternate voices”. For all the ubiquity of this advice, I have only ever met one GM who I would regard as exceptional in this respect – his Cyberpunk campaign was weak in just about every other way, but he was insanely-gifted in his vocal malleability and capacity to be consistent. Most people just can’t do it, or can’t do it very well.

Ambient noise can pose an additional problem that can be difficult to overcome. Before you can think about anything more than the absolute minimum standards of vocalization, this needs to be eliminated as a factor.

One subject that rarely seems to get mentioned – including here at Campaign Mastery – is the degree of benefit that Public Speaking courses, and the Oratory techniques that they teach, can offer GMs. We all tend to focus more on the content than on the delivery; whether that’s because we consider it too obvious, or because the content tends to be rather more interesting, I don’t know. To partially redress the balance, here are a selection of websites and resources on the subject of oratory technique that are worth close examination, with comments concerning the relevance to our particular application of the subject:

  • How to Be a Better Orator – Basic introduction, with emphasis on prepared speeches. Steps three, five, and nine are particularly useless in an interactive situation like an RPG except when delivering canned text. If this was as good as it got, it might explain why few sources talk about improved Oratory as a way to better your GMing. But, as a beginning, it is still useful.
  • Articulation Exercises – Practical exercises to improve your diction and articulation. There’s not much about shaping the content for delivery, or oratorical design techniques, this is all about successfully enunciating and delivering the message.
  • Persuasive Speech from Nebo Literature – This covers the structural aspects that don’t get much of a mention at the preceding site; the two are a great one-two punch. You need to understand this stuff thoroughly to be able to use it without planning and forethought, but the benefits are well worth the effort of gaining that understanding.
  • Leadership Skills: The 5 Essential Speaking Techniques from The Genard Method – Wants to sell you a book on their technique, but as enticement, they offer some useful advice and a cheat-sheet to download. Not having used their technique, I can’t comment further on it. Links purport to take you to other useful content, I didn’t follow any of them to be able to verify. Recommended as a supplement to the preceding sites listed.
  • What can I do to quickly become a better orator/public speaker? – There are some useful tips, tricks, and techniques in the replies, and some things that are less useful to our particular purpose. But the hoped-for focus on “quickly” makes this worth a read. Use the information gleaned from the preceding sites as a means of assessing the usefulness of the advice on offer here.
  • Public Speaking For Dummies – The first of several books sold by Amazon that seem directly relevant. Take the free advice above and run with it as far as you can go – and then contemplate this and the books that follow to supplement your skillset and education on the subject. I’m relying on the established reputation for quality in the “for dummies” series in making this recommendation, but an average 4.5 stars out of 5 from 20 customer reviews adds to the confidence factor.
  • No Sweat Public Speaking! – This is all about overcoming the fear of speaking in public. In theory, it should be less relevant to GMing, but it isn’t, though it is tangential. I’ve been interviewed a couple of times (live “on the air”) because of my involvement in RPGs, I’ve been offered other interview opportunities since (podcasts and the like) but couldn’t manage the logistics, and I’ve been asked to speak in public at both weddings and funerals because of my association with the hobby (and a rep for doing it well, with both clarity and sincerity). Heck, I won a debate at the School Eisteddfod many many years ago because more organized and less nervous than my opponent – despite having only entered that morning, and written my speech just thirty minutes before it had to be delivered, cold (no rehearsal), and despite my being in third class, and him in his final year (“12th form” as it was then-known), a difference of nine years. The subject: Nuclear Energy. I had no time to research, he had weeks. And that was his downfall, as he had time for the task to prey on his mind… Make no mistake, if you begin to become a better public speaker, you WILL have opportunities to use the ability whether you want to or not! 5 stars average from 108 customer reviews mean you should consider buying this book!
  • Communicating Effectively For Dummies – Although not as highly-rated as “Public Speaking For Dummies” this volume might be more relevant to the RPG experience. Described as “how to get your point across at work and interact most productively with bosses and coworkers”. So, while it doesn’t mention “Players”, it sounds right on point.
  • Voice and Speaking Skills For Dummies – Although this offers to expand on the free advice on Diction and Articulation offered by one of the websites listed above, it isn’t rated as highly as the other Dummies books I’ve listed. However, there are only three reviews, so they can’t be considered enough to be a definitive review. Read the reviews at the bottom of the page and make your own assessment.
  • Public Speaking – Concise Concepts : No stories, just point form secrets the pro’s use! – Note that this is available only as a a Kindle E-book. No customer reviews, but it’s only 80 cents US – if you have a Kindle. Offered for those who do, and probably worth taking a chance on at that price.
  • 157 Most Asked Questions On Public Speaking – The newest and therefore most expensive of the books on offer, and no user reviews to use as a guide to the value of the book. But the description sounds promising: “It contains 157 answers, much more than you can imagine; comprehensive answers and extensive details and references, with insights that have never before been offered in print.” Worth serious thought, therefore.
  • Effective Speaking – The last of the resources to which I’m linking, this has only one review, and that of only three stars. The reason I’m listing it lies in the price – it’s cheap, even Very Cheap if bought second-hand – and the content of that review: “A good solid book…” “…all the essentials…” “…useful advice in straightforward language.” ‘Nuff Said.

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Audio Tapestries

Something that I have seen offered from time to time are audio tapestries (sometimes known as Ambient Environments) – essentially, sound effect/atmosphere compilations that can be looped to provide appropriate background noises. Assuming that he has a large enough library of such sounds, the GM simply has to cue up the appropriate track to fill the background with the chatter of bartering or the sounds of a ruined Gothic cathedral or whatever. If one doesn’t exist, sound effects libraries and the right software can enable you to create your own – the longer the loop, the less repetitive and more natural it will sound; the shorter, the smaller the file size will be. This is something I have always wanted to explore more thoroughly because I think it would add tremendously to the Ambiance of a game, but for one reason or another, every time I’ve gotten close to being able to do so, something has intervened. So it remains on my bucket list.

The only companies I’m aware of who produce these things are Toxic Bag and their Sound Products (all in my wishlist at DrivethruRPG) and Tabletop Audio, who have an excellent range of products. A Kickstarter project to create a tool to let GMs create their own ambient soundtracks failed to get up, unfortunately – I was asked to review and promote it but didn’t have the capacity to do so before the campaign concluded.

Beyond those two specific resources, two Google searches might lead you to more choices:

Background Music

Where you can’t get sound effects, appropriate background music may fill the gap. Music is used extensively in movies and TV shows to enhance the emotional content and visceral atmosphere of the images, but the producers work very hard at synchronizing the appropriate beats and sounds with the on-screen visuals; this can make RPG use of a musical soundtrack more difficult than it might initially seem. For that reason, the “ambient sounds” approach holds greater appeal to me.

For example, contemplate the Star Wars soundtrack. You might think that when you’re playing the Star Wars RPG that this would provide the perfect background ambiance, but it doesn’t work – you can be having a “these are not the droids you’re looking for” moment, or a “trust me (smile)” moment, when Darth Vader’s theme comes blasting out, or the main imperial theme. You can actually be better off with a whole bunch of instrumental pieces that have nothing to do with the subject matter, such as a Jean Michel Jarre album, or some generic science-fiction ambient sounds – especially if you lead off with the Star Wars main title theme to set the initial mood.

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Even more powerful than sounds is the sense of sight. It used to be the case that there were relatively few visual references available for use, and even if the images were there, you didn’t have the technology available to display them. Then the internet came along, and especially Google Image Search and Google Maps.

I’ve actually written an article or two on this subject before – see, for example:

…so I don’t intend to go too far into this subject in this article. Suffice it to say that a picture can, indeed, be worth 1,000 words (or more).

Using sight to stimulate the sense of motion

However, before I go any further, it’s time to delve into the exception to the sense-of-movement problems that I referred to early in the article. I have a pair of metal miniature bi-planes – I’m not sure of the scale, but they are about the size of the palm of my hand or a little larger – and they excel at enabling complex aerial maneuvers to be illustrated, translating movement into something visual. The wings are important because, being at right angles and straight out from the center of the model, they provide a visual horizontal plane that is readily visible from the outside; this wouldn’t work as well with swept-wing aircraft. In essence, they are (when viewed from above) a giant cross, with the tail longer than the head, so that position and attitude relative to the direction of future movement is readily visible. It only takes a little knowledge of the mechanics of flight – what you can pick up from Blue Max, for example, plus watching something like “Top Gun” once or twice – and you have all the tools you need to convey a dogfight. (I actually adapt Blue Max for the game mechanics of flight in my superhero campaign, it is worth noting).

If you don’t have a metal miniature, make a paper plane – it will be better than nothing, I assure you, and can convey action in a heartbeat that would easily require far more than 10,000 words to state, and would be both boring and capable of easy misinterpretation. If you have opposing flying characters, no matter what your game system, such a visual aid is a must-have!

Environmental Immersion

Technically, this isn’t a sense at all, and it’s also devilishly difficult for a GM to take advantage of, but I felt I needed to highlight it. Being somewhere is not the same as seeing a photo of it, and a photo doesn’t give the same sense of a location being real. This is a problem that TV and movies confront all the time, and they have developed techniques to combat it, such as showing a conversation from different angles; since the conversation has the two (or more) actors involved at the same time, the mind of the viewer assumes that they are in the same place, and stitches the two views together to create an impression of a three-dimensional reality in which the individuals are present. A lot of the early special effects shots, especially involving green-screen, or projections, failed to look all that credible because they couldn’t achieve this illusionary immersion, or because the motions didn’t match up. Star Wars and Babylon-5 were the two notable pioneers in solving those problems, using motion-capture and 3D modeling, respectively. Other shows refined the results and processes, but weren’t as ground-breaking.

If you could somehow conjure up a three-dimensional image of the environment around the game table, immersion would be complete, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how much more engaging and realistic and there the game would be as a result. It’s not going to happen anytime soon, I’m afraid. But there would be a quantum leap improvement over still pictures of a given location.

It’s possible that it will happen eventually, it should be noted – after all, the time was that photo editing was extremely difficult, and you could rely on whatever the camera captured actually being present in some form. Nowadays, anyone can do it, and it’s only a question of the quality of result.

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Tactile Sense

Perhaps controversially, I am placing the tactile senses at the very top of the tree. Human beings are a very tactile race in some ways, and something that you can touch is immediately more “real” than something you merely see. There are a number of ways that GMs can take advantage of this tactile-based impression of realism.

Tactile Props

It’s quite one thing to offer a picture of a tree-trunk or a sword or whatever, and quite another to offer a tactile prop. This first occurred to me as a result of a “What’s New with Phil & Dixie” by Phil Foglio in The Dragon which talked about various ways of simulating the PC experience using everyday objects – in particular, banging two phone directories together for 30 minutes as a simulation of a minute’s sword-fighting (this memory also played a big part in my article on the Ergonomics of Elves and the sequel on Dwarves).

A piece of driftwood – sanded lightly, if necessary, to prevent splinters. Putting a kitchen knife (one not too sharp – a bread-and-butter knife, for example) in the freezer for 30 minutes. A small ceramic tile. A cheap oil painting. There are all sorts of found objects that can be used to convey a tactile sense of the object being handled. A bowling ball can be used to convey the weight of a large axe. A broom handle can be used as a sword or a spear, just by changing the location of your grip.

It’s just a matter of getting the player to close their eyes, putting the object into their hands and letting them get a feel for the texture, or an impression of the object of some other sort, and then putting a visual in front of them.

Of course, you would only do this when it mattered. But on those occasions when a tactile impression was important, this can establish a connection to the “reality” of the situation that no amount of words would convey as effectively.

Hit Point Counters

There are other forms of association through the tactile sense. We’re used to counting money, for example, so some physical representation of hit points makes the loss have a psychological impact that simply writing numbers on a sheet of paper (or any other means of representing the loss) cannot match. The mere sensation of handling the tactile simulation of the abstract value makes it “feel” more real in the emotional and intellectual sense.

XP counters

For a very long time, I’ve used glass beads – of the sort some CCG players use to indicate active cards – to represent the XP handed out in the course of a session, especially bonuses for good roleplaying or good ideas (or divining the intent of the GM). It doesn’t take much of an extension of the principles from the Hit-point section, in conjunction with the bonus-xp idea, to realize that something coin-like is a great way of making XP more than just a number.

Poker chips in various colors – if necessary from multiple cheap sets – are the perfect way of handling this, because few games will require the handing out of more than 10,000XP (and most considerably less) in a session. So four denominations of chips – thousands, hundreds, tens, and ones – will do the job fairly handily.

kingdom coin sample


And, of course, the ultimate tactile coin-counting experience comes from physically representing a character’s hard-currency wealth in some fashion. Nothing makes the player more aware of their character’s budgeting shortfall than handing them a dozen coins (in different denominations) and then demanding them back, one budgetary item at a time. “Rent… car maintenance… food…” At the same time, there can be real avarice and pleasure when characters receive a windfall.

And that doesn’t even begin to show how useful they can be for dividing up a treasure. “We have to tithe at least 10% to the temple for their Blessings, I get 250 off the top for my potions, and Franklin has to replace the shield that he used to stop the pit-trap mechanism for another 35. We have to pay the porters another 200, and we promised Trevor 10% of the profits for the tip that led us here. Oh, and we need to pay our bar tab, that’s another 73. Whatever’s left, we get to split between us, but Buddy only gets a half-share, so that’s divided two-and-a-half ways.”

Watching the stack get placed in the center of the playing table, and then seeing it dissapear bit-by-bit conveys a realism that you just don’t get any other way.

fantasy coins LLC

Fantasy Coins

That’s the premise behind the products of well-known game prop supplier, Fantasy Coins. I’ve seen their products in use, and drooled, but never had the money to actually buy some for my own use; postage to Australia tends to be fairly prohibitive, and the exchange rate hasn’t been very favorable lately.

As a result, I was quite excited when they advised me of a Kickstarter campaign to fund a further extension of their product line. I’m not the only person, either; they achieved 90% of their funding goals within five days of the campaign commencing, and are presently at 128% funded. The current trend estimates the final total at $119,000 in pledges – but, significantly, that leaves them just $6000 short of the next tier of stretch goals, a gap that is easily bridgeable. It needs 10% more pledges per day remaining the campaign to get there.

The new products and designs look absolutely fabulous, as you can see from the examples scattered here and there throughout this article (some are of existing products for comparison purposes, it should be noted). And, of course, buying through a Kickstarter gives a discount relative to the subsequent retail price, making this the most cost-effective way of buying this extremely useful and versatile game aid.

cthulhu coin sample

Plot Value

But the value goes even beyond the obvious, when you look at the individual products being offered. Consider: the PCs get hired to do a job, and subsequently paid off in Cthulhu Coins and not the usual ones. Without the GM ever saying so, the entire campaign takes a whole new and quite uncomfortable turn for the players, who have to wonder whether or not their characters were just used as the pawns of evil. Whereas they thought the adventure in question was ending, they might suddenly decide to investigate their former employer, launching into a whole new chapter of plotline.

Diversity in coin sets, in other words, enables the differences to be used for plot purposes and for inspiration. This is a great deal, so the time to get on-board is right now – you have (at the time of writing) sixteen days, but that will probably be down to 15 days by the time this is published.

You can check out the kickstarter campaign and wonderful photos of the products developed so far and the art for those still in progress by clicking on this link, and check out their full back catalog at the Fantasy Coins LLC website. And don’t forget to take advantage of their Pledge Calculator, which will make it easy to track what you want to order.

After I agreed to do an article about their fundraising campaign, Fantasy Coin were kind enough to offer me some sample coins. While I feel this offer has had no impact on my review – it still says what I intended it to say, even before this offer – I wanted to make certain that readers knew about this source of possible bias on my part. And it gives me the opportunity to publicly thank them for their generous offer – made, as I said, after I had agreed to review their kickstarter campaign as part of this article.

One thing to watch out for

While most of the campaign is fairly clear, there are one or two sources of potential confusion. The pledges refer to “Add-on sets” and an “add-on menu” but the sets that these refer to aren’t necessarily clear to the casual glance. Some people might think that they get one of everything by backing the campaign, or one set of everything, if they don’t read the pledge descriptions sufficiently clearly. If you take the time to read the content of the whole page, instead of skimming, these sources of potential confusion will become less problematic (Hint: read the text in the graphics, especially the scroll!). I suggest readers check out the campaign early to give them time to ask any questions necessary before the campaign closes – and bear in mind that there have already been 565 comments on the campaign, which may provide the answers you’re looking for.

A multi-sensory approach

No campaign will ever fully exploit every sense throughout. It’s neither practical nor even feasible. However, by selectively targeting different senses, the totality of the whole experience can be dramatically heightened. No prop or stimulus can ever replace good, interesting content, but the appropriate use of props and sensory stimuli can enhance the delivery of your content far beyond anything you can imagine until you try it. The trick is to harness the potential of each sense and target its application selectively, combining images, words, ambiance, scents, flavors, and tactile responses to open windows into the reality that you create for your players.

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Disease and Despair – the healing-resistant nightmare


Another filler article today, I’m afraid. By skipping half the things I was supposed to do over the weekend I finally got my sleep schedule back to something approaching my standards of normality. One of the things skipped was preliminary work on the next part of the New Beginnings series, leaving me with just enough doubt about getting it done in time that I decided to go for something that could be put together in a little less time…

Disease In Battle: A Historical Review

Throughout most of history, disease has been a very scary thing to contemplate. Analysis of the Iliad and other documents of the period show that at that time, arrow wounds carried a mortality rate of 42%, slingshot wounds 67%, spear wounds 80%, and sword wounds 100%. No need to hack away at your foe until he fell – one good hit, then incapacitate and move on. Or knock down for a second-line soldier to administer the coup-de-grace while you – presumably the better combatant – dealt with the next in line.

During the Mexican War (1845–1848) and the Spanish-American War (1898) disease-related deaths outnumbered battle-related deaths by seven to one. Most casualties and deaths in the American Civil War were the result of non-combat-related disease. For every three soldiers killed in battle, five more died of disease.

It’s also worth noting that until far more modern times than those, the most frequent battlefield treatment offered (whether the patient wanted it or not) was amputation, which was thought to at least provide a clean wound for treatment. Napoleon’s surgeon, Dominique-Jean Larrey, could reportedly perform 200 surgeries a day, or one every 7.2 minutes. Hip and shoulder joint amputations apparently took 15 seconds and 11 seconds, respectively. When assessing the casualty rates from Napoleonic-era conflicts, one should bear in mind that this treatment carried a 70% increase in survival rate – divide the number of wounded by 1.7 to get the number who would have died without such treatment and subtract from the historic wounded rate to get the number of additional casualties that would have resulted.

Given the field conditions, even a small scratch from an incidental source could easily become infected, taking men out of combat without their ever having even seen the enemy.

In RPGs, however…

Disease in most RPGs isn’t all that scary. All but a handful are easily cured with a low-level spell in D&D, for example.

In a way, that’s understandable; death by disease is not a very heroic exit, and the fear engendered by disease at a realistic impact level would eliminate the swashbuckling elements of a game. So one can understand why such a “cure” spell was introduced and made so accessible.

This undermines the realism of the game world for the sake of adventuring, and I have no complaint with that in general. However, at no point is there any suggestion of the impact that this would have when applied to anyone more than adventurers. It would restructure an entire society.

Families back then were large, because there were high mortality rates and higher infant mortality rates. People had six or seven children because only one or two might survive to adulthood, completely ignoring the gender-discrimination issues of the time – and that doesn’t take into account children who don’t survive infancy. The true birth rate, with that factored in, might have been as high as ten on average.

That’s a lot of mouths to feed, sapping income and prosperity from the life of the couple. It produces drastic overcrowding and consequently raises the rate of disease by aiding its spread. It’s easy to see, under such conditions, how the Black Death could be so widespread and devastating.

The Black Death Shows The Way

And yet, the Black Death had a transformative effect on society (though some might suggest that it merely accelerated an already-existing trend). By wiping out so much of the population – 30-60% of the European Population of the time according to Wikipedia – it made manpower so scarce that people could demand the freedom to move from place to place practicing a specialty, rather than being tied to a single block of land that wasn’t even theirs in most cases. People could afford the time to specialize, and grow skilled, and become a professional middle class. So significant were the consequences that Wikipedia has a separate article on the subject.

Imagine how different things would have been if the local parish Priest were able to cure one or two people every day, and the population knew it. Death becomes the result of not being able to reach a healer in time. Birth rates would never have reached the levels that were historically recorded in our world; the average of the modern day, 2.5 children, would have been far more likely. That means that there would not have been enough manpower to maintain the feudal system of government, exactly as was the case following the black death; and that freemen and a professional middle-class would be an economically-significant factor, if not a dominant one.

Note that the trend towards professionalism has produced the modern army, which considers itself a professional force, well-trained and well-equipped – though the conscript army remained a factor until after the Vietnam War, so some additional “kick” would be required to produce such a shift in military thinking. In our world, it was the combination of economic downsizing and the unpopularity of the military as a profession following the Vietnam conflict; in an RPG game world, I would suggest that the presence of adventurers who could kick the tails of an entire squad of less-qualified individuals, and the presence of outlandish monsters that frequently required special training and tactics that would force this same transition to occur.

That means that the game environment of the typical D&D/Pathfinder game would be a curious blend of the feudal, the reformation and the age of steam, and the 1980s. It only takes a few key breakthroughs in mechanical engineering by this new professional class to produce Steampunk!

Putting The Fear Back Into Disease

In 2007 or 2008 – some three-hundred-plus issues of Roleplaying Tips ago – I offered Johnn an article, “Putting The Fear Back Into Disease” which sought to redress the balance, to put some fear of disease back into the system without undermining things to such an extent that adventurers would be reduced to timidity. While dying from disease is not all that heroic, overcoming the odds despite a disease is even more heroic. I also wanted to give GMs the ability to control the extent to which a professional middle-class could rewrite the social landscape, so that the traditional Heroic Fantasy environment continued to make sense.

I’m not going to recapitulate that article here – you can read it in the Roleplaying Tips archives through the link above. But I was thinking about it this morning, and came up with a chain of speculation that makes for interesting reading. Specifically, what would happen in a game if a Healing Resistant Disease were to arise?

If the principles of my article were in place within a campaign, the effects would be relatively minimal – a plague scare along the lines of the social practices instituted during the Black Death (hence my links to those articles on Wikipedia). This would be a population used to the notion that not every priest could solve every problem, so it would be bad, but not cataclysmic.

Things would not be so rosy in a game world without such a balancing element…

The Healing-Resistant Disease

The natural first assumption would be that the resulting plague was the work of some inimical force – a Devil or Demon or Dark God – whose influence the local priest was unable to overcome. It would also be assumed that this was strictly a local problem, so the township would be sealed and urgent messages sent to higher up the the Theological Power Structure. Meanwhile a witch-hunt – both literal and figurative – would commence in the affected towns.

The results would be akin to the fear – and the manifestations of that fear – that gripped the township of Salem, New England, in the 17th century (Salem Witch Trials). Anyone who was newly-arrived would be suspect. Anyone who had performed acts that the local clergy held to be unsavory would be suspect. Allegations would be made by members of the public against neighbors who they didn’t like or mistrusted. Populations would turn to adventurers – both current and retired – to root out the cause.

At first, people would isolate themselves from outside contact as much as possible. Anyone suspected of harboring the disease would be shunned. Con men would begin selling miracle cures and preventatives – but woe betide any that didn’t got caught when their “cures” failed.

At that center of higher religious authority, a disturbing pattern would begin to emerge, one that would quickly show that this was not a local problem, that it was more widespread. Several townships were affected, and there might be several regions affected, though geographically separated. An urgent mission would be sent to one or more of the affected townships to bring stronger theological “muscle” to bear. In some cases, this might even be successful; eventually, though, one of these higher-level clerics would fall ill of the disease, and public panic would reach a whole new level.

Almost-forgotten superstitions and prejudices of all kinds would make a resurgence. Social Order would begin to collapse as people turned into lynch mobs and pitched battles erupted in the streets. Anyone suspected of harboring the disease would now be more than shunned – their homes would be burned while armed men prevented anyone from leaving, in a desperate attempt to quell the disease.

In the meantime, there would be cases where people had fled through whatever quarantine was in place, and some of those would spread the disease to new population centers.

From Local to Regional

It would probably be around this time that the first reports of the plague would reach the highest levels of civil authority. The most likely route by which this news would travel would be a series of messages from the mid-level theological authorities, who would report to the heads of their Churches or High Temples or whatever the equivalent is in this particular game world. The increasing urgency of these reports would mean that the first traveled slowly through channels, with each subsequent one cutting more and more quickly through the layers of bureaucracy, in effect “catching up” with the earlier messages.

The first would describe a regional problem, and the suspected supernatural origins, and report the dispatch of a higher-level cleric to investigate. The second, rather more urgent, would follow close on the heels of the first, reporting that the problem was even more widespread than first thought. A third would report confirmation that the disease was supernatural in nature and/or origin, and the fourth that the local authorities were losing control of the situation. A fifth, from an entirely separate region, would mirror the first, as the early cases of the second wave were reported.

All this would land on the desk of whoever was the ultimate social authority in one bombshell. What happens next depends on the personality and especially the decisiveness of that authority. The correct action is a series of edicts that minimize travel, turn out the army to blockade infected regions, control the passage of essential supplies, etc, but these edicts will either be draconian in nature or almost-certainly ineffective (although it depicts a plague in slightly more-advanced stage, and lacks the impact of healing magic, several chapters of Demon Lord Of Karanda, the third volume of The Mallorean by David Eddings (available from this link shows the sort of ruthless decision-making needed – and spells out the consequences of not doing so with only slight exaggeration; the character doing the spelling-out is trying to persuade the authority in question, after all! The fourth volume, Sorceress Of Darshiva, describes the policies that actually succeed in bringing the spread of the plague under control, and so is also worth reading).

Let’s assume decisiveness, because anything less is a total disaster. In fact, a failure to respond adequately to the crisis is more than enough reason for anyone who wants to supplant the current rule with their won to advance their plans, potentially muddying the waters with a civil war on top of everything else. So let’s not go down that particular road.

Inevitably, the army on blockade duty will catch the disease, at least at some point. More importantly, rumors will be swirling by this time, and desertion will be rife. The enforcement of discipline will be a major secondary problem, and the harsh lessons necessary will be quite enough to contaminate the ruler’s reputation for many years to come, no matter how generous, fair, likable, just, and even-handed his reputation may have been before the crisis – a tertiary problem. If there were no groups plotting to overthrow the throne before the crisis, there will be many such groups for decades afterwards.

The results are clearly a nation in crisis. Anyone who thinks that the prejudices and paranoia unleashed will simply fade away once the immediate problem is resolved is peddling moonbeams; the society will take quite a long time to heal, and it won’t happen without strenuous effort by appropriate groups. Region-by-region, the subjects of superstition and prejudice will be different, and frequently fueled by proximity. A century or more of social progress can be wiped away in weeks, and not be recovered for decades or even generations.

A scary premise, no? But, if you want to make things really scary, have one of the Gods come down with the Plague…

Campaign Integration

There are two ways that this premise can be integrated into the campaign – either on top of whatever the PCs are going to be doing anyway, as an additional handicap, or as a stand-alone problem for them to solve, possibly interrupting or disrupting whatever they were doing.

I would suggest that the key to making this decision lies in the true origins of the disease. If the PCs enemy can be reasonably attributed as the cause, and may well therefore be in possession of a cure, then it becomes just an escalation in the existing conflict between them. If the enemy is not plausibly the cause, or you don’t want him/her/it/them to be the cause for whatever reason (including consistency of characterization), the plotline is one to be inserted. This gives you an opportunity to show a completely different side of that enemy – to quote a Klingon proverb from the (original series) Star Trek episode “Day Of The Dove”, “Only a fool fights in a burning house”. There are no enemies so evil as those who set aside their animosity and work with someone in common cause – only to resume exactly where they left off when the crisis is over, because this shows that they have a choice in their morality and have deliberately chosen the “Dark Side”.

Once you know the origin of the disease, you can decide what the PCs are going to be able to do about it. Even if the disease is not unnatural, but is simply something that’s been dormant for centuries – perhaps a leftover from a war long ago – there has to be something. Perhaps a specially-modified cure spell that only acts on this disease can be dug up from somewhere, if nothing else.

With both the background of the plot and the end of the plot worked out, it remains only to determine (a) where the PCs first become aware of the situation, (b) how bad it is at that time, (c) how they are going to learn of the path to a solution, and (d) what is going to oppose them – because there will be opportunists out there who will do so!

For me, the critical questions are (c) and (d). How long is it likely to take for the PCs to find out about a potential solution, overcome whatever opposition they have to face (bearing in mind that movement may be restricted), obtain and distribute the cure? Then work backwards from the point of total collapse into anarchy, which is what happens when the army starts to desert to determine the situation when the PCs have to drop everything and focus on the emergency. That gives you a worst-case answer to (b) (though you can have things happening in the background before then, if you want, of which the PCs might be aware), and that in turn (in conjunction with what the PCs currently plan to be doing) gives you the answer to (a).

The other thing that you have to do is determine the profile of the disease. How contagious? What are the symptoms? How long before symptoms does a victim become contagious? How long after symptoms show does death usually occur, and in what percentage of the infected? Are bodies contagious after death? How is the disease spread? How long does the pathogen remain viable once removed from a suitable environment? Is Zoonosis possible – the spread from animals to humans? Can it also travel in the other direction? And, finally, how long can the disease remain dormant, in the soil or whatever?

Some of these answers are vital to understanding how the disease will spread, and what the timescales are. The longer the contagious phase before overt symptoms show, the more widely-spread the disease will be. The rate of contagion (how easy it is to catch the disease) indicates what percentage of the exposed population will come down with it. If both are high, the disease can be extremely widespread. One of the saving graces of AIDS was that the HIV virus fares very poorly once exposed to the environment; that is why it can only be spread by contact with an infected blood supply or other bodily fluid, which maintains that environment long enough for the disease to be transmitted.

The faster death occurs, the more quickly the disease will die out naturally. The most dangerous are those that permit a carrier to remain mobile for a long time, spreading the disease. The most successful diseases, and the ones that – in the long run – have killed the most people, are not the spectacular ones like the Black Death, or Ebola, but ones like Influenza. While there can be, and have been, massive lethal outbreaks of the latter (epidemics) they usually only kill a small percentage of the population at a time – year after year after year.

Each of the profile questions has a significant impact on the course of the disease, on how big the emergency will be, how quickly it will develop into a crisis, and how far it will spread. So think about the answers carefully, and craft them to create the disaster that you want to occur.

There is one final reference that I should point readers toward, in terms of this subject. Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern by Anne McCaffrey tells the story of a deadly plague that spreads across the planet, and of the desperate attempts to find a cure in time. While it’s not strictly necessary, it would probably help if the reader had read some of the other books in the Pern series, or at least consulted this Wikipedia page (and the pages it links to) to get the basic foundations.

A brief word on Heal

When I first started writing this, I thought that it might be necessary for the disease to resist “Heal” as well as “Cure Disease”. Further reflection has shown that it is not necessarily so; there are only going to be so many people who can cast it, and they can only cast it a small number of times a day, and the sheer logistics of bringing patient and healer together mean that many of those limited opportunities would be wasted, unless the disease was so widespread that the available treatments simply couldn’t keep up.

But this would bring about its own social disruptions. Consider: let’s say that ten people a day can be cured in this way, but 100 become infected. Who chooses the ten? and what do the other 90 think about those choices? And the people who don’t have it yet but who are being put at risk by the 90? And the friends and family of the 90? The slightest hint of favoritism or corruption and the temples – and hence, the “Heal” spells – would go up in smoke, destroyed by angry mobs. And there would be plenty of such hints, as those with influence and wealth seek to prioritize themselves, and those with power seek to justify favored treatment. Even if they are refused, there are sure to be those who will claim the healing was simply done in secret.

So, even if “Heal” does cure the plague, the results would be worse than if it did not!

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A Legacy Of War: The Founding Of National Identities

Dawn Service, Anzac Day

“Dawn service gnangarra 01″ – Photograph by Gnangarra. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 au via Wikimedia Commons, click the image to view license. Frame Effect added by Mike.

A History Lesson: The ANZACs

This Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of a seminal date in Australian History. April 25, 1915 was the day the Gallipoli campaign began, part of World War I, “The War to end All Wars”. Intended to drive the Ottoman Empire out of the First World War with a single bold move, it degenerated into an eight-month trench warfare stalemate.

Allied Casualties included 21,255 from the United Kingdom, an estimated 10,000 dead soldiers from France, 8,709 from Australia, 2,721 from New Zealand, and 1,358 from British India. Those Australian and New Zealand numbers might not seem all that high, but as a percentage of the populations they were massive.

Great Britain at the time had a population of 40 million, France slightly more, British India more than 315 million. Australia’s casualties were only 41% of the UK total, but the UK’s population was eight times ours; New Zealand’s losses were only 13% of those of the UK but they had only 1 twenty-third or twenty-fourth of the population. Relative to our populations, Australian casualties were almost 33 times the British rate and New Zealand’s, over 30 times as high.

But, while those figures may help to explain why the date was chosen for our national remembrances – the public holidays on which Aussies and Kiwis commemorate all those members of our respective militaries who “served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering” of those who have served – they don’t explain why this particular date became so significant within the cultural zeitgeist.

That happened within days of the landings at Gallipoli. Prior to that time, both countries were Dominions of the British Empire, and very much saw ourselves as being British. This was the moment at which we started to think of ourselves as being Australian and New Zealand, with our own national identity and character. Some of that character was forged in the trenches, and relayed home by newspaper accounts; more was forged there and relayed home by the letters of those serving; and still more was forged by the common experience of those who were still at home, but who had friends and family in service.

The seeds had been planted, according to some, in the Second Boar War, while others might point to the first defeat of a sporting team from the Home Country by Australia in 1882, which led to a British Newspaper, The Sporting Times, running an obituary which announced the death of English Cricket, and that the ‘body’ would be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. Before the 1882-83 series began, the English Captain had vowed to “regain those ashes”, and the phrase led the British media to dub the tour “the quest to regain the Ashes”. It only remained to solemnize the ongoing rivalry in the form of a symbolic representation of “The Ashes” for the name to become a permanent association of the sporting rivalry between the two – and the sporting heritage shared by both. Some days, I personally think one, and on other days, the other.

Either way, the landings at what is now known as Anzac Cove on April 25 welded together many aspects of the general Australian character such as mateship, initiative, ingenuity, larrikinism, resilience, determination, and egalitarianism into a common culture.

In fact, the ANZACs (Australia & New Zealand Army Corps) fought with such gallantry and good spirits that there arose in their enemies of the day and their leadership a great respect. Despite parity in armament and an attacking posture, those 44,000 Allied lives were lost, and 97,000 wounded, at the cost of an estimated 86,500 Turkish casualties. After the war, Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish General in Command at Gallipoli wrote:

“Those heroes that shed their blood, And lost their lives,
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore rest in peace.

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side, Here in this country of ours.

You, the mothers, Who sent their sons from far away countries,
Wipe away your tears, Your sons are now lying in our bosom, and are in peace.

After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

These words have been inscribed in memorials in all three countries – Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey.

The war is full of stories of desperation, good humor, and bravery on both sides of the battlefield (as most wars are, if you count Gallows humor), but most of all, of mutual respect between the ANZAC troops and the Turks, and behavior that both sides can respect and honor.

To Australians and New Zealanders, this was the conflict that defined us in many respects, in the eyes not only of ourselves, but of other nations.

Other conflicts have had the same effect on other nations. While the seeds of their national character were laid down in the American War Of Independence, it can be argued that the defining moment in which those seeds blossomed was in the Civil War. This conflict wasn’t directly about slavery, though some historians might argue otherwise; it was a clash of two opposing interpretations, two ideologies with a common foundation. It was about economics and politics and society in a broader sense; The Anti-Slavery aspect was just one manifestation of these differences.

It’s not the only way that a national identity can emerge, but it’s a reasonably common one, simply because the first thing that any emerging nation has to do in a lot of cases is establish its independence – against the will of whoever claimed the territory previously.

The RPG Relevance

In some measure, these thoughts came to mind as an outgrowth of the material concerning the societies of races in an RPG campaign that I completed and posted on Monday (New Beginnings: Phase 7: Skeleton), and that’s why this is a subject of importance to players and GMs.

Every sentient race should have at least one event per society that defines them as a culture. It might not be a war, but it might be. Whatever it is, it should have multiple effects on the society. There should be folk sayings that have their origins in wartime events. There should be heroes, and sometimes there need to be villains. There needs to be tales of triumph and stories of tragedy and heartbreak, and yes, a few scary ones thrown into the mix. There will be statues, and remembrances, and memorials. Some places will have their names changed to reflect events, other places will give name to the event such that the place-name itself becomes an iconic representation of the event. The popularity of certain names will rise and others fall. Cuisines and spending patterns can change. The list is endless.

But most of all, national characterizations can emerge, and those in turn can affect everything else about that culture, and should have that effect in almost every case.

Traps, Tips, and Tricks

One of the hardest aspects of doing this as a GM or as a writer is making the character that emerges consistent with the “story of the war”. It is very easy for the correspondence between them to seem forced and artificial.

This is often because the wartime incidents that are supposed to reflect the national identity that the GM wants to ascribe to the post-war population focus entirely on just one aspect of the overall character. People aren’t like that; they have a touch of everything about them. That means all aspects of the national character, and aspects of the former national character that the new traits are to replace. Certainly, one trait can be dominant, or can make the difference, but ideally, you want all the incidents to reflect the overall personality profile with cumulative effect – like the cricketer who caught and threw back enemy hand-grenades for twelve hours in one ANZAC trench, and who represents several of the qualities that are now associated with the “ideal” of the typical Aussie Character.

It can be useful to remember that there are few individuals on the battlefield; instead, each person will have several others nearby, who can serve as mouthpieces for other aspects of the iconic persona that you want to portray.

Another useful tip to remember is that there will be some romanticization of events afterwards, the better to fit the legend. If something feels a little forced, or feels like it’s “too good a fit” (and hence seems artificial), try telling the story to someone else, then getting them to repeat it back to you while you take notes. Use their version and modify it to include any aspects of the persona to be projected that the story overlooks. Repeat (with different people) as often as necessary. With some practice, you can reach the point where you can be your own audience for such revision.

Probably the biggest mistake that GMs make when they attempt this is obvious predetermination. “This is the story of how Green became the color of death” – deciding the personality trait to be infused and writing a story or plot outline for that specific purpose. I generally find that I have much better results if I decide the overall personality that I want to display, compare that with the personality profile that existed previously, and construct an incident in which the two produce differences in the outcome. In other words, instead of highlighting one particular element of the “new” personality, I focus on highlighting the distinctiveness relative to expectations, and the rest more or less takes care of itself.

Creating more than one representative incident in this way and then cherry-picking amongst them to choose those which highlight a particular aspect of the “new” personality creates “historical anecdotes” that seem natural and still convey the desired message. What’s more, it enables specific targeting of the emergent personality profile desired because it focuses attention on the things that make that profile distinctive.

In Remembrance

And every time you use this technique, I hope that you spare an idle moment to remember the servicemen and women of your nation who have served their countries, just as I think of the ANZACs and their successors in the Australian Military at such times. You might not agree with everything or anything that they have done – some don’t – but every recruit joined up to serve in the hopes of bringing about a better tomorrow (even those for whom service was involuntary – that just transposes someone else’s vision of “better” into the picture). Respect the intent, even if you don’t agree with the execution, purpose, politics, or tactics.

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New Beginnings: Phase 7: Skeleton

new beginnings 08

After the rain, growth is spectacular.

It’s not easy making a completely fresh start. This series examines the process of creating a new campaign in detail. So far, we have a campaign plan and a development plan for the game world along with a schedule for that development. We’re now dotting i’s and crossing t’s and building up the foundations of the game world before getting it ready for the first session of play.

You can view a game world from many different perspectives. There’s the Geographic perspective – where things are, and why, and even what effect that has had. There’s the historical perspective – what happened, and when, and why. There’s the player briefing perspective, in which you tell players what they need to know in order to play characters that live in and derive from that game world. There’s the plot perspective, in which everything exists for a reason, and that reason is that it forms the foundations of fun storyline by presenting circumstances which will challenge the PCs and enable them to make a difference. And there’s the metagame structural perspective, in which key concepts unfold ramifications within all of the other perspectives.

Many GMs get by just fine without considering most of these. They put an initial situation in place in terms of the society, slap a quick and dirty map together, and just get on with the game, adding to their game world with each adventure and each time the players stick their character’s noses into a particular dusty corner.

But the really good GMs (usually) go much further than that, and the mission of Campaign Mastery is to help GMs elevate their games to an exceptional standard. It behooves me, therefore, to assume that this extended work is absolutely essential to running a good campaign, and not optional at all. And so we find ourselves looking to build a skeleton view of the campaign world that is entirely distinct from the plot skeleton that forms its spine – because the players won’t get to see the full shape of that spine until the end of the Campaign, if then, and they need something to sink their teeth into before die roll one of the campaign.

A status check

Here’s what we’ve built up so far:

  • A Campaign Plan that outlines the external events that are going to shape the PCs lives during the course of the campaign
  • A Game World File that outlines the basics of the campaign world and which represents what the PCs all “know” (contents may be Old Wife’s Tales)
  • A GMs World File that extends those outlines and indicates the truth, as it will emerge in the course of the campaign, and indicates in which adventure each such revelation is due to occur
  • A sandboxed development plan that schedules development of parts of the Game World according to the just-in-time principle, adjusted to accommodate the Real World
  • Player Briefing Notes that outline how the Game World differs from the “standard model” and why the inhabitants think the world is the way it is. These are organized for race-by-race and archetype-by-archetype delivery, usually by putting them in separate documents.
  • GMs Briefing Notes that contains corrected/expanded versions of the Player Briefing Notes. These are usually all collected into a single document for easy cross-reference, but don’t have to be.
  • A House Rules file that currently may contain no more than an indication of the need for a particular house rule, may contain draft House Rules, or (most probably) a blend of both.

That seems like an awful lot of material, but if you were to examine an actual example (I haven’t had time to work one up, but there was the equivalent of one offered in bits and pieces through the first five parts of my Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD / On The Origins Of Orcs series), you would find that they are surprisingly empty.

To illustrate that, let me point the reader to my On Alien Languages series. This not only describes the Languages within my Shards Of Divinity campaign, their relationship to each other, and the Rules Structure that I created to go with them, each part also contains a writeup of one of the societies within that campaign. These write-ups were one or two paragraphs long in my Player’s Briefing Notes and a supplemental paragraph or two in my GM’s Briefing Notes. Easily 95% of the material provided on each society to readers of Campaign Mastery was completely original work, expanding greatly on what was known about many of them. In some cases, parts of this additional material had come out in the course of play, but had never been assembled in coherent and complete form before.

Two-to-four paragraphs became eight pages plus – substantially more in some cases. So there’s lots more work to do.

The Process

The process is fairly straightforward, thankfully. Under a number of headings, I will raise a subject about which you need to say something – blank spaces for you to fill. All you have to do is complete one and move on to the next.

Ah, if only it were that simple. There are a couple of wrinkles to take into account.

  • Each time you make an entry that pertains to another archetype or race, you have to make corresponding entries in the relevant documents for that archetype or race.
  • There are some entries that require you to scrutinize and compare an archetype or race with each of the others, something that is only practical if all entries have been brought up to the same level of completion. So you can’t deal with one Archetype or Race completely in isolation. I’ve broken the topics into broad sections, and I suggest working on no more than one or two sections at a time – then moving on to the next Archetype or Race and doing those same sections for that group. When you reach the end, go back to the first Archetype or Race and do the next section or two.
The Scope Of Work

There’s an awful lot to get through, so try to limit yourself to one line of text per subject. At most, one paragraph per subject. Keep it brief, and that will keep it flexible.

What Goes Where

The raw facts go into the Players’ Briefing documents – you started compiling one for each archetype and each race last time out. Explanations can go into either the player’s briefing or the GMs equivalent, depending on whether or not the explanation is known to the members of that archetype or race. Any supplementary material goes into the GMs Briefing documents, especially how this is going to impact on subjects that haven’t been considered yet. Again, try to limit yourself to one or two lines per entry, or you’ll be at it forever. You will have an opportunity, once the bare bones have been sketched in, to flesh out these notes.

Deviations From The Source

Don’t be afraid to deviate from the official source material. It’s far better to do so and maintain an internal consistency than it is to follow the source material slavishly and try to fit your own ideas around it. The key words in that statement are “maintain an internal consistency” – above all else, this has to be your primary goal. Any changes you make must be reflected elsewhere when appropriate.

If an archetype or race is broadly characterized as Arrogant and Authoritarian, don’t have the leaders selected by democratic principles (unless you think of a way to twist the application of those principles to suit, of course). Think carefully about the impact of everything you write.

If you give a race an additional sense, or a variation on a sense, consider how that alters their world-view, and how (in turn) that altered world-view affects the rest of the society of that race.

Quotations From The Source

A lot of the time, you will simply be supplementing “the official word” and not rewriting it. It can be very tempting to simply give an appropriate reference eg “see PHB p35″. Don’t Do It.

If you can find a version of the source material that permits copy-and-paste, use it. If you can’t, or it screws up your formatting (which happens sometimes), synopsize it. This is because trying to cross-reference or edit something at a later point becomes much harder when you have to remember what is written on “PHB p35″; there’s going to be a lot of material on that page, and you have to know to what you are specifically referring. More, neither you nor your players will want to open one document that simply tells you to open another – with neither of them telling the whole story. As much as possible, your player briefings should be a one-stop shop, and you certainly want your own notes to be as quick to access and digest as possible.

Archetypes (Careers/Professions)

So, let’s get into specifics. I’ll start with Archetypes, because they are often the simplest.

Profession Vs Calling

Decision number one is whether or not the Archetype represents a Profession, a Calling, or both.

A Profession implies an internal structure with its own Society, Rules, and Authority. It also tends to indicate a formal educational process of qualification and some sort of professional standards. A Calling means that anyone can pick it up. The combination usually means that the Archetype is open to anyone, but that there is a Hierarchy of some sort that attempts to control and dominate the adherents and takes a dim view of independent operators, for example a Thief’s Guild.

The D&D/Pathfinder “Fighter” class, for example, might be open to anyone, or it might involve formal military training. Or there could be a combination – anyone can take it up, but there are “professional bodies” who are selective in their membership and who can offer advantages to those the select to join.

Paladins are usually treated as being very elitist and formally structured, ie a Profession. Clerics are usually assumed to have a rigid Hierarchy, making them a Religious Order – but are often bound to take anyone who feels the Calling, or claims to. Perhaps there are “Lay Clerics” as well as “Ordained Clerics” in your world; what’s the difference?

Note that advantages should never come without a commensurate price, and mere qualification restrictions are not enough of a price-tag.

Connect Archetypes to Nexii

When developing the campaign plan, three Nexii were chosen. These are plots that have no real purpose other than to give the game impetus at key points and focus the player’s attention where the GM wants it, as opposed to where the best place is for it to be in terms of the broader campaign.

The Primary Nexus is what the players think is going on when the campaign first begins. The Secondary Nexus operates to keep action happening in a period where both sides of whatever conflict the PCs are in the middle of are busy maneuvering for position or tactical advantage in the mid-campaign and is more about direct action and straightforward conflict. The Tertiary Nexus provides a contrasting emotional tone in the late campaign when things are getting grim and serious. Refer “Choose Three Nexii” in Phase 4: Development for more information.

It’s great to implant the seeds of these Nexii into the Player Briefings. This is especially true of the Primary Nexus. Some of these clues should manifest within the Archetypes, others within the Races. In the case of the Primary Nexus, what are the archetypes concerned with at the moment? Is there are conspiracy against Mages? Are the Legions (Fighters) being torn apart by internal dissent? Is corruption in the Church rife, leading to a crackdown?

For the Secondary and Tertiary nexii, you need to be a little more oblique. Build triggers into your races and archetypes so that their reactions when you drop the starter’s flag will create the Nexus, or create the significance that makes the Nexus important enough that the players will care about it.

Connect Archetypes to Themes

Your campaign themes should always be reflected in the archetypes in some way, usually by exemplifying that theme in one respect or another. For example, if a theme is “There is no success without struggle”, then each archetype should encompass both a struggle of some sort that earns the rewards of progress within the archetype.

Some are trickier than others. “Bittersweet Victories” is almost identical in meaning to “Every Success has a price”, but the latter is far more easily integrated that the first. That’s because the first concerns an emotional state, while the second is more generic. Nevertheless, through the usage of graduation ceremonies and other traditions, it is possible to build such emotional content into archetypes; for example, if there are only a limited number of openings within the archetype (fits Paladins, Wizards, Clerics, and Elite Fighters, for example,) and the tradition is that the winner apologize to and encourage those who didn’t make it? Or perhaps there can be only one living member per family, no matter how promising others might be?

Comparative Archetypes and Racial Exceptions

Does a given archetype mean the same thing to all the races? Is a given archetype available to all races? Or are there differences in social context?

Is an Elvish Barbarian something completely distinct from a Human Barbarian, for example? Do the Elves of your campaign even Have Barbarians? You could argue, based on The Hobbit (the original story, I haven’t seen the second movie yet) that the Forest Elves are Barbarians, simpler and more elemental than the inhabitants of Rivendell or the other Elves seen in the Lord Of The Rings. They are petty, arrogant, and spend their time carousing and feasting – sounds relatively “barbarian” to me! Others would disagree, and even point out that Legolas comes from the Forest Elves – and he’s both civilized and poetically well-versed! So you could make the argument either way. A convenient way out of the conundrum is to say “yes, but” the meaning of “barbarian” isn’t quite the same!

It involves quite a bit of work, but I often find it rewarding to “custom-fit” the flavor text of each archetype for each of the major races. I’m not suggesting that you go that far, but a step in that direction is very helpful, both in terms of distinguishing between the races and in making the archetypes more than stats and abilities.

Authority Structures

What is the authority structure of the archetype? How is it structured? Are there rules?

Let’s take Barbarians again, just for the sake of example. It might be that they have no formal authority structure, but when two Barbarians face each other for the first time, they face off against each other in some mutually-accepted test of dominance (arm-wrestling is a good one). The loser, and those who look to him as a superior/leader, are not permitted to operate at cross-purposes with the winner, and may be recruited to bolster his forces if he needs them for some specific task. Or it may be that they have to perform one service for the superior and are then free to go their own way. With groups, the Leaders might have to go at it, or it might be that Champions can be used.

Alternatively, since intelligence tends to be the biggest shortcoming of Barbarians in general, you could state that it is the most highly-prized ability amongst them as a social class and that the leaders must engage in a game of riddles – the first to get one posed by the other side right is adjudged the superior.

Both Elves and Humans are likely to have Wizards, with formal social structures – but probably not the same hierarchy, possibly not even the same criterion for leadership.

With Paladins, it might be ranking within the Nobility if you want them to be more like Chivalric Knights, or they might have a spell or minor ability (on top of those in the book) that lets them sense and compare “Purity Of Purpose” – with the most zealous (most fanatical?) assumed to have the authority to command the lesser. Or it might be that this is only the case within the Paladins who look to a particular Deity, and that it is the Divine Ranking of their Patrons that dictate who can give orders to whom outside of these Orders.

Archetype Relations

These come in two flavors: internal and external.


Internal relations deal with splits in a hierarchy or authority. “Rogue factions” are always fun to have running around, if not overused. Sometimes these rogue factions will represent the right path, sometimes they may be extremists and counter-productive to the archetype in general. Sometimes both. The one certainty is that any PC of this archetype will have either chosen a side, or will be called upon to do so at some point in the game!


External relations deal with the (general) relations between one hierarchy and another. Paladins and Thieves don’t usually work well together – there can be exceptions, of course. How do Clerics feel about Wizards? About Druids?

In a martial society, success as a Fighter may be the key to Nobility – it often was, in Feudal Society – and that might mandate that Fighters don’t like Clerics, because Clerics are prone to opposing the will of the Noble Fighters in response to some alleged “Higher Authority”. But that in turn applies that the Gods rarely make a show of their presence, and despite surface trappings of religion, the populace has only the Cleric’s Word as to the source of their powers. It might be that Clerics and Wizards are exactly the same save for having different spell lists, spell foci, and the like, and that the “higher authority” is all in the Clerics’ collective imaginations. Or the Gods might be demonstrably real, and the Theologians have a crusade against Wizards because the latter are without “Moral Compass” in the use of their Gods-given Gifts.

You have to assume that every Archetype will bump shoulders with every other one at some point, and – at the very least – will form opinions about them.

Professional Fees

Is it appropriate for the Cleric to charge for casting his Healing Spells? Can the Paladin demand recompense for his services? Even if they have to subsequently tithe most of what they accrue to their respective organizations?

It may well be one rule for the Party and another for the Public. And you can argue which way things should go either way: Charging the party is entirely reasonable if there is assumed to be a professionally-contracted relationship between party members, but the dispensing of services to the public is a gift of those services by the individual doing so. Conversely, charging the public but not the party is reasonable if the Party is more of an alliance for the purpose of mutual success, permitting the character to waive his fees-for-service.

Professional Courtesies

Are there professional courtesies that have to be exchanged when entering a new territory? There often are such in the case of a widespread Thief’s Guild, for example. Clerics may be required to attend daily services at an appropriate chapel, shrine, or temple if there is one within reach, no matter what – or may simply be required to inform the head of the local theological establishment of his presence. That local may or may not have authority over the actions of the Cleric whilst the latter is in his jurisdiction – and may be held responsible by HIS superiors.

Professional Courtesies may be social in nature, customary, or may be strictly regulated, or all sorts of options in between these two extremes. Wizards in a strange territory may be forbidden from accepting apprentices without the approval of the local Guild representative, for example, but might be free to do what they want, otherwise.

It’s worth pointing out that the Church Knights in David Eddings’ trilogy The Eleniumand its sequel, The Tamuli are essentially Paladins who are subordinate to the clerical hierarchy, even above their own leadership. This is a useful point to make because it subordinates one Archetype to another.

In addition to determining what the social niceties are, the GM needs to determine the penalties for breaches, and what sort of process may be involved in reaching judgment.

Key Figures

Each Archetype will have its own authority figures, both contemporary and historical, and these will have reputations and personalities (possibly fictionalized!). Every member of a given archetype can be expected to know who these people are. They might never figure directly into the campaign, but they will almost certainly be referred to on occasion – so give them a name and a public reputation now for future reference, and put them at the end of the document to make them easy to find.


That ends the archetype phase of building the world skeleton. Move on to the next archetype, and – when you’ve finished them all – its time to think about Races and Societies.

The Rarity Sequence

With archetypes, it doesn’t matter what order you do them in. That is not the case when it comes to races, as the sequence itself can be used to make the task easier. This requires a preliminary step: estimating the total population of each race within the bounds of the part of the campaign world that the players are expected to reach.

All done? Now, put it aside – it’s almost certainly wrong. Go off and read Medieval Demographics Made Easy by S. John Ross.

I tend to have a central realm that is heavily populated, a fringe that is far less populated, isolated pockets of intermediate density within that Fringe, mainly clustered along trade routes and navigable waterways, a very lightly populated outer fringe, and a largely unpopulated wilderness – but that suits my game, in which there are more monsters and they are more dangerous to any form of settled populace. So I exaggerate the differences in population density.

I then modify these results for differences in habitation patterns. Most Elven societies that I’ve seen don’t farm as intensively as Humans – not even close – so I will arbitrarily select a value for them. Dwarves tend to be confined into small communities of high population density – and because they operate by volume and not surface area, densities can reach far higher numbers than those of human settlements.

If you take the square root of the human equivalent and then cube it to get the Dwarven population density, you will get a rough idea of how significant the volume factor is. Taking 100 as an example: Square root of 100 is ten; ten cubed is 10 x 10 x 10, or 1000 citizens per cubic mile.

The same calculation works for determining the population of a community of the same physical size; let’s say a village of 250 people. Square root of 250 is 15.811; and 15.811 x 15.811 x 15.811 is 3953, near enough. But these “villages” are probably scattered far more distantly from each other. For a geographically much smaller area, say a mountain range, it’s nevertheless quite easy for a Dwarven Kingdom to have ten times the population one would expect.

The alternative is to say that the villages are physically much smaller, and hold some intermediate number of people: 800, for example. Take the cube root of the value and square it, then divide by the “human” population density to get the physical size of the community: cube root of 800 is 9.28; square of 9.28 is about 86; population density of 100 per square mile gives 0.86 square miles. Area of a circle is Pi-R-squared, so 0.86 square miles is roughly 0.523 miles radius. Call it half a mile, so the whole settlement is about a mile across – using these assumptions! Notice that this gives a higher value for effective population density than 1000 per cubic mile – 0.86 miles radius gives 0.6 cubic miles volume, and 800 people in that volume is 1,335 people per cubic mile.

It’s also a reasonable assumption that a uniformly spherical settlement is unlikely to the point of near-impossibility. Instead, the “sphere” would bulge inwards where there were no “corridors” to other settlements, and protrude out where there were such. I use the difference in population density as a guide to how pronounced this effect is; a volume that could hold 1,335 Dwarves now has only 1,000 (the population density we worked out earlier) indicating that the bulk of the settlement is only 1000/1335 = 75% of the size indicated, or about 3/4 of a mile across; only where such corridors lead away from the settlement does it reach the entire mile diameter. But there’s no real need to do this, it’s just me being a little anal retentive.

The final note worth making is that this says nothing about how many “levels” there are within the community. This can be calculated – you need to know the lengths of a series of horizontal arcs across the cross-section of the sphere, then determine the areas of a number of circles with diameters of such arcs (a cross-sectional slice through a sphere is a circle) such that the total area matches that of the total population divided by a reasonable population density per level – which I would expect to be somewhat lower than human; you can’t “build” right next to the neighbors the way you might on the surface, you need “load-bearing” rock in between the hollow spaces you occupy. But this is too much like work even for me, I never bother. Instead, I guesstimate using a rough-and-ready shortcut.

For every such lesser circle, there is one still smaller that exactly equals the area of the main circle. So, instead of defining levels, I define pairs of levels – in fact, since the top is effectively a mirror image of the bottom, pairs of pairs of levels – until the total surface area (a simple multiple of 2, plus the original central cross section) is greater than the ratio of effective Dwarven population density divided by base human population density, where the “multiple” that results is the number of paired levels.

This gives a great deal of flexibility: if I make one level bigger than half the area, the other gets smaller; if I make one closer to half the area, the other also moves closer to being half the area.

Nor is there any need for a pair of levels both to be north of the “equator” – you can have one above and one below, if you want. Do this for most of them, and you end up with a community shaped more like a top – with projecting spikes.

Or you can assume that most of the mountain is solid rock, and Dwarven populations are no higher than Humans. Or something else completely. There are no wrong answers, only answers that have ramifications.

Population Index

Take whatever the lowest absolute population is and divide all the other population levels by this to get a Population Index. This gives a ranking of significance for the overall campaign of the influence of any single population group. Don’t be surprised to get values in the thousands or more – 10,000 Halflings and 50,000,000 Humans mean that for every Halfling there are 5,000 humans.

For most purposes, you are best off going from high to low. The index gives some indication of how small a minority you are talking about, and hence how minor their influence on the campaign is going to be.

Relative Population Index

I also find it useful to my thinking to add up the population indexes and get the percentages of each. So far, we have 5000 for humans and 1 for Halflings in the above example; let’s assume that the grand total comes to 12,500 (an unlikely result, it’s too round a number, but anyway…) That means that human societies are 40% of the total of the “civilized” societies. If you want to include Orcs and Goblins and so on, you can. This is nothing more than a Demographic Handling tool to help think clearly about the dominance of one society over another. Clearly, Halflings are nothing more than a strictly local group in this example.

This is particularly significant when thinking about Wars. I don’t care how effective they are on the battlefield, 40,000 Halflings pose no threat to 50 million humans. 100 million goblins, on the other hand…

I write the relative population index in brackets next to the actual index value: Halflings 1 (0.008%), Humans 5000 (40%), and so on.

Connect Races to Nexii

I’ve already talked about this in relation to Archetypes, so I won’t repeat myself.

Connect Races to Themes

This is also just an extension of the discussion regarding Themes and Archetypes, so I assume the reader is quite capable of working out how to do this for themselves.

Physical Capacities

I find it useful to give some general comparisons of racial abilities. Do Elves tend to be weaker or stronger than humans? Weaker or stronger than Dwarves? This says nothing about the potentials of individuals, just about how common those exceptions to the broader trend might be. This can be very useful information for players in characterizing PCs; what was it like for the character who grew up stronger than everyone around them? Or faster? Or more quick-witted?

On top of that, some races have additional abilities relative to humans. What impact do these have on the society?

Personality Profile

What’s the generic representative of the race like, in terms of personality? How far removed from the reality is that perception? Does any particular race or archetype have a different impression of the race?

Scope for individuality

How much latitude for individuality does the society offer? Do the encourage diversity, or conformity? What social mechanisms exist to implement these policies or traditions?

Social Stigmas

Are there any groups or sub-populations with social stigmas attached? How do these manifest? How do people subjected to this racial prejudice cope?

Population Levels

What impact do the population levels have on the race and on the society? Homogeneity requires a fair number of representatives or relatively little variation between individuals. What are the resulting agricultural demands? How large are the settlements? What is the impact on the economy, on the size of settlements, on the culture?


The Geography occupied by a population impacts that population in multiple ways. Some geographies won’t support some population levels without additional assistance, and that makes the population dependent on that assistance.

Population Density

You’ve already decided the population levels of the race, with a view to what is a reasonable population density; the geography dictates the actual population density, so putting the two together dictates how widespread the lands claimed by the race are.

Of course, trade can compensate to some degree for a lack of agricultural space, but humans have a way of expanding their numbers beyond what the lands they occupy can support – and then going off and having a war somewhere.

Population Center(s)

What are the major population centers, and what makes them distinct from each other?

Natural Resources

What natural resources does the society have access to? What DON’T they have direct access to? What are they dependent on, economically or socially?


Who are the enemies of the race? Very few will be able to answer “none” and the more significant the race, the smaller that tally becomes. On top of these obvious foes, there are a bunch of others that may not be so obvious.

Strategic Position

Every geographic feature is strategically positioned with respect to whatever’s on the far side of it. Sometimes there may be easier ways to get past this strategic position than bullying through it; but that can leave your flanks exposed to a potential enemy. So, ultimately, every feature is strategic, only the nature of the significance changes.

Some are more important than others because you stand between two forces that are hostile to each other (or hostile to you), and some are less because you have an alliance with your neighbors. But that’s only a matter of degree.

What is the strategic position of the lands occupied by this race, and what impact does that have on their society? Their economy? Their military? Their history?


Some societies are more vulnerable than others. Any form of dependence, as noted earlier, is a vulnerability in the military sense.

In addition, there may be social vulnerabilities. These have either already manifested into ongoing civil disturbances, or they are a lurking time bomb. It’s fairly obvious how the first should be handled – who, what, where, when, outcome, response, and the current status of the problem; the second is a little trickier to achieve. The technique that works best is to include as a statement of fact in the racial profile something that is in fact an assumption on the part of the race. At the right time, you then have someone challenge that assumption, producing an immediate social crisis.

Some of these are very obvious – “Dwarves are completely loyal to the throne”. That won’t do; you need to be more subtle but just as profound in importance. “The white tree only blooms when a royal heir is born” is a better choice. You then have the tree bloom when the Queen is childless (or even apparently dead), or have it fail to bloom when the Queen gives birth to a supposed heir. The implications are obvious – or perhaps someone is trying to manipulate the order of succession by using magic to manipulate the blooming of the tree. Either way, the implications are likely to tear the society apart, at least for a while. It might even be that the royal family has been manipulating things in the past, bringing the tree to bloom “unnaturally” after spreading the legend themselves, as a way of enhancing their legitimacy – and would have done so again, quite successfully, if it weren’t for the manipulations of a second party who believed.

A social vulnerability is anything that a culture is not equipped to handle. And that’s something that an enemy can sometimes exploit, either to harm the culture, or to distract it prior to a surprise strike – if they are clever enough, manipulative enough.

Most Recent Conflict(s)

The social impact of the most recent military conflict in which a a society has been engaged are deep and lingering. It takes time for a former enemy to be accepted as a neutral party, never mind as an ally; mistrust and suspicion run deep, compounded by wartime propaganda.

In some respects this is less of an issue in fantasy campaigns because there are no mass communications; the lord labels someone an enemy, you go off and fight the soldiers of that enemy, and that’s an end of it. Repeated conflicts, as between the English and the French, are a quite different story, of course.

On the other hand, there is a common perception that the uneducated tend to hold simple grudges far more deeply once they are established and ingrained. Hillbilly feuds are legendary (and by that, I mean both inflated out of all proportion and a case in point). So you have a wide latitude, but either way, the last conflict, its outcome, and the impact on both societies, are very much something that needs to be described in player briefings.


As significant as enemies are the people with whom a society or culture are allied, because that makes them stronger in the face of their enemies. When the foes are mutual antagonists, that doesn’t matter much, but when there is a more complex set of national relationships involved, things can get very interesting.

For each Ally, then, you also need to list those populations who are enemies of yours simply because of your association with that Ally.

Most Recent Alliance(s)

No matter how it turned out, the most recent alliance that was publicly put to the test is going to have left strong feelings amongst some of the population. It will also have influenced and entered the social consciousness. The relationship and what resulted will dictate the nature of this “emotional baggage”. Could anyone doubt that post-war relations between the US and Great Britain were altered as a result of World War II? The “Plucky Brits” entered the popular zeitgeist of the US, and there was a reciprocal impression of the US that entered the common attitude of the Brits (“Brash Yanks”) at the same time. “We saved your a** in the Big One,” is inevitably followed by the reply, “Yes, and you never fail to remind us of it.”

On top of that, the most recent alliance that is publicly known will evoke opinions, often negative, and – with reasonable frequency – hostility. Depending, of course, on what relations were like beforehand. So this relationship should also get documented.


Which brings us to the subject of politics in general. You can lose a lot of time and waste a lot of effort going into too much detail in this area and still barely scratch the surface. So I recommend very tightly restricting your notes to the bare minimum specified below.

Government Authority Type

Theocracy? Plutocracy? Democracy? Empire? Confederation of city-states? As succinctly and briefly as possible, note the Government Authority Type. Then specify at least one thing that makes this example of that type of Government Authority. Johnn Four’s excellent series here at Campaign Mastery ‘City Government Power Bases’ (which I intend to extend later this year – one series at a time!) may be useful reference.

Level of Authority

How absolute is the government’s authority? How much freedom and latitude do they permit their citizens? I use an arbitrary score out of ten, but you can use one out of four, five, twenty, or whatever else takes your fancy – so long as you are consistent about it. That number, plus an indication of what it means (e.g. “Level Of Authority 7/10″) is enough, unless you have something unusual in mind. Whenever a subject comes up in play (“Marriage restrictions”), all you have to do is roll a die to determine whether the Government has imposed rules in that area. The Government Authority Type then gives an indication of the nature of the regulations.

Domestic Satisfaction

How happy are the citizens with their government? Or, perhaps more usefully, how Unhappy are they? I use a number from one to 10. This is the chance on 2d20 that there will be an armed insurrection or rebellion of some sort fermenting (get the same result a second time for them to be active and publicly known), the chance on d20 that an incident will turn into a riot (assuming a crowd is present and provoked by the incident), the chance on d10 that citizens will protest or complain in the most socially-permissible manner (which varies according to the government type and level of authority) – it might be anything from a go-slow or complaints muttered under the breath to a group of protesters with placards, etc).

Religious Authority

How strong a grasp does the most popular religion have over the community? If this rating is higher than the Government’s level of authority then the Government is effectively reduced to a figurehead to at least some extent. Another score out of 10, therefore.

Religious Tolerance

How tolerant are the Political authorities of lesser religions? How tolerant is the dominant religion? How tolerant is the broader society? I rate each of these out of 10, and write the result as follows: “Religious Tolerance 7/4/9″. I will sometimes draw a simple flag symbol to denote the Political score and a Cross to represent the Religious score, but I try to be consistent so that I don’t need such mnemonics.

Observe that the combination of scores can describe quite subtle and complex situations. Take the example above: the government is fairly restrictive in terms of what it considers a “real religion”, the dominant religion preaches tolerance and brotherhood, and the public are extremely intolerant of anything too different. Sometimes I think that the religious authority level should be the difference between the latter two values, sometimes I think the two should be independent. In this case, 9-4=5, so the religious authority score should be 5.

The “yea” argument for this approach is that the difference reflects the degree to which the people will do what the religious authority tells them to, and this is the Religious Authority score, by definition. The “nay” argument is that the Religious Authority score is an overall summary, and that authority in more specific areas might vary, so there is only a vague relationship between the difference and the Religious Authority score.

Choose your own methodology and just be consistent about it.

Other Secondary Authorities

In Australia, we have a Federal Government, a small set of State Governments, a whole mess of Local Governments, and a couple of Territory Governments. The US has the same basic arrangement with rather more States, and (I think) an additional layer of City Governments (the Local Governments being the equivalent of Counties). They also have State Governors, which we don’t, and have a habit of electing various officials Individually (our officials are appointed by an appropriate branch of Government or are part of the Public Service). The organizations and internal structures of each of these layers of government are different, of course. We have a Senate but don’t have a Congress, for example.

In no greater length than I have used to do so in the two examples contained within the preceding paragraph, list the levels and layers of Secondary Authority.

Key Individuals

Finally, who are the key individuals whose name everybody knows? Name the relevant ones, ignore the rest (or treat them generically). Further, who are the popular Heroes and who are the popular Villains of history? Who is the most notorious individual who is at large (or has been, until recently)? Who are the most famous figures from History? And what are these peoples’ claims to fame?


Describing a Society is another task that can consume great quantities of time. Page after Page of unnecessary detail can easily emerge -and the only way to prevent it is to be absolutely ruthless with yourself. Once again, what’s below is as succinct and restrictive as I can make it.

Family Unit

Almost everyone that the PCs interact with will be a member of a family. In some campaigns, the workplace will often be completely separate from the place of residence, in others the two will be one and the same thing. If the family usually lives with the individual, knowing the structure of the typical family unit and the courting process has obvious value; these are people who are likely to be nearby when the NPC is encountered. Even in the first campaign type, though, knowing the structure of the common family unit gives NPCs something and someone to talk about when interacting with PCs.

Even more important in both cases is that almost every PC will also be a member of a family unit. Knowing the structure of those family units helps players develop their PCs, and the same is true of every entry on this list that falls under the heading of “Society”.

Family Units are best generally described in two different ways. The first is the “layers perspective”, which describes who is where within a family unit in terms of relative immediacy. The second is the “migration perspective” which indicates the social mechanisms and traditions by which members can move into the family unit from outside, or move from one layer to another within the broader family unit.

Family Unit Layers
There are three significant layers: Immediate, Close, and Remote. Modern & High-tech Campaigns may require the addition of a fourth layer, “Distant”.

The Immediate layer contains everyone within a family unit who normally resides in a single dwelling with the head of household, and it is this proximity that gives the layer its name. The position of “Head Of The Household” may be an actual one within the social fabric or it may be a nominal label shared by several, or even by a family council in which all members of the household make some contribution to the management decisions of the family.

The Close layer contains former members of the Immediate layer who have left to establish their own family units, and may sometimes include members of a more extended family. What they all have in common is that under certain conditions, it is normal and expected for members of this family to move back into the Immediate Family layer either temporarily or indefinitely. In campaigns and societies where extended travel/relocation for an entire family unit is unusual, such as most fantasy campaigns, the members of the Close layer also tend to live relatively nearby to the central Family Unit – hence the name.

The Remote layer contains the rest of the extended family. These may occasionally visit or send messages, and networks of relatives may provide avenues for social news to spread, but they are not part of the social routine of the central Family Unit on a day-to-day basis. In the context of campaigns with easy communications, these are the family members that you contact regularly by phone or social media, or who you spend time writing to on a regular basis during a postal-service era or equivalent.

The em>Distant layer only exists as a separate entity when you have such remote-contact means at your disposal, and contains family members who were once in a closer layer but with whom contact is not regularly maintained. I have cousins who I used to see at least once a year, but with whom I have fallen out of contact over the years. They aren’t quite as disconnected as total strangers, because those closer links were there, once upon a time, and can be reestablished – but it doesn’t happen very often.

The question to be answered in this sub-step of the development process is, “Who is usually in which layer?” Is it normal for Parents and Grandparents who are no longer capable of unassisted living to reside within the Immediate Family, for example? Is it normal for daughters who are soon to give birth to move back into the immediate family under the care of their mother, at least until such time as they have daughters of their own of child-bearing age?

In some societies, it may be normal for specific non-family members to assume a quasi-familial relationship with a given family unit, so the population of a layer may not be restricted to blood relations and their spouses. In some country towns in both England and Australia, up until fairly recently, the local Vicar or Parish Priest was very often considered and treated as a Close family member, expected to join the immediate family for a meal if he happened to be visiting at the right time of day, and expected to visit for a while at least every week or two, when he would be enlightened to the family gossip and would in turn pass on the significant news from other members of the Parish. Similarly, there was a time in the US where it was quite normal for a Doctor to do the rounds of his patients, visiting them at home every month or two just to see how everyone was going. I can quite easily imagine a society in which it is normal for each family to contain a “social representative” from outside the family within the Close layer purely to keep the family in touch with social expectations and obligations, and to deal with any grievances the community at large has with the Family Unit or members therein. I can imagine a democracy in which each Family Unit has a vote cast by the Head Of Household on behalf of the entire Immediate Family – thereby making the family more important both socially and politically than the individual, and requiring family registration and so on.

Quite obviously, you can’t complete the populating and structuring of a typical family unit without also working on the Migration aspects built into the social norm, and vice-versa. The two have to be constructed in parallel, as each Migration Path adds members to one or more layers, or takes them out under certain conditions. Is it normal for the eldest son to remain within the Immediate Family Unit, eventually to inherit both the “Head Of Household” title and any family business? Is it normal for Daughters to remain within the Immediate Family layer until wed? Can they earn outside incomes, and if they do, do those earnings become part of the collective finances of the Immediate Family, in whole or in part? Is Divorce permitted, and what happens to the family unit when this occurs?

I use bullet-points to list the members of each layer by general category, and with each such member, I note the ways in which those family members usually leave that layer of the family unit. I then consider the common social customs – marriage, adoption, etc – by which family members may leave or enter a layer, and add additional members to each layer at the same time as adding that custom to the migration paths (a different bullet list). I think about external members of the family units and whether or not such things are considered normal. I slowly build up a picture of the elements of a typical family, in this fashion, until I feel I am done – then I convert each bullet list into a paragraph on the family unit and the social practices that add or subtract members from it.

Domestic Life

A simple paragraph on the normal domestic life is then relatively simple; it describes the impact of social norms and the economy on the typical household. Under some circumstances, it may emerge that the family unit as described is incompatible with the economic reality of the culture being created; in which case, something needs to give in order to make survival possible. That something is usually a restructuring of the typical family unit away from the accepted “normal ideal” already stated, triggering a social evolution within the society (whether it wants one or not), but it might also be that social customs stand firm and whole families are on the verge of starvation. How do the people react to that? Is poaching common? Are there charitable institutions that work to fill the gap between enough and survival?


Of course, in order to write that paragraph on Domestic Life, you need to have some idea as to the state of the Economy. In particular, the standard of living in terms of the number of people who can be supported by a typical single working member within the household. I have usually decided this in the course of writing the paragraph on the Domestic Life of the members of the society being created, so it’s simply a matter of writing it down. I can then turn to two other important economic elements that need description: the domestic economy, and the trade economy.

The domestic economy is about what people do for a living. In general, there will be some presence of just about everything, so what needs to get reported here are the big picture and any anomalies. In part, this comes back to the geographic location of the population. If there are lots of trees and not a lot of good rock, they will have lots of timber buildings and carpenters to build and furnish them, for example. Food distribution is another major consideration at this point.

The trade economy is about what surpluses the society creates and who the customers are for those products. In cultures without industrialized commerce – currency exchanges and the like – the choice of customer will be dictated by what those customers can offer in exchange, as much as anything else. How the goods are to be transported is another major consideration.

I like to do one short paragraph on the “Big Picture”, one on the domestic economy and any anomalies, one on agriculture and food distribution, one on trade and trade partners, and one on the shipping of trade goods. That’s five paragraphs, and between them they should take up rather less than a page.

What’s more, these get successively quicker to write. Each one that you do not only adds to the information on the society you are currently detailing but also partially completes the work on a trading partner or two or even three. If you start with the wealthiest economy in terms of surplus trade goods and work down from that, you will find the picture filling in for ALL the societies you are creating progressively getting easier and faster.

The Arts

There are whole cultures out there about whom everything we know has derived from the ruins they left behind, and the products of their arts: literate, musical, and fine (sculpture and painting). From Ancient Egypt to Babylon to the Greeks and Romans to the Vikings, the arts are key to our understanding of the society. Even more recently, Bohemian Coffee Houses from the 50s where people listened to readings of the latest Beat Poetry link that poetry to the subculture in a totally iconic way. So the arts are important, even vital.

No-one expects a GM to be an art expert, and no player would stand still for a long dissertation on art. But a little goes a long way, and is very definitely better than nothing. What we care about for campaign development, in general terms, are how the arts interact with the lives of the ordinary citizens. Decorative weapons and hilts, the style of sculptures and such at temples and churches, do people go to the theater – things like that, which clearly influence the look-and-feel of the culture.

I listed four distinct arts at the start of this section; a short paragraph on what’s popular and what’s famous in each of them is enough for players and the GM to hit the high points without wasting time on a lot of research. I would add one final paragraph on what art would be present in the typical family home, and perhaps another on what would be on display in public places that PCs are likely to go – inns, bars, perhaps a typical corporate headquarters in a more contemporary or futuristic era.


We’ve already made some decisions about the religion of the society, but as yet nothing substantive about what the actual theology is. It’s time to correct that. There are three basic areas of significance under the general heading of Theology, and I would write a paragraph on each.

The first is the creation myth, if any, in a nutshell. This is sometimes a manifestation of wider attitudes within the society, and is hardly ever in direct contradiction with those attitudes. It’s no coincidence that the theory of the Big Bang emerged during a period when science fiction was prophesying an explosive diaspora of mankind out into the galaxy – or that less “explosive” theories like the Steady State came into vogue when space exploration began to contract and people focused more on planet Earth. And now, with a more spasmodic interpretation of the Big Bang in favor, is it a coincidence that manned space flight is back on the agenda in the form of a mission to Mars? Maybe, but there seems too much of a coincidence about it for this pattern to be dismissed. You can also see something similar in the way that Biblical accounts of creation were interpreted during the ages of wind-power exploration in comparison with the interpretations that were in vogue before the Reformation – or so I’ve been told, I’m not an expert on religious beliefs of the period. What I do know is that a little consistency in this respect helps reinforce the overall perception of the society, and that alone makes this effort worthwhile.

The second item is the religious influence on what is considered acceptable behavior and what is not. This goes beyond what is considered criminal, to cover all the more petty standards of behavior that tend to be ingrained into citizens from childhood.

The third and final item are what the theology has tried to suppress, either successfully or unsuccessfully, and in particular, what superstitions persist despite serious efforts at undermining them.

Both of these items are useful for adding a touch of the “native society” to characters, be they PCs or NPCs.

Religious Practices

Of course, there was something that was very obviously not included in the discussion on Theology – how people worship – the forms, the timings, and so on. What are the religious practices of the society?


How are people educated? Is classroom attendance mandatory? At what ages are people normally permitted to leave school and begin to make their own way in the world? Are there any forbidden subjects? Are there any peculiarities?

Recent History

Yet another aspect of a racial write-up that can consume vast amounts of time and effort, often of little value, especially since the most worthwhile parts would form part of the background development of individual adventures. Instead, I divide recent history into three smaller subjects that are just enough for players and GMs to play characters deriving from the society.

Race Relations

This is a fairly obvious one, there’s not a lot to say. Are there any races that this race/society particularly gets on with? Are there any that they particularly dislike? Are there any who have changed from one category to another – that tends to be the result of fairly dramatic and interesting events that leave all sorts of marks on a society! Simple questions, profound answers.

Current Social Issues

What are the social problems and questions that are most pressing? What are the ones that are most important in the minds of the public? What is being done about them? Do the people support this plan, do they consider it wrong or inadequate in some way?

Hot Topics of Conversation

Outside of social problems, what are the most prevalent subjects of casual conversation? What are the subjects that everyone has an opinion on, or an interest in?

Distilled Cultural Essence & other further reference

There are a lot more simple questions like this that can be used to flesh out and define a society. This formed the basis of the first major series that I wrote here at Campaign Mastery, one that I can still happily recommend today: Distilled Cultural Essence (Four parts).

In addition to that series, there are seven other articles here at Campaign Mastery that are relevant to this subject, or to aspects thereof. In order of publication, they are:

And, beyond those references, last year Campaign Mastery hosted a round of the Blog Carnival in which the subject was “Location, Location, Location!” This link is to the Carnival Wrap-up page which describes and links to each of the articles – check them out for additional useful material and ideas.

Organizations & Relationships

Each race is likely to be the home of at least one organization of public note, possibly more. While the existence and basic (public) nature of these organizations and the relationships both between them and with authority should be known to all the players, regardless of race, those races whose homelands host the central authority or ruling body of an organization are likely to know a little more.

In a separate document, I create a list of organizations. It’s worth trolling through the campaign plan again to look for any organizations of note that get mentioned there. For each item on the list, I add a paragraph describing their purpose and public profile.

I then decide where they are most likely to have their headquarters, and why. Adding the location to the description, I also make an appropriate notation in the racial profile that we’ve been generating. I don’t proceed to this step until I have all the racial profiles done up to this point, which makes these choices a lot easier.

I add information to the racial profile that only members of that host culture will have noticed. There might be nothing, but that’s a little unusual. There might be a little more “personality” to the way the organization does things – that’s more appropriate. Or it might be something about how successful they are, or what sort of neighbors and citizens they make.

I then create a new document by copying the Organizations notes and name it “Organizations – GM’s Reference”. It starts with everything that’s already in the common player’s reference material, therefore. I copy and paste the additional information from the racial notes into this GM’s file – this helps ensure consistency in the handling of each organization every time they are encountered.

In the GM’s reference, I make notes on any organizations that are more than they seem, or not what they publicly claim to be, and what they are really up to. Finally, I make notes on relationships between organizations, and between organizations and authority. In some cases, where it will be reasonably publicly apparent, I will also annotate the racial profile with information on the relationship between the authorities of that culture and an organization.

The goal is always to make sure that the players have all the information that they need to play their characters, and that the GM has all the information that he needs to keep track of what is really going on.

There are two additional sources that I should point out under this heading:

The Keys to The Ten

We’re now approaching the end of this phase of the campaign creation process. In fact, it only remains to do a little bit of final housekeeping – integrating the three Nexii into the campaign plan.

Part Zero: Introduction/Grounding

Before the Nexii begin, ie before the players begin to work out what they think is going on within the campaign, there is a necessary indoctrination period. This might be completely contained by pre-campaign briefing notes, it may come to an end in the course of the first adventure, or it may even last until almost the end of that first adventure. Certainly, by the time that the second adventure starts it should have come to an end, or have started to do so. In Babylon 5, this phase occupied most of the first season, and was all about working out how Babylon-5 could/would function.

The transitions between Nexii layers don’t have to be hard and fast. It can be a gathering of clues/experiences that slowly add up into a complete picture. You decide when to pull the trigger that makes it seemingly clear.

Beginning, Middle, and End

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each nexus is connecting tissue that relates one plotline to another, and that imbues those plotlines that are connected in this way with common characteristics. It might be members of a particular organization, or employees of a particular individual, or a particular plot against something the PCs care about (including against them) or even something more diffuse and abstract, such as a general impression that everything’s going to hell in a hand-basket for lots of little reasons.

Now that you have connected each of the Nexii with background elements, its’ time to finalize the integration of each Nexus into the campaign plan by locating the beginning of the beginning, the beginning of the middle, the beginning of the end – and the end-point of the Nexus within various adventures as seems appropriate. The beginning is the gathering of clues that suggest a connection between events, the middle starts when the players can no longer deny that there is a connection and need to react accordingly, the end is when they know, or begin to discover, the particulars of who and why the connection exists, and why it should matter to them.

Tone & Content

Once the various key stage markers have been matched to plot events, it’s time to think about what “plot look-and-feel” elements you are going to have in common to all the adventures that are being bound together. This is often nothing more than a common tonal value – gritty and grim, or gothically spectacular, or whatever. In the original Fumanor campaign, it was simply a growing awareness that all sorts of groups and individuals were paying unusually close attention to the PCs – themselves not really knowing why – and that the PCs kept getting caught in the fringes of things that were going on in the city they were inhabiting at the time. Eventually this culminated in the discovery of a Drow Double-agent, seemingly bringing an end to that entire plot arc; at first, he had seen them as something he could employ to distract people from what he was doing, then they became an irritant and distraction, then something he could take advantage of directly, then a direct threat as they began to close in. Only after he was exposed, and the PCs discovered that the Drow were masterminding a military campaign against the realm by Orcs, did they learn why the Drow – and various unrelated groups – were really so interested in them, as the main plot (the quest to choose the 13th Deity) started.

Ultimately, what you need to document is what impact each Nexus is going to have on the adventures experienced by the PCs. This binds the nexii to the campaign plan and to each of the PC races and archetypes who will be affected, effectively linking the PCs who will eventually be generated to the campaign plan, and making them a part of the campaign world.

We’re moving toward an end-point. With the completion of these notes, the skeletal outlines of the campaign are almost complete (there’s some minor bones, tendons, and cartilage still to add) but we’re just about at the point of putting some serious meat on these bare bones. Creating everything in note form makes it faster to create and change things, and to keep an eye on the big picture, but its time to start filling in the gaps. Actually, the racial and archetype profiles that we assembled in the course of this article will go a long way toward doing that, so you could say that we’ve already started. We’ve created a lot of spaces and labeled them “meat goes here”, to extent the metaphor. So, next time: Enfleshing!

PS: Ideas

You wouldn’t be a GM if you didn’t keep having ideas. It is to be expected that quite a number of them will have occurred to you in the course of the work described in this phase of the campaign creation process. Hopefully you’ve done as recommended in earlier parts of the series and kept a note of these in your ideas file, because you’re about to need them…

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Shadows In The Darkness – The nature of True Evil


It started in the course of a planning session for the next adventure in the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, “Prison Of Jade”. We were fleshing out the villain’s motivations, and I (Mike) made a comment about the nature of Evil. Blair disagreed, saying “I don’t think that’s true evil at all” (or words to that effect).

Intrigued and surprised that so fundamental a difference had not been discovered in our many prior years of collaboration and general chat about games, comics, TV and Movies, the proposition of a collaborative article exploring the subject occurred to me immediately. Rather than getting sidetracked at the time, we made arrangements for a get-together this week to discuss it at greater length.

I did my best, while participating in that discussion, to keep notes, which this article attempts to wrestle into coherent form. It probably won’t be as well-organized as my usual articles because it has been built on a conversation, instead of being carefully and logically planned to cover a subject from all sides.

I should start by stating that we knew, going in, that there might be no real answers found. It was even possible that there are no real answers – philosophers and theologians have been debating the subject for more than 2000 years! Who were we to think that we could succeed where they have failed? Nevertheless, we chose to press on and see just how far we could go…

The Genre Significance

Morality – and the question of what is “Evil” – are central to a great many genres of RPG.

  • In Call Of Cthulhu and other Horror-themed genres, there is some form of Absolute Evil and morality is very black-and-white.
  • Pulp, too, tends to have very sharp moral dividing lines.
  • In Western games there tends to be a very black and white morality that divides the “White Hats” from the “Black Hats” as well – though that might be related to the fact that the Western Genre was at its peak on TV and in movies from the 1930s to the 1950s, eras in which morality was viewed as very rigidly defined in general.

Other Genres are far less rigid in their morality.

  • D&D and Pathfinder have their alignment system, which clearly states that there is a “True Evil” – but one that can only be understood in the context of the Law-Chaos alignment axis, so that you can never have “Pure Evil”, it’s “Lawful Evil” or “Chaotic Evil” or “Neutral Evil”.
  • Science Fiction runs the whole gamut from extremism to varying shades of gray.
  • Modern-Day and Cyberpunk are very flexible in what is morally permissible, and rarely dig too deeply into the questions of Evil – just expedience. Though there can be exceptions – the secret agent genre for example.
  • Superhero games manage to cover the entire range of options at the same time – while some characters are just a dark shade of gray, others may be described as “absolute evil” – with no adequate definition of what that means.

And that’s the common thread – a definition of “True Evil” is very hard to find in any source, and a functional one even harder to find. All too often, the definition is a negative one – “These are the things that Evil is not, and that the PCs are”.

Religious Neutrality

One thing that both Blair and I were keen to avoid was a religion-based definition of any sort. We wanted something that was both more agnostic and pragmatic in nature, a definition that could be applied to any gaming situation, but which did not exclude any theological definition that a particular faith might accept.

Wikipedia Unhelpful

Whenever a question like this comes up, the first resource we turn to is Wikipedia. While it may be inaccurate from time to time, and exasperatingly incomplete in others, it is usually an excellent starting point.

Not this time, though – their definition of Evil is “the absence or complete opposite of that which is ascribed as being good. Often, evil is used to denote profound immorality. In certain religious contexts, evil has been described as a supernatural force.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem; Evil is defined in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is, which makes defining “True Evil” or “Absolute Evil” rather difficult.

Evil and Alignment

Another thing that we wanted to sidestep were interminable discussions of the D&D Alignment system. We considered this to be an attempt to create a game-mechanic that described a relative morality for the purposes of inter-character relations; it did not go far enough for our purposes. We wanted to arrive at a functional definition of True Evil, evil that was uncontaminated by Chaos/Law considerations.

Besides, I had already done a five-part series on Alignment, and didn’t want to cover any of the same ground – tricky, in that part five specifically describes “evil” campaigns.

The Ultimate Selfishness

The definition that I have always worked from is that Evil is an expression of Selfishness – putting your own benefit, however slight, ahead of the interests of others. Even the potential for gain is worth any amount of suffering inflicted on others, from the standpoint of this definition. For most characters, that definition remains sufficient, and the question of “How evil is the character” can be restated far more effectively as “How far will the character go to obtain a self-perceived benefit or advantage?”.

It was my statement of this basic definition that prompted Blair to comment that he disagreed, and thought that there was a “True Evil” that went beyond this definition, starting the whole conversation.

True Evil: more than self-gratification?

I started by proposing that perhaps True Evil was simply a moral position that gave an “evil person” permission to inflict pain and misery for their own gain. That moral position may be self-chosen or ordained by outside authority. True Evil was not the actions themselves, which were simply an expression of the moral condition; the evil was whatever permitted the character to act on those desires, or perhaps the absence of something that prevented non-evil people from acting in that fashion.

This proposal was an attempt to start from, but move beyond, the definition that I offered above. However, it was my impression that Blair thought that evil was something more than this, that it was more malicious – an impression that he immediately confirmed.

A lot of what gets described as evil is mere pragmatism without restraint; even acts against possible future opposition can be judged in this context. “True Evil,” he said, “Acts because it can, not because it has to. It takes pleasure in what it does.”

But putting your own satisfaction, your own pleasure, ahead of the welfare of others is simply an expression of Selfishness, so taking pleasure in “evil acts” or committing “evil acts” simply for your own gratification is covered by my initial definition. If there is a True Evil that lies beyond that definition, it has to be more than simple self-gratification.

True Evil: more than Ruthlessness?

This gave us the outline of a process by which we might eventually reach a satisfactory conclusion. By considering various acts considered to be “evil”, and determining whether or not they could be categorized as somehow being less than “True Evil”, we would eventually hone in on the functional definition that we sought.

Blair started by raising Nazi behavior during World War II – the concentration camps, the systematic abuse and slaughter of groups that the Nazis disapproved of. Nazis are favorite villains in the Pulp Genre because the things they did were so vile by any reasonable moral code. There is no question that the Nazis were absolutely ruthless in pursuing their agenda, and that the agenda in question was villainous, but was this an example of True Evil?

Until recently, I would have answered yes; but a recent documentary has shed new light on that ruthlessness in my mind. The Nazi regime was spending money that it didn’t have in order to prop up their economy, to such an extent that they ceased publishing their annual balance of trade and budgets. All the Nazi big infrastructure and rearmament projects were funded with money the Nazis didn’t have. Nor could they simply sell debt to other countries in the form of government bonds and the like; no-one wanted to buy them. The Nazis even resorted to secretly buying their own government bonds to give the impression that the economy was in far better shape than was really the case.

In order to keep the regime afloat, to raise enough money to meet the public payroll and fund their ongoing projects, it was absolutely necessary to dispossess a large percentage of the population of their property and valuables, or to raise taxes to disastrous levels. Choosing the first course rather than an act that would have seriously undermined their credibility as managers of the economy, it remained only to select the targets – and these were (of course) chosen on ideological grounds. The mentally ill, homosexuals, criminals, Jews, Eastern Europeans, those of mixed blood – the list of targets goes on. The Concentration Camps enabled these groups to be maintained for a pittance for use as slave labor, saving further costs in the infrastructure and munitions industries.

This resulted in short-term gains, but did not solve the systemic problem; some form of ongoing program of conquest was inevitable, enabling them to loot and pillage other economies in order to keep their own afloat. Some analysts have suggested that when Poland was invaded, Germany might have had only enough money to pay the military for another week! The first thing that the Nazis did when capturing a new town was to go to the local banks and empty them of currency, valuables, and precious metals.

Even this wasn’t enough; as the war dragged on, and especially once the Eastern Front was opened, agriculture was suffering from the lack of manpower, and from the diversion of resources such as fuel into ongoing military operations. Memoranda have been found in which the resources being allocated to the care and feeding of those incarcerated in the camps are repeatedly reduced, and it becomes clear in some of them that a massive reduction in the population being held was necessary to reduce the drain on the economy. There were further benefits, from the Nazi perspective: these measures reduced the number of guards required, freeing up manpower for military action elsewhere, for example on the Russian Front. The “Final Solution”, as horrid and despicable as it was, is thus shown to be an extremist form of economic ruthlessness filtered through and cloaked in ideology.

It’s selfishness again – but an impersonal kind of selfishness in which one or more subgroups of a population are deemed unworthy of receiving the benefits of society, and can be exploited as necessary for the benefit of the rest. That makes the Nazi pogroms analogous to the institution of slavery in the US and elsewhere in earlier centuries, simply carried to greater extremes.

Absolute Evil

We didn’t spend as much time discussing the above as I have in this article, because we had already discussed the revelations of the documentary series on an earlier occasion. Instead, we were able to move quite quickly on to a new proposed definition: “True Evil is anything evil performed when there is no personal gain (or risk of personal loss) but you do it anyway”.

This excludes as a lesser manifestation of True Evil any acts carried out for a reason, including evil acts committed in furtherance of an agenda. Absolute evil has to go beyond reasons, ambitions, or agendas, it has to go beyond being evil for personal pleasure or satisfaction.

Most villains, even in a black-and-white morality genre, are not absolute evil; they are motivated by the potential gain of wealth, power, or revenge, or the satisfaction of ambition. Absolute, True, Evil has to be something more, something worse.

The Psychology Of True Evil

In fact, there was only one example that I could think of from Popular Culture that was not contained within this exclusion zone: Hannibal Lector from The Silence Of The Lambs. He didn’t do evil things for pleasure, he did evil things and found ways to take pleasure from those acts. Blair agreed, and suggested that the serial killer being pursued in that movie was arguably a second example; after all, it was the similarity between the two that led to Lector being consulted in the first place.

This raised some disturbing questions that we didn’t answer at the time (though we did eventually find a solution, which I’ll get to in due course):

Do you have to be psychologically disturbed to be Truly Evil?

Can you be Truly Evil if you aren’t psychologically disturbed?

The Corrosion Of The Soul

It’s a truism of serial killers that they get worse and act more frequently as their “careers” progress. It’s like addiction, in which you need more and more to get the same “high” as you build up a tolerance. The more evil you commit, the more evil you become.

By suggesting that True Evil is amoral, producing behavior that is unchecked by morality, this brought us back to the question I had posed earlier. Paraphrased: “is Evil that which gives the individual or group license to commit evil acts, or is it the acts themselves?”

Evil is a slippery slope, each act of evil leaving its mark on the psychology of the person committing it, and making a further step into darkness seem small, until acts that were once unthinkable become acceptable.

Does being psychologically disturbed simply give “permission” to be evil?

Aztec Sacrifices, Vampires and Relative Morality

Leaving those three questions hanging, Blair then turned to another example of Evil for discussion.

Aztec sacrifices were not evil, or even immoral, from the Aztec point of view, because they believed the act was not only religiously ordained but religiously mandated. From the perspective of the victims and their societies, however, they would have seemed to be pretty evil.

Similarly, there was the question of Vampires, which exist in many game genres. Are they inherently evil? They feed on humans – but they have to feed on something. Vampirism was usually something inflicted on an individual; they are victims of any True Evil involved as much as the lives that they consume. It followed that simply being a Vampire did not make you Truly Evil.

Blair suggested that becoming a vampire willingly was a more evil act than simply becoming a vampire, because of the volition. But I countered with the question of sacrifice – someone becoming a vampire, sacrificing themselves to protect another from the same fate, or to join someone they loved more than life itself in a state of undeath. Are either of those an Evil act?

Personally, I think they both are, but the reasoning is a little convoluted; rather than going more deeply into the matter at the time, the conversation moved on, but I think I’ll take a moment to spell it out before this article does likewise.

Case #1, Self-sacrifice to spare another: Either way, someone becomes a monster. In the final analysis, it’s an act of selfishness, choosing to be the instrument of destruction of others in order to spare you from the need to kill a monster who was once someone you loved. Or seeking to find a way for you both to survive by fighting back – you might fail, might die in the attempt, might even both become undead – but it’s a surrender and a perversion of the love you proclaim. Remember that even if the person for whom you are making this quixotic gesture survives, they will have to live with the outcome for the rest of their lives, including a sense of guilt and responsibility for every life you destroy. your choice may be the lesser or two evils, from your perspective, but that still makes it a choice of evil.

Case #2, Becoming undead because someone you love has become undead and you can’t bear to live without them: again, this is an act of selfishness, and a far clearer one than the first. You are becoming a monster because you can’t face the alternative: striving to end the un-life of a loved one. Instead of one monster, two result, and the blood of every future victim is on your hands.

Both are romantic gestures, but are foolish ones that can only end tragically, and both are evil. However, the fact that they can be justified on emotional grounds also means that they are not representative of the Ultimate Evil. Voluntarily embracing Vampirism can be more Evil than being an innocent “convert” – but it has to be for selfish ends, and therefore still remains part of the excluded category.

Apathy and Evil

This confirmed to us that acts can be wrong, even evil, without being Truly Evil. Absolute Evil had to extend beyond any form of reasonable justification.

Blair then posited that it might be considered Evil not to help someone when you are in a position where you can do so. Is apathy Evil? Can it be excused on grounds of pragmatism? After all, you might need the resources expended on helping the other person at some future point yourself. It follows that helping another is always a risk in some degree. However, because the future is unknowable, you can’t be sure either way – the moral question is whether it is better to take the risk.

It follows that acts of charity are meritorious in inverse proportion to the individual’s capacity. When you have little or nothing, even a small act of charity should be lauded. When you have plenty, the same act of charity is trivial. Not empty, certainly not meaningless, but niggardly and greedy – and pathetic. (Nor does it matter, in this context, whether or not the act achieves the goal set for it; intentions, not outcomes are what count, when the act of giving is involved).

How about failing to notify the authorities of a potential danger to someone else because you don’t want to get involved? Failing to report suspected domestic violence or child abuse on the part of a neighbor because you don’t want the embarrassment of having to confront the neighbors later? Are you driving the final wedge into a relationship, tearing a family apart, or are you potentially saving someone’s life? How much latitude should people be given to work out their own problems?

These are difficult questions, without clear-cut answers. It was only when I offered another example of apathy that matters began to clarify for us: If you see someone drowning, and aren’t a strong swimmer, are you justified in not diving in?

The answer is yes – if there is some other way to help. Summoning help, or throwing a rope or flotation aid, for example. The question then becomes simply one of degree, of not doing as much as you can afford to do. Once again, it is possible to describe the withholding of assistance that you can afford to proffer as a form of selfishness (actually, it could be several different forms of selfishness but that doesn’t matter).

Apathy, standing by in silence instead of speaking up about an injustice, can be evil, but it is not Absolute Evil because it can be justified, however mean-spirited that justification.

Rational Justification

Time was beginning to grow short, but the conversation had circled repeatedly back to the same point: if there is a rational justification, evil is not absolute because there is a justification for the behavior other than evil.

Therefore, only in the absence of a rational justification can Evil be absolute.

That doesn’t mean that any justification is enough to exclude an act from being Absolute Evil. Justifications can be flawed in logic or in basic assumptions, and still make the difference between Evil and Absolute Evil. However, completely irrational justifications are not enough to exclude an act of evil from representing Absolute Evil.

Consider thrill-killing and serial murder, for example the cases of Ivan Milat and the Snowtown murders. These, and many other serial killings, had no rational justification beyond addiction to the thrill of killing, the yielding to an impulse generated by desire for the thrill without restraint or compunction.

It seems almost a definitive association between such crimes and the perpetrator being psychologically disturbed, either psychopathic or sociopathic (refer section in the page on Psychopathy just linked to).

Is that just an easy out? Is there more to Absolute Evil than sociopathic and psychopathic acts?

The Acts Of Evil

Blair suggests that while the reasons for a murder might be pragmatic, the methodology e.g. unnecessary torture of the victims before killing them, could be considered evil (I thought this was a critical point so I got him to write it rather than risking a misquotation). Therefore actions, in and of themselves, can be evil, even absolute evil.

I don’t disagree with that – but would then have to ask whether or not that represents an absolute evil. Again, the key word that defines an answer is “Unnecessary”. If such acts were to be somehow justified as “necessary”, that means that a case can be made for reasonable justification of the act. It may still be morally wrong, even evil – but it is not an Absolute Evil. It is only in the absence of that justification that such acts transcend “ordinary evil” and become representative of “True Evil”.

The functional definitions: a conclusion of sorts

That – aside from one final note that I will address in a few moments – was where time ran out. We had reached a conclusion of sorts, but it has been left to me to try and condense that conclusion into final form in the form of functional definitions.

  • Evil Acts are voluntary acts that are destructive in some manner. This destruction can have an external victim or be directed at the individual committing the act (i.e. be “Self-destructive”). To be evil, these acts must also knowingly and deliberately exceed a threshold of harm to the victim, which is usually defined in terms of the individuals capacity to recover from the harm. The damage inflicted can be physical, emotional, psychological, or moral. Evil acts can include Apathy (the act of “doing nothing” or knowingly doing less than is necessary).
  • Performing Evil Act makes a person, group, place, object, or other circumstance Evil. Most evil can be “justified” in terms of Selfishness, and are motivated by Ambition or the drive for Wealth, Power, Self-defense, or Revenge. Most villains, even in moralistically extreme game genres, are not absolutely evil and can “justify” their actions, no matter how ruthless or extreme, through one of these motives. Such justifications are an important tool for the characterization of the villain.
  • Evil acts make it easier to commit still more intensely-evil acts in the future, as the success of the act erodes the restraints that morality, social norms, and social expectations place between the evil person and the commission of such actions. Evil can be considered addictive and only through abstinence is reform possible.
  • Absolute Evil exists only when no rational justification beyond the pleasure or satisfaction of the individual can be provided as to the motive for the Evil Act. Irrational justifications are not enough to relegate Evil to the lesser standard.

Going Further: Applying the definitions

There was one question posed during the discussion that has not been brought forward as yet: Does the definition of Absolute or True Evil vary from genre to genre?

Since we arrived at a functional definition that does not distinguish between genres, the answer is no. But that doesn’t mean that some genres can’t have expressions or manifestations of Absolute Evil that others lack.

At one point in the discussion, when we were talking about Call Of Cthulhu, I suggested that betraying your species or race or whatever group with which you identify for personal gain of some sort was evil, but that knowingly doing so with no prospect of such gain was still more evil, possibly even True Evil. Whether it is done as some sort of act of revenge, or simply for the love of destruction, the level of malice exhibited by such actions takes them a step beyond any rational justification.

This isn’t the same thing as betraying a Wagon Trains route and schedule to the Indians in a western game. That is also betraying your race or nation to another, but the scale matters. It isn’t the same thing as selling or giving state secrets to another nation, or exposing them to the public, either, though those can arguably be considered to inflict harm on a greater scale than the Wagon Train.

If people have souls in the theological sense, rather than just identities in the psychological sense, then the immortality of the soul makes the corruption or destruction of a soul a far greater offense than simply selling someone into slavery, or torturing someone to death. I find myself going back to the discussion of Vampirism; True Evil can be an evil act that victimizes individuals beyond those immediately targeted in terms of the scale of damage inflicted. Killing or maiming a roomful of innocent victims simply to be sure of killing or maiming one individual carries an act beyond rational justification, no matter what justification may exist in terms of that one individual. The word “innocent” is very important there; a different standard applies when your target is one individual but everyone caught in the “splash” is a justifiable target of lesser importance only relative to that target individual.

Evil is being willing to harm the innocent to achieve one’s ends. What varies from genre to genre are the manners in which harm can be inflicted, and the potential scale of that harm both in severity, in permanence, and in scale. Consider the possible forms and manifestations of harm in your campaign’s genre, and you can determine what the Ultimate Evil is within that campaign, evil beyond any hope of redemption. The answers both define an essential element of the campaign and place all other acts of villainy that may be encountered into context, enriching your game immeasurably.

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Inn Through The Side Door – Reinvigorating the cliché


Resized Photo “Manchester 51″ by “Royal Olive” via (flickr search utility) licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 – click on the image to view the license.

After a solid effort, it’s become clear that I’m not even close to having the next part of the New Beginnings series ready to publish, and the deadline is now less than 20 minutes away, so I’m resorting to another filler post, one that I’ve been saving for just this purpose.

This was inspired by a link that Hungry at Ravenous Role Playing shared in the same week that he happened to plug a couple of my articles.

The original article, FYI, was “You … save??… a tavern??” by John Arcadian at Gnome Stew which I’m happy to acknowledge! Thanks to both Hungry and John for the inspiration!

You can read John’s article (and watch the video he in turn links to), and read what Hungry had to say about it, which in turn inspired me, by clicking on the links above.

Starting campaigns in an inn or tavern was pretty much the first cliché of D&D, and therefore of RPGs, so far as I’m aware. So much so that it is practically synonymous with two different phenomena: a lack of imagination, or the PCs as afterthoughts. Neither are necessarily true, mind; but that’s the popular perception in gaming.

And yet, this is one of the few logical places where people of disparate prior existences might rub shoulders, making it an inherently sensible sort of place for a party of adventurers to encounter and get to know each other – so long as you accept the metagame premise that “they will team up because they are all PCs”. It’s often easy to tell who the PCs are, anyway, as soon as the environment is described, simply because of the relative level of detail in the descriptions. Most of the occupants of the room will be generic cut-outs, and the few who aren’t will stick out like a sore thumb.

Some GMs concentrate efforts on eradicating this overt NPC discrimination, seeking to impress with the depth of the personalities present. This is often a problem because it is usually false advertising; the GM has invested way more effort into these throwaway characters than they merit.

This diverts from a profound problem that is usually overlooked. The PCs will usually come from many different social classes, and Inns and Taverns – if they aren’t in the back end of nowhere – will cater to a specific working class or social sub-group. The shipwrights will have one tavern, the wagon-masters and their staff will have another, no doubt there will be one for the hunters as well, and a couple for the soldiers, and so on. This reality is ignored in the name of expediently bringing the party together.

There are some alternatives worth considering – a group of fellow travelers banded together for mutual protection, or everyone being hired for the same job (often caravan protection – almost as common a cliché). But let’s say that you’re the sort of GM who delights in taking something so routine that it has become boring and giving it a twist – or that you want to be that sort of GM – and so have deliberately chosen to begin with the granddaddy cliché and deliberately do something different with it.

I can even envisage a strongly-serial “adventure of the week” in which each adventure starts off in a tavern, usually the same one, and something strange happens to lead to the adventure – in other words, using the inn as a framing device.

This article is being written as filler, something to appear the next time I get caught short by a deadline. I have listed below some twenty-five clever variations on the cliché for the general amusement of the readers and some creative inspiration for GMs out there that like a good twist on an old friend.

  1. An intelligence agent mistakes one of the PCs for his contact, unaware that his enemies are right behind him.
  2. A smuggling operation is being run out of the inn which is maintained only as a cover, and is deliberately run-down and overpriced to keep patrons away. Pity the PCs, being rather naive, haven’t taken the hint.
  3. The watch arrests one of the PCs on suspicion of something nasty that he didn’t do (or maybe that he did, that’s up to the player) and arrests the other PCs as suspected confederates – in a social setting that isn’t big on fair hearings.
  4. A patron on lookout at the window warns of an approaching press-gang. Patrons scatter out various bolt-holes.
  5. Someone sets the inn on fire.
  6. The inn runs out of drinkables thanks to oppressive new taxes. The crowd get unruly and decide to complain to someone – up close and all personal, like.
  7. A con-man is fleecing the crowd. When the Watch enters, he hides his goods and booty in the kit of one of the PCs, planning to steal it back later.
  8. The barkeep gives a pointed demonstration of the racial or class prejudices of the world by telling one of the PCs, “we don’t serve your kind here.”
  9. The sun goes out and the world outside vanishes, leaving only a gray mist. Inn exits now lead directly to the dungeon, there’s no way out except through the far end, there are limited supplies, and the mob are unhappy and looking for someone to blame. All eyes turn to the strangers who have just arrived.
  10. There’s a painting, seemingly of the inn-keep, whose head turns to look the other way anytime no-one is looking – because the inn-keep has arrested his aging, tying his age to that of the painting. So long as it doesn’t age, neither does he. But there’s always a price to pay for such favors, and the bill is about to come due.
  11. What looked like an inn or tavern on the outside is really something else on the inside. If mundane, the PCs have just blown the cover of whoever’s using it. If not, the PCs are the latest suckers to be lured into a trap.
  12. The inn is the gathering-place for a coven who are about to summon something way too big for them to handle.
  13. A prophesied messiah has just been born/revealed at the tavern. Is it a con, is it a mistake, is it genuine?
  14. The floor, rotted and of shoddy construction, collapses under the feet of one or more PCs.
  15. The PCs look in the mirror behind the bar and find themselves trapped in a nightmare world while their evil duplicates are released to wreak havoc on the world.
  16. Everyone in the inn is a Doppelganger (refer Pieces Of Creation: The Hidden Truth Of Doppelgangers, and they want to add the PCs to the collection.
  17. The barkeep is secretly a Vampire who enthralls the PCs – for a while.
  18. There’s an Earthquake, leveling the inn.
  19. One of the patrons murders another. The PCs are taken in as witnesses, even if they saw nothing – and if they say they saw nothing, they will be suspected of being conspirators.
  20. One of the PCs inadvertently tries to spend counterfeit money (not knowing that it’s fake).
  21. The Inn’s ale has been poisoned by a rival, or a protection racket.
  22. The inn is completely empty and none of the doors open from the inside. Why?
  23. The innkeeper is a deranged lunatic who will attempt to kill the PCs in their sleep.
  24. The inn is a front for a conspiracy. The PCs must join, or die.
  25. The innkeeper runs an illegal slave-trade through the cellar. The PCs may be mistaken for customers (lots of innuendo, never stating out loud what “The Merchandise” is), or will be added to the collection.

May this collection bring you – and your players – much amusement! Oh, and here’s one more for good measure:

  1. The daughter of the local noble can’t sing, has two left feet, is clumsy, has a slight squeak to her voice, nags mercilessly, and is not particularly good-looking. She has slipped away to avoid an arranged marriage to the son of a ruthless noble of lower rank but great influence ($$$$$) and disguised herself as a truly awful entertainer, much to the annoyance of the patrons. She gets one of the PCs drunk (Mickey Finn if necessary), and when the son of the ruthless noble comes looking for his bride-to-be, she claims that she and the PC were wed in a civil ceremony last night…

Have fun!

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Principle, Cause, and Course – Complexities In Motivation

Crowd Image

Image courtesy Constantin Deaconescu

Character Motivation can be the hardest thing to unlock for any character, and yet the most useful.

Knowing a character’s motivation can provide a cohesiveness of personality and decision-making context that simplifies the complex task of getting under an NPC or PCs skin down to one or two basic issues and their ramifications.

Knowing why a character is doing something is half the battle when it comes to roleplaying that character spectacularly well.

When I’m creating a character, one of the approaches to getting a handle on that character that I always try early in the process is to ask four simple questions – with deceptively complex results.

It doesn’t always work, but a lot of the time it simplifies the process of making every other decision to the point where snap judgments are not only possible, but relatively frequent.

This frees up my mind for other aspects of the game, whether I am roleplaying a PC or GMing the game. Today, I’m going to share that secret with the world.

The Four Questions

The four questions are:

  1. What are the character’s Principles?
  2. What Cause or causes is the character fighting for?
  3. To what courses of action has he locked him- or herself into?
  4. What does the character’s Principles tell me about his or her approach to Responsibility?

Notice that there’s virtually nothing about what the character can or can’t do. These questions define what the character will, won’t, and is trying to do, and those constraints determine the choices that he makes in all other areas of his life – and those, plus opportunities, define the answers to those other questions, and remain valid even as what he “can” or “can’t” do evolves as a result.


The fundamental starting point are the principles that the character believes in, the philosophy that is central to his being. The simplest characters can be reduced to a single principle. Second-order characters have two principles, one primary and a second that yields only to the first. Third-Order characters have a third principle which yields only to the first or second, and so on. As Asimov’s three Laws Of Robotics and the stories that he was able to write about them prove, three is enough to give a sufficiently rounded personality that we relate to the result as a person; real people usually have more.

The depth of the character is therefore the first decision – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th order?

Once you know how many you are aiming for, the next decision is to populate those empty slots. Most principles can be reduced to a single word or short phrase. Even “Absolute Pragmatism,” which rejects all philosophical principles in favor of practicality and opportunism, is a philosophical principle!

My personal principles illustrate all this perfectly (I have the advantage over most people of actually having thought about this stuff). In order, they are (1) A fair go; (2) Protection Of Society; (3) Honesty; (4) Individual Liberty; (5) A Positive Attitude; and (6) Empathy. These aren’t set in stone; the order can, and has changed from time to time, but by and large, that’s my natural default. I’ve even failed in just about all of them to some degree at some point.

  • “The Fair Go” is a uniquely Australian concept, encompassing everything from “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” (and vice-versa) to sportsmanship to innocent until proven guilty to equal pay to equal opportunity to anti-discrimination to marriage equality to the Golden Rule of “Do unto others”. This is my number one because if a society fails to provide it, I would compromise the protection of that society in pursuit of fairness. I don’t begrudge business the right to make a profit, but don’t support the exploitation of workers, or the gouging of customers, in order to do so. This list of implications and applications just scratches the surface!
  • All societies are under constant threat both from without and from internal dissent and destruction. I’ve been threatened by criminals; I’ve been threatened by illegal drugs and the things that people have to do to satisfy their addictions; I’ve been threatened by unthinking or uncaring drivers. I have no doubt that without a strong military, my country would face invasion from, or simple domination by, many others seeking to exploit our natural resources. I have no doubt that Terrorism is real, both foreign and domestic. Protection of society from such threats is my number two because I am willing to compromise everything further down the list to at least some extent in order to achieve that protection – right up to the point where that protection starts to impact on the fair go for all.
  • Honesty is my number three. Own up when you make a mistake, and try to fix it. Sugar-coat your criticism as necessary, but be critical when its’ warranted. Would I lie to protect my society? It would haunt me, but yes – just as Winston Churchill had to do when he chose to protect the secret that the British had cracked the Enigma code of Nazi Germany by not evacuating Coventry when the WWII British Government learned the city was to be bombed. Ideally, I would prefer to protect society without deception – but if it came down to it, I would reluctantly support the dishonesty. And if someone were to lie to me, and get caught out, Fairness and the principle of Protection Of Society are the only acceptable justifications – which means that I need to trust those making such claims and making decisions on these matters or I can’t support them. Honesty also means no false modesty, acknowledging people when they help you, and so on.
  • Individual Liberty is something I’m big on. I’ve been a maverick for most of my life, even down to playing RPGs when they were a fringe activity, but I draw the line when that liberty threatens society, or is dishonest, or threatens a fundamental fairness within a society. Totalitarian and Racist regimes are therefore something I oppose. Religious Extremism is another. Trying to convert me to your faith is still another – because one person’s personal liberty doesn’t give them the right to invade that of another, except where justified by a higher principle on my list, not theirs. And note that you can’t have individual liberty if your privacy or civil rights are being abused with insufficient oversight. While individual cases might justify invasions of privacy in order to protect society, that doesn’t justify a blanket surveillance of citizens.
  • I have a generally positive attitude; I’m reluctant to think the worst of others, or of a situation. As I put it to someone the other day, if you look down all the time you don’t see the high points, only the low. Like everyone else, I have highs and lows; but I don’t stay low for very long – I look for, and usually find, silver linings that at least make whatever life throws at me tolerable. This has enabled me to find something to enjoy about every position of employment that I have ever held, which in turn has enabled me to do my level best to do whatever I’m being paid to do. Only when the fairness of such a situation has been undermined – like the time I was expected to work more than 100 hours a week of unpaid overtime every week just to keep my underpaid 40-hour-a-week job – does this ethic begin to fail.
  • I have a fairly high capacity for Empathy, I can put myself in other people’s shoes fairly easily most of the time, at least enough to get a glimpse of what they are going through. That means supporting those not as well off as I as best I can – even if that is sometimes only by not taking advantage of the generosity of charities and taxpayers by abusing the support on offer, leaving those resources for those who need it more. When I can, I support charitable causes – probably too many of them, spreading that support thin, but there are so many that are worthwhile!

There are a couple of others that should probably be in there somewhere, like Respect for others, and a Romantic perception of love and marriage, but that’s more than enough for the purposes of this example. It’s been said that humans are rationalizing creatures, not rational creatures. It might well be that this nested cascade of principles is simply my way of rationalizing the things that I like, so I don’t insist that anyone else model themselves on me! Other people are welcome to their own set of principles. Nor do I think for a moment that I have the perfect recipe, or any sort of exclusive wisdom or insight.

This isn’t about me; I offer the above not as lecture or to proselytize, but to illustrate how much of a personality can be defined through the principles that the character lives by.

So, once you have decided how much complexity you require in the character (at least to start with – you can always add more), list the principles that you want him to believe in, one after another. If this entire process is half the work of coming up with a character, then the principles are half of the work of the process, so take your time and get them right!

Cause and Causes

Whenever principles are viewed in light of a society or world that doesn’t share them, the result is a Cause. The greater the gap between the present reality and the ideal expressed by the principle, the higher the priority the individual gives to the Cause. Similarly, the higher up the list of principles, the greater the priority given to the cause.

Now, you could get all technical and list a dozen or more Causes, popular or otherwise, then determine which (if any) principles of the character the cause represents a violation of, and then index by severity of perceived disparity, either generating a numeric rating of how strongly the character feels about that Cause, or mapping them onto a table with Principle Rank along one axis and perceived disparity on the other – but it’s probably simpler to just look at the first couple of principles and select the most egregious violations of those principles.

Once you know what the character’s Cause or Causes are, you can apply the character’s Principles to determine how far they will go in pursuit of that agenda, and how much room there is for compromise.


Of course, others may be to be willing to further, and quite often people find themselves supporting a Cause or allied to an organization more willing to embrace “radical solutions” to a problem. Take the environmental movement, for example; within that space you have groups who view the cause as an opportunity for profit; you have eco-terrorists; you have radicals who advocate animal rights over human rights; you have criminals who would release infected animals into the streets rather than see them giving their lives in pursuit of a cure for AIDS or Ebola or whatever.

Any organization will have its share of radicals, and because these are the most passionate members, they frequently ascend to leadership positions, driving the organization toward more extremist positions and policies. Those who are more moderate can often find themselves trapped by such circumstances.

Any character will have courses of action to which they are committed, unable to back out of, even though they do not personally support those courses of action. This can be anything from raising an unexpected child to being a member of a radical sect within a faith.

So the next question to be answered is what, if any, courses of action is the character committed to, even though they may violate his principles?

The example of raising an unexpected child is an excellent one for illustrating the point. To the best of my knowledge, I am not a parent, but if I were to discover otherwise, what would I compromise in order to care for that child? Tell you what, we’ll come back to that in a minute, because that raises the whole issue of the fourth question: how the character responds to responsibility.


The key to unlocking an understanding of the sense of Responsibility of the character is to locate Personal Liberty, or anything else that is all about the individual being generated, or his immediate family relative to everyone else, as opposed to others.

A Fair Go For All? Global, by definition. Protection Of Society? Ditto. Honesty? That’s not just Honesty about yourself, it’s honesty towards others. So my sense of Responsibility is first compromised by the fourth-order principle, “Personal Liberty”. That’s a long way down the list, so I have a strong sense of Responsibility.

If “Political Power” was high on the list, or “Personal Wealth,” or “Social Position,” that diminishes the sense of Responsibility by compromising the things that the individual will take responsibility for. If the obtainment of any of these is the first principle by which the character lives, that means that everything else is compromised to that purpose. If one of them, or something like them, is in second place, then there is something more important to the character than achieving the goal, a line that the character will not cross, and something that could compromise that goal through a sense of Responsibility. Each step further down the list acts to functionally increase the character’s sense of Personal Responsibility.

So, as I was asking a moment ago, what would I compromise to care for a son or daughter? Well, getting “a fair go” for him or her – ensuring that the child had as much opportunity as I could provide – comes under Principle Number 1, and that’s a long way ahead of Personal Liberty, the principle that defines my Responsibility Level. So I would compromise everything short of that point without hesitation. Protection of Society? Not if it puts my child at risk – unless my failure to so protect society diminishes his or her future opportunities or safety, in which case, “show me where to sign”. Honesty? Yes, I would bite my tongue for the sake of a hypothetical son or daughter’s welfare. Personal Liberty? Set aside in a heartbeat, except to the extent that it does not harm the welfare of the child. In fact, I would have to be seriously convinced that “doing the right thing” was going to detrimental to the child before I would not insist on taking responsibility for it.

This also means that I would oppose unjust laws, even if they are aimed at the protection of society – and accept the responsibility of doing so.

Note that there is a difference between feeling responsible for a general situation and taking responsibility for your own choices and actions. The first stems from a generalized identification with those who are, or have, violated a principle; the second is far more personal.

This becomes important when considering the Causes to which the character is committed, and how they will behave when those Causes go beyond the character’s comfort zone. The responsible thing to do might be to put The Cause ahead of the welfare of those fighting for it, leading the character to become an informant; or they might have so low a sense of Responsibility that they will go along with the group, swayed by the charisma and passion of the radical elements, a process of radicalizing the character.

1st Application: Morality

These four questions, then, define the personality extremely quickly and succinctly. All that remains is to demonstrate how to apply this “personality shorthand”.

The first such application is to define the character’s Morals, or – in the case of D&D / Pathfinder – the character’s alignment. This is quite simple – just look for morality-defining terms in the principles. The higher up the list these are, the more significant the contribution to the Moral Classification, but the stronger the term, the more strongly that term’s effects shape the overall morality of the character.
Mike's Alignment

In my case, terms leap out like “Fair”, “Protect Society”, “Honest”, and “Personal Liberty”. “Fair” is, by definition, even-handed, pointing to a strongly Neutral position. “Protect Society” is definitely both Lawful and Good, and so is “Honest”. “Honest” is also a somewhat stronger term than “Protect”, compensating for its lower position in the ranking, but it’s more “Lawful” than “Good” – so let’s say that it contributes as much Lawful to my alignment as “Protect Society”, but only about half as much Good.

“Personal Liberty” is strongly either Evil, Chaotic, or Both (depending on your definitions of “Evil”, something I’m not going to go into right now). Because it promotes the individual over society, I would argue that it is more Evil than Chaotic. It’s a much stronger term than “Protect”, but it’s a couple of intensity levels down the order of priority, so let’s say that it cancels out the “Good” from “Protect” and about half of the “Lawful”.

If you map these out on an alignment chart, you get the alignment chart shown above, which shows that my personal alignment is Lawful Neutral with Good tendencies – in fact, pretty much riding the border between Neutral and Good.

The character’s alignment thus becomes a synopsis of the influences that dictate the personality, a summary of a more complex and robust characterization.

2nd Application: Applied Morality

Not only that, you can easily see on such a chart where the predominant factors are that can produce an alignment or moral shift. The “ground” that is so defined is what the character considers moral behavior. At the same time, at least some moral development stems from misbehavior in a particular direction and a resulting sense of guilt – so at least some of the development lies in a reaction to movement in the other direction. People make “mistakes,” but they learn from them, so this becomes a tool for the creation of the character’s background, as well as a guideline to the making of future decisions.

3rd Application: Development

The answers to the four questions also form a guideline to the way in which the character will “improve” himself, what he will learn to do, and how he will use what he has learned, dictating the opportunities that come his way and the type of people to whom he has been exposed. It becomes one of the defining factors in what the character can do at the point in which he enters play.

4th Application: Bias and Prejudice

People naturally have a prejudice against those whose principles oppose theirs. I am strongly opposed to elitists of any sort, for example. I have no sympathy for people who cheat the system (any system) and get caught – though I make allowance for human error. Corruption of any sort earns my wrath – and that extends to people who rort game systems. The combination of environment and principles define a character’s biases and prejudices.

That, in combination with the character’s social environment and opportunity for expression, defines their politics. Will a Feudal Landowner mistreat his serfs? He will exploit them, that’s a given, the cornerstone of their respective social stations – but mistreatment beyond that level is determined by the extent to which his priorities oppose theirs, and that comes down to the principles that he values.

You can only deny a population their human rights while retaining those rights for yourself if you first define that population as less than fully human, as somehow being unworthy of being treated equally.

5th Application: Past Decisions

When people are confronted with the need to make a decision, there are two factors that define their choice. The first is the range of options before them, as they perceive them; the second is their priorities and which of these options best achieves that priority, as best as they can determine.

But the ramifications of past choices can last a lifetime, can define what opportunities will be presented to the character in the future, as made clear by the “Chosen Courses” question. Applying the same logic to the other questions that have arisen in the character’s past will define them, and potentially define the outcomes of those decisions.

For example, at one point I was a Systems Analyst in all but title and pay-scale. A change of management in my department resulted in the decision to make my specialist expertise redundant; I was offered what I considered a demeaning contract that effectively denied that the previous five years had not happened, returning to trainee status – and pay-scale. I had the choice of accepting, or looking for work within that specialist sphere elsewhere. I chose the latter and stood on principle, and don’t regret it, even though it didn’t work out well at the time.

6th Application: Current Status

Put all this together and you end up with the character’s current status – and, by then applying the principles again, can determine just what the character thinks about that status, and what he’s prepared to do about it. This defines his emotional state at the start of play.

7th Application: The Future

Everyone plans for the future, even though we don’t know what it will hold. Well, anyone who doesn’t have “live for today” or something analogous in their priority list! Planning for the future essentially means arranging circumstances so that when an opportunity arises, the character is in a position to take advantage of it, but may extend to actively trying to bring about just such an opportunity. It follows that the character’s plans for the future arise from his current priorities, and those are defined by the character’s current status and his priorities.

If I were in the Wild West, and wanted to eventually become the town Marshall, I would start by learning as much of the skills required as possible in my spare time, and working to establish a reputation in town for the qualities that a Marshall should have, while keeping out of trouble. When an opportunity came up for the position of Deputy, I would volunteer for it, and use it as an opportunity to learn still more – and when. eventually, a new Marshall was needed, I would be one of a few select candidates.

8th Application: Further Development

I’ve more or less pre-empted this item with the discussion above, but that’s all right – the two go together as a natural partnership. The course life takes is always determined by what has come before, and how it has equipped you to handle the future. In D&D / Pathfinder, the character should continually be assessing which Prestige Classes he qualifies for, which best achieves his priorities – and whether or not he can change that list of choices for the better by taking a Feat, Improving a stat, or acquiring a skill.

A Wishlist Item:

That brings up a completely unrelated issue that’s worth a shout-out to any RPG players out there who also do web development – a piece of software that I would dearly love. You enter your current stats, relevant skill levels, etc, class, and levels, and it automatically constructs a “development tree” listing all the character classes that the character can qualify for right now, and what those then let the character qualify for, and so on. By playing around with the options – additional feats, improved stats, skills, etc – you can map out the choices that you want the character to take.

I want this because as a GM, I never have the time to do it properly for NPCs. Players have the luxury of investing as much time as they want (and can get access to) in a single character; I can’t.

9th Application: Snap Decisions In Play

And the final application, the final benefit of employing this simple tool is this: you can get inside the head of the character very quickly and easily, which enables you to make snap decisions in character.

It’s really easy: you consider the decision to be made in light of the first priority. Is that priority relevant? Yes – decision is easily made on that basis. No? Then consider the second. And then the third, and so on.

You can reflect the greater depth of characterization embedded within this system simply by looking for subsequent items on the list of principles that may also strongly affect the decision. It takes only a second or so to be able to say “yes, this matters,” or “no, this is irrelevant”. By the time you’ve considered them all, your subconscious will have finished mulling over the relationship between the question and the critical factors as the character sees them and reached a consensus – another second or so, and the decision is ready to be implemented.

Well, almost. There’s one factor that none of the questions might address, and that’s how decisive the character is. Knowing how much they will dither is the final piece of the puzzle.

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Stealth Narrative – Imputed info in your game


I was incredibly tired after Co-GMing on Saturday – while the game session went well, this was only the second time that I have GM’d since undertaking a regime to control my blood sugar after the recent Diabetes diagnosis, and it took a lot more out of me than I expected.

In fact, I ended up spending all Sunday recovering and then slept most of Monday, meaning that there was no possible chance of getting the next part in the New Beginnings series done. Instead, I have decided to do another “filler” article, simply because it will be very quick to write – which suits my limited time-frame.

This article was actually inspired by a piece of spam that I zapped last week. You know the type – endless automated variations on the same stock phrases that say nothing meaningful and are almost-painfully obvious, at least to human eyes. In this case, the Spam was lauding Campaign Mastery, suggesting that this was the place to visit to receive “imputed info”.

That phrase, the result of a piece of code mindlessly plugging a verb vaguely synonymous with one in a basic phrase into a noun vaguely synonymous with knowledge or information, got my attention and started my mind ticking over. This article is the result…

Imputed Information

“Imputed Info”. What does that mean? Well, “Info” is short for information, which can be defined as “facts with context or meaning”, as opposed to “data” which has no context or meaning until it is interpreted. That’s the difference between “Data Management” and “Information Management” – the first is about the storage, processing, and management of raw inputs and isolated facts like measurements, the second is about manipulating data to yield, reveal, study, and analyze meanings within the context of the source conditions.

“Imputed” is a word that you see fairly infrequently. In many contexts, it actually implies a negative connotation to whatever it refers to; it means, according to the Collins Concise English Dictionary (1984), either (1) to attribute or ascribe (something dishonest or dishonorable) to a person, or (2) to attribute to a source or cause (usually a dishonorable or deceptive one). Google rolls both these into one and adds a variation on the second specific to the world of finance.

So what, then, is “imputed information”? It is either information obtained dishonorably, or distributed dishonestly, i.e. stealthily or secretly. Robert Heinlein was famous for doing this – sneaking bits of background information into his dialogue and story without resorting to exposition either directly from an omnipotent narrator or indirectly through the mouths of his characters. He didn’t lecture the reader, or have his characters lecture each other, on how the science or society worked; instead, the two sides discussed the subject and, in the process, built up the facts the reader needed to make sense of the story without them even noticing most of the time.

“Imputed Information”, then, is information delivered by stealth (or at least, that’s the interpretation I’m choosing to employ). Having a writing style that is so readable that the meaningful content can be absorbed without the reader even noticing that they are being educated. That sounds incredibly complimentary to me as a writer, but I don’t take compliments from spambots as holding intrinsic value; but it also sounds like a skill that all GMs should master, or attempt to.

Narrative Breakdown

I’ve already done a well-received six-part series on Narrative (The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative) which I thought was probably going to be my last word on the subject. But this thought opens up a whole new chapter, so to some extent this article should be considered a postscript to that series.

Narrative can be divided into two types: useful and waste. The series focuses on stripping narrative down into its constituents, eliminating the waste and redundancy, and then rebuilding what’s left into a more streamlined, stylish result.

Useful Narrative can be further subdivided into two categories: essential and flavor. Essential narrative tells the players what they (appear to) need to know about whatever is being described, excluding anything that they cannot perceive. Flavor makes it interesting and part of the environment. One of the attributes of the technique described in the series takes flavor and incorporates it into essential narrative so that the flavor doesn’t have to be delivered separately, though I don’t believe it explicitly said as much – this was “imputed information” within the article. The net result is that a block of Narrative text can be compacted into 10-50% of its original size – with a realistic average of 20-25%.

That’s excellent, as far as it goes, but “implied information” suggests techniques that can take it even further, perhaps even halving again the size of the narrative block. An A4 page of text contains about 550 words, a Letter-sized page about 575. A page of narrative being squeezed down to 55-60 words? Wow. But that’s not as impossible as it sounds, through the application of two principles: “Just In Time Delivery” and “Imputed Information”.

Just In Time Delivery

In industries of all sorts, “Just In Time” means that whatever you need for the next step in the project is delivered just at the moment you need it, not days, weeks, or months in advance. It reduces the need for storage space, but mandates reliability of delivery to deadline. Although I dislike relying on it, and actively prepare backup alternatives in case unreliability results for whatever reason, I employ Just In Time techniques to write this blog – usually finishing an article only a few hours short of the publication deadline. I’m far more comfortable if I can build up a lead, because it means that I can take as long as I need to take in order to ensure a quality product, ie something worth reading that communicates its content easily (and hopefully effortlessly on the part of the reader).

In terms of narrative, a “Just In Time” Delivery would mean delivering information to the players just before they need to take it into account, and no sooner. That’s not all that practical in a real-world situation, because there’s a limit to how much information you can insert elsewhere without it getting in the way. You need to extend “just before they need to take it into account” to allow for absorption of the information and avoid bottlenecks in the interaction.

Imputed Narrative

It’s also essential that the information being presented “just in time” is not intrusive; you can’t simply drop a small narrative block into a piece of dialogue or action, you need to actually incorporate that narrative block into the relevant sub-scene by having the NPCs interact with it.

In other words, deliver the narrative in question as Imputed Information.

There are four golden rules that make this a lot easier than it sounds: Foundation, Expected and There, Expected and Missing, and The Unexpected Presence.


Foundation Narrative exists to create expectations in the minds of the players. It’s a general description of a location, person, or object. It should present no more information than is necessary to visualize an approximation of the basic scene. Foundation consists of a generic label for the subject and explicitly stating an overall flavor that lets the players create the scene in their minds. “A businesslike office.” “A sterile laboratory.” “A dank and claustrophobic dungeon.” “An opulent bedroom”.

Expected and There

If a detail would be expected to be present from the foundation, it doesn’t need to be described within the narrative block; those details can be delivered by Imputed Narrative, if they are needed at all. A library implies bookshelves and books; a bar implies bottles of alcohol on shelves.

Expected and Missing

If something is missing that you would normally expect to find, it may or may not be necessary to specifically mention its absence. For example, if there is no Bed in the Bedroom, that’s probably worthy of notice. If there is no desk in an office, ditto. If there are no diplomas on the walls, that’s not necessarily so important as to need mentioning up-front; you can deal with that absence using Imputed Narrative.

There are some cases where there is a hidden analogue. There are no bookshelves on the walls because there is a virtual bookshelf (and computer monitor) built into the desk, for example. This is noteworthy enough to be foundation narrative, but because it is so easily interacted with, belongs to a “half-and-half” category of narrative that I’m going to refer to as “Transitive” – it’s Foundation narrative that is delivered in an Imputed Manner, and hence “transitions” from one category to another.

The Unexpected Presence

If something is present that you don’t expect to see in an office, it should be mentioned in the Foundation because it is either directly relevant on a need-to-know basis or provides essential flavor needed to visualize the scene. “A businesslike office with a suit of medieval plate mail displayed in the corner instead of a potted plant.” “A sterile laboratory with a painting of dogs playing poker on the wall.” “A dank and claustrophobic dungeon with a bar and bartender in the corner.” “An opulent bedroom with a bomb on the nightstand, counting down: 12… 11….” The additions are things the players need to know, or that not only add flavor to the environment directly, but add flavor to the room’s usual occupant by association and implication.

Of course, an unexpected presence can be so subtle that it is initially unnoticed. If that is potentially the case, the GM should prepare for it with a section of optional add-on narrative that only gets read if the appropriate die roll is made – and I recommend that the GM should have the players make such die rolls as they are about to enter the room, rather than interrupting the narrative for perception checks, breaking his narrative ‘stride’.

The Limits of Imputation

I recommend that no more than one piece of imputed information be delivered in any non-narrative statement, and only when the imputation can be performed seamlessly. This is an extremely limiting restriction, but the primary goal of any non-narrative scene or sequence is for it to continue to do its job.

Delivering Transitive Narration

Transitive Narrative can be an exception, because you can carry quite a lot of it in describing whatever the NPC is doing when the PC or PCs enter the space, or what the object is doing when the PCs examine it. “The General Manager is standing beside his gold-inlaid oak desk with a golf club in hand, putting golf balls across the carpet into a cup while talking to someone using a faux-ivory hands-free phone. A Stock Market ticker display runs continuously across the face of the desk courtesy of a built-in computer monitor. He waves for you to seat yourselves in the crushed-velvet armchairs as he completes his negotiations and punches a button on the phone to end the call.” Add that to the appropriate Foundation description “(A cozy well-organized office”) that precedes it and you have an immediate setting. You haven’t even provided one word of description of the individual himself, but most of you will already have an image of him in mind – mid-forties or -fifties, gray 3-piece suit, decisive, intelligent, able to multi-task, organized, and with a slight maverick streak. Appearance and personality are all implied by the narrative, which is itself buried within the description of what the person is doing.

Delivering Imputed Narrative through Dialogue

This is no more difficult to do. Instead of simply announcing, “The King replies, ‘The realm is under dire threat from within, and the peace that we had all hoped for seems to have slipped beyond grasp,'” all you have to do is (a) have him do something appropriate at the same time, and (b) have that something contain Imputed Narrative: “The king opens the thick metal shutters that protect the room from Archers and gazes through the narrow windows inset into the castle wall as he replies, ‘The Realm is…'” (and you know the rest). After a couple of words back and forth, he can move and take a seat on the Throne (more implied narrative) or help himself to a handful of grapes from a sideboard, or a slice of meat, or whatever.

There may also be opportunities to embed narrative elements into the dialogue itself. “I surround myself with objects of beauty and commemorance of the past,” he sighs, “but while others may find inspiration in a painting like this, I see only a reminder of all we stand to lose, and all that we have already lost.” – when all you have mentioned in description was that the room was “richly decorated”.

Delivering Imputed Narrative through Combat

A little trickier, this, because the logical connection between combat events and the target of the implied narrative is (a) partially out of your control – it depends on what exactly a PC does, and (b) has to be connected to that target by iron-clad logic and commonsense. You can’t talk about the tapestries unless it’s reasonable for the NPC to interact with the tapestries during the fight. Nevertheless, its possible to embed critical information into the non-narrative byplay of A does B during combat. “He attempts to grind your face into the wall. You notice that what appeared to be rough-hewn rock has in fact been carved with strange runes or symbols.” “Pulling a 9mm from a shoulder holster, he fires in your direction while doing a barrel-roll across the room towards a briefcase on an antique oak writing desk.”

The Hidden Bonus

Actually, there are two of them. The first, and most obvious, is the whole point – the players absorb the details of the narrative subject without realizing it. These details inform them not only directly about the scene being played, but by generalization and extrapolation, the wider world beyond the immediate.

But the hidden bonus is this: the need to deliver imputed narrative forces the GM to keep their NPCs active (appropriately), part of their setting, during scenes and sequences where it’s all-too-easy for them to become static “talking heads”. Dialogue and action scenes become part of the story beyond their outcome, and the non-narrative parts of the game become more vibrant and alive – while further abbreviating the static, boring bits. Winner!

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Always Something There To Surprise You – Plots as Antagonists


The subject of today’s article emerged during a twitter discussion between John Kahane (@jkahane1), Joe Kushner (@JoeGKushner), and myself (@gamewriterMike) on Twitter last week.

The conversation started when I mentioned to John that I had just started a mystery plotline in my Zenith-3 (superhero) campaign, and that special effort was going to be needed to make the conclusion live up to the buildup, and that one of the ways that I intended to deal with that problem was to make the ultimate killer larger than life. John replied that in his experience, “Murder mysteries are hard to run in RPGs every time, and larger-than-life villains make that tougher.” He then made the point that a general solution needs to work regardless of genre, implying that some genres permit whiz-bangery and over-the-top characters more tolerably than others.

This is an absolutely spot-on point, but one that we didn’t explore at the time, because the conversation moved on with my reply, “[The] Best answer is to make the Mystery the star of the adventure!” and John’s reply “Always is. But never as easy as that! :)”

John continued, “If the mystery isn’t the star of the game, then what was the point of doing a mystery to begin with, right? :)” and Joe pointed out that “In the last few novels I’ve read, the point of the mystery was to immerse the reader into setting characters.”

I responded that this solution doesn’t work very well in an RPG – it can be very dry and non-interactive, just the GM giving page after page of narration to read. A better RPG approach was to “make the plot the key antagonist of the adventure” rather than the villain ultimately responsible in-game.

It was at that point that I suggested that it might be worthwhile writing an article on the subject for Campaign Mastery – and so, here we are.

I should comment further on one of John’s points. He’s quite right in saying that larger-than-life villains can often make mysteries tougher, and that’s because by virtue of being larger than life, they attract attention to themselves – making it much harder to sustain the mystery. It will work in this case because the villain won’t actually appear (if all goes according to plan) until the final confrontation.

The Metagaming Approach to Mystery

Treating the plot as an antagonist is obviously metagaming, and I make no bones about that. Rather than in-game developments driving the plot, the plot is driving in-game developments. But it differs from the most egregious examples of Metagaming in a number of key respects.

  1. Plotlines must be dynamic; only the start- and end-points of the plot can be fixed;
  2. Characterization cannot be violated;
  3. Continuity cannot be violated;
  4. Causality cannot be violated;
  5. Challenges must continually be presented whose outcome defines the course of the investigation, not whether or not there is ultimately a successful solution/conclusion;
  6. The purpose is to provide fun for the participants. The GM’s role is to referee the contest between the metagame “antagonist” and the in-game characters, not to force one particular course of events on the players (which would violate rule #1 above).

Six specific mandates that enable metagaming to work for you, not against you, at least in this particular application.

The problem of Metagaming

Metagaming has a bad reputation as an RPG technique. This largely stems from the use of metagaming to force PCs into following a pre-scripted path between beginning and ending in an adventure, also known as a Plot Train, in which players have no control over the course of events and may as well not be there. It is the dynamic interplay between players and GM that makes an RPG a collaborative effort, with neither in control of the course of events.

Dynamic Plotlines

Mandating that metagaming techniques can only be used to make plotlines more dynamic, changing as needed to make the game more entertaining and more responsive to the activities of the PCs, rather than forcing them to conform to some fictionalized “ideal narrative” such as you would find in a script or a novel, is a key difference between the technique I am suggesting and what most people think of when they speak of metagaming.

The concept is one of making the challenges and opportunities that shape the plotline responsive to the PCs, not the PCs responsive to the shape of a pre-determined plotline. I think you’ll agree that this is quite a significant difference!

Fixed start-point

Almost every plot to which this technique can be applied has a fixed start-point: The PCs are presented with a mystery that they have strong motivation to solve. The essential parameters of the mystery are defined for them – what evidence is at the scene, who the victim is, where the victim was discovered, and so on. In most cases, there are one or more unusual or novel features presented to make the puzzle more interesting. In those cases where the initial mystery appears more prosaic, you can expect to need a plot twist or two to emerge fairly quickly to provide that novel feature – in other words, the initial start-point is deliberately deceptive, and the start-point is not as prosaic as it initially appears to be. So far as this technique is concerned, this initial plot twist is also part of the basic start-point.

Fixed end-point

Most mysteries also have a partially pre-determined end-point, in that the GM should know who has committed the “crime” that poses the mystery, and how. The end-point is the final confrontation between perpetrator and the PCs. Where this confrontation is to occur and how it is to be resolved are usually, but not always, unknown.

Dynamic routing

The path to solving a mystery is never a straight line, because that’s dull. Instead, you need surprises and plot twists and unexpected directions and challenges to be overcome.

Starting from Times Square and heading for Jersey City is fairly straightforward. 7th Avenue to the Holland Tunnel and then the I-78W and you’re right in the heart of your destination. 7.1 miles and 21 minutes estimated travel time.

A more creative and challenging route passes through Albany, up to Quebec City via Sherbrooke, down through Trois-Rovières to Montreal, West through to Ottowa, across the northern side of the Great Lakes to Detroit, then to Springfield, Illinois, to Kansas City, to Salt Lake City, through Reno and Sacramento to San Francisco, south to Los Angeles and San Diego, cross the Mexican border at Mexicali, south down to Guadalajara, North-east to San Antonio and Dallas, East to Jacksonville, south to Orlando, North to Atlanta and Nashville, North-East through Knoxville, Roanoke, Harrisburg and Scranton, East to Middleton,then south to Sparta via Ogdensburg, then East through Clifton on the I-80 E to the I-95, south and then east to approach Jersey City from the West Side. It’s definitely the long way around at 9,916 miles, an estimated 154 hours of driving, but it gets you to exactly the same destination from the same starting point – and will definitely show you things that the direct route won’t.

This is analogous to an RPG in which the first suspect is immediately and obviously guilty and in which the PCs have overwhelming proof of that guilt, an open-and-shut case, as it were, vs. a far more complex path to the final confrontation in which the PCs start looking in the entirely wrong direction, which eventually results in a plot twist that leads them off in other wrong direction, with its own twists and turns, followed by yet another wrong path driven by complications, before slowly heading in the right direction and seeing things fall into place one after another until the final resolution is reached.

Viewing the plot, the mystery, as an antagonist who will respond to PC attempts to move in the right direction with complications and deceptions and red herrings designed to lure them off-course via a more interesting, entertaining route, enables the pathway to success to be as convoluted as is desirable, changing and evolving in a move-countermove pattern in response to the choices, theories, and interpretations of evidence by the players.

The mystery is “willing” to be solved – but it has to be “wooed” first, seduced and cajoled into giving up its secrets. The mystery makes itself as complicated a story as it needs to in order to achieve the maximum entertainment from the journey.

A proportionate response

It might seem that the simplest specific technique for achieving this is a proportionate response – whenever the players propose an action, the GM assesses that action in terms of how directly it can lead to the solution, and inserts difficulties in proportion. A more refined variation might take into account inherent difficulty of the action relative to the capabilities of the PCs.

The problem is that this produces an entirely-too-predictable pattern. “We must be onto something, the GM is trying to make it hard for us”. This is a pattern that interprets the GMs position as hostile, as “the enemy”, rather than the position of neutrality that the GM should seek to adopt.

The GM’s job isn’t to make solving the mystery harder for the PCs; it’s to make solving the mystery more fun for the players.

Success is necessary

The other problem with the “proportionate response” approach is that the PCs need to succeed regularly. If they set out to learn something, they should learn something. If they attempt a chemical analysis or a cross-examination, they should get answers. Things shouldn’t be handed to them on a plate, but they shouldn’t be so difficult that the players feel they are getting nowhere, either. The trick is to get the PCs to ask questions that don’t lead directly to the solution, so that they can be answered without compromising the mystery.

Keep It Entertaining

A better formula is to assess how much fun the GM can provide for the players as a result of the proposed PC actions, and let that determine how easy that action should be as a result. Again, this can become predictable, though – it is to be hoped – with fewer objections on the part of the players!

The best approach is therefore to combine the two approaches. A proportionate response to determine how severe a complication to interject into the process, with the fun factor determining how easily that complication should be overcome.

A useful plotting tool is always to ask yourself how the perpetrator expected to be able to get away with whatever it is that they have done. False alibis, throwing suspicion on someone else, adulterating physical evidence, people who will lie, either for the perpetrator or for their own perceived benefit, and so on – and don’t forget that this is an evolving process; they won’t stop trying to make themselves look innocent.

It’s a maxim of the Columbo television series that the most co-operative individual is guilty until proven innocent. In it’s own way, this is clever, because it means that the perpetrator seems to have a handle on the course of the investigation and can meddle in it as they see fit – though this usually is done so heavy-handedly that it becomes obvious that they are trying to throw the investigation off course. Far better to try and react, and cooperate, to exactly the same extent that you would if you weren’t guilty. Be no more helpful than you would have been, and hinder no more than you would have done, and for the same reasons as you would have done. The criminal who does nothing unusual after the crime is the hardest to detect.

The dangers of the big picture

I’m a big advocate of always keeping an eye on the bigger picture. This is, however, one occasion in which this practice can lead you astray. Don’t let your long-term plans get in the way of an entertaining game for the players in this adventure. If the course of the mystery brings the PCs into contact with someone who is not who they seem, it might be tempting not to risk exposing them as someone of interest, preserving their perceived innocence until that part of the big picture comes to fruition.

Don’t Do It. That eventual plot twist will have even more power if the PCs suspect the double-agent and then clear him or her as a result of their investigations! Don’t be afraid to complicate your future if the result is a better adventure right now!

Characterization cannot be violated

Of course, if you had a completely wide-open field of possibilities, it would be easy. Every time the PCs think they have their man, throw in a complication that shows they could not have done it. Keep going until the clock indicates that it’s time for the adventure to end, then make the next suspect the real perpetrator.

This throws internal logic to the winds. Characters change as necessary to make the plot more complicated. Nothing is predictable any more, and this quickly becomes boring and unrealistic to the players.

There can be rare occasions to take this approach, but as a general rule, it is not acceptable. (I have in mind a specific adventure I ran in which a suspected double-agent was in fact a mercenary, selling his talents to whoever would pay his price. So he started as a Bulgarian who was secretly a Russian Spy, then was revealed as a triple-agent working for the Americans, then as a mole within the American organization for an international organized crime cartel, and then as having infiltrated that crime ring on behalf of the Russians. No matter who came out on top, he was able to claim loyalty to the cause. On top of all that, he was being framed for the crime which brought him to the attention of the PCs in the first place by someone who had no idea of any of this!)

As a general rule of thumb, personalities, once allocated to an NPC, should not change. If you need them to behave in a way contrary to the way this personality suggests they would, you need to arrange circumstances so that the NPC is put into a position where they think this is their only alternative, within the bounds of their personality.

A great example is of someone who thinks a son is guilty of the crime (possibly falsely) and who therefore does everything they can to misdirect the investigation even though they are clearly a good person who would normally be cooperative, even to the point of trying to make themselves look potentially guilty through suspicious behavior. Or of someone who is guilty of an unrelated crime who destroys or degrades evidence of the main crime to protect their real secret.

Continuity cannot be violated

No retro-active rewrites of events are permitted (except in a time-travel plotline of course – which is a whole separate headache). Once a relevant piece of information is in the hands of the PCs, you can’t change the events that led to that piece of information being relevant. If an individual becomes obviously guilty in the eyes of the players because he committed the crime as the GM originally envisaged it, you can’t retrospectively rewrite the crime scene to have someone else commit the crime. Instead, you need to shed doubt on one or two of the key pieces of evidence pointing to the guilt, sending the PCs off on a wild goose chase – but that doubt needs to result from actions that can be performed now, not that are being inserted retroactively as having happened then.

This comes back to the impartiality of the GM and avoiding a “him vs them” situation at the table. You have to be able to lay every event at the feet of an NPC and have it be reasonable that the NPC has caused that event. Violating continuity essentially means deciding retroactively that you were lying to the players – and that’s not on. The NPCs are your agents, and you can introduce more if you need to – they can and should lie when its appropriate.

The times when you are most tempted to rewrite the past happen when there’s a plot hole in your very clever plan, and the PCs a climbing down it. The correct way of handling this problem is to ask yourself (a) which NPC could plug that plot hole now (not back then) and (b) why they would do so, within the boundaries of any established personalities and capabilities.

Causality cannot be violated

If the PCs do something which should reasonably have a particular outcome, it should still have that outcome. Players need to be able to predict the outcome of their actions. Unlikely as it might seem, I have seen GMs try to violate this action because the normal outcome would be detrimental to their plot. This is “bad metagaming”.

The urge to do so has two origins – the first is failing to anticipate what the PCs might do or attempt to do in a particular situation, and the second is by presenting subjects of possible activity in a provocative manner.

Overlooking a probable action
  • “I mindscan for an aura of guilt”.
  • “I cast a truth spell on them all and ask each if they did it.”
  • “I listen for changes in their heart rate to find out which one’s lying.”

I’ve seen mysteries fall apart through all of these actions because the GM didn’t remember that he had already let the PC do this in an earlier adventure, and plan accordingly. And I’ve seen the GMs in question announce that it doesn’t work, despite having already established that the PC could do so. In one case, the GM attempted to cover his tracks by having the NPC have taken precautions against the ability in question even though there was no reasonable way for him to know that he needed to do so. In the others, they simply rewrote what the power could and couldn’t do.

Neither response is acceptable. If your mystery is about to be undone, you need to come up with a reason for it not to work that doesn’t violate causality or continuity.

  • “They all feel guilty about something, not necessarily the same thing.”
  • “They all say they didn’t do it while under the spell’s influence. The perpetrator probably doesn’t think he did anything, he blames the victim for causing it to happen.”
  • “You hear no changes in heart-rate that indicate a lie” (because the person lying has a pacemaker that keeps his heart-rate even).

Okay, the last one’s a bit of a fudge, but it gets the job done. It’s not something that the criminal did to defend against the unusual investigative technique, he didn’t know that he would need to protect himself against – it simply changes the circumstances so that the results don’t give the game away, introducing a complication. As soon as the PCs find out about the heart surgery, they will discover how they were misled by this test, but in the meantime, they have prima-facae evidence of innocence, and can be led off down the garden path for a while.

Listing elements in the wrong order

If you want to draw attention to something, mention it last, or first, or immediately after something that’s especially attention-getting, like first mention of a dead body. If you don’t want something to get a lot of attention, bury it, and put something more interesting to one side of it. If the item is sufficiently part of the expected landscape, you can even get away without mentioning it specifically, so long as you emphasize that everything you would expect to find is present.

For example, if the criminal gained access to the scene by means of an air vent, or simply left by means of such a vent, don’t call attention to the vent – but don’t try to be too obvious about hiding it, either. Mention it too prominently, and someone will look into it; when that happens, there is an instinctive response to try to change what the PC would reasonably expect to find if the air vents had been used for congress to or from the scene in order to preserve the mystery. This is entirely the wrong way to fix the problem! Far better to come up with a reason for whoever discovered the body to have concealed the evidence of the vent having been used, thereby giving a good reason for the PC to find nothing.

In fact, because the GM could never be sure that the PCs would not pick up on mention of the air vents, he should have had something of the sort planned anyway!

Challenging the PCs

The PCs should encounter various challenges that have to be overcome in order to solve the mystery, but the eventual solution to a mystery should never reduce to the success or failure of such a challenge. Success or failure changes the course of the story, but not whether or not it reaches an end!

It follows that every failure must result in the information that a success would have delivered being provided to the PCs eventually, anyway. It might be that this happens too late for the PCs to do anything about it – the criminal might have gotten away in the meantime – but the loose ends should be wrapped up.

There are several ways to challenge the PCs “safely”. In general, these are all about changing a “What” or “Who” question into a “How and when” question.

How information is revealed

For example, the challenge does not determine “What information is revealed?” but instead determines “How and when will information be revealed”. There must always be another path to the answers that can and will eventually be followed. Success can indicate immediately, or at the conclusion of a defined process; failure might mean waiting until someone else looks at the question. It might or might not even be obvious that success was not achieved. “You find nothing, but are not completely certain that there was nothing to find.” “A power surge wiped the hard disk”.

How information is hidden

The converse is to change “What information is hidden?” into “How and when will any hidden information be revealed?” This is more a matter of the questions the GM should ask himself, than one that is likely to be asked by a PC, but you never know…

Coincidence & Human Nature

Coincidences do happen. Human Nature will always be a factor. Take advantage of both of thees facts to create more challenging circumstances as necessary.

If you have, for example, an uncooperative witness, overcoming the challenge should never be just a matter of succeeding in a Skill Check. At most, a skill check should reveal that the witness knows something that might be helpful but has reason not to volunteer it. The PCs need to identify that reason and find a way to overcome it, ‘unlocking’ the witnesses knowledge. Once you have that key, that’s when a Skill Check can be used to actually obtain the information, for whatever it’s worth.

The Hurdles to be overcome

It’s a fact that the GM needs to be mindful of: Mystery plotlines will suit some players and some PCs better than others. Things can get awkward when the situation suits one and not the other – a player who’s good with mysteries but whose character is not, or vice-versa. Careful attention needs to be paid to ensuring that everyone gets their share of screen time, both as players and PCs. The challenges that are to be overcome can be a great way to move the spotlight onto someone else. The combat monster gets to conduct a raid in order to secure evidence that the detective needs, for example.

It follows that whenever you contemplate inserting a complication because things are happening a little too easily for the PCs, you should evaluate the opportunities for such spotlight-sharing, choosing the nature of the complication and its eventual resolution accordingly.

Never a dead-end, only a roadblock

The final point that I want to make under the heading of the Challenges to be overcome by the PCs is that they should never result in a dead-end where all avenues of investigation are blocked. An individual course of inquiry might reach a dead end, but there should always be a “next step” for the PCs to make, and the players should always know about it before they encounter the roadblock. How easy that “next step” is expected to be is an entirely different saga!

Metagaming to maintain challenge

The main directive to follow under this approach is to invent complications as necessary to increase the fun – and the difficulty – of solving the mystery, but to do so within the scope of specific parameters. You must never violate the “truth” of the solution (obfuscating it is entirely acceptable, however), must never violate the personalities of the NPCs involved once they have been established (but you can manipulate responses by altering the circumstances in which they find themselves), must never retcon your way out of a problem (but can introduce new factors that have the same effect), and must never violate the players’ trust that you will adjudicate their efforts fairly. So long as you do not violate these restrictions, anything’s fair game.

Roleplaying the “Antagonist”

With so many options open to the GM, how do you make this sort of thing manageable? Well, you can just go with whatever comes to mind first, but that’s not all that reliable as a means of making good choices, just of making easy ones. The best technique I have come up with is to treat the “Antagonist” as a Mastermind, plotting against the PCs for its own motives, and with a distinct personality of its own complete with things that it will and will not do.

This focuses and characterizes the options that are open to the GM into a relatively confined range, making selection of obstacles and twists easier, but it has a side-benefit of considerable worth: using a distinct and different personality each time gives each adventure a quite different flavor.

This Antagonist is not malicious, or vindictive; it toys with the PCs for its own reasons, helping here and hindering there. It is, however, normally omniscient and omnipresent, though you can further refine the personality by limiting those aspects of its capabilities.

Don’t make it too easy

As a general principle, don’t make it too easy for the PCs; there’s nothing worse than a color-by-numbers mystery, where all the players have to do is keep themselves awake and wait. Nor should it be enough for the players to “phone in” their participation; activity needs to be purposeful and not be happening for its own sake.

Don’t make it too hard

There comes a point at which the GM has to accept that the PCs are going to start closing in on the solution. You should never obstruct them until there is only enough game time left to achieve the solution and final confrontation; it’s far better to allow a little time for some minor reverses in the course of that “closing in”. I never introduce a complication without some idea of how long it will take to resolve, so that I leave enough room for the end of the adventure.

You may be tempted to make the mystery the focus of the day’s play to such an extent that the actual confrontation is delayed until the next game session. I’ve tried this a few times, and while it’s not the worst approach in the world, I have found that it makes the final confrontation far more anticlimactic than it would otherwise have been. In general, unless that confrontation is itself intended to be a springboard into some bigger plotline, I will strive HARD to avoid this, and even then, it’s better to end play with the confrontation and discovery of the bigger plotline as a cliffhanger than the other way around, if time can be manipulated to permit it.

Progress must be continuous

I hinted at this when stating that “Success is necessary,” above. At any arbitrary point, the PCs should be able to say that they are closer to a result than they were, that they have eliminated incorrect solutions and, in general, “made progress”. While there are times when you can and will handicap and counter the players with glee abandon, there will also be times when you may need them to have a stroke of good fortune, or to dangle a carrot in the form of at least part of a solution in their direction. You need to monitor the mood at the table closely, and at the first hints of frustration, act immediately to provide demonstrable progress.

Maintaining neutrality

Above all, the GM must maintain neutrality, favoring neither the “Antagonist” nor the PCs. This can be very difficult to do when engaging in a battle of wits – and that’s what this metagaming technique ultimately boils down to – and so special attention needs to be paid by the GM to his neutrality. If the players do something clever, intuit something, deduce something from information available to their characters, they need some progress as a result. Adhere to the principle of generating the maximum level of fun from the adventure, rather than trying to force the adventure down some pathway to a solution; let the path between puzzle and solution grow organically from the soup of ingredients you’ve put in place, and this technique will reward you.

I should conclude by pointing readers to the other articles on this subject: The Butler Did It: Mystery Plotlines in RPGs and its sequel article, The Jar Of Jam and The Wounded Monarch: Two Mystery Examples. Readers might also find Ask The GMs: Penetrating the veil of mystery to be useful, looking at why Mystery adventures can be so hard to create, and how to remove some of that difficulty.

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Stride The Earth in 7-league boots: Travel (and Maps) in FRPG Pt 2


I’m taking a scheduled break from the New Beginnings series before the big push to conclude it. It will be back next week, all going according to plan.

This article is a sequel of sorts to one I published a few weeks ago, The Gradated Diminishing Of Reality – Travel in FRPG. I recommend that you refresh your recollection of that article before you start in order to get the most out of this one. It’s not necessary per se, but it would be beneficial.

At least in theory, a League is defined as “the average distance a man can normally walk in an hour”. Because this is a relative measurement, subject more than a bit to circumstances, converting a League to a more rigorous measurement – whether it be miles or meters – is neither precise nor very satisfactory.

And yet, for RPGs, a league is an astonishingly useful measurement, and one that is all too often overlooked because we are so used to the precision of modern measurements (something I’ll come back to, before I’m done).

In this article, my goal is to awaken the reader to this usefulness and bring the League back into focus as the first measurement of choice for GMs. I think they are that handy!

7-league Boots

Seven Leagues in one step. Now that you know what a “League” is supposed to represent, you can interpret that. Seven leagues is fairly close to the maximum distance that can be covered by an army in a day – it takes longer to break camp, get into formation, pause for meals, and set up camp than would be the case for a small group or an individual. An individual wearing these mythic boots does that in ONE STEP.

Even if that “One Step” is all that the boots can do for the day, that’s an enormous amount of ground covered, but the tradition has no such restriction. In a piece of fiction, you might be able to get away with magic this powerful, but not in an RPG – not without imposing some additional limitations, anyway. “They only move you in a straight line”, for example – so that a small error in direction means that they only get you somewhere in the vicinity of where you want to go. Limited numbers of “Big Steps” per day. I have seen one variation that cost the wearer 2 points of temporary CON loss, and 1 HD of hit points, per stride, leaving it to the player to determine just how urgent his travels were.

I’ll revisit the meaning of “7-League Boots” from time-to-time in the course of the article, and not just because I’ve referred to them in the title, but the text is really all about Leagues as a useful concept.

Hex-Grid Scales

Let’s think about the meaning of a League as defining the scales of maps for a while.

1 League Per Hex

If your map is drawn at the scale of 1 hex=1 League, then simply counting hexes tells you how many hours the PCs will need to travel in order to reach their destination, at a reasonable pace of travel. The same technique tells you how far they will get before lunch, where their evening campsite will be, and so on. No thought required, the scale itself makes the map more useful in game administration terms. How useful is that?

Of course, drawing anything at this scale makes them fairly big and detailed. I wouldn’t want to have to map a continent that way. Instead, I am more likely to employ this scale for a 24-hex radius around a site of particular interest – that’s a full day’s travel, hour by hour, in any direction from that site of interest.

A standard sheet of A4 paper is 20cm across, plus margin, then 50 hexes (24 plus 24 plus 1 for the site itself, and round up to get an easy number to work with) then each hex is going to be about 4mm across.

I haven’t seen any hex-grid that size, though it would not be all that difficult to create with modern graphics software. But 5mm hex-grid is quite common-place, and if it doesn’t quite give you a full day’s travel to each side, it comes close enough.

3 Leagues per Hex

This is an even more useful scale. Why? Because you can walk 2 hexes in a morning, and 2 hexes in an afternoon. Four hexes is one day’s travel. And six hexes is a day’s forced march, and 5 hexes is a day’s riding without pushing the mounts, and 7 hexes is a day’s hard riding, rising to 8, 9, or even 10 if you can change mounts frequently along the way. And three hexes is about right for a carriage over rough roads, rising to 4 on a good road – though carriages often push on into the twilight for an extra hex if it carries them to a refuge.

Four is such an easy number to work with when converting usual modes of transport, as well – if you have a normal movement of 30′, which is the case for most humanoids in Pathfinder, and you are dealing with a creature that flies at say 90′, all you have to do is multiply by the ratio of three to get the equivalent – ie, 12 hexes in a day for normal travel, 18 hexes for the flying equivalent of a day’s forced march, and so on.

It’s such a useful scale, because it’s so darned versatile.

Here’s a different perspective on this scale: 28 hexes is a week’s travel on foot. So if your maps are done 28 hexes wide at this scale, you have lots of space around the edges for labels and map keys, and each map can be called “one week” – a nice mnemonic scale. If you have three maps that are side-by-side at this scale, and the destination is on the third map, you can say “It will take 2-3 weeks” just by counting the number of pages.


Three adjoining map hexes at the three-league scale. Side “A” on the first is also side “A” on the second, Side “B” on the second is also side “B” on the second. Lots of room for a key!

12 Leagues per Hex

The final scale worth contemplating turns each day’s travel into a single hex, and that’s another very useful scale. Along a major road, that means that there will be an inn or settlement in every hex.

That in turn makes it possible to grade every road by the number of vacant hexes between such landmarks. A class-2 road has a community or accommodation in every second hex, class three roads have two empty hexes to each occupied one, and so on. Four nights of roadside camping is “country lane” standard; anything more qualifies as a backwater track.

Aside from these rather useful values, every 30 or so hexes represents a full month’s travel, so each map can be considered to “one month” in size. This makes relative distances easy to work with, and (at the same time), can impress on the players the real magnitude of the distances.

It also makes some aspects of military logistics much easier to work with. Unless arrangements can be made to garrison an army, they will have to return from whence they started before the onset of winter. An army can exert power no more than about four “map pages” away under these circumstances – and every one of those closer to home base increases the number of months that they can do so by two, starting at one for the 4-map mark. Some leeway may be possible if the campaign is in the direction of more tropical climates, of course.

Keeping Things In Perspective

For many years, the goal in cartography has been accuracy in placement of every detail shown. As a consequence, there are debates about the psychological impact of maps and the consequences – unintended or deliberate – of classic attempts to preserve the clarity of what the mapmaker found relevant, such as the Mercator-projection map that has become one of the standard ways to view the world, instantly recognizable. Discoveries in this field are still being made; for example, it was found in 2009 that people believe that it will take longer to travel north than south, that it will cost more to ship to a northern than to a southern location, and that a moving company will charge more for northward than for southward movement, simply because it is harder going up than down (Journal of Marketing Research, Vol 46(6), Dec 2009, p715-724).

With the arrival of Aerial Photography, and later, GPS systems, true accuracy became possible down to incredibly fine resolutions. I remember reading at the time of initial deployment of the GPS satellites that one town had been relocated on maps by 30 miles (!) as a result. (I looked for a link, but couldn’t find one – it has most likely been drowned out by more modern references). These days, the focus seems to be on correcting errors in Google maps – the presumption being, I suppose, that everything else has been fixed already. and, If this claim is to be believed, those errors can have serious repercussions.

We have become accustomed to maps being treatable as literal references to where things actually are. Yet, this has never been the case completely – reference the Cartographic Errors section of Wikipedia’s page on Cartography (while you’re there, read the whole page, it contains lots of fascinating tidbits) and this page at “The Map Room” that lists Cartographic errors reported on other websites.

Stepping away from that ideal for our fantasy RPG maps is not only truer to the accuracy possible in the eras most such games are set, but permits us to make them more useful for both GMs and players.

7-league boots in perspective

Six hexes at the three-league scale is a day’s forced march. It’s twelve strides with 7-league boots – at about 1.5 seconds per stride, that’s eighteen seconds travel.

Sixty hexes – more than will physically fit on a printed page at any reasonable resolution – at this scale is 10 days forced march, and for most human armies, that’s pushing close to the limits of physical endurance. With 7-league boots, you can reach that army in 120 strides, which takes about three minutes.

In fact, a reasonable number of hexes across a page at this scale would be about twenty. So that’s basically one map sheet a minute.

With such boots, the commander of an army can leave weeks after his troops and junior officers and join them at the front – then retreat back to the capital to consult intelligence reports – and be back at the front minutes later.

The Cartographic Twist

If you base the position of locations not on geographically-precise measurements (the 20th century standard) but on how long it takes to reach them, you deliberately distort the geography to make the map more functionally useful. In essence, you are following the travels of a cartographer, and employing his measurements of travel time.

Consider the following situation: A Cartographer travels south-east from point A to point B, then north to point C, then west back to point A. These trips take 1.5 days, 2 days, and 1 day, respectively. If you had some sort of counting device, you might map the number of turns of a wagon wheel in order to get a precise distance, but since you don’t, you have two choices: you can accept the exact time measurement as a distance analogue, or you can attempt to arbitrarily correct the travels times to account for the terrain. Either way, your map is going to be inaccurate, but which is the greater inaccuracy? (NB: Even with an accurate measure of distance traveled, roads and paths are rarely straight, introducing distortions – you either take a very great deal of trouble getting exact measurements of directions traveled, so that the construction of a single map is the work of a decade or more, or you tolerate an inherent level of error).

If all available techniques lead to error, you would almost certainly choose the option that delivers the most useful information. Forget about arbitrary adjustments laced with doubt and confusion; draw your maps assuming a constant movement rate and straight lines between landmarks, with occasional corrections relative to some visible surface feature.

So you draw a circle around point A with radius 1.5 days, and assume that point B lies somewhere on that curve. You draw another circle around A with radius 1 day, and assume that point C lies somewhere on that circle. You then look for points on these circles that are 2 days apart in a north-south direction. Because the circles are different sizes, there will be a limited number of these; the closer to the same size, the longer the arcs on which B and C can lie. The more such distances to each point that you can compile, the smaller the error becomes, but it can never be eliminated.

The net result is that anything shown on the map is more-or-less correct, but never exactly so. As a rough guesstimate, my instinct is that the margin of error would probably be 5 or 10%, but could be as high as 20% – so at five hexes away, things could be 1 hex removed from where the map says it is. At 10 hexes, it’s almost certainly one hex removed, and could even be two hexes.

And at 60 hexes, your position would be off by plus-or-minus 6 hexes, and could be off by as much as twelve.

That’s assuming that you don’t make adjustments as you go, and that is a very fair assumption to make, on reflection. You take one stride, the world blurring around you, and you find yourself in wilderness – are you north, south, east, or west of where you want to be, of where the map says you (theoretically) are? How can you tell?

You might get lucky, and have some visible landmark that you can use to orient yourself, or at least reduce the error. But the fact is that 7-league-boots can only get you somewhere in the vicinity of where you want to be, and the rest of the trip would have to be made by conventional means.

In The Gradated Diminishing Of Reality – Travel in FRPG, I suggested that at higher levels, the best approach is to hand-wave the travel in between ‘events of interest’, and that’s exactly what this interpretation of mapping delivers in conjunction with seven-league boots.

Remember that military field commander I was using as an example? There’s a 50-50 chance that he would end up on the wrong side of the front-lines if that’s where he’s going…


Teleport spells are less useful than 7-league boots because they don’t permit even those occasional adjustments. The full scale of the error lies before you. You end up with a greater amount of “traditional” travel at the end. In all other respects, they are effectively the same as the seven-league boots.

Creating The Maps

Here’s the fun part: What’s involved in creating maps in which distance on the map actually corresponds with travel time instead of physical distance? Answer: absolutely nothing extra. It’s all about interpretation of the map you create anyway. But, if you want to at least take the effects into account, you can do in reverse what our hypothetical cartographer was contemplating: consider the terrain and extend the distances between places if the terrain is less than optimal. Things in the mountains are closer together than they appear to be on the map, and mountain ranges are bigger, with this effect reduced where there are mountain passes. The result is that mountain ranges a are more of a series of “bulges” with the narrow necks being where the passes are. Ditto swamps, and deserts. Good roads shrink distances in the direction along the road, and toward the road.

But that’s really all there is to it. Make your difficult terrain bigger and spread things out a bit more within such regions and remember that the error means that you don’t have to be that accurate. Easy!

Errors In Travel Time

The errors that come with the mapping techniques mean that even the “league scale” maps aren’t all that accurate, even assuming that the cartographer did his best to maintain a consistent speed when surveying the map. Again, we’re talking about 5% certainly, 10% probably, and 20% possibly. If the map indicates three days’ travel to from X to Y, that’s about 30 hours travel (10 hours per day) – so certainly plus-or-minus 6 hours, probably plus-or-minus 12 hours, and possibly as much as 18 hours difference, one way or the other.

“Are we there yet?” assumes a whole new significance.

The final step

With all the advantages that a relative scale provides – one measured in travel time, and not in true geographic distance – I can see no good reason for not implementing such a technique everywhere that it is relevant and appropriate. There will be a period of mental adjustment on the part of the GM, but that’s a minor hurdle. The benefits seem well worth that price.

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